If there’s one thing I love more than music, it’s the sci-fi/fantasy genre. Doesn’t matter the medium– I love it all. I’ve seen every episode of every series of Star Trek, at least twice, own enough comic books to stock a small store, and read the Lord of the Rings trilogy at least once a year. Therefore it’s hardly surprising that my favourite genre of music is heavy metal, the genre with more sci-fi/fantasy influence than any other. This is no overstatement. Metal is famed (or ridiculed, depending on who you ask) for it’s numerous sub-genres – it’s not a compete stretch to say that there are as many sub-genres of metal as there are types of popular music – and each one has at least one band with overt sci-fi/fantasy influence and lyrical content. Honestly, the closest thing visually to a sci-fi/fantasy shelf in a bookstore is the metal section at a record store. There are more than a few reasons why this relationship between metal and sci-fi/fantasy exists, not least because both are, in a word, epic. One could easily devote an entire essay to discussing the reasons for the relationship. However, for the purpose of this article, it is enough to know that sci-fi/fantasy has been present from metal’s murky beginnings.
Before metal was metal, the bands that would influence the genre werethemselves influenced by sci-fi/fantasy. It is fitting that some of the godfathers of metal, Led Zeppelin, would evoke the work of THE godfather of fantasy, Tolkein. In the song ‘Ramble On’, from Led Zeppelin II, Plant sings, ‘in the darkest depths of Mordor, I met a girl so fair, but Gollum, and the Evil One, crept up and slipped away with her’. The song itself tells of Frodo’s journey to destroy the ring. The fantasy epic ‘Battle of Evermore’, on Led Zeppelin IV, is filled with Tolkein references. It even refers to the Nazgul directly; ‘the ring wraiths ride in black, ride on’. Zeppelin wasn’t the only Tolkein-referencing band that would influence metal. Canadian prog rockers Rush have a song called ‘Rivendell’ on their Fly By Night album. Another pre-metal band that was obviously influenced by speculative fiction is Hawkwind, probably best known these days for featuring the immortal Lemmy on bass for a spell. These space rockers’ entire library is a cornucopia of sci-fi delight. They even collaborated with legendary author Michael Moorcock of Elric of Melniboné fame, as did another pre-metal band heavily influenced by sci-fi/fantasy, Blue Öyster Cult. The first band that most critics seem to agree was ‘metal’ is Black Sabbath, and they too looked to the fantastical for influence. And it wasn’t just occult and Satanic influences either. The second track on their first album, ‘The Wizard’, was partly inspired by Gandalf.
As heavy metal developed, the sounds grew and changed but the sci-fi/fantasy influences remained. The late 70s saw the explosion of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal bands, many of which were influenced by the genre. The band Angel Witch is one such band, their eponymous first album featuring such songs as ‘Atlantis’, ‘White Witch’, and ‘Sorceress’.Other NWOBHM bands like Iron Maiden and Saxon would go on to release work influenced by sci-fi/fantasy later in their careers. The NWOBHM was a major turning point in heavy metal music, being influenced by everything that came before it, and influencing, either directly or indirectly, every subsequent sub-genre of metal, from thrash to black, that came after it. In the early 80s, two bands that owed much musically to the NWOBHM, and much lyrically to the world of sci-fi/fantasy, released their first albums. Fantasy was at the heart of these bands’ music, and they would go on to influence an entire sub-genre dominated by sci-fi/fantasy imagery, Power Metal. They are Dio and Manowar.
Led by Ronnie James Dio, who honed his fantasy-lyric-writing skills with Rainbow, Dio’s first album, Holy Diver, is as much a work of fantasy fiction as it is a heavy metal album. Manowar’s debut, Battle Hymns, includes the amazing song ‘Dark Avenger’, a tale of the supernatural Dark Avenger coming back to reap vengeance on the wicked, featuring narration by Orson Welles (Christopher Lee on the 2010 re-release), and ‘Battle Hymns’, the seven minute epic about an army riding into battle that, in my opinion, features one of the greatest metal guitar solos of all time. Their 1988 album, Kings of Metal, is an absolute treasure of fantasy-influenced heavy metal. I really can’t overstate the utter awesomeness of these two bands. Dio’s lyrics are legendary,and the fantasy influence is pervasive. Few bands capture the glory of a good sword and sorcery tale like Manowar. Listening to them is the musical equivalent of reading a Robert E. Howard story. Manowar’s Battle Hymns was released in 1982, and Dio’s Holy Diver in 1983, and though the straightforward manner in which these two bands represented their speculative fiction influences was relatively novel, by the end of the decade it would be ubiquitous in heavy metal music.
Next, in Part II, the author examines the sci-fi/fantasy love fest that is Power Metal, and the status of sci-fi/fantasy in heavy metal in the 21st century.