Morbid Tomes: The Divine Marquis


In this edition of my occasional series of posts exploring the connections between literature and heavy metal, I will consider the inspiration of the Marquis de Sade. We’ll look at just a few of the countless black and death metal bands who have embraced Sade over the years and see how his obsessions with power, sex, and corruption have exerted a lasting influence on heavy music.

Few literary or cultural figures have attracted as much attention from metal bands as the French nobleman born Donatien Alphonse François in June 1740 – with the notable exceptions of H.P. Lovecraft and Aleister Crowley, of course. This makes perfect sense, considering Sade was a man who described himself in 1806 as “Imperious, choleric, extreme in everything, with a dissolute imagination the likes of which has never been seen, atheistic to the point of fanaticism, there you have me in a nutshell, and kill me again or take me as I am, for I shall not change.” It doesn’t get much more metal than that. Many songwriters may simply appreciate Sade for championing transgressive sexuality, lending his name to the undeniably brutal word “sadism,” and offering Gothic imagery of corrupt clergy and nobility exploiting virgins in their castles. However, a few show a deeper engagement in the ideas of this complex figure.

The great French feminist thinker Simone de Beauvoir penned probably the most important defense of the value of reading Sades’ works. She explained that despite his serious limitations as both writer and philosopher, “Sade’s aberrations begin to acquire value when, instead of enduring them as his fixed nature, he elaborates an immense system to order to justify them. Inversely, his books take hold of us as soon as we become aware that for all their repetitiousness, their platitudes and clumsiness, he is trying to communicate  an experience whose distinguishing characteristic is, nevertheless, a tendency to be incommunicable.” Of course, regardless of how interesting his perspective on the unrestrained pursuit of pleasure or frequently pornographic texts may be, it is important to note that Sade was also guilty of assaulting multiple women, including a housekeeper he confined, then beat, cut, and burned with hot wax.

Nonetheless, libertinism was only the most prominent expression of Sade’s commitment to individual freedom, beliefs he expounded in the obscene texts he largely wrote while imprisoned. He had a period of freedom between 1790 and 1801, during which he published several of his books, worked as an official in the revolutionary government, was elected to the National Convention, and wrote pamphlets arguing in favor of a transition to direct democracy.Whatever may have been his just desserts for this colorful career, Napoleon had him imprisoned without trial in 1801 for his writing. After his family had him declared insane, Sade lived out most of his remaining years confined to Charenton lunatic asylum, dying in 1814. Such is the pervasive nature of Sade’s influence, however, that in several of the cases below the bands probably never had to read a word of his fiction to exhibit its influence in their music, lyrics, or image.

Venom – “One Thousand Days in Sodom”

In Sade’s unfinished prison masterpiece The 120 Days of Sodom, or the School of Libertinism, four wealthy, powerful men and their prostitute associates imprison eight children between the ages of 12 and 15, along with their own daughters, in order to engage in escalating acts of sexual and violent depravity. The self-described “most impure tale that has ever been told since our world began” trails off into an increasingly loose outline, culminating with the list of the order in which 30 characters were to be murdered, had Sade ever finished.

On Venom’s 1981 debut album, Welcome to Hell, the black metal progenitors borrow some of Sade’s imagery while also recalling the Biblical Sodom, wiped out by God for its sinful ways. 120 days apparently deemed insufficient, the lyrics imagine 1,000 days and – by the end – 1,000 years of enduring “life in hell” over a mid-tempo groove. In his distinctive croak, Cronos describes, “Children slaughtered daily there, mothers by their sides/No mercy given no matter how they cried.” Moreover, Venom’s appreciation for casual blasphemy ties in well with a novel that includes a bishop among its cast of murderous libertines and features an early admonition that “it is strictly forbidden to relieve onesself anywhere save in the chapel.” In the song, the only relief from Sodom’s misery comes through the short-lived respite of the uncharacteristically melodic solo break.

Bathory – “Sadist (Tormentor)”

Early on, Quorthon owed a great deal of his musical and lyrical vocabulary to the aforementioned New Wave of British Heavy Metal legends. Hence, it makes sense that he paid his own indirect tribute to Sade with this track on sophomore album The Return… With his still limited English vocabulary, the Swedish black metal pioneer imagines a murderer driven by a desire for sexual gratification: “I welter in blood, I rape and slay/Stab, sliver, lacerate./So many lusts to satisfy./To still my hunger another must die.” Unlike the vast majority of Sade’s libertines, the tormentor of the Bathory song faces consequences for his actions as the song’s tempo picks up, lamenting “I gotta pay for my lusts../They’re dragging me down…”

Sodom – “Incest”

Sade’s 1795 dialogue of libertine education, Philosophy in the Bedroom, depicts Madame de Saint-Ange and her brother and frequent lover, the Chevalier de Mirval who both join the dominant Dolmancé in corrupting a 15-year old girl. Sounding much like these characters, the narrator of this track from Teutonic thrash classic Agent Orange sets out to “denounce moralisers” and extols the pleasures of keeping it in the family. Singer and bassist Tom Angelripper may have successfully chose one of the few lyrical topics that can still make hardened metalheads feel a little queasy, even if the usual denials of conventional morality make it all feel rather familiar. “Satisfaction in the sign of crime/The meaning of my life,” he snarls.”There is no sin all down the line/No repentance pay the price.” While the speaker also expresses appreciation for his sister’s “nymphomania dressed in leather,” he is above all motivated by narcissism, a desire for “a portrait of myself.” That’s a handy little summation of decadence in general.

Immolation – “No Forgiveness (Without Bloodshed)

Immolation’s Ross Dolan was clearly inspired by Sade’s irreverence and satires on power, as filtered through Italian writer-director Pier Paolo Pasolini’s film adaptation, Salò. Pasolini relocated the premise of 120 Days to Fascist Italy and reworked the structure in imitation of Dante Alighieri’s description of Hell in The Divine Comedy. Thus the torments of the abducted children proceed through the Circles of Manias, Excrement, and Blood. Dolan faithfully summarizes the controversial film’s plot on this early slab of brutality that opened Immolation’s 1989 demo before appearing on the debut full-length Dawn of Possession. The lyrics refer to each of the Four Circles, including a gruesome account of scatological acts: “Kneel down before the Lords/And taste the filth awaiting You/A noble feast for those enslaved.” Ick.

Beherit – “Sadomatic Rites”

The frontman of these Finnish second-wave black metal legends, Nuclear Holocausto Vengeance, aka Marko Laiho, was likely more interested in paying homage to Venom and screaming fun things like “Sinning sex, bestial rape!” than exploring Sade’s texts. Here the “City of lust/Incest and brutality” is the center of sexual, Satanic rites. Nonetheless, the complex if strained wordplay in the title definitely bears attention. Notably, Beherit’s drummer Jari Pirinen has at times gone by the similar tag, Sodomatic Slaughter.

Samael – “Flagellation”

Samael singer and guitarist Vorph, on the other hand, had a bit more to say about the benefits of a BDSM lifestyle in this track from Ceremony of Opposites, the 1994 album that inaugurated the Swiss band’s mingling of its earlier black metal style with industrial influences. As the record’s title suggests, the lyrics throughout are preoccupied with seeming contradictions, including the dichotomies between sadism and masochism, submission and domination.”Flagellation” demonstrates an appreciation for the decadent philosophical underpinnings of the bondage subculture that trace back to Sade and the near-constant beatings in the course of the orgies he describes.. “Punishment and reward/The whip is ambiguous,” Vorph explains over the battery of relentless industrial metal chugging. “It distills vice/In a perverse refinement.”

Deathspell Omega – “Decadence”

On the closing track from Inquisitors of Satan, France’s foremost black metal practitioners briefly slow to a doomy pace as the lyrics paint a Sade-inspired portrait of violent, blasphemous, and orgiastic pleasure-seeking with some added bestiality for good measure. Original vocalist Shaxul, in his final recording with the band, spits lines like, “Nothing is vile enough, nothing too extreme/For beyond the limits of that which is grotesque/Torture and pleasure, sperm comes with death.” Over the years, the band has matched its musical experimentation with an increasingly existential, theologically involved approach to its Satanism. It is appropriate, then, that they concluded their initial phase of raw black metal with this celebration of sheer perversity and excess.

Belphegor – “Justine: Soaked in Blood” and “Chronicles of Crime”

These Austrian blackened death metallers take their commitment to BDSM seriously, and thus their 2008 album Bondage Goat Zombie features two tributes to the father of the lifestyle. “Justine: Soaked in Blood” takes its title and subject matter from Sade’s novel, Justine, or the Misfortunes of Virtue, written during his imprisonment in the Bastille and first published in 1791.  The novel recounts 14 years in the life of the title character, whose attempts to cling to virtue lead to repeated experiences of violence, sexual exploitation, and humiliation. The song provides the usual Sadean catalogue of horrors over a driving death metal riff, before pausing for a bit of eerie melody and a whisper of the title, and then plunging into black metal. “Chronicles of Crime,” with a title that brings to mind Sade’s collection of pornographic and Gothic short stories The Crimes of Love, features similar elements with greater emphasis on Nile-influenced death metal riffs. Belphegor vocalist and guitarist Helmuth Lehner again proclaims allegiance to Sade’s obsessions: “Nights of endless suffering/Philosophy of sacrilege/Carnal debauch – suffocates the neophyte.”

Aborted – “Sade and Libertine Lunacy”

On latest album, The Necrotic Manifesto, Aborted’s singer and sole remaining original member, Sven de Caluwé takes on the persona of Sade himself: “For I am Sade, emissary of torment./Sliver in ache whilst from hymen you are torn./Lashing and gashing at Persephone./In the mouth of madness, innocence I devour.” That Sade is an important inspiration for the frontman would hardly be surprising to anyone who has followed the Belgian band’s career, in which Caluwé has repeatedly explored the kind of scatological imagery that was so fascinating to the libertine author. Their 1999 debut album, The Purity of Perversion, features a graphic tribute to masochism titled “Gurgling Rotten Feces,” and the theme has resurfaced frequently over the years, including on the 2014 record with a track called “Excremental Veracity.”

Man, I’m sick of thinking about rape and poop now. This is why I’d never make it as a gore metal singer. Anyway, I leave the business of further discussing Sade’s ongoing influence on the metal scene and questionable merit as an author to the comments section.

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