Lovecraft, baby!

Pub date October 27, 2009
SectionMusicSectionMusic Features

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Lovecraft is a resonating wave. He’s rock and roll.

— Neil Gaiman, "Concerning Dreams and Nightmares," The Dream Cycle of H.P. Lovecraft: Dreams of Terror and Death

LIT/MUSIC Howard Phillips Lovecraft (1890-1937) attributes most of his fiction’s cosmology to the apocryphal Necronomicon, an ageless sort of anti-Bible that describes a universe of unfathomable strangeness superimposed over our own. Not content with obscurity, this alternate reality tends to extend its clammy tendrils into our collective line of vision, yielding all sorts of therapy-necessitating results. Of course, the Necronomicon‘s legend overshadows its reality. Yet in the kind of self-reflexive twist the famously anti-modern writer would have probably hated, the tome’s enduring mystique acts as a summation of his own work’s post-pulp shelf life.

Lovecraft never got a chance to see it happen, but the spawn of his fevered imagination has been consistently reproduced in all sorts of geek media, from role-playing games to plush dolls. Some of the most interesting representations of the reclusive author’s output, however, come from the realm of loud-ass rock music, another modern contrivance Lovecraft would have almost certainly despised.

The first instance of Lovecraft’s legacy infiltrating rock music seems to be with the late-1960s psychedelic folk outfit known as, appropriately enough, H.P. Lovecraft. This group took after the sense of fantastic spaciousness conveyed in its namesake’s oeuvre, meandering in dreamy walls of sound that circumvent any buried unease without actually going anywhere. "At the Mountains of Madness" from 1968’s H.P. Lovecraft II (Phillips) spends five or so minutes layering organ arpeggios, vocal harmonies, and a collage of period echo effects into one of the better musical approximations of a lava lamp — a languid sonic pattern that’s fun to lose yourself in for a while, before you realize the shifting plasma is never going to do anything crazier than its mannered glass walls will allow. It was a promising start, but the essential menace of these unexplored worlds seemed to intimidate the band, like the intrusive pang of fear that could send even the most cosmic of folk-rock trips spiraling into twisted Syd Barrett territory. It would take a group with a special predilection to the macabre to help steer Lovecraft-rock towards reaching its full potential.

By the early ’70s, H.P. Lovecraft and its like were devoured by the cyclopean (to borrow H.P.’s favorite adjective) Black Sabbath, whose Black Sabbath (Warner Brothers, 1970) pays homage to the neurotic master with the typically sinister power-groove of "Beyond the Wall of Sleep." In what should come as no surprise to anybody familiar with the Birmingham, England four-piece’s career arc, the doom gods immediately honed in on the potential psychedelic allegory of Lovecraft’s work. While the "deadly petals with strange powers" are the focal point of Ozzy’s lyrics, Geezer Butler’s snakelike bass line adds a decidedly mysterious undercurrent to the track, like some implicit ghoulishness is being mercifully withheld from the listener. (Sabbath acolyte Sleep would pick up where its primary influence left off. "From Beyond," from 1992’s Sleep’s Holy Mountain [Earache] eschews Butler’s measured playing, allowing Al Cisneros’s bass tone to swell to neutron star proportions. Likewise, lyrical allusions to "planetoids soaked in rays of electric light" and the approaching "stoner caravan from deep space" have an affinity with the author’s sprawling, pulp-lyricism rather than his feel for claustrophobic menace, the norm for most other Lovecraft-inspired songs.)

Metallica puts this strategic withholding to use in Ride the Lightning‘s (Megaforce, 1984) "The Call of Ktulu," a sprawling, misspelled instrumental tribute to Lovecraft’s beloved cephalopod-head. With its hypnotically creeping guitar theme, the album’s epic closer mirrors the arch of the typical Lovecraft narrator’s psyche — a curious unease that gradually swells to a crescendo of madness — while doing justice to the cadence of Lovecraft’s baroque language. The absence of vocals is part of why the track is so effective. By stripping away the inevitably sub-Lovecraft lyrics, Metallica allows the listener to be absorbed by the brooding tone rather than any deficient attempts at reproducing content.

Like Black Sabbath and Metallica before them, countless heavy metal acts past and present have been fascinated by the worlds and creatures described in H.P. Lovecraft’s labyrinth of fiction — Morbid Angel’s prized shredder Trey Azagthoth even modifies one of the more formidable creature’s monikers for his stage name (and in another parallel, gives death metal some of its most batshit-dissonant solos.) But one notable band of Lovecraft acolytes comes from the seemingly incongruous world of British punk.

The iconoclastic (read: fucking weird) Rudimentary Peni and their 1988 LP Cacophony (Himalayan) eschew the subtlety of some of their peers in the Lovecraftian rock canon and go straight for the brainstem. While others withhold (to varying degrees of effectiveness), Rudimentary Peni overload. As a concept album, Cacophony is as much about Lovecraft’s psyche as it is his literary creations. Nick Blinko uses the senseless feedback of his guitar amp, coupled with schizophrenic, mumbled vocals, to create a supremely ugly conflation of fiction, biography, and amateur psychopathological diagnosis.

A far cry from the static kaleidoscope of sound employed by canon forefathers H.P. Lovecraft, Rudimentary Peni’s use of layered tones and effects spirals inward with single-minded intensity. Standout songs like "The Horror in the Museum" and "Zenophobia" tenuously adhere to the sing-along, pogo-conducive structure traditionally associated with British punk. Yet closer listening reveals these barely stable hooks to be composed of a vast latticework — not unlike the album’s disturbingly detailed, fractal-like cover art — of dissonant string-bends, amplifier squeaks, disjointed basslines, and a persistent, barely intelligible whisper that seems to work itself into the fiber of the guitar tone.

The result is a funhouse doppelganger of the multilayered production of the group’s unlikely 1960s ancestor. Cacophony appears to be about crafting some kind of stable impression of the man, but the Peni make a point of never letting the components fully fit together. Instead, we are left with a virtual echo chamber of Lovecraft’s imagination, wherein the scraps and fragments of his writings and real-life neuroses intermingle and inform each other without ever coalescing. In spite of the band’s unmerciful approach, there’s a feeling of being denied the full effect of some unspeakable horror. But this horror is strictly cerebral, a glimpse at the madness that looms over Lovecraft’s work like one of his own reasonless "Other Gods." Happy Halloween, big guy! Eeyagh!