Metal lyrics are like abstract art: everyone thinks they can just whip some up effortlessly, but if they’re going to be effective, they take a lot of work. At their best, metal lyrics aren’t just gruesome or evil, they’re also thoughtful, primal, and poetic. Every dude in a sleeveless tee has written some descriptions of Satan, but only a few of them have done so in ways that fans will recite and scribble for decades to come.
Unfortunately, not every artist has decided to make metal (their loss). But even some non-metal musicians out there have written lyrics that are metal as all hell. These words are imbued with both the brash attitude, personal anguish, and devil-may-care wickedness that sets metal apart from rock music at large. And in those moments when a hungover hesher needs a break from their usual sonic fare, these tracks are terrific alternatives to the nonstop riff tempest.
Here are 11 songs whose sounds may say shawl or track jacket, but whose lyrics are pure spiked leather…
Grateful Dead, “Friend of the Devil” (American Beauty, 1970)
I ran into the Devil, babe
He loaned me twenty bills
I spent that night in Utah
In a cave up in the hills
I set out running but I take my time
A friend of the devil is a friend of mine
If I get home before daylight
I just might get some sleep tonight
Though they’ve confused young music fans for decades by representing their sunny folk music with skulls and skeletons, the Grateful Dead do have a couple of solid songs about killing someone or hanging with Satan. “Friend of the Devil” might be their most metal jam, with its titular line appropriate both as a folk lyric and a rallying cry for black metal fans the world over. Jerry Garcia may have been a card-carrying hippie, but he could’ve kept up with Ozzy.
Indigo Girls, “Ghost” (Rites of Passage, 1992)
There’s not enough room
In this world for my pain
Signals cross and love gets lost
And time passed makes it plain
Of all my demon spirits
I need you the most
I’m in love with your ghost
The Indigo Girls were the ultimate embodiment of Lilith Fair-style feminist rock in the ‘90s, but this folk duo also had an incredible way with words. “Ghost” is about loving someone’s memory perhaps more than you loved them, but the Girls go Wagnerian in their lyrical drama, with enough imagery about drowning and being cursed by love to choke a Slipknot track. Death to false, uh, soaring queer Americana music.
Sufjan Stevens, “John Wayne Gacy Jr.” (Illinois, 2005)
Look underneath the house there
Find the few living things, rotting fast in their sleep
Oh the dead
They were boys
With their cars
Oh my God
Sure, Sufjan Stevens is the king of ornate indie pop, but his song about serial killer John Wayne Gacy is Slayer-esque in its chilling power. Stevens not only describes in detail the grisly practices of Pogo the Clown, but he also uses his vocals to give them a quiet terror, as though viewed with the open-mouthed heartbreak of a neighbor hearing the news. Not a song to play at a party for sure, but a great one for those quiet, morbid moments between blaring riffs.
Fiona Apple, “Sleep To Dream” (Tidal, 1996)
I tell you how I feel, but you don’t care
I say tell me the truth, but you don’t dare
You say love is a hell you cannot bear
And I say gimme mine back and then go there, for all I care
There’s always been kind of a ballsy no-fucks-given vibe to Fiona Apple’s music, and “Sleep to Dream” brandishes it admirably. The bass note that opens the track is thunderous, while the song’s frantic rhythm and eerie instrumentals add a dose of dark psychedelia. But it’s the lyrics where things get especially metal, with Fiona telling off her ex-lover in a blast of indignant rage. A solid track to wedge onto your friend’s break-up playlist when you really hated their SO.
Bruce Springsteen, “Adam Raised A Cain” (Darkness on the Edge of Town, 1978)
Daddy worked his whole life for nothing but the pain
Now he walks these empty rooms looking for something to blame
But you inherit the sins, you inherit the flames
Adam raised a Cain
Lost but not forgotten, the dark heart of a dream
Adam raised a Cain
The follow-up to 1975’s smash hit Born to Run, Bruce Springsteen’s Darkness on the Edge of Town sees The Boss exploring a darker side of his rural Jersey Boy identity. Nowhere is that more apparent than “Adam Raised A Cain,” a haunted revival-tent barn-burner served up with a dose of biblical venom. Even without the Catholic agony and family rage in Bruce’s lyrics, the track’s opening guitars are the kind of thing Volbeat dream of writing. Bet you can’t out-drink the Devil.
Tyler the Creator, “Nightmare” (Goblin, 2011)
My only problem is death
Fuck heaven, I ain’t showing no religion respect
Brain damage, therapy’s the only thing I regret
Talking to me is like a fucking body missing her neck
But, I’m surprised I ain’t pop off my top off
Life is a bitch and my cock’s off the Glock’s cock
My hand’s shriveled, my finger’s slipped, the wall’s red
Her life is fucked, she sad now, her son is dead
Goblin, the debut album by rapper Tyler, the Creator, is disturbing enough to make even your everyday metal fan scowl and mumble, ‘Ew.’ “Nightmare” shows Tyler going especially brutal and depraved, expressing thoughts of suicide, murder, and utter hopelessness. But while many rap songs talk about violence as a tragedy or a right of passing, this track just expresses a kind of bizarre, unhealthy obsession with it. Devourment fans, eat your hearts out.
Those Poor Bastards, “I Cannot Escape The Darkness” (The Plague, 2008)
The iris of my eye is cancerous and black
And I cannot escape the darkness
Tear out your golden hair and stitch it to my back
For I cannot escape the darkness
Some have tried to lift me up
But I only dragged them down with me
For I cannot escape the darkness
Haunted country act Those Poor Bastards are easily one of the spookiest acts in music right now, and it’s with 2008’s The Plague where they go full terrifying. “I Cannot Escape The Darkness” is a lead-footed anthem to self-loathing, with lyrics about being a cursed parasite and getting your eyelids sewn shut. The track feels like one you should belt out to a field while drinking bad moonshine, and will have metal fans wondering if maybe they ought to hang around after the hoedown for the good shit.
Florence + The Machine, “Seven Devils” (Ceremonials, 2011)
Holy water cannot help you now
See I’ve had to burn your kingdom down
And no rivers and no lakes can put the fire out
I’m gonna raise the stakes, I’m gonna smoke you out
The reverb-drenched gravitas of Florence + The Machine’s 2011 hit Ceremonials was so effective, Sumerian Records had its artists record a tribute to it, with bands like Stray From The Path and Darkest Hour covering its tracks. “Seven Devils” is Florence’s paean of pagan empowerment, strolling through all that you hold sacred like Lucifer himself invading the Vatican. Her invocation of the evil heart and soul sounds as legitimate as that of any Deicide track, and gives modern-day witchcraft a much-needed dose of grimness.
Stephen Sondheim, “Epiphany” (Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, 1979)
They all deserve to die
Tell you why, Mrs. Lovett, tell you why
Because in all of the whole human race, Mrs. Lovett,
There are two kinds of men, and only two
There’s the one staying put in his proper place
And the one with his foot in the other one’s face
Look at me, Mrs. Lovett, look at you!
Sondheim’s Hammer Horror tribute Sweeney Todd is every headbanger’s favorite Broadway music, what with its themes of revenge, murder, and cannibalism. “Epiphany” is the song on which Sweeney finally loses it, going from righteous-but-innocent barber to bloodthirsty angel of death. While the original cast recording is a classic and the Johnny Depp version is decent enough, it’s the 2006 revival recording with Gotham and Stake Land’s Michael Cerveris in the titular role that truly brings the darkness. How about a shave?
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, “Thirsty Dog” (Let Love In, 1994)
I’m sorry about the hospital
Some things are unforgivable
The things simply cannot be forgiven
I was not equipped to know how to care
On the occasions I came up for air
I saw my life and wondered
What the hell have I been living
“Thirsty Dog” might be the closest Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds ever got to writing a Motörhead track. The song is not only a jangling drinking tune, it’s also got a very Lemmy-esque vocal rhythm. That said, the lyrics themselves are straight Ozzy, wallowing in Cave’s bad behavior, inability to deal with real life, and general weakness as a human being. In general, this dude gets a metal pass for his morbidity, but this track sonically solidifies why.
Cage, “Agent Orange” (Movies for the Blind, 2002)
I’m obvious oblivion but that’s my science
Fuck your head up like corn rows put in by blind giants
Haven’t been with it, since the last corpse kidded
Wore a blood stained smile, and told the cops, “He did it!”
Rapper/actor Cage has broadened his sound and horizons over the course of his career, but in the early 2000s he was what folks turned to when Eminem wasn’t cutting it. “Agent Orange” features some of his most compelling and gruesome rhymes, which makes sense given that its beat and intro are cribbed from Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange and its whispered chorus of, “People said his brain was infected by devils…” is sampled from Shogun Assassin. The end product is the kind of rap song that’ll have death metal fans smirking in gruesome glee.
Words by Chris Krovatin