Here There Be No Dragons
Is power metal really nothing but upbeat, cheesy music about dragons, swords, and elf maidens? I know that it isn't. Power metal is a big deal in Europe, South America, and Japan. The genre is taken seriously and the big power metal bands have large and dedicated followings. American fans have never taken to power metal. In my opinion, this is largely because of the tone of the music and lyrics. Cosmo discussed the perception gap and attitude differences in more depth than I'll get into here, but there's a link to his article below. I'm going to discuss some power metal albums that contain serious, genuinely dark music with accordingly themed lyrics in an attempt to open a few minds about the genre. Because actions speak louder than words, I'm going to throw in a few songs as evidence.
Before we go any farther, I have to establish a few parameters:
1) In this article, when I use the term 'power metal', I'm referring to the European, Helloween-derived type of music. Blind Guardian, Dragonforce, and Edguy are all well-known power metal bands. They're the face of the genre, and justifiably so, yet American metalheads rarely see past them.
Bands such as Paragon, Twister Tower Dire, or Helstar are not European-style power metal. Those bands are usually tagged as '80s metal, true/traditional metal, U.S. power metal, or sometimes just heavy metal, and while they do write fantasy-inspired songs, their tone is generally far more serious.
2) While I like some of the albums and bands I'm going to discuss, I will not attempt to convince anybody that Power Metal is good music. What I will do is attempt to knock down the barriers created by the popular perception of the music's tone and lyrics. In truth, power metal is my least favorite genre of metal; as a result,
3) I had to depend on a friend who is the biggest power metal nerd I know to point me in the right direction regarding serious power metal bands. He doesn't want to be credited by his real name, but I'm going to credit him by a jokey nickname we gave him, because it amuses me to do so. So, many thanks and a research credit to 666 Grahams of Metal. In a sense, this piece is a mea culpa to him for making fun of power metal for the last decade.
Note to readers: The sample lyrics don't always match the songs that I hyperlinked. Deal with it.
Dragonland - Starfall (2004) Magick Records/Cleopatra
Sample Lyric: "See as I fall / So deep into the sky / The spirits are calling my name / They beg me to free them someday / I will be sane"
Ignore the album's title, artwork, and especially the band's name, because Starfall is a rumination on madness and life itself. "The Shores of Our Land" and "The Book of Shadows Part II: The Curse of Qa'a" are the outliers, songs about Vikings and fantasy, but otherwise, the album's lyrical demeanor is pitch black.
"The Dreamseeker", "In Perfect Harmony", and the title track are about the search for clarity in life, a path to satisfaction and personal fulfillment. "End of the World" is a condemnation of our species' behavior as it leads us down the inexorable path to apocalypse. "As Madness Took Me" and "Calling My Name" deal with insanity. Unless the album was secretly written about an Elvish kingdom with all fantasy references posthumously expunged, Starfall is dark, powerful stuff.
Astronomy, the follow-up to Starfall, is a mix of serious and astral/space inspired topics, with one song about Cassiopeia. Lyrically it reminds me of Obscura, but with a power metal backing. Starfall is the better album, but Astronomy is still a good listen. Dragonfall's older albums are composed entirely of typical fantasy-inspired lyrics. Their forthcoming album, Under the Grey Banner, appears to be fantasy-inspired material as well.
While I'm not a huge fan of Starfall or Astronomy¸ I don't feel like I've eaten a bag of candy and downed it with soda after I've finished listening to them. Oh, one last thing . . . those are Charles Manson samples in "Calling My Name".
Dragonland - "Calling My Name"
. . .
Voyager - I Am The ReVolution (2009) Dockyard I
Sample Lyric: "One more day and one more night / There's no end in our sight / Creeping into all your layers / Until a total existence failure"
Voyager is power metal in the vaguest sense of the term; maybe they're power metal only because they don't fit into any other metal genre at all. Lyrically, though, they don't conform to typical power metal tropes. I Am The ReVolution deals with individuality, identity, struggling through life, and the evil in humankind. It is thought-provoking, lyrically dense, and deadly serious. After 40 listens over a year and a half, I'm still not completely sure what some of the songs are about.
The music's soft, subtle melodies and harmonies coincide with the way the nuanced lyrics obscure the album's overall message and meaning. Voyager never attack the listener. Everything about their music is smooth, intricate, and meaningful.
I checked around the Web a bit and found contradictory interpretations of the album's lyrics. The one thing all the interpretations agree on is that I Am The ReVolution does not concern itself with dragons, swords, or fantasy creatures. The album leaves me feeling vaguely unsettled and discontent. It asks me questions, but I've never had the answers.
Voyager - "I am the ReVolution"
. . .
Sabaton - Primo Victoria (Black Lodge Recording)
Sample Lyric: "Death in the shape of a panzer battalion / insect of terror, don't run face your fate like a man / cannot outrun our panzer battalion"
If Bolt Thrower or Tank played poppy power metal with martial, bellowing vocals, they'd be Sabaton. Other than Realm of Chaos, Bolt Thrower write about war in a general sense, occasionally honing in on a specific battle or conflict. Tank wrote a number of songs about war, but it was never their sole focus. Sabaton, on the other hand, are completely obsessed with World War II, but will occasionally write songs about World War I or medieval warfare.
I'm not going into depth about Primo Victoria's lyrical topics because the song titles say it all: "Panzer Battalion", "Wolfpack", "Stalingrad", etc. "Metal Machine", the album's final track, is a ham-fisted metal worship tune, but otherwise, Primo Victoria is all battle, all the time. Likewise, the band's catalogue is a barrage of warfare-obsessed power metal, but avoid Metalizer because it's packed with lyrical schlock.
Sabaton specializes in brazen, triumphant melodies and huge choruses, a bizarre juxtaposition against their lyrical content. Bolt Thrower is the sound of a Russian tank corps rolling over the tattered remnants of a German infantry company in the spring mud. Sabaton somehow manage to sound like a Napoleonic marching band.
Sabaton - "Panzer Battalion"
. . .
Angel Dust - Enlighten the Darkness (2000) Century Media Records
Sample lyric: "Separate me from the dead all around / Smashed into the ground / Ecstasy of killing blinded my eyes"
Enlighten the Darkness is one of the darkest pieces of heavy metal ever recorded. It's by far my favorite power metal record, but I can't listen to it when I'm happy, sad, or angry, when I'm driving, or when I'm at work. I have to prepare myself mentally to listen to it, steel myself for the experience, and then be away from other people for a while after listening to it.
Angel Dust is German and Enlighten the Darkness is about a Nazi soldier serving in WWII. The album could easily devolve into Fascist, racist garbage, but instead, Angel Dust make the album's protagonist into a genuinely sympathetic character. The soldier is drawn in by Nazi propaganda and Hitler's force of personality ("Fly Away", "I Need You"). We experience his pride at serving his country and Führer ("The One You Are", "Enjoy!").
We feel his growing horror at the war and his feelings of dehumanization ("Let Me Live"), along with his loneliness and longing for his wife's love ("Still I'm Bleeding"). "Come Into Resistance" is the beginning of his rejection of Nazism. As listeners, we can't ignore or excuse his crimes, but we can still sympathize with him as he struggles to throw off the shackles of Nazism. We can celebrate his humanity, small though it may be, as he slowly rejoins the human race.
And then there's "Cross of Hatred", the album's peak, a seething eruption of emotion. The lyrics encapsulate the album's themes as a whole: deception, carnage, anger, betrayal, revulsion, rebellion, redemption. The song's climax, the climax of the entire album, is at 4:30, when vocalist Dirk Thurisch looses a scream that is raw, unbridled rage, and the nameless soldier finally rips himself free from the clenches of hate.
It gives me chills every time I hear it.
Angel Dust - "Cross of Hatred"
There are numerous other serious, dark power metal bands, among them Pagan's Mind, Manticora, and Orden Ogan, but I leave it to the reader to investigate the possibilities.
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Previously: EU metal vs. US metal