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Sunn O))) guitarist Stephen O’Malley had just finished rereading one of his favorite novels when he was quoted in a Sept. 18, 2005, New York Times article called “Heavy Metal Gets an M.F.A.” The piece argues, in part, that recent tributes to Melville, Tolkien, and Dante (by literate thrashers Mastodon, Blind Guardian, and Sepultura, respectively) are signs of the genre’s emergent eccentricity. Point made: Metal isn’t just for knuckle-draggers anymore. But, if recent homages are any measure, the article’s author, music critic Jon Caramanica, missed out on one of M.F.A.-metal’s most beloved novelists. Had he checked O’Malley’s Web site a few days beforehand, he could’ve read another article from the Times, this one from 1992, titled “Cormac McCarthy’s Venomous Fiction.”
In some ways, McCarthy is the perfect author for the hell-in-spectacles set. Best known for All the Pretty Horses, a 1992 bestseller that was later made into a Matt Damon flick, the reclusive 73-year-old often fills his male-centric novels with violent imagery. At the beginning of last year’s No Country for Old Men, for example, McCarthy depicts a jailbreak that culminates with the strangulation of a Texas lawman. “The deputy’s right carotid artery burst and a jet of blood shot across the room and hit the wall and ran down it,” McCarthy writes. “The deputy’s legs slowed and then stopped. He lay jerking. Then he stopped moving altogether.”
McCarthy’s account, in the same novel, of a shotgun’s sound—like someone “coughing into a barrel”—is also a good description of the riffs made by Burning Witch, a late-’90s doom-metal act that featured O’Malley and bassist G. Stuart Dahlquist, who later formed the band Asva. O’Malley says that Dahlquist turned him on to McCarthy when Burning Witch began to experiment with standard notions of tempo and time. The book that Dahlquist recommended—the one that, in 2005, O’Malley would revisit—was Blood Meridian: Or the Evening Redness in the West, a 1985 novel about a mid-19th-century gang that hunts Indians near the Mexican border. At the time he wrote it, McCarthy was still churning out seemingly endless sentences that owed a major debt to fellow Southerner William Faulkner. It was that “long-form descriptive writing and lack of punctuation,” O’Malley says, that inspired him to “try other structures.”
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Not only did he try, he more or less abandoned what he calls the “normal construct of metal.” All of O’Malley’s subsequent bands—Sunn O))), Khanate, and too many others to mention—stretch power chords to the limit, slowing doom to the point where it turns into drone. A reader might experience a similar suspension of time when, in Blood Meridian, the protagonist, a character known only as “the kid,” approaches the scene of the novel’s final bloodbath. “In the afternoon he rode through the McKenzie crossing of the Clear Fork of the Brazos River,” McCarthy writes, “and he and the horse walked side by side down the twilight toward the town where in the long red dusk and in the darkness the random aggregate of the lamps formed slowly a false shore of hospice cradled on the low plain before them.”
When asked why McCarthy makes such a strong impression on headbangers—especially those who eschew vocals—Dahlquist suggests that imagery might be just as important as structure. “If I get something in my head,” he says, “maybe someone else will, as well.” Dylan Carlson, the man behind drone-metal act Earth, a band that once featured Kurt Cobain, would no doubt agree. Sidelined for years by drugs—O’Malley claims Carlson “cheated death,” just like a character in a McCarthy novel—Carlson reemerged in late 2005 with the all-instrumental Hex: Or Printing in the Infernal Method, an album based on—you guessed it—Blood Meridian. “[T]his book was the strongest invocation of the real American West I had ever encountered outside of a straight historical text,” Carlson said in an interview with British webzine Metal Chaos.
McCarthy’s evocation of the frontier is also the basis for the more countrified sound that Carlson contributes to Altar, Sunn O)))’s 2006 collaboration with Japanese power trio Boris. Carlson appears on the half-hour “prelude” disc’s “Her Lips Were Wet With Venom” and, despite his less-than-overdriven sound, blends effortlessly with Sunn O))) and Boris’ dark yet soothing drone. Matt Camirand, bassist for stoner-metal act Black Mountain, takes a similar—or at least Hex-like—tack on 2006’s Kick Up the Dust, the latest from his side project called, wait for it…Blood Meridian. But, for the most part, metalheads tend to focus on the more horrific aspects of McCarthy’s fiction. The Capricorns, for instance, borrow the title of 2006’s Ruder Forms Survive, an album of rough-and-tumble instrumental metal, from the opening chapter of 1979’s Suttree, McCarthy’s funniest and most placid novel.
Those in search of grim images will find even more to like in McCarthy’s latest, 2006’s The Road. Set somewhere in a post-apocalyptic America, the book follows a father and his young son as they struggle to find food and fend off those who would regard them as food. The Road, which was released in September and spent a month and a half on the Wall Street Journal’s bestseller list, has already gotten props from the art-metal elite. O’Malley celebrates it as a “genre novel that transcends genre.” Dahlquist says that the book’s cold, bleak landscape is an “ideal canvas” for McCarthy; according to O’Malley, Isis frontman Aaron Turner is a fan as well.
It’s probably only a matter of time before some bunch of metal-obsessed fine-arts students christen their band The Road or title an album On the Gray Snow a Fine Mist of Blood, one of any number of evocative phrases from McCarthy’s first foray into the future. Just as its author is perhaps the perfect novelist for this crowd, The Road is perhaps its ideal novel. The book’s setting is McCarthy’s most dreadful yet (“No sign of life. Cars in the street caked with ash, everything covered with ash and dust.”). And its prose—simple but elegant—should speak to those who whittle away at metal’s most garish excesses. The novel, too, ends on an optimistic note. Somehow, amid all the brittle corpses and burnt-out hulls, McCarthy locates some trace of humanity, some sense of possibility. Like Altar or Isis’ latest, In the Absence of Truth, it uses darkness not as an end unto itself but as a way to elevate the light. There’s no less venom. There’s just more hope.
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