Dark speculative fiction, horror, sci-fi and dark fantasy all have links to various genres of music. The blues is famous for its references to the devil, selling your soul at the crossroads and voodoo. Those rough blues links extended into many of the blues-based rock bands like the Stones and Led Zeppelin, before exploding in a myriad of directions including prog rock, jazz rock and heavy metal. Much of the references are cringeworthy and almost infantile, with many song ideas lifted straight from the works of Fantasy writers (Ramble On, The Battle of Evermore) but occasionally, the combination of well-made music and lyrical storytelling can give me a buzz and spark, the urge to explore the ideas and concepts outlined in the lyrics.

Here are some of my favourite dark speculative fiction songs. They are all worth a listen and one of them should at least spark your brain to run off on tangents.

1. She was real – Jon English

Jon English was an Australian singer-songwriter who rose to prominence in the mid-seventies. He had a strong of radio-friendly hits that belied his on-stage rock and roll presence. English released an incredible piece of dramatic rock called Shining which paid homage to Stephen King’s masterful novel of the same name. The song became a centrepiece of his live performances and if you can get hold of a good copy of him performing the song, you’ll get some idea of the presence and stage persona that English could project when telling a story in song.

His follow-up album contained what I consider to be one of the finest pieces of rock storytelling ever. She was real is a spooky atmospheric piece that tells the tale of a ghostly encounter with a woman on a roundabout late at night. English paints a picture with his words that draw you all the way in.

It was one of those Autumn nights
Pitch black, with a mist in the air
When you can’t see anything close up

But you know there’s someone there

If this doesn’t send a shiver up your spine, check your pulse.

The Poet and the Pendulum – Nightwish

This is an epic piece of music that runs for almost 14 minutes, taking you through a variety of moods and genres and offering you a view into the darkest moments of the soul.

Penned by Tuomas Holpainen, the song is written in five parts beginning at the end and takes us to the White Lands of Empathica (yes those lands form King’s Dark Tower series) before taking us through a bitter dark journey where suicide seems to be the goal.

The word dark doesn’t do this justice.

You live long enough to hear the sound of guns
long enough to find yourself screaming every night
long enough to see your friends betray you
For years I’ve been strapped unto this altar
Now I only have three minutes and counting
I just wish the tide would catch me first 
and give me a death I always longed for.”

Nightwish offer a treasure trove of dark material to riff off

3. The Abbey of Thelema – Gillan

Aleister Crowley has provided a rich source of speculative dark fiction material for authors and musicians for many years. Most times those efforts fall into some fairly well-worn tropes. As a result, Crowley has become something of a cliche to me and he rarely sparks my interest.

When Ian Gillan was emerging from his jazz-rock phase, he released a self-titled album that was a bit hit and miss but contained a few hidden gems. One such gem is the Abbey of Thelema. The keyboard riff in a disconcerting minor key has just the right amount of reverb to get my speculative fiction senses tingling, and Gillan’s soft crooning builds the tension.

Crowley isn’t mentioned once and the abbey is scarcely mentioned. It’s all atmospheric until Gillan’s insistent screams demanding that Leah enjoy the feast, inform you that things aren’t right and the abbey is one place you should not go,

She opened her eyes
With a look of surprise
And she started to cry
She remembered the dream
Which wasn’t a dream

4. Stargazer – Rainbow

Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow is an important band for a couple of reasons, none more important than giving Ronnie James Dio a platform from which to announce himself to his world.

Dio’s amazing voice commands respect. Most of his lyrics were initially dismissed as derivative ‘dungeons and dragons’ material. It is only with the benefit of hindsight that critics have come to realise that much of Dio’s lyrics were allegorical in nature. Songs like Black Sabbath’s Heaven and Hell and Children of the Sea are great examples of Dio’s dark speculative fiction word imagery, but the Rainbow album Rising is arguably his finest hour lyrically.

Maybe twenty years ago I started to map out a novel based on Dio’s lyrics on this album. The centrepiece of the album is the song Stargazer – a cautionary tale, possibly set in ancient Egypt, about hubris, blind ambition and failure.

No sound as he falls instead of rising
Time standing still,

then there’s blood on the sand

5. Dawn is Breaking – the Angels

I’m not a huge fan of the Angels. They are a great live band, but as with many straight-ahead rock bands, they tend to wear a bit thin after a while. Their most unique quality was the amazing lyrics penned by Doc Neeson. Have a listen to the maniacal Mr Damage and appreciate the imagination that conjured the “voice of a man with the sound of a scrapin’ violin.”

Neeson conjured up some seriously disturbing lyrics that spoke of a dystopian future. Perhaps his most disturbing song is the eerie and haunting Dawn Is Breaking

I don’t know what it’s about, but the word pictures he paints are horrific and provide fuel for literally dozens of potential stories.

Here’s a sample

People massing in the street
trampled heads beneath their feet
children playing with the dead
silver spoon stained with red
watching through a widow’s veil
as Caesar desecrates the Holy Grail
you sit all alone in your front row seat
you look so small and frail

I could add a hundred more dark speculative fiction songs

Iron Maiden provides some amazing material. Listen to Fear of the Dark or Hallowed be They Name and tell me otherwise. Dio has a whole library of songs to dig into. Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin are mostly derivative but provide the occasional gem Sabbath Bloody Sabbath is a ripper as is Kashmir. I’m not talking about the music – but the lyrics and the places they take me.

Some song titles are enough to spark my imagination – Jethro Tull’s Cold Wind to Valhalla does that. Then there is the grim history of a song like Helter Skelter.

What songs spark your imagination? Feel free to leave a comment.

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By Mark