The themes of cosmic horror permeate so many aspects of sci-fi, whether it be in video games like Bloodborne and Call Of Cthulu, cinema like Alien or Predator, the terrifying manga of Junji Ito, or indeed the lyrical themes of death metal.
This isn’t surprising given that cosmic or Lovecraftian themes are the perfect storm of horror and sci-fi, both of which are fused into the DNA of metal. It explores fear of the unknown and inexplicable, that which is beyond comprehension to our meagre brains. It’s the realisation that somethings on the cosmic stage are so much grander than yourself. It sets in a maddening existential dread, making the audience feel insignificant when facing ancient and alien worlds with terrifying god-like creatures lurking just out of sight.
Cosmic, existential horror has been a core theme in death metal since its inception, so we’ve compiled a collection of bands whose music explores the edges of the universe and delves into the cosmos to face the feral fear of the things that should not be.
Before we begin, we should acknowledge that whilst H.P. Lovecraft changed the world of sci-fi with cosmic horror and his Necronomicon stories in the early 20th century, he was still a racist and white supremacist – just look up his cat’s name. Whilst we’re still able to appreciate the work he has influenced, his abhorrent views are unforgivable and should not be ignored. However, it’s arguable that Lovecraft would be horrified by hugely varied strains of death metal that have appeared in his wake. The shuffling, blackened hordes which constantly featured in his literature represented his own fear of a black planet, and it’s doubtless that the huge variety of dissonant sounds and styles would – in true lovecraftian fashion – make him lose his tiny racist mind.
If you think Gregorian vocal chants have no place in death metal you are an idiot, and you probably haven’t heard of Timeghoul. Though they emerged from the congested Floridian death metal scene at the wrong end of the death metal explosion of the early ’90s with a sound that was almost funeral doom at its most crawling, at its most frenetic the band’s musical onslaught summed up the mathematically-minded oddities of the early prog-death scene perfectly. However, Timeghoul’s assault wasn’t just riffs and blastbeats, with lyrical themes incorporating metaphysics, interdimensional deities and – of course – wanton slaughter, and an existentially-inclined atmosphere of impending doom wrought from thickly-textured compositions. Sadly, Timeghoul only ever put out a compilation of demos, but through their relentless innovation, and copious technical skill, they created some of the weirdest, and most satisfyingly sophisticated death metal ever to crawl from the cosmic nether realms.
There are some out there who do despise the overly technical side of death metal, but it’s worth making the exception for Wormed. The Madrid four-piece deliver tech-death with such a ludicrous amount of brutality that it’s hard for anyone to knock it. Completely over the top in its heaviness, the band’s sound is like listening to a trans-dimensional radio with vocals that sound like a wormhole opening in a sewer, an instrumental barrage of insanely fast riffage, and blastbeats which occasionally merge into star-collapsing breakdowns. Wormed also treat us to lyrical majesty akin to James Cameron and Ridley Scott writing dystopian prose together – “Roboethics sophistication / Autonomous decision / Purely mechanically / Lethal and unethical warfare / Replacement for human soldiers / Neutralise a threat: human life”. If there was music to be found on the far edges of the universe where there is nothing but cosmic chaos then it would sound like Wormed.
Rings Of Saturn
Perhaps because it is one of the most consistently maligned sub-genres in metal history, or perhaps due to a simple lack of quality, deathcore has thrown up few bands of enduring worth. The digi-grind tech wizardry displayed by Rings Of Saturn may not convince many die-hard detractors, yet their hyper-speed eruptions not only explore the terrifying possibilities of hostile alien worlds, but sound akin to the work of some impossibly dexterous muso robots. Constantly swatting away rumours that their instrumental skill is actually the result of recording at half speed (utter bollocks, of course), the band’s so-called ‘alien-core’ aesthetic is as stylistically unique and technically impressive as any of the more traditionally-minded chops of the death metal elite. Check out 2017’s Ultu Ulla for a multi-dimensional pummeling.
Although the more cosmically-inclined end of the death metal spectrum makes the perfect bedfellow for all things sonically complex, the dense and intricate strain of sci-fi horror displayed on debut Labyrinth Constellation and 2017’s Infrared Horizon mark out Artificial Brain as particularly difficult. Occasional nods to Gorguts-style dissonance aside, this is as distinctive and daunting as tech-death gets, and though they take no direct influence from cosmic horror à la Lovecraft, the underlying nightmarish disquiet conjures images of rampaging Xenomorphs and the scorched, smouldering landscapes of distant planets. Wilfully impenetrable, there is little that encapsulates the spiralling terror of unending darkness like ‘Static Shattering’ or ‘Anchored To The Inlayed Arc’, and these New Yorkers prove to be uniquely in sync with our ancient fixation with the infinite skies surrounding us.
Proclaimed by many to be the most exciting death metal outfit to emerge in recent memory, Colorada four-piece Blood Incantation align the dense, old-school savagery of genre gods Morbid Angel, Incantation et al with a sprawling inter-dimensional flair all of their own. 2016’s Starspawn is quite simply a masterpiece in contemporary, freewheeling extremity, with a progressive streak a mile wide and levels of both compositional and atmospheric mastery that few of their peers could hope to compete with. Indeed, it is this transcendental spirit that means we can almost feel Blood Incantations multi-limbed tentacles distend throughout the galaxy, their quasi-tech bluster encapsulating the chaos and infinite horror of the great void and harnessing a unique style of abyss conjuring lyrical darkness whilst indulging in a number of idiosyncratic influences.
If there’s one thing to be said of technical and progressive death metal throughout the ages, it’s that of the genre’s unfortunate proclivity toward soulless fretwank. Atmosphere is essential to good death metal, especially that of the cosmic strain, and it’s something US prog-death cosmonauts Gigan bring in spades. The group’s angular, hyperactive pummeling and fretboard pyrotechnics may on the surface seem generic – if accomplished – tech-death fare, upon closer listening, something else entirely inhabits Gigan’s sound. Utilising layers of guitar motifs almost as synthesizers only in a far more psychedelic manner, Gigan’s music doesn’t consist of cavernous paeans to ancient deities, rather the expansive lunacy of the textures on show – almost in an atmospheric black metal style – tell of hallucination and extranormal phenomena at the edge of the known universe. If you ever needed death metal to trip to, Gigan’s expansive textures are it.
Although their varied discography features a few nods towards otherworldly entities and deep-space horrors, it is 2008’s conceptual classic Planetary Duality where tech-death Californians The Faceless first plunged eagerly into a black hole of sci-fi strangeness. Lyrically themed around the work of controversial conspiracy theorist David Icke (and specifically his book The Children Of The Matrix), the record explores the idea of shape-shifting extraterrestrials controlling humanity through a global web of mass manipulation, and whilst this may all be utter toss, there is little denying that the finger-blurred ability, sublime lead breaks, wonky jazz melodicisms and rhythmic carnage sit comfortably alongside such cosmic oddity. Hell, ‘Planetary Duality: I. Hideous Revelation’ even features a soundbite lifted from a hysterical radio call in from a (supposedly) former Area 51 employee. Bonkers stuff.
Deeds Of Flesh
Whilst the bulk of their career is defined by death metal’s traditional gore-flecked depravity (think Cannibal Corpse), 2008 saw Deeds Of Flesh take an unforeseen nose-dive into the world of inter-dimensional warfare and alien invasion with their seventh full length Of What’s To Come. Indeed, expanding on the concept with latest LP Portals To Canaan, the band’s sonically pristine and precise assault still, remarkably, sounds tethered to the old-school even as these songs maintain a warped, futuristic undercurrent of surrealistic violence. It is true to say that some otherworldly synths and skittering robotic voices all help to slam home the creative and technical brilliance of these records, yet it is the closing title-track of Portals To Canaan, and in particular the final minute replete with a terrifying audio snippet from 1951 sci-fi classic The Day the Earth Stood Still, which truly captures the power of Deeds Of Flesh at their visionary best.
There are few things more satisfying than well executed tech-death, but Kansas-based terror squad Origin exude such audacious complexity and merciless, scalpel-keen power that their sound is somewhat akin to an army of marauding cyborgs laying waste to far-off cities and distant planets. Their fourth LP, modern classic Antithesis, is still the pick of the bunch, the record proving a space-age leap for contemporary death metal in terms of its superhuman musicianship and uncompromising brutality, yet we need not look far throughout the band’s twenty-year (and counting) career for something brain-spinningly bezerek and gloriously eccentric. Underpin this with their lyrical penchant for astral terror and inter-galactic conflicts, and Origin could easily be our sonic overlords come to Earth to bestow on us the most bewildering and relentless music ever known to mankind.
To conjure the unsettling atmosphere that we associate with cosmic horror, it helps if you sound completely inhuman. That’s what Pennsylvania’s Outer Heaven do with monolithic old-school death metal. Last year was chock-a-block with forward-thinking bands bringing forward nostalgic filth to death metal and OH’s debut, Realms Of Eternal Decay, was one of the finest. The vortex of groovy riffs pulls you in towards the black core where Austin Haines’ low vocals surround and pummel you. The lyrics paint imagery as vivid and as otherworldly as the stunning album art: “Forbidden Tombs of the Astral Gate / Descending Deeper into Nothing / Vermin of Otherworld”. OH absolutely nail every aspect of creating cosmic horror through a sonic medium without relying on anything cheesy like sound effects. Instead, they do it by playing death metal so devastating that it sounds like it’s from a dimension which would drive one to madness.
Another brilliant slab of death metal, taking influence from raw early records around the genre’s inception, is Ulthar’s debut Cosmovore. If Outer Heaven sounds like the riling vortex then Ulthar sounds like the victims after they’ve descended into depraved insanity. Unlike Outer Heaven – whose music is brutal from the word go – Ulthar show off a range, with classic-feeling death riffs (Entropy-Atropy sounds like it’s rumbling out of the nineties) merging into faster and more frantic black metal-inspired guitar work. Vocals also leap from monstrous lows to harrowing screams, and it’s a much more psychotic record with its leaps in tone and pace to deliver us thirty minutes of insanity. Named after Lovecraft’s city of feline mishaps (see: Cats Of Ulthar), the band’s songwriting, which shifts from heavy onslaughts to creeping progressive epics, help shape a demented and twisted version of reality.
Vale Of Pnath
Also taking their name from a Lovecraft location, Vale Of Pnath (a bone-filled pit in which people are left to die) create monolithic, technical death metal. The fine polished and slick production may be too squeaky clean for some fans of the old guard, but when death metal started to become more technical and pristine is also when a lot more of the sci-fi influences started creeping in. Instead of creating a musical equivalent to B-movie slashers, bands started making the equivalent of Hollywood blockbuster sci-fi – the genre basically shifted from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre to Alien, and the production on these records had to reflect that. Denver’s Vale Of Pnath is an excellent modern example of this style taking from Origin the torch that Nocturnus lit. Their sophomore record is a ride of fun riffs and solos, varied and high energy vocals, backed up by precision drumming. It’s far from the most cvlt or true death metal out there, in fact it could be argued that Vale Of Pnath is to Lovecraft what The Black Dahlia Murder is to Edgar Allan Poe.
Inherently Lovecraftian, from the pseudo-Victorian labyrinthine city of Yharnam to the hulking tentacled creatures that lurk just out of sight until you gain enough of an in-game resource known as “Insight”, Hidetaka Miyazaki’s Bloodborne thrives off the same fear of uncertainty that permeates all cosmic horror. Making direct reference to the game in their band name, Canadian death metallers Tomb Mold are named after an in-game item. The rich world of Fromsoftware’s 2015 hit undoubtedly plays a role in forming the immense, repulsive extremity championed by the band, whose Demilich-esque weirdness is spearheaded by dynamic leaps that hit like a Scourge Beast and gut-churning riffs that ooze like the The One Reborn.
Sometimes you don’t need to sound like you’re from another plane of existence to make your sci-fi metal compelling. Minnesota’s Antiverse understand this and just focus on delivering high-octane, thrash-tinged death metal. Whilst their 2014 debut Cosmic Horror is fairly skippable, last year’s Under The Regolith steps up the Vektor influence (with mercifully shorter songs to boot) to bring us fifty minutes of alien joy. It’s also clear Lovecraft’s influence has touched them too, with the title of the aforementioned Cosmic Horror album and in lyrics of tracks like ‘Derelicts’: “Using the gifts of the old ones / We followed the ancient routes / Arriving at last to a lifeless system”. It’s not the most experimental stuff, but there’s plenty to dig into with the band’s clear storytelling, the song ‘Hallucigenia’ ending on the lyrics “I realise now / Something has followed me home” and though a typical cosmic horror ending, it’s done very well.
Words: Rich Lowe, Tony Bliss, Jack Richard King, George Parr