Lots of classic heavy metal songs have death as their main theme. As a genre, our music has its dark side, so this subject matter is only natural. There are so many examples of great songs centered on contemplating your own death – ‘Fade to Black’ by Metallica; Ozzy Osbourne’s ‘Suicide Solution’; ‘Hallowed be Thy Name’ from Iron Maiden: even Megadeth’s ‘Black Curtains’.
But has there ever been a more poetic choice than Paradise Lost’s iconic ‘As I Die’? In this song blog, The Hawk takes a look at this top example of how heavy metal sometimes brings deep and powerful emotional energy to sometimes macabre topics.
Quick Musical Interlude…
Now, before we get started, it would be rude to list out all those classic ‘Contemplation of Death’ songs without actually playing one, so here we go with that.
Of course, all these death-related songs have stirred up a big degree of controversy over the years, with accusations that this stuff actually causes people to kill themselves or others. Ozzy was once sued for exactly that reason over ‘Suicide Solution’ and of course there was the famous Judas Priest trial of alleged subliminal messages leading to a double suicide attempt.
The Hawk has covered that ground before, so the purpose of this blog is to take a different tack. To explore how classic heavy metal can and does explore this difficult subject with emotional power and depth – and nowhere more so than I the case of ‘As I Die’, the classic 1992 number from veteran British doom-metallers Paradise Lost.
Since being formed way back in 1988, Paradise Lost quickly became famous for their poetic lyrics. In fact, The Hawk can clearly recall a review in Kerrang magazine from the 1990s describing them as ‘meaningless,’ but that’s from someone who clearly couldn’t be bothered to delve into lyrics and do a bit of work to interpret them.
We can infer that Paradise Lost were fans of poetry, (especially singer Nick Holmes, who is also the main lyricist) having named the band after a classic poem of the same name. Paradise Lost (the poem) was published by the English poet John Milton in 1667 and widely considered to be one of the greatest poetic works of all time.
The Original Paradise Lost
A heavy and difficult read, it tells the story of the fall from grace of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, and of course the downfall of all humanity as a result, with sin being introduced to the world. All the key biblical characters are there: Adam and Eve; God and Satan; the archangels Raphael and Michael.
Yes, some of the greatest classical writers like Milton were experimenting with themes around Satan long before any heavy metal bands came along to write songs about him – in fact many readers have seen Satan as the real hero of the poem, a rebel against the strict tyranny of heaven.
So, you might say that this type of material can be a natural source of inspiration in or music, if you have the patience to get into it, which Nick Holmes clearly did.
He’s brought these end-of-days topics into many Paradise Lost songs, including a number from ‘Shades of God’, the album that first brought us ‘As I Die’. Look at all the big emotional themes covered – sadness (‘Pity the Sadness’); love (‘Your Hand in Mine’); mortality (‘Mortals Watch the Day’), death (again – ‘Death Walks Behind You’). It’s quite a heavy work in more ways than one.
But look, it’s not called doom metal for nothing. Gloomy topics, sure, but addressed in a very thoughtful way.
As I Die – Poetry Appreciation Time
Actually, for a song covering the theme of sadness, ‘Pity the Sadness’ is quite up-tempo. But that’s beside the point. We’re here today to talk death, not sadness, so let’s get into some poetry appreciation for ‘As I Die’ and show that Kerrang reviewer what he was missing out on.
Here’s the first verse:
Stare as eyes uphold me
And wait to see right through
And curse me…
The love has crippled you
To The Hawk, this is very suggestive of a death bed scene. Someone is going to pass imminently, and a loved one sits beside them, waiting for the terrible hour to arrive. Love of course, is both a blessing and a curse – our love for friends and family sustains us through difficult times as humans and brings joy and happiness. But then, a loved one dies, and it feels like a curse – this person has now been taken out of our lives permanently.
Haunting The Night
Then, the theme changes a little in the pre-chorus:
Shadows haunt the night
Burning my disguise
Reaping through the truth
Life becomes untrue
Here, ‘Disguise’ feels like a metaphor, but for what? Disguised emotions to cover up the fear of what is approaching? Life as a temporary disguise for death, which is the default situation for us all – we’re alive for a few years, but dead for billions of years in the grand scheme of things – our lives the briefest flicker in the timespan of the universe.
‘Life becomes untrue’ needs no further decoding. When life is no longer true, that brief flicker is extinguished forever.
Next comes the second verse.
Sin the last diversion
My fate will be untouched
The anger of a fool
Our deathbed scene now becomes introspective, as the victim is briefly diverted by thinking through the sins of his life. But his fate will be untouched – so this is no religious character. He reckons that whatever sins he may have committed will be consigned to history with his body. It won’t have any bearing on his fate – no heaven, no hell, just rest.
And the anger? Sure, anger is one of the 5 phases of grief, but maybe it really is foolish to be angered by something so inevitable, unavoidable. We should dismiss our anger, accept the good and bad of our lives, and that this will end for everybody.
Finally, we have the outro.
Taking a chance
And take what you gain
My soul it has no price
Total release is out of harms way
Until I can decide
You punish me
Can’t you see, I’m not real
Tears are flowing free, passing by, as I die
This flows on nicely from the previous verse. Life is random chance – take that chance, run with it, make the most of it. The soul has no price – death is just a release. At least for the victim, that’s true. But in our death bed scene, the loved one is left behind at that awful moment with nothing but tears.
What About the Music?
The poetry is complemented by the music, with lighter, acoustic interludes followed by that crushing electric guitar slide. The guitar interlude is super slow – no shredding to be found here, obviously. And, by this time, Holmes had softened his early death metal growling – he still used it in some songs but was willing to sing a melody on songs like this one, which does a much better job of capturing the intended mood.
Your Own Interpretation
Interestingly, when the song came out on a separate EP, the band made a promo video to go with it – and this features a very different death scene, with a woman being stalked and potentially murdered in the street, and her life flashes distressingly before her eyes.
So, it’s a completely different interpretation from the one The Hawk came up with here – but it still works. And isn’t that the beauty of art and poetry – including poetry in the form of classic heavy metal music. 2 people can experience the same thing in different ways.
(In the same way, the song isn’t intended as a commentary on suicide either, making it different from something like ‘Fade to Black’, though again, you could make that interpretation).
And it’s this ability to reach further into the grey matter than most that has made Paradise Lost one of the more influential heavy metal bands around, certainly more so than you might think from just the raw numbers. Over their career, they’ve sold somewhere around 2 million albums at the time of writing, which is good but not overwhelming in a career spanning well over 30 years now.
And yet in spite of that, they’ve been cited by bands from all over the world like Katatonia, H.I.M., Cradle of Filth and even Finnish symphonic legends Nightwish as important influences. At one point, some over excited journalists were calling them the British answer to Metallica, which obviously didn’t quite pan out, but they’ve quietly built up quite a following with their distinctive package of music, poetry and artwork.
So here it is – the ultimate poetic heavy metal treatise of contemplating one’s own death.
Another new band is thus introduced into the Classic Metal Hawk universe, with The Hawk’s first post on Paradise Lost. If you’re a fan, tell us more about why in the comments below. And if you’d like to see more Paradise Lost posts on here, throw in some subject matter suggestions as well.