Welcome to part two of my examination of psychedelia in heavy metal music, and the connections of both to the ancient Mystery religions. Before going any further, let me briefly recap some of the threads that were addressed in part one. We shall start with the Mysteries themselves.
The Mystery religions were one of the earliest developments in human spiritual life. They most likely originated from Egypt and spread to western Asia and the Mediterranean basin, from which they eventually reached the furthest frontiers of the known world. Most Mysteries were organized not unlike modern 'fraternal brotherhoods' such as the Masons, with a public doctrine for the masses (aka the profane) and a secret doctrine for the initiates. Initiates only gradually learned the full scale of this secret doctrine as they completed various grades within the Mystery, ensuring that the most sacred rites of the Mysteries remained hidden.
Most Mysteries were based around 'suffering gods,' typically of foreign origins, that the initiates attempted to achieve a personal encounter with. Many rituals revolved around around re-enacting the death and various dramas of this god(s). Theater, music, primitive pyrotechnics and orgies (in some cases) were all used to this end. However, the personal experience numerous initiates claimed to have with their god was likely the result of an entheogenic sacrament, most likely some type of psychedelic mushroom or ergot.
|Scenes of initiation into the Eleusinian Mysteries|
And now on to rock 'n' roll. Christopher Knowles, in his great The Secret History of Rock 'N' Roll, compellingly argues that rock 'n' roll is the true spiritual descent of the ancient Mysteries.
"Over time, I'd come to realize that rock 'n' roll is in fact the direct descendant of the Mysteries, which had evolved and adapted to suit the needs and customs of postwar American secular culture.
"What did the Mysteries off that other cults of the time did not? Almost exactly what rock 'n' roll would, thousands of years later. Drink. Drugs. Sex. Loud music. Wild pyrotechnics. A feeling of transcendence --leaving your mind and your body and entering a different world, filled with mystery and danger. A personal connections to something deep, strange, and impossibly timeless. An opportunity to escape the grinding monotony of everyday life and break all the rules of polite society. A place to dress up in wild costumes and dance and drink and trip all night.
"Mystery cult centers were the ancient equivalents of today's clubs and concert halls, which may be why so many of the old pagan place-names are still in use --the 'Orpheum,' the 'Apollo,' the 'Academy,' the 'Palladium,' and on and on. Just as in the Aquarian Age of the Sixties, some Mystery cults were relatively socially acceptable (think the Beatles) and some were seen as a sign that the world was going to hell in a hand-basket (think the Rolling Stones)."
(The Secret History of Rock 'N' Roll, Christopher Knowles, pgs. 6-7)
Heavy metal clearly falls into the latter type of Mystery, it's power to offend and outrage both the right and left wing largely unparalleled in other types of rock music, including punk. What's more, metal probably comes closer to resembling the ancient Mystery than any other post-1960s rock gerne. Metal is a kind of fraternal brotherhood in its own right, with its own hand signs, phrases and clothing to distinguish initiates from the profane. Legendary metal personalities such as Ozzy Osbourne, Ronnie James Dio, Eddie Van Halen, Lemmy Kilmister, and Dave Mustaine have erected cults of personality around themselves that could rival the devotion the gods of the ancient Mysteries inspired. In point of fact, the power of both derives from archetypes. The gods and goddesses of various Mystery cults closely paralleled ancient archetype, such as the Great Mother (i.e. Isis, Cybele, Demeter). Modern rock stars, especially of the metal variety, have also subconsciously tapped into these archetypes. Even the ancient fables and folklore of the Mysteries have found their way into modern heavy metal lyrics, which in certain strands are heavily influenced by mythology and fairy tales.
As I noted in part one, the main thing that has been missing in heavy metal since the late 1970s to complete its link to the ancient Mysteries are the psychedelics. Of course this was not always the case, as heavy metal originated in late 1960s acid rock such as Steppenwolf, Iron Butterfly, and Blue Cheer. Many of the early metal outfits such as Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, Blue Oyster Cult, and even Black Sabbath still featured the occasional exploration into psychedelia. Bands such as Hawkwind, Captain Beyond and Leaf Hound even found effective mergers of both styles. But as the 1970s rolled on things began to change, especially with the rise of punk in the middle of the decade. By the end of the decade metal had splintered into two distinct strands, one mainstream, one underground.
The first of the two strands we shall consider is the mainstream branch. This strand began to emerge in the mid 1970s when various groups took the blues-based hard rock of acts like the Rolling Stones and Aerosmith, and the image (as well as the sound) of glam rock and the New York Dolls and applied the massive guitar sound of Lez Zep to it. What emerged was a boozy, macho racket almost totally void of the gerne's founding psychedelic influences. The first act that comes to mind when I think of this style is Australia's AC/DC, with their (at the time) groundbreaking guitar heroics, crisp riffs, and macho lyrics. AC/DC was soon followed by California's Van Halen, who would set the stage for the explosion of glam/hair metal that would gain enormous popularity in the 1980s, arguably establishing metal as the most popular rock gerne in the world.
|AC/DC (top) and Van Halen (bottom)|
Glam metal was dominated by sex, booze, and cocaine, and rarely delved into psychedelia, with few exceptions. In fact, the only one that comes to mind is another Australian band, the Cult. Many fans will probably object to me labeling the Cult as such, and not without basis. The Cult's sound was very diverse and unique, but their most successful albums made tentative concessions to glam. But more on that in a moment.
|the Cult circa Sonic Temple|
The Cult had their origins in a group called the Southern Death Cult, taking their name from the mysterious mound-building Mississippian culture that once flourished among Native Americans in the Midwestern, Eastern and Southeastern United States. The Mississipian culture were descents of the even more mysterious Adena and Hopewell cultures, which I've chronicled briefly before here, that may have seemingly had religious customs similar to the ancient Mysteries. But I digress.
The Cult started out with an early U2-like sound featuring heavy neo-psychedelic undertones and mystical lyrics. They had some success in their native Australia and the U.K. but the US market remained largely indifferent. The Cult shifted gears and set out to become their generation's version of AC/DC. 1987's Electric was the end result and finally broke the Cult into the US market. It also all but stripped the psychedelic elements from their sound. The following album, 1989's Sonic Temple, attempted to find a middle ground between their earlier work and their breakthrough sound. It would go on to become the group's best selling album, in no small part due to the mega-single that was "Fire Woman."
The opening track and third single, "Sun King," gloriously displayed the psychedelic and mystical aspects of the group's sound. Cult singer Ian Astbury takes on the mantle of the Sun King and bemoans the power a mysterious woman has over him. Intentional or not, he echoes one of the most ancient ritual dramas in human history, namely the death and rebirth of the sun. In the early matriarchal societies this was attributed to the Great Goddess, the moon, who was believed to control this cycle.
"In Europe there were at first no male gods contemporary with the Goddess to challenge her prestige or power, but she had a lover who was alternatively the beneficent Serpent of Wisdom, and the beneficent Star of Life, her son. The Son was incarnate in the male demons of the various totem societies ruled by her, who assisted in the erotic dances held in her honour. The Serpent, incarnate in the sacred serpents which were the ghosts of the dead, sent the winds. The Son, who was also called Lucifer or Phosphorus ('bringer of light') because as evening-star he led the light of the Moon, was reborn every year, grew up as the year advanced, destroyed the Serpent, and won the Goddess's love. Her love destroyed him, but from his ashes was born another Serpent which, at Easter, laid the glain or red egg which she ate up; so that the Son was reborn to her as a child once more."
(The White Goddess, Robert Graves, pgs. 387-388)
|the cover og Graves' book shows the Three-fold Goddess, the Divine Son, and the Serpent|
Over time the Divine Son would become represented as the sun, or specifically the waxing sun, with the serpent taking on the role of the waning sun. This drama was played out amongst the royalty, with the queen assuming the role of the Great Goddess, or moon. The king became the Divine Son as represented by the sun, or sun king, in other words. This was not ultimately an admirable position to hold.
"Seventy-two was the Sun's grandest number; eight, multiplied ninefold by the fertile Moon. The Moon was Latona, Hyperborean Apollo's mother, and she determined the length of the sacred king's reign. The approximate concurrence of solar and lunar time over 19 years --19 revolutions of the Sun, 235 lunations of the Moon --ruled Apollo should be newly married and crowned every nineteenth year at the Spring solstice, which he kept a seven month's holiday at the Moon's honour... The fate of the old king was perhaps the hill-top fate of Aaron and Moses, darkly hinted at in Exodus, and the fate of Dionysus at Delphi: to be disrobed and dismembered by his successor and, when the pieces were gathered together, to be secretly buried in a chest with the promise of an eventual glorious resurrection."Two of the most noted sun kings were Dionysus, as noted above, and Osiris, both of whom were the chief deities in two of the most popular Mystery cults in Antiquity. Here we see that their human representatives shared their fate of dismemberment, gloriously hinted at in the uncertainty of Astbury's vocals when he proclaims "We can rule across this land" and bemoans "Time was wasted 'cause its gone to fast."
(ibid, pgs. 292-293)
But enough of the Cult, back to glam metal...
Glam metal would continue to dominate mainstream metal until the early 1990s when the rise of grunge and Metallica would finely send it on its way to the dustbin of history. The seeds of hair metal's downfall were being planted at the same time as its identity was being established. As noted before, the rise of punk rock in the mid-1970s had a profound influence on metal. Metalheads became obsessed with the speed and rawness of punk rock (as well as the DIY ethic) and sought to incorporate these elements into heavy metal. This resulted in the other major strand of heavy metal, namely the underground variety. It began in England with bands such Judas Priest, Motorhead, and later, Iron Maiden. These groups would go on to spearhead what became known as the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, or NWOBHM.
|Judas Priest (top), Motorhead (middle) and Iron Maiden (bottom)|
This style of metal brought in faster and more metallic guitars while all but severing metal from its blues and psychedelic origins. While the NWOBHM somewhat maintained the fantasy-centric lyrics that had become such a staple of early metal, they increasingly took on a dark comic book/horror movie slant that would have an enormous influence on extreme metal in the coming years. This is also when the resemblance of the heavy metal fandom to the ancient Mysteries began to become most pronounced.
"In the Eighties, the rock press was largely dominated by baby boomers who thought metal was a piss-poor substitute for the hard rock heroes of their teenage years such as Cream and Jimi Hendrix. But the writers were passing judgement on metal's working-class fans as well as the music. In response, those fans started their own fanzines and tape trading networks, obsessing on bands no one had yet heard. 'We were like secret societies,' fanzine writer Ron Quintana later revealed."From the NWOBHM would come a whole slew of subgernes that would increasingly up the ante for metal in terms of speed, heaviness and shock value. Possibly no group associated with the NWOBHM movement did more to usher in this change than Venom. Comprised of three former British bodybuilders with questionable musical chops, Venom took the shock rock theatrics of 1970s metal groups such as Alice Cooper and Kiss, as well hardcore punk outfits the Misfits, to a whole new level. For years fundamentalist Christians had accused heavy metal of Satanism, even though the lyrics of most 1970s metal outfits were far more likely to deal with pussy than Lucifer, but it was not until Venom that a metal band opted to build their entire image (and most of their lyrical content) around Satanism.
(The Secret History of Rock 'N' Roll, Christopher Knowles, pg. 204)
To be sure, Venom's Satanism was of the campiest variety imaginable, but there were other outfits inspired by Venom that would take Satanism very seriously. Venom's second album, 1982's Black Metal, would even give a name to this style of metal. It began to emerge in the mid-1980s with bands like Hellhammer, Celtic Frost, Mercyful Fate, and especially Bathory, leading the charge. It would not, however, be until the rise of the Norwegian black metal scene in the early 1990s that black metal had cemented itself as the most controversial subgerne in metal. The unabated Satanism of several of the leading bands was supplemented by numerous church burnings and the occasional murder, bringing to life every stereotype the Fundamentalist movement had ever lobbed at heavy metal in just a few years.
In reality, Satanic metal was far less subversive than most give it credit for being, outside of occasional shocking displays of violence, a la the Norwegian black metal scene. Satanic metalheads, in an attempt to undermine Christianity, took on a faith that only existed as a result of Christianity. Satanism essentially developed in unison with Christianity. The earliest allegations of Satanism were applied to the gnostics, some of which were 'heretical' Christian sects, whom mainstream Christians saw as perverting their faith.
"It may be accurate to say that Satanism, as we recognize the term today, has roughly paralleled the spread of Christianity, embodied by the Roman Catholic church. An early heretical sect, the Gnostics, regarded life on earth as a season in Hell, condemning Jehovah as evil for creating man in the first place. From that perspective, it was a short step to revering Satan as the valiant adversary of 'evil' Jehovah..."
(Raising Hell, Michael Newton, pg. 324)
Several gnostic sects such as the Paulicians, Bogomils, and the legendary Cathars survived into the Middle Ages and may have helped inspire the modern form of Satanism that began to emerge during the Renaissance. In their purest form, Satanic rituals are simply an inversion of Catholic or Orthodox rites. Consider the center piece of classical Satanism, the black mass.
"The Black Mass... it is an attempt at organized blasphemy, an attack of rebellion, political as well as theological. It is also designed to attract demonic influences, evil spirits and the souls of the angry dead. Yet, this ritual carries very little weight if performed by a lay-person. It is potentially quite powerful, however, if performed by an ordained priest..."
(Sinister Forces Book I, Peter Levenda, pg. 287)
The mythological and fairy tale-centric lyrics of traditional heavy metal tapped directly into the ancient, pre-Christian concepts of religion. Some of the most renowned metal front men, such as the hobbit-like Ronnie James Dio, took it a step further and tapped into the archetypes of the old gods via their image and stage presence. By contrast, many of the early black metal bands clung to largely Christian-derived Satanism of Medieval Europe, as filtered through modern day horror films.
It may be for this reason why Satanism in metal has largely petered out since the height of the Norwegian scene. Later period Satanism, such as that pronounced by the Swedish retro-metal band Ghost, has largely returned to the tongue-in-check variety of Venom and earlier shock rockers. Perhaps in an allusion to Satanism's heritage, the anonymous singer of Ghost takes on the persona of the evil Pope, even donning a Catholic derived-robe and hat in addition to a skull mask to complete the effect. "Satan Prayer" indeed.
NWOBHM would also have ample influence in America as well. Thrash metal, a hybrid of NWOBHM and hardcore punk, would emerge in the early 1980s. It was spearheaded by what would become known as the 'Big Four,' Metallica, Megadeth, Anthrax, and Slayer. While this brand of metal was a little rough around the edges musically, it wasn't as steeped in the D & D and horror movie aesthetics (excluding Slayer, of course) as other types of metal. In fact, Metallica, Megadeth, and Anthrax even managed the occasional political statement, making them a bit more acceptable to musical hipsters than the many of the earlier NWOBHM bands. Thrash would begin to make commercial inroads by the mid-1980s due to the growing popularity of Metallica, who would arguably become the biggest heavy metal act of all time by the early 1990s when they slowed their tempos down a bit.
|the Big Four of thrash|
Just as Metallica was gaining mainstream acceptance for thrash, Slayer was pioneering another style of metal that would remain firmly in the underground for years to come. While other thrash bands were embracing more 'serious' lyrical content and images, Slayer took the faux-Satanism of Venom and the horror movie aesthetics of NWOBHM and took them to their logical extreme. It all came together on their classic 1986 album Reign in Blood. Their relentless, yet surprisingly technical, musical brutality combined with gory, blood-stained lyrics laid the framework for the metal subgerne known as death metal.
Death metal emerged in the mid-1980s. Generally San Francisco's the Possessed and the Florida-based Death were considered the first two 'true' death metal bands. Florida would go on to become the heart of the early death metal movement, also spawning Cynic, Morbid Angel and Obituary, among others. However, no group has been more closely associated with death metal than the legendary Cannibal Corpse, hailing from Buffalo, New York.
And this was effectively the state of heavy metal by the late-1980s. Just as the underground metal scene was cementing metal's organizational connection to the Mysteries it was losing touch with the spiritual heritage. Some subgernes of metal, such as power metal, continued metal's D and D tradition, but sans the psychedelic aspect. Most branches of metal, however, were content to embrace horror movie-style imagery along with booze and cocaine as driving creative forces.
But then things began to shift ever so gradually in the late 1980s and early 1990s, even in some of the most aggressive subgernes. Newer black metal bands began to grow tired of the Satanism of old and began to incorporate paganism, especially the Nordic variety, heavily into their lyrics and imagery. Some would even rediscover psychedelia in full, such as the Japaneses group known as Sigh.
One of the final bands signed by the infamous Mayhem guitarist Euronymous to his label Deathlike Silence Productions (arguably the first label to focus on black metal, or at least the Norwegian variety) shortly before he was murdered, Sigh quickly grew bored with conventional black metal and began to experiment with their sound. They would embrace full on psychedelia with their 2001 release Imaginary Soundscapes. In addition to psychedelia, the album would incorporate elements of 70s prog, lounge jazz, dub, Japaneses folk music, and so on, to form one of the trippiest releases of the 21 century. Songs like "Nietzschean Conspiracy" are all but unclassifiable.
Several groups from the black and death movements began to develop a style that would become known as goth metal in the early 1990s, incorporating elements of atmospheric goth rock into extreme metal. Goth, which was heavily influenced by psychedelia, would provide an inroads. The Swedish band Tiamat, named after the Babylonian sea-monster, was one of first extreme metal groups to bring in a pronounced psychedelic influence. Their classic Wildhoney made ample use of this influence. This made the group's name all the more apt, as Tiamat was originally associated with initiation into the Mysteries.
"The she-monster Tiamat who, in early Babylonian mythology, swallowed the Sun-god Marduk (but whom he later claimed to have killed with his sword)... The icon, a familiar one on the Eastern Mediterranean, survived in Orphic art, where it represented a ritual ceremony of initiation: the initiate was swallowed by the Universal Mother, the sea-monster, and re-born as an incarnation of the Sun-god."
(The White Goddess, Robert Graves, pg. 480)
|Tiamat (top) and Tiamat (bottom)|
No one likely did more, however, to bring psychedelia into goth metal than Type O Negative. Emerging out of the ashes of the thrash band Carnivore, Type O Negative embraced a sound that was slow, keyboard heavy, and firmly tongue-in-cheek at a time when few other underground metal bands were interested in such elements. Their sound was built around bassist and vocalist Peter Steele's unique voice, which sounds like a vampiric version of Berry White. As the years went by, Type O's music become increasingly atmospheric and trippy, leading Steele to dub it 'Gothadelica.' Steele would also seemingly begin incorporating lyrical allusions to the ancient Mysteries into Type O's sound. Consider the track "Green Man" from the classic 1996 album October Rust.
|Type O Negative|
The Green Man is an ancient figure that has appeared in numerous religious traditions for thousands of years. He is said to represent the spirit of agriculture, superficially at least. The Green Man, who is closely linked to the Egyptian god Osiris (one of the chief deities of the Mysteries), is also symbolic of initiation.
"In all mythologies the green deities of annual renewal spend the Winter in the Underworld where they are regenerated by chthonian red. As a result, they are externally green but internally red, and their rule extends to both worlds. 'Green' Osiris was torn to pieces and cast into the Nile. He was brought to life again by the magic of 'Red' Isis. He is the Great Initiate, because he knows the secrets of death and resurrection; and thus he presides on Earth over Spring and the rebirth of nature and, in the Underworld, over the judgement of souls. Persephone came back to Earth with the first buds of Spring, but in the Autumn she returned to the Underworld to which she was eternally bound because she had eaten a pomegranate seed. This pomegranate seed was her heart, a spark of fire in the bowels of the Earth which governs all regeneration. It was green Persephone's internal red."
(Dictionary of Symbols, Jean Chevalier & Alain Gheerbrant, pg. 454)
|Osiris as the Green Man|
Persephone was also a Mystery goddess, central to the Eleusinian Mysteries. Both the Osirian and Eleusinian Mysteries superficially revolve around the death and renewal of the sun, just as the myths surrounding the Great Goddess, her son, and the serpent do, as discussed above. Steele captures the essence of this beautifully in the lyrics.
Spring won't come, the need of strifeTo struggle to be freed from hard groundThe evenings mists that creep and crawlWill drench me in dew and so drownI'm the green manThe green manSol in prime sweet summertimeCast shadows of doubt on my faceA midday sun, it's causing huesRefracting within the still lakeAutumn in her flaming dressOf orange, brown, gold fallen leavesMy mistress of the frigid nightI worship, pray to on my kneesWinter's breath of filthy snowBefrosted paths to the unknownHave my lips turned true purple?Life is coming to an endSo says me,me Wiccan friendNature coming full circleI'm the green manThe green man
And it is here that I shall wrap things up for now. Now that we've gotten some of the more copious metal gernes out of the way, I will be able to focus on the psychedelic gold of modern heavy metal in the next installment. Stay tuned.