Of the many heavy metal sub-genres, power metal is associated most closely with the sci-fi/fantasy genre. Crystallising in the mid-80s, power metal was rooted in 70s hard rock and the New Wave of British Heavy Metal. Its main distinguishing features are high-pitched, operatic vocals (influenced by Rob Halford of Judas Priest), fast tempos driven by constant double-bass drumming, virtuosic guitar playing, and of course, the prevalence of sci-fi/fantasy content. Building on the lyrical motifs explored by Ronnie James Dio of Rainbow, later of Dio, practically all power metal bands employ imagery in their lyrics influenced by sci-fi/fantasy. Many deal explicitly with the genre, with songs and entire albums based on the work of various authors, concept albums that tell original stories created by the bands themselves, and individual songs that feature the usual suspects of warriors, wizards, dragons, elves, dwarves, and yes, unfortunately, sometimes a unicorn or two.
No discussion about fantasy and power metal would be complete without mentioning ‘the bards’, Blind Guardian. Arguably the best band in the genre (and easily one of the most unique), Blind Guardian are simply masters of their craft. Ambitious both musically and lyrically, they make epic music with overt fantasy content that comes across consistently as heavier and less-cheesy than many of their peers. Not only do these guys have a song called ‘Lord of the Rings’, but they also have an entire album, Nightfall in Middle Earth, based on Tolkien’s Silmarillion (featuring one of their best songs, ‘Mirror Mirror’). Another band noteworthy for their overt association with the fantasy genre is Rhapsody (of Fire). This band is about as fantasy-influenced as a band can get – seriously, their albums (such as Legendary Tales, Power of the Dragonflame, and Symphony of Enchanted Lands) and song titles (like ‘Warrior of Ice’, ‘Knightrider of Doom’, and ‘The Dark Tower of Abyss’ could be used to create more than a year’s worth of Dungeons&DragonsTM narratives. They even have with narration by Sir Christopher Lee (yes, you can thank these gentlemen for kick-starting Christopher Lee’s metal career). But they’re not all swords-and-sorcery – their guitarist, Luca Turilli, released a solo album, Prophet of the Last Eclipse, based entirely on the sci-fi genre. Other noteworthy power metal bands, when it comes to sci-fi/fantasy, are Helloween, Gamma Ray, and Stratovarius, all household names in the genre; Metalforce (formerly Majesty) and Wizard, their music indebted heavily to Manowar, and perfect to listen to whilst reading Robert E. Howard; Avantasia, the amazing ‘metal opera’ side project of Edguy front-man Tobias Sammet; and Iced Eath, hands-down the kings of American power metal.
While sci-fi/fantasy themes continue to be most prominent in power metal, they’ve become increasingly prevalent in metal across the board. This is undoubtedly due to power metal, as it popularised fantastic story telling in the genre. Standouts include 3 Inches of Blood, with songs such as ‘Destroy the Orcs’, ‘Demon’s Blade’, and ‘Forest King’; GrailKnights, a melodic death metal from Germany who sing of the Grail Quest and dress like superheroes. The Sword, who make frequent use of fantasy imagery in their songs, including material based on the works of Howard and Lovecraft, respectively; and Nexus Inferis, an extreme metal band that bases itself on a dystopian future in which “machines reside in every being and have emerged as the cardinal life-force on Earth”.
It’s hardly surprising that the sci-fi/fantasy genre became so prevalent in metal. The epic nature of heavy metal – its sheer over-the-top-ness – makes it tailor-made for telling epic stories, and no stories come close in epic-ness to sci-fi/fantasy stories. When most people think of sci-fi/fantasy, including many of us confessed geeks, they tend to think mainly of books, films, TV, and comics, but it’s worth remembering that music, especially heavy metal music, is just as good a vehicle for incredible tales of far away lands.