15 min read

Notes On Satanic Energy In Music

Notes On Satanic Energy In Music

Pity the poor, pasty black metal musician, spending his every waking hour texting “u up?” to Lucifer Morning Star, only to have the hottest guy in Hell leave even the neediest “hail” on read. Because the Devil is a jock. And no amount of glasses removed and hair let loose can make sexy librarians out of a nerd whose library consists of nothing but the works of Evola, al-Azif, and Gygax.  You can hardly blame Satan. God’s Plan requires him to go where the money and crowds are. And cassette runs of 100 copies, no matter how transgressive the photocopied cover may be, apparently just can’t compare with pop music.

Welcome to the new edition of Abundant Living. Let’s get something out of the way. I am not mocking or making light of the horrific deaths that occurred at the recent Travis Scott concert. In both the tragedy of the loss itself and in the (frankly terrifying) way the people died, the loss of those lives is awful. And, while the response to this tragedy has been, in some quarters, inane (huge swathes of social networks devoted to the supposed Satanic imagery of the concert, and accusations of ritual sacrifice), I’m not even mocking that response. I believe in God. I believe, to a lesser degree, in evil as something intrinsic and incurable. Being friends with so many atheists, I’m also open to the idea that I might be a credulous idiot. So I try not to judge other idiots too harshly. But I do want to explore some of the ideas that are part and parcel of the mindsets that allow for me to think my prayers before takeoff might help my sky-choo-choo remain in flight and allows other people to see grand demonic planning in a fatal shitshow of poor festival management mixed with (maybe) homicidal indifference from an out-of-his-depth pop star.  

So, at the risk of Candy Man-ing myself into an early(ish) grave, let’s talk about Satanic energy in music.

When I talk about sad sacks in corpse paint getting friend-zoned by Lucifer, I’m half kidding and half not. There’s a belief, at least common among those black metal practitioners who made it through the ‘90s without succumbing to substance abuse or getting murdered by a bandmate, that the sub-genre of Heavy Metal known as “Black Metal” is as much about incantation as it is about music. As stated by Bone Awl/Raspberry Bulb’s Marco Del Rio, in a fascinating interview from the debut issue of the black metal ‘zine Tendency; “People who want to approach black metal like it’s any other genre of music are missing the deeper point: it’s really a genre that forces its adherents to reconcile what humans actually are - they are beings that are 100% capable of evil destructive acts with very questionable spiritual motives… Do not be afraid to simply acknowledge that music still has this magical capability: to connect you to history and humanity in this strange and abstract way.” When someone as clever as Del Rio presents it, this idea can be applied to any number of aspirationally transcendent genres. When someone as differently clever as Watain’s Erik Danielsson describes his band’s playing as “a mystical experience, a sense of transcendence into a loftier state of being. You leave your earthly shell behind and become one with the spiritual fire, the fierce and liberating chasm in which the Devil has his throne. It’s a loss of control, a descent into madness. We become a bridge between this world and the beyond” it's perhaps a declaration that black metal is singular in its approach.

Reasonable people might find either declaration self aggrandizing and/or deeply silly. But bear in mind that, again, I believe in God. Either you or someone you’re dating believes in astrology. Half the country believes that Joe Biden is a socialist. Everything is back on the table, baby.

Anyway, assuming both black metal frontmen are sincere in their statements, and that their more dumb counterparts are even more sincere in their need to qualify sparsely attended basement shows as “rituals,” the final result of all that incantation must occasionally be frustrating. All that grim theatre and high minded hamburger smuggling, and to what end? To see Satan supposedly haunted hayriding with Lil Nas X, and the opprobrium of all of ghost-minded Christendom aimed directly at Travis Scott. The most black metal-ers can hope for is the occasional accusation of Nazi sympathy. It’s no wonder that actual Nazis like Mgla have tamped down on the Jew hating side projects and resigned themselves to esoteric libertarianism; writing songs about “the disinformation superhighway.” They understand all too well how little real-world evil they’ve accomplished, and that if one claims to be free citizens of the intellectual dark web, as opposed to literal denizens of Hell, few will bother to check how few sheep commandments your band of red pilled swashbucklers managed to break.

What black metal, and even Satan-dabbling anti-heroes like Black Sabbath, fail to appreciate is how disinterested in unsubtle cosplay (even sincerely felt) a reasonable Satan might reasonably be interested in. At least not since the ‘70s. Black metal-ers apparently sat rapt through The Witchfinder General but nodded out during most of Rosemary’s Baby and The Omen. Lucifer has been in this biz called show for a while now and inverted (or even iron) crosses don’t carry the weight they once did. It’s for good reason that he’s called “The Prince of Lies” rather than “The Prince of Being a Bit Too On The Nose.” Money is no longer just the root of all evil, but also evil’s preferred representative on earth. As documented in Jamie Delano’s ‘80s run of the horror comic book, John Constantine: Hellblazer, and in the (admittedly racist, boring, and unwatchable) John Schlessinger film, The Believers, smiling yuppies in suits and ties, and the cheerfully cruel policies of Reagan and Thatcher and their duly elected hellspawn, are where evil is really at.

To be clear, the “evil” aspired to by many practitioners of black metal is not always the rote evil portrayed in Christianity’s anti-other propaganda. Certainly Marco Del Rio sees his music as exploration of mankind’s intrinsic capacity for horror rather than a co-signing. And Watain has consistently walked the line between “evil is cool'' and “well, actually, we just think rules suck.” Apostasy as a liberatory device has a proud tradition, and not just in heavy metal. The first lines of the Memphis rapper Lukah’s excellent new album, Why Look Up, God’s In the Mirror, are as follows, “Son, I am God: God, Allah, Buddha, all rolled up into one big n----.” Lukah would undoubtedly disavow any connections to Satanic Energy and his bars aren't exactly So block not my path/Your spells can't fetter me/Beneath the laws of man/I bend not! but they’re not not that either. Everybody not in love with chains wants to get free, and the Left Hand path is an option that lends itself to interpretation.

As seen in the response to Travis Scott (and, as most backlash was fueled more by homophobia than genuine religiosity, Lil Nas X to a far lesser extent), the misapprehension of evil’s chosen streetwear is not exclusive to the artists. It’s a confusion shared by a number of music fans. As opposed to the child sex trafficking hysteria aimed at the Washington D.C. DIY venue, Comet Ping Pong, which was largely enacted by fanatics who probably didn’t own any Fugazi album past 13 Songs, a number of those droning on about Travis Scott’s supposed channelling of demons were ostensibly fans of the Houston rapper. Citing numerology too tedious to search for, inverted cross (of course) stage design, and the fact that there was giant Travis Scott head resembling a Bosch painting, an Illuminati-addled collective (apparently unaware of either Live Nation’s history of safety violations or the film Spinal Tap) took ten seconds to grieve before proceeding to post The Eyes Emoji as vehemently as Max von Sydow crossing himself before a vomitous Linda Blair. That so many of the righteous seem to believe that the Anti-Christ requires an assortment of pre-Inquisition tchotchkes, arranged just-so, before he’ll dip his cloven hoof into human affairs, puts them on shared ecclesiastical ground as your more traditionally minded Satanists. Like I said, I’m not invested in mocking beliefs. But, aside from the obvious problem of conspiracy drawing energy from potentially necessary systemic reform, I think there’s a profound unseriousness in only being able to visualize evil as a reverse-Santa Clause, a set-in-his-ways chap whose arrival on this mortal plane is reliant on the time-tested lure of demonic milk and demonic cookies. I don’t necessarily believe in a “Devil” per se, but if he does exist I imagine he’s already pretty familiar with Texas.

The English Methodist evangelist Rowland Hill is credited with the saying; “the devil has the best tunes.” While it initially was intended as a warning, it’s more commonly used as a way to flatter our taste and predicalations. And I don’t know if it’s true either way. For one, I reject the application, from any direction, of moral judgement to hobbies (or habits). I don’t grant the devil ownership of drug addiction for the same reason I don’t grant the dude ownership of deejaying from a computer. I’m inclined to believe that neither the Mystery above or below have a strong preference for gospel over gangsta rap, and vice versa. Or at least the opposing divinities both have as many Staple Singers LPs in their respective collections as records by Mobb Deep.

That being said, if I were to attach the designation of “satanic energy” to a particular music, the starting point is as obvious (arguably too much so) as Robert Johnson’s selling of his soul at the crossroads.

A believable/relevant media representation of a contemporary personified evil, as represented by the uppermost classes and an aspirational bourgeoisie, was hinted at as early as the 1940s in cult (no pun intended) films such as The Seventh Victim (though in that particular case it’s unclear if the devil worshippers are supposed to be social strivers or just bohemians/Italians). The metaphor of mephistophelian capitalists was made clearer/came into vogue in the 1970s, with films such as Bedazzled and the aforementioned Rosemary’s Baby, and came into its own during the yuppified ‘80s and yuppies-but-hipped ‘90s, decades that were positively lousy with expressions of “under society’s happy and banal facade… EVIL.” This was further codified at the turn of the century in popular TV shows such as Buffy The Vampire Slayer and its fantasy-noir offshoot, Angel. While films, TV, and books that portrayed Satanic Forces as smooth talking faces of respectability and barely veiled greed were usually made by agnostic artists utilizing metaphor to critique capitalism run amok, that doesn’t mean those artists were only correct in the metaphor. Without taking any sides on whether the Devil does or doesn’t exist; portraying his adherents as lawyers, real estate developers, stockbrokers, or just citizens of Los Angeles, scans.

It’s easy to draw a connection between yuppie Satanism and the music most often associated with Baby Boomers selling out their previously held ideals. AOR (Adult Oriented Radio) has the distinction of preceding both College and Indie rock in having a genre name predicated more on its market than sound (though AOR’s sonic parameters were, from its inception, far more narrow than those latter examples initially were). As ably described in Michaelangelo Matos’ Can’t Slow Down: How 1984 Became Pop’s Blockbuster Year, artists such as Foreigner, Air Supply, Boston, Chicago, and Mike & The Mechanics fully embraced a market first, art second aesthetic. Cynically (and occasionally earnestly) these musicians embraced inherently exciting-in-their-potential new technologies (synthesizers, drum machines) and utilized them to manufacture the most anodyne slabs of radio real estate that could conceivably be designed by committee (committees made up of major label management, radio executives, and the aging rockers themselves eager to regain their cultural relevance/pay off their mansions made of cocaine). American Psycho, while secular in intent and execution, used the fondness that Patrick Bateman had for the works of Huey Lewis & The News and Phil Collins as shorthand for both the protagonist and the larger culture’s hollow-eyed evil. Even absent a personified evil weilding a pitchfork, the difference between selling one’s soul and not having one to begin with is largely one of semantics (and of no practical difference to those who Batemen, assuming his actions are not entirely of his own imagination, ritually murders).

Mind you, while this newsletter is not the place for contrarian defenses of “Amanda” or “The Living Years,” one would have be a punk of the most doctrinaire mindset imaginable to deny all the good works and gated drums wrought by Phillip David Charles Collins. But, as a punk-adjacent of a reasonably doctrinaire disposition, I can’t help but see Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire” as an inversion of “Sympathy For The Devil.” An inversion that’s wholesale denial of human accountability is far more conducive to the destruction of one’s soul than Mick Jagger’s (admittedly jaunty) admission/denunciation of human complicity. Even Satanic-panic-inspiring songs such as Motley Crue’s “Shout at The Devil” or Ozzy Osbourne’s “Mr. Crowley” at least see the Devil as someone who merits a fair amount of consternation. In the cosmology of Billy Joel and Mike Mechanic, Satan is irrelevant to human motivation. And that, were I Beelzebub, is how I’d get ya. The road to hell might be evocatively described by AC/DC and Rob Halford, but it’s paved with Billy Joel’s seductive call to inaction, Bruce Hornsby & The Range’s fatalistic faux-liberalism,  and even, as pointed out by the critic Chuck Eddy, the ostensibly hopeful but in fact equally nihilistic “it doesn’t even matter if we make it or not” of Bon Jovi “Livin’ On a Prayer.” (Some people might not consider Bon Jovi to be AOR. Those people are incorrect.)

Of course, anyone with even the most rudimentary understanding of how the afterlife is supposed to work knows that “easy” is a temptation to avoid. I’m extremely tempted to indulge my admittedly cliche distaste for AOR and cite it all as an example of authentically hell-driven music. I’m even tempted, if I’m feeling frisky, to extend the thesis to posit that in the success of Bon Iver in the aughts, War on Drugs’ recent production choices, and in the synth line of the new Mitski single, we see an interdimensional, mass psyoptic attempt to launder the sounds of the soul-rending selfishness of the 1980s for a new generation, thus giving the Dark Prince an inroad to mass corruption somewhat more subtle than either social-safety-netted pseudo-vikings burning churches in Norway or a giant open-mawed head of Travis Scott. But that would be crazy. Heaven forbid I believe something crazy.

Also, the notion that AOR was a tool of Satan is pretty much ruined when one considers Daryl Hall's Sacred Songs, an album recorded during the "Kiss on My List" blue-eyed soulster's dalliance with occultism. The album complimented Hall's normal '70s Sexily Sensitive Guy lyrical concerns (sad sexy chicks with existential misgivings, misgivings about said sad sexy chicks) with a smattering of references to ley lines and verses like "Because there's nothing Sacred anymore/ The thought can still be/But the sound is profane/But this and that you know they're/One and the same." Recorded in 1977 (with Robert Fripp), Dary Hall's label (RCA) shelved the album for three years and failed to promote it upon its release (resulting in Sacred Songs peaking at #58 on the Billboard Charts before dropping off entirely after just twelve weeks). It doesn't speak well of the Devil's commitment to storming the Kingdom of Heaven via smooth jams when the mortal who'd go on to write "Maneater" (and an admitted grandson of a warlock to boot) makes the most compelling musical argument for doing what thou sexily wilt being the whole of the sexy law, moreso than even Aleister Crowley's own contribution to the damnation-pop canon (if slightly less so than Danzig's "Her Black Wings"), and Satan can't even be bothered to disembowel the RCA suits who don't "hear a single."

The prosaic reality is that Satan, should he exist, probably operates in as mysterious a way as his former boss. Or, in accordance with the company line of “free will,” he allows for evil itself to be the prosaic reality.

To the inevitable frustration of the corpse paint crowd, it’s unlikely Satan listens to much music at all. With the possible exception of a sentimental favorite or two (“Götterdämmerung,” “Drift Away,” etc), Satan’s background music is whatever’s the current “Positive Vibes Only” playlist on whatever streaming service Hell subscribes to (Spotify). Like frat boys at the club, Lucifer Morning Star is less interested in the soundtrack than the ass on the floor. And like the frat boys when the DJ tries to “scare them off” with, like Nitzer Ebb or whatever, the Devil is probably unbothered by Christian Music (despite what Chris Pratt might wish to believe). Music, as much as we like to ascribe power or, ugh, “importance” to it, is irrelevant when it comes to the soul market. Why would it be? It wouldn’t be, not when perennial hits like “sending the mentally disabled to the electric chair” or “occupying a country for twenty years, funding its insurrectionist force through money given to its authoritarian neighbor, abandoning the occupied country in the dead of night, and then self righteously sanctioning the new government right before winter, during a drought” are available regardless what else might be on the Billboard charts at any given time.

Even if music did interest some larger demonic force, even if music’s potential for mass cruelty could match the blood soaked tank treads of even the most genial state power, the pickings for Music’s Satanic Spearhead would be slim. Once popular provocateurs like Marilyn Manson have been, without diminishing the real harm he’s done, reduced to being some sort of hair-ironed-Bari-Weiss, Can’t Cancel Me Because I Quit, signifier/apparatchik to Kanye West’s ongoing mental crisis. Currently popular artists don’t much dabble in Satanism nowadays, preferring to kowtow to slightly less patriarchal structures such as Hillary Clinton, Jack Antonoff, or their own sociopathic fan bases. Even the borderline-popular artists who did or do project stereotypical devil tropes don’t promise much, perdition-wise. Glenn Danzig and SahBabii may shop at the same Upside Down Cross pop-up but when they’re off the clock, the most evil they’ll probably commit to is watching dubbed anime over subbed. (Or vice-versa… I don’t actually know which is supposed to be worse.)

The need to see “Satanic energy” in music, as either a negative or a positive, is understandable. And I don’t mean that as glib condescension. Yes, the go-to of “people are looking for larger meaning in a meaningless universe” is probably applicable to many. But that’s also the dismissal that’s applied to most conspiracies. And most people who have been on the receiving end of state power know that concerted efforts of malig actors don’t necessarily depend on a Bank of Rothschild or a grassy knoll to result in Lumumba being executed, the city of Flint, Michigan to have poisoned flowing from its water taps, or a country to have entire generations decimated by landmines and drone warfare. Meaning may be hard to grasp, but there are plenty of forces greater than a single, slapped-around, human soul. So a mammoth red goat-boy, stinking of sulphur and telling whoppers like they’re going out of style, is as good a reason why bummers do abound as any.

But I don’t see it. The numbers just don’t work. What investment would a rational Archfiend deign to make in an industry where a band can sell 44,000 copies and still be considered Number One? Further, even granting an early demonic interest in music; taking at face value both the good Preacher Rowland Hill's warning about Lucifer's copywrite long-game and Robert Johnson's creation/damnation myth, there's simply no way to reasonably believe that the Lord of Hell was still doing A&R past, say, January of 2004; the month that affable guitar lotherio John Mayer collaborated with Steve Jobs to debut Apple's GarageBand.  Satanic musical energies need not be either meritocratic or populist but, after Apple and the internet made Satan's chief bartering chips (talent, popularity, sex, money) both accesible to all and arbitrarily massive in their bestowal, it would be hard to blame any theoretically existent Anti-Christ for divesting from music entirely and redoubling his Omen-esque focus on anti-vaxers, the DeVos/Prince family, and all the other rictus-grin hobgoblins with a bankable chance of paying out dividends in Hell.

Luckily, despite the democratization of the inanity once confined to it's industry, and its miniscule relevance compared to video games and pornography (not to mention the wholesale collective dismisal of the the Seventh Commandment, as it might be applied to its recordings), I do believe that music still serves as a tool of transcendence (even on a small scale), escape (even momentarily), and liberatory joy (for as long as one’s feverishly worried brain allows).

Of course if I were the Devil, and music was my weapon of choice for consigning human souls to an eternity of hellfire and agony, that’s how I would end my newsletter, isn’t it?  Hail etc etc etc.

Thanks for reading! Please, please, please share and subscribe!