Blakespotting: Death metal Blake

There is an amusing skit on Blake that has gone viral in the past few weeks on Twitter and elsewhere on the web entitled “Death Metal Lyric or William Blake Quote?” (thanks also to Mike Goode for drawing my attention to this). The premise of the piece is perfect in its simplicity: ten quotes, of which the reader must decide whether they were written by William Blake or a death metal group, and while “Sooner murder an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires” could perhaps have been written by Zyklon for their charming track Chaos Deathcult, the final line of that song, “Every man is therefore guilty of all the good he did”, feels as though it should be from Blake. (Actually, it’s a variation of  Voltaire’s “Every man is guilty of all the good he did not do” – though I prefer the rewrite).

You can read the original posting at http://www.mcsweeneys.net/links/lists/15petzold.html, which thus draws attention to the many appropriations of Blake by metal acts. As the first major poet in western literature to declare himself knowingly of the devil’s party (although Blake’s Christian diabolism is very different to the rather bland Satanism that became popular after the 1960s), it’s hardly surprising that he should have attracted so many metal followers. Eli Petzfold’s post simply follows a common feeling among music fans (goth and punk as well as metal) that the author of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell would have made a great lyricist for any number of bands that have always been at odds with the mainstream. To paraphrase:

The Giants who formed this world into its sensual existence and now seem to live in it in chains, are in truth the causes of its life & the sources of all activity, but the chains are the cunning of weak and tame minds which have power to resist energy, according to the proverb, the weak in courage is strong in cunning.
Thus one portion of being is Metal, the other Pop: to Pop it seems as if Metal was in his chains, but it is not so, he only takes portions of existence and fancies that the whole.
But Metal would cease to be Metal unless Pop, as a sea, recieved the excess of his delights.
Some will say: ‘Is not God alone Metal?’ I answer: ‘Metal only Acts & Is, in existing beings or Men.’
These two classes of men are always upon earth, & they should be enemies; whoever tries to reconcile them seeks to destroy existence.
Religion is an endeavour to reconcile the two.

Blake as a metal inspiration is a constant riff (only a month or so ago I came across an interview with Jason Kolkey, lead singer of Deus Absconditus, on Blake as an influence), but here I’ll just concentrate on three.

The first is one of the grand old men of British metal, Bruce Dickinson, most notably on his album The Chemical Wedding (1998), which not only features Blake’s The Ghost of a Flea as its cover but also has several title tracks directly drawn from Blake, including “Jerusalem”, “Book of Thel” and “The Gates of Urizen“. (You can also hear the Dickinson tracks on The Blake Disco.) Dickinson has always had a pomp-rock inclination towards literary appropriations (I remember interminable playings of Iron Maiden’s “Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner” while at school), and the Blake-inspired tracks are, “Jerusalem” aside, loose interpretations based on Blakean themes. It seems to work with “The Gates of Urizen”, but “Book of Thel” leaves me very cold. As evidence, I’ll present a few lines from Blake’s and Dickinson’s respective Thels side by side:

Blake Dickinson
The daughters of Mne Seraphim led round their sunny flocks.
All but the youngest; she in paleness sought the secret air.
To fade away like morning beauty from her mortal day:
Down by the river of Adona her soft voice is heard:
And thus her gentle lamentation falls like morning dew.
O life of this our spring! why fades the lotus of the water?
Why fade these children of the spring? born but to smile & fall.
Ah! Thel is like a watry bow. and like a parting cloud.
Like a reflection in a glass. like shadows in the water.
Like dreams of infants. like a smile upon an infants face,
Like the doves voice, like transient day, like music in the air;
Ah! gentle may I lay me down, and gentle rest my head.
And gentle sleep the sleep of death. and gentle hear the voice
Of him that walketh in the garden in the evening time.
The mark is on you now
The furnace sealed inside your head
Melting from the inside now
Waxy tears run down your face
The whore that never told her tale
Relives it every night with you
Far off stands the lamb and waits
For the wolf to come and end its life
Stand inside the temple as the book of Thel is opening
The priestess stands before you, offering her hand out, she’s rising
Come the dawning of the dead
In famine and in war
Now the harlot womb of death
Spits out its rotten core
Serpent on the altar now
Has wrapped itself around your spine
So you look into its mouth
And you kiss the pearly fangs divine
Happy that your end is swift

All I can say is I think Dickinson was using a very poorly edited copy of Blake’s works.

Much more impressive are the offerings of Ulver and Thelema, for somewhat different reasons. Ulver has, indeed, attracted a fair bit of attention in Blake circles.  A Norwegian trio (their name is Norwegian for “wolves”) in the early part of their career Ulver were associated black metal music but, since their first album release in 1993, have moved in more experimental directions. Influenced by Scandinavian folktales and poetry, in 1998 they changed direction with Themes from William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. This really is quite an impressive concept album (and even the prog-rock connotations of that term are appropriate in terms of the ambition of this work). You can listen to some samples from Themes on the Zoamorphosis blog.

My current favourite, however, is Thelema – partly, I’m sure, because of that sense of having “discovered” something that as yet has not been widely circulated among Blakeans. Thelema is a progressive death metal/experimental band from Gomel, Belarus, that formed in 2003, and its current lineup consists of four members including Alex Sedin on vocals. As well as two demos, On Heavenly Fields (2003) and Divine Image (2007), the group has released one album inspired by Blake’s poetry, Fearful Symmetry (2008). This is much more than the usual Blake-ripoff, and actually demonstrates something quite unusual: like Ulver, members of Thelema appear actually to have read some of Blake’s poetry (“The Crystal Cabinet”, for example, is hardly one that appears regularly in death metal music), and progressive death metal itself is an interesting spin-off from the multifarious sub-genres of metal, incorporating elements of jazz and funk. You can hear Thelema on the Blake Disco.

Any other bands that deserve a mention? Please leave your comments below.

Ulver – Plate 3

Ulver is a Norwegian trio that started in black metal music, but then moved in more experimental directions. “The Argument” is the first track from their 1998 album Themes from William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.

Go to the next video from the William Blake Jukebox:

William Blake Jukebox is a collection of videos available on YouTube related to William Blake. View them all at http://www.youtube.com/user/WilliamBlakeJukebox.

Ulver – The Argument

Ulver is a Norwegian trio that started in black metal music, but then moved in more experimental directions. “The Argument” is the first track from their 1998 album Themes from William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.

Go to the next video from the William Blake Jukebox:

William Blake Jukebox is a collection of videos available on YouTube related to William Blake. View them all at http://www.youtube.com/user/WilliamBlakeJukebox.

Blakean Music

While the appearances of Blake in cinema are relatively rare (see previous Zoamorphosis posts on William Blake and Film and Cannibalising Blake), the subject of William Blake and music is an extremely rich one.

From the early twentieth century onwards Blake has been an incredible inspiration to a vast number of composers and groups. Plenty of these will be returned to in future posts, but this represents a Top 10 – in no particular order – of some of the figures who have engaged most fruitfully with Blake.

  • Hubert Parry: While there had been some musical interest in Blake’s verse prior to Parry, it was his setting of the lines from Milton to music in “Jerusalem” that established Blake’s poetry in the minds of many. Parry himself encouraged its adoption as the anthem of the Women’s Suffrage League, although it was Elgar’s arrangement in 1922 that made it a work of nationalist jingoism.
  • Benjamin Britten: Britten worked with Blake’s poetry several times, such as in Serenade, A Charm of Lullabies, and, most significantly, Songs and Proverbs of William Blake. The final version is usually reckoned one of his most sombre pieces.
  • Ralph Vaughan Williams: Williams was commissioned to compose music for the 1958 film, The Vision of William Blake and, after his death, recordings were released as Ten Blake Songs, demonstrating Williams’s harmony stripped to its essential features.
  • Virgil Thompson: Just before Williams began work on his film score, Virgil Thompson created a marvellous series of arrangements based on Blake’s poetry called Five Songs from William Blake, using several of the Songs of Innocence and of Experience as the basis of his collection.
  • William Bolcom: Blakes Songs, this time all of them, were also the source of inspiration for Bolcom, who completed his setting of them to music in 1984, and a 2005 recording won three Grammy Awards, including Best Classical Album.
  • Dmitri Smirnov: Smirnov, born in Minsk, has been resident in Britain since 1991, apparently because it allows him to feel closer to Blake, the source for many of his compositions, including an opera, Tiriel, a ballet, Blake’s Pictures, and the beautiful The Lamentations of Thel.
  • Mike Westbrook: Crossing over from classical to other musical forms, Mike Westbrook has engaged several times with Blake’s works, most notably in his score for Adrian Mitchell’s 1971 play, Tyger. A letter collection, Glad Day, has been performed several times since.
  • Jah Wobble: Wobble may have made his name with post-punk bands such as P.I.L., but he was also always willing to entertain the divine visions of another Londoner, most notably on the album The Inspiration of William Blake, which includes selections of Auguries of Innocence and Tyger, Tyger, mixed in with Wobble’s own original compositions.
  • Ulver: Last but by no means least, the Norwegian progressive/metal band Ulver (whose name means “Wolves”) produced one of the most original albums ever to have been influenced by Blake in the form of Themes from William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. It stumped their fans at the time, but has been a stalwart favourite of many Blakeans ever since.
  • The William Blakes: The most recent ones here, the William Blakes are a Danish pop and rock band, whose music doesn’t especially reference Blake (for example on the album “Wayne Coyne”), but whose name is testimony to the impact of the Romantic artist and poet as still remaining some cachet for any young bands who want to indicate a certain rebellious vision.

This list barely scratches the surface of Blake’s reception in music, and I have not myself even fully begun to explore the range of composers – classical and popular – who occasionally dip in and out of Blake’s verse. However, this list above provides a good starting point for anyone seeking for some of the more substantial fruits of his inspiration.