This month will mark the 30th anniversary of one of the worst nuclear disasters the world has ever known. The Chernobyl disaster was not the first nuclear accident, sadly, nor would it be the last. But when you talk about the Cold War and you talk about nuclear power gone horribly wrong there may be no other event that defines both for an entire generation of people.
Growing up in the Cold War was growing up in the imminent shadow of world annihilation – or so we were taught to believe. Was the USSR as big a threat as we were led to believe for all of those years? It’s debatable now that we’ve seen behind the Soviet magic curtain. But growing up in the late 70s and into the 80s the threat of war, and with it the threat of nuclear war, was ever present. It’s hard sometimes to relay this feeling effectively enough in a post-9/11 world for it to truly resonate, even for those who lived through it. In this current world of multi-colored threat levels, 24-hour news cycles, and leaked beheading videos, the idea that the world had boogeymen before ISIS or al-Qaeda rolled up the block can seem foreign at best. (Pun intended.)
But one look at pop-culture from the 80s should tell you all you need to know. From Rambo to Rocky to Red Dawn, everywhere you turned we American youth were reminded of one simple message: USA = Good, USSR = Bad. With that came the inherent threat of the worst kind of war possible – that of the nuclear kind. We were all taught, either directly or indirectly, that at any moment some crazy bastard was going to press a button that would wipe out half the world population in one shot. War Games wasn’t just a fun movie, it was an alternate reality in which we could live out the Cuban Missile Crisis as many times as we could rewind the VHS tape.
Music was not left unaffected by this, and heavy metal especially picked up the banner of potential nuclear winter and ran with it. Dozens upon dozens of bands wrote songs about the impending nuclear apocalypse and all of the governmental hypocrisy that went along with it. Thrash metal especially seemed somewhat fixated at times with themes revolving around nuclear war – the causes, the effects, and everything else in between described in vivid detail among the wailing of guitars, the giddy-up rhythms, and shrieking vocals. While war is still raging across the globe in various forms, and the Fukushima incident in Japan made sure none of us forget that nuclear disasters are a reality of the present as well as the past, heavy metal can still be distinctly political and poignant in both lyrical content and overall message. But the metal of the 1980s had roughly three prior decades worth of imminent nuclear annihilation at the hands of another super power nation to pull from and pull from it they did.
If anything, you could argue that we are just as unsafe now as we were when we seemingly only had one big, bad guy to worry about. Now there are terrorist cells all over the globe, the dangerous goofiness that is North Korea, and the threat of global economic collapse looming like that pink elephant in the room no one wants to talk about, just to name a few. But long before we had to take our shoes off at airports and allow strangers to molest us in the name of ‘freedom’ we lived in a world where we were all fairly convinced that having our faces melted off Hiroshima-style was a plausible end-game. Personally speaking, Chernobyl has always been something of a fascinating event. The ‘hows’ and ‘whys’ are almost secondary to those ghost town photo galleries of life that came to a close for an entire city within mere hours. A city that was left frozen in place giving us a snapshot of some of our worst nightmares come alive.
So with that said, as we approach the 30th anniversary of an event that helped define an era, I thought it would be a perfect time to explore some of the best metal songs from the 1980s (and two bookend tracks) that dealt with nuclear war. This is certainly not a complete list, nor is it meant to be. But these songs offer a great window into our anger and fears that emerged at that time in history. It is a list of tracks I like to call The Nuclear Playlist..
Black Sabbath – Electric Funeral (1970)
For me, all things heavy metal start with Black Sabbath so it’s only fitting we reach back to the originators for our first example of nuclear war in metal song. “Storm coming, you’d better hide from the atomic tide…”
Discharge – A Hell On Earth (1982)
Although born out of the UK punk scene, Discharge had as much in common musically with Motorhead and Venom as they did any of their punk brethren. This track, especially seethes with metal heaviness as they sing about nuclear fallout.
Iron Maiden – 2 Minutes to Midnight (1984)
One of the genre’s greatest songs off of one of the genre’s greatest albums by one of the genre’s greatest bands is about the symbolic Doomsday Clock which is supposed to be counting down to mass, nuclear annihilation. The closest the clock ever came to midnight (or mass destruction) was…you guessed it…2 Minutes to Midnight in 1953 when the US and Soviets were testing out H-Bombs within a few months of each other.
Voivod – Nuclear War (1984)
The final track off the debut LP from Canada’s Voivod is pretty self-explanatory. But it’s also one of the earlier examples of a thrash act tackling the theme of nuclear war – and Voivod did it with a massive seven-minute epic. Voivod was always ahead of the curve in so many ways.
Carnivore – Thermonuclear Warrior (1985)
This is when the flood gates really seemed to open up in terms of nuclear war themes. New York’s Carnivore were no strangers to political themes (especially if they knew they could get a rise out of as many people as possible). What this track lacks in Carnivore’s patented tongue-in-cheek commentary, it makes up for in sheer heaviness and storytelling, as Peter Steele and the boys rip through a track about a man bent on making a post-apocalyptic world all his own through as much violence as possible. Easily one of the best tracks this band ever wrote.
Exodus – And Then There Were None (1985)
There are a handful of tracks people seem to always mention whenever you discuss nuclear war in metal. This track is one of them. A fan favorite for years afterwards, this was a stand-out track from the album that cemented these guys as one of the Bay Area’s most endearing exports.
Kreator – Total Death (1985)
As we have already seen, nuclear war themes certainly weren’t solely an American attribute. Enter Germany’s Kreator and this track from their blazing debut album. Haling from a country that was literally split in half during the Cold War, these guys knew all to well the negative effects of maniacal global politics during this era. While this album would go on to influence not only the rest of the thrash metal world, but help create black metal as well, Kreator were as equally concerned about “Hundred megatons lie on every soul…” as they were any type of demonic presences.
Onslaught – Thermonuclear Devastation (1985)
Another track that is pretty self-explanatory, but this time coming from a band that isn’t a household name, even in metal circles. Criminally underrated act ripping through a track of total annihilation – both lyrically and otherwise.
Cryptic Slaughter – Nuclear Future (1986)
The thrash crossover bands were not immune to writing a politically charged song or two or a hundred. There’s arguably no better band from that scene to rail against the dangers of nuclear war than Cryptic Slaughter.
Nuclear Assault – Nuclear War/Radiation Sickness (1986)
There was never before, nor has there been since, a band more obsessed with all things nuclear war than New York’s Nuclear Assault. Besides naming themselves Nuclear Assault, every album cover depicted some snapshot of nuclear devastation, and of course, a large chunk of their material revolved around the subject. You get a two-for-one with these guys as we pull two tracks off their classic Game Over album.
Whiplash – Last Man Alive (1986)
One of the more underappreciated thrash acts from back in the day gave us an absolute ripper of a track chronicling the days of the last man walking the Earth after total nuclear destruction.
Death Angel – Final Death (1987)
While not the most overt in its lyrical basis, this song certainly has enough references to ‘melted faces’ and ‘flashes in the sky’ to tie it back to nuclear war. By now, bands were starting to write songs with Chernobyl in the rear view mirror, and some bands chose to up the ante on their anti-nuclear stance.
Slaughter- Incinerator (1987)
No, this is not the hair band that wrote that terrible “Fly to the Angels” song. This is this cult Canadian thrash act, who in 1987 dropped the immensely influential Strappado album. While, again, a song you need to read a bit into the lyrics for the message, they would nonetheless become another in a long line of bands to make reference to the nuclear end of days.
Sodom – Nuclear Winter (1987)
Another track that people gravitate to when discussing nuclear themes in metal. Sodom built a huge following off of tight musicianship, an unrelenting sound, and multiple classic albums containing several war-themed songs, especially those of the nuclear kind. This one is easily one of their best from a long list of amazing tracks.
Toxik – World Circus (1987)
If the album cover alone didn’t give away what this title track was all about, nothing would. Toxik would take it one step further though and even call out the US and USSR by name on this track. With some amazing guitar work and wild vocals, Toxik paint a vivid picture of the madmen behind the curtains pulling the levers and hitting the buttons of world destruction.
Bolt Thrower – Nuclear Annihilation (1988)
While the theme of nuclear war wasn’t completely lost on the death metal genre, by the time it really hit its stride in the early 90’s death metal bands were more concerned with zombies and serial killers than they were mushroom clouds and nuclear fallout. Again though that’s not to say that nuclear war was completely lost on the earliest stalwarts of the genre. Case in point, this gem from the debut album from the UK’s Bolt Thrower.
Megadeth – Set The World Afire (1988)
Certainly no strangers to political themes in their music, Megadeth dropped a proverbial bomb to open this track and proceeded to hand out apocalyptic visions of a world engulfed in death and destruction. Easily one of the best tracks you’ll find on this list, or in the stellar Megadeth back-catalog for that matter. Also probably one of the very few metal tracks that would have an Einstein quote thrown in there as well.
Metallica – Blackened (1988)
Metallica were never a band to shy away from songs about war. All three albums prior to this one had at least one song revolving around war and/or its aftermath. But this was the closest they came to writing a song about a nuclear holocaust. You have to read into the lyrics a little bit to tie it directly to nuclear war but it definitely fits with the other songs on this list regardless. (There is that weird line about nicotine though…maybe this is just an anti-cigarette song…)
Megadeth – Polaris (1990)
We wrap this exercise up with a track from easily one of the greatest metal albums ever created. Again, Megadeth was never afraid to take on the establishment one killer riff at a time, and this track was a direct hit aimed right at the people peddling nuclear fear for a living. “I am a nuclear murderer. I am Polaris!”
By 1993, the Berlin Wall was falling, the Cold War was coming to a close, and nuclear war was suddenly not the monster under the bed it had been for the previous four decades. (Except the threat of nuclear war never really went away, did it?) Metal too started to shift its focus to other societal ills. But we’ll always have these snapshots of a time when a few very powerful people held all of us on the brink of losing it all in spectacular fashion. Here is a Spotify playlist (containing the songs available) for your listening pleasure. Play it loud!