When it comes to art and entertainment, I have two passions: fantasy and metal. I have covered my love for fantasy extensively in some of my previous articles, but I haven’t yet written about metal. Metal is an often-misunderstood genre of rock music whose purposes many believe are to turn the volume to 11, to take everything to the extreme, and to exult in the power that comes from rocking out.
In truth, the metal community is an often insulated group of artists and fans who loves music that focuses on introspection. It may be surprising to some, but one of the major themes in metal music is the exploration of what it means to be human and how we fit into the world around us. As a result, big topics come up quite often in the lyrics: life and death, war, Earth and the Cosmos, and specifically what all these lofty subject matters mean to the fragile beings that we are. In this article, we will explore the ways metal intersects with fantasy, and how the two share an affinity for epic imagery, climactic moments, and everything that is mysterious and mighty.
Huh? Metal and fantasy? What are you talking about?
Maybe it sounds strange, but metal is continuously inspired by the fantasy genre. Metal not only specifically references fantasy novels, but some bands dedicate their entire ethos to the fantasy genre. One of the best examples I can give of this is the band Summoning.
Summoning is a two-man band from Austria that dedicates their music to exploring fantasy worlds. Since 1995, they have released 11 albums, all of which belong to a sub-genre called black metal. Almost every song in their repertoire is about J. R.R. Tolkien's mythos. References to Lord of The Rings range from the obvious, such as “The Legend of the Master Ring” from their album Minas Morgul to the discreet like “The Mountain King’s Return” from Let Mortal Heroes Sing Your Fame. This latter song refers to Thorin’s return to Erebor and includes in its lyrics a poem from The Hobbit.
Summoning is one of the most well-known metal bands to have used Tolkien’s mythos exclusively for their music, but they are not the only one. Bands like Emyn Muil, Ered Wethrin, Mirkwood, and Moongates Guardian, to name just a few, also produce powerful tunes about Middle Earth. A few examples include "Lament for Gandalf", "Túrin Son of Húrin", and Boromir's Riddle". So why is Tolkien so popular? And for that matter, why are metal bands drawn to fantasy?
In his professional life, Tolkien was Professor of Anglo-Saxon History at Oxford, and his critique of the Beowulf poem was very influential in the 1930’s. The poem of Beowulf, about a great and powerful warrior defending against a mysterious evil that kills without remorse, inadvertently epitomizes the spirit of metal. Don’t believe it? Give a listen to "Guardians of Asgaard" by Amon Amarth. Even musing on the slaughter in the mead hall recalls the death and battle that metal so often revels in, like on "Blood of My Enemies" by Manowar. This affinity for Beowulf, however, isn't the only thing that makes Tolkien's mythos inspirational to metal bands.
Tolkien was also strongly anti-industrialization, and the way that England’s pastoral landscape was overtaken by concrete, machines, chimneys, and smoke disgusted him. This theme of anti-industrialization, now more commonly known as anti-modernization, seeps into many areas of metal. There are hundreds of bands that identify themselves as pagan metal, the themes of which include oneness with the earth and distance from modern society. One of my favourite songs on this topic is called "I Will Lay Down My Bones Among the Rocks and Roots" by Wolves In The Throne Room.
Metal musicians see machines as something sinister and diabolical. Machines are not human. It doesn’t take much of a leap in logic for these modern-day Luddites to equate machines with aliens. While Tolkien uses machines to breed orcs; metal takes it a step further and use machines to breed humans. Take for example, Meshuggah’s “Future Breed Machine”.
Finally, it must be remembered that what mainly inspired Tolkien was mythology. He believed that fundamental truths about the world could be found in myths, and sought to capture the spirit of mythos in his writing. This belief that tales from ancient worlds could lead the modern age to find a better understanding of the world is the heart of Nostalgia. The concept of Nostalgia, the belief that the Golden Age of Heroes has long passed, is a perfect fit for metal. It is a double-edged sword, at once glorying at the strength of the mighty and sorrowing at the loss of this time.
Tolkien was moved by the ancient, and those who write, play and listen to metal identify with this sentiment. Thus, Tolkien and his mythos are recognized as a distillation of many of the ideals that metal desires to represent through its music: the glory of the ancient, good versus evil, returning to nature and rejecting the modern, and a general worship of Anglo-Saxon mythology.
Scandinavia - the heart of Metal?
The influence of Anglo-Saxon mythology and especially Beowulf on Tolkien is undeniable. And where did Beowulf take place? Why, Scandinavia of course! Now, there are a lot of differing views and arguments regarding the birth-place of metal, and I’m not about to throw an opinion out. Regardless, Scandinavia is one of the most popular areas for metal. A recently published study greatly underlines this by showing the number of metal bands per every million people in various parts of Europe.
Obviously, Scandinavians love their metal music. For Northern Europeans, metal speaks of the things that they are proud of: a culture deeply rooted in Viking and Norse mythologies. Just as Beowulf and the Norse Sagas have inspired Tolkien in Lord of the Rings, the people of Scandinavia are themselves entranced by their own tales and history. Metal bands influenced by Nordic legends are everywhere, including titans like Amon Amarth and Moonsorrow.
Metal is at its heart a community of like-minded individuals, and trends regardless of geography are easy to see. The large presence of Scandinavian bands does have its influence on metal as a whole. Metal bands are also famous for their desire to one-up each other. This is one of the reasons that metal has become faster, louder, and more extreme as time goes by.
Consequently, as soon as one band writes a song with a few references to Lord of the Rings…
another band writes a whole song dedicated to Rivendell…
Then another band writes an entire album dedicated to The Simillarion…
Which results in one band dedicating all of their music to the world of Lord of the Rings.
Modern Fantasy and Modern Metal
While the connection between fantasy and metal did start with Tolkien’s Lords of the Rings, hundreds of songs have since been inspired by the works of other fantasy authors. Rather than including the entire song list, I would like to introduce a few hidden gems for your enjoyment. These are bands that dedicate their creative output to the fantasy series of their choosing. For those who are willing to listen, here are some ear-opening treats.
As a direct response to the famous Summoning, a band called Caladan Brood emerges and writes music purely for the world of Malazan, from the series Malazan Book of the Fallen by Steven Erikson. Caladan Brood plays atmospheric black metal. They seek to capture the epic scope of the novels, while also underline the sorrowful tone of most of the characters.
The aptly named Eternal Champion is a heavy metal band devoted to Michael Moorcock’s concept of the Eternal Champion, a figure that appears in many of his works, but is most closely associated with the famous Elric of Melniboné. Eternal Champion advocates the fantasy ideal of the champion, a mighty hero that cannot be overcome and represents triumph and justice.
Finally, for those willing to plumb the darkest depths of metal, there is Shaidar Logoth, a raw black metal band dedicated to the sinister side of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series. The vocals are inspired by the eerie Myrddraal, wraiths that lead the Dark Lord’s armies through fear and violence.
Thank you for staying on till the end and allowing me to share this intriguing intersection of two of the greatest art forms to exist: Fantasy and Metal. If you're also a fan of this kind of music, I invite you to post your favourites!