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Punderstruck: Why Are Heavy Metal Bands So in Love With Punning?

Investigating the place where grim self-seriousness and dad jokes collide

Oscar Wilde once wrote that sarcasm is the lowest form of wit. But he was wrong: As far as most people are concerned, that dubious honor goes to the pun, a form of humor so debased that it belongs almost solely to tabloid newspaper headlines and embarrassing dads.

I say almost, because there’s another, less likely culprit in the ongoing dissemination of cringeworthy wordplay: Heavy metal.

They make strange bedfellows, to be sure. On the one hand, you have metal, a genre of music whose general purview tends to be death, depression, insanity, fury, rebellion, and more often than not, dragons. And on the other, you have, well, puns — the spoken-word equivalent of shitting your pants for a cheap laugh.

Now, I’ll level with you here: I love both metal and puns. For a relatively normal-looking dude, people often seem surprised when they discover me at my desk listening to Napalm Death or Electric Wizard. And as for punning… well, let’s just say it’s such an unfortunate predilection of mine that my colleagues have taken to recording my daily pun-count on the office whiteboard. (In my defense, they’re mostly in the form of rapidly-shot down headline suggestions.)

Still, it’s easy to see that the marriage between the two, on the surface, makes little sense. Metal is a genre that requires such an enormous buy-in from its audience to take it seriously — a deep commitment to looking past the cliche, the posturing, the adolescent reputation — that to associate with such weak-dad jokery seems like anathema (there is, of course, a metal band called Anathema).

Despite this, pun song titles are everywhere in metal. Take Irish alt-metal band Therapy?. I was obsessed with their landmark 1994 album Troublegum upon its release — and, indeed, still am to this day. Even at 14 years old, though, I was embarrassed to tell people the name of what I was listening to. It certainly didn’t help that no less than three of its 14 songs were also puns: “Screamager,” “Femtex” and “Brainsaw.”

Exploration of other, heavier bands reveal yet more puns. Extreme metal band Cradle of Filth — despite their infamy being almost entirely cemented by the crude simplicity of their most sought-after piece of 1990s merchandise: a T-shirt with “Jesus is a cunt” emblazoned across the back — have released endless carefully-crafted pun song titles, from the goofily obvious (“Malice Through the Looking Glass”) to the utterly sublime (“Shat Out of Hell”).

Vegetarian metal band Cattle Decapitation may well be the current kings of blatant pun song titles, again ranging from the gleefully high five-worthy (“Cloacula”) to the downright facepalm-inducing (“Constipation Camp”).

Not all are presented the same way, either. Some bands are so proud of their puns — or perhaps have so little faith in their fans to recognize them as such — that they feel compelled to call attention to them with extra punctuation or capitalizations, such as glam/industrial metal merchant Marilyn Manson’s “mOBSCENE” (featuring the bonus punning chorus of, “Be obscene and not heard”) or “Cruci-fiction in Space.” (While we’re at it, let us never forget that Manson also had an early instrumental track called “Shitty Chicken Gang Bang.”)

Other groups, meanwhile, give their songs names that only reveal themselves as puns once you listen to them. Steampunk band The Men That Will Not be Blamed For Nothing, for example, have a song called “Tesla Coil,” which seems like a fairly innocuous title until you hear the lyrics and realize it’s about a woman who gets fitted with an IUD that shoots lightning.

Then there are the bands who couldn’t even decide on a pun and ended up with a tortured, confused mess instead — Machine Head’s disastrous “Real Eyes, Realize, Real Lies” springs immediately to mind.

It should be noted that metal bands are hardly the first to engage in this sort of silliness. Tumblr boards full of classical music puns aside, the more critically respected parts of rock music are rife with this stuff, too. Nirvana’s beloved 1992 demo/B-side compilation, released at the height of their fame between Nevermind and In Utero, was given the ludicrous title of Incesticide. In 1979, Frank Zappa released his cult favorite album, Sheik Yerbouti. David Bowie himself wasn’t above a pun, releasing Aladdin Sane in 1973. Then, of course, there’s the most famous rock band that will ever exist, The Beatles, whose very name tried to distance their insectile homage to Buddy Holly and the Crickets with a shockingly weak pun on musical beats.

But back to metal. Admittedly, there are some natural ties between it and puns. Both are regarded by the gatekeepers of cultural worth as puerile and juvenile — incapable of engaging the world at more than an eighth grade level; beloved by the very specifically undesirable spectrum of the socially awkward; undeserving of greater critical consideration.

So what is it, then, that causes bands to employ this blunt edge when marketing their music? Why would they risk undercutting their carefully grim image with the kind of wordplay that would make your nerdy English teacher blush?

In all likelihood, it’s an awareness of that very image that causes metal bands to add a touch of whimsy, in order to balance things out. “I think a lot of metal and punk bands can be aware of their own absurdity,” Therapy? frontman Andy Cairns tells me. “Putting in something that breaks up the crushing pain and grief of the initial subject matter, it might be a coping mechanism in a way. Metal bands are self-conscious of how ridiculous they might seem, and even though they’ve genuinely meant what they’ve just said, they’ll maybe throw in a pun almost like the arched eyebrow at the end of a quote.”

“It always reminds me of a story of when our sound guy went to see Judas Priest when he was 14,” Cairns continues. “He waited all day by the stage door, and all of a sudden, a small Mini Cooper turned up: [Judas Priest frontman] Rob Halford got out wearing a leather cap, a biker jacket with studs in it, leather trousers and biker boots. After giving [the soundman] his autograph, Rob Halford says, ‘I’ve got to go, I’ve got to go and get my stage clothes on.’ The levity of the whole thing — the fact he arrives in this old Mini Cooper in all this gear, and then he’s going to put on something even more outlandish! It’s like the smirk on the end of the sentence.”

It’s a convincing argument — that the pun simply serves as a defense against accusations of uptight pretension. But it’s one that Tim Morse, former drummer of early grindcore band Anal Cunt (and current drummer of grindcore outfit Horrible Earth) calls friendly bullshit on, suggesting that in many cases, the pun is really a form of chickening out — an inability to stand behind what you’re singing.

“It’s the same as using sarcasm or irony — it’s like, I’m not really saying that… or am I?” says Morse. “I don’t think people have enough balls anymore to be honest about stuff. They have to hide behind sarcasm or bullshit. Even if what you’re saying is redundant or if it’s been said or if it’s boring, whatever, if it means something to you, fucking say it! If you hate the cops, say, ‘I hate the cops.’ If you’re sad, say you’re sad. If you like a cup of coffee, write a song about a fucking cup of coffee!”

It’s this insistence on the radically direct approach — the anti-pun — that caused me to seek out Morse’s opinion in the first place. Amidst the overwrought titles of their peers, Anal Cunt’s names always stood in stark contrast: Songs from their 58-track 1994 album Everyone Should Be Killed are either perfunctory (“Song 3” and “Song 8”), resentful (“Song Titles Are Fucking Stupid” and “Having to Make Up Song Titles Sucks”) or mercilessly on the nose (“Empire Sandwich Shop,” a song about said sandwich shop).

It’s a tradition they largely stuck with on following albums, and Morse is convinced that this lack of titular camouflage ended up being more of a head-fuck for people than even the most twisted of puns. “Seth [Putnam, former Anal Cunt frontman who passed away in 2011] wrote a song about how he was excited to see this folk duo band called Buskin and Batteau [“I’m Really Excited About the Upcoming David Buskin Concert”]. It made complete sense, but it was just so honest that it fucked people’s minds up. They were like, ‘What the hell does this mean?’ I’m like, ‘He’s just really excited about going to this folk show.’

“The more obvious it is, the more difficult it is for people to wrap their head around. They just got completely confused, especially in the early 1990s when grunge and the whole pseudo-punk era came up. A lot of those bands liked to write these songs with these intense, troubled, soulful lyrics, but then call it something abstract because they didn’t really want to tell you what it meant. For me, as I get older, I look at that and I’m like, oh Jesus, that song was just about how much you hate yourself, and you called it something stupid.”

It’s the expectations of grim theatricality in metal, then, that makes Anal Cunt’s more prosaic titles stand out. “If you write about God and heaven and Satan and living on a mountain and carrying a fucking sword, that, people can wrap their heads around,” laughs Morse. “But if you write a song about a guy living in a houseboat [“You Live in a Houseboat”], their fucking brains melt.”

It’s this same deeply flamboyant self-seriousness, though, that makes metal puns so enjoyable in the first place — even, in some cases, actually amusing. “I’m starting to get a feel for what makes some puns funnier than others,” says Professor Lori Buchanan of the Department of Psychology at the University of Windsor. “It has to do with the expectations and the relationships between words in the puns.”

I reached out to Buchanan after reading about a study she co-authored — “Pun Processing from a Psycholinguistic Perspective: Introducing the Model of Psycholinguistic Hemispheric Incongruity Laughter” — in Scientific American, which looked at how the brain processes humor between its two hemispheres. Initially I wanted to know if metal (being a genre that enjoys a good dose of self-abuse) might gravitate toward puns (which tend to elicit a groan of pain, rather than any real mirth) as a form of unconscious self-flagellation. (Admittedly, I was reaching).

While Buchanan understandably declined to hazard a guess on that front, her observations on the mechanics of pun humor made a lot of sense in this context. “The closer the two concepts are, the less funny (or groan-worthy) puns seem to be,” says Buchanan. “Maybe — and this is a wild-ass guess — the puns in metal might be an extension of that: They’re surprising because of the distance between the purview and the puns.” So while your brain might read your grinning dad making a pun as unsurprising, and therefore, unfunny, it’s hard for anyone not to be somewhat entertained when the pun is dropped by a man in full black metal makeup.

You can see this effect in action with comedy thrash metal band GWAR. While the group have certainly made use of pun song titles in the nearly 30 years they’ve been active (“Sexecutioner” and “The Apes of Wrath”), the very fact they’re an intentionally comedic band makes these pun titles inherently less funny than the ones that are simply absurd (“The Obliteration of Flabquarv 7”) or knowingly self-parodic (their “Big Rock Candy Mountain”-esque headbanger fantasy “Metal Metal Land,” featuring the wonderfully self-emasculating line, “Here in Metal Metal Land, everything is hard!! …except, of course, the test you take to get a license for your car.”)

Considering this, might it be fair to say that puns are perhaps beneath a more self-aware band like GWAR?

Nothing is beneath GWAR,” argues current GWAR frontman Mike Bishop, better known to fans as udder-sporting warrior-monster Blothar. “I mean, we strive to be as low as you can possibly get…”

“Metal always took itself far too seriously,” Bishop continues. “There’s far too little humor in heavy metal, and I’m glad when bands interject it. It’s such a ridiculous image, the stone-face way that bands look in photographs. That bothers me a great deal because it puts forward an idea of masculinity that I find objectionable: To be manly and male and metal and serious is to be absolutely humorless. Anything that sways it a little bit, I think is a good thing.”

In discussing their comedic value, Bishop echoes Buchanan’s analysis when he points out the unfortunate irony of metal puns — that the more a band pours their heart and soul into an intensely sincere pun, the funnier it accidentally becomes. “I think puns might be a signal that a band considers language important, and that they’re using it in ways that they’d like for you to pay attention to,” says Bishop. “But then, a band like Cattle Decapitation? Certainly I experience their music as funny — whether they do or not. So there’s that issue.”

In that vein, it’s probably fair to say that there are more than a few bands who genuinely regard their puns as works of creative genius, oblivious to the incidental comedy. “With some metal bands, let’s be frank here, they think by adding a pun it makes them incredibly clever,” says Cairns. “Especially German power metal bands, if they throw in any kind of pun, you know that they actually think they’re giving Allen Ginsberg a run for his money. Look at someone like [Whitesnake frontman] David Coverdale! He famously once said in a documentary, ‘I’m not Billy Shakespeare, mate,’ which I thought was rather nice of him to admit, but I think secretly, deep down, he thinks he is bloody Shakespeare.”

For bands that do have a natural sense of humor, meanwhile, punning may be less a deliberate decision and more just a natural overflow of the way the band communicates with each other. “Puns are part of the lexicon of Therapy?,” admits Cairns. “We’re always together as a band and crew, so I think that’s the way we deal with being within spitting distance of each other for nearly 25 years.”

Therapy? bassist Michael McKeegan agrees. “You spend a lot of time together as a band traveling, and the way you talk, almost a shorthand develops because everyone is thinking the same thing — you only really need to say one word to describe quite a complicated situation. It’s like a vocabulary that goes along with the musical chemistry and the personal chemistry within the band.”

Cradle of Filth are another example of a band whose punning seems a natural extension of their personality, rather than a painstaking artistic choice. I have fond memories of the time when, while interviewing frontman Dani Filth for a British magazine back in 2008, Filth showed utter delight in declaring a dirty serving utensil to be a “ladle of filth.” Clearly, there’s a genuine joy in wordplay that just happens to end up bleeding into their work.

“There’s a lot of wordplay going on [with Cradle of Filth],” says McKeegan. “Which is kind of ironic, because a lot of it is lost in the sheer ferocity and velocity of the music. It’s a real credit to Dani for sitting down and getting those words in there — they’re quite ornate and I respect that.”

What, then, drives this compulsion to pun in conversation (besides, as McKeegan puts it, “Being bored in vans”)? Weirdly enough, in extreme cases it may be a genuine sign of a mental disorder — specifically, a condition called Witzelsucht, in which patients experience the need to make constant puns, tell inappropriate jokes and relate pointless anecdotes. (Less commonly, they may also experience hypersexuality, turning pretty much everything into a double entendre.)

This 2016 piece in The Cut details the alarming case of a man diagnosed with the condition:

On interview, the patient reported feeling generally joyful, but his compulsive need to make jokes and create humor had become an issue of contention with his wife,” they write. He would routinely wake his wife up in the middle of the night, “just to tell her about the jokes he had come up with.” After some time, his wife suggested writing those jokes down instead of waking her. “As a result, he brought to our office approximately 50 pages filled with his jokes.”

The condition, stated the two neurologists who studied him, was likely brought about by a subarachnoid hemorrhage (that is, bleeding between the brain and the surrounding soft tissues) in the right frontal lobe, an area associated with the ability to process and appreciate humor.

It could be argued that this link between puns and madness may be a substantial part of the connective tissue between heavy metal and puns: Metal bands have, at their best, sung honestly and openly about issues like depression and anxiety, and at their worst, either trivialized or glorified insanity. But whatever form it takes, madness has always been a deep rooted part of metal’s DNA.

“You can certainly look at it from a purely literary theory point-of-view,” says Bishop. “Puns, especially out of the mouth of a heavy metal singer, create the effect of identifying the narrator as being less reliable than he should be. It instantly conjures up some kind of madness. Alice Cooper was really good at it — in ‘Dwight Fry’ he’s playing on that idea of an unreliable narrator who just confesses to madness so you know that they’re crazy. I think it’s safe to say that puns can work that way.”

Which is not to say, of course, that this delirious punning descent into lunacy can’t be taken too far. “When you start talking like Ned Flanders from The Simpsons, then I suppose the breakdown’s not far away,” says Cairns. “That’s probably just a sign of psychosis — you can just imagine some old metaler from the new wave of British heavy metal days sitting, humming away to himself in the corner, while drinking half a bottle of Thunderbird wine.”

What, then, is the future of the pun in metal? In all likelihood, more of the same: As a genre, metal has always been something of an ouroboros, constantly absorbing and recycling its own influences. See, for example, Travis Ryan — frontman of pun-obsessed Cattle Decapitation — recently forming an anti-Trump protest band called Anal Trump. This group pays homage to the militantly pun-free Anal Cunt not just with a pun on their name and a Trump-ified version of their logo, but a pretty convincing take on their music, too. It’s the über-pun and the anti-pun, coming together in one glorious whole.

As for the real answer as to what compels metal bands to employ wordplay every chance they get? Take your pick: It could be simple expediency; it could be pretension; it could even be the side effects of an aneurysm. Then again, it could be none of these things.

Perhaps, as the saying goes, at the end of the day, a good pun is its own reword.