The threat of global annihilation has captivated the imaginations of artists throughout human history. While those fears were abstract or Biblical in nature for centuries on end, it became a tangible peril with the advent of the atomic age. God no longer had a monopoly on the apocalypse, and the guarantee of mutually assured destruction became the only real deterrent for a full-scale catastrophe.
As the Cold War came to an end at the end of the last century, new breeds of horror took the place of the bomb. Talk of nuclear disaster might have disappeared from public discourse for awhile, but the menace still looms in the background. As the days tick by, necessary resources for the survival of our species become ever more scarce. Religious fundamentalism, extremist populism, and economic colonialism have created global acrimony. One way or another, doom seems imminent.
With the release of Christopher Nolan’s blockbuster thriller Oppenheimer this summer, the terrifying implications of nuclear power have yet again become a point of discussion. These conversations serve to remind us of the deeply impactful art created around the subject of mass devastation over the years.
In the spirit of this ongoing discussion, here are the ten best heavy songs about nuclear war.
Sodom – “Nuclear Winter”
Given that their earlier works are prime examples of first-wave black metal at its most filthy, Teutonic hellions Sodom shocked the world in 1987 with their intricate thrash masterpiece, Persecution Mania. The album starts off with what is arguably the most brutal song in the band’s formidable arsenal, “Nuclear Winter.” An expression of catastrophic events that take place as a result of weapons available as part of modern warfare, the lyrics invoke a world where those in power have damaged the planet beyond repair, leading to an atomic landscape where the sun is hidden by clouds of dust. As the protagonist reflects on the inevitability of their own death, they condemn the use of nuclear technology.
Exodus – “And Then There Were None”
One of the great lyrical devices in heavy metal is to attribute the arbitrary chaos created by uncaring individuals in positions of power as the work of Satan. Black Sabbath set the stage for the allegory when they recorded “War Pigs”, but thrash legends Exodus took those themes to their logical conclusion with “And Then There Were None.” A true standout from their Bonded By Blood debut, the song takes a boots-on-the-ground approach to the “generals gathered in their masses” that Geezer Butler wrote about. War is hell and Satan spares on one in this atomic age.
Voivod – “Nuclear War”
Debatably the most forward-thinking and experimental thrash band of them all, the theme of Armageddon by way of technological progress runs throughout Voivod’s musical catalog. With lyrics depicting an apocalyptic landscape where destruction reigns, “Nuclear War” expresses the ensuing chaos of pushbutton warfare. Referencing the direct impacts of a nuclear confrontation, the song describes the extreme weather conditions brought on as an after-effect of the bombs and the carcinogenic havoc of radiation on the human body. Horrific as it is, the narrator of “Nuclear War” gleefully embraces the entropy, seeking out further bloodshed from the scattered survivors.
Bolt Thrower – “As The World Burns”
Although nuclear catastrophe was a less common theme for serial killer obsessed American death metal bands in the early 1990s, many of their British counterparts remained steadfast in documenting their fears of impending annihilation in their lyrics. After Bolt Thrower discovered that their riffs hit even harder when played at a slightly slower pace on War Master, they followed the idea through to its logical conclusion by pulling the tempo back to nearly funeral-doom speeds on 1992’s epic, The IVth Crusade. “As The World Burns” is a tremendous example of the album’s overall style sonic aesthetic, as mournful guitar harmonies swirl around a cautionary parable of mass destruction.
Dead Kennedys – “Kill The Poor”
In the early days of punk, one of the most effective ways for a band to get their point across was to drench it in satire. When it came to cloaking an earnest message in black humor, nobody could hold a candle to legendary Bay Area miscreants, Dead Kennedys. Released as the group’s third single (and also used as the opening track on their debut album, Fresh Fruit For Rotting Vegetables) “Kill The Poor” imagines a nuclear blast that wipes out only those under the poverty line; creating a perfect world for the elite in the process. Speaking of the song, vocalist Jello Biafra said: “We could have another song about how bad nuclear war is, but can we say it in a different way? What about from the Pentagon’s view? Even the [Jimmy] Carter admission is talking about this Neutron Bomb that kills people but doesn’t harm valuable property. … Aha! ‘Kill the Poor’ was born!'”
Megadeth – “Rust In Peace… Polaris”
Say what you will about Dave Mustaine (and God knows I have…), but the man knows his way around a thrash track. As skilled of a craftsman as he is in the musical department, Megadeth’s head-honcho is just as good with a pen as he is with a guitar. Written from the point of view of the intercontinental ballistic missile UGM-27 Polaris made by Lockheed Martin, the final track on what is arguably Megedeth’s greatest album is a masterpiece of atomic horror. By shifting focus to the sheer destructive power of Polaris instead of the inevitable downfall of humanity, Mustiaine speaks to the mind of a malignant god. It’s chilling stuff, indeed.
Black Sabbath – “Electric Funeral”
Few heavy musicians have harnessed the threat of impending annihilation with the nuanced skill of the original doom band, Black Sabbath. Although thematically similar to other tracks on Paranoid, the lyrics to “Electric Funeral” take an even darker approach than its neighboring songs as it describes a post-apocalyptic wasteland inhabited by the survivors of nuclear war. Complimented by Tony Iommi’s downright eerie main riff, Geezer Butler’s words invoke the inherent sense of dread in those not lucky enough to die in the initial blast; as they forever evade radioactive fallout and new horrors yet unseen.
Metallica – “Blackened”
Although it wasn’t the first time the band used nuclear war as a theme, Metallica touched on a new level of fear on …And Justice For All’s earth-shattering opening track, “Blackened.” Pulling no punches, the song catalogs the end of a habitable world and the destruction of the human race as global atomic warfare leaves the planet as a barren wasteland. Across eight minutes, the band delivers an onslaught of savagely complex riffs and ferocious rhythms. It is music as dense and powerful as lyrics like “Termination, expiration, cancellation human race / Expectation, liberation, population lay to waste / See our mother / Put to death / See our mother die / Smoldering decay / Take her breath away / Millions of our years / In minutes disappear,” demand.
Iron Maiden – “2 Minutes To Midnight”
Perhaps no band exemplified the New Wave of British Heavy Metal quite as well as Iron Maiden. Although written and released during a point in time when contemporary Cold War paranoia had become a pop-culture phenomenon unto itself, the group’s 1984 hit “2 Minutes To Midnight” had nothing to do with icy relationships between global superpowers or the nearly catastrophic Cuban Missile Crisis. Instead, it is about the symbolic Doomsday Clock in which midnight represents nuclear annihilation. The clock hit two minutes to midnight in 1953, at a time when the US and Soviets were conducting hydrogen bomb tests within a period of months.
Krzysztof Penderecki – “Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima”
By now, we all know that metal does not have a monopoly on heavy, emotionally stirring music. Having grown up in the midst of Nazi and Soviet occupations surrounding the Second World War, much of Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki’s work was informed by the atrocities he witnessed firsthand. Composed in 1960, “Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima” is dedicated to those Japanese citizens who were killed on August 6th, 1945, when the United States detonated a nuclear weapon over their city. Strictly limiting his orchestra to string instruments, Penderecki overwhelms the listener with frenzied tonal clusters. The dissonant shrieks of dozens of instruments serve to not only imitate the explosion of the atomic bomb, but the screams of the human beings on which it landed.