Morbid Tomes: Sci-Fi Slaughterhouse, with Dave Muntean of Nucleus

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My series on the connections between the literary and the brutal returns with an exploration of how the apocalyptic visions and imaginative world-building of science fiction novels and short stories have influenced metal and hard rock artists. I am joined this time by one such musician: Dave Muntean is guitarist and vocalist for sci-fi-themed death metallers Nucleus, whose debut full-length Sentient is due out April 15 on Unspeakable Axe Records. We’ll discuss his own inspirations before digging into a selection of songs with fine riffage and exterrestrial themes.

Jason Kolkey: Do you have a favorite SF novel?

Dave Muntean: I really want to not say Dune, cause everyone probably says Dune… but I think it has to be Dune.

Why?

Obviously it’s a great story, but the one big thing that stands out for me is the world building. Most books do it by straight up explaining all the details of how the galaxy [and] government is set up. Dune manages to lay all that out without ever outright talking about it. It’s perfectly done all through context and implication. Feels really natural. Especially done in a book that isn’t that long.

How do you feel about the sequels?

The second and third book are good. Doesn’t quite have the fire of the first one, but if you didn’t have the greatness of the original looming over them they would be great books on their own. You don’t quite have the huge conflict of the first book, so it’s not quite as intense.

By the fourth book… I can barely even remember what happens, so it’s forgettable at that point I guess [laughs].

I actually rather like the fourth one, though I think it drops off a lot after that. How about the adaptations for film and television?

I don’t think they’ll ever be good, at least if you want them to represent the books. So much of the book is internal monologue. Literally the characters thinking about their political strategies. Something like that doesn’t translate well to film or TV.

You will always end up with something like the Starship Troopers movie for Dune. It’ll hit all the major plot points: he will ride a worm, Sardaukar will show up, but the feel of it will always be off.

Fair enough. On the other hand: Sting in that bikini bottom.Turning to the metal, how does your interest in SF influence Nucleus musically and lyrically?

As far as the music itself, I think my writing style lends itself to it. I don’t necessarily try and make it sound like sci-fi music. But I do write somewhat weird stuff stylistically naturally.

The lyrics themselves are either based on books, or combinations of ideas from multiple books, or in the case of the song “Cube” which was released, a movie. The [music is] written first, so somewhere during the writing or afterwards we will decide the song subject based on how the song sounds. For example, if [“Cube”] had ended up being a slow, doomier song, we would never have picked that theme. I’ve had lyrical themes I’ve wanted to use for a while but haven’t written a song that makes sense for it. The song kind of picks its own theme.

The actual writing of the lyrics … I don’t sit down and write lyrics usually. Over a month or two of practices, I’ll improvise lyrics with the theme in mind. After a few weeks the vocals are usually pretty close to done. Then I’ll sit down and write them down and make adjustments then.

Are there particular bands that influenced you to take on that SF aesthetic?

Not really. I don’t know what else I would write about. My apartment is covered in sci-fi stuff, and so much of my free time is spent reading and watching sci-fi. A lot of people who write horror-themed lyrics are horror movie buffs, so it’s the same thing for sci-fi. If I tried to write about anything else it would feel less genuine.

Are there any authors or books that have proven especially ample sources of material?

So far we haven’t dipped into the same well twice. The full-length album will have themes from The Dosadi Experiment, Hyperion, Starship Troopers, The Forever War, Stargate, Godzilla, Lovecraft, Warhammer 40k, and Pandora’s Star, among a few others.

nucleuscover

The cover for the album was painted by Dan Seagrave. What kind of discussions did you have with him about these concepts and the art?

In general I like to give artists free rein, and I think that’s given us good results. I gave him some general ideas of what our music is about, but told him to go with what feels right. He sent sketches, and I gave a couple of small suggestions, but it’s all his idea. I’d rather let the artist use his creativity than pigeonhole them into an idea they might not have as much interest in doing and won’t be as enthusiastic about. Couldn’t be happier about how it came out.

Cool. Any last words for the nerds out there?

Check out our album, go read some good sci-fi, and if you are in the area, come to our release show April 15th at Livewire Lounge [in Chicago].

Do your part to keep metal geeky by pre-ordering Sentient from Unspeakable Axe Records and catching Nucleus at the NYDM Spring Bash in Milwaukee on April 22nd. For now, let’s carry on with nerding out:

Genesis – “Watcher of the Skies”

They may not have been metal, but Peter Gabriel-era Genesis rocked pretty hard when they wanted.That is certainly the case on the opening track to 1972’s Foxtrot, which counters Tony Banks’s Mellotron chords with polyrhythmic sections of guitarist Steve Hackett and bassist Mike Rutherford chugging away while pre-”Sussudio” Phil Collins hammers on the drums. The title comes from John Keats’s poem reflecting on the pleasures of his first exposure to a translated version of Homer, comparing the experience to that of a stargazer, “When a new planet swims into his ken.” The lyrics by Banks and Rutherford , however, take more direct inspiration from Arthur C. Clarke’s 1953 classic, Childhood’s End. In the novel, benevolent alien dictators known as the Overlords impose themselves on the Earth to save humanity from its self-destructive ways and usher in a new stage of development. Taking the point-of-view of a seemingly omniscient observer, Gabriel accordingly proclaims “the end of man’s long union with Earth.” Still, as in Clarke’s story, the idealistic hope for human transcendence “From life alone to life as one” does not come without tension and sacrifice,  

Rush – “2112”

The brilliant musical excess of the 20 minute-plus title track on Rush’s 1976 album secured its place in the annals of rock ‘n’ roll nerdery. Meanwhile, Neil Peart’s lyrics and his acknowledgment in the liner notes to “the genius of Ayn Rand” ensured that his own thinking would always be associated with the Russian-American libertarian icon, in spite of his later change of heart. In the mid-70s, Peart was certainly a true believer in the tenets of Objectivism. His first album with the band, 1975’s Fly by Night, opened with a song named after Rand’s novella Anthem that uncritically extolled the virtues of selfishness, warning listeners that “Begging hands and bleeding hearts/Will only cry for more.” In her story, Rand imagines a future society that has done away entirely with all concepts of individuality, family or excellence in favor of harmonious collectivism. The hero of the piece, Equality 7-2521, is – like all Rand’s heroes – inherently superior to other people. He begins to explore science before being forced to flee home by the repressive government, finally coming to learn the concept of self and the pronoun “I.”  

With his second stab at personalizing these ideas, Peart brought a more interesting approach, inventing his own mythos to describe the stultifying monoculture of the galaxy-spanning Solar Federation. The nameless hero’s attempt to give life deeper meaning by taking up an ancient instrument is quickly snuffed out by the priests of the Temple of the Syrinx, who lack patience for such an archaic display of individuality. A conflict seems to ensue, but the ominous sound and prominent placement of a collective pronoun in the concluding intonation of “We have assumed control” leave some doubt as to the outcome.

Iron Maiden – “To Tame A Land”

Maiden’s 1983 classic Piece of Mind closes with this epic tribute to Frank Herbert’s Dune. According to lore, the song was not simply titled “Dune” only because the metal-hating Herbert denied the band permission. As usual for the final songs on Maiden albums, it’s a slow build. Drummer Nicko McBrain, making his studio debut with the band, contributes some understated accents to the atmospheric guitar and bass at the beginning before kicking into a mid-tempo groove. Meanwhile, the lyrics by Steve Harris are heavy on direct references to the Herbert text, laying out the characteristics and the destiny of hero Paul Atreides. Bruce Dickinson offers up with his wonted conviction lines that are jammed with words coined in the novel, like, “He is the Kwizatz (sic) Haderach, he is born of Caladan and will take the Gom Jabbar.” For the uninitiated, the Kwisatz Haderach is the term used by an order of galaxy-spanning witches called the Bene Gesserit for a messianic figure – Atreides – with precognitive abilities, produced through a millennia-long breeding program. Caladan is the name of the verdant planet that was the seat of House Atreides before its move to the desert world Arrakis, aka Dune. Finally, the Gom Jabbar is a poisoned needle that the Bene Gesserit use as part of a “test of humanity,” which Atreides must pass early in the novel.

Blöödhag – Necrotic Bibliophilia

The other metal bands on this list wrote lyrics that summarize or take on the perspectives of characters in science fiction and fantasy stories. Seattle’s Blöödhag instead specialized in providing concise biographies and light critical analysis in the form of short death metal songs. Each of the “Edu-Core” band’s songs reflects on the life and work of a different author. On the band’s 2001 debut full-length, vocalist Professor J. B. Stratton advocates for the African-American writer Octavia E. Butler’s classic novel of time travel and slavery by suggesting schools “Teach Kindred in a history class” and argues in regard to Samuel R. Delany, “Forget the old white writer smoking a pipe/Try a bisexual black man with a lust for life.” He praises the curmudgeonly and litigious Harlan Ellison because “no one could top you at your short fiction,” but throws in the jab, “Couldn’t write a real novel to save your ass!” The band carried its mission of promoting reading into performances by tossing paperbacks into the audience at metal shows and even had themselves classified as a literacy program to tour libraries.

Cattle Decapitation – “To Serve Man”

Damon Knight’s 1950 short story “To Serve Man” is best known for its adaptation as a classic Twilight Zone episode. Even if you have never read the story or seen the show, there’s a good chance you’ve been exposed to its twist ending. Spoiler: translators discover that the Kanamit, aliens who resemble pigs, have less noble intentions for the people of Earth than they led us to believe. Cattle Decapitation singer and outspoken vegetarian Travis Ryan regularly contends in his lyrics that humans deserve to be subjected to the same cruel treatment as the animals they consume. Thus Knight’s narrative serves as a convenient jumping-off point for the title track of the 2002 album, imagining, “Millions of humans hung upon hooks/Suspended in deep freeze” and “Their hides made into leather/Surprisingly, multiple uses for something so useless.” The band was still finding its distinctive death metal sound after putting out one previous grind-oriented full-length, but the gory, misanthropic fantasies were well in place.

Dead to Fall – “Womb Portals”

As Dave pointed out above, Dune is a favorite for many a nerd, and it consequently crops up as a reference point for a wide range of metal songs. This one appears on 2006’s The Phoenix Throne from what was my favorite Chicago-area metalcore band, Dead to Fall (The aughts were a different time, kids). One of the group’s greatest strengths throughout its numerous lineup changes was vocalist Jon Hunt’s sense for anthemic choruses and breakdowns, adding powerful hooks to the Gothenburg-style riffage. This quality is clearly on display as he describes the intentions of the Harkonnens (sworn enemies of the Atreides family) that “All will fall before us,/And all will be made to suffer.” There is a similar effect when directly quoting portions from the litany against fear that is regularly recited throughout the Dune novels, most notably when Paul faces down the Gom Jabbar: ”Fear is the mind killer/I’ll face my fear and allow it to pass through me.” You may also recognize that first bit as the title of a Fear Factory remix EP.

Cephalic Carnage – “The Omega Point”

Cephalic Carnage bring their signature combination of grind and groove to Isaac Asimov’s 1956 short story, “The Last Question,” for this Xenosapien track. Singer Leonard Leal adheres closely to the original text, in which a pair of drunk computer technicians ask the titular question of the supercomputer Multivac, a recurring presence in Asimov’s stories. That inquiry is whether humanity will be able, when the time comes, to ward off the heat death of the universe, or more specifically, “How can the net amount of entropy of the universe be massively decreased?” The computer is unable to answer immediately, and the story proceeds to skip through ten trillion years of human and computer development. All culminates in a single human overmind watching the universe die in the company of Multivac’s final technological descendant, the Cosmic AC. Following the universe’s destruction, the answer finally comes. As for the song, it signifies the end of human intelligence with an outro driven by Nick Schendzielos’s bass and Leal’s growl giving way to a Stephen Hawking-style artificial voice.

Clutch – “Rapture of Riddley Walker”

Clutch frontman Neil Fallon has always shown a healthy appreciation for surreal concepts and oblique references, from recounting the adventures of a redneck samurai to getting in the head of a psychic spy. Russell Hoban’s 1980 post-apocalyptic novel Riddley Walker offers him plenty of material to work with. The book, narrated by the 12-year-old title character, is entirely written in the language of the new Dark Ages that have ensued in the two thousand years since nuclear holocaust wiped out modern civilization. Fallon incorporates the novel’s vocabulary and characters alike into his lyrics, asking, “How many-cools of Addom? Party cools of stone?” The distorted English reflects the post-apocalyptic culture’s superstitious attempts to comprehend concepts like subatomic particles and nuclear reactions. Shortly thereafter, the singer also mentions “Eusa,” the mythic figure that is a combination of USA, the nation that invented the atomic bomb, and Saint Eustace, the second-century Christian martyr whose depiction in a painting first inspired Hoban. The novel’s preoccupation with religious imagery, played out in puppet shows, suits Fallon’s uniquely preacher-like vocal delivery, as well as the bluesy verse riff.

Warbeast – “War of the Worlds”

H.G. Wells’s original tale of alien invasion from Mars, published in 1898, is really less about warning against the dangers of tentacled monsters from the red planet and more about criticizing British imperialism. Such subtleties tend to get lost in the countless adaptations and certainly are not in Warbeast’s wheelhouse. However, the Texan thrash revivalists do bring all the riffage, ripping leads, and barking vocals you’d expect for this track on 2013’s Phil Anselmo-produced Destroy. The music is spot-on Bay Area worship, and former Rigor Mortis singer Bruce Corbitt offers a similarly straightforward synopsis of the novel, with just a few nods to updating the narrative. For instance, he lists humanity’s armament, including “Missiles, bombs, grenades, and rocket launchers,” and implies the aliens come from another galaxy, rather than Mars. As in the original story, the invaders are defeated only because they lack “resistance to our bacteria,” rendering the triumphant declaration that “We have won the war of the worlds” at best questionable.

Terminus – The Reaper’s Spiral

This Northern Irish power metal band takes its Isaac Asimov fandom seriously, filling its melodic, anthemic, and at times thrashy tunes with references to the author’s classic Foundation series. The novels center on the concept of psychohistory, a means of predicting the future for large numbers of people developed by mathematician Hari Seldon. He proposes to use this new science to bring about a less catastrophic outcome in the wake of the Galactic Empire’s inevitable fall. The band is named for the remote planet where Seldon and a selection of the Empire’s greatest minds are exiled to compile the Encyclopedia Galactica, preserving the sum of human knowledge. Singer James Beattie recounts this event in “The Psychohistorians”: “Fifty scholars, one hundred thousand more/Fight the anarchy, fight the endless war.”  Other songs, like “The Enyclopedists” and “The Mayors” carry on the Foundation narrative, but Terminus also turn their attention to other sources of epic SF imagery, like Star Trek.

Mastery – Valis

Mastery is a San Francisco-based, one-man, avant-garde black metal project given to creating lengthy pieces of music that are technically challenging, brutally intense, and full of seemingly chaotic transitions. Basically, it’s not for everyone. Sole member Ephemeral Domignostika pays tribute to another Californian given to esoteric artistic excursions on this 2015 album, naming it after Philip K. Dick’s novel VALIS. The title of the 1981 book is an acronym for Vast Active Living Intelligence System, which is Dick’s name for an embodiment of his gnostic vision of God that takes the form of a satellite beaming enlightenment into his brain via a pink laser. The novel fictionalizes the author’s struggles with his own hallucinations and complex religious ideas, imagining protagonist Horselover Fat teaming up with a rock star loosely based on David Bowie in attempting to facilitate the rise of the Messiah. Again, not for everyone. But both the book and the album reward close attention and serious reflection. If the reach of these artists sometimes exceeds their grasp…well, there are much worse things that could be said about a writer or musician than, “He failed while striving to encapsulate the hidden meaning of human existence.”

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