Heavy Metal Lyricism and the Purest Gothic Behind

Bryan A. Bardine

Bryan A. Bardine

Professor of sociology at DePaul University, Deena Weinstein, in her book ‘Heavy Metal: The Music and Its Culture,’ discusses some themes in heavy metal lyrics similar to Gothic elements: “Heavy metal brings its images to the forefront, empowering them with its vitalizing sound. It stands against the pleasing illusions of normality, conjuring with the powers of the underworld and making them submit to the order of the music and nothing else.”

Deena Weinstein is establishing a connection between the dark tone of the lyrics, the images they portray and the power the music exudes. She continues her analysis by examining metal lyrics regarding “disorder, conflict, opposition, and contradiction. It incorporates images of monsters, the grotesque, mayhem, and disaster. It speaks of injustice and resistance, rebellion, and death.”

While the Gothic elements grew out of the notion of the primitive and chaotic aspects of culture, as the Goths themselves were seen by most of society, so too are heavy metal music and its lyrics seen as primitive and chaotic to much of mainstream society. It is hardly surprising, then, to find that many heavy metal bands incorporate these Gothic elements into their lyrics.

The song ‘Black Sabbath’ by the British Black Sabbath is one of the first examples of incorporating Gothic lyrics into a song. The Gothic element Black Sabbath is using is the occult, particularly Satan. From the band’s self-titled debut album, the song begins with a thunderstorm pounding as a church bell chimes in the background, before lead vocalist Ozzy Osbourne begins to sing.

In the second verse, the lyrics discuss Satan’s role in everyone’s lives. Ozzy Osbourne’s distressed voice adds to the haunting effect of the “big black shape” of Satan that is described as “smiling.”

The occult imagery and the notion of Satan in these lyrics can also be seen in Gothic literature. The works often contain demons or demonic figures. For instance, Helen Stoddart, in ‘The Handbook to Gothic Literature,’ notes that “Satan is the most common and singular example of a demonic presence, though others would be evil spirits, devils, ghosts and supernatural disturbances.”

While the Devil shows up in some Gothic works, such as Matthew Gregory Lewis’ ‘The Monk: A Romance’ (1796), though he is disguised, more often than not the authors would give Satanic characteristics to humans. For example, characters such as Ambrosio in ‘The Monk: A Romance,’ Schedoni in Ann Radcliffe’s ‘The Italian, or the Confessional of the Black Penitents’ (1797) and Falk land in William Godwin’s ‘Things as They Are; or The Adventures of Caleb Williams’ (1794) each “bear, sometimes literally, an identifiably demonic stamp.”

Following Black Sabbath, bands of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal incorporated Gothic lyrics into their songs. Through its lyrics, Iron Maiden, one of the world’s foremost metal bands, has long had an association with Gothic themes. On its third album, ‘The Number of the Beast’ (1982), Iron Maiden refers to the occult — just as Black Sabbath did, in the form of the Devil — in the title track ‘The Number of the Beast.’ However, rather than have the Devil watching, even smiling at the destruction he brings, Iron Maiden lets the listener see a sacrifice taking place amidst “sacred chants,” with “fires burning bright” around a “ritual” that celebrates “Satan’s work.”

The lyrics certainly help listeners visualize a chaotic, frenzied scene associated with visions of Satanic worship and human sacrifice. The Gothic aspect of this visualization lies in the frenzy the band creates with the first three lines of the lyric. Listeners can see worshippers crying in pain and raising their hands to their demon lord, all the while hoping not to be chosen for sacrifice. Iron Maiden’s use of the occult imagery here is Gothic in its purest form, regardless of the band’s intent.

Other groups incorporate themes of violence and abuse into their lyrics. For instance, Saxon, in its song ‘Warrior,’ sings about a primitive village being attacked by a group of barbarians “from over the sea” who “rape and slaughter” and “pillage the wealth.”

Unlike Black Sabbath and Iron Maiden, Saxon have incorporated one of the original meanings of Gothic — the notion of the barbarian — into their music. Moreover, the acts of rape and pillage have a greater connection with the Gothic than the notion of violence against a tribe or group of people because of their relation to the primitive aspect of human nature.

Robin Sowerby notes that the Goths themselves were known as “thoroughgoing pillagers, ravagers, looters, and spoilers.” The terms that Robin Sowerby uses to describe the Goths certainly mirror the language used to explain characteristics associated with characters and events in Gothic fiction.

As mentioned earlier, one of the many themes inherent in Gothic literature is that of chaos. The lyrics and music in this Saxon song let the listener hear the chaos generated by the attacking hordes. Other New Wave of British Heavy Metal bands have incorporated this invasion and chaos theme into their music.

Iron Maiden, on its album ‘The Number of the Beast,’ has a song titled ‘Invaders,’ which details a Viking invasion of a Saxon village. The chaotic imagery is enhanced by the battle scene and its “wounded fighters,” whose “severed limbs” and “bloody corpses” cause a “smell of death and burning flesh.” The local Saxons are described as “overpowered victims” at the mercy of the Viking warriors. Furthermore, within the refrain, the lyrics relate what the invaders are doing to the Saxons, not only to the men but also to the women and children: “pillaging,” “looting,” “fighting,” “ marauding,” “raping” and “plundering.”

Another form of chaos often referred to in Gothic fiction appears within a character’s mind. American author Edgar Allan Poe was a master at showing his readers the gradual breakdown of a character’s psyche. For example, in ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’ (1843), Edgar Allan Poe deftly takes his audience through the narrator’s mental collapse.

As the story begins, the narrator tries to convince the audience that he is not insane: “TRUE! – nervous – very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad? The disease had sharpened my senses – not destroyed – not dulled them. Above all was the sense of hearing acute. I heard all things in the Heaven and in the earth. I heard many things in hell. How, then, am I mad? Hearken! And observe how healthily – how calmly I can tell you the whole story.”

Edgar Allan Poe uses punctuation and emphasis to great effect throughout this short passage. He incorporates many abrupt sentences and phrases, with several starts and stops so that the man’s speech sounds choppy and nervous — as he says he was and is throughout his ordeal. While certainly a different type of chaos than that which Saxon and Iron Maiden are singing about, the internal chaos that the narrator goes through during the story concludes with him admitting his murder and dismemberment of the man he claimed to love and care for.

There is a connection between the structure of the short story and the two songs mentioned above. Edgar Allan Poe has incorporated many short sentences or fragments set apart by different types of punctuation. In doing so, he gives his text a very choppy sound, which emphasizes various vital parts. For instance, toward the end of the story, the narrator believes that the police who have come to the house to check on the old man know that the narrator has buried his body under the floorboards of the room in which they stand. He says: “They heard! – They suspected! – They knew! – They were making a mockery of my horror.” Similarly, both the Saxon song and the Iron Maiden song incorporate the musical equivalent of what Edgar Allan Poe is doing in this short story — by using short lyrics and a short refrain, the sense of chaos is increased. In the Iron Maiden song, the refrain simply describes the invaders with two words — “pillaging” and “looting” — but the message inherent in those words is one of violence and certainly chaos.

In the Saxon song, part of the refrain is “warrior came, warrior saw, warrior conquered,” which, like in the Iron Maiden and Edgar Allan Poe examples, is brief and gives the listener a sense of foreboding and a vision of the chaos that just occurred.

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