Slay The Devil

digital illustration by Gwen Ovis (@rancid0rchid)

Heavy metal might be the closest thing we have today to the classical music of old. I don’t mean this simply in terms of baroque bombast and technical virtuosity. Like classical, metal is inseparable from its relationship to the divine. Glam bands like Poison might sing about girls and good times, but truly metal bands have much more existential themes.

The fundamentalist Christian perspective is that metal is purely Satanic and a revolt against Christ. But this comes from a very simplistic and surface reading of the music. To revolt against Christ is to recognize His authority—why else would one revolt? And so while metal is often hostile toward God, this hostility comes from a position of fear. If the devil is to be found in heavy metal, it is here: the Luciferean gnashing of teeth before the sovereignty of God. When all is said and done, the inverted crosses and tales of human sacrifice are strictly in the realm of B-movie schlock, the late-late-late show on wax. But the same rage against God that drives Satan is present in metal. 

This relationship between metal bands and the Almighty stretches all the way back to the genre’s progenitors, Black Sabbath, who wrote the template for heavy blues about death and dread. But beneath the Hammer Horror surface is something more complex. Ozzy Osbourne’s lyrics frequently showcase his fear of supernatural evil manifested in the real world. The famous opening track of their self-titled debut album opens with a diabolus in musica tritone, once thought to be sonically and spiritually unwholesome. But the protagonist of the song, chosen for a ritual sacrifice, calls out to God, pleading for His intervention. It’s there at the very beginning: the demonic allusions for the punters, but a more interesting and spiritually ambivalent story there for those actually paying attention. Even a seemingly “anti-religion” song like Ozzy’s “Miracle Man” is less a denunciation of faith or religion as such than it is a commentary on the hypocrisy of certain self-proclaimed “men of God” during the golden age of televangelism whose names hardly bear repeating.

The Los Angeles-based thrash metal band Slayer also embodied the classic heavy metal ambivalence toward God. But the internal tension here was the product not of broader social forces, but of two men with diametrically opposed views of the universe, the Catholic Tom Araya and the “antitheist” Kerry King. (The latter once said that if he could pick his super power, it would be to ignite churches simply by stepping foot into them.) Araya’s faith is heavily debated online and, like many of ours, I suspect, his is deeply complicated and in flux. The committed, rock-solid Catholic of your grandparents’ generation is primarily a thing of the past. What is left are a few die-hard soldiers—I envy you, by the way—and a whole lot of wishy-washy folks whose depth of religious feeling varies from one minute to the next. 

Prominent Catholic celebrities are, if anything, far more acutely sensitive to the whims and whimsies of each passing day, and I suspect (though this is purely speculation) that Araya is, at various points, subject to one or another of them to varying degrees. No one can read minds or use a crystal ball to get inside the man’s head, but we do have his lyrics to offer a window inside. Penned by Araya, “Silent Scream” is named after a 1984 film produced by the National Right to Life Committee showing a live abortion and the resulting “silent screams” of the child being murdered. I’ve never seen it, don’t recommend you do, but apparently Araya has and it left an impression on him:

Suffer, the children condemned

Scattered, remnants of life

Murder, a time to die

Pain, sufferaged, toyed

Life’s little fragments destroyed

It is worth noting that the word “fetus” does not appear in the song, while “embryonic” is used only in its descriptive form—the child is in an embryonic state, but is not “an embryo,” and thus devoid of proper personhood and humanity. The word “child” appears five times, with the word “infant” appearing once. The imagery used to describe the abortion (words like “torment,” “beaten,” “shattered,” “suffer,” “murder,” “pain” and even “crucify”) evoke violence, not health care.

The title track from the same album, South of Heaven (which, for my money, is their best), is another one of Araya’s. It’s difficult to know where to begin with this song, which is full of imagery drawn from the Bible (especially the Apocalypse of Saint John) and Nietzsche. Probably the opening of the third verse provides the most succinct summary of the song as a whole: “The root of all evil is the heart of a black soul / A force that has lived all eternity.”

Some would quibble over the finer points of his theology here, but this does speak to his interest in the nature of evil—why it exists in the world, where it originated, and the tragic consequences thereof. (It’s got some naughty words, so don’t go blasting it at the office or around impressionable young ones, but do give a listen if you’re interested.)

Kerry King seems the more confident one in his metaphysical views; There isn’t a God and if there were, He would be malevolent. Echoing what a rebellious and not-as-smart-as-he-thinks-he-is teenager might say, King has stated that he doesn’t “really have a life philosophy; my thing is just rebelling against pretty much organized religion” and that religion is “a crutch for people that are too weak to get through life on their own.” (This is the same juvenile edginess that leads avowedly “Satanic” bands like Deathspell Omega to play footsie with far-right politics, which is the closest thing to the devil secular liberals believe, and thus the only way thing that can get a rise out of them in typical metal fashion.) But King’s Slayer lyrics offer a more complete view of his attitude toward religion than his inflammatory interview quips. As with Ozzy Osbourne, while King’s lyrics often deride religion and God, they also present evil as real, manifest and, well, evil. In this we see hints of the commonly repeated (but obviously true) platitude that even the devil knows that Christ is the redeemer of the world and that Judgment Day will come. 

Back to Kerry King, our edgy antitheist. “Altar of Sacrifice” off of Reign In Blood, the first Slayer tape I owned as a wee lad, is a solid enough sample in terms of quality and certainly espouses a world of evil unique to the mind of Kerry King, who for his part, considers his work to be purely entertainment. I take him at his word, but there is obviously more to his music than simply what he “intends.” And it’s hard to make the case that the song was meant to encourage evil. Despite this, it stood at the center of a sensationalistic murder. Elyse Pahler was murdered at age fifteen by a small clique of teenage boys who were alleged to have been inspired by the song. Their parents sued the band.  You can take this as evidence of demonic influence if you like, but I, for one, do not. The imagery here is much more late-night horror movie than the Apocalypse or even Big Freddie Neetch, but perhaps that’s precisely the point. Even the most ambitiously secular mind can conceive of true evil and despite not believing it, can craft a pretty accurate picture. When considered closely, in fact, the final verse offers what is probably an accurate portrait of eternal damnation:

A gift of powers disposed upon you

Use them when you feel the need

Master the forces and powers of Satan

Controlling the creature’s instinct

Drawn to the castles that float in the sky

Learn to resist the temptation

Watching the angels sift through the heavens

Endlessly searching for salvation.

The devil knows that Christ is the Savior. And indeed, perhaps Kerry King does as well—much as he might resent it.

— Dan Thrall’s best days are behind him.