Wall mural saying Welcome to Hell

The devil is a great language teacher

I was toying with calling this post “The devil made me do it” or “Heavy metal made me what I am” but I was a little concerned about the kind of people that would attract to the site. Anyway, what I’m trying to get across is that in this day and age of global English and what many people regard as cultural homogenisation, heavy metal is one of the few remaining bastions where it’s actually okay not to be a “world citizen” speaking (and singing) in some clichéd mid-Atlantic variety of English.

Technically I was learning Spanish here with my band Mortuum
Technically I was learning Spanish here with my band Mortuum back in 1996

This might sound like some pathetic exercise in jingoistic fist-waving at all things global but it’s really not. Back in the day you’d have to spend no more than a few minutes looking through the Myspace pages of various metal bands and you’d notice something strangely curious. Lots of them were singing in their own languages. Even the people who spoke languages that aren’t considered to be “beautiful” in the traditional sense. It doesn’t make sense. It shouldn’t have made sense, but for some strange reason it did.

Many moons ago I stumbled across a band called Equilibrium who hail from Bavaria in Germany. They were really good in the battle/folk metal genre but their vocal style means that unless you’re really used to this kind of music, they could be singing in any language. But in their press release they mentioned the fact that they established a huge fanbase “despite the fact that they sing in German”. This seemed to acknowledge the perception that in order to succeed, you need to sing in English. Thankfully, this seems to be changing primarily as a result of the folk metal movement where bands take pride in their cultural heritage and combine it with metal music.

One of the very first bands I can remember to brush aside the “rules” of heavy metal was a thrash metal band called Sepultura from Brazil. I’ll admit they’ve never been one of my favourite bands, mainly because they have a truly annoying vocalist, but they have had some rare moments of inspiration. Ratamahatta from their Roots album is one such moment and it is a mix of indigenous Brazilian rhythms combined with stripped down metal guitars and a whole dose of Brazilian Portuguese lyrics. Like most people at the time, I had never heard anything like this before: it was dark and exotic, sinister and a little bit hypnotic and I was absolutely blown away. The video was in stop-motion and with its voodoo, zombies and jungles it just served to add to the whole awe of the experience. It will probably be one of the best examples of national pride expressed in metal and it certainly made me realise that there’s a lot more to Brazilian music than samba and the Bossa nova and there’s more to Brazil than the carnival in Rio. It wasn’t long after that album though that fatherhood and various internal squabbles put Sepultura on a lengthy hiatus but at least they went out on top. [Although other bands like England’s Skyclad were probably the first to fuse folk-influenced music with metal, Sepultura showed it could be done with mass appeal and without being cheesy]

Sepultura – Ratamahatta

(Language: Brazilian Portuguese; Genre: Thrash)

Some of the lyrics:
Biboca, Garagem, Favela
Fubanga, Maloca, Bocada
Maloca, Bocada, Fubanga
Favela, Garagem, Biboca, Porra !!!
Ze Do Caixao, Zumbi, Lampiao
Ratamahatta !!! …

Some of the best bands I know sing in their own language despite the commercial pressures to sing in English to satisfy the demands of the UK and US markets – both notorious for their lower than average foreign language skills. But while singing in English can kick-start a band’s career – it can have quite the opposite effect and can be quite be fatal for a band’s success. Look at Rammstein from Germany. The main reason I started listening to them was because they spoke German and heavy metal always sounds better in German. I was one of the few kids on the dancefloor who could sing along with the songs and I liked that a lot. But their brand of metal, a kind of operatic industrial hardcore, worked incredibly well in German. And so they got more and more popular, and more and more people I know started learning a bit of German. I know it definitely helped to motivate me and it made learning the language a lot more fun.

Rammstein – Sonne

Then what happened? The fools started throwing in the odd English line here and there. At one point a lot of their songs seemed to have English and, in my opinion they lost what made them unique. For a while they were no different to any other generic, middle-of-the-road rock band that plays to hordes of mopey-looking emo kids with dodgy hairstyles and too much eyeliner (and that’s just the boys!). The decision to start pandering to what they thought non-German speaking audiences wanted was seen by a lot of people as selling out and Rammstein lost a lot of their shine .

But bizarrely enough a hybrid approach hasn’t affected bands like Korpiklaani who have many bilingual songs. It’s possible that they started out with varying degrees of bilingual-ness and so can’t be accused of suddenly changing their philosophy. Perhaps it is possible to combine more than one language but like, treason, it’s simply a matter of dates.

Some languages lend themselves really well to contemporary music, although many only really work well for particular genres. Think of French: perfect for love songs and folk music but terrible for rap (but then rap sounds pretty rubbish in most languages). But thanks to bands like Orakle, it turned out that French works for black metal too. Some languages like German are obvious choices for metal but there are surprises – Finnish for example, has a particularly epic feel to it and Spanish can muster up a level of menace and intimidation that few others can. I’ll let you make up your mind about Master’s Hammer from the Czech Republic, Lithuania’s Obtest and Latvia’s Skyforger who all sing in their native languages.

People have tried to copy foreign music styles and transpose them into other languages. There’s a particularly dodgy band called Mortiis (don’t even bother looking them up, it’s really not worth it) who have emulated the sound and style of Rammstein really well except they sing in English (despite being Norwegian) but it still doesn’t work. Sometimes you need the va va voom of a foreign language.

On the other side of the coin are those bands who don’t sing in their native tongue but still manage to somehow avoid the acultural blandness of their peers and remain firmly rooted in their own culture. They actually succeed in bringing people into their cultural circle. Bands like Amorphis, who base almost all of their lyrics on the Finnish epic poem the Kalevala but sing in English, are a prime example. They have the accessibility that monolingual English speakers crave but still “get their message out there”. (Their lyrics are pretty corny in all honesty but you’ve got to give them credit all the same!).

Ireland too has a proud tradition in this particular approach. Possibly because, shamefully, not enough of us speak Irish well enough to be able to write or understand the lyrics (myself included) or possibly because Irish is one of those languages that doesn’t lend itself to metal but the vast majority of celtic metal bands like Cruachan or Waylander sing in English but about themes from Irish folklore and mythology. But unlike bands such as Amorphis they incorporate lots of influences from traditional Irish music and culture, which in my mind, makes up for the lack of Gaeilge. I do know of one metal band from Cork called Corr Mhóna who do sing in Irish but alas, I think they’re something of a rarity.

What better way to practice your Spanish pronunciation (this is me by the way!)
What better way to practice your Spanish pronunciation than singing in Spanish about satanic Mexican drug dealers (this is me by the way!)

As a kid, one of the biggest aids for learning languages I had was listening to foreign bands – Brujeria and Radikal Hardcore in Spanish and RammsteinDie ärtze and Die Fantastischen Vier in German. I know a few people who have learned languages simply to find out what their favourite bands were singing about. I even know of Irish people who have learned how to speak Irish in order to play folk-based metal; sometimes even just to research the lyrics. For those of you not in the know, Irish children begin learning Irish in primary school and continue right through secondary school. Unfortunately for most of us, our competence rarely extends beyond “where are the toilets?”, “my name is…”, “what’s your name?” and “how are you? ” so this is some achievement.

I would even go so far as to say that I am where I am today in part because of foreign heavy metal. It made languages even more relevant to me because it wasn’t just about getting a job it was about having fun too. Listening to German and Spanish metal bands helped me through those dark days when all I seemed to do was practice grammar exercises and nothing seemed to be sticking and I wondered if I’d ever make it as a translator. I even learned a bit of French so I could go to a festival. Metal has also helped me from an intercultural point of view. No matter where you are in the world, a Metallica t-shirt is always a Metallica t-shirt. You can be in the middle of a small village in the middle of nowhere, see someone in a Napalm Death and know that you have something in common and could probably have several beers and laughs.

But in all seriousness, given the fact that so many multilingual hairy rockers are wandering around because of metal shouldn’t more attention be paid to promoting music, not just metal but all types of music? Shouldn’t the EU, for example, promote and subsidise bands that sing in their own language. Not only will it make for much better music but it will undoubtedly provide another means of promoting its aim of multilingualism throughout the continent.

A Quick Crash Course in Non-English Language Metal

There are so many bands to choose from that the problem is deciding who to pick and which languages to represent. Some bands are far too extreme to include, whether because of their music, their vocal style or their subject matter so that helped to narrow the field somewhat. But there are still hundreds of songs. In the end I decided to pick stuff I like a lot so what you have here is a very short introduction which is very tailored towards my own musical tastes. All I’ll say is if you don’t have eardrums of leather and haven’t listened to much metal, turn the volume down a little bit but definitely give each song a proper listen. Oh and feel free to share your favourite multilingual masterpieces in the comments too!

Equilibrium – Blut im Auge

(Language: German; Genre: Battle Metal)

From the lyrics:
Was ich sah auf meiner Reise,
Scheint zu wahr es zu erzähln,
Drum versuch ich auf meine Weise,
Euch mit mir dort hinzunehmn.

Wie ich einst auf dunklen Pfaden,
Weit von hier in Nordens Land,
Sah was mir den Atem raubte,
Was ich bis da nicht gekannt.

Blut Im Auge
Auf wunde Knie
So sank ich nieder
So fand ich sie

Korpiklaani – Paljon on Koskessa Kiviä

(Language: Finnish; Genre: Folk Metal/Huppa)

From the lyrics:
Vuoksivirrat vavahtavat,
kymikummut kurmuttavat
Anna ei armoo koski karu,
koski karu, köngäs kieroIskee niskaan, jäytää jalkaa,
syöksyy selkään, potkii päähän
Huuan, karjun, kirottelen
Parun, vingun, perkele!Taisto on tuima, vääntö villi,
täynnä murskamurjomista
Tukki alla on tukeva,
parru kosken päällä kova

Finntroll – Trollhammaren

(Language: Swedish, one of Finland’s official languages; Genre: Metal/Folk Metal)

From the lyrics:
Trollhammaren sveper igen!
Hugga ned, broder igen!
Hör det sista ropet –
Trollhammaren är här!
Han är inte en människa.
Inte bräcklig och svag som dig.
Du ska vara maktlös.
Inga ögon ser din änd.

Brujeria – La Migra

(Language: Mexican Spanish; Genre: Death/Grindcore)

From the lyrics:
Siguen al brujo, te llevo por gratis
Trae to abuela, to tio, el lelo
Pinches polleros, viven pa’ feria
Te cobran to sueldo y largan to abuela
La pinche migra te esta esperando
Te devuelven despues de una paliza
La migra haya to abuela en el desierto
La mandaron a Tijuana pegada con palos
El brujo tiene contrabando bien bueno
Numeros de seguro y cartas verdes

Ой, да не дрогнут руки твои.
Требу во славу ввысь подыми,
Да во поднебесную, с маты-земли
Вновь углубляясь в Велесовы сны.

Kvelertak – Blodtørst

(Language: Norwegian; Genre: Heavy Metal)

From the lyrics:
Lita inte Ola
Han är kungen av ligg
Han äger med sin dong
Den är ju full med drägg
Sen kør han under dom
De letar inkøpsväg
Suger på allt som: mage, te
Du har blod, og eg er tørst
Mer blodtørst

Sólstafir – Fjara

(Language: Icelandic; Genre: Post Rock)

From the lyrics:
Þetta er það lengsta sem ég fer
Aldrei aftur samur maður er
Ljóta leiðin heillar nú á ný
Daginn sem ég lífið aftur flý
Ef ég vinn í þetta eina sinn
Er það samt dauði minn
Trú mín er, að allt fari vel
Þessu er lokið hjá mér
Dag sem nótt, hljóðið var svo rótt
Þrotið þol, lamað bros
Áfram ríð, hjartað pumpar tárum
Dag sem nótt, ég geng nú einn


(Language: Japanese; Genre: Thrash Metal)

From the lyrics:
古(いにしえ)の 乙女達よ
かりそめの 夢に歌う
あ〜 そうよ いつでも女は女優よ
キツネじゃない キツネじゃない

Arkona -Pokrovi Nebesnogo Startsa

(Language: Russian; Genre: Death/Pagan Metal)

From the lyrics:
Поверни-ка лик ты на свет,
Видишь зарево канувших лет?
Длани вздымая над головой,
Вновь обретешь ты навеки покой.

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