Last Cup of Sorrow: Metal Songs About Suicide

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Two days before Christmas in 1985, best buddies James Vance and Ray Belknap settled in for an afternoon of drinking beer, smoking dope, and listening to Judas Priest. As you do. At some point, they got it into their heads to hike to the playground of a nearby church in Sparks, Nevada and end it all with a 12-gauge shotgun. Belknap put the muzzle under his chin and pulled the trigger, dying instantly. When Vance took his turn, he survived – with disfiguring facial injuries – for three years.

Just two weeks later, in January of 1986, the parents of suicidal teen John McCollum dragged Ozzy Osbourne to court, claiming “Suicide Solution” (which is about alcoholism, not suicide) led their boy to shoot himself. Ozzy was accused of putting subliminal messages into the song, urging listeners to “get the gun, shoot shoot shoot shoot shoot”. A judge dismissed the case.

In March 1987, four Bergenfield, New Jersey teens were found dead of carbon monoxide poisoning, the result of a suicide pact. Despite indications that they were despondent over the death of a friend, many believed an AC/DC album found near their car revealed the real reason they died: heavy metal.

By 1990, when Judas Priest defended themselves against charges that “Better By You, Better Than Me” also contained back-masked messages urging suicide, the imaginary link between heavy metal and offing yourself was part of the national consciousness. Fortunately, the judge in the Priest case didn’t buy it.

After Bergenfield, 20/20 aired a special on heavy metal. Barbara Walters introduced it in sensationalist tones: “When a form of music that our children like becomes linked with ghoulish images and violent theatrics, and even [sensitive but dramatic pause] … suicide…”.

The false connection lingers. In a recent piece for the AV Club, the writers claim, “Almost every metal band has a suicide song: Killing yourself is second only to worshiping Satan as the genre’s leading lyrical obsession.” Not so. When Hit Parader analyzed the 100 most popular metal songs of the 1980s, they found that 27 described intensity or a longing for intensity; 17 focused on lust; 17 portrayed loneliness, victimization, or self-pity; 14 featured affirmation or loss of love; 8 described anger, rebellion, or madness; and 5 were didactic or critical of culture in some way. So much for Satan and suicide.

Metal is not without songs about ending it all. Everyone from Metallica to Varg Vikernes has taken a stab at this most nihilistic of moods. Some wallow, some rage, and some poke fun. Here’s a by-no-means-comprehensive roundup.

— Beth Winegarner

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Judas Priest – “Beyond the Realms of Death”

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One of the first suicidal power ballads by one of the first unabashed metal bands. This track is on the same album as “Better By You, Better Than Me”, the song that allegedly convinced Belknap and Vance to pull the trigger. Had the prosecuting attorney brought charges based on this song, he might have had something. Creating the pattern for many such songs to follow, “Beyond” manages to be achingly sad and brazenly triumphant at the same time. It also spawned a pretty great Blind Guardian cover.

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Metallica – “Fade to Black”

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In the thick of the metal-causes-suicide years, this song was quoted more than any other. Yes, it’s about suicide. But there’s a difference between being about suicide and encouraging suicide. This was the thrash band’s first full-on ballad, romantic in its own way but by no means about cheesy young love. It’s seven minutes of slow, agonizing catharsis.

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Pantera – “Suicide Note Parts 1 & 2”

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The Texas metallers’ suicide suite embraces both the melancholy side of self-destruction with slit wrists and pills in “Part 1”, and the explosive need to end it all (with a gun, this time) in “Part 2.” Pantera’s high-octane take on the topic makes me wonder: when metalheads lose the will to live, do they also lose their hunger for speed? Is that why so many of these songs are ballads?

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Megadeth – “Skin O’ My Teeth”

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While Mustaine’s “A Tout Le Monde” is the more obvious choice – it’s the sweet, soft suicide note – “Skin O’ My Teeth” is much more lively: a laundry list of all the times Mustaine apparently tried to end his life and failed. It reveals one of the great subgenres of heavy-metal suicide songs: songs that joke about doing yourself in. Those 1980s parents would be horrified. But for many metal kids, this is the stuff that keeps you from really jumping off a bridge.

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Burzum – “A Lost Forgotten Sad Spirit”

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Count Grishnackh’s suicidal lament rages as hard as Pantera’s, but it’s more epic and absolute. His lyrics depict a joylessness specific to the black-metal outlook: “The fire in the sky is extinguished / Blue waters no longer cry / The dancing of the trees has stopped / The stream of freshness from cold winds exists no longer / The rain has stopped.” The cover of the Aske EP shows the charred skeleton of the Fantoft stave church, which Vikernes was accused of torching. After the fire goes out, what’s left? “Once there was hatred … now there is only a dark stone tomb.”

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Xasthur – “Suicide in Dark Serenity”

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If there’s any metal genre that’s written the book on songs about suicide, it’s depressive black metal. Xasthur, impossibly hailing from sunny Southern California, opens a particularly bleak vein with this track, which sounds literally like someone circling a drain. Xasthur re-recorded the track for the 2003 Suicide in Dark Serenity EP, but it sounds swaddled and anesthetized by comparison.

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Suicidal Tendencies – “Suicidal Failure”

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This band’s name alone gave many parents the willies. In fact, the controversial moniker helped them win a record deal – and allowed young fans to be in on the joke of Tendencies’ social-satire lyrics while grownups were left wringing their hands. Like “Skin O’ My Teeth,” this is a rundown of unconsummated suicide attempts, from gunshots to poison to hanging. It’s gallows humor at its finest.

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S.O.D. – “Kill Yourself”

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If any song in the metal catalogue could be singled out for encouraging suicide, it’s this one, except for one detail: S.O.D. never wrote anything that wasn’t tongue-in-cheek. Kids loved this band – they were your comic relief, provided in succinct, punchy doses. “Here’s a bucket, go and kick it.”

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Faith No More – “Last Cup of Sorrow”

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Faith No More’s brand of metal owes a lot to bands like Suicidal Tendencies and S.O.D., and the lyrics to “Last Cup of Sorrow” are dead ringers for “Kill Yourself.” Oddly, while this song is funny and scathing, Faith No More unwittingly helped spawn a generation of nu-metal bands, from Papa Roach to Slipknot, all of whom seemed to have at least one suicide song in their repertoires. But something got lost in the translation: While earlier bands had a healthy grasp of parody, later bands – informed by the confessional qualities of grunge – were unabashedly earnest.

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Opeth – “Dirge for November”

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It’s possible to say that this 2001 tune owes a hell of a debt to Pantera’s “Suicide Note Parts 1 & 2.” It starts off with a bluesy, jazzy noodle and some soft vocals, but halfway through it kicks into a much heavier groove, ballasted by Mikael Åkerfeldt’s death growls. This live version, taken from a 2010 performance at London’s Royal Albert Hall, bears the unfortunate presence of hand-claps during the mournful intro, indicating that Opeth’s fans may not have the firmest grasp of the suicidal urge. On the other hand, this song is the one on my list most likely to make metalheads want to slit their wrists.

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Children of Bodom – “Towards Dead End”

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Now, here’s something we haven’t seen since “Don’t Fear the Reaper”: a bouncy, upbeat metal song about ending your life. Sure, the lyrics are gloom and doom: “Draw back in silence to dwell in anxiety / No matter where I am, I’m alone / I’m crying out loud the tears of blood I bleed.” But the music is almost carnivalesque in the way only Finnish power-metal acts can be. It makes for a jarring experience; almost as jarring as an EBM cover of “Fade to Black”.

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Pallbearer – “Gloomy Sunday”

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Let’s cap this roundup off with a cover of one of the most notorious contemporary suicide songs, covered by one of the best modern doom bands. Everyone and their grandmother has crooned “Gloomy Sunday” by now, despite the fact that it was blamed for 19 acts of self-destruction in the 1930s alone, making it the “Suicide Solution” of its day. Its aching melancholy is perfectly matched with Pallbearer’s oppressive despair and Brett Campbell’s clear, plaintive vocals. Play us out, boys.

— Beth Winegarner

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