Saturday, June 16, 2012

Psychedelia in Diabolus Part I

Heavy metal is a strange beast. 

Recluse became intimate with it during my senior year of high school. It was at this point that I began hanging out with my neighbor, Manos, a metalhead's metalhead, and began to partake in the subculture. It was through Manos that I was first introduced to the world of extreme metal -black metal, death metal, grindcore, and so on. It was also through Manos that I became involved in the local metal scene, pitiful as it was. Manos's band and many other local outfits rented storage units that they used for practice space from the same storage place. In time it began a major hang out for local kids --On a typical Friday or Saturday night one could wander up and down the concrete isles to one deafening blare of metal or punk after the other. The odor of beer-saturated sweat, which was especially potent during those Florida summer nights, and pot were always in the air.

It was an interesting time to enter the world of metal. The legendary Florida death metal scene was petering out at the same time as 'Nu-metal' (or mallcore, as I like to think of it) was on the rise. To my mind this was an outright stab by corporate America to co-opt one of the few genuinely underground musical scenes left in America at the time. Of course, my teenage self didn't think in such high minded terms, though I always felt a sense of unease whenever I saw someone sporting Hot Topic apparel.

In truth, I've never considered myself a true metalhead. Certainly I've grown to respect, if not appreciate, much of the music over the years, but I'm just as apt to be listening to some Pink Floyd or Robyn Hitchcock as I am to Meshuggah. Still, I've always felt at home in the subculture. It is only now, many years later, that I have began to get an inclination as to why that is. But before I get to that, let me first make some observations about metal.

For years it was a favorite whipping boy of the Fundamentalist movement before the rise of hip-hop and slut pop, and still inspires a special kind of loathing from the Christian right. The fervor reached its peak in the 1980s when heavy metal began to viewed as a tool of the Apocalypse among certain factions.
"Heavy metal music --so called for its reliance on electric guitars cranked yo ear-splitting decibels --has become inextricably linked with Satanism in the public eye, thanks in equal parts to lyrics, deliberate marketing strategy, and the sometimes exaggerated claims of Christian fundamentalists groups. Beyond the footlights and the amplifiers, in the daily world of 'metal heads' and 'stoners' who become obsessed with heavy metal to the point that it controls their lives, police contend that crimes ranging from petty vandalism to multiple murders are directly inspired by he message of cult-oriented bands."
(Raising Hell, Michael Newton, pgs. 178-179)

On the flip side of the coin, it has long been a favorite target of ridicule among (largely) left-leaning musical hipsters. Metal has rarely had the political slant of punk, the raw emotion of grunge, or the 'street cred' of hip-hop --It's far more likely to deal in D & D derived fantasies or clownish Black Masses as make a 'serious' statement, at least lyrically. In many ways, metal is the ultimate escapist type of music -It empowers (often) marginalized listeners with strength, it transports them to mysterious and exotic lands, and it promises to tear down everything of the existing order that stands in its way. For this reason, 'sophisticated' musical listeners have often regarded metal as a bad joke at best, and as a kind of neo-fascist fantasy at worst (This isn't to say that allegations of Satanism and Nazism are not without merit in some instances, i.e. the early Norwegian black metal scene, but such topics are well beyond the scope of this article).

And yet metal has gained enormous popularity, arguably becoming the most popular rock gerne in the twenty-first century. It's massive appeal, not just to Americans but the world over, has puzzled Christian fundies and music snobs, as well as sociologists, marketing reps, 'educators,' and so on, for years. Many explanations have been put forth, mostly by outsiders, ranging in various degrees of absurdity. It is only recently that I myself have hit upon a satisfactory explanation, which I shall now explain.

By far the most striking aspect of metal is the remarkable resemblance it has to the ancient Mystery religions of old, as does much post-Beatles rock music, as Christopher Knowles has compelling argued in his great The Secret History of Rock 'N' Roll.
"You can draw a line backward in time at the point of your choosing; pick your favorite rock 'n' roll song or album and trace its roots through the various forms of African American dance music or rural folk. You'll find most of the basic building blocks of the rock 'n' roll sound. But you won't find the true precedent for the psychedelic youth explosion of the rock era. You won't find the fantasy, the revolutionary ambitions, or the larger-than-life drama of the Aquarian Age in the juke joints or honky-tonks of the early 20th century. You won't find the distinctly religious intensity that gripped tens of thousands of teenage girls whose screams drowned out the Beatles as the band struggled to hear itself over the hysteria at Shea Stadium.  
"No, in order to understand rock 'n' roll you have to go back --all the way back --to the earliest days of human civilization. The drugs, the drums, the noise, the wild customs, the pyrotechnics, the controversy, and the outrage of 20th-century rock 'n' roll are waiting for you there, in temples filled with your horny, blissed-out ancestors who believed that if they got out of their heads and away from the ego, they could actually meet the spirits that their neighbors could only talk about."
(pgs. 3-4)
Before going any further, let us briefly consider the Mysteries themselves. Of them, thirty-third degree Freemason Manly P. Hall writes:
"In all cities of the ancient world were temples for public worship and offering. In every community also were philosophers and mystics, deeply versed in Nature's lore. These individuals were usually banded together, forming seclusive philosophic and religious schools. The more important of these groups were known as Mysteries. Many of the great minds of antiquity were initiated into these secret fraternities by strange and mysterious rites, some of which were extremely cruel. Alexander Wilder defines the Mysteries as 'Sacred dramas performed at stated periods. The most celebrated were those of Isis, Sabazius, Cybele, and Eleusis.' After being admitted, the initiates were instructed in the secret wisdom which had been preserved for ages. Plato, an initiate of one of these sacred orders, was severely criticized because in his writings he revealed to the public many of the secret philosophic principles of the Mysteries."
(The Secret Teachings of All Ages, pg. 40)

Mithras, one of numerous gods with their own Mystery religion

The Mysteries were not quite as stuffy as Hall makes them out to be. While many Mysteries required rather rigid discipline of initiates, in both day-to-day life as well as religious, the actual rituals consisted of far more than old men sitting around and debating philosophy.
"Less is known about the actual rituals themselves. But songs and dances were performed, usually fast and wild, with crashing drums and screaming flutes --rock 'n' roll, in other words. Simple pyrotechnics were often used (torches, sometimes treated with chemicals for different effects) and public sex often broke out among the wilder cults such as the Roman Bacchanalia. As the eminent German historian Walter Burkert wrote, Mystery festivals were designed to be 'unforgettable events casting their shadow over the whole of one's future life, creating experiences that transform existence'... The initiate fully expected to meet their gods in the flesh, and by all accounts, they usually weren't disappointed. The Greek philosopher Proclus wrote that the gods didn't always take human shape, but would 'manifest themselves in many forms, assuming a great variety of guises; sometimes they appear in a formless light, again in quite different form.' "
(The Secret History of Rock 'N' Roll, Christopher Knowles, pg. 9)
The insistence of ancient writers on the gods appearing in some form or another at these rituals has led some modern scholars as diverse as Robert Graves and Terence McKenna to speculate that psychedelic drugs were used by numerous Mysteries in their rituals.
"The European mysteries are less fully explored than their Mexican counterpart: Mr. and Mrs. Gordon Wasson and Professor Heim show that the pre-Columbian Toadstool-god Tlaloc, represented as a toad with a serpent head-dress, has for thousands of years presided at the communal eating of the hallucinogenic toadstool psilocybe: a feast that gives visions of transcendental beauty. Tlaloc's European counterpart, Dionysus, shares too many of his mythical attributes for coincidence: they must be versions of the same deity; though at what period cultural contact took place between the Old World and the New is debatable. 
"...a secret Dionysiac mushroom cult was borrowed from the native Pelasgians by the Achaeans of Argos. Dionysus's Centaurs, Satyrs and Maenads, it seems, ritually ate a spotted toadstool called 'flycap' (amanita muscaria), which gave them enormous muscular strength, erotic power, delirious visions, and the gift of prophecy. Partakers in the Eleusinian, Orphic and other mysteries may also have known the panaeolus papilionaceus, a small dung-mushroom still used by Portuguese witches, and similar in effect to mescalin."
(The White Goddess, Robert Graves, pg. 45)
scenes of initiation into the Eleusinian Mysteries

And now we shall briefly consider the 1960s, the first modern psychedelic era. It is here that rock 'n' roll's ties to the ancient Mysteries were first made manifest. An underground culture centering around hallucinogens had been developing on the sly in the United States since the early 1950s. By the time the 1960s rolled around it had become a full on lifestyle for some. And rock 'n' roll was the only music capable of capturing the spirit of this lifestyle.
"The initial breeding ground for the large-scale use of psychedelics was the social and artistic fringe areas associated with the beat phenomenon. For some years prior to the emergence of LSD as a street drug, the number of people whose lives were influenced by psychedelics had been slowly building to a critical mass, until they became visible on both coasts as distinct communities. The most significant expression of the new psychedelic lifestyle was centered in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco. It was in the Haight that the cultural rebellion fueled by LSD happened so vividly and with such intensity that it attracted worldwide attention... 
"By 1965, Haight-Ashbury was a vibrant neobohemian enclave, a community on the cusp of a major transition. A small psychedelic city-state was taking shape, and those who inhabited the open urban space within its invisible borders adhered to a set of laws and rhythms completely different from the nine-to-five routine that governed straight society. More than anything the Haight was a unique state of mind, an arena of exploration and celebration. The new hipsters had cast aside the syndrome of alienation and despair that saddled many of their beatnik forebears. The accent shifted from solitude to communion, from the individual to the interpersonal. The new sensibility was particularly evident in musical preferences. The sound of the in-crowd was no longer folk or jazz but the bouncing rhythms of rock and roll that could incite an audience to boogie in unison almost as a single organism.  
"Music happenings were a cornerstone of the cultural revival in the Haight, providing a locus around which a new community consciousness coalesced."
(Acid Dreams, Martin A. Lee & Bruce Shlain, pgs. 141-142)

Consider the heavily ritualistic nature of these 'musical happenings'.
"No affair in the Haight better illustrated how far these rock events had strayed from conventional entertainment than the Trips Festival staged by Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters in January 1966. 'The general tone of things,' Kesey advertised, 'has moved on from the self-conscious happenings to a more jubilant occasion where the audience participates because it's more fun to do so than not. Audience dancing is an assumed part of all these shows, and the audience is invited to wear ecstatic dress and to bring their own gadgets...' This was a wide-open three-day LSD party with just about every sight and sound imaginable: mime exhibitions, guerrilla theater, a 'Congress of Wonders,' and live mikes and sound equipment for anyone to play with. Closed-circuit television cameras were set up on the dance floor so people could watch themselves shake ans swing. Music blasted at ear-splitting volumes while Day-Glo bodies bounced gleefully on trampolines. At one point Kesey flashed from a projector, 'Anyone who knows he is God please go up on stage.' 
"Jerry ('Captain Trips') Garcia, the lead guitarist of the Grateful Dead, one of the bands that performed at the Trips Festival, tried to put his finger on what made these events so special: 
What the Kesey thing was depended on who you were when you were there. It was open, tapestry, a mandala --it was whatever you made it... When it was moving right, you could dig that there was something that it was getting toward, something like ordered chaos, or some region of chaos... Everybody would be high and flashing and going through insane changes during which everything would be demolished, man, and spilled and broken and affected, and after that, another thing would happen, maybe smoothing out the chaos, then another... Thousands of people, man, all helplessly stoned, all finding themselves in a room of thousands of people, none of whom any of them were afraid of. It was magic, far-out beautiful magic."
(ibid, pgs. 143-144) 
Kesey's Trip Festival,a 20th century Mystery festival?

Note the remarkable similarities between these happenings and the most sacred rituals of the ancient Mysteries. In both cases, the initiate undergoes a transcendental experience in which their perception of reality is shaken to its very core. Drugs, theater, visuals, and especially music were just as crucial to the ancient Mysteries as they were to the modern happenings. But ultimately, it was the music that would ensure that the psychedelic counterculture, and thus the ancient Mystery traditions, would spread far beyond certain bohemian enclaves along the East and West coast.

That musicians would be so instrumental in reviving the traditions of the ancient Mysteries was inevitable. There is some indication that musicians, specifically wandering minstrels, preserved certain traditions of the Mysteries in their songs during the Middle Ages.
"The Awenyddion, the popular minstrels, may indeed have disguised their secrets by a pretense of being possessed by spirits, as the Irish poets are recorded to have done by buffoonery, and they may have induced these ecstasies by toadstool eating..."
(The White Goddess, Robert Graves, pgs. 77-78)
Medieval mushroom eaters?

Thus, the psychedelic minstrel is hardly a modern invention. Given the occult topics that many acid rock (more on this in just a moment) outfits incorporated into their music, as well as the highly ritualistic atmosphere of their concerts, one could argue things had finally come full circle. The wandering minstrels of the Celtic nations preserved traditions of the ancient Mysteries, including the psychedelic sacrament, in their poems at the dawn of Christianity. These references were thoroughly hidden as not to draw the ire of Church officials. As the centuries passed, the deeper meanings of these songs and poems were lost and confused, eventually morphing into the traditional Irish and British folk music of later eras. This music was brought by immigrants (most notably the Scots-Irish) to America in the seventeenth century, where is was merged with similar traditions in African folk music. By the mid 20th century, psychedelics and the ancient Mysteries had been rediscovered and reincorporated into popular music (i.e rock 'n' roll), leading to the first Psychedelic era, which was essentially a re emergence of the ancient Mysteries.

At this point some of you may be thinking: This is kind of interesting, but what the fuck does it have to do with metal? After all, heavy metal isn't exactly the first gerne most people think of when they think psychedelic. But it didn't use to be that way. Let us now consider 'acid rock.' Originally it was a style of music hailing from San Francisco at the height of its psychedelic city-state days.
"The head population began to realize its growing strength in numbers. Scores of local bands were forming, their names indicative of their psychedelic orientation: Blue Cheer, Clear Light, Daily Flash, the Loading Zone, Morning Glory, Celestial Hysteria, Ball Point Banana, Flamin' Groovies, the Electric Flag, the Weeds... There was even a band called the CIA (Citizens for Interplanetary Activities). Some of the groups --notably the Jefferson Airplane, Big Brother and the Holding Company, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Country Joe and the Fish, and, of course, the Grateful Dead --established themselves as first-rate performers. Their music was rooted in folk and blues, but the rhythms mutated under the influence of LSD and the raw power of electricity. Acid rock, as the San Francisco sound was called, was unique not only as a gerne but also as praxis."
(Acid Dreams, Martin A. Lee & Bruce Shlain, pg. 144)
As the 1960s progressed acid rock became a kind of catch-all term for emerging groups that, while still rooted in the blues, were upping the tempos and feedback to levels never heard before in an attempt to recreate the psychedelic experience. Audiences were intrigued. The new wave of acid rockers --which included SteppenwolfCream, and of course the Jimi Hendrix Experience --quickly became among the most popular acts of the day (Hendrix is still a legendary figure in rock 'n' roll, as is Eric Clapton, Cream's guitarist).


Acid rock's decline came just as suddenly as its rise, with the gerne all but totally gone by the early 1970s. There were various factors behind this --Several of the pioneering artist quit the gerne to focus on different types of rock (i.e. Clapton) while others died (i.e. Hendrix). Harder drugs such as heroin and angel dust had been making in roads among the hippies, diminishing the cultural power of LSD. More broadly speaking, the harsh, reactionary climate developing in the US under Nixon brought increasing paranoia and heaviness into the hippie movement. As a result, acid rock began to change and eventually splintered into several different gernes.

Two of them are still rather popular. The lesser of the two is a style known as progressive, more commonly referred to as prog. This gerne was quite big in the 1970s, spawning several stadium rockers such as Pink FloydYesJethro Tull, King Crimson Emerson, Lake, and Palmer, etc. Even today there are quality artists working in the gerne, such as Porcupine Tree and the Mars Volta. Many of the early prog groups emerged directly from the psychedelic scene, i.e. Pink Floyd, which was one of the first psychedelic outfits to transform into a prog band following the departure of co-founder Syd Barrett.

Emerson, Lake & Palmer (top) and the Mars Volta (bottom)

Most prog outfits retained traces of psychedelia in their sound, but mainly as atmospheric trappings. They also retained (and expanded upon) some of the most self-indulgent aspects of psychedelia such as 'epic' song lengths (i.e. songs over eight minutes or more). They also brought in a host of other influences only hinted at the 1960s, such as classical and jazz. As a result, the bar for musicianship was raised tremendously. All of this, combined with prog's frequently sci-fi/fantasy-centric lyrical content, has made the gerne something of an acquired taste, though it does have its legions of fans.

The other major musical strand to emerge from acid rock was of course heavy metal. Many of the most noted proto-metal outfits began as acid rockers, i.e. Iron Butterfly, Blue Cheer, Deep Purple and Blue Oyster Cult. Led Zeppelin had its origins in the acid rock group known as the Yardbirds (Led Zep was also Donovan's backing band on some of his most psychedelic tracks such as "Hurdy Gurdy Man"). These groups gradually stripped away the psychedelic influences while upping the tempos and feedback even more.

The Book of Taliesyn was an early album from Deep Purple's psychedelic era; unsurprisingly, the legendary figure of Taliesin  figures strongly in Robert Graves' theories of an ancient Celtic mushroom cult preserved by bards and minstrels in the Middle Ages

The group generally considered to be the first true heavy metal band by critics and fans alike is Birmingham's Black Sabbath. Sabbath did not start out as a psychedelic band, but were tremendously influenced by acid rock groups such as Blue Cheer and Cream. Sabbath would introduce two heavy metal trademarks that are still widely used today: detuned guitars, which gave their sound a sinister, sludgy feel, and riffs based around the tritone, which further added to the 'evilness' of Sabbath's sound. Bassist 'Geezer' Butler would also pin lyrics inspired by horror movies, comic books, and sci-fi novels, establishing much of the lyrical content still used by metal bands today. The song "Black Sabbath" off of the group's 1969 self-titled would be the general public's first exposure to 'demonic' sounding heavy metal.

Even though Sabbath had few direct ties to psychedelia they still included a psychedelic track or two on the early albums, such as "Planet Caravan" off Paranoid or Master of Reality's "Solitude." What's more, they realized that their slow, heavy riffs, which have a kind of hypnotic effect (especially when listening to Sabbath on headphones), provided an idea soundtrack for smoking weed. Sabbath's legendary pot anthem, "Sweet Leaf," drove this home.

And now we come back to the ancient Mysteries. As we discussed above, the rock scene beginning in the 1960s bore a striking resemblance to the ancient Mysteries, including the concept of hallucinogens as a sacrament. Once the 1960s petered out the religious competent of that era faded in most rock gernes... Except heavy metal.

In point of fact, metal may more closely resemble the ancient Mysteries (as well as modern secret societies) than any other gerne out there. Being a metalhead is far more than simply being a music fan, just as being an initiate in the ancient Mysteries was vastly different than typical religious life of the day. Being a metalhead is a way of life, just as the ancient Mysteries were.

Like the ancient Mysteries, metalheads have their own hand signals, their own distinct wardrobes, phrases, and holy texts (yes, metal and guitar magazines are holy texts to a certain type of fan). The underground metal community has always operated as a kind of fraternal brotherhood, in which flashing a hand sign such as the corna (which is a very ancient symbol that predates Ronnie James DioCoven and Anton LaVey) will immediately alert one metalhead another. From there, band names will be bantered about until the brothers have decided whether or not they are part of the same scene. Next comes the guitar and amplifier names, and so on.

Another fascinating tie between the ancient Mysteries and heavy metal, at least as far as the 1970s variety (and more recent acts) are concerned, are frequently mythological-centric lyrics. Wizards, druids, the old gods, fairies and elves regularly make appearances in classic metal. This is one of the more under-looked influences psychedelia had on early metal. Many psychedelic and acid rock artists such as Donovan, Cream, and the Doors peppered their lyrics with allusions to mythology and fairy tales. Many of the early metal (as well as prog) outfits went much further, heavily incorporating mythological elements into their images and even developing entire album concepts around such notions. Critics, music hipsters, and Christian fundies alike have all ridiculed metal's mythological aspect for years, leading many post-1980s metal outfit to embrace increasingly violent and nihilistic lyrics and images as a kind of extended middle finger to such peoples.

And yet, the early lyrical content of heavy metal was arguably far more subversive, for it tapped directly into the archetypes (i.e. the Mother [or Great Goddess], the Son (the dying-and-resurrecting kind, that is, etc) of which the Mysteries were based around. At a subconscious level, 1970s heavy metal lyrics frequently hit on aspects of mythology only vaguely remembered by humanity. Take Black Sabbath's classic "Fairies Wear Boots," for example. Lyricist Geezer Butler links fairies with psychedelic over the course of the song, probably with no idea that the fairies of folklore were heavily associated with mushrooms, as I've chronicled before here

In fact, the main thing missing from the modern metal scene, as far as the Mysteries are concerned, was the psychedelic aspect (as well as some rigid discipline to go with the drugs). This was not always the case, as we've discussed above. No, metal continued to have a psychedelic aspect all the way up to the mid-1970s, as groups such as Hawkwind and Rainbow attest too. It was only then, when the gerne splintered into separate mainstream and underground branches heading into the 1980s, that psychedelia was almost totally eliminated from metal. There were various reasons for this, but changes in musical and drug tastes were probably the majors. The rise of punk rock (specifically hardcore) and cocaine brought an obsession with speed into the gerne that left little room for the atmosphere-leaning psychedelic sound. Also, hippiedom had become an outright self-parody by the mid 1970s, making any kind of association with it dicey.

Whatever the case, psychedelic was almost totally gone from metal by the 1980s, being replaced by the full on Blitzkrieg of thrashgrindcore, and black metal. But then, in the late 1980s, something changed, and psychedelia once again began to exert an influence upon metal. In part two we shall examine the modern rise of psychedelia in metal, and how it relates to the ancient Mysteries. Stay tuned.


  1. Regarding the 'escape from the ego' purportedly sought in mystery cults by the ancients, it is fairly well understood that the psychological structure we call the ego had not yet emerged in our ancestors at that time. The self-conscious identity structure we think of as the ego was a much later development, not really found much prior to the eighteenth or nineteenth century. Rather convincing evidence for this can pretty easily be seen in the development of English poetry, although, like the ego itself, this certainly can't be proven in hard-science terms. However, it is easy to see that in Homer, for example, the awareness of self we are familiar with is conspicuously and entirely absent.

  2. One other thing...Led Zeppelin was never Donovan's backing band. Pretty questionable research here.

  3. Anon-

    The phrase "...away from the ego" was taken from a quote out of Christopher Knowles' "Secret History of Rock 'N Roll" and was not devised by the author of this blog.

    I did not mean to imply that Led Zep appeared as a backing band on Donovan's work outside of a handful of singles.

    It deepens on who you ask, but at various times all members of Led Zeppelin aside from Robert Plant were credited as appearing on "Hurdy Gurdy Man." Jimmy Page appeared as a session musician on several other Donovan tracks as did JPJ. I'm not sure if Bonham appeared on anything other than "Hurdy..." and this appearance is disputed.

    While I suppose I could have worded things better, a collaboration between Donovan and future Led Zeppelin members is very well documented.