After writing long and extensively about ambient music I’ve decided to hop to a very different genre, the diverse and powerful world of metal. Since I am not as experienced in the ways of metal, I’ll keep this to one article and three albums. These three albums each represent a different type of metal and a different sound, what connects them all, and makes them so compelling, is that each is a concept album attempting to tell a story through the songs and music. I know metal can be hard to listen to and isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but I’d urge anyone to give these albums a chance and really try to appreciate the masterful skill in the music and the brilliant stories being told.
We’ll start with the easiest one to listen to, Skálmöld’s Börn Loka. Skámöld is an Icelandic Viking/ Folk metal band that is wildly popular in Iceland right now and gaining lots of ground internationally. Skámöld sings all of their lyrics in Icelandic and actually makes sure they conform to the rhyming and meter schemes used in old Norse epic poetry. These epic poems had many stories of great warriors, terrible beasts, and gods like Thor, Loki, and Odin. Rather than retelling old tales, as some bands do, they just use the medium to create new stories that they feel would fit with Norse epics. They can accomplish this because of all modern Scandinavian languages Icelandic is the one that is least changed from Old Norse, allowing Icelanders to read these old epics without use of any translations.
I’ve had to piece the concept of this album together by chasing it across blogs, liner notes, reviews, and lots of Google translate. So some of this may be a bit inaccurate in places, but overall it’s correct. This album is about an incredibly skilled warrior known as Hilamr Baldursson. His father and mother were both killed in a raid/battle when he was young and all he has left in the world is his younger sister, Brynhildur, the only thing he cares about. He refuses to fight when he is grown, to avoid causing others the pain of loss he has known.
Odin, ‘reader of the poems,’ sees he is the warrior who can’t be killed and basically forces him into fighting by threatening harm on Brynhildur. He agrees, for his sister, to do what Odin wants. His task is to kill or capture all the children of the trickster god Loki. The album follows him on his quest, and he he is successful in his task, but Loki being a trickster, offers him a ‘deal’ in the final song. If he can best him, his sister can be protected from Odin and death and live forever. Loki allows Hilmar to win, then captures his now immortal sister to torture her for all eternity as revenge for what Hilmar has done to his children. The album ends on a sad note, with Hilmar nothing more than a pawn between two powerful gods who has now lost everything. This tale, with it’s tragic downfalls, battles, and harsh punishments would be right at home in an old Norse epic.
To characterize the sound of the album I would also use the same word: Epic. Big guitar riffs and solos, a powerful lead vocalist, driving drumming with high tempos, and the inclusion of a full chorus on some tracks and orchestral instruments such as bassoons creates an amazing and perfect backdrop for the story being told.
This is fairly accessible as far as metal albums go. The music is big, powerful, and the story brilliant. This is one of my favorite metal albums, and maybe one of my favorite albums from any genre, and is absolutely worth giving a chance.
This album, Oathbreaker, is best described as melodic blackened death metal with some atmospheric elements, with black being the largest influence on the sound. Oathbreaker is all about Darth Vader, mostly. His name is never said directly and nothing in the Star Wars universe is ever referenced by name, but it’s clear that’s what the album is about. It’s also more than that; they use the story of Anakin Skywalker to create an album all about tragic downfalls of heroes into villainy, the struggle between light and dark, good and evil, and the temptations of power.
Musically this album is a masterpiece. It features brilliant heavy and clean guitar sounds, from fast and powerful sections to more melodic and slower sections played on acoustic guitar. There are also splashes of piano and classical strings in places and a great blend of clean and harsh vocals. Every song is long and very dynamic frequently changing sound and tempo. I would definitely recommend Oathbreaker to any fan of metal or any fan of Star Wars, especially with the next installment of the movies arriving in December.
The last album I’ll suggest is a masterpiece, perhaps the Magnum Opus, of the band Panopticon. Panopticon is actually a solo project of Austin Lunn. The album, Kentucky, is about the coal miners in the eastern part of the state fighting for better working conditions and worker’s rights. It largely focuses on the Harlan County War.
As an Appalachian with lots of coal mining in the history of both sides of my family, this might be why it speaks to me so much. The album is best described as black metal and American folk metal. Unlike European folk metal with its Viking influences, this album is interwoven with Appalachian folk and bluegrass throughout. Including banjo interludes, mountain fiddling, and even some old folk songs in between the metal songs. The metal is wonderful with skilled guitar work, great screaming vocals, and all the other elements of good black metal. The album also features snippets of interviews with union organizers, striking coal miners, and others to really drive home how much early 20th century Appalachians had to fight to gain rights from coal companies. Some of the metal songs also feature a flute blasting over guitars in sections and lyrics that allude to the original Native inhabitants of the mountains.
My favorite song on the album, ‘Bodies Under the Falls,’ is actually almost exclusively about how the mountains were wrested away from the Cherokee through bloodshed and battle. It’s nice to see Panopticon recognize both the troubles and trials of Appalachians, but also the Natives before them.
This is definitely the harshest album I’ve recommended, but is also my favorite. It took me a few listens to truly appreciate it and enjoy it, but I think it’s definitely worth approaching with an open mind to discover the beauty within. Lastly, it’s worth pointing out the sheer skill of Austin Lunn. He wrote all the music and lyrics, and performs every instrumental and vocal part except the fiddle.
I’ll leave you with this, each of these albums have an amazing story to share through lyrics and music. Metal can be hard to approach and appreciate, but if one gives it a chance there are a lot of treasures hiding in the genre. These albums could be a good starting place on that journey.