Waxing Atrocious – Celebrating Great Lyricists in Metal

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Part 1: NAGLFAR

In extreme metal, vocals are often a percussive instrument, their guttural and shrieked sound usually obscuring any lyrical meaning behind them. Obviously, many of us wouldn’t have it any other way, and there will always be fans dedicated enough to pore over a lyrics booklet and memorize every word. However, one sometimes wonders if the lack of emphasis on recognizable lyrics allows for extreme metal musicians to not put as much effort into crafting a clever phrase as they should, which is a shame, as incredible lyrics often give a song, and band, a deeper meaning to the listener, and can often cut through the growls and bellows to their ear (“What do you mean, you can’t understand them? They obviously said ‘blasphemic conflagration!’”). Waxing Atrocious seeks to showcase exemplary lyricists in extreme metal, who have matched a certain level of poetry to their unholy cacophony.

It was the noisily Photoshopped cover of Sheol that first interested me in Sweden’s Naglfar, with its chaotic mix of imageries ranging from demonic to vampiric; it seemed to encompass elements from every genre of music I adored. Thankfully, the cover wasn’t lying, and I discovered the band’s music to be of a similar nature to their imagery, a brand of overdriven crisply-produced melodic black metal. What impressed me most, though, was how perfectly the band’s lyrics matched their sound. Not only could I understand the first lyric of the first song (“Humanity, what have you ever done for me?”), but upon looking into them, I found that the words behind the vocals were not only awesome blasts of seething misanthropy, but that they had both a poetic sensibility and a solid grasp of the English language therein (often an issue for European bands). Sure, Naglfar’s influences (Dissection, Emperor) are worn on their sleeve, and theme that humanity is the devil isn’t a very fresh one in metal, but as the old saying goes, it ain’t what you say, it’s the way that you say it. Naglfar, generally, say it well.

Let’s examine the first lyrics of the opening track, “I Am Vengeance.”

Humanity, what have you ever done for me?
Denounced and cursed since my birth, for I am not like thee
A proud descendent of the ancient seed
Driven forth from the screams of my enemies

I don’t hear the phrase “driven forth” enough in metal, much less from bands with English as their second language. More so, the use of ‘denounced’, ‘descendent’, and a rhetorical question as an opener is all impressive. Later, the song continues:

Hatred burns within my veins towards your wretched kind
I spread my creed of suffering in this bloodbath so divine

‘Creed!’ Too few bands use words like ‘creed’ to fill out decent lyrics. If the lyricists in Naglfar haven’t read any English literature, they’re at least decent enough to break out a thesaurus. Later, in “Of Gorgons Spawned Through Witchcraft”, Ryden screams about “As blood besmears the light”, both an evocative image and a use of uncommon language. The band definitely possesses the lyrical chops necessary to justify the acclaim lauded on them.

After Sheol, the band lost vocalist and founding member Jens Ryden. While one might worry immediately that the band’s lyrics would suffer accordingly; the absence of an original vocalist can easily hurt the verbal creativity in a band. Thankfully, this did not seem to be the case as bassist Kristoffer “Wrath” Olivius took over vocal duties. Not only had Olivius’ voice been a seminal back-up vocal on Sheol, but it becomes apparent through the lyrics of songs like “A Swarm of Plagues” and “And The World Shall Be Your Grave” that Ryden was never the force behind the band’s lyrics. Take a look at these lines from “And The World Shall Be Your Grave”:

A fevered wish for cataclysms
And the war to end all wars
A desperate yearning for the day
When the scum shall breathe no more

The day you die is the day I smile
Salvation lies in the nuclear fire
The memory of you shall fade
And the world shall be your grave
Now bow your heads in shame

Fantastic! Rarely do black metal bands, or any bands, link together as awesome a phrase as ‘a fevered wish for cataclysms’, and a line like ‘salvation lies in the nuclear fire’ epitomizes everything I love about warlike, bombastic black metal. Plus, the instruction to ‘bow your heads in shame’ is a nice little line with which to end the chorus; nothing like a command to give the song some authority. The end of the chorus of “A Swarm Of Plagues” only furthers this sentiment:

Hear the hissings coming from the reapers’ scythe
Reversed are the words of creation
Become undone in the cleansing flames
Plutonium grace
The end of days

More bands need to drop gems like ‘Plutonium grace’ in their songs, as well as describing the actual sound made by the scythe of the Grim Reaper. ‘Reversing the words of creation’ is also an evocative statement showcasing a more cosmic end of days. It’s obvious that Olivius and Naglfar guitarist Andreas Nilsson are the lyrical force behind the band, and thank the beast for that.

Naglfar have three things going for them: a sense of grammatical structure, a decent vocabulary, and a poetic understanding of language. Many bands are deficient in at least one of these categories, but most metal bands are especially bad with the third. The tendency to say exactly what one means, or what the song’s protagonist is doing, or to follow the general rules of language, is overwhelming and depressing. A good band knows that specific words, images, and sometimes nonsensical phrases can bring a song to life. Naglfar grasp this, making their lyrics more than simple verbal accompaniment, but rather a vital layer to the song’s message—that the world is a twisted hellscape of utter misery and should be cleansed of humankind.

— Scab Casserole

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