Form and Narrative in Metallica’s “The Call of Ktulu”


I spent an afternoon recently making charts and transcriptions of songs from Metallica’s early albums, looking at how musical details of their songs reflect the topics of the lyrics. I was fascinated by their epic instrumental “The Call of Ktulu,” which stretches out a captivating atmosphere of foreboding for almost nine minutes, making it one of Metallica’s longest tracks. The form of this song, which I’ll describe later as a kind of gargantuan, distended version of the protoypial verse-chorus form with bridge that is used in most metal music, is unique among Metallica’s earlier repertoire. Unlike most instrumentals on earlier metal albums, which are sort of transitional acoustic guitar or synthesizer bits that don’t feel quite like whole compositions (like Black Sabbath’s “Orchid” or Venom’s “Mayhem With Mercy”), “The Call of Ktulu” is a full-length track and stands on its own in comparison to the rest of the tracks on the album.

“The Call of Ktulu” also offers a great opportunity to think about the creative process of listening. Most songs have lyrics which tell you what the song is about. The lyrics often evoke or indicate things that you can imagine as an interpretation of the instrumental parts. For example, when Ozzy Osbourne shouts “I’m going off the rails on a crazy train!” there is a sudden shift to a much darker, more threatening riff. My favorite example of this kind of matching, though, is probably Venom’s “Buried Alive,” which uses a brilliant setting to re-create the sounds and frenzied panic of being buried alive, down to a bass drum beat that evokes the protagonist’s heartbeat filling up the claustrophobic confines of the coffin (even though he’s been taken for dead and buried, his heartbeat “goes on… and on…. *singer howls in anguish*”).

“The Call of Ktulu” doesn’t have lyrics to tell us what the song is about. But even without lyrics, we still have one piece of text to “listen with”—the title. Or really, two texts, since the title is a reference to a short story “The Call of Cthulu” written by H. P. Lovecraft. In this story, a young man going through the papers of his recently deceased uncle starts to piece together an eerie picture of an ancient evil entity called “Cthulu.” According to his uncle’s papers, and his own further research, Cthulu is the center of a malignant voodoo-like religion that is older than human history. Most terrifying is the evidence that, though Cthulu has been dormant in the temple city of R’lyeh for centuries, the young man uncovers a wave of artists and other sensitive minds who all experienced hideous dreams about Cthulu on the same night, after which some became obsessed and others completely lost their minds, as if the terrifying deity were waking up and reaching out to warp the minds of the impressionable….. So what aspects of Metallica’s instrumental arrangement might match this story?

Before answering that question, I should acknowledge that not everyone thinks the song actually does match the title. Cosmo Lee, writing for the metal blog Invisible Oranges, argues that aside from some of the unique fuzz-box tone created by Metallica’s bass guitarist Cliff Burton (RIP), “the song is crisp, dexterous, and regal – not traits I associate with Lovecraft.” You can see where Cosmo gets this impression; the constant eighth notes of the guitar’s picking patterns throughout the song seem carefully measured, the production on this song (and the whole album) is immaculate, giving it a clarity that is almost unique among metal albums from the first half of the 1980s.

Later in the article, Lee admits that “the metal vocabulary wasn’t around then to properly express Lovecraft. The Bathory/Venom/Hellhammer side of metal was just taking root.” Metallica’s playing in “Call of Cthulu” certainly has a different atmosphere than Venom’s “Acid Queen” or Slayer’s “Angel of Death,” or the murk and frenzy of later death metal like Cannibal Corpse or Suffocation. Lee also points out that the song was originally written under the title “When Hell Freezes Over” when Dave Mustaine was still in Metallica. The composition of the song was essentially finished long before Dave was kicked out of the band and the song was retitled, so Lee argues that ““The Call of Ktulu” wasn’t conceived as a Lovecraftian opus – it was just branded as one.” But the real moments of panic in Lovecraft’s story are near the end, and the first two sections of the story match “crisp, dextrous, and regal” fairly well, and have an ominous sense of inevitability that is certainly evoked by the minor mode riffs Metallica uses. While the song may not have been conceived as a “Lovecraftian opus,” I think the newer title actually fits.

There are several ways in which the song could be described as depicting the events or imagery of the story, and they all revolve around comparing the form of “The Call of Ktulu to regular metal song form, which is a bit of a stretch because “The Call of Ktulu” doesn’t have lyrics, which normally decisively outline song forms in rock and metal music. But even though it doesn’t have lyrics, “The Call of Ktulu” resembles the conventional formal process of metal songs in a number of ways.

“The Call of Ktulu” (Track 8 from Ride the Lightning (1984)
0:00 Intro
0:34 A (Verse?) single guitar (A____ E-|D#____)
0:47 B (Chorus?) (A, Bb, B, C)
1:01 A add bass
1:15 B
1:30 A whole band comes in
1:43 B
1:57 A
2:11 B
2:24 A lead guitar abandons picking pattern, and instead begins playing palm-muted power-chord versions of the riffs
2:38 B
2:52 A
3:06 B
3:20 B’ (a variation of section B transposed into the key of D)
3:34 Bridge/Guitar Solo
(same riffs as B’ until 4:00, then back to sections A, B, A, B)
4:56 A lead guitar ends solo and rejoins the rest of the band playing riffs
5:10 B
5:24 B’
5:37 B” (transposed higher, then higher again, then a third time still higher)
6:11 A
6:25 A
6:40 B
6:54 C (E___ G F#~ E F# G E)
7:50 D Major, B Minor chords
7:58 Return of intro
8:31 Massive ending (D C D Bb D F D____) x2

Like most metal songs from the decade preceding this album’s release, the bulk of “The Call of Ktulu” consists of a regular alternation between two contrasting sections. I think section A feels more like the verse and section B feels like the chorus of a normal metal song, but since there aren’t any vocals that’s certainly open to interpretation. Many metal songs in verse-chorus form have an intro section of unrelated material, which comes back late in the song. Also, there is a section in the middle of the song which features a guitar solo, some energy-building transpositions, and even a few new riffs (section C that begins at 6:54). Lastly, the song ends with a drawn-out drum-roll cadential figure that is a common ending strategy in metal songs from this period, although the version of this ending in “The Call of Ktulu” has a superlative degree of finality and foreboding. These formal characteristics are all similar to the prototypical metal songs of the late 1970s and early 1980s, a pattern called “compound AABA”1 that I’ve explored in previous posts including my analysis of “Black No.1” by Type O Negative. In other words, even though this song doesn’t have any lyrics, the form unfolds in a similar shape to a regular metal song and has a comparable sense of drama.

There is one important difference between “The Call of Ktulu” and normal metal song form, though, and that is repetitiveness. A normal metal song would only have two or three cycles of verse/chorus material before the bridge, but “The Call of Ktulu” repeats sections A and B six times before the bridge/guitar solo begins at 3:34, and repeats this same pair of sections twice during the guitar solo and another two times after the guitar solo. These A and B sections are a sizeable 15 seconds each (there are plenty of Motörhead songs with verses or choruses about this length), so repeating so many of them gives the song an enormous sense of scale, which is no surprise given the 9-minute duration that this chain of building blocks creates.

How does this massive scale and repetitiveness depict Lovecraft’s “The Call of Cthulu”? This is up to the imagination of the listener, but one possibility is a dream image of a nightmarish necropolis that is described several times throughout Lovecraft’s story: an “unprecedented dream of great Cyclopean cities of Titan blocks and sky-flung monoliths.” The progression of blocks of A and B riffs could be a sort of musical counterpart to the forest of monoliths described in this passage. Another possibility is that the ceaseless alternation between A and B sections might evoke some repetitive rituals that Lovecraft compares to voodoo dances:

“Animal fury and orgiastic licence here whipped themselves to demoniac heights by howls and squawking ecstasies that tore and reverberated through those nighted woods like pestilential tempests from the gulfs of hell. Now and then the less organized ululations would cease, and from what seemed a well-drilled chorus of hoarse voices would rise in singsong chant that hideous phrase or ritual: ‘Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn.’ 

The ceaseless alternation between A and B could also evoke a “ceaseless, half-mental calling from underground: ‘Cthulhu fhtagn, Cthulhu fhtagn.'” that recurred in the dreams of some of the characters in Lovecraft’s tale. Or the massive scale of this repetition could evoke the ancient endurance of the god-like entity Cthulu itself.

Although there are no lyrics in Metallica’s song “The Call of Ktulu” to tell us a narrative of the song, the title itself conjures up topics of unnatural endurance, ominous inevitability, or horrific recurrence. It is no accident that the original title of the song, “When Hell Freezes Over,” also evokes an impossibly large scale of time. Both of these titles invite similar readings of the enormous and repetitive scale of the song’s form. But if “The Call of Ktulu” is read as a deformation of normal metal song form, this repetitiveness and enormous scale resonate with the unnatural duration and ominous enormity evoked in Lovecraft’s story.

This interpretation of song form isn’t an objective part of “The Call of Ktulu”; listeners can choose whether to hear this song in comparison to verse-chorus form, or as an independent instrumental form that follows its own logic. When I listened to this song growing up, I don’t know that I ever heard it in these terms, but I still appreciated the epic scale and ominous, evil atmosphere. It was not until I started studying form in metal and made my own transcription that I began to hear the song in this way. I have no way of knowing whether Metallica intended this song to be heard as a deformation of verse-chorus form in the way I’ve described. But choosing this hearing connects the form of the song to the story evoked by the title. This is yet another resonance with Lovecraft’s story, in which the narrator deemed imaginable and artistic minds to be more impressionable to the nightmare-broadcasts of Cthulu. Those who are listening for or listening with standard metal song form can hear an additional narrative dimension to this song that makes the title not just an extra-musical reference to a creepy horror-story atmosphere, but a visceral, immediate musical experience of this imagery.

  1. The term “compound AABA” is from John Covach’s 2005 chapter “Form in Rock Music: A Primer,” in Engaging Music: Essays in Musical Analysis, ed. Deborah Stein, pp. 65-76. []

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