The Quietus - A new rock music and pop culture website

The Quietus Essay

A Broad Church: Why Metal Can't Survive Without Religion
Dan Franklin , October 31st, 2018 10:36

Heavy rock music has long plundered the scriptures for something to fight against. But what if metal is more dependent on religious faith than its worshippers admit? Dan Franklin takes the sacrament (Ghost pictured)

Faith and religious observance are not so much a preoccupation for metal music, as an obsession. When it comes to Christianity, the joyful excesses of blasphemy have been lyrical fodder for decades. It is bound up with the anti-authoritarian ethic of the genre: I must rail against the church, the 'system', and even my family, if they prevent me from thinking for myself.

One of Metallica's most powerful songs, 'Dyers Eve' (re-released in November as part of the 30th anniversary of ...And Justice for All), is a direct address to James Hetfield's Christian Scientist parents who fear "the fact I think for me". A coruscating piece of thrash metal, it exudes vulnerability – the "hell" Hetfield has been abandoned to is the shock of a world that crowds in after a cloistered upbringing. It exposes the tension at the heart of metal's relationship with faith: if my parents can't save me, maybe religion should, but it has failed to do so, therefore I hate it too.

The carved-in-stone absolutism of Christianity (in particular the Old Testament) is intoxicating for heavy music, which predominantly expresses itself in grandiose, down-from-the-mountain thunderclouds of sound. Metal builds vaulted cathedrals in the sky and hollows festering tombs out beneath the earth. Metal needs the scope of religion to define itself, if only to then to make it the opposition.

New albums from Windhand and High On Fire – Eternal Return and Electric Messiah – both have titles freighted with Christian significance. Windhand concern themselves with what is beyond the veil between life and death, whereas on their album's title track, High On Fire's singer-guitarist Matt Pike elevates Lemmy to a messiah, in deferential tribute to a man who has become immortal through music. High On Fire have appropriated religious symbols and themes from the 1999 song 'Blood From Zion' onwards, but have subjected it to the warped visions of H.P. Lovecraft and David Icke: the mysteries of the worm, and the lizards that purportedly rule over us all. Matt Pike unashamedly places the Christian God on the same level as the grosser corruptions of the Elder Gods of horror fiction and conspiracy theory fantasists.

Windhand and High On Fire belong (peripherally) to the doom metal fraternity. Doom is an inherently Christian enterprise, meaning in scripture Judgement Before God. Ironically perhaps, it was a band named after an occult symbol, Pentagram, that harboured one of the genre's most devout practitioners. Victor Griffin played guitar for them in the 1980s, and more recently as they reunited under the drug-addled aegis of singer Bobby Liebling.

Griffin's own project Place Of Skulls was a soulful, reflective and deeply heavy band, named as it was for Golgotha, the site of Christ's execution. Griffin was not afraid to cancel tours in order to re-evaluate his relationship with Jesus. His personal struggles and entanglements with his faith reached an apogee on The Black Is Never Far (2006), an album in which he perceived the depths of depression he sank to as in direct proportion to the weakening of his faith. It was a dangerous equivalence. The resulting record was soaked in the profound, egocentric struggle you can only find in a true believer and an avowed sinner: "Let no man say he's been tempted by God/ There's no evil in him to tempt anyone/ But we're all tempted when we're drawn away/ By our own desires we give way" ('Changed Heart').

Jesus had a messiah complex and he paid dearly for it. It's not just in the bible that Jesus receives a kicking: death metal has long been obsessed with the destruction of his body, much as it is with the destruction of young men and women in general. The Passion and crucifixion set the historical standard for torture of religious martyrs. Deicide's 1995 album Once Upon The Cross, with a cover depicting a white sheet covering the crucified corpse of Jesus, the blood soaking through where the stigmata are found, shows how powerful and impressive the death of Jesus was for the band. Deicide's frontman, Glen Benton, who as a young man branded an inverted crucifix into his forehead, also allegedly pledged to kill himself when he turned 33. This promised an act of blasphemy, but it might actually have been hero-worship. Either way, it never happened, and Benton was keen to point out that he has been misunderstood; that he'd said it was a premonition of his death he had spoken about. He did suffer a bad motorbike accident (with his son Daemon in tow) at that age, but has since made it clear he preferred living to dying.

In another project of Benton's, Vital Remains, the cover illustration of album Icons Of Evil (2007) is Jesus as depicted by Jim Caviezel in the film The Passion Of The Christ. He is laid down upon the cross as a sledgehammer inscribed with '666' drives a nail into the palm of his hand. The sledgehammer makes something already overly intense and visceral teeter into the realms of absurdity. Mel Gibson's 2004 film, accused of anti-Semitism at the time because of its depiction of the Jews who condemned Jesus, is also deeply Satanic in outlook. Satan herself (of course, in Gibson's mythology she is a woman) and her weird, wizened babe-in-arms stalk Jesus as he is tortured – willing on his self-sacrifice as Christ. And that's the thing about Jesus: he died for our sins. He is Christianity's punch bag as much as he is of those who despise the religion. By making him suffer, death metal only continues what Christianity has been doing for centuries.

That said, death metal is a broad church. Within it, there can be found some strange, new-fangled representations of, and commentaries on, faith. Nile is a band that derives the vast majority of its lyrical themes from the mythology and history of ancient Egypt. Founding member, guitarist and vocalist Karl Sanders has a near-academic interest in the subject matter. He makes a point of publishing extensive liner notes explaining the provenance and themes of each song, often about rituals practised by the likes of the Cult of Osiris, and so forth. On Nile's last album, What Should Not Be Unearthed (2015), the opener 'Call to Destruction' does something different. It was written as a response to Muslim clerics who were calling for the destruction of the Pyramids in 2012 and the actions of ISIS (not to be confused with the ancient Egyptian goddess of the same name) in subsequent years, taking apart what Sanders described as "an unprecedented amount of ancient Persian artifacts and artworks."

The song takes the framework of the actual call to destruction itself, directly quoting Sheikh Abd al-Latif al-Mahmoud: "We must Tear Down these Blasphemous Edifices of heathenism", etc. What becomes clear reading Sanders' notes is that he sees it as in a long line of similar events and "history is laden with examples of Islamic ruination of pre-existing heritage". Sanders, who is from Florida, obviously feels passionately about the Islamist threat to his beloved monuments of ancient Egypt. Undoubtedly extremist Muslims have taken it upon themselves to be wreckers of past civilisations, but the historical usurpation of ancient centres of worship by Muslims and other faiths remains a contentious issue. Nile and their label Nuclear Blast stepped to any accusation of being anti-Islam with the disclaimer that prefaced the lyric video to the song: "Neither Nile nor Nuclear Blast endorse any political or religious agenda with this video; Nile as students of Egyptian History are concerned about the preservation of the cultures of all peoples of our Greater Global Community."

The song itself is a total triumph – the cascading riffs strafe and lacerate, conveying the depth-charge intensity required to dismantle a pyramid. If this American death metal Egyptologist's critique of Islamism isn't wacky enough, Sanders even throws in a lyrical reference to Michael Bay's Transformers: Revenge Of The Fallen ('Engage the Destruction Machines!') before his warped guitar solo. I don't know if the Decepticons have an ideology, but it is certain to be pretty destructive if they do.

As much as it confronts and invents organised religion, heavy music also appropriates and bastardises it. Matt Pike's other band, Sleep, concocted an extraterrestrial pseudo-Rastafarian worship of weed for the hour-long-plus Dopesmoker (2012, definitively). The other offshoot project of Sleep, OM, has a magpie-like fascination for other religions, lifting the album title for The Conference Of The Birds (2006) from a Persian epic poem with a title itself found in the Qu'ran. Their song 'Bhima's Theme' is named for a warrior from Hindu mythology, and its lyrics also invoke Lazarus, a man famously raised from the dead by Jesus. The oriental stylings of their music reflect the migration of the Eastern religions into America during the 1950s and 1960s, but process it through a new millennium mantra of bass and drums.

The popularity of the figure of Satan in metal dates right back to Paradise Lost and John Milton's creation of the chief rebel angel as a metaphor for the Republican uprising of the 17th-century English civil war. Milton's Lucifer is charismatic but he is also disingenuous, deeply circuitous in his thinking, and a lot of what he says ties itself into knots through excesses of tangled grammar with no resolution. Nevertheless, Milton's God and Jesus can only speak in the dull platitudes of power. If you want to be anti-authority – and if you enjoy metal music you are at some level – listen to what Satan has to say: hear him out.

Bloodbath have gone a step further on their new album The Arrow Of Satan Is Drawn. In an inverted order where the leader of the free world is a despot, they offer up the god of emptiness (the worst of the worst) as a true survivor of our times, if not our saviour. But (Old) Nick Holmes, singer of Bloodbath (and the band Paradise Lost), an avowed atheist, struggles to take any of it seriously: “I can play with visions of Satan and God, and I don't really care who gets offended either way."

There are more than a few similarities between organised religious rituals and live metal performances – the massed congregations and the (variously aggressive) bowing of heads. Perhaps you have to be in particularly deep to watch Bring Me The Horizon getting the crowd to perform a circle pit around the sound desk tower at Reading Festival in 2013 and see echoes of pilgrims performing the seven circumambulations around the Kaaba that make up the Tawaf ritual during the Hajj at Mecca.

Physical actions aside, what is most ironic for metal's traditional anti-religious position is just how much its fans are liable to categorise, protect and advocate for the genre much like religious fanatics. Why else would Metal Hammer have called its showcase tour 'Defenders of the Faith'? There are bull-headed members of the heavy music faithful who expend vast amounts of energy explaining what is and isn't orthodox, in what ways each subgenre should adhere to particular codes at the risk of contaminating one line of observance with another, and essentially the correct way to worship this genre of music. Perhaps one reason that Swedish heavy metal band Ghost are so enormously popular is that, in their surface-level satire of the costume and practices of the Catholic church, they are reflecting back at their audience an order and idolatry which their fans (sub)consciously respect and value.

Heavy music reaches back to ritualistic sounds and imagery that predates organised religion as we know it today, but it has long incorporated elements from the world faiths. In doing so, it has built a church of its own: a place of discipline, learning and canonical understanding for its denizens. Metal's adherents – musicians and audience alike – negotiate faith in its more primal and liturgical forms. Metal is so dependent on religion existing that if it did not, it would have to invent it; removing religion totally would subvert its very existence. To genuinely tear down the temples of the other faiths would only cause the collapse of its own.