Just in time for Halloween and Dia de los Muertos, T&E contributors present a collection of 24 songs about death. This collab post ranges from the macabre atmosphere of death metal to acoustic folk tunes that celebrate life beyond the grave.
Song: “Draped in Cerecloth”
Album: Epitome of Darkness
Sweden’s Repugnant makes us all yearn for the death metal of yesteryear. Their one and only full length album, Epitome of Darkness, was released in 2006, but sonically doesn’t sound older than 1989. The blistering and decrepit death-thrash on this record sounds right at home with the likes of Morbid, Nihilist, Merciless, and Treblinka – really any of the gods of the demo-days of the early Swedish death metal scene before the Sunlight sound started to dominate. But all of this nostalgia and warm-and-fuzzy feelings are making us think of the wrong holiday. This is about fuckin’ death! Indeed, if anyone is still reaching for that ugly Christmas sweater, I implore you to listen to any song off of this album first. Epitome of Darkness might as well be called Epitome of Death. Everything from the vocals to the production to the lyrics to the artwork – really every part this album reeks of putrefaction, of rotting crypts, of death itself. Amongst the wonderfully macabre collection of songs on this album, “Draped in Cerecloth” stands out for its unrelenting speed, heavily audible riff-tastic bass lines, cacophonous crypt-like production, and soul-shredding shrieks from beyond the grave. Let’s also take a moment to acknowledge the spooky lyrics on this song: "Exhumation of a tomb/Evil haunted catacomb/Rotten corpse covered in dust/Drained arteries in rust/Bring a saw, cut off an arm/Necrophilia has its charm/Molestation of the dead/Fucking with a cut-off head." That’s sure to give you a fright this Halloween season!
Song: “Internal Landscapes”
Album: Weather Systems
The three Cavanagh brothers with friends, more commonly known as Anathema, have always been a go-to for me on a rainy day. The band plays a deeply emotional and atmospheric flavor of progressive rock that’s oftentimes quite soft and, to be honest, extremely depressing. Their penchant for gloom is amplified by their lyrical subject matter which for the most part centers around personal struggles, despair, and the darker side of relationships and love. Indeed, they have many songs about suicide, loss, and the like, but my favorite song that they’ve done about death is actually quite touching and uplifting. “Internal Landscapes” is bookended by audio of a softly spoken man explaining his near death experience and has some of the band’s most haunting, emotionally complex, and powerful music sandwiched in the middle. The intro audio sample transitions beautifully into a predominately acoustic beginning where male and female voices began to trade off lyrics about love, life, and goodbye. As the song picks up pace, the voices become more emotive, the softness becomes louder, and the entirety of the music continues to crescendo until the song reaches it’s a fever peak before finally, bittersweet-ly, letting go and transitioning to the second half of the audio sample. Even if you weren’t listening to the lyrics and were just entranced by Danny Cavanagh’s incredible voice, you can’t help but feel what’s going on. I have never heard a single song so perfectly capture something so emotionally complex; “Internal Landscapes” is a musical representation of the emotional rollercoaster associated with confronting death. Facing the death of a loved one is never easy, it’s a messy combination of love, laughter, sadness, longing, resentment, and eventual acceptance. Losing someone close to you will make you feel your emotional extremes, and that’s what Anathema have managed to do in this track.
Song: “Corporal Jigsore Quandary”
Album: Necroticism – Descanting the Insalubrious
Carcass are a seminal band for all things death. The band is considered to be the major inspiration and musical foundation for most deathgrind/goregrind bands, played some of the heaviest and goriest death metal around, is considered one of the founding fathers of melodic death metal, and even dabbled in death ‘n’ roll before disbanding. They also brought us wonderful album covers such as the one pictured here. But don’t let all that death-street-cred fool you, they’re just a bunch of guys from Liverpool, so you know they’re i.) cheeky and ii.) amazing songwriters. Necroticism – Descanting the Insalubrious is the third Carcass album and is squarely in the middle of their musical evolution. The music on this album is much more clearly death metal than the deathgrind of Symphonies of Sickness, with longer, more progressive song structures, a cleaner production, and more leads and solos than ever. “Corporal Jigsore Quandry”, in particular, has some of the catchiest death metal drum beats, meatiest riffs, and best scream/growl vocal combinations of any song of this era. While musically this album represented the band’s biggest change yet, lyrically, all things were thankfully the same as usual. Like many death metal bands, Carcass sang about death and gore, but they always did so in such a unique, intelligent way, essentially combining medical and pathology textbooks with wit and wordsmithery only an Englishman could have. For example, “Corporal Jigsore Quandry” is about the difficulty of solving a human jigsaw puzzle, with the lyrical results being both oddly accurate and undoubtedly hilarious. "Scattered and scrambled, your teasement grows/a bloody caricature to make whole/A squirming grisly jigsaw, detrital fragments fit so snug/that missing piece will leave you stumped/Totally disassembled, nicely sliced and diced/a cold mannequin once resembled/Real cranium teaser, carved from flesh and bone/so mystifying." You can’t help but feel bad for how hard putting that body back together must be. If there’s one thing that Carcass can teach us ahead of this year’s Halloween festivities, it’s that you should cut your victims apart in a thoughtful manner. Lest the other neighborhood psychopath, who likes to put together pieces of other people’s victims, have as much difficulty as the protagonist of “Corporal Jigsore Quandry”.
Artist: Mariachi El Bronx
Album: Mariachi El Bronx (III)
Death and associated acts (i.e. Halloween) are traditionally geared toward the spooky. Witness here an interesting exception, as Mariachi El Bronx opt for something a little more sweet and sad than ghosts and ghouls, albeit featuring a very haunting refrain. Standing out from the rest of the album, which blends traditional mariachi styles with Americana-like folksy tunes in various ratios, this album-ender leaves the listener very introspective, and maybe with just the merest hint of a tear in their eye. I swear, it’s just the new contacts. I don’t cry.
You’ll hear horns in the vein of traditional mariachi, but they’re a bit more reserved; muted by some deep sorrow, perhaps. The vocals are gentle and sweet, and tell a story of wistfulness, longing for someone dear who has passed and a coming to terms with the fact that we must all, at some point, die. I wouldn’t recommend you put this on the ~spook~ playlist to terrify neighbors, friends, and family alike, but instead share it with someone close to you and let it wash over you.
Song: “10,000 Days (Wings Part 2)”
Album: 10,000 Days
Establishing a trend for picking unspooky (and therefore blasphemous) tunes, Tool’s monumental “10,000 Days” takes the cake when it comes to harrowing tales of loss. MJK tells the story of someone of impeccable faith and some share of arrogance, narrating their passing from the purifying fires of Purgatory, having spent a sufficient 10,000 days within its bosom, and standing at last before the pearly gates, demanding to be brought at once to the Holy Trinity. This 11-minute mammoth masterpiece ends with advice to the supposedly departed, recommending confidence in their own purity when confronted by their maker. I imagine far wiser people than I have dissected the depth presented in MJK’s lyrical imagery, so I’ll leave such discussions to them. All I can say for sure is that it is one hell of a jam.
Song: “Ring Around the Rosy”
Artist: N/A (folk tune)
Album: N/A (folk tune)
Now we’re talkin’, folks. The strange children’s rhyme makes an appearance in my list due to some of the rather macabre connotations it has held. Read carefully below:
Ring around the rosy/Pocket full of posies/Ashes, ashes/We all fall down.
What death exists here, aside from the creepiness that such nursery rhymes and youthful themes can bring (think “Chuckie”)? Well, for many years now it has been a sort of urban legend that this centuries-old tune was somehow a sing-song reference to the bubonic plague outbreaks in London. Think of the connections, friends. The these ringed, rosy so-called posy pockets? These could indeed be a direct reference to a common symptom of the black plague: the development of boil-like formations on the afflicted person. Ashes, you ask? Perhaps the burning of the victim’s possessions, clothing, or even person, in an attempt to purge the illness and prevent its spread; or some sort of feverish symptoms from the sick person. And finally, the act of “falling down” can hardly be mistaken. After all, the dead do not typically stand…Beware, readers, lest you get too spooked while contemplating such ditties as this.
*It’s worth noting that those knowledgeable in folklore surrounding folk tunes such generally do not stand behind this origin story much at all, but that is much less fun.
Song: "The Gates”
Album: A Piece of Strange
This track from the Southern hip-hop trio’s 2006 classic A Piece of Strange is less about death and more about what comes after, particularly if you’re a racist firefighter. I won’t give the whole story away, but Tonedeff and Deacon trade verses over ethereal instrumentals to craft a narrative about a man who dies and appears at the gates of heaven thinking he’ll be let in, only to be confronted with some pretty ugly shit from his past. Turn the lights down and close your eyes for this one - let the atmospheric swells, vinyl crackling, huge acoustic bass line, and the soulful chorus of “I don’t believe I’m gonna live to get much older” slowly carry you towards the light. You probably won’t get scared while you’re listening, but it’ll definitely haunt you.
Song: “St. James Infirmary”
Artist: Louis Armstrong
Album: Best of Jazz Classics
Old jazz standards might not be the most obvious place to look for something spooky to get down to, but “St. James Infirmary” is what it’s all about. The song dates back to an 18th century English folk tune about a soldier who falls in love with a hooker. The soldier goes down to St. James Infirmary, a London hospital where they sent people with leprosy, only to find his lover dead from syphilis, leaving him with the realization that he’s doomed to share her fate. No one knows for sure exactly who wrote it, but since then it’s been covered dozens of times by artists including Duke Ellington, The White Stripes and my shitty high school jazz combo. This 1928 rendition from Louis Armstrong brought the song into popular consciousness, and when you hear Louis growl about his baby being “stretched out on a long white table, so cold, so sweet, so fair,” you’ll see why.
Song: “Long Black Veil”
Artist: Johnny Cash
Album: Love, God, Murder
This Johnny Cash cover of an old country ballad from the 1950’s has everything you could possibly want from a spooky song about death: an unsolved murder, adultery, a wrongful public execution, and some lady walking around a cemetery at night crying over bones. Nothing too complicated here folks, just enjoy yourselves.
Song: “Make My”
Artist: The Roots
In the vast catalog of dopeness that is just about everything The Roots have ever done, this track probably wouldn’t win any awards for their best, but it’s arguably their most emotionally potent. undun is a concept album about a character named Redford Stevens fighting to make it through urban poverty, and “Make My” is about his untimely death. In the first verse, Big K.R.I.T. rhymes about Redford’s struggle for the finer things in life (“Ocean fronts, rolling blunts with model chicks”), only to come out the other side feeling empty and unfulfilled. The next verse finds Redford “contemplating that special dedication/To whoever it may concern, my letter of resignation”. If it wasn’t obvious by now, the chorus of “Maybe I’ll throw in the towel, make my departure from the world”, makes it clear that Redford is about to commit suicide. The track finishes up with almost two minutes of chaotic, ghoulish instrumentals that represent the despair of Redford’s internal struggle. While this track is just one piece in a complex fictional narrative, “Make My” is downright chilling for how perfectly it captures feelings of loss and helplessness.
Song: “Someone’s in the Wolf”
Artist: Queens of the Stone Age
Album: Lullabies to Paralyze
If nothing I’ve picked up to this point has creeped you out, hopefully this one will do the trick. Queens of the Stone Age are well-known for their dark, drug-fueled brand of hard rock, but “Someone’s in the Wolf” always struck me as being especially twisted. The seven-minute epic starts with a full-frontal assault of dissonant, ascending guitar riffs before giving way to a hypnotic march led by nightmarish vocals and people literally fucking moaning like zombies. After a couple rounds of the chorus “So glad you could stay forever”, things quiet down a bit. Distorted bass and a lone cymbal drive a slow, pulsing interlude sprinkled with spacey slide guitar, sounds of knives sharpening, and whispers that I imagine are sort of like what insane asylum patients hear when they go off their meds. Just as those feelings of paranoia that someone (or something) is watching you start to kick in, the chorus comes back to remind you that by listening to this song you have stepped into some sort of demented carnival from hell. The song finishes with a devastating refrain of the original opening riff with some creepy chanting thrown in just for fun. Besides being delightfully weird, “Someone’s in the Wolf” also showcases what I think is some of the band’s absolute best guitar work. I definitely recommend this as your soundtrack for seances, gravedigging, witch burnings, or whatever other weirdness you’ve got planned this Halloween.
Song: “Title Music”
Artist: Wendy Carlos
Album: A Clockwork Orange
Taken at face value, this piece of music isn’t necessarily about death. But two background points argue otherwise. First of all, the song is an electronic transcription of Henry Purcell's "Music for the Funeral of Queen Mary," meaning it was literally written to be played at a funeral. (Musicians were apparently much more straightforward about their song titles in the late 17th century.) Second, it’s the opening music to Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, a surreal 1970s vision of a gang of delinquents wreaking havoc and violence on their dystopian society. Listening to the piece with this context, it becomes obvious why those tones are so dark, the melody is so haunting, and the fear so palpable. The piece oozes gloom and death.
Song: “Let Me Die in My Footsteps”
Artist: Bob Dylan
Album: The Bootleg Series, Vols. 1-3 (Rare & Unreleased) 1961-1991
"l will not go down under the ground / Because somebody tells me that death's comin' 'round / And I will not carry myself down to die / When I go to my grave my head will be high / Let me die in my footsteps / Before I go down under the ground.” Bob Dylan has been a prime poet since the early 1960s—more than half a century before the Nobel Committee decided to agree. This song, from the very first disc of Dylan’s first official bootleg collection (and still my favorite), is pure folk magic. It’s a simple man with a simple instrument singing simple lyrics with a simple plea. For it’s time, it served as a politically charged, anti-war statement, but now it can be interpreted as a universal statement from all human beings: let me live. (The above clip is a full set by Dylan, but “Let Me Die in My Footsteps” starts at 39:35.)
Song: “Grim Reaper Blues”
Album: Prayer of Death
Check that album name: it’s a fantastic work from beginning to end, and I could have picked any song from it for this post. But if I have to choose one, it’s clear the opening track is it. Based in Los Angeles, Entrance (now officially called The Entrance Band) is led by Guy Blakeslee, one of my favorite living guitarists. On “Grim Reaper Blues,” he unleashes his divine tone and passionate, howling vocals in the very first minute, immediately wrenching you into a world of darkness. But just because death is a traditionally dark theme, does that mean it’s something to be hated or shunned? Not according to Blakeslee: “That old grim reaper, baby / Well he's a friend of mine.” Perhaps alien to our modern American perspective where all we want is happiness and beauty and everything to last forever, this rock & roller channels a more ancient intuition: the line between life and death is razor thin, and we’ve already known both sides.
Song: “Prayer of Death”
Artist: Elder J. J. Hadley
Album: American Primitive Vol. 1: Raw Pre-War Gospel (1926-1936)
Over 75 years before Blakeslee wrote his “prayer,” a bluesman named Elder J.J. Hadley (a.k.a. Charley Patton) sang a beautiful ode to death. As with Blakeslee, this isn’t a death that one should be afraid of, nor even a death one should shy away from. Instead, inspired by Christian gospel, the core statement is that this life is just a stepping stone to the next one: “I'm satisfied, satisfied, satisfied / If I never ever see you anymore / I’m satisfied, satisfied, satisfied / I'll meet you on the other shore.” It’s not just a historical artifact, it’s an enchanting piece of music in its own right whose fundamental material can be traced to most of the other song selections on this page.
Song: “The Great Gig in the Sky”
Artist: Pink Floyd
Album: The Dark Side of the Moon
“Why should I be frightened of dying? There's no reason for it – you've got to go sometime,” says the Abbey Road studio janitor before Richard Wright kisses planet Earth goodbye and rockets into heaven on the solitary power of Clare Torry’s insane, sublime, completely improvised vocals. She was told the song was about dying and that there were no lyrics, and that was that. How else could you channel the mystery of death? Shut your eyes and sing.
Song: “Creeping Death”
Album: Ride The Lightning
I thought about writing about a bunch of bleak death and black metal this month, but I decided to pick songs from different genres that explored different aspects of death instead. To start off, here’s a classic cut from Metallica’s second album. “Creeping Death” is written from the perspective of Death personified during the 10th Plague in the Bible’s Book of Exodus, where the first born Egyptians people and animals were killed by the wrath of God as punishment for Pharoah not freeing the Jewish slaves. It's a sweeping ride through one of the most well known biblical stories, but Metallica made it sound so cool back in the day.
Song: “Suicidal Thoughts”
Artist: The Notorious B.I.G.
Album: Ready to Die
In the closing song from his debut album, Biggie calls up Diddy (or, as he was known back then, Puff Daddy). He's at the end of his rope and begins to tell Diddy that he’s planning on killing himself, listing his reasoning as he goes along. He muses on the afterlife and believes that not only is he too bad to be accepted into Heaven, but that Heaven isn’t even really his scene anyway and he’d feel more at home in Hell. Tupac always had the reputation for having the deepest lyrics between the two, but Biggie’s existential examinations here read like something you’d see in a philosophy course. At the other end of the line, Diddy frantically tries to convince Biggie not to go through with his plans, but is unable to do so as the song ends with a gunshot, Biggie falling to the floor, and a heartbeat quietly fading out. It’s one of those songs that never fails to send chills down my spine. Mental health issues in the hip-hop community have been becoming more visible in mainstream culture thanks to artists like Kid Cudi, Kendrick Lamar, and A$AP Rocky opening up about their battles with depression. If this song was released today, I have no doubt it would send shock waves and spark countless discussions throughout the music world just the same.
Song: “Pool Shark”
Album: Sublime Acoustic: Bradley Nowell and Friends
Bradley Nowell became successful and famous as the frontman for Sublime; however, he also struggled with heroin addiction during most of Sublime’s career, and tragically died of an overdose shortly before the release of the band’s eponymous final album in 1996. “Pool Shark,” which was written two years earlier, is Nowell’s open acknowledgement of the fact that heroin had completely taken over his life. The lyrics paint a contrasting image between his girlfriend shooting pool, and him continuing to shoot up. The saddest thing about this song is how Nowell, unlike some other drug-addicted rock stars, doesn’t make the mistake of thinking that he’ll live forever in bliss hand in hand with his habits. The line “One day I’m gonna lose the war” shows he knew that his addiction would cost him his life one day. Despite this, he was unable to lay his demons to rest, and the lyrics ultimately proved to be prophetic. It’s downright chilling hearing him come to terms with his own untimely death in this manner, especially in this intimate solo acoustic version that allows for the lyrics to sink in more effectively than the faster punk version found on Sublime’s sophomore album, Robbin’ the Hood.
Song: “In This Twilight”
Artist: Nine Inch Nails
Album: Year Zero
I just realized this is my third time writing about a Nine Inch Nails song in the last four collab posts but it’s just so hard not to pick them when Trent Reznor is so skilled at covering so many topics! Year Zero is a concept album that takes place in the not-too-distant future. In it, the United States has become a radical fundamentalist Christian state, and many civil liberties have been dissolved. Amidst government oppression, war, terror, the continued effects of global warming, and government-administered drugs in the drinking water, a mysterious entity known simply as “The Presence” makes appearances throughout the world as a giant, ghostly arm that reaches down from the sky and inspires intense feelings of fear, insignificance, astonishment, and forgetfulness among anyone who’s around it.
“In This Twilight” is found towards the end of the album and reads like one person’s final thoughts as they witness the destruction of the world around them. They realize their own time is short, and wonder if there is something better on the other side. It's unclear if the end is a result of war, environmental collapse, divine intervention, or some combination of the above, but they still can’t help but wonder if there was something - anything - that they could have done differently to make their time on earth better. Plenty of works across all artistic media touch on the apocalypse, but this is a poignant song that really adds a sense of humanity to the subject.
Song: “It’s Dangerous Business Walking Out Your Front Door”
Album: They’re Only Chasing Safety
Let’s get a few things out of the way - yes, Underoath are (or at least used to be) a Christian screamo band that were favorites among the mid-2000’s, flippy-haired, skinny-jean-wearing Warped Tour crowd. I still liked them, though. Underoath shows were some of my favorite shows to go to all throughout high school, and the breakdown for this song is still probably my favorite of all time. That being said, this song delves into some SERIOUSLY dark subject matter, especially for a Christian band. The lyrics tell the story of a man who is madly in love with a woman. As a Christian, he knows that he is called upon to love her as Christ loved the church (Ephesians 5:25). He comes to the conclusion that this is impossible, since humans do not have the capacity to love as Christ does and will never even come close to understanding his love. Therefore, he decides to purposely crash their car with the intent of killing them both. That way, he believes, he can sacrifice his own feelings for her so that the woman can be properly loved by God. The first part of the song details the man’s thoughts as he comes to grips with the fact that he’s actually going to carry out the crash. The song progresses, tension builds, the car goes off the road, and the choir just before the breakdown accompanies a moment of unconsciousness as the car crashes. During the breakdown, the man realizes that he was not killed on impact as he expected, and is now in intense pain. It’s hinted that he ends up surviving the accident, so he’s doomed to spend the rest of his life alone, dealing with harrowing guilt from killing the woman he loved, and dreaming of the life that he could have made with her. It’s a truly twisted interpretation of scripture that is a trademark of countless horror stories, and is an extreme instance of how twisted Christian hardcore can really get.
Song: "Jennifer/Cheerleader Corpses"
Artist: Pig Destroyer
Album: Prowler in the Yard
This collab post is a subject that's very near and dear to my heart, so I've frantically been trying to decide on just one gruesome song from my metal archives to write about so I don't get overwhelmed trying to cover too much. Since I just saw grindcore legends Pig Destroyer live this past weekend, I decided to go with "Jennifer", a song about a girl who essentially tears apart her partner while surrounded by a crowd of onlookers. The story is told through a text-to-speech program, and the monotonous delivery makes listening to this song a truly uncomfortable experience. You generally hear these kinda lyrics being screamed and belted out, so hearing it in a totally emotionless manner makes it sound as though you're being confronted by a complete sociopath.
The lyrics are also a great mirror for the listeners' reaction to this type of over-the-top, repulsive imagery. The crowd watching Jennifer and her partner tear each other apart are "confused, or concerned, or shocked, or aroused, or all of the above." One woman shouts, "This is disgusting! This is pornography." The last quote shouted from that crowd, however, sums up my entire feelings about these type of disgusting, offensive and satirical songs about death: "No. No. No. This is beautiful. This is art."
Song: "Lonesome Cowboy Pt. II"
Artist: Arthur Miles
While songs from the likes of Pig Destroyer can be deeply disturbing, the exaggerated imagery makes the stories come off more fantastical than actually frightening. The songs that do get a little under my skin are ones like "Lonesome Cowboy Pt. II", where you're boppin' around to a a seemingly lovely Americana tune only to realize you're singing about stabbing a man to death and watching the floorboards flood with his blood.
This track was recorded in the 1920's from Texan cowboy Arthur Miles, and nothing is known about his life before or after this song (aside from the fact that he was credited for inventing this particular style of throat singing). The ambiguity of this man's life leads me to think that perhaps he's still out there wandering the desert, roaming around and contemplating death.
Song: "One Kind of People"
Artist: Amigo the Devil
At some point or another, we all have to come to terms with facing our own mortality. It can be a terrifying process, but there's no experience more humanizing than thinking about our eventual death. Everyone has their own realizations through that process, but if there's one reminder we can all take away, it's the one that murderfolk singer-songwriter Amigo the Devil states in this song: there's only one kind of people in this world - people who die. I get to see this man play on bar countertops every year around Southwest Terror Fest, and there is nothing more humbling than being in a dive full of people singing along about how we're all gonna die, and through that, we're all equal.
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