Halloween and heavy metal go together like orange and black. The heaviest metal reminds us of all there is to be scared of, packaged in a pop cultural genre that dares to take on the very worst subject matter. And yet in the metal context, such exploration can be absorbed bemusedly. Like the way we appreciate the humorous subtexts present in Alfred Hitchcock’s great suspense films, or James Whale’s finely-honed touches in The Bride of Frankenstein.
Even Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby, which conjures probably the worst outcome imaginable — impregnation by the anti-Christ — is presented with undertones of darkly illuminative humor. Though we like to be scared, folding some delicious gallows humor into the mix is always welcome.
Also welcome is the narrative that ensures us that evil will not prevail. The giant Tarantula will be incinerated, the demon exorcised from Regan, the zombies ultimately defeated. In Rosemary’s Baby, we don’t get Stephen King’s “confirmation of normalcy” that assures us everything will be all right.
Confronting horrific themes and imagery accentuates the contrast between good and evil. Exploring the dark side through dramatized horror is part of processing it, and of disempowering it with the desired resolution. The frightening depiction of Satan in Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ sets the stakes for Jesus and all humankind in terms of the imperative to resist all-encompassing evil.
Now, on to the task at hand: a Dantean foray into the stuff of some of our worst fears, as ground up and spit out through the grist mill of live performances from some of the classic greats of metal music.
No worries, its only rock and roll, and we like it, right?
1. “Children of the Grave” Black Sabbath
It is fitting to begin our journey with metal’s Founding Fathers, and their galloping opus to the most unthinkable horror to beset the human race: nuclear war.
The clip above, taken from the heralded reunion tour of 1999, demonstrates how much fun a good metal show can be, with Ozzy dipping his head in a bucket of water and baptizing the bangers in the front rows. Other highlights include bassist Geezer Butler’s transfixion as he hammers out probably the most famous sludge breakdown in the genre. Also, the workmanlike performance of original drummer Bill Ward, who was controversially disinvited from the band’s final tour, the Last Sabbath (2016).
But don’t forget for a minute what the song is about. With the crackpot Kim Jong-un firing missiles over Japan, threatening Guam, and developing intercontinental ballistic capabilities, the theme of nuclear holocaust is as timely as ever.
2. “Angel of Death” Slayer
Speaking of holocausts, in this tortured memorial to Nazi concentration camp “Doctor” Josef Mengele, The City of Angels’ notorious thrashers unflinchingly explore one of the 20th century’s most unthinkably inhumane episodes.
With a bloodcurdling scream that presages a patented Slayer open throttle, bassist and vocalist Tom Araya lays the groundwork for a mid-tempo litany of experiments performed in ghastly laboratories by some of the most morally reprehensible facilitators in the Third Reich’s quest for a final solution.
Dave Lombardo’s drumming is legendary in the metal community; in this live clip, Lombardo’s double-bass work kicks into overdrive what is probably the baddest—meaning, in this sense best — evocation of Hitler’s demented dream of a Master Race.
3. “Hellion” WASP
It was another band from Los Angles, WASP, that caused Tipper Gore to stand before Congress and demand the warning labels be attached to certain records to alert parents to possible harmful lyrical or thematic content. That action forever cost husband Al the metal vote and certainly helped bassist Blackie Lawless and his crew get noticed.
In “Hellion,” we get a demonic figure who rides either out of or toward Hell, ostensibly on a motorcycle. The connection between Hades and choppers is a perennial favorite, inspired significantly by the Hells Angels. Too close for comfort in an alarmingly intimate venue, the band whips up the frenzy that put them on Tipper’s map and concludes with a Lawless headbang that cannot have been good for his brainpan.
The performance video comes with a warning of its own: there are open-backed leather chaps in play here that you will never, ever, be able to unsee.
4. “Touch of Evil” Judas Priest
What to do when sex appeal comes with a healthy scare. You can either flee in terror from the frightening succubus (or, in lead vocalist Rob Halford’s case probably a male incubus), or you can tempt fate and damnation by submitting to what writer Thomas Moore wrote about in his book, Dark Eros.
Halford hits home in this melancholy ode to forbidden desire. Looking like Nosferatu outfitted by a fashion-savvy apostate, the Metal God lays down his acquiescence to unsanctified passion with tremendous power, and comes out of the lead break with a spine-chilling vocal refrain.
In the studio track, the haunting introductory riff was played on heavy keyboards for maximum spook-house effect; here, lead guitarist Glenn Tipton does the honors, and nothing is lost on the appreciative audience.
5. “Bad Blood” Doro Pesch
Can a woman get into this act? Yes, especially if she is Germany’s premiere metal songstress, Doro Pesch. With lyrics like these, she could pretty much be singing about anything:
“Bad Blood, rivers run dry, thunder comes and the children cry…”
Sharing her stage with shock-rocker Tomi Lordi, Pesch conjures an image of the horrors of war, the destruction of life and limb, and the futility of undying intra-societal enmity. Sound familiar?
And she looks absolutely fabulous (age 52 in the year-old clip) doing it.
6. “Feasting on the Blood of the Insane” Six Feet Under
As our journey through live metal hell emerges from the highest circle, it is time to take one more look back down. Time to remove all artifice and glamorization from the ugly face of Halloween evil, and confront the spectacle of SFU vocalist Chris Barnes and his traveling sideshow of unadorned dread.
A daylight slot on the concert schedule doesn’t dim the grisliness of this wallow in what seems to be the vampiric predation of people afflicted with mental illness.
Barnes and company are out with a new band and a newish album, Torment. There is talk that years of growling, shrieking, and marijuana use have taken their toll on the once-and-forever Cookie Monster king.
Shown above at the height of his powers, as dirt rises from the stomping pit and his accompanists drop sonic plates on the multitudes, Barnes demonstrates how he earned his place as the foremost death metal singer in rock history.