Apocalyptic Anthems and Memento Mori: Metal for a Pandemic

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cover of Black Sabbath - Black SabbathHeavy metal turned 50 years old on February 13, the release date of Black Sabbath’s self-titled first album — just in time for a global pandemic. That’s a grim coincidence, but it does give one indication of why the genre has had such staying power, in all its diverse manifestations (folk metal! Doom Metal! Progressive Metal! Stoner metal! Symphonic Metal! And on and on, for a total of approximately 666 distinct sub-genres): we live in grim and increasingly brutal times, and metal speaks to people like me who believe there’s value to looking horror in the face. Memento mori (“Remember that you must die”) is an ancient and very multicultural wisdom path, and I was fascinated to discover while pulling this playlist together that Lamb of God, one of the most popular and influential metal bands of the past 20 years, have just released a single (and stunning video) with that very title, adapted to the COVID-19 pandemic. Randy Blythe, their lead singer and lyricist, gives the background:

There is a vast amount of indisputably real and depressingly negative occurrences happening across the globe. Currently, at the forefront of everyone’s mind is the global COVID-19 pandemic. This is a very real concern, and proper precautions need to be taken by EVERYONE in order to protect those most at risk- the elderly, infirm, and immuno compromised. It is indeed a scary time, but in this hyper-connected age with its 24/7 never-ending news cycle of atrocity, outrage and lurid click-bait headlines (not mention ill-informed lunatics running amok and spreading misinformation and panic on social media), it is all too easy to lose sight of the fact that life is still carrying on, and good things do in fact still happen.

Months before the COVID-19 outbreak occurred, I wrote “Memento Mori” as a reminder to myself to not be consumed by the omnipresent electronic harbingers of doom that surround us- cellphones, computers, and television screens. While these devices can be useful tools, and it is important to stay informed, it is equally important to remain engaged with the real, physical world we with live in, not just digitally filtered representations of reality. I wrote the narrative music video treatment a few months ago to illustrate how warped and myopic our mental states can become when we fail to remain engaged with that reality- if all you pay attention to is catastrophe, then soon you will begin to see monsters everywhere you look.

The actual monsters we used in the video are Sinisteria, a local Richmond, Virginia haunted house/dark performance troupe I met on the street at our annual Krampus Nacht parade. Richmond has a strong tradition of loud music and weird costumed monsters working hand in hand to make salient points (we are the birthplace of GWAR, after all), and I couldn’t be more pleased with the results. Music has always been there for me, raising my spirits during hard times, and it is my hope that this song’s positive message will do the same for fans of our music right now and beyond. The release date for the tune was set a good while ago, but the timing seems eerily prescient to me now. So enjoy the song and video, and then remember to step away from the screens for a bit- real life is waiting for you. We only get one shot, so don’t waste this day. Everyone be well, keep a cool head, take care of yourselves, and take care of EACH OTHER.

cover of Sepultura album Chaos ADI couldn’t have said it better. Metalheads’ seeming preoccupation with apocalypse may be baffling to people from posher backgrounds, but keep in mind that the ultimate death toll from the COVID-19 pandemic, terrible as it’s likely to be, may not come close to, for example, the ravages of the opioid epidemic in some communities right now. But as Black Sabbath suggest in their very first original song, “Wicked World,” we’re all in this together (except for the politicians):

People go to work just to earn their bread
While people just across the sea are counting their dead

A politician’s job they say is very high
For he has to choose who’s gotta go and die
They can put a man on the Moon quite easy
While people here on Earth are dying of old diseases

Apocalypse is an ancient myth in hierarchical, exploitative societies for a very good reason: the world is always ending for somebody. Sarcasm and irony is one way to fight back; the 80s punk metal band The Plasmatics had a whole compilation album called Apocalyptic Anthems — a bleakly amusing concept. But listening to metal — ideally live at a concert, in close physical contact with other sweating, hurting human beings — is a cathartic experience, sometimes bordering on exorcism. There’s a lot of trust and camaraderie involved in moshing, stage diving and crowd surfing. It builds in-group solidarity like nothing else.

That said, if you or a loved one are currently battling for your life, I do suggest finding some other kind of playlist! Metal isn’t for everybody or for every occasion. In pulling this together I did try to strike a balance between heaviness and accessibility, so that it might be appealing to more than just hard-core metal fans. Although I personally love me some traditional death metal with ridiculously guttural vocals and gory lyrics, I decided to go super light on that kind of thing and exclude many of my favorite bands. Fans of extreme metal don’t need any help finding pandemic-appropriate music, after all.

I’ve linked each song on the list below to its page on the lyrics site Genius.com (which includes links to Apple Music, if you prefer that to the Spotify and YouTube options above) and hopefully all the inclusions will make sense if you’ve kept up with news about the symptoms of COVID-19 infection and the outbreak’s varying political ramifications. Since the decisions of political leaders are a matter of life or death right now, there are a number of songs that address corruption and demagoguery from bands around the world: “Antisocial” by the French anarchist hard rock band Trust; “Leper Messiah” by an obscure California band called Metallica; “Refuse/Resist” by Brazilian thrash metal gods Sepultura; “Theology,” the Chinese folk metal band Voodoo Kungfu’s savage indictment of Maoism and the Confucian system it absorbed and recapitulated; and the contemporary Ukrainian progressive/groove metal band Jinjer’s new song “On the Top”:

You climb, climb, climb, climb, climb
But the top is rising too
The track is getting longer and it’s leading to your tomb
You’re not afraid to lose your mind
In the name of profit
Red ribbon is the finish and the finish is the coffin

The playlist is in rough chronological order adjusted for topic groupings. If you used to listen to metal back in the day and haven’t kept up with the newer stuff, I think you’ll find a lot to like here. If you’re a fan of avant garde music generally, there’s also a lot that should appeal (especially Tool’s “Fear Inoculum” and the four tracks beginning with Death’s “Flesh and the Power it Holds”).

If you’ve made a pandemic playlist of your own, in whatever genre, feel free to drop the link in the comments or share it with me on social media. (I’ve just re-joined Facebook, for what it’s worth.)

Wicked World by Black Sabbath (1970)

Remember Tomorrow by Iron Maiden (1980)

Antisocial by Trust (1980)
English translations here.

12 Noon by The Plasmatics (1981)

Symphony Of Destruction by Megadeth (1992)

Leper Messiah by Metallica (1986)

Refuse/Resist by Sepultura (1993)

Postmortem by Slayer (1986)

Them Bones by Alice In Chains (1992)

Let Me Drown by Soundgarden (1994)

Burning Inside by Ministry (1989)

Everything Dies by Type O Negative (1999)

Lung by Type O Negative (1999)

Flesh and the Power It Holds by Death (1998)

The Art of Dying by Gojira (2008)

Obscura by Gorguts (1998)

Yekteniya I: Ochishcheniye by Batushka (2015)
The text is from Eastern Orthodox liturgy, in Church Slavonic. Genius.com does include a translation into butchered English.

I Am The Virus by Killing Joke (2015)

Theocracy by Voodoo Kungfu (2019)
See the animation (trigger warning: extreme graphic violence) for text-on-screen English translation.

On the Top by Jinjer (2019)

Fear Inoculum by Tool (2019)

Smash the Control Machine by Otep (2009)

Memento Mori by Lamb of God (2020)

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