Heavy metal music is fairly predictable stuff in terms of subject matter. The pairing of metal and horror is a no-brainer and has pretty much been in the mix since the dawn of the genre. The very name of the founding heavy metal band, Earth, was eventually changed to Black Sabbath when bass player, Geezer Butler, observed lines of people queuing up to see Mario Bava’s horror film of the same name. Death Metal made it even easier with its obsession with the fragility of the human body. What is surprisingly not so common is a heavy metal connection to science fiction. It’s out there, though. There’s an apparent crossover between horror and science fiction so naturally there is the same crossover between heavy metal and sci-fi. Like my lists of Songs About Vampires, Heavy Metal-themed horror movies and the Sci-fi, horror and fantasy connection to Progressive Rock, here’s a new list of science fiction-themed heavy metal.
Thrash metal, the mutant offspring of heavy metal and hardcore punk was the chocolate to science fiction’s peanut butter. Most thrash in the 80’s that wasn’t heavily concerned with social and political issues of the Reagan 80’s had a weird fixation on post apocalypse settings, nuclear war, genetic mutations and man vs. machine conflicts. Just about every one of them had a song with heavy sci-fi tones. Anthrax, the flagship band of the East Coast thrash culture, nailed it down on what is probably the finest of their Joey Belladonna-era albums, Among The Living. Among The Living has all the social commentary you could want but in the middle of it all is a pummeling mainstay of their live sets, I Am The Law, a song about the iconic British comic character from 2000 AD, Judge Dredd.
Dredd takes place in a future United States rendered almost uninhabitable following a devastating nuclear war that confines humanity’s survivors to domed megalopolises that are riddled with crime. To combat the crime, the government institutes The Judges, roving officers of the law who exact justice on the spot. They’re cops but they’re also judge, jury and executioners. It’s a cool comic. Unsurprisingly, the band’s main lyricist, Scott Ian, is a pretty big fan of science fiction and comic books, in general (former Anthrax guitarist, Dan Spitz, was also known at this time to play a Jackson King V decorated with Ninja Turtles). The track doesn’t so much tell a story as it is a sort of overview of Judge Dredd, speaking of Megacity 1, isocubes, The Burning Earth and so on. In the lead up to the chorus the band shouts a gang vocal, “DROKK IT!!!”
I always felt kind of bad for Queensryche. I’m sure they feel differently, but it always seemed to me that they got the shaft and never received the respect they actually deserved. As metal was reaching critical mass at the end of the 80’s, they released their magnum opus, Operation: Mindcrime, an album that sounds as good today as it did in 1988 but somehow got mixed up with all those hair bands that were ruling the charts at the time. They were most certainly not a hair band in spite of a bit of posing, hair spray and leather fringe. As a matter of fact, they shared far more in common with bands from The New Wave of British Heavy Metal and their lyrics were often seriously cerebral. Then they hit huge with their slow jam Silent Lucidity and just kept on trucking, leaving their way out lyrics mostly in the past.
The first Queensryche LP, The Warning, was mostly unremarkable with the exception of a couple of standout tracks. The most notable among them was NM 156, a mysterious title about computer supremacy in the future. Mankind is ruthlessly kept in check by a dictatorial computer with a boner for cold logical data. Man versus machine was a common theme in metal’s explorations of science fiction. It’s easy and it preys and on the same sort of paranoia that fires off the same neurons that are stimulated during particularly horrifying death metal lyrics. Queensryche were way ahead of the curve, though. NM 156 reads like a blend of William Gibson’s Neuromancer (which was published a year after this album was recorded and Harlan Ellison’s nasty post-nuke novela, I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream. Queensryche was progressive before anyone had even thought of the concept of progressive metal.
American death metal seemed to spring to life in Florida, of all places. Bands like Death, Deicide and Morbid Angel all came out of Florida and before the style had spread to the rest of the country, never mind the rest of the world, it was undergoing all manner of experimentation down in America’s wang (aka The Sunshine State). Plenty of bands in Europe were leaning in that direction but it wasn’t until Hypocrisy’s Peter Tagtgren picked up stakes from Florida and moved back to Sweden that the Swedish metal sound, one of the most popular variations on death metal in the world, began to take form. Hypocrisy was like most death metal bands with the usual gory lyrics but what was surprising about their rise was the more than occasional song featuring lyrics of a paranormal nature. Specifically, lyrics having to do with harrowing visitations and abductions by aliens. It almost became the Hypocrisy calling card. This weirdo twist on death metal passed into the metal consciousness without so much as a second thought as other death metal bands embraced the idea. Plenty of bands were writing songs about unstoppable serial killers and zombie hordes eating people, but a corner of the death metal community celebrated tracks both brutal and melodic about an apocalypse at the hands of flying saucer men. Nobody did it better than Hypocrisy, though, and Dead Sky Dawning, an actual return to themes of alien visitations after a hiatus from this theme, tells the story of mankind’s total demise at the hands of an enemy in the sky. It’s a ballsy track.
At some point in the early 90’s, thrash metal fell out of vogue as death and black metal dictated the future of metal’s extremes but in the last ten years or so, thrash has surfed a wave of nostalgia back into fashion and leading the way are thrash metal party masters, Municipal Waste. If they weren’t so fucking good at what they do, they’d seem like a novelty throwback that’s good for one album before breaking up.
Metal has a tendency to take itself seriously to a fatal degree. It’s not easy to sing a song like SATAN SPAWN!!!! THE CACODEMON!!! and be taken seriously but jokers like Glenn Benton are burning inverted crosses into their god damn foreheads, for crying out loud! In Norway a bunch of these guys committed serial arson and killed a couple of people. It’s nice to find a band like Municipal Waste who realize exactly how silly it all is and prefer to write songs about The Toxic Avenger. Not this song, though. Unleash The Bastards, in true thrash form, is another song about man against machine. This one is about killer robots. At some point, the people in control of, well, everyone, build a race of machines to keep those below them on the social food chain in line but the robots turn on their masters and kill them.
After this I promise I’ll leave thrash alone. I’m sure you get the picture. These goofy guys in the sleeveless denim and the upturned baseball caps fucking love horror and sci-fi movies. It’s a staple of the scene. Most of these guys come from a similar background as me and I’m sure that’s why more than any kind of metal in the 80’s when I was a little metalhead, thrash had the most appeal. It was fucking loud, it was fucking fast, it served up a bleak social message and they constantly namedropped horror movies that I spent hours past midnight watching from age 12 on. Nobody in the current wave of thrash owns this vibe more than Northern Ireland’s Gama Bomb. With songs like Lunch Hall Food Brawl and Horny For Blood, it’s hard to top Municipal Waste in terms of foolishness but Gama Bomb succeeds and exceeds with flying colors. They get the thrash sound right but lyrically they’re in the ballpark with shit like New Eliminators of Atlantis BC, Apocalypse 1997 and In The Court of General Zod. No track qualifies for this list more than OCP, though. For obvious reasons. It takes a ballsy disregard for giving a fuck to write a song about Robocop and arrange it so the lyrics are all taken from the movie.
Gama Bomb also wrote a song about ninjas. Bitches leave.
Voivod are fucking genius, y’all. They began as your average thrash band from Quebec but with each LP they evolved into the most forward thinking metal band of their age. Voivod seemed to hit their peak with their album Nothingface but the release before it, Dimension Hatross is my personal favorite. Beginning with an album called Killing Technology, Voivod took to crafting concept albums featuring their ongoing character, The Voivod. On Dimension Hatross, Voivod has created a pocket universe with an atom smasher and uses it to move himself to this place to find a planet populated by warring factions representing ideologies of total, unrestrained freedom and complete dictatorial control. They all happen to be fairly primitive, though, and regard Voivod as a sort of god. They struggle against one another until the universe proves to be unstable and tears itself apart just after Voivod manages to escape.
Dimension Hatross is an intense, extremely experimental album. It toys with the model for what a heavy metal album can be. Compared to its contemporaries, it’s a fairly controlled and restrained experiment in metal. It has as much in common with Metallica as it does Pink Floyd. The lyrics are, at times, impenetrable and the structure of the music embraces weird tunings, keys and time signatures. It’s not as out there, musically, as Meshuggah but without Voivod there probably wouldn’t be a Meshuggah.
Rust In Peace was the album when it all seemed to come together for Megadeth. Dave Mustaine is an exceptionally skilled guitarist but the first three Megadeth albums, as good as they are, are mostly unfocused affairs and have not aged well. With Rust In Peace, the lineup was magic and everyone was moving in the same direction. Megadeth no longer felt like Mustaine’s personal vendetta against James Hetfield and Lars Ulrich. It was a huge step toward maturity and some of the tracks reflected the band’s interest in science fiction and comic books. Also on this album is the album opener, Holy Wars… The Punishment Due, which concerns both the religious fighting in Northern Ireland and Marvel Comics’ The Punisher. Hangar 18, however, is all about the United States government’s alleged containment facility at Wright Patterson Air Force Base and the contents therein. Namely, the recovered alien craft that crash landed in Roswell, New Mexico in 1947.
20 years on and this song still sounds fresh. This is not easy for a metal band to do. Particularly if your name is Megadeth. The first three albums sound like 80’s metal albums and, admittedly, much of Rust In Peace sounds like the time that it was produced in but this is such a blazing track with a number of killer solos and a great rhythm section. The lyrics concern a guided tour of the secret government facility that is Hangar 18. The person taking the tour clearly knows too much and that’s never a good thing.
Man, you’d think Maiden would provide a menu of sci-fi metal tracks to choose from. I mean, they’ve made a career as metal gods out of highly imaginative fantasy themes for their entire catalog but I had a bitch of a time nailing one down that I wanted to talk about. Turns out, apart from To Tame A Land from their album, Piece of Mind, there’s just nothing else to talk about that’s science fiction and that song kind of sucks. Let me stop you before you go any further, though. Caught Somewhere In Time isn’t actually about time travel. Sorry, bro.
No, it took Maiden this long to crank out a track that had something to do with sci-fi. At the time of this writing, the latest album is The Final Frontier. Once Bruce Dickinson was back in the band after a few years away, learning to pilot commercial aircraft, learning to fight with swords and kicking out a series of pretty decent solo albums, I gave the band an unfair shake, insisting that the reunited Iron Maiden wasn’t the band that they used to be and that without any kind of progress on their part, they now sounded like the bands that they influenced but that’s not fair at all because for all that lack of progress that I give Maiden a hard time about, I love AC/DC for the same reasons. No. The new Maiden albums are all pretty good. As for the song, it’s barely sci-fi material, actually. The song concerns the final thoughts of an astronaut whose craft has drifted off course and is woefully out of reach of any kind of help. He’ll drift through space until he finally dies and as he does this, he reflects on his life, his only regret being that he can’t tell his family that he loves them one more time. Poignant, but did this heartfelt and probably very genuine sentiment need to be framed in such a strange setting?
Death metal isn’t the kind of place you’re going to commonly find sci-fi inspired soundscapes and lyrics. It’s just not the right setting. The entire notion of death metal is a celebration of horror. It’s an often over the top circus of gore and vomit. Black metal and power metal got all the trappings of fantasy and thrash pretty much cornered the market on sci-fi as I’ve proven. Hypocrisy bucked those trends but even before they were getting carried away with songs about alien invasions wiping humanity out of the universe there was Nocturnus. Nocturnus managed to combine the horror of death metal with their own interests in the paranormal. When they weren’t writing songs about ancient aliens, they were writing songs about vengeful pyschics and poltergeists. If it sounds silly, it is.
Death metal gets a bad rap from people who don’t know any better. Often dismissed as unsophisticated crap, the truth about death metal is so much more than your average music listener thinks. Nocturnus, one of the more obscure Florida death bands had two absolutely brilliant guitarists capable of technically complex and seriously amazing playing. They also had a keyboardist, which was something that stayed out of extreme metal until black metal bands in Norway started using them to add texture to an otherwise frozen expression of metal. Arctic Crypt concerns the discovery of an ancient alien craft hidden in polar glaciers for ages until an earthquake breaks it open. The people who discover it open it and wind up unleashing the being inside which wreaks havoc on the Earth. I mean, yes. This is some sci-fi shit, but it wouldn’t be death metal if the song didn’t describe at least some kind of act of genocide. Right?
Blue Oyster Cult were no strangers to the horrifying and the weird. While they’re a far cry from the hard rock and metal bands that came in their wake, they were among the first bands out there to point to genre media like comic books, horror movies and science fiction TV shows and base songs on these things. It just so happens that a certain song and an accompanying sketch from SNL made sure that everybody remembered them for Don’t Fear The Reaper. Then again, didn’t producer, Bruce Dickinson (played by Chrisopher Walken) tell them? More cowbell would ensure the song’s immortality! Truth is, Don’t Fear The Reaper was produced by Sandy Pearlman. It’s also a killer track.
Don’t Fear The Reaper dominates classic rock radio playlists for obvious reasons but from the same album is the hit song, Godzilla. I’ll give you three guesses what it’s about.
So there you have it. Ten unlikely tracks about science fiction themes from the world of heavy metal. If you want to check them out all in one place, plus a few more tracks that I didn’t mention here from the likes of Fear Factory, Deep Purple, Evile and In Flames, check out the 8tracks mix I put together for your listening pleasure.