Thus Spake Arch Enemy
Melodic death metallers encourage self-empowerment through Nietzschean concepts.
When Arch Enemy named its 2017 studio album Will to Power, the reference to Nietzschean philosophy caught my attention. Was the band just using a cool and tough phrase its members had heard around? Or was this a statement of committed philosophical beliefs? Nothing beats a good line of inquiry, so I decided to make a quick study of it to see exactly how much Nietzsche was in Arch Enemy, with a focus on the Alissa White-Gluz years.
The will to power is a key concept in the thought of Friedrich Nietzsche. We usually think of Nietzsche as a philosopher, but he also considered himself a psychologist. Much like his contemporary Sigmund Freud, he showed that the reasons we give ourselves for our behavior are often so much bullshit. Instead, our thoughts and actions, even our reasons, are the result of drives. Nietzsche spoke of several drives but appears to have settled on the will to power as foundational. In all we do — no matter what we tell ourselves to the contrary, no matter how it may look different superficially — we strive for greater power.
There is a brutish side to this. From schoolyard bullies to horrible bosses to dictators, the will to power may take itself out on other people. The strong beat the weak into submission and no degree of barbarity is ever enough because it is a drive and thus never sated for long. This side of the will to power appealed to the Nazis and continues to appeal to murderers like them who want to be among the strong. Often, media reports about mass shooters make reference to the quiet loner who had works by Nietzsche on his bookshelves. However, Nietzsche notes that the will to power is a reverse expression of weakness. Someone who feels fragile is likely to start swinging a hammer.
Arch Enemy has long screamed against such abuses of the will to power. Lyrically, the Johan Liiva-fronted years tended toward soul-searching and visions of apocalypse. Rebellion against the powers that be — government, religion and other forces that administer our lives — became an explicit theme during the Angela Gossow years. The cover art for her last studio album with Arch Enemy, Khaos Legions, shows the band members waving black flags and leading a revolution to overthrow the world order. It’s a standard message in everything from punk to metal and it appeals to me: When thugs and psychopaths walk the halls of power, kick ’em out!
This theme has continued in the White-Gluz years, painting a world in which it’s the self versus them. You know them. They’re the ones who will reward you as long as you obey. This is the slave-master dichotomy that frequently appears in Nietzsche, and it runs throughout War Eternal (2014) and Will to Power. Founding member and guitarist Michael Amott wrote the music and lyrics to “War Eternal,” and they summarize the struggle we all face. We must stand firm:
“They try to change you
Crush and break you
Try to tell you what to do
They love to have control of you
Back against the wall
In danger of losing it all
Search deep inside
Remember who you are”
But the will to power is not always about standing up to external others. Sometimes the other is you, so you must, in Nietzschean terminology, overcome yourself. This relates to another key concept, the Übermensh, often translated as the overman or superman. The Übermensh takes control of the self, fashions the self at will, and then does it again, without end. From Daybreak:
“One can dispose of one’s drives like a gardener and, though few know it, cultivate the shoots of anger, pity, curiosity, vanity as productively and profitably as a beautiful fruit tree on a trellis […] All this we are at liberty to do: but how many know we are at liberty to do it? Do the majority not believe in themselves as in complete fully-developed facts?”
You are not a fully-developed fact. Consequently, you may change. But Nietzsche does not merely mean what we usually think of as self-improvement, which tends to work toward goals within a pre-established value system: establishing an exercise regimen to lose weight, cutting poisonous people out of your life, spending more time with your kids, kicking a destructive habit, accomplishing career goals. These are important but relatively superficial. For the Übermensh, overcoming extends to cherished values, even our highest values. Today, we like convictions, so we’re forever trying to stick by them, but Nietzsche says they too have to go. That’s how we create new selves, a new humanity and a new world.
Recent Arch Enemy takes this seriously. “The World Is Yours” on Will to Power has lyrics that read like Nietzsche, but in heavy metal-speak rather than the German philosopher’s high style:
“Every empire was raised by the slain
Built through the age and you can destroy it in a day
Turn the page, unleash your rage
Burn your golden cage and walk away
On your path toward ultimate power”
Pair that with this from Thus Spake Zarathustra:
“And you yourselves should create what you have hitherto called the world: the world should be formed in your image by your reason, your will, and your love! And truly, it will be to your happiness, you enlightened men!”
Much of this congruity might seem coincidental, but Amott himself has said, in an interview with Metal Hammer, that he uses the phrase will to power from Nietzsche because it touches on the themes of human ambition running throughout the work. Much as I have described above, he says the will to power is a fundamental force in our lives and may express itself in different ways. His examples for the obverse faces of the will to power are Hitler and Einstein, but there is no doubt he sees the will to power as a concept relevant to everyone, not just tyrants and geniuses.
“The Eagle Flies Alone,” also from Will to Power, makes explicit references to Nietzschean concepts as it extols individualism. White-Gluz growls about being unable to join the “herd” and abandoning the “slave/master” dichotomy in favor of autonomy. Even the eagle symbolism recalls Nietzsche, for those who have read Thus Spake Zarathustra. Everywhere Zarathustra goes, he is accompanied by two noble animals, a serpent and an eagle. The serpent represents wisdom, while the eagle represents courage. Master of the winds, the eagle soars and dives.
Just as Gossow-era Arch Enemy was never wholly about fighting the bastards that be, Arch Enemy in the White-Gluz years is not wholly about self-empowerment, but “The World Is Yours” and the “The Eagle Flies Alone” are good examples of a turn toward increased positivity in the band’s work. That’s one reason I enjoy the last couple albums so much. When the frontwoman belts out “I will not let this moment define who I am / Now you see me, now you don’t” in “Down to Nothing,” I hear a refusal to remain bound by internal demons and an annunciation of rebirth.
There’s authenticity behind this message. I like it that Amott knows his Nietzsche, but I find the arc of self-overcoming and willpower in Gluz’s life to be particularly appealing. She was once a contestant on Canadian Idol, then she became the vocalist on three outstanding albums by The Agonist before going huge with Arch Enemy. In addition to being an outstanding talent, she’s a person of principle when it comes to politics, religion, feminism and animal rights. Nietzsche may have been suspicious of convictions, but he did believe — and I agree — that you can try on beliefs to see where they get you on your way to new heights of character.
“You are not a fully-developed fact. Consequently, you may change.”
Nietzsche makes it clear that such a life isn’t easy. Individuals who would be more are often alone against the world and themselves as they undertake enormous challenges. Arch Enemy concurs. Amott told Metal Hammer that “This Is a Fight I Must Win” on Will to Power is a song he and White-Gluz wrote about overcoming depression, but we all face seemingly insurmountable difficulties that we must either beat or be beaten by. I’m not convinced everyone needs to be dedicated to fully embodying Nietzsche’s Übermensh, but there are indeed fights we must win.
Many of Arch Enemy’s recent lyrics are calls to will your best self, with clear reference to Nietzschean concepts. If you aren’t already familiar with Nietzsche and you’re interested in learning more, I recommend the book I used for all quotations from Nietzsche in this post: The Nietzsche Reader (1978) from Penguin Books. The material, selected and translated by R.J. Hollingdale, is arranged thematically in short passages, making it easy to focus on specific concepts. It’s fascinating, uplifting and empowering reading.
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