Author Playlists

John Wray’s Playlist for His Novel “Gone to the Wolves”

“There are books that you have to wrack your brains to come up with a playlist for—and then there’s Gone to the Wolves. My sixth novel follows three teen-aged Florida headbangers—Kip, Kira, and Leslie—from their high school years going to underground metal shows, all the way to the ‘glam’ scene on the Sunset Strip in L.A., and finally to the dark, snowbound forests of Norway during the infamous rise of black metal…”

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Jesmyn Ward, Lauren Groff, Bret Easton Ellis, Celeste Ng, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Roxane Gay, and many others.

John Wray’s masterful storytelling is at its height in his new novel Gone to the Wolves, a book so dark and funny and filled with unforgettable fully-realized characters.

Kirkus wrote of the book:

“Wray deftly captures teenage alienation, the precarity of adolescence, and the way multiple subgenres of metal can provide solace, be it via glitzy fandom or gloomy angst . . . Wray is gifted at capturing the dynamics of difficult friendships . . . A giddy, harrowing, manic, and often dark coming-of-age tale.”

In his own words, here is John Wray’s Book Notes music playlist for his novel Gone to the Wolves:

There are books that you have to wrack your brains to come up with a playlist for—and then there’s Gone to the Wolves. My sixth novel follows three teen-aged Florida headbangers—Kip, Kira, and Leslie—from their high school years going to underground metal shows, all the way to the ‘glam’ scene on the Sunset Strip in L.A., and finally to the dark, snowbound forests of Norway during the infamous rise of black metal, with its church burnings and ritual murder, at the cusp of the ’90s. Along the way, they fight with each other, fall in love with each other, and save one another’s lives more than once. And they listen to just about every kind of heavy music under the sun.

1 – Black Sabbath – ‘War Pigs’

No heavy metal playlist could plausibly begin with any band but Black Sabbath—and for me Black Sabbath begins with ‘War Pigs,’ the first song of theirs I ever heard, written by Ozzy & co. in 1970 to protest the war in Vietnam. I’ll never forget its opening seconds: the rumbling, magma-like bar chords with the heavy bass lurching behind them, building thrillingly, terrifyingly, toward a riff that somehow feels both suicidal and ferociously alive. The sound is massive, swaggering, relentless. Like the best metal, War Pigs manages to be both fantastical and grounded in actual outrage at the state of the world.

2 = Motörhead – ‘Ace of Spades’

Ozzy may have given metal its signature fierceness and melancholy, but Lemmy is the man who brought the party. Lemmy Killmister, the affable, amphetamine-juiced ogre from Stoke-on-Trent, never made any bones about the fact that he’d gotten into rock ‘n’ roll to get high and get laid, and you can hear it in every riff he ever wrote. Fast and aggressive as they undeniably are, Motörhead are metal’s cuddly hedonists—and Ace of Spades, which lays out their Dionysian worldview in just over two minutes, is Lemmy’s ragged magnum opus.

3 – Judas Priest – ‘Breakin’ the Law’

Rob Halford—metal’s first openly gay frontman, and one of the inspirations for Kip’s flamboyant, ultra-confident best friend, Leslie Z—is the man primarily responsible for the genre’s operatic sensibility, and the twin guitar attack of Glenn Tipton and K.K. Downing changed the way metalheads approached songwriting and soloing forever after. There are dozens of candidates for the most magnificent Priest tune, but for some reason I’ve always been partial to their poppiest. ‘Breaking the Law’ is the perfect Priest gateway drug: fast, catchy and rich in hidden meaning. It doesn’t take much imagination to guess which law Halford is screaming about breaking here, or to sympathize with his howls of alienation. This also happens to be one of the all-time great songs to sing along with in a speeding car.

4 – Mötley Crüe – ‘Kickstart my Heart’

By the mid-Eighties, metal had fractured into two, then three, then countless competing strains, each with its own host of longhaired true believers. This is what Jackie Lee Slaughter—one of many passionate eccentrics that populate the pages of Gone to the Wolves—refers to as ‘the Cult of Dionysus vs. the Cult of Set’:

The Dionysian acts, according to Jackie, worshipped at the altar of sex, drugs, and melody; among the cult of Set—the devotees of chaos—rhythm, hate, and violence reigned supreme. You could tell which team any given band played for, simply and infallibly, by counting the number of females at their shows. Van Halen, Faster Pussycat, Ratt, W.A.S.P., Poison, Whitesnake, Quiet Riot, the Crüe—Dionysians all. Slayer, Death Angel, Megadeth, Metallica, Anthrax—team chaos, as their names made abundantly clear. Los Angeles had long been in the sweaty stranglehold of Dionysius, god of quaaludes and jug wine and music to fuck to; but a sea change was coming. The barbarians are at the gates, Slaughter would hiss at anyone who’d listen, raising both arms skyward like some kind of desert prophet. And they ain’t wearing spandex.

Mötley Crüe most definitely wore spandex, and they did it, I’d argue, better than anybody else in that frosted-haired scene. (They’re still doing it, in fact, at a mid-sized stadium near you.) That may not be much to brag about—and Kip, Wolves’ humble protagonist, talks trash about them throughout Wolves—but it’s hard to justify denying them a spot on this playlist. If you listen closely you can hear the hairspray crackle!

5 – Metallica – ‘Fade to Black’

On the other side of metal’s great divide in the ’80s was thrash—harder, faster, heavier, angrier than glam—and its indisputable standard bearer, in those early years, was Metallica. (Gone to the Wolves ends just before the highly polarizing ‘black album’ was released, so I fortunately don’t have to say anything here about their drawn-out and awkward decline.) Lots of bands were grafting hardcore punk’s speed and politics onto metal’s sublime heavyness in the thrash era, but none of them could equal Metallica’s combination of ferocity and melody. ‘Fade to Black,’ written after a friend of the band committed suicide, is my favorite illustration of this mighty synthesis. (According to Leslie Z, the LP it came out on, Ride the Lightning, is the ‘third best record album of all time.’)

6 – Slayer – ‘Seasons in the Abyss’

This next song, I’m guessing, is where some listeners will start to consider removing their earbuds.

The schism between glam and thrash was just one of countless forkings in the so-called Left-Handed Path. The Eighties and Nineties saw countless sub-sub-cultures and micro-genres taking shape—metal, in fact, has the curious distinction of having spawned more named variants than any other form of popular music. Classic, speed, power, glam, thrash, death, black, blackened death, nu, symphonic, metalcore, stoner, doom, sludge, drone—these are only the best-known strands, re-braided in novel and intricate ways by each new generation of pimple-faced kids in dirty jeans.

A year or two after the dawn of thrash, things got heavier and scarier in a hurry, driven largely by Metallica’s most serous rival as the greatest of the genre: a southern California four-piece called Slayer. This band has always been polarizing. They’re best known for their speed and aggression, but in Gone to the Wolves, Leslie’s favorite song is ‘Seasons in the Abyss,’ an almost mystical hymn to psychosis—think of it as thrash metal’s ‘Windmills of Your Mind.’

7 – Death – ‘Denial of Life’      

The next big thing after thrash came to be known as ‘death metal,’ and it began in small-town Florida, at the same time and place where my novel begins, with a band of skinny kids in who called themselves—appropriately enough—Death. Here’s a passage from early in Gone to the Wolves, describing Kip’s first encounter with a song called ‘Denial of Life’:

It hit him too fast to make sense of at first: a low-end hiss, a pelting hail of hammered notes, an epileptic bassline. His body reacted before his brain did, shifting reflexively into fight- or-flight mode, his legs and arms and spinal column clenching. The sound was massive, domineering, relentless. This music was to Hanoi Rocks to as an aircraft carrier is to a rubber ducky. Something bad was going to happen. It was happening already. He felt physically sick.

Then the shrieking kicked in. It sounded like someone trying to sing a nursery rhyme while being burned alive. The singer could have been angry, or ecstatic, or in excruciating pain—there was no way to know, because the lyrics were impossible to decipher. Horror films were Kip’s one point of reference, and not just because of the airbrushed zombie on the record’s sleeve. He was being offered the same purifying fear, the same catharsis, the same revelation that midnight slasher movies gave: that everything wasn’t going to be all right. Not now and not ever. And that made perfect sense to him.

8 – EMPEROR – ‘Thus Spake the Nightspirit’

If you’re still listening, friend, you’re a metalhead—whether you’ll admit to it or not.

But even some devoted headbangers draw the line at so-called black metal, of which Norway’s Emperor are perhaps the most musically worthwhile. Like most of their fellow-travelers, the band ran afoul of the law more than once—Samoth, rhythm guitarist and songwriter, served time for arson, and Faust, the drummer, was convicted of murder. To many fans of heavy music, this take-the-music-literally represented an ideological dead end for metal: the decision to live by the sword, so to speak, led to a brief period of international notoriety for the Norwegian scene, but very little interesting music.

Emperor, however, turned out to be the exception. Love it or hate it, their second studio album, Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk, is a masterpiece of the genre. Emperor’s Samoth comes in for some rough treatment in the closing section of Gone to the Wolves, which plays in the Norwegian forest in the dark of winter—I was interested in writing about the members of the so-called ‘Black Circle’ of Norwegian metal, but I had zero interest in romanticizing them. That’s been done enough already—most recently, in the feature Lords of Chaos, starring Sky Ferreira and Rory Culkin. (Do yourself a favor and skip it.) But give this song a listen, if you dare.

9 – Sleep – ‘Marijuananaut’s Theme’

Maybe it’s the passage of the years, or maybe it’s becoming a dad, or just generally becoming (slightly) better adjusted—whatever the reason, these days I tend to like my metal sludgy and fuzzy and retro. The three long-haired, paunchy gentlemen in Sleep seem to have spent most of their adult lives imagining an alternate history in which heavy metal begins and ends with Black Sabbath, and the weed… is exceptionally potent. ‘Marijuananaut’s Theme’ is Matt Pike and his merry band of dopesters at the top of their game, and it’s as good a way to conclude this little survey of the genre as any. Gone to the Wolves ends on a grace note of hope, after all. Why not this playlist?

John Wray is the author of critically acclaimed novels including Lowboy, The Right Hand of Sleep and Canaan’s Tongue. He was named one of Granta magazine’s Best of Young American Novelists in 2007. The recipient of a Whiting Award, he lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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