What is a Left Hand Path? - Entombed and Swedish Death Metal
It’s spooky season, Halloween time! So far this October I’ve been zombified by a test of a government emergency alert system, and produced our “Average Joe Travels the California Inscape” audio-fiction podcast through yet another October (we’re doing hillbilly horror for season 8), so I’ve already got a grin carved in my pumpkin.
And do you know what Halloween time means here at Lyric Interpretations? Well, actually, you wouldn’t know, because I am lousy at upholding regular seasonal traditions. But this year it means “let’s analyze death metal.” “Entombed” sounds like a very seasonal band to talk about right now, doesn’t it? I’ll be citing from Decibel magazine’s 2006 interview with Entombed.
Entombed is a Swedish death metal band out of Stockholm, Sweden, formed from a reshuffling of several other bands: Morbid (at the time lacking its lead vocalist) and Brainwarp. Lead singer L.G. Petrov (RIP 2022) and guitarist Ulf Cederlund came from Morbid, while drummer Nicke Andersson and guitarist Alex Hellid and bassist Lief Cuzner came from Brainwarp; together they made “Nihilist,” but the name was later changed to Entombed. Their debut 1990 album Left Hand Path has since become a rampant cult classic, often hailed as the first seminal Scandinavian death metal album.
Now, getting back to Morbid – not to be confused with Morbid Angel – they had started out as the band behind lead singer Dead (birth name Per Yngve Ohlin), before Dead left for Mayhem in 1988. As it would turn out, Dead would commit suicide shortly after this album came out, so Morbid would not have had him much longer anyway. But the influence of Dead can be felt all over this album.
“Left Hand Path” is a belief system within Satanism
Specifically, the album-and-title-track’s title comes from Anton LaVey’s Satanic Bible, and Alex Hellid takes the credit for lifting it from the text although he later says he can’t even remember what part of the book he was referencing. Meanwhile in interviews, drummer Andersson says he only looked at the pictures in the Satanic Bible and has no idea what that means.
I am continuously confounded by death metal bands that put out the most hardcore lyrics that practically summon demons with their intensity, and yet when they go into interview they all turn into giggling schoolgirls “Oh I don’t know anything about that evil stuff, I’m actually a tea-totaling boy scout who’s really into Sailor Moon!” Oh, OK, back to the studio: “My blood is a sacrament to Baphomet; may his reign of terror bring agony to Earth!” Uh, what did that mean? “Oh you know, it’s about flowers and puppies and friendship and stuff!” Big help, guys.
OK, so in medieval times, there was this dichotomy between right and left, where right-handed folk were supposed to be pure of heart while the lefties were alleged to be up to no good. Hence the name “sinister” for left while the right got the reasonably approving nickname “dexter.” Yes, I know that this system makes no sense. Anton LaVey was the first to seize on this phrase to term his belief system. It should be noted that the occult has two systems to practice magic, so you can be a right-handed Satanist as well. The left hand path leads to “black magic” while the right denotes “white magic.” I guess white magic gives you +10 roll attacking undead, IDK.
Listen, you try to explain any religion so it makes sense. But here I should interject: Satanism in its various sects and sub-denominations, is not necessarily about being evil. Satanic religions have moral codes and commandments just like any other, and seek to conduct themselves according to a humanist philosophy. But within esotericism, right-hand and left-hand are means to the same general end, with the right more studious while the left is quicker and more to the point. Sorta.
Alex Hellid shares in interviews, that what he got out of the Satanic Bible was that it is about being your own master, figuring things out for yourself, etc. Not only the title track but also “The Truth Beyond” carry this theme.
Other Influences on Left Hand Path…
But don’t think this was all serious philosophy! Andersson relates that he wrote “Supposed to Rot” under the influence of Evil Dead 2, saying the song is about burying someone in a fruit cellar. He also says that the Hellraiser franchise was an influence on the whole album, but is quick to specify just the first two (this was 1990). And of course, he brings up H.P. Lovecraft. That’s almost obligatory.
Shouties: Angry Metal Guy also swears that he hears a riff in Left Hand Path that reminds him of the Phantasm franchise. It would figure.
The Realities of Swedish Death Metal
The entirety of Left Hand Path was recorded in just eight days, over four weekends, at the now-legendary Sunlight Studio in Stockholm. Sunlight has also served as the recording studio for bands Dismember, At The Gates, Entombed, Grave, Katatonia, and Tiamat. The recording space is allegedly so tiny that they can’t fit a whole drum kit in there an dstill have rom for a band, so they had to use a digital drum set to record Entombed’s first two albums.
You might also wonder, with so many Swedish metal bands out there, why don’t any of them sing in Swedish? Indeed, choosing to sing in English is a common pattern with most of Scandinavian metal. Well, it turns out that, to the Swedish ear, languages like Swedish and Norwegian sound “too happy,” a bit too upbeat. English sounds hard and threatening by comparison. Who knew?