Learning the Devil from Metal: I. Orientation

Mention heavy metal music to most outsiders and eventually they’ll ask something about guys with long hair, maybe some face paint, and (at the very least) a passing infatuation with the devil and his forbidden rites. While these musicians might not be ready to go full Voldemort on us, few would be surprised to find a good amount of dark-arts dabblery as part of their 9-to-5 routine.

Metal music is actually a variegated thing, however, and you’re just as likely to find songs about unicorns or the wonders of childhood or the destruction of medieval libraries as you are about Lucifer and his minions.[1] That said, there is undoubtedly a portion of the metal scene that has had a consistent fascination with the devil. From early Maiden and Slayer records to 90s Norwegian black metal to contemporary goth ‘n roll, the Father of Lies just keeps showing up. The scene can’t seem to shake him.

When folks get a general sense of my theological and musical tastes, I often get questioned about how I can listen to (and enjoy) music with a message so (apparently) distinct from what I would theologically advocate. While I’m tempted to simply brush these concerns aside by saying it’s make believe and pretend and fun—like horror movies or science fiction (Which. Are. Not. Real.) —there is actually more to it than this. The fact is that I find a lot of metal music—including, and especially, that which is into the devil—to have a thrilling and captivating theological vision, and one that actually leads me to a deeper appreciation of who God is and the way that God’s identity and liberating work in the world continuously defy and overturn my expectations.

All of this is wrapped up in my own apophatic sensibilities which I’ve begun to sketch out a bit in previous posts, so I’d like to embark on a series about what I get out of devil-speech and –singing. The next couple of posts are going to be on the Polish black metal band Behemoth’s 2014 masterpiece The Satanist (with a coda on the most recent season of Black Mirror). Following this, I will look at Swedish campy occult rock ‘n roll band Ghost’s 2015 album Meliora and its contrasting depiction of Satan. These diverging accounts of Lucifer will provide the background for my final post, which will sketch out what it might mean to find in all of this an apophatic gesture directing us to the Homeless Wanderer who tips over the apple cart of propriety and respectability in his relentless solidarity with the broken and despised of the world.

Let’s get started.

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[1] Yes, there are metal songs about all of these things. And they’re all pretty great. Hit me up for some recommendations.