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Metal and Make-Believe

By William Blanc

Since the first hard rock bands at the beginning of the 1970s, metal is undoubtedly the musical current that draws the most from fantasy, as much in terms of its themes as its imagery, its sounds, and even the format of its albums.



Magical Worlds and War Fantasies

In the wake of progressive rock, the first hard rock bands in the early 1970s composed long fantasy-inspired tracks, plunging their audiences into a medieval fantasy world. These often take the listener to enchanted and magical worlds, such as Tolkien's, regularly evoked in songs like Led Zeppelin's "Ramble On" (1969), while the psychedelic folk "trip" of the Moody Blues' "Are You Sitting Comfortably" (1969) takes the audience on a stroll to Avalon. But hard rock is also inspired by the epic facet of fantasy, which suits the musical style perfectly, relying on ever-heavier sounds. In a context where violence is less and less acceptable in society, it is in these imaginary worlds that warrior fantasies are projected, especially with groups like Manowar. In their song "Black Wind, Fire and Steel" (1987), one can hear the following lyrics: "Pounded by the hammers of the giants of the world, I can see in darkness. I'm the overlord"

Rock, Heavy Metal

Black Wind, Fire and Steel

Artist: Manowar

Album: Fighting The World

33 rpm vinyl, LP
BnF, département de l’audiovisuel, SD 30-86436

© ATCO Records, 1987

Staging Inspired by Fantasy Imagery

Fantasy doesn't only inspire the music of metal bands. In the wake of Wagner's 'Gesamtkunstwerk' concept (total work of art), musicians employ artists from the fantasy world to create images for their record covers. Thus, Ken Kelly, nephew of Frank Frazetta, designed the cover of the album Rising (1976) for the group Rainbow. Similarly, the members of Manowar posed on the cover of Into Glory Ride (1983) in costumes resembling those from the film Conan the Barbarian (1982), and which they would later wear on stage. Their public performances are also an opportunity for these groups to deploy fantasy imagery, both in their clothing and in the set design. The same desire has also led to the production of video clips that are strongly inspired by medieval fantasy role-playing games, like the one in the song "Holy Diver" (1983) where we see Ronnie James Dio, the singer, disguised as a warrior, confronting monsters in a church ruin – straight out of a Dungeons & Dragons adventure.

Heavy Metal, Hard Rock

Holy Diver

Artist: Dio

Album: Holy Diver

33 rpm vinyl, LP
BnF, département de l’audiovisuel, SD 30-64810

© Warner Bros. Records Inc., 1983

It was in the 1980s that fantasy became one of the main themes of hard rock, then metal. Artists who grew up in the 1960s and 1970s – at a time when fantasy was an essential part of youth culture, particularly in Anglo-Saxon countries – see it as a legitimate source of inspiration. Very quickly, their compositions tended to reproduce the narrative framework of the great works of the genre. Rather than evoking fantasy through a song or verse, as was the case with Led Zeppelin, the artists of the 1980s preferred to tell a complete story, on the scale of the great epic cycles of contemporary fantasy literature. So they began to make concept albums (which some progressive rock composers were already doing), where all the songs on a 33 rpm vinyl were linked together to tell one story, using Wagnerian leitmotifs.


It was the German band Helloween who, with Keeper of the Seven Keys: Part I (1987) and Part II (1988), was one of the first bands to attempt this formula, quickly followed by the British band Iron Maiden with Seventh Son of a Seventh Son (1988). This album was partly inspired by Orson Scott Card's Seventh Son (1987), and also by occultist Aleister Crowley's Moonchild (1917), two historical fantasy novels.

Rock, Heavy Metal

Seventh Son of a Seventh Son

Artist: Iron Maiden

Album: Seventh Son of a Seventh Son

33 rpm vinyl, LP
BnF, département de l’Audiovisuel, SD 30-93530

© EMI records Ltd., 1988

The critical and commercial success of this album (which reached number one in UK sales) quickly drove other bands to imitate their idea. Very soon, power metal bands, influenced by the Helloween's fast pace, produced records constructed in a similar way, either by imagining an original story, or being directly inspired by a fantasy work: for example, Nightfall in Middle-Earth (1998) by Blind Guardian, which covers episodes of J.R.R. Tolkien's Silmarillion. Some bands even specialize in concept albums, such as the Italians of Rhapsody of Fire, who produced five albums in a row, from 1997 to 2002, composing a complete narrative: The Emerald Sword Saga. We can hear songs like "Dawn of Victory" where, using the recipes of fantasy film music, the band adds Latin choruses to give the whole an archaic and magical feel.

Power Metal, Symphonic Rock

Dawn of Victory

Artist: Rhapsody of Fire

Album: Dawn of Victory

Compact disc + brochure
BnF, département de l’Audiovisuel, SDC 12-142022

© Limb Music Products, 2000

For several of their albums, Rhapsody of Fire enlisted the services of a symphony orchestra, as well as the actor Christopher Lee (notably in 2004 for Symphony of Enchanted Lands II). At the same time, Lee gained worldwide fame playing the magician Saruman in Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings. At the beginning of the 21st century, metal therefore became an integral part of the cultural creation of fantasy.