Most great metal musicians are also great thinkers. Iron Maiden's Bruce Dickinson, for example, has a reported IQ of 167. Thus, one can easily understand why certain Iron Maiden lyrics reflect an affinity for outstanding writers, such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Alfred, Lord Tennyson. The relationship between metal and academia is much closer than most people might assume. Symposiums have been held on the topic of black metal, for example. Headbangers can thus indulge in books like Hideous Gnosis: Black Metal Theory Symposium I (2010), Mors Mystica: Black Metal Theory Symposium (2015), and Floating Tomb: Black Metal Theory (2015). Melancology: Black Metal Theory and Ecology (2014)?! Yeah, it exists. Not all the scholars who write about metal support or understand the genre's essence. Yet, the very fact that these intellectuals often make metal sound as complicated as Hegel's Science of Logic can be interpreted as a sign that we headbangers are truly engaging in a meaningful pursuit.
The late American author and heroin addict William S. Burroughs is often credited as the inventor of the term "heavy metal." The term can be found in Burroughs' writings starting with The Soft Machine (1961), which includes the character "Uranian Willy The Heavy Metal Kid" as well as phrases like "The Heavy Metal Peril" and "heavy metal addict." In The Ticket That Exploded (1962), Burroughs penned: "What we call opium or junk is a very much diluted form of heavy metal addiction." In Cities of the Red Night (1981), Burroughs described: "heavy metal drugs, so habit-forming that a single shot results in lifelong addiction." That defines the individual tracks on Black Sabbath's Paranoid (1970) in a nutshell.
There are writers that pop up time and time again in metal lyrics: Tolkien, Lovecraft, Poe, Crowley, Homer, Virgil. Biblical references are so common in heavy music that we tend to take them for granted. You might have become so accustomed to Metallica's iconic "For Whom the Bell Tolls" that you forgot that it is named after a novel by Ernest Hemingway. The Ukrainian black metal band Drudkh has used the texts of poets like Taras Shevchenko. Meanwhile, Agalloch's "A Poem by Yeats" is actually William Butler Yeats' "The Sorrow of Love."
The New Orleans-based sludge metal band Eyehategod has a song called "Story of the Eye." This title is the same as that of a 1928 novella by the great Frenchman Georges Bataille. The likes of the black metal groups Deathspell Omega and L'Acéphale have drawn ingots of knowledge from the great Frechman. Acéphale was the name of a review and secret society that was formed by Bataille. The group thought that it would be a splendid idea to sacrifice one of their own: "… it is through sacrifice that the sacred is introduced." All of Acéphale's members apparently consented to act as the designated victim, but sadly no one stepped up to fulfill the role of executioner. With this strange story in mind, it becomes easier to grasp Bataille's unusual writings, which seem rather "black metal" indeed. Bataille believed: "NON-KNOWLEDGE COMMUNICATES ECSTASY." Sylvère Lotringer clarified: "Dying and coming back are what Bataille thought 'communication' is about. A ritual sacrifice where the crime is shared; outer violence turned inward." Yet, one may still ask: What exactly did Bataille mean by non-knowledge?! Bataille clarified: "Non-knowledge is ANGUISH before all else. In anguish, there appears a nudity which puts one into ecstasy." Wicked. If you are wondering when metal bands will start appropriating the name of Bataille's short essay The Solar Anus, it has already happened.
Scandinavia is especially keen on making intellectually stimulating music. The Finnish black metal group Verge drew inspiration from the brooding Danish genius Søren Kierkegaard for their latest album, The Process of Self-Becoming (2017). The Finnish band Noumena chose their name because of the great philosopher Immanuel Kant. Bookworms will certainly find much to appreciate in the music of the Norwegian group Solefald. Both the Old Norse Poetic Edda and Prose Edda have colored the work of many Nordic groups. The Kalevala has also been incorporated into the lyrics and overall themes of metal bands like Amorphis. Insomnium has extracted wisdom from poets, such as Francis William Bourdillon and Eino Leino. Their album Winter's Gate (2016) was based on an award-winning short story by their very own bassist and harsh vocalist, Niilo Sevänen. The title of Impaled Nazarene's less than profound song "Cogito Ergo Sum," which was co-written by the late Alexi Laiho of Children of Bodom, actually comes from René Descartes' famous "first principle": "Cogito, ergo sum." / "I think therefore I am."
It may not be metal, but I personally fail to see how anyone could resist Panic's "Requiem for Martin Heidegger." The Dutch punk band asks: "Where has he gone? No one can tell. Is he in heaven? Is he in hell?" In the words of Queens of the Stone Age, there are simply some things that "No One Knows." What we can be certain of, however, is that our selection of cerebral music will appeal to your repressed sapiosexual desires. Thus, without further ado, we present our list of kickass metal songs inspired by distinguished authors.
Rammstein's "Rosenrot" (Goethe)
Most metal fans have Rammstein's killer single "Rosenrot," or "Rose-Red," at the top of their playlists. Of course, one can see how the Brothers Grimm's "Schneeweißchen und Rosenrot," or "Snow-White and Rose-Red," informed Rammstein's choice of titles. "Rosenrot" is one of the greatest songs ever written. In this track, a boy falls from a mountain while trying to procure a rose upon the request of a girl. The loaded chorus is open to a variety of interpretations: "Tiefe Brunnen muss man graben wenn man klares Wasser will. Rosenrot, oh rosenrot. Tiefe Wasser sind nicht still." / "One must dig deep wells if one wants clear water. Rose-red, oh rose-red. Deep waters are not still." The last line is actually a play on a proverb used to describe those whose depths must be discerned behind a veil of shyness: "Stille Wasser sind tief." / "Still waters are deep." "Rosenrot" was partially inspired by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's "Heidenröslein" / "Heath Rose." In this poem, a boy sees a little rose and decides to pick her. The rose protests that she will prick him. Although the rose defends herself, the boy ultimately has his way. Her suffering is inevitable.
Goethe's charming poem "Erlkönig," which ends with the death of a male child, provided fuel for Rammstein's "Dalai Lama." (To learn more about the genius, who penned Faust and The Sorrows of Young Werther, read Rüdiger Safranski's Goethe: Life as a Work of Art.) You can find traces of German literature in other Rammstein songs. For example, "Haifisch" borrows from Bertolt Brecht. It is a well-known fact that Rammstein's frontman, Till Lindemann, is not only a published poet, but he is also the son of one.
Bathory's "For All Those Who Died" (Jong)
"For All Those Who Died" from Blood Fire Death (1988) is a reworked version of a poem by the American author Erica Jong that appeared in Witches (1981). Meanwhile, the goat on the cover of Bathory's self-titled 1984 debut album comes from an illustration by Stephen A. Smith that can also be found in Witches. The Erica Jong link was discovered by a fan.
Similarly, in order to write Blood Fire Death's "A Fine Day to Die," Bathory's Quorthon mined from "Cassilda's Song," which can be found within Robert W. Chambers' The King in Yellow (1895) — one of the most metal books ever. Well-read metalheads may have noticed that Trivium's latest album, In the Court of the Dragon (2021), also derives its title from The King in Yellow. Robert W. Chambers' strange supernatural horror writings have fueled the fantasies of countless artists. He was one of America's greatest and most versatile authors.
Ex Deo's "Philosopher King" (Aurelius)
Marcus Aurelius' Meditations (161-180 AD) should be required reading for everyone. The Roman Emperor and Stoic philosopher served as a muse for Ex Deo's 2020 single "Philosopher King." "Filth reigns in the heart of the wicked, degradation of the flesh. You warned us all thy feeble shall fall… Ruptured sanity, praised insanity. Philosopher King of the Stoic messenger of light, messenger of the willing… Drown me in the waters, cleanse me from this vile world." The song concludes: "I am Marcus Aurelius, the Philosopher King!" (The term "Philosopher king" is also associated with Plato's Republic [375 BC], by the way.) Ex Deo asked Francesco Ferrini from Fleshgod Apocalypse to contribute to the song's orchestral score. After rocking out to this track, you can listen to Kataklysm's Meditations (2018). Kataklysm's lineup at the time consisted exclusively of Ex Deo members, seeing that Ex Deo is the side project of vocalist Maurizio Iacono, who was kind enough to give us a fantastic cooking lesson.
Ophthalamia's "Dominion" (Shakespeare)
Ophthalamia's Dominion (1998) was inspired by Shakespeare's MacBeth. Dominion was mixed and engineered by Hypocrisy's Peter Tägtgren and Mikael Hedlund. The album features the late "IT," Tony Särkkä; "All," Jim Håkan Jonaton Berger; ex-Dissection and ex-Deathstars' "Bone [W. Machine]," Ole Christian Öhman; and Deathstars' "Night[mare Industries]," Emil Andreas Nödtveidt. All and IT co-founded Ophthalamia in 1989. They were partners in Vondur, Abruptum, and War as well.
IT's girlfriend "Axa," Alexandra Balogh, plays keyboards on Dominion's last track, "Legacy of the True (Death Embrace Me III)." You can also hear Axa on Dissection's "No Dreams Breed in Breathless Sleep," which she composed, and "Feathers Fell." Similarly, Dissection's late mastermind Jon Nödtveidt sang on Ophthalamia's A Journey in Darkness (1994) under the alias "Shadow." Although Jon and IT were initially friends, the their relationship dissolved once Jon moved on from IT's brainchild True Satanist Horde to Misanthropic Luciferian Order. According to Blood, Fire, Death: The Swedish Metal Story (2018), Jon actually co-founded MLO. It is a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions that such a young, talented, and smart man took the life of another innocent man, not to mention his own. Jon came from a good family: Both his parents were teachers.
Gorgoroth's "Litani til Satan" & Celtic Frost's "Sorrows of the Moon" (Baudelaire)
"Les Litanies de Satan" / "The Litanies of Satan," can be found within Charles Baudelaire's Les Fleurs du Mal / The Flowers of Evil. Although the poetry collection was first published in 1957, the definitive version was published in 1868 — the year after Baudelaire's death. Gorgoroth's "Litani til Satan" is a loose Norwegian translation, or rather an interpretation, of "Les Litanies de Satan." This song appeared on Incipit Satan (2000), which featured Gaahl and King ov Hell. Bands like Rotting Christ and Necromantia have also set this very poem to music.
On the album Into the Pandemonium (1987), Celtic Frost performed "Sorrows of the Moon," which also hails from Fleurs du Mal. Celtic Fost actually recorded this poem as two separate and radically different, though equally creative, songs — one in French, "Tristesses de la Lune," the other in English. In contrast to the first vinyls, both "Sorrows of the Moon" and "Tristesses de la Lune" appear on the original CD. "Tristesses de la Lune" is executed by the Swiss-born singer Manü Moan, who belonged to a darkwave female trio called The Vyllies. Fans might also be interested to learn that Celtic Frost drew from Emily Brontë for the Into the Pandemonium's third song, "Inner Sanctum."
Therion named their 2012 cover album Les Fleurs du Mal while Ulver released their twelfth studio album under the epithet Flowers of Evil in 2020. Similarly, the Canadian band Piledriver, which currently goes by the name The Exalted Piledriver, has a song called "Flowers of Evil." The Italian band Hornwood Fell pictured Baudelaire on the cover of their album Cursed Thoughts — Part I (2020), which uses texts from "Les Fleurs du Mal as lyrics. (Cursed Thoughts — Part II features Edgar Allan Poe on the cover and adapts his poems to music.) The list of Baudelaire references is endless. Afterall, Baudelaire was pretty sick as his poem "Une Charogne" / "A Carcass" / "A Carrion" proves:
"And the sky was watching that superb cadaver
Blossom like a flower.
So frightful was the stench that you believed
You'd faint away upon the grass.
The blow-flies were buzzing round that putrid belly,
From which came forth black battalions
Of maggots, which oozed out like a heavy liquid
All along those living tatters."
Emperor's "Thus Spake the Nightspirit" (Nietzsche)
The combined number of musicians and pseudo-intellectuals who claim to have drawn inspiration from Nietzsche is even greater than the number of hipsters in Williamsburg. Yet, how many people have truly given Nietzsche's texts the thorough readings and re-readings that they deserve?! Nietzsche's teachings are often mutilated by the brash tongues of imbeciles. The words that Nietzsche's Zarathustra once uttered to a dwarf apply to most people: "…thou knowest not mine abysmal thought! IT — couldst thou not endure!" After all, Nietzsche once wrote something that gives everyone with relatives due cause to tremble: "I confess that the deepest objection to the 'eternal return,' that is, my own most abysmal thought, is always mother and sister."
The finest example of a piece of music inspired by Nietzsche is Richard Strauss' 1896 tone poem Also Sprach Zarathustra, which, of course, takes its title from Nietzsche's masterpiece by the same name. Also Sprach Zarathustra: Ein Buch für Alle und Keinen has been translated as Thus Spake [or SpOke] Zarathustra: A Book for all and None. There have been metal albums, songs, and even bands named after the beloved Zarathustra. That said, Nietzsche was clearly the muse behind Emperor's title "Thus Spake the Nightspirit." (If you have a couple of minutes, check out Zarathustra's "The Night-Song.") "Thus Spake Nightspirit" appeared on Emperor's second studio album, Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk (1997). Emperor's Ihsahn has stated that the writings of Nietzsche have had a huge influence on him. One of his solo albums, Eremita (2012), features Nietzsche on the cover. Ihsahn also found the name for his next solo album, Das Seelenbrechen (2013), in Nietzsche's work.
Of course, Gorgoroth has borrowed heavily from Nietzsche through the years. The following titles are enough to make Nietzscheans wet: Antichrist (1996); Destroyer — or About How to Philosophize with the Hammer (1998); Twilight of the Idols (In Conspiracy with Satan) (2003); "Dionysian Rite" from Instinctus Bestialis (2015); and "Will to Power," which is also from Incipit Satan (2000) like "Litani til Satan." Similarly, it won't come as a surprise that At the Gates released a 1993 song called "Beyond Good and Evil." The Swedish death metallers have incorporated the thoughts of various great thinkers over the years. Their leader, Tomas Lindberg, is a teacher. (Ex-Gorgoroth's King ov Hell worked briefly as a teacher and it seems that their former vocalist Pest still does.) Those with a passion for philosophy will enjoy At the Gates' latest album, The Nightmare of Being (2021).
Väkären's "Presence…" (Bukowski)
"Presence…" may be just an intro, but what a fantastic way to start an album! The Swedish black metal band Väkären uses the track to set a killer tone for their sophomore album, Ethereal (2021). The band incorporates a soundbite in which Bukowski states: "Just being away from people is one of the most marvelous fulfillments a man like me can have. Just the absence of humanity is a fulfillment so graceful that even God wouldn’t understand if He invented them. Which he probably didn’t."
The number of artists who admire Bukowski is so great that it is actually infuriating. There is a French power rock band named in his honor as well as a Hungarian black/death group called Bukowski Family. Ville Valo has Bukowski tattooed on his arm (along with Baudelaire and Timo K. Mukka). After all, Bukowski was one totally metal dude. Here's a taste of his work: "There’s a bluebird in my heart that wants to get out but I'm too tough for him… I pour whiskey on him and inhale cigarette smoke and the whores and the bartenders and the grocery clerks never know that he's in there."
The Ocean's "The Grand Inquisitor I: Karamazov Baseness" (Dostoevsky)
The Ocean is a German progressive metal band that was founded in 2000. "The Grand Inquisitor I: Karamazov Baseness" is the second song on their sixth studio album, Anthropocentric (2010). The title of this track comes from Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov (1880). After another couple of songs, Anthropocentric presents us with "The Grand Inquisitor II: Roots & Locusts" and "The Grand Inquisitor III: A Tiny Grain of Faith."
Anthropocentric critiques creationism and fundamentalist Christians. Боже мой! / My God! Dostoevsky was, of course, a devout Christian and a freethinker, who gave incredible depth to Christ's opposition as one can see in The Brothers Karamazov. In the actual book, the atheistic Ivan narrates a story to his brother Alyosha in which Christ is jailed after returning to earth during the Spanish Inquisition. After Jesus kisses the "Grand Inquisitor," the man shudders, opens the door, and says "Go." In an odd way, this is a sign of the Inquisitor's humanity. But would it ever occur to us nihilists to stop complaining, see how lucky we really are, and make a gratitude journal?! In Notes from the Underground (1864), Dostoevsky noted man's ingratitude: "Shower him with all earthly blessings, drown him in happiness completely, over his head, so that only bubbles pop up on the surface of happiness, as on water; give him such economic satisfaction that he no longer has anything left to do at all except sleep, eat gingerbread, and worry about the non-cessation of world history — and it is here, just here, that he, this man, out of sheer ingratitude, out of sheer lampoonery, will do something nasty." Anthropocentric is certainly a nasty album. Its creators also attempt to integrate ideas from Nietzsche and Richard Dawkins. Heliocentric (2020) is Anthropocentric's extension. It also borrows from great thinkers and features songs like "Metaphysics of the Hangman." Thus, if you like what you hear below, you can check that album out as well.
Gehenna's "Lord of Flies" (Golding)
Naming a song after William Golding's classic Lord of the Flies (1954) was certainly a bold move on behalf of the Norwegian black metal pioneers Gehenna. "Lord of the Flies" is the first song on Gehenna's debut album, Seen Through the Veils of Darkness (The Second Spell) (1996). The track itself is zany and thoroughly awesome. Garm from the next band on our list made a guest vocal appearance on the Seen Through the Veils of Darkness' third composition, "Vinterriket."
Ulver's "The Argument, Plate 2" (Blake)
When Ulver decided to adapt William Blake's The Marriage of Heaven and Hell into a full-length album, some believed that the band had lost their minds while others praised their bravery. Themes from William Blake's The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1998) could be described as Ulver's break from black metal. It was also Ulver's fourth record, which followed the release of their box set The Trilogie – Three Journeyes Through the Norwegian Netherworlde (1997), the second album of which, Kveldssanger (1996), was far from what one would usually regard as black metal. Themes from William Blake's The Marriage of Heaven and Hell features Darkthrone's Fenriz as well as Ihsahn and Emperor's Samoth as guest artists on the sixth track, "A Memorable Fancy, Plates 6-7." "The Argument, Plate 2" opens this experimental electronic album with a deceptively monotone bang. This little number is quirky as hell and unlike anything you've ever heard in a metal song before: "Roses are planted where thorns grow, and on the barren heath sing the honey bees…" If you are willing to listen to the rest of the album, you will be treated to many creative and amusing surprises.