Great words are essential to a great song. It takes talent, skill, and unabashed fearlessness to paint the images and invoke the necessary feelings that important music demands. Here are the poets behind metal’s best lyrics:
Death metal often gets a bad rep when it comes to lyrical prowess. After all, how hard can it be to rattle off some general edgy bullshit about satan and sexualized violence (the answer to that question is ‘pretty fucking hard if you want to do it well,’ but I digress)? This is where the late Chuck Schuldiner, the driving force behind genre legends Death, set himself apart from the pack. Although Scream Bloody Gore might revel in typical death metal tropes, Schuldiner’s words quickly evolved into a force of pure insight and limitless depth.
Favorite lyric: “Privacy and intimacy as we know it will be a memory, among many to be passed down to those who never knew.” (from “1000 Eyes”)
Real human vulnerability in hardcore is often eschewed in favor of macho posturing and blaming everyone but yourself for your daily struggles. For three decades Jacob Bannon of metallic hardcore luminaries Converge has been peeling back the onion of lyrical conventions, going past conventional themes of betrayal and justified anger to a place of self reflection so honest and painful that we shrink in its reflection.
Favorite lyric: “Every time you justify another good in you dies.” (from “The Saddest Day”)
There are reasons that Slayer spark feelings of such intensity in their fans that they’ve been known to incite riots and inspire self mutilation. Sure, the blistering riffs, viscous solos, and breakneck rhythms go a long way. Yeah, just about nothing in the world looks cooler than the Slayer logo and associated imagery. These are important qualities that feed into the total package, but it’s their lyrics that set off censorship boards, upset parents, and drive religious zealots to the point of hysteria. The late Jeff Hanneman might not have courted the most media attention in the band, but his descriptions of hells both real and imagined are the ones most deeply etched into the public consciousness.
Favorite lyric: “Mortuaries, dead of night / My body starts to rise / In my mind, the horror lives / To feel death deep inside / Relentless lust of rotting flesh / To thrash the tomb she lies / Heathen whore of Satan’s wrath / I spit at your demise” (from “Necrophiliac”)
The lyrical aesthetic template of heavy metal as we know it was set by Geezer Butler. Driven by paranoid dreams and a healthy obsession with the occult, the Black Sabbath bassist’s apocalyptic allegories deftly illustrate timeless fears of war and global catastrophe. A master of nuance and subtext who ranks among the greatest poets of the modern age.
Favorite lyric: “My eyes are blind, but I can see / The snowflakes glisten on the trees / The sun no longer sets me free / I feel the snowflakes freezing me” (from “Snowblind”)
The absolute highwater mark in sound, word, and deed, Lemmy is the perfected embodiment of rock and roll. The man at the helm of Motörhead was a testament to fast music and fast living with a persona so acutely tuned to the lifestyle that it’s easy for the casual observer to overlook the brilliant mind behind the imagery. His words came from a place of deep introspection that was so relatable that it became gospel to the heavy metal masses.
Favorite lyric: “So you see, the only proof / Of what you are is in the way you hear the truth /Don’t be scared, live to win / Although they’re always gonna tell you it’s a sin / In the end, you’re on your own / And there is no one who can stop you being alone” (from “Stay Clean”)