Anthems of the Anthropocene: Heavy Metal Music and the Environmental Conversation

Updated on July 30, 2020
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Justin W. Price, AKA PDXKaraokeGuy, is a freelance writer, blogger, and award-nominated author based out of Juneau, Alaska.

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Anthems of the Anthropocene: Heavy Metal Music and the Environmental Conversation.

While there have been people calling for environmental preservation since the Industrial Revolution, it has only been in recent years that environmental activism has come to the forefront of public discussion. One can trace this rise in ecological awareness back to the hippie movement of the 1960s and '70s, when musicians such as Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and others brought up the cause of preserving Mother Earth. At the time, this issue was largely ignored by the establishment and was generally seen as a fringe, countercultural movement. Now, as we approach the third decade of the twenty-first century, humanity finds itself well into the Anthropocene, and the issues of environmental awareness and conservation has come to the forefront of the global conversation—though, perhaps, it is still the counterculture, underground movements that have the loudest voice.

Heavy metal and hardcore music have long appealed to those on the fringes of society. These extreme, and to the uninitiated, atonal and loud, styles of music appeal to the outcast and to those who find themselves unable to fit in with mainstream society. As with many other kinds of music, much of it is mindless fun. However, there are several artists and groups creating this extreme music with an eye towards social issues that are often swept under the rug or minimized by the establishment.

Many, if not most, heavy metal bands use graphic lyrics to tell a story and paint a picture. Some, such as Cannibal Corpse, create music with lyrics that are shockingly gory but, ultimately, lacking in any quantitative substance. However, the nature of heavy metal, with its no-holds-barred approach and devil-may-care attitude, lends itself to the discussion of topics like the Anthropocene, deploying its extreme and violent lyrics for a purpose. Some bands such as Cattle Decapitation, Earth Crisis and Gojira have dedicated their musical talents to further environmental causes and even misanthropy. Others, like Megadeth and Tourniquet, often speak of environmentalism but couple it with other political, social, and spiritual issues. In any case, the lyrics are hard-hitting and shocking and provide an effective voice to the conversation.

This paper will discuss how heavy metal and extreme music is an important voice in the environmental discussion and why the underlying message should be embraced by anyone who has a passion for the environment, even if they can’t get behind the loud, in-your-face music. This discussion will focus on one song that serves as a representative sample of why the loud message of heavy metal music is relevant to the Anthropogenic discussion, but it is by no means the only example.

An·thro·po·cene /ˈanTHrəpəˌsēn/

Adjective

Relating to or denoting the current geological age, viewed as the period during which human activity has been the dominant influence on climate and the environment.

"We've become a major force of nature in this new Anthropocene epoch"

Noun

The current geological age, viewed as the period during which human activity has been the dominant influence on climate and the environment.

"Some geologists argue that the Anthropocene began with the industrial revolution."

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Why heavy metal… and why metal heads?

On television and in films, fans and performers of heavy metal music are often seen as dimwitted, shallow and self-centered. This, however, does not mesh with reality. In fact, a study performed by research psychologists at several universities, including Ohio State and University of Texas- Austin conducted a survey of self-described fans of heavy metal. What they found was quite fascinating. Metalheads, while generally less risk averse in their youth, grew up to be well-adjusted adults with high degrees of intelligence, education and empathy. They were well-read and well-learned and had a strong grasp on many important societal and political issues. Clearly, as in many cases, the stereotypes do not conform to reality.

Metalheads form close bonds with other metalheads, and they tend to thrive on the outskirts of conventional society, enjoying the role of being misunderstood outcasts. Because they see themselves as outsiders and well outside of the establishment, when it comes to their entertainment and art—and the fact that they are more prone to risk-taking than conventional society—they often embrace lyrical themes that pop artists would find taboo. Some of these lyrics are distasteful at best, detailing such dark topics as necrophilia, graphic violence, rape, and murder. However, some heavy metal musicians also use this interest in the macabre to tackle important societal issues, including capital punishment, abortion, political and religious corruption, child abuse, and environmental issues.

Not only is the subject matter of interest, but, because of the extreme nature of heavy metal—especially subgenres such as death metal, grind core, and black metal—the perspectives on these subjects tend to be wildly violent, obscene, and shocking. While the graphic and obscene lyrics are meant to offend, this, in many ways, serves only to make them more effective—especially since heavy metal tends to appeal to more impressionable youths. What is learned in youth has been shown to have a more lasting impact than things learned in adulthood.

Since it has been established that heavy metal music and culture is relevant and vital to the discussion of the environment, the journey to find the strongest voices begins. There are a plethora of albums and artists in the broad genre of heavy metal that discuss environmental issues, and many merit explorations. For the purposes of this discussion, I have chosen to focus on one song: “Mammals in Babylon” by the death metal band Cattle Decapitation. Death metal is an extreme subgenre of heavy metal music that is performed using heavily distorted and low-tuned guitars (which are typically played using palm muting and tremolo picking), throaty vocals, vicious drumming (featuring double-kick and blast beats), minor keys, discordance, rapid tempo, key and time signature changes, and chromatic chord progressions. The lyrics are typically obsessed with death, suffering, and destruction—which is where the genre got its name.

logo for death metal band, Cattle Decapitation
logo for death metal band, Cattle Decapitation

Cattle Decapitation

Cattle Decapitation was formed in 1996 in San Diego, California. The sole purpose of the band lyrically has been to bring awareness (usually in the most shocking way possible) to the mistreatment of animals and humankind’s abuse of the environment, with more than a touch of misanthropy. Much of the band’s lyrical content involves putting humans in the situations that animals are subjected to, including slaughterhouses, animal testing, and mass meat production. The band has never shied away from controversy, often choosing shocking images and brutal lyrics, which are always accompanied by brash and violent music.

While heavy metal music appeals to a subset of individuals, extreme metal subgenres, such as death metal—the music that Cattle Decapitation performs—appeal to an even smaller subset of individuals. Because of this limited fanbase, one could argue that their contribution to the discussion of the Anthropocene is minimal. However, I intend to show that even though the audience may be limited, the content is vitally important and should be absorbed by anyone who lives on Planet Earth.

With each album, Cattle Decapitation develops upon its technicality, bringing forth a fresh approach to brutality and passion. But this brutality is not just for shock value: it is for the expressed purpose to get the message of the Anthropocene out in a unique way. In 2015, the band released the album The Anthropocene Extinction. This concept album explored topics such as the perplexing ecological changes taking place in our world. For vocalist and lyricist Travis Ryan, extreme music has allowed him to speak to these issues and the chilling results they bring.

The Anthropocene Extinction by Cattle Decapitation
The Anthropocene Extinction by Cattle Decapitation

The Anthropocene Extinction

With each album, Cattle Decapitation develops upon its technicality, bringing forth a fresh approach to brutality and passion. But this brutality is not just for shock value: it is for the expressed purpose to get the message of the Anthropocene out in a unique way. In 2015, the band released the album The Anthropocene Extinction. This concept album explored topics such as the perplexing ecological changes taking place in our world. For vocalist and lyricist Travis Ryan, extreme music has allowed him to speak to these issues and the chilling results they bring.

"Mammals in Babylon"

One of the songs from the album is entitled “Mammals in Babylon.” The song tells the story of the Anthropocene. We, humans, had dominion over the earth and all its resources, and instead of using that privilege to help and coexist with all creatures on the planet, we exploited those resources for our own gain—financial and otherwise. The full text of the song is below, follow by a deconstruction of those lyrics on a smaller scale and how they relate to the Anthropogenic conversation. The lyrics are by Travis Ryan and are his intellectual property:

"We had it all

The whole of Eden in our hands
The privilege of existence
The ubiquitous lay of the land
We suffocate ourselves
We defecate on the product line
Fell under our own spell
Carelessly crafted hell
You can’t escape your own rape when you’re not the only rapist
Too many people in this world to simply forgive, to only forget
Obsessive procreators
Destined for failure
Mine eyes caught staring through these mercenaries
Ashamed that I am of the same class
Carnivora, primates, rodentia mammalia
No reason to suffer suffer anymore
Not today in this day and age
The stench of ulphur, brimstone-lined shores
Lake of flames is this day and age
As a human, slave unto my acumen
Request to defect, reject this sect imperfect
Too many people in this world
To simply forgive, to only forget
Obsessed with ideas of saviors
Destined for failure
Perturbing vertebrates
Articulated subordinates
Scatter
Sociopathic pervasive demographic
The messiah, the humans, these ingrates, goddamn them all
Contaminate, infested, adulteration—hominoidea"

Listen to It Here

Cattle Decapitation
Cattle Decapitation | Source

"Mammals in Babylon" Deconstructed

Beginning with the title, one cannot help but notice the amount of religious imagery contained within the lyrics. This is no doubt intentional, but, what was the reason? Perhaps it was a call to religious groups to take better care of the earth since most religions around the world call for the respect of nature. Perhaps it was just a useful metaphor. The word “Babylon” is particularly key here. Babylon was an ancient town in what is now modern-day Iraq. Babylon is used in Christian eschatology as a symbol for evil and for the end of times. The concept of the Whore of Babylon is also of particular interest here. In Revelation, the Whore of Babylon is used as a symbol for evil that eventually leads to the fall of the empire: “And upon her forehead was a name written, MYSTERY, BABYLON THE GREAT, THE MOTHER OF HARLOTS AND ABOMINATIONS OF THE EARTH” (Revelation 17:5, King James Version). Based on this evidence, it becomes clear that the title “Mammals in Babylon” is a warning that the current state of the world is evil and preparing for a fall if we mammals (humans) do not change our ways.

While the title infers the end of the age, the song opens with the optimism of new beginnings. The title references Revelation; however, the song begins by referencing the book of Genesis, the first book in the Christian Bible (creating an interesting bookend). With the first lines, the story of how we got here begins: “The whole of Eden in our hands/The privilege of existence/The ubiquitous lay of the land.” This opening very closely resembles Genesis 1:28: “And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.”

“Eden,” in Christian mythology, was the place where mankind first existed between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers—also likely in modern day Iraq. Eden was perfect. There was no death, sickness, pain or suffering. In this place of perfection, we humans were instructed to manage, care for and populate the earth.

In 2015, when this song was released, lyricist Travis Ryan stated in an interview that he “despises Christianity,” so it is especially interesting that he uses Christian imagery with this song. One could almost read these lyrics as a challenge to Christians to do what the Bible says about caring for the earth. Or it could be that he simply enjoys the imagery, which is universally well known, even to those who don’t adhere to any particular religion.

But, all did not stay perfect in Eden. Adam and Eve, the inhabitants of Eden, were given the “Ubiquitous lay of the land” but with one caveat: “But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.” (Genesis 2:17, KJV). This ushered in the fall of mankind and, in essence, the fall of nature: “We defecate on the product line/ Fell under our own spell/Carelessly crafted hell.” Ryan is stating this idea in a more graphic way. We had it all and we screwed it up—not only for ourselves but also for the entire planet.

“You can’t escape your own rape when you’re not the only rapist/Too many people in this world to simply forgive, to only forget/ Obsessive procreators/Destined for failure.” Adam and Eve are a metaphor for humankind in general. Mankind was ordered to populate the earth but now, as we approach seven billion individuals, there are simply “too many people.” And, we are all responsible for the plunder of the earth and its resources. This is unforgivable and unforgettable, as the song notes. Not only that, but we continue to procreate obsessively. This is even glorified in television programs like “21 Kids and Counting” and “Jon and Kate Plus Eight” This overpopulation is accelerating the demise of the planet. Indeed, we are destined for failure as a species. This is one of the fundamental messages of the Anthropocene.

More than that, we are all responsible. We humans are all responsible for the raping of the earth, no matter how environmentally conscious we are. More than that, even if we do our part, there is always someone that is not. We are all the rapists, and there are many of us committing this rape of the earth.

“Mine eyes caught staring through these mercenaries.” This next line seems like a direct attack on consumer culture and capitalism, a definite nod to the Capitalocene. Humans see the earth as something to use for financial gain—with reckless disregard of the consequences. Mercenaries are interested in profit above all else—even at the expense of ethics and the earth itself.

The song continues: “Ashamed that I am of the same class/Carnivora, primates, rodentia mammalia.” Here, it is made clear that he is ashamed to be part of the human race that exploits and plunders the earth. He then lists carnivores, primates, rats and mammals (in Latin) as all being the same. This could be read as all creatures on earth being linked, or these could all be attributes of humanity that are contributing to the problem: We kill and consume animals (Carnivora), we are primates, we obsessively breed (rodentia) and ultimately, we humans are mammals contributing to this Babylon.

“No reason to suffer anymore/Not today in this day and age.” This next line is fairly straightforward. With advances in technology and with the knowledge that we have, there is no reason for widespread suffering. We can conserve our resources while still using them. Scientific advances have even made it so that we do not even need to consume animal flesh anymore. Travis Ryan is a vegetarian. It is part of how he works to save the planet. This line makes the claim that no one, particularly animals and the earth, needs to suffer anymore. We are advanced enough in our knowledge to find a better way.

“The stench of sulphur, brimstone-lined shores/Lake of flames is this day and age.” Sulphur stinks. More than that, in small doses it is harmless, but large doses can make one sick. As a result of pollution (most of which is caused by man, directly or indirectly), we have more sulphur, which causes a stench and can cause sickness. Likewise, because of the heating of the earth, lakes, oceans, and rivers are all warming. While the lake of flames is not literal, it does represent the warming of bodies of water, which are critical to the overall balance of the earth.

“As a human, slave unto my acumen/Request to defect, reject this sect imperfect.” Humans are supposed to have common sense and make good decisions. This line of the song suggests that our reasoning ability when it comes to environmental choices is suspect. Here also, Ryan makes another misanthropic statement, wishing to be separate from the sect of humanity. The interesting word here, though, is “imperfect.” It is clear here that the speaker is not expecting us to be perfect or to make great decisions consistently. He recognizes that we are indeed imperfect. However, he does not wish to be a part of this imperfection. He no longer wants to be one of the rapists.

After the chorus repeats, the speaker observes: “Obsessed with ideas of saviors/Destined for failure” This could be interpreted as humans passing the buck. Someone else will save us so we individuals do not need to worry about doing our part. Someone else will do it for us. Once again, this attitude leaves us destined for failure. In essence, the speaker is imploring us to be our own savior and take responsibility for our actions and our part of the problem. To keep passing the buck is failure. This is also another use of the religious imagery found in the song.

“Perturbing vertebrates/Articulated subordinates/Scatter.” Once again, he points back to man. We are perturbing, which means that we cause anxiety. Additionally, we are two-faced subordinates. I interpret this again as subordinates to the religion of capitalism. We say one thing, but our religion forces us to act differently. This hearkens back to the previous line about looking for saviors and not acting on our own volition.

“Sociopathic pervasive demographic/The messiah, the humans, these ingrates, goddamn them all.” Sociopaths act without regard to other people—or even other creatures. It is not that sociopaths are immoral; it is that they cannot recognize the concept of other individuals. The world is theirs and only theirs, and consequences be damned. Additionally, we human beings are a pervasive, even invasive, species. While the earth has always had period of warming and cooling, the acceleration of Climate change is largely the fault of humankind’s disregard for the environment. Loss of habitat, poaching, mass meat production—all of these things are, in the eye of the speaker, sociopathic and pervasive and are contributing to the extinction of many creatures on earth—including, as the song title suggests, our own species. He is tired of humans being this way: so ungrateful for all that we have available to us on this planet, and to all that potential that we have. He hearkens back to religion for a moment—albeit in a somewhat crass way—asking God to damn all of humanity for its actions towards the planet.

Finally, the song ends with perhaps the most brutal statement about the evils of man. It is undeniably misanthropic: “Contaminate, infested, adulteration – hominoidea.” Humans are a contamination; we are infested and we are pervasive. We do not belong here and we are always putting ourselves where we do not belong. According to this song, and much of the discussion around the Anthropocene, humans are the problem and humans have the power to make positive change.

Conclusion

The lyrics in this song are undeniably harsh and intentionally brutal and offensive. The music itself is abrasive, complex and loud-- just like the problems associated with Climate Change. Nonetheless, when looked at as a whole, the message of the song is somewhat positive. Yes, we humans have done all of the terrible things, and many of these things are irreversible—but it is not too late. We may be mammals living in Babylon, but the clock is still ticking. We can still reverse the course of history. This song is a call to action as much as it is warning and a scathing commentary on the history of the Anthropocene. Whether you can accept the music behind the message, the lyrics should be absorbed and considered by everyone. And that is what makes this music important.

Works Cited

Bonneuil, Christophe, and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz. The Shock of the Anthropocene: the Earth, History, and Us. Verso, 2017.

Decapitation, Cattle. The Anthropocene Extinction, Metal Blade, 2015.

Howe, Tasha R, and HSU. Sponsored Programs Foundation. “Three Decades Later: The Life Experiences and Mid-Life Functioning of 1980s Heavy Metal Groupies, Musicians, and Fans.” Taylor & Francis, https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/15298868.2015.1036918?journalCode=psai20.

Pementel, Michael. “Cattle Decapitation's Travis Ryan on Death Atlas, Emotion in Extreme Music, and More.” Consequence of Sound, 25 Nov. 2019, https://consequenceofsound.net/2019/11/cattle-decapitation-travis-ryan-interview-2019/.

Staff, Invisible Oranges. “Interview: Travis Ryan (Cattle Decapitation).” Invisible Oranges - The Metal Blog, 28 Oct. 2015, http://www.invisibleoranges.com/interview-travis-ryan-cattle-decapitation/.

© 2020 Justin W Price

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