D. Randall Blythe: The Lyrical Genius of Heavy Metal’s Leonard Cohen

Randy Blythe is a phenomenal screamer. His howls, whether of anguish , rage or self-loathing are as much a defining part of Lamb Of God’s sound as the technical yet groovy approach to the other instruments. And yes, Blythe’s coarse voice is an instrument. He takes screaming seriously, having taken coaching from Melissa Cross, one of the world’s foremost experts in making it sound like you’re shredding the inside of your throat without, y’know, actually shredding the inside of your throat. Pitched growls and blood-curdling yells are all handled like a pro, whether in studio or live. The opening scream of Vigil from the Killadelphia live DVD is one of the most metal things I’ve ever seen in my  life, a tortured demonic screech that lasts for longer than seems humanly possible. But one aspect of his performance that can be overlooked is his lyrics, often because they’re buried under his snarls. So today, I thought I’d take apart the words of one of my favorite songs of his lyrically and try to explain the awesomeness of his approach to maintaining the intensity of imagery needed to give a song that metal edge, while still having plenty of art under the hood. The song in question is Ghost Walking, Blythe’s exploration of PTSD from Lamb Of God’s most  recent album, Resolution.

Do you remember when word was bond, a fleeting promise in the light of the dawn.

Barren December under a falling sky, the end of days and a reason to die.

So here’s our setup. There’s a surprising amount going on in this first line. The narrator claims that “word was bond” and yet simultaneously “a fleeting promise.” Isn’t he contradicting himself here? Not necessarily. Bond was what the promise was to him then, but now he has been divested of that innocence, realizing that the  pledge was merely fleeting. The second half of the line, “fleeting…light of dawn” could be seen as a Synecdoche of the line itself in terms of its function in the song overall. This is the only reference we will have  to the protagonist’s period of innocence.

Moving along to the next line, things are a bit easier to interpret. “Barren December” is obvious. This is the December of the protagonist’s life, and it’s barren. He has been left with nothing. “Under a falling sky” proves more interesting. There’s a certain sense of Armageddon in the imagery that jives with the next section, “the end of days”, but the use of this piece of imagery also evokes a sense of emotional claustrophobia that foreshadows later section of the lyrics. “A reason to die” is an interesting choice to cap the line here. Read in the context of the line it’s in, it gives a sense that  the protagonist’s existence is the cause of his suicidal urges. But if we read it as recalling the previous line, this becomes much sadder. His reason to die taking this viewpoint is what was stolen from him, the innocence he once held in the light of dawn. Of note here is that  the promise that was broken is not made overt, but we are given clues later as  to what was promised to the protagonist. A cool feature of the last line is that the protagonist takes a little journey in it, from an emotional desert to feeling the end is near  to vocalising that he  has a “reason to die.”

Obliteration never looked so divine.

Holding your breath for the moment in time

Again, these lines have more going on under the hood than might be evident at first glance. The first line is relatively obvious in its story implications. Obliteration looks divine to the protagonist. It has become a sort of savior to him from his existence. But we can read this line as a rejection of religion as well, not from an objective viewpoint, but from the subjective viewpoint of the protagonist. Is his God self-destruction now? Could the promises made to him by religion be the pacts he feels were fleeting?

The second line is a clever subversion of the phrase don’t hold your breath, the classical implication of the phrase being of course that if you held your breath waiting for something you’d die. But here, the protagonist might as well hold his breath, because all he’s waiting for is death.

You lived through hell, now you’re trying to die

The skin is healed but you’re bleeding inside

Shots fired just to numb the pain

There’s no one left to save

This is the first iteration of the chorus, and the first place where war imagery enters the lyrics. It’s hinted at in the first line with the use of the phrase “you lived through hell”, linking the line to the classic saying “war is hell.” But what’s going on in the full line here. Is the narrator mocking the protagonist? It could be read that way, a sort of “you made it through the war, and this is how you want to go out” as a jab at the protagonist. But there is a second reading, one that becomes more evident if you imagine a question mark at the end of the line. The protagonist isn’t being mocked. The narrator is trying to understand his pain. This man lived through hell. We’re being given new information here. He’s tough. But now he can’t cope with life. The question implicit here draws attention to the horrific effects of PTSD psychologically, implying that they can be more crippling than war itself.

Next we move on to a reference to war wounds with “The skin is healed, but you’re bleeding inside.” This is a pretty direct shot at the military. They might be able to patch up the physical wounds inflicted on the soldier on the battlefield, but the mental trauma was never taken care of, whether through neglect of the soldier’s mental health, or because what happened to him on the battlefield was too crippling to ever be fixed.

The next two lines are best read as a unit. While “shots fired just to numb the pain” might seem like another reference to suicide, the word “shots” carries a frightening implication. He’s going to take others with him, because it helps drown out his agony. So in this line, we’re seeing another step on the protagonist’s journey to villain. The next line explains to us the root of his bloodlust. He had a reason to kill, people to save. The army gave him that. Maybe that was the implicit promise mentioned at the start of the piece, that he was only killing to help people. He would be a hero. But what he wasn’t told was that once he’d been trained and transformed into a killing machine, he was changed forever, from human to war dog. Without the steady stream of targets provided by the army, he’ll find his own.

Night blind on the shining path

Ghost walking in the aftermath

Hypnotized, 60 cycle hum

The broken cadence of a distant drum

Here we are pounded with image after image. First off, we have “Night blind on the shining path.” Aren’t we dealing with another contradiction here? Night blindness is only supposed to affect sufferers in darkness, right? What this light suggests is an increasing emotional numbness. What began as emotional night blindness, an inability to feel happiness over the small things, has mutated so that even on “the shining path”, in the moments he should be happiest, the soldier feels nothing.

Next up “Ghost walking in the aftermath.” This is relatively straightforward, the protagonist is walking around as a living dead man in the shattered remains of his psyche.

“Hypnotized, 60 cycle hum” seems to describe his emotional state, hypnotised again portraying him in a zombie-like trance, 60 cycle hum suggesting there’s a sort of emotional background noise to his life now that will never go away. But each section of this line achieves an alternate purpose. “Hypnotized” is a stab at the soldier’s military indoctrination, implying he was transformed into a killing machine in an underhanded manner. “60 Cycle Hum” is the first appearance of imagery connected to electricity, which I read as carrying a hint that the soldier is almost energized by this indoctrination.

“The broken cadence of a distant drum” treads much of the same ground in terms of the story with its reference to military drumbeats. The fact the cadence has been broken suggests the beat by which the soldier lived his life has been taken from him, and the drum is now distant: he has been pulled from the military. But even without the military driving him on, he still carries aggressive urges which have to go somewhere. It may be reaching a little, but “drum” here could also be a sly reference to oil drums, carrying the obvious accusations as to the motivations behind recent wars.

21 to 1 I’m liking the odds

A blood junkie with a lightning rod

A dirty rig and a heavenly nod

And still you wind up nowhere

And we’re thrown into the ring with another batch of violent imagery. The first two lines here are references to his simultaneous urges to kill and be killed. “21 to 1 I’m liking the odds” references the traditional twenty one gun salute given at the funerals of fallen soldiers and hence the soldier’s desire for his own funeral. But on the more outwardly aggressive end of things, the line could be read as saying “I’ll take as many of them as I can with me.” It’s a wish for a suicide mission. “A blood junkie with a lightning rod” stresses the same point, “blood junkie” covering the urge to kill and “lightning rod” the desire to die. “Blood junkie” is also the most overt declaration of the soldier’s training-induced need to kill. The “lightning rod” image on the other hand is another piece of electrical imagery, telling us that this urge to kill energizes him now as his military missions once did.

“A dirty rig and a heavenly nod” brings us back to the protagonist’s army days. “A dirty rig” most likely means blood-stained kit. Twinned with the heavenly nod, this line explains the sweetness of being able to kill and justify it when the protagonist has been conditioned to love it. The heavenly nod is the second reference to religion, and clarifies the purpose of the first reference. He was never talking about organized religion, but about his newly adopted religion: killing. His military superiors were the gods of this religion, dispensing an approval of the soldier’s zealous execution of his work that seemed divine to him.

“And still you wind up nowhere” pulls us back to the present after the multiple time jumps of the previous lines, reminding us of the soldier’s current mental state and violent plans based on that.

Now

You chase the dragon but it follows you home

Now

You lost the fever dreams and broken hope

These lines reinforce the details of the soldier’s present, hence the repeated use of the word now. “You chase the dragon but it follows you home” is another statement of the addiction made clear when the soldier was accused of being a “blood junkie”, the traditional euphemism for addiction given a clever spin to remind us his bloodlust won’t cease even amongst the civilians at home. “You lost the fever dreams and broken hope” explains that the soldier has lost what kept him ticking, dreams and hopes, even if they were sick imitations which had been implanted in his mind through his training, explaining the terms “fever dreams and broken hope.”

Desolation never looked so divine

Promise yourself for the very last time

The meaning of this slight alteration to the repeated line seems self-evident. The soldier’s desire for obliteration has transformed into a need for desolation. His inward aggressive urges will be turned outwards in a wave of blood and death. “Promise yourself for the very last time” echoes the broken promises his commanding officers made to him, and carries the notion that the soldier is giving himself one last mission.

A fever dream

There’s no one left to save

Shots forever end the pain

There’s no one left to save

These last lines paint a horrifying image. The use of repeated phrases in a very different context suggests the cause and effect relationship between his military service and this last massacre. Now his “fever dream” is a savage rampage, killing as many people as possible before he is stopped. “There’s no one left to save” is twisted equally viciously. Once it was used to imply the soldier no longer had missions to complete. Here, it suggests that he has killed anyone he could have had any interest in saving. “Shots forever end the pain” is a full stop on the soldier’s life. The pain is done forever, the freedom only possible through his death. And in his lyrical masterstroke, this line changes the meaning of “There’s no one left to save” again. Two lines ago it meant there was nobody left for the soldier to save. Now it means that the soldier himself cannot be saved. He is dead and beyond aid. This piece of genius serves as the capstone on an astonishing lyrical performance, a piece of heavy metal poetry that captures the essence of a societal ill while telling a dark and shocking story and calling for change. You can check out more of Lamb Of God’s music on iTunes here.

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