Sabbath Bloody Sabbath: The Shocking Similarities Between Gospel Music and Death Metal

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A few hundred near-maniacal fans stand wide-eyed in rural Arkansas, amped by the prospects of an afternoon spent rocking out. When the opening act takes the stage, fans sing along to words they know by heart—morbid, gory phrases squeezed out through strained vocal chords, the syllables dripping: There’s power in the blood … they pierced his side … wash in the blood … sacrifice them to his blood … the crimson, cleansing tide.

This death-obsessed flock hasn’t come to hail Satan, but to praise the Lord as devout members of the Church of Christ, the most conservative end of the Protestant pool—the church I grew up attending, where scenes like this transpired all the time. “Obviously, it’s symbolism, but there’s something kinda creepy about hundreds of people singing about blood and suffering,” says Matthew Paul Turner, a former editor at Christian-rock magazine CCM and author of the book The Christian Culture Survival Guide: The Misadventures of an Outsider on the Inside. “Though, when you think about the centerpiece of the faith—the death of Jesus—some people call it murder. Some call it suicide.”

Lost in the album-banning, church-burning history that pits metalheads against the righteous is a shared fascination with blood, pain, suffering, warlike smiting and the rise of the dead. In fact, sometimes the only difference between a hymn and the most hellacious regions of death metal is a drop-D tuning and a little face paint.

“In Sunday school we sang a song about Joshua bringing down the walls of Jericho with a horn,” Turner says. “We’re talking about destroying a city, killing thousands of people, and we’re singing about it like it’s a celebration. At the end of the day, a lot of these songs are about blood and guts.”

Even Tom Araya, lead singer of Slayer, sounds a bit amazed as he reads the lyrics of traditional song “Nothing But the Blood.” “Growing up, my family was full of charismatic Catholics,” he says. “We sang songs, but not like this—it’s a trip to see these words.” That’s big talk from the principal writer of one of the most notorious Satan-friendly thrash bands of all time—a band with a body of work that includes albums like Hell Awaits and God Hates Us All.

The line separating the gospel and metal blurs even further when you consider that, oftentimes, the lyrical switcheroo goes both ways. Slayer sounds downright fastidious with lyrics like, “They say your life can change / If you take God’s hand / Embrace rebirth / Your cleansing’s so divine / To be reborn in God’s eyes.” Too bad the song is “Skeleton Christ,” from the album Christ ?Illusion, which featured a dismembered Lord and Savior on the cover and prompted the band’s EMI label branch in India to destroy all copies. And the lyric “Rejuvenation of my body... / Now it flows through my veins / Heaven I have found,” sounds safe enough for Vacation Bible School until you realize it’s from a Cannibal Corpse song called “The Cryptic Stench.”

If church leaders don’t literally want Christians to bathe in Jesus’ blood (“Are You Washed in the Blood?”) or march into a holy war (“Onward Christian Soldiers”), then maybe death metal should be interpreted just as figuratively. Cannibal Corpse bassist Alex Webster says that his material has the same intentions as a hymn like “Power In The Blood.” “They’re both just trying to be over the top,” Webster explains. “The lyrics are so violent and brutal that it’s difficult to take seriously. For us, we’re just trying to make good horror. If people hear a song and think, ‘Jesus, that’s just awful,’ that’s what we want.”

But coming up with new ways to defile corpses and mutilate babies can be tough after 20 years and 10 albums. Which is why Webster says Cannibal Corpse—currently holed up in a Tampa studio—might look to the Bible for inspiration. Like the Christian songwriters of old found out long ago, the Good Book holds an abundance of hideous lyrical ammo. “There’s a lot of awful stuff happening there,” he says, laughing. “I mean, incest? I don’t think even we have ever tackled that one.”