Kafka in Metal: A Literary Listen
One of the most metal writers to ever do it was born in Prague in 1883.
Whether exploring concepts such as waking up as a gigantic bug, getting executed by a torturous writing machine, or being put on trial seemingly for no reason, few writers deal with the strange and the excruciating as well as Franz Kafka. Even his real life was goth af—he hated his father, worked at an insurance company to make ends meet while writing and pursuing doomed relationships, and died at 40 when tuberculosis made it impossible for him to eat.
However, shockingly few metal acts draw on this rich seam of ideas. For better or worse, there are many more who take their cues from Vikings, Mayans, and the Dark Souls franchise. The ones who do draw on Kafka… well, they vary in quality.
I’ve enlisted the help of the man himself to describe the array of bands who draw on Kafka and his work for inspiration. Join me and the Donnie Darko of Prague as we explore the small world of Kafkaesque metal.
First on our list is Kafka Rex, the most obviously named of the bands drawing on Kafka. Describing themselves underwhelmingly if accurately as “stoner-doom metal from the United States,” Kafka Rex sounds like Baroness by way of Stone Temple Pilots. The music is aggressively fine and not especially Kafkaesque. In their only review on Bandcamp, FDJ states, “Imagine the singer from Canadian new wave/synth-pop band Men Without Hats fronting a proto-metal band and you just might get a handle on this, yeah I know that sounds weird but it actually works.” Does it?
Franz’s Take: “How about if I sleep a little bit longer and forget all this nonsense.” (“The Metamorphosis,” 1915)
Far glammier than anything else on this list, Samsas Traum (“Samsa’s Dream”) has been cranking out black metal operettas, fairy tales, and forgotten albums since the late ‘90s. Starting out in a much trver vein, Samsas Traum, which mostly consists of frontman Alexander Kaschte, has trended in a much poppier direction in recent years. Check out “Ein Fötus wie du” (“A Fetus Like You”):
Yeah, also not very Kafkaesque. Like Ghost meets Snakes ‘n’ Barrels. There’s a line in that song where I think he says “today is September 11.” Apparently this really resonates with the sophisticated citizens of Bochum.
Franz’s Take: “To fight against this lack of understanding, against a whole world of non-understanding, [is] impossible.” (“A Hunger Artist,” 1922)
The first extreme band on this list is Necrotica, a blackened death act from Indiana who split up after a brief period of activity in 2009. Their sole LP, Reveling in Gomorrah, is a pretty solid, fast-paced blackened death album. They deal directly with the content of Kafka’s “In the Penal Colony,” his bloodiest story, right at the middle of the album:
While maybe not the truest capturing of Kafka’s spirit, the tone is suited to the lyrical content. It’s clear, at a minimum, that the band read the story. If you can get past the dinky-sounding kick drum, this is a pretty fun, shreddy record.
Franz’s Take: “The machine is very complicated. Now and then something has to tear or break. One shouldn’t let that detract from one’s overall opinion.” (“In the Penal Colony,” 1919)
Our second “In the Penal Colony” song comes to you from Italy’s Ensoph. Ignoring the weird, fashy-looking symbolism of Project X-Katon’s cover, the music itself is bombastic, synth-heavy, and weird:
The vocals and the flutes are… a lot. These guys would make a great opener for Samsas Traum if they were still around (the band split in 2010, presumably hanging up their Godhead costumes forever). Ensoph is yet another entry that, in terms of its reverence for the source material, is more Arthur Rankin, Jr. than Peter Jackson.
Franz’s Take: “I’m compelled to take part in the discussions, though they fill me with disgust.” (“In the Penal Colony,” 1919)
Our penultimate Kafka act on this list is Ukraine’s Odradek Room. I bought A Man of Silt a few years ago and was oddly compelled by their brand of sad, progressive doom. This record unfurls slowly and has some really nice riffs throughout.
More than other acts on this list, Odradek Room captures the big moods, unusual choices, and occasional silliness of Kafka’s fiction. I can genuinely recommend this if you don’t mind the oddly vulnerable lyrics about childhood and stuff, which is also very Kafka.
Franz’s Take: “nowhere is there an unfinished or unbroken surface… the whole thing looks senseless enough, but in its own way perfectly finished.” (“Cares of a Family Man,” 1919)
Lastly, we have Cleveland’s Locktender. Their 2013 LP Kafka is solid experimental hardcore with some early-2000’s screamo vibes. Clean guitars bridge the gap between extreme sections and catchy riffs.
Bonus points to Locktender both for putting together a solid record with moments of post-y uplift and for being the one band on this list to grapple with Kafka’s nonfiction. Drawing on his Zürau Aphorisms, the lyrics hinge on Kafka’s late-in-life search for meaning following his tuberculosis diagnosis.
Franz’s Take: “We don’t all share one body, but we do share growth, and that leads us through all pain, whether in this form or that.” (The Zürau Aphorisms, 1931)
So there you have it. While Kafka’s father would not approve of this devil music, at least Kafka himself is represented by a variety of genres and approaches. Did I miss a Kafka band/album/song? Let me know in the comments so the shame of it outlives me.