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

 

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Lovecraftian metal Spotify playlist.

“The awful event was very sudden, and wholly unexpected. I was pouring something from one test-tube to another, and West was busy over the alcohol blast-lamp which had to answer for a Bunsen burner in this gasless edifice, when from the pitch-black room we had left there burst the most appalling and daemoniac succession of cries that either of us had ever heard. Not more unutterable could have been the chaos of hellish sound if the pit itself had opened to release the agony of the damned, for in one inconceivable cacophony was centred all the supernal terror and unnatural despair of animate nature. Human it could not have been—it is not in man to make such sounds—and without a thought of our late employment or its possible discovery both West and I leaped to the nearest window like stricken animals; overturning tubes, lamp, and retorts, and vaulting madly into the starred abyss of the rural night.”

–          Herbert West – Reanimator (1922)1

v)  Terror from Beyond: Other stories and Lovecraftian bands

Sometimes credited as one of the forebears to the modern zombie-tale, Lovecraft was nevertheless not particularly happy with the story of Herbert West. A classic tale of a mad scientist turns gruesome when dead bodies (and body-parts) begin coming back to life. Quite pulpy even by Lovecraft’s standards, Reanimator was turned into a cult horror movie classic with the 1985 Stuart Gordon movie of the same name, starring Jeffrey Combs as the titular Herbert West.

 

As with the Evil Dead movies and their Necronomicon, it can be difficult to tell whether bands are referencing the movie or the stories that inspired them, especially since horror movies are so widely used as inspiration for metal lyrics. Nevertheless, the classic Canadian thrash metal group Sacrifice paid tribute to Reanimator on their 1987 album “Forward To Termination”, with the track “Re-Animation”. The goth cowboys Fields Of The Nephilim also sing about “Reanimator”, in addition to other tracks referencing both Lovecraft and the Simon Necronomicon. Cult thrash band Rigor Mortis also included the blatant tribute “Re-Animator” on their self-titled debut.

 

 

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Jeffrey Combs as Herbert West.

 

Another sci-fi story, From Beyond is highly regarded amongst Lovecraft fans, despite its relatively short length. Seemingly inspiring little in the way of creativity when it comes to song titles, bands as diverse as stoner doom band Sleep and Polish death metal veterans Vader have songs named verbatim after the story, while both Florida death metal group Massacre and Swedish speed metal band Enforcer have released Lovecraft-themed albums of the same name. Original heavy metal bad-asses Manilla Road also have a song about The Beyond, in addition to the track “Return of the Old Ones” from their 1986 album Out of the Abyss and a number of other Lovecraft-references throughout their extensive discography.

 

 

Perhaps the band that is most evocative of a Lovecraftian cosmic horror-sound, the eccentric Australian death metal band Portal have taken the Lovecraft-aesthetic to extreme levels through their bizarre stage attire and their eerie chaotic death metal sound. They also make distinct references to Lovecraft’s literature, however, with songs such as “Omnipotent Crawling Chaos” and “Sunken” alluding to Nyarlathothep and Cthulhu. Similarly chaotic in sound, the now-defunct black metal project Brown Jenkins named themselves after a rat-like creature from the story Dreams in the Witch House, and played instrumental music dedicated to Lovecraft’s deities. Musically the polar opposite to Portal and Brown Jenkins, the progressive thrash band Mekong Delta also have albums dealing with Lovecraft’s stories, such as The Music Of Eric Zann, a story about a musician with supernatural abilities, and 2007’s The Lurking Fear.

 

 

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The vocalist of Portal in one of his stage outfits.

 

 

Before rounding off this essay, I will touch briefly upon a few additional bands that have not yet been mentioned. Perhaps most influential of these, the Danish heavy metal trailblazers Mercyful Fate wrote a two-part epic about the Necronomicon’s author, Abdul Alhazred. These tracks, divided between 1994’s Time and 1996’s Into the Unknown, are tellingly titled “The Mad Arab” and “Kutulu”, featuring an alternative spelling of Cthulhu similar to the one made by Metallica. Finland’s uncrowned kings of traditional doom metal, Reverend Bizarre, wrote a longer piece about the lesser known Lovecraft story The Festival, while stoner doom powerhouse High On Fire have a 2012 album titled De Vermiis Mysteris, named after another Mythos grimoire that was originally conceived by Lovecraft’s friend Robert Bloch, but later included in Lovecraft’s own work.

 

 

Returning to symphonic black metal, the Greek band Septicflesh released a Lovecraft-themed album called A Fallen Temple in 1998, and on their breakthrough 2008 album Communion they included “Lovecraft’s Death” – a lyrical tribute to his entire body of work. Along similar symphonic lines, Saille have weird tales-centered songs about the fish deity “Dagon”, the “Haunter of the Dark”, and inspirations of Lovecraft including Robert Chambers’ King In Yellow, and Arthur Machen’s “The Great God Pan”. International death metal ensemble The Grotesquery have a concept album based on Lovecraft-collaborator Clark Ashton Smith’s Tsathoggua, and also sing about Cthulhu, Hastur, and the obscure Lovecraft short story The Terrible Old Man.2 Although Lovecraft’s influence is less pronounced in their work, Swiss proto-black metal legends Celtic Frost reference Azathoth and Yog-Sothoth in their classic tracks “Nocturnal Fear” and “Morbid Tales”. The gothic metal duo The Vision Bleak have written about several Lovecraftian deities, for example in the tracks “Kutulu!”, “Dreams in the Witch-house”, and “The Black Pharao Trilogy”, a three-part chronicle about Nyarlathotep. Finally, the Czech experimental black metal veterans Master’s Hammer have a song simply called “Lovecraft”, featured on their 2012 album , where the cultist’s chant “Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn” is included among the Czech lyrics.

 

 

 

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The Rise of Yog Sothoth, by TentaclesAndTeeth.

 

 

Returning to where we began, let us note that 33 years passed between Lovecraft’s death in 1937, and the 1970 release of Black Sabbath’s debut. Had he not died young, would Lovecraft have appreciated the tribute? As far as I have been able to tell, not much, if anything, has been recorded regarding Lovecraft’s own musical preferences,3 but we can safely say that he was not a rock and roller, being a product of the 1920’s. A profoundly conservative and xenophobic man, it is unlikely that he would have enjoyed becoming a part of a community that transcends borders and cultures, from Marduk in Sweden to Shub-Niggurath in Mexico. As thoroughly documented in this essay, however, it seems undeniable that H.P. Lovecraft has had placed deep hooks in many young musicians, and for some, coloring almost the entirety of their artistic output. Looking forwards, with Lovecraft and the Cthulhu-mythos still permeating popular culture, and with young bands such as Chthe’ilistTyrant’s Kall,4 and Arkham Witch dealing almost exclusively in riffs and cosmic horror, it seems that the stars are as right as ever. Whether you are donning robes and chanting, or dressed in spikes and screaming, the conjuration of the Old Ones has only just began.

 

 

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H.P. Lovecraft in his study.


1 http://www.hplovecraft.com/writings/texts/fiction/hwr.aspx

2 Thanks to Facebook follower Jürgen Beck for reminding me to include The Vision Bleak, Saille, and The Grotesquery.

Let me know if I’m wrong!

4 Thanks to fellow TMO writer Steve Herrmann for tipping me about these bands, and for general feedback on the article.