Since its inception, metal has been deeply entwined in the world of both fantasy and horror. The almost-unanimous pick for the genre’s first album, Black Sabbath’s self-titled debut, instantly separated themselves from other bands at the time with their lyrics about unintelligible and dark figures in the night, wizardry, and possibly rock’s first true tip of the hat to the genius author H.P. Lovecraft. With the title of the album’s third track, “Behind the Wall of Sleep,” Black Sabbath not only revolutionized heavy music from a sonic standpoint, but lyrically as well. Bassist/lyricist Geezer Butler’s fascination with black magic and campy horror flicks in the early years of the band could certainly be looked upon as the genesis from which the Lovecraft obsession in metal truly began.
The subject matter has always been a logical pairing with the intense atmosphere that metal inherently creates. Just look at a band like Iron Maiden; how many songs of theirs have been directly inspired by classic literature and historical fiction? Even Maiden was subtly showing their love for Lovecraft when they included “That is not dead which can eternal lie/and with strange aeons even death may die” on the tombstone that adorns the cover of 1985’s Live after Death! Now that the genre is reaching its half-century mark, one of the horror genre’s most respected and referenced figures, H.P. Lovecraft, has always been one of extreme music’s recurring source for inspiration. Whether it has been due to his lofty concepts, completely innovative and disturbingly dark take on horror and science fiction, or just the fact that he invented Cthulhu, Lovecraft has gone on to not just influence writers of science fiction and horror, but an entire cross-section of heavy metal.
1984 was probably the first year where Lovecraft’s name started popping up more noticeably in the tape-trading community, most notably with some lyrical references on Celtic Frost’s Morbid Tales and Metallica’s first epic instrumental track, “The Call of Ktulu.” The latter was an eight minute barrage of swirling fog, blazing guitar work and some of bassist Cliff Burton’s most progressive songwriting ever recorded. Even without lyrics, the song perfectly captures the same sense of oncoming dread and terror that a reader would experience towards the end of Lovecraft’s story by the same name. Metallica would go on to get much more literal with their Cthulhu worship on 1986’s “The Thing That Should Not Be,” but would unfortunately never seem to mention him ever again.
The Call of Cthulhu is undoubtedly Lovecraft’s most recognized work, but as metal started to fragment and evolve in the late 80s and early 90s, so did the source material from which musicians were getting influenced by. Morbid Angel’s founding member and mastermind Trey Azagthoth may be the most obvious point of reference here, as his name is directly inspired by an Ancient One from The Necronomicon, another one of Lovecraft’s most lasting motifs. Azagthoth has been so completely entwined with Lovecraft’s lyrical style, his obsession with the occult, and his affinity for the otherworldly. Even in a 1998 interview, he was notoriously quoted saying that his band was “all for the Ancient Ones.”
It definitely went on to influence other bands in the Florida death metal scene as well, whether it was with Massacre’s choice of album title (From Beyond) or the cover artwork of Obituary’s classic and murky Cause of Death. Azagthoth and the rest of Morbid Angel definitely made no secret of letting the listeners in on his literary influences throughout the years, either. Whether it was the R’lyehian chants in 1989’s “Lord of All Fevers and Plague,” the shout-out to the glowing orb of infinite spheres Yog-Sothoth in 1991’s “Unholy Blasphemies,” or countless references to the offspring of the Great Old Ones, Morbid Angel is one of the most essential Lovecraftian bands to ever emerge from the death metal world.
Death metal certainly wasn’t the only subgenre of extreme metal to be influenced by this cosmic world of ancient terror, though. The atmospherics and frigid nature of black metal saw bits and pieces of Lovecraft popping up in bands like Absu from Texas (fun fact: they were previously named Azathoth), a few scattered lyrical tidbits from Norway’s Immortal over the years, and the oft-mocked Cradle of Filth with their 2000 release, Midian. The stoner/doom community at the time also embraced Lovecraft’s wildly imaginative and slow-paced storytelling as well, and saw some huge recognition from bands like Electric Wizard on their two most celebrated albums, Dopethrone and …Come My Fanatics. Yet somewhere during all of these lyrical inspirations, some bands even saw it fit to take their worship of these pieces of writing even further. In today’s age of modern metal, some bands aren’t just adorning pieces of music with some Lovecraftian pixie-dust: they’re letting it completely drive the direction of the songwriting process itself.
In the present day, a listener can still feel a distinct Lovecraftian presence in metal, hovering over the genre’s existence like, well, some ancient deity of Lovecraft’s creation. However, the form by which this is felt is quite different from earlier eras of metal, and although there are certainly bands that still draw their lyrics and concepts from his work, most of the truly Lovecraftian metal comes from a band’s sound and the environment they create. Every second of Portal’s most recent outing, Vexovoid, is haunting, dark, and unabashed in its worship of the old gods. This is not music for the faint of heart; this is the channeling of the Old Ones in pure musical form, an unending, obliterating tide of noise that doesn’t just envelop the listener, but consume them for the album’s entire span. Vexovoid is much more characteristic of the way that bands nowadays are incorporating the incredible sense of atmospheric dread Mr. Lovecraft was able to conjure up.
The modern disciples of Erich Zann (a musician who, as is characteristic of Lovecraft’s human characters, went insane, this time as a cause of his music) are far more interested in creating musical images of the Old Ones than merely incorporating their (admittedly extremely metal) stories into lyrical themes. The Great Old Ones is such a band, a doomy, sludgy, atmospheric black metal band whose musical coldness and enormous sense of scope perfectly echo the story they tell on Tekeli-Li, a musical retelling of “At The Mountains Of Madness,” one of HP Lovecraft’s greatest stories (and my personal favorite). The original story is about a group of scientists in Antarctica who discover the ruins of a city inhabited by servants of Cthulhu and other Old Gods and find the frozen bodies of these hideous creatures. Without spoiling too much, let’s just say that in typical fashion, everything goes downhill from there. From the get-go this is an album that does a perfect job of translating this tale’s sense of mysterious desolation, slow-burn tension and terror into their sound; their music is a fantastic fit for such a story and they truly do manage to evoke the same sort of subtly horrifying mood of “At The Mountains” itself.
Temple of Void is another Lovecraft-focused band, and their approach is a little more on-the-nose than most. Dabbling in the death-doom genre, this group, comprised of members of Acid Witch and Hellmouth, is grungy, detestably heavy, and grim as all hell. On each track of Of Terror And The Supernatural, they capture a different slice of existential horror and make it their own while still managing to retain a riffy edge to their sound, melding together head-banging tunes with visions of ultimate evil. Their thick, chunky guitar tone and droning, washed-out leads work together to create a nigh-tangible fog of atmosphere, a smoky night rife for an invasion from another dimension. Truly, their band name fits perfectly, as their music seems highly appropriate for some chaotic Lovecraftian ritual, an ominous temple in which the screams of human sacrifices and obscene chants fill the night air.
With their first album, Swallowed By The Ocean’s Tide, Sulphur Aeon proved they were a capable blackened death metal band, sufficiently evil and filled with malice, but it wasn’t until their follow-up last year, Gateway To The Antisphere, that they established themselves as one of the most interesting up-and-coming bands in the extreme metal scene. They aren’t exactly overt in their worship of Lovecraft either, with track titles like “Devotion to the Cosmic Chaos” and “Onwards… Towards Kadath!” peppering their discography heavily. Combining these lyrical themes with a sense of grandeur and reverence to the Old Gods of Lovecraft’s canon that can only be compared in intensity to Behemoth’s worship of Satan, they manage to perfectly capture the sense of awe-struck insanity befitting the cultists of these ancient evils, balancing that mix of tension and aggression on the edge of a knife and making music that is as grim and foreboding as it is energetic and bloodthirsty.
So, in conclusion, let’s just put it out there: Cthulhu is fucking metal, no ifs, ands, or buts. Lovecraft is one of the best horror authors of all time because of his uncanny ability to strike at some primal fear of the unknown that resides within each of us, which works in perfect synchronicity with a genre that is as much about disgusting its audience as it is entertaining them. If you want to seek a single pantheon of gods that as diverse a scene as metal can rally around time and time again, look no further than the ancient terrors of Lovecraft’s canon.