Waxing Atrocious: Babylon Whores
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When Entombed put out Wolverine Blues and were gawked at by peers and fans alike, the term "death rock" got thrown around a lot. The term was a little misplaced; death rock had already been used to define '80s goth-ish punk outfits like 45 Grave (these days, "death ‘n roll" is the term of the moment). Other than journalists, no one seemed to really dig this new, post-death metal genre, and certainly no one was championing it. However, like any strange little musical cranny, there were one or two artists therein who were extremely talented. One such band was Babylon Whores, a death rock quartet from Helsinki, Finland. Though you’ve never heard of them, Babylon Whores toured with King Diamond and Nightwish, released arguably the best record of 1999, and had some of the most interesting lyrics in metal.
The band’s sound is a fascinating mixture of black metal, stoner rock, thrash, and goth; think stoned Motörhead fronted by Danzig and writing music about ancient books which summon the devil. The band’s lyrics enhanced this with poetic sensibilities and a strong dedication to ancient mythological themes. Rather than just write about eldritch gods or panzer tanks, vocalist Ike Vil wrote about Tarot cards, pagan traditions, and Dürer woodcuts, which sounded magically potent while riding his oily croon.
An apt introduction to the band’s lyrics is “Deviltry”, the opener from their debut Cold Heaven. After reciting William Blake’s “The Sick Rose”, Vil sings:
Oh, fallen star of wormwood grace
Grant me the smile of Janus’ face
Give me a twin identity
A false integrity
To my city set upon the hill
With a godlike view at my own will
Give me the cure for the world's pain
Give me the god of Cain
Damn, where to begin? Vil references Janus, the two-faced Roman god of gateways, beginnings, and transitions, as an idol for one with a hidden self. He twists the words of Christ by describing a “city set upon a hill” (a phrase borrowed from the Sermon On The Mount) that overlooks his very self. The reference to Satan as a “fallen star of wormwood grace” paints a Romantic-era portrait of the fallen angel, while referring to him as the “god of Cain” makes the Devil a worshipped figure among the unholy. The words drip with libertine-style gothic roguishness.
On 1999’s King Fear, the band’s lyrics evolved further. On “Errata Stigmata”, a track with the simple chorus of “Say you love Satan!”, we have this verse:
Cough up all sixes that you know, all signs of horns that you can throw
Maybe you, too, are like unto the beast, unto the fiend and foe
For certainly, the hoof and horn must be wherever hair will grow
To call upon the spirits foul, to dance upon your God-damned soul
To “cough up all sixes” and cast “all signs of horns that you can throw” is an extremely cool rallying cry to the armies of the Devil; the second line is straight-up blasphemous propaganda (you can just see Baphomet pointing a la Uncle Sam: “I WANT YOU! TO HAIL THE FALLEN ONE”). The “hoof and horn” sprouting “wherever hair will grow” further drives this idea home: we are all, in our prisons of clumsy flesh, descendants of the beast.
King Fear also contains some excellent examinations of Christian mythology. “Exit Eden” is an incredible use of the Adam and Eve story to create what is basically a great break-up song. The lyrics begin:
Apples and silver bear the trees of paradise
Visions of heaven to unfold before our eyes
Where cherry orchards bloom, eternal summer's night
Upon a sarcen stone we dreamed
Our sweet old lies
And into the dreams bewitched, we'd hear the haunting song
That beckoned us to taste of the dark of unripe dawn
Later, they continue:
As pestilence falls down as rain upon our heads
Still paved with gold become the roads that we now tread
Covered with sores and drunk with plain mortality
We have nothing so dear we couldn't
Part with and leave
The Eden painted here is one where the enlightenment given by betraying God was far greater than that of the complacent paradise He created for us. The “dark of unripe dawn” is a beautiful description of the knowledge we’re forbidden to gain, showing us that the trappings of the garden are “nothing so dear we couldn’t part with [them] and leave.” And this from a band whose first language is not English (in all seriousness, consider the English lyrics of the average Swedish melo-death outfit or true Norwegian black metaller compared to these evocative rhymes).
On their last full-length record, Death of the West, the band hit their lyrical peak, using incredible word choice, reference, and poetic imagery to paint an incredible picture of Europe’s slow demise. From “Life Fades Away”, a song about the occult meaning of the Tarot:
In garden green, the worm and fiend
Weave beautiful each other’s dream
Eat at the timbers of sanity
And then we wake up into sleep
Dance over the graves
And scream for solace out of day
With a grimoire, syringe, a mind unhinged
Oh, come whatever may
The illustration of sanity as a house being eaten away is classic, while waking up “into sleep” is a concept that rings true to everyone from Immolation to John Carpenter. Meanwhile, rhyming “syringe” and “unhinged” is just good form—you rarely see two words so underused rhymed so well.
One thing that Babylon Whores do well is drugs—their references to substance indulgence aren’t too over-the-top or gaudy, but still contain that time-honored indulgent love of opening one’s third eye. From “Hell Abloom”, the band’s paean to the poppy:
The city sleeps and dreams in neon-tinted urine streams
Oh, chime the night and all the things that the dark redeems
There is not a place tonight on earth I’d rather be
Than with both feet in the hell abloom in the night around you and me
The opium haze left by this phrasing is palpable, yet not overdone. At no point in the song are dens or pipes mentioned.
For all their love of the Devil, old myths, and illicit drugs, it is Death that is Babylon Whores’ central focus. Theirs is a European Death, a wanderer as well as a reaper whose mission is at the core of all magic, philosophy, or earthly turmoil. A song that exemplifies this is “Death In Prague”, whose lyrics evoke the city in all its looming gothic glory:
Bells upon the square, twelve apostles stare
St. Vitus’ sun wheels look down on broken seals
As wheel obeys the sun, abide, Europa’s son
If dying is the answer, then dying be done
Turned his face under torches and death runes
Like all glories short
For those who stand too tall, in black, in Prague
The strength of these lyrics is their use of atmosphere. By describing the great cog-and-archway laden sights of Prague’s Old Town Square and St. Vitus Cathedral, the band evoke’s the city’s grandiose aesthetic, while the description of “those who stand too tall, in black” paints an image of the Reaper’s silhouette, stalking through the streets. The bidding that “dying be done”, meanwhile, feels right out of a dusty tome pored over with the Powder Tower looming out of one’s window.
Many European bands seem intent on emulating American attitude, both in their groove and in their lyrics; it’s amazing how many Swedish metal vocalists use words like “ain’t” and “seeya”. Babylon Whores, meanwhile, use their lyrics to explore Europe’s deep, rich history of myth and darkness through the eyes of a modern rocker. While “death rock” may never have blown up or cemented itself among metal’s myriad “relevant” subgenres, these Finns proved that some strange and wonderful talent still bred in the cobblestoned grottoes that this sound provided.
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