That Cthulhu is a cultural force is a truth self evident to the readers of this blog, as evidenced by his numerous movies, RPGs and plush dolls. But his ubiquitousness can still surprise when he appears in unexpected media. The most recent creative force to sing (literally) Cthulhu’s praises: Metallica.
Metallica’s recent album Hardwired… to Self Destruct dropped November 18, and I was surprised to find one of their songs directly singing about great Cthulhu, and what exactly his rising means for humanity. The song “Dream No More” opens with singer James Hetfield declaring “He sleeps under black seas waiting / Lies dreaming in death”, followed by the litany of horrors that follows as “He wakes as the world dies screaming / all horrors arrive.”
That a metal band would sing about the end of humanity at the hands of an alien entity is not surprising; the genre has a long history of dabbling in the imagery of the occult, pseudo-satanic and even Lovecraftian. That Metallica would do it, however, is unusual. The band’s songs have catalog struggles and personal pains, exploring human themes like contemplating suicide (“Fade to Black” from 1984’s Ride the Lightning), drug abuse (“Master of Puppets,” 1986’s Master of Puppets), the horrors of war (“One” from 1988’s …And Justice for All) and the fear engendered by nightmares (“Enter Sandman” from 1991’s Metallica).
Jame’s Hetfield’s lyrics are definitely macabre, but in a real-world sense. His explorations of betrayals, anger, rage and loneliness are so common that when he veers into science fiction and fantasy territory, it can seem jarring.
But just like the otherworldly terrors of H.P. Lovecraft’s work, those unearthly monsters lurk in Metallica’s catalog, peeking in the edges. Their debut album featured “Jump in the Fire,” a thrash classic literally told from Satan’s point of view. Another single, “Creeping Death,” was inspired by the famous scene in Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments, when a fog rolls through Egypt slaying all the first-born not observing Passover.
The Ten Commandments, the final plague
Ride the Lightning featured Cthulhu’s first appearance in “The Call of Ktulu” (the spelling was allegedly to ease pronunciation), but even there the presence is simply implied. The song is a nearly-nine minute instrumental, starting with intricate picked chord progressions before crunchy rhythm guitars rise up under the riffs. Despite the alien threat implied by the title, the song is the musical equivalent to watching approaching storm clouds before being caught in hammering thunder and slashing lightning.
Master of Puppets had another direct H.P. Lovecraft influenced song, “The Thing that Should Not Be”, which actually includes lyrics putting the song firmly into the Cthulhu-verse. “Hybrid children watch the sea / pray for father, roaming free” Hetfield yowls over drowning guitars, before the plodding riffs cascade over. Although not the fastest song (that’s probably a three-way tie between “Battery”, “Master of Puppets” and “Damage, Inc.”), it’s the heaviest song on the album, sounding like an unholy beast clambering out of the sea.
Then, a long silence. Cthulhu and his ilk are absent from Metallica albums for years and years. James Hetfield’s lyrics shifted from socially conscious topics such as nuclear war and the death penalty, to examinations of internal emotions and dynamics. Occasionally song titles hinted at Lovecraftian horrows (“Harvester of Sorrow”, “Some Kind of Monster”), but the lyrics themselves do not veer into the Dreamlands. Lyrical content shifted to Hetfield examining a smoldering ember of anger and resentment, and the songs feature the imagery of broken dolls and crumbling souls, and this trend continued for album after album, even as Metallica dabbled in different musical genres, such as the roadhouse boogie woogie of Load and the stripped-down punk-thrash of St. Anger.
Death Magnetic (2008) featured a reference a Lovecraftian-inspired creature. James Hetfield stated in an interview that the song “All Nightmare Long” was inspired by the Frank Belknap Long’s 1929 story “The Hounds of Tindalos.”
But even there, the lyrics have no references to the hounds at all; it’s a song about trying to escape a nightmare that does not want to end. “’Cause we hunt you down without mercy / hunt you down all nightmare long” could just as easily be about real human nightmares, or any other supernatural entity. It would not be surprising to find out the song was about Freddy Kreuger instead.
The long distance between the last explicit mention of Cthulhu makes the inclusion on the newest album even more of a pleasant surprise. Cthulhu has long been championed by metal bands, but frequently amongst dense, impenetrable music that collapses under its own weight. To have a track that directly name-checks him, accompanied by Metallica’s muscular, loose riffs, is pretty remarkable feat for an 88-year old literary creation.
It also demonstrates that once Cthulhu gets in your brain he never truly leaves. Although there’s a significant gap in the middle, James Hetfield decided to revisit Cthulhu after a 30-year absence in Metallica’s discography. The biggest disappointment is that Cthulhu does not make an appearance in the music video for the album, though the picture-in-picture cut out main character mirrors the idea of cosmic weirdness in an oddly appropriate way.
Here’s hoping more Great Old ones have some appearances in future Metallica albums. And that we hear Hetfield try to pronounce “Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn” and make it rhyme in a chorus.
Hardwired… to Self Destruct is available in retail stores and on amazon music and iTunes, and individual songs and videos can be seen on Metallica’s YouTube channel at youtube.com/user/MetallicaTV.
Mick Gall is a government bureaucrat by day, Military Intelligence officer in the Army Reserves by weekend, and writer of adventure fiction by (occasional) night.
He can be found on the web at www.mickgall.com.