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Heavy metal and horror have enjoyed a long and fruitful relationship, ever since Black Sabbath shocked and disgusted audiences with their provocative lyrics, uncompromising music and hedonistic lifestyles. Both have an army of devoted followers, often bordering on fanatical, while their tendencies to explore the darker side of society and psychology are considered offensive and unworthy of praise by the mainstream. In the 1980s, horror movies came under fire from British watchdogs and the parliament due to a new type of film dubbed the ‘video nasty,’ while at the same time in the United States a committee known as the Parents Music Resource Center targeted the likes of Mötley Crüe, AC/DC and Twisted Sister, as well as so-called ‘respectable’ pop stars like Cyndi Lauper, due to the supposedly dangerous and immoral contents of their songs.
It has been over forty years since Alice Cooper was first decapitated onstage and heavy metal still revels in the forbidden and the macabre. The fact that modern horror movies like The Lords of Salem and the Saw franchise fill their soundtracks with rock and metal artists, both old and new, prove that the two belong together. The promo video is the ideal medium with which to combine the two, allowing a short narrative to play out over a five-minute song, with little regard for character development, thus providing plenty of opportunity to assault the viewer with elaborate prosthetic effects, demonic imagery and even nudity. In many ways, the music video is similar to that of the short film, whose low budget often gives the filmmakers more freedom to push boundaries, while their brief running times means the stories play out in a matter of minutes, not hours.
The latest video to combine intense music and gruesome surrealism is Poisoning the Steps of Babel, the new track from Dawn of Ashes. Fronted by Kristof Bathory, the extreme industrial metallers released a new album earlier this year, Anathema, to positive reviews. Regarding the title of the album, Bathory told HardRockHaven.net, ‘Metaphorically, I drew on its meaning as used in the old witch trials where religious leaders would burn individuals at the stake simply for not adhering to the socially compelled terms of ‘God.’ I applied this to how the Dawn of Ashes fan base, and myself, are exiled for not following modern society’s standards of ‘being human.’’ Revelling in their notorious image, Dawn of Ashes have taken their shock rock concept a step further with the controversial video for Poisoning the Steps of Babel.
The story takes place in an old church on a hill, somewhere that would not be out of place in a James Whale or Tim Burton movie. Inside, a demon of sorts angrily presides over his flock, his eyes and mouth caked in a thick layer of blood. Resembling a cross between a Cenobite from Clive Barker’s horror classic Hellraiser and Burton’s own Edward Scissorhands, the figure brainwashes his congregation through his incessant preaching, repeatedly screaming, ‘Fist fuck the whore of Babylon.’ Elsewhere, there is another man taunting a young girl through a chicken wire fence as she screams in fear.
Two nuns in tight black dresses and fishnets, only the habits adorning their heads revealing their purpose, appear from the front door and make their way hand-in-hand down the aisle, where they draw symbols of witchcraft in blood on the wall. As one woman masturbates with a crucifix, an obvious reference to The Exorcist, other members of the audience begin to convulse and bleed from their mouths, as if having a fit. Meanwhile, a third nun walks into the church and pours gasoline along the aisle, before joining her sisters in prayer in front of the alter. As the demonic figure screams, fire erupts across the church, bringing the flock out of their trance, only to discover they are locked inside as flames engulf the building.
The religious imagery in the video could perhaps be dismissed easily as an attempt to cause controversy, but in reality it runs deeper than that. The fact that the title of the song refers to Babel, which was a story told in the Book of Genesis in the Old Testament, makes the religious aspect appropriate. After saving his family and two of each animals with his Ark following the Great Flood, Noah’s people began to grow in numbers and eventually settled in the land of Shinar. All speaking one language, together they decided to build a city and tower ‘whose top may reach unto heaven.’ The Lord came down to witness mankind as one, and fearing that they were becoming more than he had intended, spread them out across the land and with different languages so they would not be able to communicate.
‘The Biblical name ‘Babel’ is derived from the Hebrew root word ‘balal’ meaning ‘mixed’ or ‘confused,’’ explained author James Gardner in his study The War with Babylon. As the story explains, it is from God’s actions that mankind would become alienated from one another, because they wanted to rise to the heavens. ‘On one level, at least, the story is an etiology for the diversity of language,’ said John Joseph Collins in his book The Bible After Babel: Historical Criticism in a Postmodern Age. ‘On another level, it recapitulates a recurring theme in the primeval history – the futile attempts to bridge heaven and earth, whether by human beings becoming like God or by ‘sons of God’ becoming human.’
To create a nightmarish vision, Bathory once again turned to Chris Trueman, the man responsible for the band’s previous promo video, Fuck Like You’re in Hell. Together, they spent the next three months working together on the pre-production, which would include model and set building. On 24 May, a crowd-funding project on Kickstarter proved successful, raising a total of $1,066, over twice their $500 goal, for location costs and a permit to film. Principal photography took place over one night at the Linda Vista Community Hospital, which officially closed its doors in 1991 and has since become a popular location for feature films and TV shows, including End of Days, Pearl Harbor and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, although its most iconic on-screen appearance was as Freddy Krueger’s boiler room in Wes Craven’s 1984 classic A Nightmare on Elm Street.
With extensive use of miniatures for the external shots, which shows a model church that would not be out of place during the opening credits to Night of the Demons, production then moved to New Deal Studios. Opened in the mid-1990s by visual effects supervisors Matthew Gratzner, Ian Hunter and Shannon Blake Gans, New Deal’s résumé includes such Hollywood blockbusters as Watchmen, Hugo and Disney’s recent live action fantasy Oz the Great and Powerful. The task of creating the model church fell to Timothy Martin, a veteran of Stan Winston Studios, having worked for Steven Spielberg on A.I.: Artificial Intelligence and The War of the Worlds. His work can be seen during both the opening and closing of the video, with the promo beginning as cinematographer A.J. Rickert-Epstein slowly moves the camera into the darkness of the church, before cutting to the sets built inside Linda Vista.While Bathory would portray the demonic antagonist of the story, the production would also require the use of an abundance of extras, who would play the churchgoers that watch on as Bathory stands sinisterly at the alter, echoing Pinhead’s deformation of a church in the cult horror sequel Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth. Assisting in his devious plot are the three evil nuns, portrayed by adult star Helly Hellfire, upcoming alternative model Sarah Hayden and Bathory’s partner, Vanna Toxique, who also designed their make-up effects. Perhaps as a final religious reference, the burning of the church could be less a statement against organised religion akin to the strong beliefs of the Norwegian black metal scene and more a visual homage to the concept of ‘Babylon’s burning.’
In their review of the album, FEARnet described Poisoning the Steps of Babel as ‘one of the strongest (and scariest) cuts,’ in part due to the contribution of Nero Bellum, frontman of Psyclon Nine, who also makes an appearance in the video. Coincidentally, both Dawn of Ashes and Psyclon Nine will be touring the United States together, commencing in Phoenix, Arizona in late August and coming to an end in early October with a show in Los Angeles. The promo for Poisoning the Steps of Babel made its debut last week via the horror movie website Bloody Disgusting, and within days news of the video had spread around the internet, appearing on various music sites and blogs. ‘I think ‘shock’ is my main weapon,’ Bathory told Vampire Freaks in May. ‘I live off of offending and shocking people with my music, so if I wrongfully upset someone with my music then I feel an accomplishment.’