This essay appeared in the Spring 2021 issue of Modern Age. To subscribe, click here.


Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so

So begins John Donne’s perennial poem belittling the reaper’s reach. So also begins Follow the Reaper, the third studio album by Finnish heavy metal band Children of Bodom, whose title track begins with a sinister muttering of Donne’s verse, followed by an aggressive, synth-laden intro and some oddly employed swear words.

Donne’s poem boasts a triumphalism over death—“One short sleep past, we wake eternally / And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die”—which he finds rooted in Christian hope. This sonnet was gathered into a collection of other “Divine Poems” that deal with themes of personal religious devotion, repentance, bodily resurrection, and so forth.

Bodom, as fans call the band, certainly does not entertain those themes in the lyrics of Follow the Reaper, or any other album for that matter. In fact, much of Follow the Reaper’s lyrical themes are angry and hedonist, not too unlike those found in all other kinds of popular music, but it remains that Bodom borrows directly from Donne.

Children of Bodom is one of many metal bands that have found inspiration in, or at the very least borrowed from, literature, poetry, and philosophy. From the earliest days of rock and heavy metal, bands have drawn from the well of letters, using Coleridge, Tolkien, Poe, Nietzsche, Shakespeare, and others as they deal with the same questions about the nature of existence and evil, death, suffering, happiness, war, God, freedom, madness, vice, and justice.

The influences are often quite forward, as in the case of Mastodon’s Leviathan, a concept album based on Moby-Dick. With songs like “I Am Ahab” and “Seabeast,” and an album cover sporting a pastel white whale, there’s no missing Melville. The American band Periphery, the Dutch band Textures, and the Brits in Iron Maiden have all adopted the story of Icarus for their own arrangements. Other bands—Nevermore, Of Mice & Men, Trivium, As I Lay Dying—have put literary and philosophical nods straight into their names. 

Where bands don’t reenact stories or pull exact words, they often share many of the themes and ideas found in Western literature and elsewhere in the humanities. Read about despair in Kierkegaard or in any of the non-Christian existentialists, or about vanity in Ecclesiastes, and then listen to the late Warrel Dane of Nevermore belt, “Nothing is sacred when no one is saved / Nothing’s forever so count your days.” Read Walker Percy’s Lancelot for a take on man’s prodigality and lasciviousness, and then listen to Deftones’s “Beware”: “Teeth are dry / The wind blows / Fill cup, drink it, there you go. / Beware the water.” Read the miserable narrator of Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground as he discusses the profoundly consuming nature of revenge, and then listen to Tool’s “The Grudge”: “Wear the grudge like a crown of negativity / Calculate what we will or will not tolerate / Desperate to control all and everything / Unable to forgive your scarlet lettermen.”

These songs weren’t written with reference to those literary examples. Yet thematic similarities remain, and plenty of other groups have been explicit about the connections between literary and philosophical ideas and their own music.

The Early Days

Heavy metal was born as one of many artistic children of 1960s and ’70s rock ’n’ roll. A historian would almost certainly begin sketching the narrative earlier, but Rush, Black Sabbath, and Led Zeppelin serve as our launch pad for two reasons. First, almost without exception, every metal band of the last thirty to forty years has cited those three bands as primary influences. The second reason, naturally, is that each band relied heavily on literary and philosophical themes in their own songwriting, and on one mythic world in particular.

J. R. R. Tolkien’s mythology appears all over Rush’s discography. As early as Fly by Night, the band’s second album and first with drummer and lyricist Neil Peart, Middle Earth emerges. “Rivendell” offers a glimpse into Tolkien’s magical elven kingdom. The song’s narrative appears to be told from the perspective of a Bilbo Baggins growing old in Rivendell: “You feel there’s something calling you / You’re wanting to return / To where the misty mountains rise / And friendly fires burn.” Driven by acoustic guitar and front man Geddy Lee’s serenading voice, “Rivendell” is one of Rush’s least “metal” songs, certainly much less so than “The Necromancer,” which appears on Fly by Night’s follow-up, Caress of Steel. That song employs other key images from Tolkien’s mythos, especially Middle Earth’s archfiend, Sauron, also known as the Necromancer. Though Peart’s story doesn’t exactly retell Tolkien, it borrows from his many images of travelers on a perilous journey, and the descriptions of the Necromancer are clearly borrowed, as the all-seeing evil one sits “Brooding in the tower / Watching o’er his land.”

Unlike Canada’s Rush, Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath hailed from the United Kingdom, and there was a natural kinship between them and Tolkien. Each band found use for different parts of his universe in their music. Zeppelin’s “Ramble On” is something of a work in romance rather than a Tolkien token, but front man Robert Plant makes reference to both Gollum and Mordor. In “The Battle of Evermore,” Zeppelin employs various mythological images, including some of the darker images from Middle Earth: “the Ringwraiths ride in black, ride on.” On the same album, “Misty Mountain Hop” adopts a key piece of Tolkien’s geography as a place of repose for the song’s societal hedonists: “So I’m packing my bags for the Misty Mountains.”

As for the other British band, Black Sabbath turned to Gandalf as inspiration for “The Wizard.” The song appeared on the band’s debut album, which turned fifty last year. Bassist Geezer Butler has said that he was reading The Lord of The Rings as they wrote the album.

Tolkien aside, each of these bands leaned into other literary and intellectual themes. Ayn Rand’s ideas make several appearances in Rush’s early discography. “Anthem” opens Fly by Night, a nod to Rand’s dystopian novel by the same name: “Live for yourself, there’s no one else / More worth living for / Begging hands and bleeding hearts / Will only cry for more.” The album 2112, whose original liner notes “the genius of Ayn Rand,” explores similar themes and foretells a despotic world controlled by the Priests of the Temples of Syrinx: “We’ve taken care of everything / The words you read / The songs you sing.”

In subsequent albums, Peart begins to leave Rand behind and, continuing with some science fiction–type constructions, goes full-on literary. “Xanadu” recalls Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem “Kubla Khan.” In “The Trees,” Peart crafts an allegory focusing on class warfare: “As the maples scream ‘Oppression!’ / And the Oaks, just shake their heads / So the maples formed a union / And demanded equal rights.” Adopting one of American literature’s classic characters, Peart and co-lyricist Pye Dubois created one of the most iconic rock songs of all time in “Tom Sawyer,” and songs like “Freewill,” “Subdivisions,” and “New World Man” all address existential themes.

The band even borrows from the Bard. In “Limelight,” Geddy Lee sings, “All the world’s indeed a stage / And we are merely players,” a reworking of Jaques’s speech from Shakespeare’s As You Like It. And the second of twelve movements in the instrumental “La Villa Strangiato” is entitled “To sleep, perchance to dream . . . ,” the words of Hamlet, prince of Denmark.

Black Sabbath, though unlike Rush in so many ways, also waded into existential waters in songs like “Killing Yourself to Live,” presenting an image of a burdened, working-class life: “Well, people look and people stare / Well, I don’t think that I even care / You work your life away and what do they give? / You’re only killing yourself to live.” Even more on the nose is “After Forever,” a rhetorical venture into the realm of God and creed: “Could it be you’re afraid of what your friends might say / If they knew you believe in God above? / They should realize before they criticize / That God is the only way to love.”

The rock legends in Led Zeppelin were also well acquainted with big ideas, attested to not only by their lyrics but also by front man Robert Plant, who told Rolling Stone in 1975 that, at that time, they were “more into staying in our rooms and reading Nietzsche.” In “Kashmir,” Plant addresses the metaphysics of the wanderer: “I am a traveler of both time and space / To be where I have been.” In his essay “Celebrating the Agony of Life,” Erin Flynn, professor of philosophy at Ohio Wesleyan University, connects the sandstorm in “Kashmir”—“All I see turns to brown / As the sun burns the ground / And my eyes fill with sand”—to Nietzsche’s early ideas of reality as “an eternally suffering, contradictory, primordial unity.” Admittedly lower brow but nonetheless fun are several of the band’s other big hits, including “Immigrant Song” and the more solemn “No Quarter,” which employ Norse mythology—“Valhalla, I am coming.”

Rambling On

The early literary-minded bands inspired many more after them that over time also turned to literature and philosophy in their music.

Iron Maiden displays its literary interests all over its discography with a tribute to the aforementioned myth in “Flight of Icarus.” The song “Murders in the Rue Morgue” adapts the dark story of the same name by Edgar Allan Poe, while in “Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” Maiden does much of the same thing with Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem.

Back across the Atlantic, on Metallica’s debut album, Kill ’Em All, James Hetfield sings of “The Four Horsemen,” about which St. John prophesied. The band’s follow-up, Ride the Lightning, has “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” emulating particular scenes from Hemingway’s novel. The same album also boasts “Creeping Death,” a sinister song about the biblical angel of death, and a nod to H. P. Lovecraft in “The Call of Ktulu.” The band’s ensuing albums include songs about insanity, the nature of justice, and war, all themes prevalent in literature.

In the early 1990s, Seattle gave the world Nevermore, directing our attention to the aforementioned master of darkness Poe, whose Raven quoth, “Nevermore.” The band’s songs were dark and reflective from the start. “What Tomorrow Knows,” from their debut album, spells out reality for a cold world in which “no one sees what tomorrow knows”: “Dreams lie smashed again / They’ve pinned your back to the wall / Like faded pictures of what might have been / Fate is cruel when dreams, like candles, fade.”

Tool, among the most commercially successful bands in this essay, is known for its peculiar but enchanting ethos. Albums have dealt with themes of death and consciousness, among others. The band’s newest album, Fear Inoculum, explores what it means to have two natures: “We are spirit bound to this flesh / We go ’round one foot nailed down” are the opening lines of “Pneuma.”

Animals as Leaders is an instrumental metal band whose founder, Tosin Abasi, has a well-reported affection for science fiction and has cited Arthur C. Clarke, Philip K. Dick, and Orson Scott Card as influences. Abasi told the Washington City Paper in 2009 that he named the band after reading Daniel Quinn’s novel Ishmael. Without a vocalist, the band’s song names tell the stories. “To Lead You to an Overwhelming Question” from the album Weightless comes straight out of T. S. Eliot’s poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock:” “Streets that follow like a tedious argument / Of insidious intent / To lead you to an overwhelming question . . . Oh, do not ask, ‘What is it?’ / Let us go and make our visit.” Listeners can also find “Do Not Go Gently” too similar to be only accidentally derived from the famous verse of Welsh poet Dylan Thomas: “Do not go gentle into that good night / Old age should burn and rave at close of day / Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

Mastodon’s musical presentation of Moby-Dick has almost all the aggression, brutality, and madness of the novel. “Blood and Thunder” infuses the perennial religious quest with Ahab’s maniacal one: “The fight for this fish is a fight to the death / White whale, Holy grail.” The next song, “I Am Ahab,” deals with a central motif of the novel and of much naturalist literature, with nature as a vast, adventure-inducing force: “There’s magic in the water that attracts all men / Across hills and down streams.”

Though they are not frequently musical renditions of novels, concept albums like Mastodon’s Leviathan are quite popular in metal. Bands like Between the Buried and Me, Dream Theater, Periphery, and Coheed and Cambria have constructed complex storylines that, in each of their cases, have spanned multiple albums. The love for storytelling here unites metal to the literary tradition.

On Metal’s Merits

This essay was largely inspired by another essay of similar character, “Signifying Rappers,” written by David Foster Wallace and Mark Costello and published by the Missouri Review in 1990. The two venture to diagram the culture of rap in late-twentieth-century Boston and assess its cultural function. They make some headway, offering this: “For outsiders, rap’s hard to dissect, easy to move to. The command is: dance, don’t understand; participate, don’t manipulate.”

The same goes for rock and metal: they are about rhythm, speed, aggression, and high decibels, but they also have thematic depth. The point isn’t that metal is more cerebral than other kinds of music, but metalheads do show an interest in the same ultimate questions as many leading writers and thinkers. What is true for rap is true for metal, although we could amend Wallace and Costello’s analysis to fit our purpose—the command is: bang your head.

Jeremy Beaman is a reporter for the Washington Examiner.