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September 26, 1983: Nuclear War Now

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War is a fertile field of topics for heavy metal lyrics. A metal song could revel in the carnage, assess the terror of battle, or celebrate the glory. Metal is maximum music, and nuclear war is the maximum conflict that humanity can wage. Nuclear war and heavy metal are made for each other.

Twenty-nine years ago, the human race dodged extinction. An obscure Soviet officer, Stanislav Petrov, stayed the apocalypse. Just like the Iron Maiden song, the doomsday clock has never officially been closer to apocalypse than two minutes to midnight. The Petrov incident is regarded as the closest humanity has come to accidental nuclear war; the clock should’ve been set to 11:59:59 except that nobody in the West knew of the incident until over a decade later.

In the early morning hours of September 26th, 1983, the Soviet missile tracking satellite system reported that 5 U.S. ICBMs were heading towards Moscow. Petrov was the officer on duty in the Soviet air defense bunker outside Moscow. He had a choice: trust the satellites, or trust his radars, which showed no missiles. He reasoned that a U.S. strike with 5 missiles instead of hundreds was illogical, and his radars showed no incoming missiles. If Petrov waited until the Soviet radars confirmed the incoming missiles, he would be shaving over twenty minutes off of the Soviet Union’s response time. Petrov decided to wait.

Later in the day, the satellites reported a launch of four missiles. Petrov sweated out the second alarm just like the first.

A posthumous Soviet investigation determined that the satellites had mistaken light glinting off of high altitude clouds for missile launches.

Had Pretrov reported the ‘missile launches’ up the chain of command, the Soviet Union might have launched a counterstrike. Petrov’s bravery prevented Soviet leadership from ever having the discussion.

His reward was a bureaucratic pat on the back.

Even today, after massive disarmament efforts, the United States and Russia possess thousands of warheads. North Korea and Iran are allegedly developing, or have developed, nuclear weapons. India and Pakistan are nuclear capable. The Russians still have a doomsday device.

What has changed since the Soviet Union’s collapse is that fewer and fewer new songs regarding nuclear war are being written. Perhaps we need more, or perhaps we need to listen to the songs that we have, songs like those below, more often. The threat of nuclear apocalypse hasn’t gone away. The doomsday clock is still ticking. Petrov stopped this, and while you read about it, here’s a list of my favorite metal songs about nuclear war.

1. Legend – “Hiroshima”
from Legend

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Legend – “Hiroshima”

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A killer song from unsung NWOBHM heroes Legend that criticizes the U.S. decision to use atomic bombs on Japan. Hiroshima was destroyed by a bomb that generated an explosion equaling 16,000 tons of TNT. The five Minuteman ICBMs on Petrov’s scope would’ve contained destructive power equaling 510,000 to 1,200,000 tons of TNT . . . each.

2. Amebix – “I.C.B.M.”
from Monolith

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This song has the most evocative lyrics of any song in this post. No surprise there, given that it’s Amebix. They allude to ICBMs dropping from space (“borne on the rays of the morning sun”) and radiation destroying all life (“a cruise over land, to turn the fertile soil to sand”).

3. Discharge – “A Look at Tomorrow”
from Why

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Discharge – “A Look at Tomorrow

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Discharge has written at least four songs about nuclear war. This is my favorite. Where Amebix evokes, Discharge bludgeons.

4. Attila – “Defcon 1 + Thermonuclear Warrior”
from Rolling Thunder

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Attila – “Defcon 1 + Thermonuclear Warrior”

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Attila set us to Defcon 1, nuclear war is imminent, and then drop the bomb with some sweet ’80s speed metal riffage.

5. Warlord – “Lucifer’s Hammer”
from Deliver Us

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Warlord – “Lucifer’s Hammer”

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This song was rerecorded for Warlord’s full length debut, . . . And the Cannons of Destruction have Begun. This version is better, but both albums are essential listening.

6. Bolt Thrower – “Nuclear Annihilation”
from In Battle There is No Law

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Bolt Thrower – “Nuclear Annihilation”

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Nor is there law in a nuclear war, either.

7. Metallica – “Fight Fire with Fire”
from Ride the Lightning

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Metallica – “Fight Fire with Fire”

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The song’s title/chorus alludes to Mutually Assured Destruction and the inevitable nuclear exchange, regardless of which side launched first.

8. Earth Crisis – “Cease to Exist”
from Gomorrah’s Season Ends

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Earth Crisis – “Cease to Exist”

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Nuclear war is truly one of those topics that bands of any stripe will write about. Here’s a classic metalcore track from Earth Crisis’s sludgy, experimental days. “Cease to Exist’” lyrics are very matter of fact about nuclear war, almost a literal description of how it might happen.

9. Diamond Head – “Dead Reckoning”
from Four Cuts EP

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Diamond Head – “Dead Reckoning”

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Diamond Head channels Dead Kennedys’ “When Ya Get Drafted” and the “Kinky Sex Makes the World go Around” audio skit by penning lyrics about a 21st century businessman making a deal for nuclear war. One of their best songs.

10. Behoover – “Stanislaw Petrov”
from Heavy Zoo

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Behoover – “Stanislaw Petrov”

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Ok, this isn’t actually one of my favorite songs about nuclear war. It’s too topical not to post it, though.

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I left some stone cold classics out of my list: “Polaris,” “Two Minutes to Midnight,” Saxon’s “Fire from the Sky,” and a few Black Sabbath songs. What are your favorite songs about nukes?

— Richard Street-Jammer

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