Hell Bent for Letters
s a concept, Blöödhag is a beast of impeccable beauty. The Seattle band plays minute-long metal songs about science fiction authors, and it created the “edu-core” subgenre. It tours libraries, throws books at its audiences, and loudly proclaims its motto: “the faster you go deaf, the more time you have to read.” The music is almost irrelevant to the band’s genius.
Which isn’t a bad thing, because Blöödhag plays fairly pedestrian jack-of-all-trades metal. On Hell Bent for Letters, its second full-length, the band takes only a small cue from the galloping Judas Priest riffs that informed the album’s title (which isn’t quite as inspired as predecessor Necrotic Bibliophilia). Instead, we get slow, thundering sludge a few times, some choral black metal on “Edgar Allen Poe,” and melodic death metal on “Philip Jose Farmer.” “James Blish” sends a black-album Metallica guitar lead slithering through waves of reverb, while “Orson Scott Card” returns to that band’s Burton-era thrash. Blöödhag even throws in a “We Will Rock You” crowd-stomp at one point. It’s all credible enough, but generally nondescript (though keyboard input from Jeremy Enigk, of all people, may perk some ears).
If Blöödhag coasts on the charm of their concept, then, they do it pretty damn smoothly. From the cover art, picturing a rampaging librarian warrior queen who has slayed a group of men with overdue notices and beheaded a goblin that bears a definite resemblance to a certain twice-unelected president, to the closing bibliophile sound clip, Hell Bent for Letters never relents from its book-crazed proselytizing. Perhaps the major obstacle facing the band over a decade into its existence is canon-attrition; having already covered most of the big names in science fiction (Asimov, Bradbury, Butler, Heinlein, Dick, Ellison, and my own personal favorite, the astounding Samuel R. Delany, among others), Blöödhag is forced to grasp a bit. Poe and Kafka are stretches of the SF framework, Arthur Gordon Pym or Gregor Samsa aside. But “Madeline L’Engle” makes for an overdue entry to the band’s song catalog, with its delightful grunted shouts of “Tesseract!”
“Frederick Pohl” gives credit to the author not just for his Hugo- and Nebula-winning writing, but also for his publishing-industry work—as the band puts it, “His life outside writing took many courses / Like collecting urine samples from race horses / But as an agent and editor he’s of more importance.” More cleverly, on “Douglas Adams” Blöödhag skips past the obvious to lament the non-completion of the Dirk Gently trilogy, and on “Orson Scott Card” they make gentle fun of the author’s Mormonism and propensity for writing sequels. “James Blish” covers the author selling out to “Gene Roddenberry with a wad of cash” and writing Star Trek novels (numbers one through twenty-nine, to be exact, including Spock Must Die!), while “Jack Womack” notes that the ideas behind the author’s 1994 novel Elvissey, which envisioned “a future where Elvis is both King and divine,” were “first proposed by Jello”—a nod to their boss at Alternative Tentacles, who indeed contemplated just such a future on Frankenchrist back in his Dead Kennedys days.
And there’s plenty more where those came from. Every song is densely packed with witty allusions to make nerdy eyes sparkle. Is the concept a crutch? Of course it is, and without it Blöödhag could barely stand, much less win gigs and record deals. But I just ordered a copy of Michael Swanwick’s Stations of the Tide after listening to the album, an act that’s roughly the Blöödhag equivalent of carving “Slayer” into your arm, so apparently the band can chalk up another success.