Embracing the Apocalypse (Or, the soundtrack to the end of the world)
So, it's 2012 and if we're to believe the prophecies of a pre-Columbian, pre-industrial tribe in the middle of a rainforest, we're nearing The End. To judge the mood of the world with the Mayan clock winding down, we could resort to looking at the cultural products churned out by Hollywood. It seems like there is an infatuation with an imminent apocalypse, the End of the World. The destruction can come in many forms, however. Take your pick: world-destroying chunk of space rock, religiously inspired nuclear terror and reprisal, zombies, rampant viruses, planetary natural catastrophe, or alien invasion. What is it about the current state of the world that we *long* for a slate-erasing event? Well, perhaps we don't actively *long* for The End, but maybe the envisioned scenarios evince a cathartic release? A sort of "I wish I were dead" on the macro scale, just so you could see who and what would be affected, changed? Pretty grim stuff, if we believed The End was nigh. Oh sure, mankind is relatively idiotic and we tend to act in ways counter to the notion of self-preservation, but I think (I hope) that we'll find a way to carry on. The celluloid planetary deathwish has an auditory counterpart- and not just from Norwegian Death Metal bands! I would wager that all the sub-genres of rock music include at least a song or two that explores the notion of The End. But hey, why panic- let's mix up a Doomsday CD and rock out!
R.E.M., It's the End of the World as We Know It- Back before this Georgia quartet were singing about "Shiny, Happy People" they stirred the global doom soup with this catchy little ditty. This quasi-punk, stream of consciousness rattle of words by Michael Stipe and crew touched on the Cold War fears of the 80s that kids today (ha, listen to the old man!) just don't get. Back in the day, it wasn't that we feared that some semi-literate goat farmers might get their hands on a "WMD," we lived the 80s *knowing* that wherever you were, the chances that one superpower or another had a thermonuclear weapon targeted right at you. Stipe sings "blood letting. Every motive escalate. Automotive incinerate. Light a candle. Light a motive" reflecting the rising temperature of the Cold War during the Reagan years, when we thought any little spark might start the nuclear fire. But, it's the catchiness of the song and the line "It's the end of the world as we know it . . . and I feel fine" that adds a bit of carefree lunacy to the whole spectacle. As if to say- "Some old men around the world are gonna blow us all up, but what the hell can we do about it?"
End of the World, Gary Moore (also Nuclear Attack, Victims of the Future)- In the early to mid 80s (you'll notice a theme develop here with regards to this crucial time period), Gary had a bit on his mind with regards to politics and the possibility of worldwide nuclear conflict between the superpowers. As a child growing up in Belfast, Ireland, he got to see the corrosive effects of violence up close and in person. Gary represented those caught in the crossfire between East and West- unwilling participants and at the mercy of men in Washington, D.C. and Moscow to keep cool heads. This song fuses his political views with his incredible talent as a songwriter, singer, and guitarist.
Fight `Em `Til You Can't, Anthrax- Atomic incineration a bit too passe for you? Ok, we've got zombies! Hollywood seemingly can't make enough zombie holocaust movies- Dawn of the Dead, Shaun of the Dead (a fav), Zombieland, and the soon to be released- World War Z (with Brad Pitt, no less!). Anthrax, a classic 80s thrash/speed metal band, took on the topic with this song off their recent CD, Worship Music. This may be a bit tongue-in-cheek, or cheesy, but it's a ripping song that gets one prepared for when the dead rise again. Remember kids, aim for the head- a shot to the body simply won't do.
When The Wild Wind Blows, Iron Maiden (also Face In the Sand, 2 Minutes to Midnight, The Legacy, Brighter Than a Thousand Suns, Total Eclipse, Revelations, Die With Your Boots On, When Two Worlds Collide) When it comes to songs about war and destruction, few bands have a catalog as rich as Iron Maiden. Primarily, these sorts of songs are generated by bassist/lyricist Steve Harris. I used to joke that Steve would stop writing songs in this vein when his privileges at the local video store were revoked! Watch "The Omen," write 666, The Number of the Beast. Watch "Dune," write To Tame A Land, etc. In this case, the song was based on the 1986 animated film by the same name, but with a twist. In the original movie, the war actually takes place and nuclear destruction abounds. In the Maiden song, the husband and wife at the center of the story are so convinced that nuclear war is right around the corner that they mistake (while in their bomb shelter) an earthquake for the start of the war and commit suicide. Steve, who appears to be a committed skeptic, turns the song around to indict fear mongering and the desire for an apocalypse (usually by the religious). This clip shows the band last year (2011) at the peak of their talents.
Omega, Bruce Dickinson (also King In Crimson) While we're in the neighborhood of Iron Maiden, why not see how lead singer Bruce Dickinson envisioned The End on his 1997 solo CD (also with Iron Maiden guitarist Adrian Smith) and the song Omega. This melancholy, beautiful song examines the possibility that we won't blow ourselves up, but rather the world ends when our sun begins to expand, burning our world to a cinder. Think of the movie Knowing, with Nic Cage. In this telling, it's a long, slow process, but Bruce nonetheless conveys the anguish and fear of the final few inhabitants ("We turn our frightened faces to each other and say goodbye"). When faced with global extinction, some turned to suicide ("The others they have gone, who wants to live forever, with nothing left to hold onto the past that we once knew?"). Also included in Bruce's brilliant lyrics is a sense of betrayal- that there is no God, no entity to rescue us at the eleventh hour- "Waited for the sign, waited for the moment, Waited for the miracle to arrive, I guess they lied." A brilliant song, with great lyrics and excellent performances all around.
Wrath of God, Halford- Rob Halford's solo material was even heavier and more brutal than his Judas Priest contributions. This song is more ambiguous with respect to the origin and form of the destructor (perhaps it was Gozer the Gozerian in the shape of the Stay-Puft Marshamallow Man?), but there are heavy religious references, so let's chalk this one down to, as the title says, God's wrath. Once again, mankind has strayed too far from the path and instead of turning the world into a HUGE slip-and-slide, this time it's fire. Burn, baby, burn!! The lyrics reflect the grinding, heavy vibe of the music: "The dark sky, the victims, the air is full of vengeance, From now on, no mercy, the wrath of God rains on you." It's not as subtly done as Bruce's Omega, but the end result is the same: blackened Earth.
Holy Wars . . . The Punishment Due, Megadeth (also Kick the Chair, Reckoning Day)- What better way to describe the Armageddon than as mega death? What better band to paint the lyrical picture than Megadeth? This follows on the theme of the previous song- humanity is wicked and a good ol' fashioned cleansing is due. Overdue. Long, long overdue. Razor sharp riffs and concussive drums/bass provide the backdrop for Dave's bitter lament about how we deserve to be scrubbed from the earth. "Brother will kill brother, spilling blood across the land- killing for religion, something I don't understand." Nowadays, Dave is a born-again Christian and tends not to scrutinize religion as he once did, though he does take a swipe at several different religions at once in this song. I'll give him credit, though, he doesn't glorify war and murder the way other bands (not Iron Maiden, thank you) have done.
The Four Horsemen, Metallica- Starting off with a grinding gallop, like the eponymous horsemen themselves, this track from Kill `Em All echoes one of the main themes of the Apocalypse- it's coming, it is pre-ordained (many religious have their versions of Armageddon, the final battle between good and evil), and lots of folks are gonna die. Eh, wanna make a Ragnarok cake, ya gotta break some eggs. "Death, deliverance . . . there's nothing you can do!" pretty much sums it up. Again, this harkens back to the more temporal rather than spiritual origins of the end of the world: some idiots in high places are gonna start a thermonuclear war and it won't matter how innocent you are, you're gonna burn like all the rest. That sort of helplessness as a result of Cold War tensions was replaced in the post-9/11 world by a gnawing fear of terrorists armed with WMDs. Sorta seems like the powers that be will make sure there's a big "Boogey Man" out there to focus our attention on, rather than the greedy, underhanded deals they're making. So far, it's working well.
Angel of Death, Thin Lizzy (also Genocide, The Holy War)- Phil Lynott and Co. joined the early 80s craze of attaching religion and prophecy to music with this tune. Drawing on the writings of Nostradamus, this song catalogs the confluence of war and technology, resulting in World War III ("a great disaster"). This song also illustrates the shift of Thin Lizzy from a hard rock 70s band that could write about life, love, and women to an 80s outfit trying to stay relevant with themes of war and conflict. While I appreciate both eras, there's something refreshing about the earlier incarnation of Lizzy, rather than the overly serious 80s brand. They lyrics are kind of a muddle near the end, mixing a story of someone's dying father and descending in hell.
This Is Not a Test, Tommy Shaw- I like this song because it shows that it wasn't just the hard rockers or metalheads that were concerned about the end of the world in the 1980s. Tommy, freshly released from his imprisonment in the corporate entity known as Styx, wrote this song about a thing of the past: the auditory warning signal that would come on over the radio, followed by an announcer intoning "This has been a test . . .," something we would hear if there was ever a nuclear missile heading for the U.S. Thank goodness we never heard that signal for real, but this song captures the fear and uncertainty of what could have happened. Impassioned, Shaw sings/screams "No! This is NOT a test!!" at the end of the song, which is capped by the detonation of a nuclear weapon. There was a TV mini-series in the 80s called The Day After, with Jason Robards, that was clumsy in visual effects and with a contrived story, but the supposed image of America in the wake of nuclear war was pretty grim. This song always reminds me of that show.
Apocalypse Please, Muse- Political rockers Muse round out this small sampling of our love affair with the Apocalypse. Things are bit vague and undefined as to what is causing the end of the world in the song, but there's a call, similar to that found in Dickinson's Omega, for divine intervention. Surely, God (if there is such a thing) will save us from ourselves, right? I think the wink-and-a-nod thought Muse is trying to get through to listeners is this: face it, folks- there is no deity to come down from above and prevent us from blowing ourselves up. In fact, quite the opposite: it'll be one of those religiously-inspired wingnuts that lights the flame that burns up the planet. Which should lead us to heed the words of their other song, Uprising. ;)
Now, if I can stop you mid-way through digging your family bomb shelter, just keep in mind that these are all just songs and words. Hopefully, reason and rationality will pull us back from the brink; move the hands of the Doomsday Clock back a bit. Maybe Nostradamus just ate a few bad mushrooms and his visions were nothing more than the ramblings of a mind afflicted by gastric distress. Zombies? I wouldn't worry `bout them so much- one good freeze and all those non-warm-blood-circulating bodies will drop like logs. Then, all we need is an industrial-grade tree chipper and viola! no more zombies. Not much we can do, though, about life-destroying viruses or losing a game of cosmic dodgeball. Might as well just put on some great music and watch it all go down. But, you'd better get a move on: we're halfway through 2012!