A Chaotic Babel of Sound: A guide to H. P. Lovecraft in Metal Music

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Lovecraftian metal Spotify playlist.

‘Presently from the chamber’s uttermost reaches a new sound came. This, too, was a rhythmic trumpeting; but of a kind far removed from the three raucous blasts which had dissolved his grisly cohorts. In this low fanfare echoed all the wonder and melody of ethereal dream; exotic vistas of unimagined loveliness floating from each strange chord and subtly alien cadence. Odours of incense came to match the golden notes; and overhead a great light dawned, its colours changing in cycles unknown to earth’s spectrum, and following the song of the trumpet in weird symphonic harmonies. Torches flared in the distance, and the beat of drums throbbed nearer amidst waves of tense expectancy.”

–          “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath” (1927)1

 

 

ii)  The wall of sleep and beyond: Dreams of Doom

Widely regarded as the first proper heavy metal album, the third track on Black Sabbath’s self-titled debut bears the title “Behind The Wall Of Sleep”. This song’s lyrical inspiration comes from the 1919 Lovecraft short story Beyond The Wall Of Sleep, which tells of a “degenerate” vagabond who is committed to a mental hospital. Told from the perspective of a hospital intern, we are witness to the drifter’s nightly violent seizures, as he blabbers about hallucinations of wondrous places, of which he can remember nothing when he awakens. The narrator uses a telepathic device to communicate with the dreamer, who turns out to serve as a medium for a higher being made out of pure light. The possessing spirit reveals that beyond the shackles of the body, humans are all beings of light, and that this higher plane of reality can be accessed in dreams that are inaccessible to the waking mind.2 Or, as Black Sabbath put it, “Now from darkness, there springs light / Wall of Sleep is cold and bright / Wall of Sleep is lying broken / Sun shines in, you are awoken”.   One can easily find a strain of hippie-enlightenment running through the dreamscapes and light-beings in Beyond The Wall Of Sleep, and the rather blunt connection to hallucinogenic experiences might explain why Black Sabbath connected to the story. Other bands making direct reference to the story includes Finland’s Sentenced and German heavy metallers Rage, who have both put significantly more aggressive spins on their songs, both titled “Beyond The Wall Of Sleep”.

 

lovecrafts dreams by Michal Oracz

Lovecraft’s Dreams and Nightmares, by Michal Oracz

 

The concept of another reality that is only accessible through dreams became one of Lovecraft’s main literary themes. In a loosely connected series of stories known as the “Dream cycle”, tales are told of a fantasy-like world that the narrator travels through while he is asleep. The most comprehensive of these stories is The Dream-Quest Of Unknown Kadath, a novella written in 1927 but only published posthumously in 1943. One of Lovecraft’s lengthiest stories, Kadath tells about the protagonist Randolph Carter’s journeys towards the mysterious titular city of Kadath. During his dreamtime travels, he sees a variety of fantastical landscapes and encounters numerous gruesome creatures, and each time he is ripped from the dreamlands by a sudden awakening, until he is face to face with the terrible god-being Nyarlathothep. As a side-note, the character of Carter is usually accepted as a stand-in or alter ego of Lovecraft himself, giving the tale a personal edge that would sometimes be lacking from his stories.

Kadath by Michael Brack

The high priest of Kadath, by Michael Brack

 

 

The stories chronicling the wondrous dreamlands seem to have captured the attention of several doom metal bands. Most blatantly, perhaps, Finnish funeral doom godfathers Thergothon wrote a song called “The Unknown Kadath In The Cold Waste”, featured on their 1994 first and only album Stream From The Heavens, which was, fittingly enough, also released posthumously (the band having broken up the year before). On the more epic side of the doom spectrum, the Texans in Solitude Aeturnus featured the track “White Ship” on their 1991 debut Into The Depths Of Sorrow, the song being a direct reference to Lovecraft’s dreamlands-story by the same name.   Along the same path, Candlemass’ self-titled 2005 album contains “Seven Silver Keys”, which is about the stories The Silver Key and Through The Gates Of The Silver Key. These stories, written  in 1926 and 1932 respectively, also center on the character Randolph Carter, and his dealings beyond the wall of sleep. Finally, taking on the dream-cycle as a thematic arc, the somewhat obscure German prog metal band Payne’s Gray released their only album, Kadath Decoded, in 1995. A concept album, the record tells the story of Carter’s ventures, from his first dream, culminating in his mind-shattering meeting with the god of a thousand masks, Nyarlathotep.

 

 

grays pain kadath

The cover art of Payne’s Gray – Kadath Decoded, featuring Randolph Carter as he is flung awake from his dreams.

 

Continue on to read about The Cthulhu Mythos.

 


6 thoughts on “A Chaotic Babel of Sound: A guide to H. P. Lovecraft in Metal Music

  1. Surprised you mentioned Mekong Delta, but not Rage, who have several Lovecraftian songs. The Crawling Chaos, Shadow Out of Time, and In a Nameless Time from Black in Mind are all directly based on Lovecraft stuff, and the entirety of their Soundchaser album is essentially putting their band's mascot up against Lovecraftian "old ones". And Manilla Road's Atlantis Rising is an entire album about Triton and then Poisedon battling a sorceress who summons Cthulhu, ultimately calling in the Norse gods to help them(Greek myth, Norse myth, and Lovecraft, I don't think you can get more epic than that).

  2. Ailo Ravna Yeah i saw the Manilla Road mention, I was just surprised that only 1 song was specifically mentioned and not the album that's devoted to a battle between Cthulu and Greek and Norse deities, heh(that's not a concept you see every day, lol). Missed the Rage mention though.

  3. By the way, when I wrote The Strange Sound of Cthulhu: Music Inspired by the Writings of H.P. Lovecraft I managed to ask Geezer Butler a few questions for the book (both about this song and Planet Caravan which some also have listed as Lovecraft based). Here is what he told me…”I think I may have borrowed the title “Behind the Wall of Sleep” from “Beyond the Wall of Sleep” (of which I have a first edition), but it’s so long ago, I can’t really remember. The lyrics came from a dream I had, hence the title. Most of my inspiration in those days came from books by Dennis Wheatley, rather than Lovecraft or Poe. “Planet Caravan” had nothing whatsoever to do with Lovecraft.”

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