Why German Thrash Icons Sodom Always Write About War
War is a common lyrical obsession in heavy metal, but few artists have done it with more overwhelming effect than Germany’s Sodom.
Although the band’s themes were more closely aligned with that of Venom at the beginning of their career — Satanic imagery, the occult, etc. — traces of it were present on Sodom’s first official release, the 1985 In the Sign of Evil EP with “Burst Command Til War.” It didn’t fully manifest until the group’s second full length, 1987’s widely influential Persecution Mania, which also marked the debut of Sodom’s recurring mascot, the gas mask-wearing Knarrenheinz.
With lyrics and imagery that matched the intensity of Sodom’s music, which has at times bordered on extreme metal (Tapping the Vein), it can be easy to give a surface level assessment that this violence is, in a way, being glorified, but that is not at all the case, as founder Tom Angelripper tells Loudwire in an exclusive interview.
In fact, he holds quite the anti-war sentiment.
Born in 1963, the Sodom leader grew up surrounded by talk of the ongoing Vietnam War, which lasted from 1955 through 1975. Even more present was the Cold War, although in a much different and less openly combative way, with Germany placed in the geographical middle of a growing arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union. In tandem with mandated military service as a young adult, it’s obvious how Angelripper’s lyrical path unfolded.
While war is a constant in Sodom’s music, the group only ever dabbled with a conceptual record once on 2001’s M-16, for which a 20th anniversary re-release and box set was released last year.
In this interview, Angelripper discusses how these historical events have served as a consistent influence in his music, as well as how film portrayals of the Vietnam War spurred the M-16 record.
What was the catalyst that really began your fascination with war?
Back in the '70s, the Vietnam War was growing. I would talk with my parents about the war, and on TV we saw that people were going to demonstrate against the war outside in the streets in Germany.
In '79, I got the movie The Deerhunter with Robert De Niro, which was the first Vietnam War movie from that time. That sort of inspired me later to write lyrics. My grandfather fought in WWI and told me stories, which were an inspiration too. When we started the band, we were more satanic and, later, I start writing lyrics about both war and real life. I don't want to describe the political problems — I'm going to try to describe a soldier fighting in a jungle against another soldier.
You were born in 1963 amid the hippie era. Did you feel the impact of this era — peace, love, anti-war — at all even in the following decade as you got older?
Yes because my oldest sister was a hippie and she is also the reason I got into music — she listened to T-Rex, The Sweet and Slade. I liked the electric guitar sound and the first album I bought with my own money was Rainbow, Rising in '76. Then I started to listen to Deep Purple and other bands. That was the first time I thought about forming my own band and I did in the beginning of the '80s.
How were you as a student in school? Were you attentive? Was history a subject you were interested in?
I wasn't the best in school, but my father always said that you have to be good in school and get a good job later. When I worked in a coal mine in the '80s, they didn't asked me about school and I couldn't get a job anyway.
I was interested in history in school. I'm still interested in it, but it seems nowadays everything is out of control and I'm trying to understand what is going on in the world. You have to go back to the history to learn about how everything was and where all the problems are coming from.
Do you consider yourself a pacifist?
I think so — I hate war. Wars can't help. Growing up, we just had to live with it.
I've never been in a war, but I was in the German military service for two years during the Cold War, I [was taught] that the Russians are the big enemy and "take care" of them. I worked with American soldiers with atomic rockets and launchers... that was really strange because it was so close to me but not a "real" war.
This inspired me. We released our first mini-album, In The Sign of Evil, in 1985 which had the song "Burst Command Til War." That is a command they used in the military.
Sodom, "Burst Command Til War"
The lyrics I write are against war. On Obsessed By Cruelty I was really interested in Aleister Crowley's stuff and Satanic things — that gave me nothing. I changed the lyrics to more of a war theme and the band Tank, who have a lot of war themes in the lyrics, inspired me as well.
You just did the amazing 20th anniversary reissue for M-16, which focuses on the Vietnam War. Why did you choose this war in particular for a concept record?
When we started writing the songs for this album, we never thought about doing a concept album, I had the first five or six song lyrics already finished and they were about the Vietnam War. Some were about movies such as Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket. I also have a lot of books about this stuff. So, I wrote all the other lyrics about the Vietnam War.
I met some Vietnam War veterans to talk to them and we tried to do a show in Vietnam, but that was impossible because of the political system never allowed any Western bands — German bands, American bands, etc — and that was a shame.
The whole story is in the booklet in the M-16 box set. I'm not a big fan of re-releases, but M-16 is really something special.
One thing I've always loved about this record is your cover of "Surfin' Bird."
The Trashmen were one of the first punk bands and the song is in the Full Metal Jacket soundtrack and it's awesome. We did it in a more metal style.
We've played the song live a couple of times and people really enjoyed it. We have so many songs on M-16 we're going to play live — "Napalm in the Morning," "Among the Weirdcong," "Minejumper." We've never played "Minejumper" live.