SONGS OF ICE AND FIRE: WHY METAL LOVES FANTASY

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From dragons to Orcs, metal has long enjoyed a love affair with fantasy. And as Game Of Thrones hits our screens once more, that relationship is enjoying a resurgence.

A dark, twisted tale of knights and dragons and frost demons; of the fate of kings and of dark, ancient magic. Sounds like the premise for an double album by some southern European power metal band, right? Well, it’s not. It’s the tale that inspired a new song, Soror Irrumator, from thrash legends Anthrax, better known for muscular anthems about Judge Dredd and moshing.

The New Yorkers have recorded the track for the latest Game Of Thrones compilation, Catch The Throne: The Mixtape: Volume II, and it sits alongside tributes from Killswitch Engage, Mushroomhead and Mastodon (perhaps a less surprising contributor, given they made their name singing about Moby Dick, and astral projection to Rasputin). These fantasy virgins are following in the footsteps of legends such as Led Zeppelin, Dio, Blind Guardian and Nightwish, who have all show great passion for the genre. Once seen as something niche, the battle of those in the Seven Kingdoms for the Iron Throne has brought fantasy kicking, screaming and stabbing into the mainstream – ice zombies, dragons and all. But it’s not just a story of swords and sorcery. It’s also a story about family and friendship and love and betrayal. A story, above all, about people.

“People connect with it,” says Anthrax’s Scott Ian, of why the show’s so popular. “They connect with the characters, they become invested in it.”

Beyond that, it’s also proper brutal, with brawls, betrayals and brothels littering the plot…

Game Of Thrones inherently, if you read the books or watch the show, it’s a bit more metal than _The Hobbit _and even more so than The Lord Of The Rings,” Scott continues. “Even though The Lord Of The Rings gets very metal with Sauron and the Orcs. But Game Of Thrones, week in, week out, it’s just more metal. Certainly what people stereotype metal as – lots of violence, lots of sex – so it seems on the surface it would be easier to write about.”

Heavy metal’s interest in fantasy goes back to its earliest days, particularly in its fondness for J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord Of The Rings (as discussed in Metal Hammer’s January 2014 issue). But the indelible link between the two runs much deeper. The nastier end of metal (beyond adolescent Norwegian black metallers who loved Tolkien, anyway) has found inspiration in the works of American writer Robert E. Howard (see oil-tanker-heavy doom act Conan, named after his Barbarian character), while bands such as Blind Guardian have looked to British author Michael Moorcock’s works surrounding the fictional city of Tanelorn. Across generation, national border and mood, the music and the imagery appear to pair up unusually well.

“Metal works with medieval-style imagery – it just does,” enthuses Killswitch Engage singer Jesse Leach, whose band has contributed the soaring Loyalty. “A lot of us are into that stuff. I bet you if someone ever did a documentary that explored the connection between the two, [it would show that] a lot of metalheads are into it. It just kind of works – wielding a sword, fighting for loyalty and honour – that stuff seems to work with metal.”

The trend didn’t stop with existing text, however. In the wake of Blind Guardian’s popularity, bands such as Italy’s Rhapsody Of Fire and France’s Fairyland were inspired to create their own sagas to tell through power metal song, which were just as time-consuming to produce as any work of epic fantasy literature. But, while this wasn’t quite as herculean a task as the efforts of Robert Jordan, who died in 2007 while working on the 12th volume of his Wheel Of Time series (fellow fantasy author Brandon Sanderson finished the saga with three novels), it did spawn some challenges.

“When you create a new world, and you choose it as background for all the lyrics for many songs, you have to really think about the new world,” explains Luca Turilli, founder of Rhapsody Of Fire, who once worked on the band’s connected Emerald Sword and Dark Secret sagas, and now has his own version of Rhapsody that doesn’t use sagas at all. “It’s not something you can make in a superficial way; you really have to create and plan everything in advance, to not fall into contradictions. You have to respect the geography, and you have to create the history of the world. It’s something really, really heavy, and very satisfying from an artistic point of view. We based 10 years of our career on that saga.”

This follows through to newer bands like French pagan metallers Drenaï, whose name and songs pay homage to the works of David Gemmell, the late, great British master of heroic fantasy, whose predominantly stand-alone novels tell of flawed but admirable heroes facing impossible odds with great courage. It reaches recent acts like black metallers Caladan Brood, who are devoted to Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book Of The Fallen series, a 10-book, three-million-odd-word saga published between 1999-2011, telling a complex, unbelievably bloody tale in which a vast array of characters play out the turbulent history of the Malazan empire. The days when Tanelorn, Conan The Barbarian and Tolkien were the only source material is long gone, with every successive generation of metallers going that little bit further down the path than the last.

From this storied lineage, now comes the meeting of metal with the lands of Westeros – mainstream fantasy that’s lyrical inspiration for metal bands who could never previously embrace dragons; Ned Stark works naturally with thrash, Bilbo Baggins is more of a challenge. Mastodon writing a miniature prog odyssey about mysterious creatures (the White Walkers) was always likely to succeed, but the grooving mixture of melody and crush that Killswitch Engage have used to sing about the loyalty of House Martell would not have worked so well to represent the dignity of the kingdom of Rohan in Tolkien’s works. But this not the only reason the influence is broadening, according to one metal expert on fantasy.

“I think that, during the last 15 years, because of films like The Lord Of The Rings, the Harry Potter series and Game Of Thrones, fantasy has become more sexy to people of all ages,” says Nightwish’s principal composer, Tuomas Holopainen. “I just enjoy a great story – we all do. Whether it’s a really well-written detective story by Agatha Christie or The Lord Of The Rings, or anything by [American epic writer] Patrick Rothfuss, or a story by Neil Gaiman – Snow, Glass, Apples one of his short stories, is my all-time favourite novel – you want to be taken away, for a little while, from all this, and enjoy a good story and feel safe because you’re not in it completely.”

Jesse Leach agrees that this sense of escapism is appealing to many – and perhaps especially so to those in our heavy metal world.

“Maybe it’s just the struggle for survival, and overcoming – that frame of mind, that tenacity, that a lot of metalheads have,” he suggests, as to why the two genres have such an enduring relationship. “We’re used to, growing up, being out of step, not really fitting in with certain people, and then you find people that are like you – you find your clan, friends that are into the same type of music, the same type of culture. There’s that mentality; if you’re the popular kid in school, it’s not hard for you to fit in, because there’s more people like you. So maybe as metalheads, we’re the outcasts, and we all band together as outcasts. There’s a certain type of camaraderie there, and in those types of books, that happens. People who are the outlaws get to be the heroes in the storyline.”

While metalheads can’t become warriors and wizards who save the world (Manowar aside, obviously), there’s certainly a parallel between them and the fantasy hero, who’s rarely ‘cool’. There are the classics such as Pug, the weedy orphan at the centre of Raymond E. Feist’s Magician, whose apprenticing to the wizard Kulgan alters the fate of two entire worlds; and there’s the isolated figure of Druss, the titular character in David Gemmell’s Legend, the grizzled old warrior dragged out of retirement to stand on the walls of the greatest fortress in the world as his homeland is about to be crushed. But you also have the heroes of the modern age, such as hated dwarf Tyrion Lannister in Game Of Thrones, and pretty much the entire dramatis personae of rising star Daniel Abraham’s The Long Price Quartet (a tender tale that takes snapshots at four periods in the lives of two people, from youth to old age, and just happens to document the changing of a whole world). Then there’s his The Dagger And The Coin series (a deeply real-world tale exploring the nature of morality, and political and religious absolutism).

But it goes a little further than that; metal and fantasy have also remained outsider interests. Ask the average man on the street to name a Kanye West song, and you’ll get more correct answers than if you ask them to name a Metallica song. And while J.R.R. Tolkien, Terry Pratchett, J.K. Rowling and latterly George RR Martin are now well known, the next tier down – David Gemmell, Robert Jordan, Patrick Rothfuss and so forth – are unlikely to be familiar to anyone who’s not au fait with the genre, despite their enormous popularity and commercial success.

While metal and fantasy may occupy similar places in pop culture – sneered at, but vociferously supported by a loyal throng – both are occasionally invited to sit at the cool table. Killswitch’s Jesse Leach has his own thoughts on why Game Of Thrones has been allowed to pull up a chair.

Game Of Thrones is pretty crazy and pretty violent,” he says, “so I think people who aren’t normally into these types of things can find an action series as well as [an erotic one] – it touches on all these different genres, not just fantasy. And it’s so well written – that’s probably why, too. People that normally wouldn’t watch something because they would think ‘this kinda stuff is cheesy’, well Game Of Thrones is not – it’s badass.”

And it seems that where one genre gets to dine with the cool kids, the other may follow, as Mushroomhead’s Steve ‘Skinny’ Felton explains.

“With the first Catch The Throne mixtape, I had a few mixed feelings, because it was very much all hip-hop and rap [featuring artists such as Big Boi and Common], and to me, some of that genre doesn’t work so well with the fantasy as well as, say, metal does,” says Skinny, who sings Among The Crows. “I think metal works much better than hip-hop, and I’m not criticising hip-hop at all – I’m a huge hip-hop guy, I love all styles of music; it doesn’t matter. But we’re talking about a style and a sound fitting with imagery, and on the first mixtape, I had a hard time wrapping my head around rap talking about the Lannisters. This second mixtape, I came into it knowing the last one was based on rap, and now heavy metal was being invited to the table, and I thought that was very fitting.”

Game Of Thrones has shown the world at large something previously only known to fans of the genre: that fantasy is not just about nerds, that it has moved on from being about elves and halflings and Orcs and empires with unpronounceable names, and is about people and the real world, and weighty topics such as love, ethics, and the struggles of life. Perhaps Anthrax, Mastodon, Killswitch Engage and Mushroomhead will similarly show Game Of Thrones fans that some of their assumptions about metal are also false.

_Catch The Throne _is out now. You can watch the fifth season of _Game Of Thrones _every Monday at 9pm on Sky Atlantic.