Different forms of art require different forms of attention. If you were to approach a Jackson Pollock the same way that you approach the Mona Lisa, you would be confused and disappointed. So it is with music. Today I want to introduce you to the genre of power metal, but with this musical world comes a particular way of approaching music that is vital to understanding the genre.
Power metal has three defining characteristics.
We are cowards. We often erect shields to block criticism away from us when we partake in art. One of the most effective shields is the shield of irony. By hiding behind a rough, “genuine” tone or an uneven and intentionally strange voice, the listener can be protected from any kind of criticism. This fear, while fun, becomes tiresome after a while. Ironic music has us take ourselves seriously and our music lightly.
Power metal reverses this. Filled with dragons, battle and war chants, it is nearly impossible to sing power metal ironically. The passion and love for story that bleeds from a power metal song forces the listener to take themselves lightly and their music seriously.
Power metal is a primarily narrative form. The stories told by power metal are wide and varied, but focus mostly on heroic deeds, telling stories of knights, space dragons and soldiers from the second world war. This refocusing on narrative form and dramatic story is a welcome change from the oversaturated market of internal contemplation and love songs we often hear today. Most of the songs on this playlist function in a wider narrative told by external stories or the rest of the album.
Power metal is the happiest genre of music I’ve heard. It couples the fear and passion we have against evil with the joy of seeing the righteous defeat (or die dramatically trying to defeat) evil. The stern and vibrant moral structure of these stories is well coupled with the soaring symphonic scores and powerful choruses of the genre. Power metal is big, and as a result the human heart is transported to higher, more lofty things. Longinus would describe this as “sublime.”
Now that you are introduced to the structure of the genre, we should walk through the playlist.
1980’s metal is a strong influencer of power metal, as it is all good things. Bands like Hammerfall and Freedom Call sport this more traditional metal style with high pitched vibrato vocals. Their songs tend to revolve around a central warrior figure who fights righteous conflict against ambiguously evil “infidels.”
The logical (and frighteningly fast) conclusion of this style of metal lies in the over-the-top band Dragonforce, whose sound is often described as “Nintendo metal” for its speed and high tone. If you find their guitar riffs boringly complex (I am among your number) just wait for the chorus.
Power metal often deals with themes revolving around the heavily troped fantasy genre. Gloryhammer’s “Rise of the Chaos Wizards” is a perfect example. Dark Moor’s “Starsmaker (Elbereth)” is a song directly inspired by Tolkein’s Silmarillion, which is the source for one of power metal giant Blind Guardian’s concept albums.
Rhapsody of Fire is most notable for their fantasy-based lyrics, compiling a coherent and consistent universe and story for their impressive 10 albums. The song of theirs that I’ve included features late actor Christopher Lee (Count Dooku, Saruman), who has a power metal career of his own.
Lee’s song “Act III: The Bloody Verdict of Verden,” is a bad power metal song. It isn’t particularly compelling or well made, but the subject matter is fascinating. Lee, a direct descendant of Charlemagne, here discusses one of the Frankish Emperor’s most controversial decisions in his reign.
Artistic exploration of historical nuance is one of power metal’s strengths. Blind Guardian’s song “Curse My Name” is about “The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates,” a book by John Milton justifying Oliver Cromwell’s execution of Charles I of England. Medieval knight El Cid is described and dealt with in Dark Moor’s galloping ballad “Mio Cid,” while Turisas deals with the Varangian Guard of Byzantium in their two songs “Stand Up And Fight” and “The March of the Varangian Guard.”
Sabaton, a Swedish band, deals almost exclusively with 20th century warfare, singing about World War 2 hero Audie Murphy and World War 1 trench warfare on this playlist. Even nonfiction stories are fair game for power metal.
Something that should interest students at our protestant institution should be Theocracy’s song “Nailed,” which is about Martin Luther and his compelling reasons for nailing the 95 theses.
Power metal has a diverse sound, drawing on many folk influences. Korpiklaani and Turisas both feature an accordion prominently in their instrumentation. This folk sound is present even in symphonic power metal pioneer Nightwish.
Other influences include the reckless and wild “Diablo Swing Orchestra,” specializing in swing metal, metal based on big band and swing music.
Medieval metal band Corvus Corax plays prominently using medieval instruments and medieval lyrics. Their song that I’ve included, “Beowulf Is Min Nama,” is word for word from the old English epic poem Beowulf. Their use of folk instruments is overwhelming and full of energy.
Other bands of note include Van Canto, an a capella power metal band (even the guitar solos are from the human voice), Amaranthe, an almost pop power metal band, and the melodic and absurdly catchy Sonata Arctica. Their songs involve complex and heavily symbolic lyric narratives that draw heavily from multiple sources, from Shakespeare to the X-files.
Of particular interest to Union students should be the two beard-based songs on this playlist. Turbo metal (basically metal ska) band Russkaja and Santiano both place high importance on facial hair.
If you have listened to this playlist and feel confident in your ability to consume power metal, I have one more challenge for you. Luca Turilli’s song “Prophet of the Last Eclipse” is as trippy as it is long, involving electronic music, chaotic violins and even the sound of a crying baby as an instrument. This nearly 12 minute bombastic song is not for the faint of heart, but it will certainly leave you surprised if not downright inspired.
This genre is strange and exciting, and I understand if many do not love it, but it serves as an experiment into how music can impact the listener. Trying to listen to this music without irony, listening along with the sweeping triumph of the massive orchestras, raging guitars, wailing vocalists and mythic lyrics, is an artistic experiment that is tremendously rewarding.