If thine right eye offend thee, pluck it out
If thine left eye offend thee, pluck it out
Remove the eyes and open the Third Ear
Now you will hear the sound of truth
Now you will hear the sound of the Universe
And that is the sound of Hell
(Vox Inferi, ‘The Third Ear’ – taken from the 2013 album Gouge)
Before I became a metalhead a few years ago, I was a classical pianist. People were confused and were constantly asking me how I could switch from one form of music to another which was seemingly its polar opposite. Of course there are in fact deep connections between metal and classical music, but I wasn’t sure how to define them. I began writing about metal music for websites and magazines, partly in a bid to understand my new sonic obsession, and my first pieces were undoubtedly naïve. But I became increasingly fascinated by the musicology of heavy metal. Perhaps the defining acoustic trope of heavy metal is distortion, and when I discovered how distorted power chords work on the brain (by creating new fundamental frequencies that expand the spectrum of sound in both directions, infinitely – wow) it was a revelation. From there I headed down into a wormhole of psychoacoustic research. I devoured academic books on how sound affects the human brain and body, and hoarded facts on bizarre acoustic phenomena.
Heavy metal is renowned for being very loud, but I’m also fascinated by very quiet sounds. The sounds we can’t hear are the most powerful. Infrasound. Sonic weapons. Gravitational waves. I read a book called ‘Black Hole Blues and Other Songs From Outer Space’, about the scientists trying to record gravitational waves, tiny ripples in the space/time continuum. They effectively placed a giant set of headphones across the USA. I discovered that there’s a black hole 250 million light years away amid a group of galaxies called the Perseus Cluster, that emits a frequency 57 octaves below middle C. The lowest frequency a human can hear is one twentieth of a second. This black hole has a frequency of ten million years, and therefore a million, billion times lower than the lowest sound audible to the human ear.
From this idea of sounds being emitted from the very edge of the universe came the idea of a voice coming from Hell itself. What would Satan sound like if he spoke? And what better genre of music to explore this idea than extreme metal, in which musicians actively try to make themselves as demonic and inhuman as possible?
Sound is intricately linked with the supernatural – spooky noises in haunted houses, the whistling of wind through a ghostly forest – whole soundtracks of cliched special effects can be downloaded for Halloween. But I’m less interested in ghosts and monsters than in the epitome of the supernatural – which for me is religion. God and Satan. The Bible is filled with sonic references – trumpets, roars of thunder, choirs of angels – and classical music has long tried to capture the sounds of heaven. When I think about what heaven might sound like I think about Bach. And when I try to imagine what Hell might sound like, I think about black metal.
In the 1990s there was an urban myth, The Well to Hell, which claimed that Siberian scientists had dug a hole so deep that they had reached the gates of hell, and recorded the sounds they heard there. But I imagine Hell not within the Earth but beyond the edge of the universe, and in my books I travel further. What if there was a place even worse? The Infinite Space, an endless swirling vortex of nuclear winds and black holes into which Adramelech was banished for eight thousand years.
And what would that sound like? If you read my book, you might be able to imagine….
There’s a bad vibe.
A professor of psychoacoustics is found dead in his office. It appears to be a heart attack, until a second acoustician dies a few days later in similar circumstances.
Meanwhile, there’s an outbreak of mysterious illnesses on a council estate, and outbursts of unexplained violence in a city centre nightclub. Not to mention strange noises coming from the tunnels underneath Liverpool. Can it really be a coincidence that death metal band Total Depravity are back in the city, waging their own form of sonic warfare?
Detective Inspector Darren Swift is convinced there are connections. Still grieving his fiancé’s death and sworn to revenge, he is thrown back into action on the trail of a murderer with a terrifying and undetectable weapon.
But this case cannot be solved using conventional detective work, and D.I. Swift will need to put the rulebook aside and seek the occult expertise of Dr. Helen Hope and her unlikely sidekick, guitarist Mikko Kristensen.
You can’t escape the noise. Only the memory of silence can comfort you. Or death itself.