SONG: Iron in the Sky


“Iron in the Sky” [Download]

ARTIST: grant.

SOURCE: Based on Science News, 19 Nov 2020, “50 years ago, scientists named Earth’s magnetic field as a suspect in extinctions”, as used in the post “Scientists suspect magnetic fields in mass extinctions”.

This is a sea shanty, or I guess a space shanty, about prehistoric mass extinctions due to magnetic polar reversals, probably brought on by (or related to) solar flares.

The science here isn’t especially new – the article was mostly a look back at “this day in 1970,” but threw in a more recent study of radiation and magnetic pole reversals, pointing out that maybe those times when north suddenly becomes south (which happens every so often, geologically speaking) leave us more than normally vulnerable to radiation from space. The solar flare business is my own read on the situation, based on my own anxieties about, of course, major coronal mass ejections with the power to bathe our whole planet in lethal radiation for an hour or a week.

I wasn’t really sure I’d do a song about this (it’s not recent research at all), but I did know I wanted to do a sea shanty as soon as I listened to the Fluxpod episode where Matthew and Cates talked about the Tumblr music scene. I’ve been on Tumblr for a long, long time and beyond following OneWeekOneBand for a while, never really thought of it as a musical outlet more than any other blogging platform. But there are hidden worlds, I have learned, including a whole sea shanty subculture.

I like a good sea shanty.

I also like those old British folk songs that Pentangle sang.

I have no idea if this song is based on a memory of one of those songs that I heard long ago, or is just the ur-shanty I carry around in my head. (We all have one of those, don’t we?)

The writing and recording was somewhat straightforward. First, a guitar part based on the melody line in my head, a repetitive structure, a bunch of vocals coming in for the choruses. I knew I wanted to have a crunchy guitar yowling in the background somewhere in the middle. The mellotron bit was a little more random, adapted from a rough draft (a different chord progression using the same structure – thankfully, the mellotron VSTi I was using is tunable). The weirdest thing for me production-wise was realizing that even though I’d recorded to a click track, the drums I was dropping in weren’t lining up.

I was on a different computer than usual. My laptop died, so I was on a slightly less powerful desktop that doesn’t like playing too many MIDI tracks at once, meaning doing a drum track like I usually do is just frustratingly crackly and herky-jerky. Instead, I pasted in drum hits from a John Bonham sample set. And they wouldn’t go right on the grid – I had to keep sliding them around. I’m genuinely not sure, right now, if playing some drums myself would work any better, since evidently I was either sliding the tempo around, or else was falling victim to a wobbly clock inside in the computer. Maybe it’s just because I was singing slower than my usual slow pace. Slow like Low, like the Melvins, like Codeine.

It’s basically a cautionary tale, the song. A warning, like red skies at morning. In harmony, so maybe it’ll stick in the memory long enough to encourage tomorrow’s voyagers to put up extra shielding just in case. It can get harsh out there, when the poles switch around.

Whatever your polarity, wherever you are, have a good Yule.


The sea can boil like varnish oil
The sun’s a burning eye
The chalk descends like drowning men
Like iron in the sky, my friends
Like iron in the sky.

The magnets spin like mortal sin
The navigators cry
The clouds will spread like molten lead
Like iron in the sky, my friends
Like iron in the sky.

The mobile phones and radio
Components start to fry
The screens go dead far overhead
Like iron in the sky, my friends
Like iron in the sky.

The waves above make waves below
The fossils cannot lie
We’ll shift our souls from pole to pole
Like iron in the sky, my friends
Like iron in the sky.


Let volcanoes vomit molten rock
Let the full moon call the tides
Inconstant stars shape what we are
Like iron in the sky, my friends
Like iron in the sky.

Now no one cares for solar flares
And none can name their signs
But they’ve come before and will again
Like iron in the sky, my friends
Like iron in the sky.