Thursday, October 24, 2013

Metallica - The Call of Ktulu

“The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far...”

- H.P. Lovecraft (The Call of Cthulu)

Metallica's first two albums
Kill 'em All (1983)
Ride The lightning (1984)
Early in their career’s James Hetfield and Lars Ulrich were obsessed with death. Many of their songs were about death, so much so, their first studio album was titled “Kill ‘Em All.” A lot of people really like “Kill ‘Em All” and its raw metal power, but I always thought it was raw to the point of being somewhat goofy in construction and theme, and to be fair we expect that from a first effort of pretty much anyone. Furthermore Metallica proved to be pioneers so their first effort was an experimentation of radical new sounds which likely resulted in some unforeseen challenges regarding refinement. I believe Metallica’s second album “Ride the Lightning,” another album title about death via the electric chair, is a superior album in basically every way and also the beginning of everything that would make Metallica special till the time when they sold out, but the selling out process is a whole other story.

There is a whole variety of ways to express your creativity when obsessing about death, especially when you are Metallica. “Ride the Lightning” as stated a moment ago is about the execution of a criminal via the electric chair. “Seek and Destroy” is fairly self explanatory kind of slaughter, that we could perhaps label as militaristic. “Creeping Death” is about an Angel watching as a plague wipes out mankind. “Fade to Black” is about suicide. And to top things off “The Four Horsemen” is about the end of days where everyone dies. But like so many people fascinated with the horror of death Hetfield and Ulrich were drawn to horror literature.

The history of great American horror literature can be simplified in three parts, Edgar Allan Poe, H.P. Lovecraft and Stephen King. This is a gross oversimplification because it skips over many great authors, especially modern ones, but the public at large is most familiar with or is most influenced by these three titans of the genre.

Edgar Allan Poe, H.P. Lovecraft and Stephen King
Though tales of terrifying intrigue were written before his time, Poe basically invented the idea of writing stories for the sole purpose of scaring people and in turn he basically invented horror literature. Lovecraft would completely reinvent everything about human perception and would subtly influence every horror author and movie that came after him. And Stephen King, well we all know who he is, as he is the most commercially successful writer of all time. If you want a simple explanation of how important Lovecraft is, I would offer you this statement; Stephen King spent a majority of his time trying to be Lovecraft.

Magic the Gathering's eldritch horrors
the Eldrazi are based off of Lovecraft's
old ones.  Nice artwork.
The interesting thing about Lovecraft is how he has created so many things within our modern horror zeitgeist even though a majority of people somehow do not know the man ever even existed. For example the Necronomicon (the book of the dead) which appears in almost every movie, book, or comic book about witches, demon summoning, or what have you (most notably in The Evil Dead series) was invented by Lovecraft. Akrham asylum in Batman comics was a reoccurring fictional location in Lovecraft’s books, as the majority of the characters who somehow managed to survive their horrific adventures would usually go mad and end up there. The Deep Ones a race of frog/fish humanoids who live on the bottom of the sea make common appearances in video games most notably the Murlocks in World or Warcraft, even though the name Murlock is taken from H.G. Wells “Time Machine.” John Carpenter’s “The Thing,” arguably the best horror movie ever was an adaptation of the book “Who Goes There?” by John W. Campbell which in turn is completely inspired by Lovecraft’s “The Mountains of Madness.” And Lovecraft’s “The Mountains of Madness” is in some ways inspired by Poe’s “The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket.” Tekeli-li....

The list of movies and video games inspired by Lovecraft is very long; in fact this list supplied by Wikipedia is missing seven or eight movies I can reference off the top of my head, like “Reanimator”:

Perhaps Lovecraft’s most famous book is “The Call of Cthulhu.”

Cthulhu by Obrotowy
Cthulhu, Kthulu, Ktulu, or Cthulu, the name is supposed to be unpronounceable by human tongue so which ever you prefer. Cthulhu is an ancient god who sleeps at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean; he speaks to those who worship him through telepathic visions. When Cthulhu awakens he will devastate the world and those whom he spares will be taught new forms of decadence and destruction. He is the ruinner of worlds and he has become very popular recently. I just finished reading the eighteenth book in the Vampire Hunter D series “Fortress of the Elder God” where the god in question was Clulu. In World of Warcraft, again, Cthune is the end boss in the Temple of Ahn'qiraj. An online developed game “Ktulu Save the World” is an ironically popular little RPG. Kthulu even made an appearance not too long ago on South Park. There are hundreds of other examples I could point out, but before any of these things happened in 1984 Metallica released “The Call of Ktulu” an instrumental inspired by the book of the same name.

A reoccurring theme throughout Lovecraft’s work is that mankind continues to survive solely because we are beneath the notice of the horrible eldritch abominations that could easily wipe us out, and the more someone learns about the true horrors at the fringes of the world the more those horrors become aware of you. The unknown is the greatest thing human beings fear and in Lovecraft’s works, ignorance is our own only fragile salvation. The gradual discovery of the mystery and horror of Ktulu is the perfect example of the majority of Lovecraftian narrative where the more our primary character learns what they are dealing with the more they are driven insane, and I believe Metallica has captured this perfectly and without words.

Despite being an instrumental “The Call of Ktulu” is, to me at least, obviously about Ktulu the ruinner of worlds. Perhaps it is simply by the power of persuasion and the title gives a mindset for all of us to fixate on, but the movements of Metallica’s “The Call of Ktulu” to me symbolize a decent into madness. Metallica’s “The Call Of Ktulu” like so many other great songs has fantastic rising tension, it a song built on growing escalation. The inclusion of more complicated melodies are gradually introduced and the sound grows heavier, or at least seems too as time goes on. If nothing else “The Call of Ktulu” is an intense haunting song and once the concept of Ktulu is placed over top it perfectly captures the tone and mood of the novel, you add in the fact this is a great guitar song, probably Kirk Hammet’s best work and I am left to conclude that “The Call of Ktulu” is basically a perfect song.

Here is some non-news for you, Metallica is hugely successful.

Metallica is so successful, and not just commercially, that they have been huge inspirations to the vast majority of American metal bands that have come since. There is an interesting cultural parallel that can be drawn between American horror literature and American heavy metal. The expansion and growth of art works in fluid movements, and much the way Poe inspired Lovecraft who in turn inspired King; Metallica has inspired fellow musicians and fans alike with their music, so much so I have lived several personal anecdotal stories where I introduced Metallica fans to Lovecraft through “The Call of Ktulu.” But more importantly to this vein of conversation Metallica is so well liked by their metal compatriots they have been covered a lot.

Without going into two many examples a quick Google search reveals seven tribute albums to Metallica:

- Metal Militia: A Tribute To Metallica Vol. 1 (1994)
- Metal Militia: A Tribute To Metallica Vol. 2 (1996)
- The Blackest Album: An Industrial Tribute to Metallica Vol. 1 (1998)
- The Blackest Album: An Industrial Tribute to Metallica Vol. 2 (2000)
- Metal Militia: A Tribute To Metallica Vol. 3 (2000)
- Metallica Assault: A Tribute to Metallica (2001)
- The Blackest Album: An Industrial Tribute to Metallica Vol. 3 (2002)

There are two sets of three volume works here; also worthy of note is this article listing the supposed ten best covers of “Enter Sandman” -

I think there is also a Metallica Christmas tribute album out there somewhere.

Most of these albums slipped into obscurity not long after their initial release and now are very difficult to obtain without a deliberate effort which is way you have probably never heard of any of them until now. There is one cover I am very fond of however, off of “Metal Militia: A Tribute To Metallica Vol. 3” a band called Headroom did a cover of “The Call of Ktulu.” And I know nothing about Headroom other than this cover.

Headroom - The Call of Ktulu

A majority of all cover songs are little more than a performance of the same song by someone else. There is nothing wrong with this, but as a consequence a majority of cover songs typically fail to impress or be remembered, case in point the seven tribute albums I just listed. The cover songs that typically stay with us are the ones that bring something new to the table and in the case of Headroom they introduced lyrics to “The Call of Ktulu.”

Not since Emmerson, Lake and Palmer has the inclusion of lyrics to a cover been so unnecessary (see Emmerson, Lake and Palmer’s cover of Mussorgsky’s “The Great Gate of Kiev”) an instrumental song is almost always best left as an instrumental, sometimes things are beyond words and at times it is presumptuous to attempt to apply poetry or specified meaning to someone else’s creative effort, as the possibility for misrepresentation/misinterpretation is high. However Headroom did something very smart with their cover of “The Call of Ktulu,” they returned to the source material.

“The Call of Ktulu” is a tribute to H.P. Lovecraft, so any newly added lyrics should also be a tribute to H.P. Lovecraft. When you listen to the lyrics from Headroom’s cover they sound very Lovecraftian in word choice and structure and a quick search reveals the dialogue to be a slightly modified passage from “The Necronomicon.” No not from the book of the dead by the mad Arab Abdul Alhazred which is of course fictional, but from the Necronomicon Project. There have been multiple published version of the supposed book of the dead but the sample quote from this cover song is from the Necronomicon Project – Book 1: Testimony of the Mad Arab, an online tribute to H.P. Lovecraft and a serious attempt at creating a literary version of the fictional legendary book.

These lyrics work. Read the lyrics (more or less) and the rest of the Necronomicon project here:

And the reason these lyrics work is that both the passage from The Necronomicon Project and the music from Metallica’s “The Call of Ktulu” are tributes to the same source material. Headroom wisely combined two works inspired by, and mimicking in style to, the classic American horror writer H.P. Lovecraft. In the end we get a unique and fun cover song.

The study of the anthropology of music is a fun hobby, but also it gives additional meaning and significance to everything. Metallica’s “The Call of Ktulu” is made all the richer once you know about H.P. Lovecraft’s novel “The Call of Cthulhu” and vise versa. The same goes for Headroom’s cover and their reference to The Necronomicon Project. When all four works are considered together, it creates this very satisfying sense of belonging and expansion. From here we can include any number of things that tie back together either to Metallica or Lovecraft and this very powerful connection between artists of various mediums can clearly be seen and what we are seeing is art transcending into culture, and that is awesome.

“The Call of Ktulu” by Metallica is more than a great guitar song it has become a very valuable brick in the construction of our modern zeitgeist of horror and metal and who knows what else.

Until next month keep on rocking in the free world.

- King of Braves


Other sons by Metallica inspired by H.P. Lovecraft are “The Thing that should not be” and “All Nightmare Long.”

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