Lovecraft, baby!

Horror in music is still as easy as H.P.
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Lovecraft is a resonating wave. He's rock and roll.

— Neil Gaiman, "Concerning Dreams and Nightmares," The Dream Cycle of H.P. Lovecraft: Dreams of Terror and Death

LIT/MUSIC Howard Phillips Lovecraft (1890-1937) attributes most of his fiction's cosmology to the apocryphal Necronomicon, an ageless sort of anti-Bible that describes a universe of unfathomable strangeness superimposed over our own. Not content with obscurity, this alternate reality tends to extend its clammy tendrils into our collective line of vision, yielding all sorts of therapy-necessitating results. Of course, the Necronomicon's legend overshadows its reality. Yet in the kind of self-reflexive twist the famously anti-modern writer would have probably hated, the tome's enduring mystique acts as a summation of his own work's post-pulp shelf life.

Lovecraft never got a chance to see it happen, but the spawn of his fevered imagination has been consistently reproduced in all sorts of geek media, from role-playing games to plush dolls. Some of the most interesting representations of the reclusive author's output, however, come from the realm of loud-ass rock music, another modern contrivance Lovecraft would have almost certainly despised.

The first instance of Lovecraft's legacy infiltrating rock music seems to be with the late-1960s psychedelic folk outfit known as, appropriately enough, H.P. Lovecraft. This group took after the sense of fantastic spaciousness conveyed in its namesake's oeuvre, meandering in dreamy walls of sound that circumvent any buried unease without actually going anywhere. "At the Mountains of Madness" from 1968's H.P. Lovecraft II (Phillips) spends five or so minutes layering organ arpeggios, vocal harmonies, and a collage of period echo effects into one of the better musical approximations of a lava lamp — a languid sonic pattern that's fun to lose yourself in for a while, before you realize the shifting plasma is never going to do anything crazier than its mannered glass walls will allow. It was a promising start, but the essential menace of these unexplored worlds seemed to intimidate the band, like the intrusive pang of fear that could send even the most cosmic of folk-rock trips spiraling into twisted Syd Barrett territory. It would take a group with a special predilection to the macabre to help steer Lovecraft-rock towards reaching its full potential.

By the early '70s, H.P. Lovecraft and its like were devoured by the cyclopean (to borrow H.P.'s favorite adjective) Black Sabbath, whose Black Sabbath (Warner Brothers, 1970) pays homage to the neurotic master with the typically sinister power-groove of "Beyond the Wall of Sleep." In what should come as no surprise to anybody familiar with the Birmingham, England four-piece's career arc, the doom gods immediately honed in on the potential psychedelic allegory of Lovecraft's work. While the "deadly petals with strange powers" are the focal point of Ozzy's lyrics, Geezer Butler's snakelike bass line adds a decidedly mysterious undercurrent to the track, like some implicit ghoulishness is being mercifully withheld from the listener. (Sabbath acolyte Sleep would pick up where its primary influence left off. "From Beyond," from 1992's Sleep's Holy Mountain [Earache] eschews Butler's measured playing, allowing Al Cisneros's bass tone to swell to neutron star proportions.

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