It is said that the Devil has all the best tunes, and that has never been more apparent than it is with metal. The Dark Lord has been synonymous with metal since its inception, and like all good Faustian pacts, metal giving its soul to Satan has led to fame, riches and other cool shit we all wish we had. But if anything, Satan and metal have a complex relationship that’s not as black and white as using his name and imagery for shock value and to boost record sales. While some of the most popular bands in the history of headbanging have used the Unholy One’s deviant name just for these purposes – and just for the sheer fun of it – Satan’s roots in metal are also vast, organic and – sometimes – even spiritual – and over the coming weeks, I plan to go in-depth and provide comprehensive coverage of the how Satanism and its myriad of interpretations have informed ‘the Devil’s music.’
But let’s start by defining Satanism – more specifically, why it’s difficult to define it. First, a history lesson: On April 30, 1966, the inauguration of the Church of Satan took place and the world’s first openly Satanic church was born. Founder Anton LaVey proclaimed it the dawning of the “Age of Satan,’’ and decorated in his black ceremonial robes like a true O.G, unleashed an epoch of darkness on all mankind… or so it seemed in the eyes of aggrieved conservatives and evangelists who thought LaVey was the Antichrist and a harbinger of moral decadence. Of course, LaVey was no stranger to theatrics – he owned a pet lion named Togare and would hold regular seminars openly discussing outlandish topics which, at the time, were deemed taboo. These discussions would range from cannibalism to lycanthropy and magic – and more – as nothing was off-limits. With his controversy, LaVey attracted a lot of media attention and became a minor celebrity and poster boy for an emerging Satanic subculture taken by his hexes and charms; he would mingle with celebrities (several of whom would join the Church) and even hosted a well-publicized wedding wedding party dress like cocktail dresses between actress Judith Case and journalist John Raymond. His ethos are still celebrated to this day, with millions around the world adhering to his teachings, but the image he portrayed was unabashedly pantomime.
However, LaVeyan Satanism is another discussion for a future article; but the reason I mention it here is because it is arguably the most mainstream facet of Satanism, and one which has informed metal heavily throughout the years. That said, the complexity of Satanism is often dismissed by only focusing on LaVey’s beliefs, and even they have been misinterpreted or miscommunicated in favor of the scintillating and sensationalist headlines which deemed Satanism as a singular, wicked movement pertaining to devil-worship that’s attached a stigma to it ever since. It is therefore imperative that we understand that Satanism – like every other ‘religion’ – contains various branches, with their own unique beliefs which separate them from their counterparts. And even though crossover themes are commonplace in several of these branches, they aren’t necessarily the same. Some are atheistic and treat ‘Satan’ as a symbol of autonomy, while other do believe in the Devil as a supernatural entity – while others believe in an existential war between Heaven and Hell. But we’ll cover all of that down the line… for now we’re just going to focus on Romantic Satanism.
Romantic Satanism isn’t a strand of Satanic theology per se; it’s an artistic phenomenon that uses Satan as a metaphor and applies it to critical thinking. Emerging during the turn-of-the-nineteenth century, a time when several of the era’s artists, writers and poets, inspired by Milton’s Paradise Lost, portrayed Satan as an antihero. Their Devil was celebrated for rebelling against God – the ultimate courageous act which, in their eyes, symbolized the definitive defiance of and stand against tyranny and corrupt establishment.
Satanic Scholar Christopher J.C., a proponent and preserver of Romantic Satanism, defines this interpretation of the Devil as “the apostate angel who aspired above his station in courageous self-assertion and, dauntlessly defiant against all odds, staked his flag on the burning marl of Hell’’ and one who was “applauded by Romantic Satanists as a Promethean icon of revolutionary virtue.’’ Some of these critical thinkers and artists included Lord Byron, William Blake and Percy Bysshe Shelley, who used this interpretation of Satan as a mythical metaphor to project their own radical anti-establishment ideas at the time. What does this have to do with metal, you ask? Well, these dudes were the ultimate rock stars – using the Devil in their art to stick it to the man, so to speak. Purveyors of hedonism, world philosophy and occult study – coupled with their heroic perception of Milton’s Satan – they embodied antagonistic principles of establishment rebels. Poet Laureate Robert Southey condemned them for “[rebelling] against the holiest ordinances of human society.” In metal, most bands would embrace such an accusation as a badge of honor.
Metal is an extension of Romantic Satanism as it has been the most prominent music to feature the Devil so poetically, as a means to project individual expression and free thinking, usually powered by an anti-establishment set of principles. Often is the case that Satan serves a metaphor for personal liberation as opposed to a theological belief, and while autonomy is a common principle in several branches of both atheistic and spiritual Satanism, Romantic ideals are rooted in milieu and disguised in mysticism – and these ethos have been prevalent throughout the history of rock. Romantic Satanism, by principle, is the transgression of conventional authoritarian values, and rock and metal was built on such foundations, being the antithesis of the those who try to preach or impose a way of thinking or a set of beliefs on the masses.
Milton’s Paradise Lost has served as a direct source of inspiration for countless songs and albums spread across an array of genres, but none more so than metal. The British doom band of the same name took their moniker directly from it; no pretences either. On the other hand, fellow Brits Cradle of Filth – a band synonymous with songs containing occult themes inspired by Romantic art – subscribe to the ethos of the Miltonic Satan in several songs, most notably “Better to Reign in Hell.” Additionally, the first six tracks on Danzig’s Black Aria were devised as a soundtrack to the tome, and would make for perfect listening while venturing through the Underworld. These are just a few examples of artists inspired by the Devil in Milton’s epic stanzas whose music embraces Romantic Satanist principles.
Milton’s portrayal of Satan as a heroic figure might have been unconscious on his part, but the Romantic artists and writers who came after solidified him as an immortal symbol and poetic icon, whose values are timeless and essential. Where would we be as a society if we didn’t have activists and revolutionaries, using their art to ignite social change and encourage free thinking? What would the merits of art be if it didn’t inform, challenge and question societal pillars? While Satan doesn’t represent a literal being in the eye’s of the Romantic Satanist, he does typify a thought pattern which, when you take away the poetic gravitas, is profound on a basic human level. Who doesn’t admire someone with the courage to stand up to corrupt institutions? Who wants to live under a dictatorship? Not every metal band embodies such ideals, but plenty still keep the torch of the Romantic Miltonic Satan burning in the twenty-first century.