If you’ve listened to early Metallica, when they had the love and adulation of hardcore metalheads, you’ll have no issues recalling these two tracks – The Call of Ktulu (a metal take on the word Cthulhu) and The Thing That Should Not Be.
Both are respectful nods toward that great craftsman of horror, H.P. Lovecraft, whose finely tuned sense for the fearsome had left a fiery mark on Metallica’s youthful consciousness. Lovecraft, like Poe before him, was masterful at infusing deep unease and disquiet into his stories. And Metallica translated them to equally eerie, foreboding music.
The instrumental Call of Ktulu begins in earnest with an ominous, two-part arpeggio that captures the dread of the eponymous story’s start. The set of chords introduced at the bridge is no less menacing and later, towards the close of the track, a radical shift occurs. Though it feels almost pleasant to the ear today (after a track by Faceless, say), back in the early 80s it was in all probability pure aural pandemonium, with Lars viciously attacking the toms and cymbal in tandem with James and Kirk’s angry, syncopated riff. Metallica, then barely in their twenties, were able to do justice to the source text in a way that only the talented young with their vigour and incandescence could.
The band isn’t known for the lightness of their lyrics – blackened is the end, remember? – they are bona fide doomsayers and even on later records, despite accusations of ‘selling out’ since 1991’s ‘Black Album’, the subject matter remained steadfastly morbid. But supernatural horror arose only once as a theme after The Thing That Should Not Be in James’s songwriting.
That song, which Jason Newstead once dubbed ‘the heaviest number known to man’, is largely built on Lovecraft’s The Shadow Over Innsmouth. Musically, it’s not the strongest tune on an album exploding with intricate guitarwork, but it is nevertheless a classic. The riffs are low, slow, and sludgy, the kind that foreshadows the likes of Alice in Chains and Soundgarden. There are moments in The Thing’s verses when it’s a fading fifth on the guitar and James’s screechy voice over a simple drum beat. You’re allowed a moment’s respite then it builds up and ignites, reminding you of the ebb and flow of the story.
Most of the imagery of the The Thing – “hybrid children watch the sea”, “cult has summoned twisted sound” – is borrowed from the novella although the song references other Lovecraft material such as in this lyric: “not dead which eternal lie, stranger eons death may die”, a slightly modified version of the couplet in The Call of Cthulhu. Of course, both tales belong in the ‘Cthulhu’ mythos, so the reference feels natural. At its conclusion, James’s pronouncement ‘in madness you dwell’ may be aimed at the novella’s protagonist but it could just as well denote the minds of those people staggered by the story’s horrific conclusion.
Also, unlike horror that feature invasions by (often) monstrous entities that disrupt ordinary life, in Innsmouth, our hero goes willingly into the monsters’ den. In the end, it is the realisation that there is more than an element of the monster within himself that he has to confront, and this will be a limit experience for any ordinary person, as Metallica so rightly point out (with “Drain you of your sanity/Face the thing that should not be!” in the last verse).
Both songs can also be seen as a celebration of the extreme psychological state conveyed by Lovecraft’s work, for metal, too, is an extreme genre both sonically and thematically, often dwelling on peripheral and unwelcome human experience. Though ignored by high culture unlike Poe, who was translated to the French by Baudelaire, the works of Lovecraft are powerful and destined to endure at least as long as people listen to two of the most seminal metal albums by its most successful proponents.
Image by Dominique Signoret