Blackened and Nuclear Winter

Jacob Darwin Hamblin

April 22, 2019

If we search the internet for "environmental" and "heavy metal," one song that almost always appears is Metallica's "Blackened," from the 1988 album …And Justice for All. But as we listen, and dig into the lyrics, we hear the track blending environmental concerns with the peril of nuclear war in a unique way that draws on ideas pervasive in the mid-1980s. "Blackened" is best understood in its historical context, at the height of the nuclear winter controversy and against the backdrop of the final years of the Reagan presidency. In hindsight, it's tempting to characterize 1988 as the waning of the Cold War. After all, the Berlin Wall would come down in 1989, and 1991 would see the collapse of the Soviet Union. But in 1988 the Cold War still going strong, and "Blackened" is a song that blends fear of nuclear apocalypse with a dawning belief that humans had the capacity to do irreparable harm to the entire earth.

Metallica, “Blackened”,” …And Justice For All, Elektra, 1988.

As a genre, heavy metal might not seem to lend itself to social commentary. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, many of the best-known acts—KISS, AC/DC, Def Leppard, and Van Halen—put out albums that emphasized showmanship, fun, and sexual prowess. Yet some metal bands moved in a different direction, with dissonant chords and lyrics focusing on wanton destruction, hopelessness, and anger. Musicians such as Black Sabbath in the 1970s explicitly embraced dark, anti-establishment messages, celebrating drugs while criticizing social hypocrisy. Then there were bands such as Motörhead in the late 1970s and early 1980s that brought metal together with punk rock, in irreverent, heavily distorted, and fast-paced music, with lyrics that occasionally dealt with power disparities and social evils. Fans of Motörhead themselves, the members of Metallica emerged in the early 1980s as exceptionally talented live performers of speed (sometimes called thrash) heavy metal. By the time "Blackened" came out, that style had morphed into something that abandoned the short gut-punch of punk in favor of longer songs with lots of changes, a variety of riffs, and lyrics often tied to themes such as helplessness or injustice.

But let's not over-intellectualize it. "Blackened" is a head-banger classic, and it has plenty of moments to shout out seemingly forbidden phrases such as "SEE OUR MOTHER PUT TO DEATH! SEE OUR MOTHER DIE!!!!" This is the same band whose 1984 song "Creeping Death" became a concert staple by providing fans with the opportunity to shout "Die by my hand!" repeatedly. Ostensibly that was a song about the first Passover. Similarly, it would be hard to argue that fans of "Blackened" were deeply moved to show concern about the earth. But who knows?

Metallica's album …And Justice for All catapulted the band and heavy metal music – into the mainstream. This was due mostly to the video release of the song "One," which included images from the 1971 film Johnny Got His Gun, about a World War I soldier who still lives but has lost all limbs and senses. It was a disturbing video that spliced the nightmarish images of a wartime hospital with shouted lyrics ("Darkness! Imprisoning me! Absolute horror!") and speed-metal riffs that had never before appeared in mainstream media—but there it was on MTV. Those who went out to buy the album were treated to a thematic album about war, injustice, and misguided priorities in society. The title song on that album captures it with the lyric "I can't believe the things you say/ I can't believe/ I can't believe the price we pay/ Nothing can save us."

The first song on the album is "Blackened," written by band members James Hetfield, Lars Ulrich, and Jason Newsted. It fades in with a distant melody played on lead guitar, before being abruptly interrupted by drums and a metal riff. Then Hetfield, the lead singer and rhythm guitarist, begins to sing:

Blackened is the end
Winter it will send
Throwing all you see
Into obscurity

As metal singers go, James Hetfield is more comprehensible than most, but still, a short perusal of the printed lyrics to "Blackened" does help. It's the second stanza that tags it as an environmental tune:

Death of Mother Earth
Never a rebirth
Evolution's end
Never will it mend

It turns out that our "mother" being put to death is mother earth. "Death of Mother Earth/Never a rebirth" is not the most sophisticated imagery, but it conveys the message. We get a different rhyme with "earth" later in the song: "Blistering of earth/Terminate its worth." What else rhymes with earth? There's nothing about "girth" in the song, unfortunately. A missed opportunity, Mr. Hetfield!

One could argue that "Blackened" is a planet-in-peril kind of song, reminiscent of the Doors' 1967 "When the Music's Over," with its plaintive "What have they done to the earth?/ What have they done to our fair sister?" But not quite. Metallica does not want to hear the scream of the butterfly. Go back to that first stanza. These lines are historically specific.

In the mid-1980s, a theory popularized by Carl Sagan had it that a global nuclear war would send so much debris into the atmosphere that it would block out the sun. A stratospheric layer of ash and dirt would cause the earth to enter a period of extended cold. Sagan and his co-authors did not confine their ideas to scientific papers. Instead, Sagan wrote popular pieces, such as one in the Sunday newspaper supplement Parade, to bring the idea into wider consciousness. "Nuclear winter" threw into question the notion of post-apocalyptic survival. Sagan and others claimed that war would not only lead to human destruction, but it would fundamentally alter life on earth forever.

Although Sagan hoped that knowledge of nuclear winter would compel action on nuclear disarmament, it had little effect. Some initially criticized Sagan's scientific ideas, but US President Ronald Reagan had no need to do so. After all, it was no surprise that nuclear war would be awful. That was the logic of deterrence.

Yet for others, the idea of nuclear winter added a powerful conceptual dimension to nuclear war. Before, nuclear war meant killing off humans, leaving a future earth to be inhabited by the few survivors, or by surviving species, à la Planet of the Apes. But now nuclear war was linked to planetary death. If Sagan were to be believed, there could be no survivors. And millions of years of planetary evolution, of any species, would be gone. No more sunlight, and a new ice age and permanent darkness.

Heavy metal aficionados argue about whether "Blackened" is about nuclear war or about environmental destruction. There's no need to argue. It's about both. "Blackened" evokes nuclear war and its utter totality. Within the lyrics is a consciousness not only of the destructiveness of war, but also the ability of humans to enact long-lasting changes to the global environment.

As in other nuclear war songs, humans are doomed:

Termination… expiration… cancelation human race
Expectation… liberation… population laid to waste

But there is also a sense of planetary effect from fateful human decisions:

Smoldering decay
Take her breath away
Millions of our years
In minutes disappears

Hetfield screams "fire" at the start of every chorus, saying it begins "whipping dance of the dead," followed by a blackened world. This is heavy metal stock-in-trade imagery (Metallica's 1984 song, "Fight Fire with Fire," was explicitly about nuclear war). It's not just about humans. It is about the entire earth.

Here is a line from "Blackened" that was distinctly more comprehensible than the rest of the song, and would have shocked any parent in 1988:

See our mother
Put to death
See our mother die

And there is the influence of nuclear winter throughout:

Callous frigid chill
Nothing left to kill
Never seen before
Breathing nevermore

Like other Metallica songs on the album that point to hypocrisy, corruption, and injustice, the song ends with:

Is the outcome of hypocrisy
Darkest potency
In the exit of humanity
Color our world blackened

But is it really an environmental song at all? I would say yes, in the same sense that catastrophic environmental thinking is deeply rooted in fears (and plans) for a third world war. That's a kind of planetary vulnerability that I discuss at length in my book Arming Mother Nature: the Birth of Catastrophic Environmentalism.

As a band, Metallica's most well-known album was simply called Metallica, also known as the Black Album. It was released in 1991 and was a megahit, with mainstream songs like Enter Sandman and Nothing Else Matters. These were great songs, and well produced, but they were different, too. For one, they were shorter—not the ponderous epic metal riff explorations of previous albums. But they differed in another respect, too: they didn't seem to be tied explicitly to the frustrations, empty promises, and impending doom of living in a broken society. Certainly past efforts—Kill 'Em All, Ride the Lightning, Master of Puppets, and then …And Justice for All, had bottled up those emotions and turned them into immensely satisfying metal that set the gold standard of the genre more than any band since Black Sabbath. "Blackened" should top any metal fan's list of environmental songs.

Jacob Darwin Hamblin writes about the history and politics of science, technology, and environmental issues. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Science, Salon, and many publications devoted to the history of science, technology, and the natural world. He is Professor of History at Oregon State University. Follow him on twitter at @jdhamblin.


Jacob Darwin Hamblin, "Blackened and Nuclear Winter," Enviro-History.com, April 22, 2019, http://Enviro-History.com/blackened.html.