No other genre of music draws inspiration from literature as often as metal. It is unfortunate that most think of Poison or Bon Jovi, screaming or unlistenable music, whenever the style is mentioned. For those who have been immersed in the music since the 80s, this is the sad result of certain unrepresentative bands becoming popular in the mainstream. Here, I would like to introduce you to a few bands and songs you may not know, music drawing its subject matter from some of the great works of literature.
First, the most well-known. Metallica’s For Whom the Bells Tolls tells the story of Hemingway’s novel about the Spanish Civil War. The minimalistic stanzas mimic the author’s penchant for short pointed sentences. The marching feel and thunder of bass and drums brings to mind the sounds of war. The Thing That Should Not Be, based on Lovecraft, uses the slow prodding doom of the music and cryptic lyrics to mirror the dread evoked by the author’s work. One, does a masterful job of conveying the angst, hopelessness, and anger of Johnny Got His Gun, the story of a young man badly wounded in World War I. He loses the ability to move, hear, speak, or see, but can still think. Trapped in this awful hell, he begs to die. Metallica’s song captures his inner turmoil as only heavy music can.
The band who draws from literature and history more than any other is Iron Maiden. From the historical epics of The Trooper, Aces High, and Alexander the Great, Iron Maiden uses intelligent lyrics with galloping melody to make the listener see as well as hear the scenes. From literature, the band has drawn from Poe’s Murder in the Rue Morgue, Seventh Son by Orson Scott Card, Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux, and Dune by Frank Herbert. My personal favorite, and the song that I think best illustrates the marriage of music, lyrics, and subject work, is Rime of the Ancient Mariner based on Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s epic poem. Many of the lines come directly from the poem or are paraphrased. In one poignant section, the music ceases, only the soft rumble of the bass is heard. Pick scrapes on the guitar strings mimic the cracking and swelling of the ship’s wood. The eerie approach captures the sailors stilled on the sea without water to drink, praying for the wind to flutter through the sails.
A few other songs drawn directly from literature would be Riot’s The Tell Tale Heart, Anthrax’s Among the Living based on Stephen King’s The Stand, and Dracula by Iced Earth. Although the single song is often written, some bands have been far more ambitious, writing complete concept albums inspired by classic works. Symphony X’s The Odyssey, brings Homer’s work to life with bombast and beauty. Blind Guardian takes on Tolkien’s The Silmarillion with their album Nightfall in Middle Earth.
Lastly, aside from the songs and the albums paying homage by many metal bands, some bands have created works akin to literature themselves. Queensryche’s Operation Mindcrime is a narrative set to music that tells the story of a disillusioned young man drawn into a cult-like group headed by an enigmatic figure. The twists and turns of Nikki’s journey rival any thriller in movies or books. King Diamond has created a plethora of horror themed concept albums dealing with the Salem witch trials on The Eye, a haunted house on Them and The Conspiracy, and the Victorian Gothic on his brilliant Abigail.
The examples above are not close to being comprehensive. I invite you to discover the many songs and albums for yourself. If you would like me to point you toward some others, I’d be happy to do so.