My Five Favorite Songs About the Apocalypse

by Michael Channing

5. "Blackened" by Metallica

...And Justice for All by MetallicaSample atrocity:
To begin whipping dance of the dead
Blackened is the end
To begin whipping dance of the dead
Color our world blackened

Taken line by line, Metallica's description of nuclear holocaust is pretty vague. But as a whole, with guitars approaching from a distance like guided missiles then blasting forward to engulf the listener, it's actually a satisfying picture of a scorched world left for dead.

1988, when ...And Justice for All was released, was an interesting year. The usual assemblage of hair farmers were still churning out records in praise of strong drinks and loose women. But it was also the year Queensrÿche released Operation Mindcrime, the year of Living Colour's debut, and the year Trent Reznor began to crank life into his hate machine. As more and more musicians began to reject the pervasive greed and excess not only in rock-and-roll but in American culture, the glamour boys who needed nothing but a good time began to find themselves ignored and unemployed. The reactionary themes of the Sixties reappeared, only this time angrier and darker. Whereas before, when the message came with an optimistic subtext that annihilation, mental subordination, or cultural whitewashing could be avoided if we only gave peace a chance, the new crop of guitar prophets saw no hope at all.

4. "Red Sector A" by Rush

Grace Under Pressure by RushSample atrocity:
I clutch the wire fence until my fingers bleed
A wound that will not heal, a heart that can not feel
Hoping that the horror will recede
Hoping that tomorrow, we'll all be free

It could be any war. Lyricist Neil Peart was inspired by stories of Nazi concentration camps. But this song could be about the third world war, atomic hell incinerating half the planet, survivors herded into radiation-free zones. Or the Earth could have been overtaken by alien invaders , hence the line, "Are we the only human beings to survive?" No mater how fantastic you imagine the set-up, this song is the most realistic on this list. It knows that whoever the combatants happen to be, those given power over others will always choose to do their worse.

At the core of the song is a mother and child struggling to stay alive in the prison camp, the father and brother having already been killed. The two survivors look out into the surrounding wasteland and wonder if they are the only ones left. Which is how the prisoners of Buchenwald may have felt, or the Union soldiers in Andersonville, or the Cherokee at Fort Cass. How can the world allow this place of suffering and death to exist? It can't, so the world outside must have been destroyed.

3. "Brotherhood of Man" by Motörhead

The World is Yours by MotorheadSample atrocity:
We live and scrape in misery: we die by our own hand.
And still we murder our own children. Brotherhood of Man.

Lemmy's growl is the perfect instrument to deliver the eulogy of mankind. There's nothing in this song to indicate our time on the planet resulted in anything decent or beneficial. And as our end comes, the cities we've built are in ruins, our laws have run to chaos, and monsters rule our world. And the line repeats again and again, "Brotherhood of Man." There are no bad guys to fault, no politician to blame for phoning in a nuclear strike, no pigs responsible for starting their own war. It's our fault. We are all accountable for the wars and genocide that we've waged throughout history. "We are disease upon the world," and it will be an act of mercy to cleanse the earth of us.

2. "Earth Died Screaming" by Tom Waits

Bone Machine by Tom WaitsSample atrocity:
There was thunder
There was lightning
Then the stars went out
And the moon fell from the sky
It rained mackerel
It rained trout

The imagery is frightening. Nonsensical at times. We have a monkey on a ladder, a lion with three heads, fish from the sky. No one is in charge, and the devil himself is reduced to a labor position shoveling coal. This is the way the world ends according to Lewis Carol.

But as uncomfortable as the images are, it's the delivery system that drives home the fear. The song is built around a chorus of sticks. Waits and a couple others went out to the parking lot and beat a slow rhythm on the concrete. It sounds like a regiment of skeletal warriors marching to battle. Waits calmly drones out the barbarities, then the chorus comes, and he releases a demonic scream announcing the death of the world. It is the voice of doom. If ever there is a call from the heavens in prelude to the coming of god's wrath, it will be Tom Waits bellowing into Gabriel's megaphone.

1. "Zero-Sum" by Nine Inch Nails

Year Zero by Nine Inch NailsSample atrocity:
and none of that matters anymore
in the hour of our twilight
and soon it will be all said and done
and we will be back together as one
if we will continue at all

At the end of the Nine Inch Nails concept album Year Zero, the earth is over. I'm not really sure how it ends. There's the mention of troops which could denote warfare; possible alien intervention; and a single individual who might have been gifted with the power to "murder everything" by that great staple of apocalyptic fiction, Science Gone Too Far. The whole shebang comes apart in a minute and a half long rhythmic explosion of computerized noise that is truly one of the greatest sonic experiences ever pressed to CD. The last three songs of the cycle become elegiac, and the final cut, "Zero-Sum," offers a mournful prayer as civilization fades to black. "Doomed from the start/ may god have mercy/ on our dirty little hearts."

The real horror here is the split-second between existence and nothing, when the song's narrator turns to another and reminisces about the experiences they had, could have had, should have had. The shame of all that wasted time is more terrible than the loss of the planet. He looks forward to the afterlife where they will be together again. But he can't fully bring himself to believe that after squandering all they were given, they'll be given more.

Honorable Mention: "Electric Funeral" by Black Sabbath

Paranoid by Black SabbathSample atrocity:
Dying world of radiation, victims of mad frustration
Burning globe of obscene fire, like electric funeral pyre

The wah-wah riff alone sounds like doomsday.

How exactly do the rivers turn to wood? If the ice melts into blood, wasn't it already made of frozen blood? What the hell was going on before the nuclear war?

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Chokes and Warbles, a collection of essays and poems by Michael Channing