Death Metal English
A few weeks before yesterday’s Vastum album debut, I asked the band’s publicist for its lyric sheet. I knew that Vastum’s lyrics addressed eroticism and sexuality, but the lyrics certainly don’t read like most writing on those subjects. Here are some samples:
“Our depths of joy in this saturation / In our polymorphously perverse constitution / The dissolution of our grief comes in libidinal death and the grace of mourning”
“Deprivations of the flesh / A quarantine in abject absence / Euphoria denied: dripping, unsated phantom limb / Suffocated, stifled mass can feel the temperature rise / By knowledge unrealized: a tumorous, parasitic grief”
“I am held in blood warmth / Sanguine, sublime fetishization / To bind desire into chasms of suffering / Where the dead meet the living”
You can tell what Vastum are talking about after focusing for a bit, but at first, their lyrics reads like something from a Suffocation album. Vastum write lyrics in Death Metal English.
Like other forms of English, Death Metal English is a tool kit. It can be used well or poorly; Vastum use it quite effectively. You can employ Death Metal English in other realms, but it’s designed to make death metal lyrics sound more brutal. Why do DM bands write this way? Perhaps because a few early tastemakers chose to, and everyone else just followed along. Perhaps because all those lengthy words resonate nicely in the front of your face when you utter a death growl. Perhaps because its ponderous diction mirrors the blocky nature of the music. My best guess is that death metal bands use Death Metal English because it’s innately awesome.
Bands like Celtic Frost and Slayer gave us the roots of Death Metal English, just as they helped to build the foundations of the genre itself. Suffocation’s song titles and lyrics might be the archetypal examples of purebred Death Metal English, though Nile’s are up there too. Both American and Mexican Disgorges practice Death Metal English, albeit differently. Exhumed use aspects of Death Metal English for brainier ends. It is most common in Anglophone countries, but it has traveled elsewhere too. Dismember get down with Death Metal English on occasion, but not always; Mike Åkerfeldt plays it for laughs in Bloodbath. Demilich took Death Metal English further into impenetrable weirdness than most bands before or since. Carcass helped to develop Death Metal English with the whole medical thing, and then started applying it to non-gore topics. Not all death metal bands write in Death Metal English; notably, Chuck Schuldiner of Death did not, but his disciples in bands like Decrepit Birth do.
I’ve identified some common traits of Death Metal English below:
Big, polysyllabic words: You don’t have to use them correctly; you just have to use them. Bonus points for Greco-Latinate words that end in “-ition,” “-ation,” “-ution,” “-ous,” “-ized,” “-ism,” “-ance,” “-ial,” “-ity,” and variations thereon. Double bonus points for words ending semi-inappropriately in “-ment,” as in “Torn Into Enthrallment.” These words don’t even have to be real. Is Wormed’s “Multivectorial Reionization” a real thing? Who cares?
Adjectives: In Death Metal English, they’re like guitar solos. You aren’t using enough. Add more.
Prepositional phrases: Same is true here, too — the more prepositional phrases, the better. “(-ation word) of the (ominous word)” is perhaps the most brutal of all grammatical constructions, which is why “Procreation (of the Wicked)” is one of the best song titles ever. It also has parentheses, which are a less common but still valued component of Death Metal English.
Progressive tense: Especially useful for song titles. “(Verb)ing the (noun)” is also a great default song title, as in “Cloning the Stillborn,” “Infecting the Crypts,” and “Christening the Afterbirth.”
Passive voice: Active verbs aren’t brutal. Passive voice is useful when you need to add more syllables to a line to make it fit the riff. Plus, it highlights whatever weird power dynamic is going on in your lyrics. Why say “The beast hath consumed him” when you could say “He hath been consumed by the beast”? Speaking of which —
Archaic or pseudo-Biblical verbiage: If you write like you are some kind of ancient, ageless force who is unfamiliar with modern grammatical conventions, you are probably pretty evil. Bonus points for using constructions that evoke the King James Bible, which is ironically among the most metal texts in the English canon. “Thou,” “hast,” “thine,” and so forth are all great; “unto” is my personal favorite. Yoda-style unconventional sentences can achieve the same effect, as in “Civilized I shall not be / By the holy strain of laws” or “I know the texts divine” (both from Morbid Angel’s “Brainstorm”). Dave Vincent and Glen Benton are probably responsible for popularizing these tricks in a death metal context, but Nile raised them to an art form. Speaking of which: award more bonus points for each reference to any obscure or fictional non-Christian deity.
Grandiloquent metaphor: This is death metal. Make whatever you’re talking about sound really big and important.
Illogical or meaningless sentences: This one certainly isn’t unique to Death Metal English, but it’s popular in the realm. Writing lyrics that make grammatical and substantive sense is not sufficiently off-putting and obscurantist for some bands, and doing so over crazy shred riffage is pretty hard to boot. Instead, why not say, as Impetuous Ritual did on “Convoluting Unto Despondent Anachronism,” something like this: “Propagate correlated malediction / Reclamation of hierarchic genetic throne / Bound to iniquitous subordinancy / Coerced through conductive bedlam”? (The lyrics to Impetuous Ritual’s Relentless Execution of Ceremonial Excrescence are a treasure trove of Death Metal English without peer.)
My favorite thing about Death Metal English is that it isn’t subject matter-specific. Of course, it works best when you’re talking about Satan, or Lovecraft, or murder or whatever. But you can turn pretty much any phrase or sentence into fodder for a sick death metal song using the same tropes:
Normal English: “Commuting to work”
Death Metal English: “TRANSPORTATION OF THE WAGEBOUND UNTO THE NEXUS OF PERPETUAL QUOTIDIAN ENSLAVEMENT”
Normal English: “This bok choy isn’t very good”
Death Metal English: “CASTIGATING THE VERDANT ISSUANCE OF THE SOILS OF JIANGNAN”
Normal English: “I need to take a nap”
Death Metal English: “RIPPED INTO THE UTTER EXHAUSTION OF THE MIDDLE DAY”
Normal English: “Thanks for explaining the train schedule”
Death Metal English: “PROFFERING GRATITUDE UPON THE CHRONOCRATION OF THE JUGGERNAUTS OF RETICULATED METALS AND FIRE”
Normal English: “You have to mow the lawn”
Death Metal English: “BRING DOWN THE SCYTHE OF GODS UPON THE NECKS OF THE GREEN-RIBBED LEGIONS AND SWEEP AWAY THEIR WRETCHED BODIES; THOU ART IMPLORED BY ME”
I could do this all day. Enjoy one of Nile’s finest ventures into Death Metal English below.
Nile – “Chapter Of Obeisance Before Giving Breath To The Inert One In The Presence Of The Cresent-Shaped Horns” (lyrics here)