Hallowed be Thy Name

Thanks for staying…

Shocking? Blasphemous? Shockingly blasphemous? To anyone who has dared to stay on despite the appalling cover1 and the sacrilegious headline, there is good news on this side. For blessed are those that stick around!

Hallowed be Thy Name is the closing track of Maiden’s path-breaking third album, The Number of the Beast. (Even if you haven’t heard the original, you’ve at least heard the cover by Cradle of Filth which, by the way, is a total mess.) This is a song that is rated frequently amongst the greatest Heavy Metal songs of all time. And for good reason. The guitars, especially Dave Murray’s intro, create a sad almost grimy atmosphere. No surprises there as the song explores the thoughts of a person in a prison cell about to be executed.  The guitar harmonies and the extended solos are present as is Steve Harris’s ever audible bass. Nicko McBrian’s monstrous rolls add depth to an already engaging track. And who cannot recognize the desperation in Bruce Dickinson’s voice when he screams Hallowed be Thy Name as the song draws to a close. The perfect song? Arguably. However, this post not about the music — a field in which I have little if any competence — but about the lyrics.

steve-harris-machine-gun-bass
Steve Harris (via metalsucks)

Iron Maiden is known for, among many other things, its mature and sophisticated lyrics. And the lyrics to Hallowed be Thy Name represents, to me, the most philosophical words to have ever been written by Harris.

Lets break it down…

I’m waiting in my cold cell when the bell begins to chime
Reflecting on my past life and it doesn’t have much time
‘Cause at 5 o’clock they take me to the gallows pole
The sands of time for me are running low

The first stanza reveals the impending death of the prisoner for a crime that is not disclosed. He is going to be hanged.

When the priest comes to read me the last rites
I take a look through the bars at the last sights
Of a world that has gone very wrong for me
Can it be that there’s some sort of an error?
Hard to stop the surmounting terror
Is it really the end not some crazy dream?

Denial: The general feeling initially is that of disbelief.  ‘Is this really the end? No. There must be some sort of error. This must be some sort of dream.’ Such a response is only natural. It is difficult to consider death when it is not expected. And it is instinctive to seek deliverance from the menacing waves of reality by hanging on to thin straws of bogus hope.

 Somebody please tell me that I’m dreaming
It’s not easy to stop from screaming
But words escape me when I try to speak
Tears they flow but why am I crying?
After all I am not afraid of dying
Don’t I believe that there never is an end?

Depression: The next stage is the realization of the futility of denial. The reality can’t be helped. Death is certain. And that leads to depression. No one wants to die, at least not before it’s time. We always have dreams unfulfilled and promises unkept. To leave them as they are without making amends is highly distressing.

 As the guards march me out to the courtyard
Someone calls from a cell “God be with you”
If there’s a God then why has he let me die?

Anger: ‘How is this fair?’ When faced with insuperable calamity, it is easy to become frustrated and angry. Loss of faith during suffering is all  too common. Unfounded rationalizations like the one expressed in the concluding line of the stanza are constructed and used to question and vilify religion.

 
As I walk all my life drifts before me
And though the end is near I’m not sorry
Catch my soul ’cause it’s willing to fly away
Mark my words believe my soul lives on
Don’t worry now that I have gone
I’ve gone beyond to seek the truth
 
When you know that your time is close at hand
Maybe then you’ll begin to understand
Life down there is just a strange illusion

Acceptance: Sooner or later, the inevitability of death is bound to hit home — mortality triumphs, eventually. And when that happens, reconciliation with death becomes possible. The purpose, or rather the ultimate lack of purpose, of life is understood. One becomes calm and seeks — and generally finds — solace in spirituality. ‘I may die, but my soul is immortal.’

 
Yeah, yeah, yeah,
Hallowed be Thy Name
Yeah, yeah, yeah,
Hallowed be Thy Name
The song concludes with the prisoner uttering the Lord’s Prayer as he is about to be hanged.

The point being…

There is the pervasive notion that Metal is for low-lives, losers, rebels and anti-christs. That is utter poppycock and baloney cooked up by narrow minded (often religious) zealots who take song titles and album art at face-value. And people are too willing to partake these fantastic, literally as in created out of fantasy, stories. Yes, Metal has its share of zealots too. But it is a cardinal sin to stigmatize and condemn the entire metal community. What I have tried to do with this post is simply present a side of Heavy Metal often misunderstood or ignored. And its the fact that Metal is an intelligent genre — it is a thinking man’s genre.

The progression of thoughts explored in Hallowed by Thy Name is an exemplary instance of lyrical maturity and, at the risk of being grandiose, philosophical inquiry. And if you know what is well-known in medical studies as the Kübler-Ross model, Harris’s writing skills are even more impressive. There is an entire universe of awe-inspiring (and some less inspiring, I’ll admit) music to be found in the Metal genre. The initiation is not easy. Big mental investments are required. But the dividends are great.

One example. Listen to  Rime of the Ancient Mariner. It is a 13-minute plus epic by Iron Maiden. Get a lyric sheet too. Survive the fast and heavy riff-laden first five minutes. Yes, you can appreciate air-raid siren Bruce’s pipes. Then relax for two and a half minutes as two stanzas are whispered over Harris’s slow bass. Feel the momentum increase as the guitars explode into two successive solos followed by the Maiden-patented dual-guitar harmonies. The pace is maintained and the song fades to a majestic close at a little over thirteen and a half minutes. The song by itself is a clincher. It is, unsurprisingly, a fan-favorite. But more than that — and you already know it if you have read the Lyrical Ballads — the song retells Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s  625 line poem of the same name. Parts of the poem are even used verbatim. Sweet!


1. The featured image is the cover-art for the track’s 1993 live single from the album A Real Dead One. Eddie, Maiden’s mascot, is impaling vocalist Bruce Dickinson in the image which is because it was Maiden’s last single with Bruce on vocals (he returned to the band in 2000 and has stayed ever since). Similar artwork appeared when vocalist Paul d’Anno left the band in 1981.

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