The Eleven Best Metal Songs About Literature

For Charles Dickens’ 200th birthday, I wrote a piece about the band Uriah Heep, the only decent rock band to ever name themselves after a Dickens character. Their first album also referenced the David Copperfield antagonist in its title, Very ‘eavy… Very ‘umble. It was panned in Rolling Stone with the hook “If this group makes it I’ll have to commit suicide.”

Reading up on Uriah Heep, I was reminded that I can’t stand literary elitism in music criticism. In literary criticism, fine. That’s what your English degree is for. But I don’t need to see anyone else fawn over the Decemberists for crooning about Myla Goldberg, and then dismiss Iron Maiden for being pompous. Clearly only the bands that we enjoy can really understand books, right? I’m sure that Colin Meloy is a smart guy and that he appreciates Bee Season. It’s just a matter of taste that I’d rather listen to Bruce Dickinson screaming about the albatross. But whatever your preference is, if you’re looking for a good audio book, it doesn’t get much better than these eleven.

Antrax literary

1. Anthrax, “Among the Living” (Stephen King’s The Stand)

Anthrax are responsible for more Stephen King adaptations than Frank Darabont, but they never hit it better than on their tribute to Randall Flagg from The Stand. Anthrax fan Kevin Smith must have noticed the song’s cinematic qualities when he picked it to score the Clerks 2 trailer, one of the best of the past decade.

2. Corrosion of Conformity, “Wiseblood” (Flannery O’Connor’s Wiseblood)

The title track from C.O.C.’s mid-’90s rager took its name from another brutal portrayal of the decrepit American South. Apparently, it left a huge impression on guitarist Pepper Keenan — he later named his daughter Flannery.

3. Iron Maiden, “The Clairvoyant” (Orson Scott Card’s Seventh Son)

Any song from Seventh Son of a Seventh Son, a concept album based on Orson Scott Card’s fantasy novel, could have appeared on this list. But the most enduring is deservedly “The Clairvoyant,” driven by one of Steve Harris’ healthiest basslines. I’m thankful that Maiden, or anyone, is more inspired by Card’s books than by his stance on gay rights.

4. Iron Maiden, “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” (Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner)

Easily the most faithful of any of these adaptations, Maiden picked out direct quotes from Coleridge and ended up with their longest song to date. We learned more from a 14-minute record than we ever learned in school.

Iron Maiden the Trooper

5. Iron Maiden, “The Trooper” (Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s The Charge of the Light Brigade)

What can I say? Maiden wrote many of the world’s best songs about books. This riveting study of Charge of the Light Brigade kicks just hard enough to edge out “Murders in the Rue Morgue,” “Brave New World” and “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner.”

6. Mastodon, “Blood and Thunder” (Herman Melville’s Moby Dick)

Mastodon’s breakthrough Leviathan tackled one of literature’s indisputable classics in themes, scope and cover art. I couldn’t tell you what “Split your lungs with blood and thunder when you see the white whale” means, but it has me convinced that Troy Sanders is Captain Ahab.

7–8. Metallica, “Call of the Ktulu” and “The Thing That Should Not Be” (H. P. Lovecraft’s The Call of Cthulhu)

Anyone who mocks Metallica for misspelling the name of H.P. Lovecraft’s most infamous beast obviously hasn’t read the book — the name is not to be said or written out, lest we bring it closer. The band did get brave enough to quote the Necronomicon passage on “The Thing That Should Not Be,” a harrowing tribute to the same creature.

9. Metallica, “For Whom the Bell Tolls” (Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls)

By their second album, the world’s most masculine band was already cribbing from the world’s most masculine author. Using basic language and weaving together a series of simple riffs, James Hetfieldway honored both Uncle Ernie’s depiction of the Spanish Civil War and his concise writing style.

Metallica One

10. Metallica, “One” (Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun)

Dave Barry once claimed to “play music as well as Metallica writes novels,” and he’s probably right. Still, there’s no disputing the storytelling and mood-setting capabilities behind “One,” a song that took its narration from Trumbo’s wretched hero.

11. Rush, “2112” (Ayn Rand’s Anthem)

Perhaps the greatest stunt that Rush ever pulled off was translating Ayn Rand into something that most headbangers could stomach. The fact that a composition as dizzying as “2112” is based on Anthem is proof that the best music is magic

About the Author

More Like This

8 Female Mystics in Literature

Amina Cain recommends novels about characters who find transcendence

Feb 21 - Amina Cain

Danny Lavery Wants to Be Your Goth Boyfriend

The author of "Something That May Shock and Discredit You" on writing a transmasculine memoir that avoids cliche

Feb 21 - Calvin Kasulke

The Tech World Is So Embarrassing

"Uncanny Valley" highlights the way tech companies hide their evil under a thick protective layer of corniness

Feb 20 - Andru Okun