Heavy metal: pimply, prole, putrid, unchic, unsophisticated, anti-intellectual (but impossibly pretentious), dismal, abysmal, terrible, horrible and stupid music, barely music at all . . . music made by slack-jawed, alpaca-haired, bulbous-inseamed imbeciles in jackboots and leather and chrome for slack-jawed, alpaca-haired, downy-mustachioed imbeciles in cheap, too large t-shirts with pictures of comic book Armageddon ironed on the front . . . —Robert Duncan, music critic (1989:36)
Vala he is that's what you said Then your oath's been sworn in vain Freely you came and You freely shall depart Never trust the northern winds Never turn your back on friends —Blind Guardian, "Nightfall" (1998)
The sonic dimension of heavy metal music can be defined by extremes: heavy, distorted, and technically impressive electric guitar; loud, frantic double bass drumming; prominent bass; and growled, snarled, or virtuoso vocals. Its fans consist predominately of greasy-haired, black-T-shirt-clad, marijuana-smoking, blue-collar, male teens who wouldn't know a literary masterpiece if it were propping up their beer fridge. How, then, did the works of J. R. R. Tolkien permeate this subculture? Why is it that thousands of metal fans worldwide see Tolkien's works as synonymous with the ideology of heavy metal, when Tolkien would have abhorred the music and its fans?
To understand this phenomenon it is necessary to know something about heavy metal. The genre solidified from the rock scene in the early '70s with bands like Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, and Judas Priest. This was also the era when science fiction and fantasy boomed—thanks to Tolkien, Star Wars, and Dungeons & Dragons—and the two subcultures attracted a similar fan base (Trafford and Pluskowski 2007:60). Heavy metal can be broken down into several subgenres, each with its own separate history and each bringing something important to the metal cacophony: death metal, thrash metal, power metal, black metal, grindcore, nu-metal, folk metal, Harry Potter metal. Many metal fans—metalheads, as they are commonly known—enjoy a range of bands from several different subgenres but focus their attention on one or two subgenres in particular.
For all their sonic differences, the subgenres of metal have certain things in common. Several scholars have studied the subculture with particular reference to its overarching themes. In the seminal work Heavy Metal: The Music and Its Culture, Deena Weinstein defines metal as "power" expressed through the volume of music, and breaks all metal songs into two theme-based categories: of Dionysian excess—sex, drinking, and partying all night; and of chaos—destruction, violence, and death (Weinstein 2000:109). In Running with the Devil: Power, Gender and Madness in Heavy Metal Music, Robert Walser examines these themes in connection to metal's misogyny, and demonstrates how metal relates to hypermasculine ideals: the music creates fantastical worlds without women (1994:110). Metal strives to be the loudest, fastest, dirtiest, most extreme. Nothing about metal is subtle or understated, and it revels in its outlaw image and ultramasculine heroes: bikers, Vikings, cowboys, and Satan (Trafford and Pluskowski 2007:59). Fans expect metal's themes—the "metal code"—to be upheld by the band, or that band is no longer considered metal.
Attending concerts is the central ritual for the heavy metal subculture (Weinstein 2000:134). Several writers have noted that the arena concert experience is one of community, participation, and adherence to the subcultural code (Walser 1993:114, Weinstein 2000:199-235, and Wicke 1990:65-66). In many ways, the music of metal fosters this sense of community, with self-referential songs and sing-along choruses. However, in some instances, the excess of metal is designed to deliberately alienate the audience: the dazzling stage shows, elaborate costumes, and larger-than-life musical performances presenting the musicians as "metal gods," quite apart from their ordinary counterparts in the audience.
Tolkien-themed metal bands fall almost exclusively into the domain of either black or power metal. These two subgenres are diametrically opposed. Power metal is characterized by staccato guitar virtuosity and high-pitched clean vocals with lyrics about dragons. Power metal is melodic, multilayered, technically dazzling, and upbeat. By contrast, black metal relies on repeating simplistic riffs with fast tremolo picking, rapid blast-beats, unconventional song structure, and rasped lyrics about Satan and Odin. Black metal is an aural assault, made with fuzzy amplifiers and deliberately poor production, aiming for a misanthropic antithesis of music. While power metal musicians pride themselves in long, luxurious hair, black metal musicians paint their faces with corpsepaint and are infamous for burning churches and committing other acts of vandalism. No two subgenres of metal are more dissimilar. In this essay I explore how power and black metal bands interpret characters, stories, and themes from Tolkien's work in their songs, and how they reinvent Tolkien's work to appeal to their specific audience while still adhering to the "metal code." I also explore how fans react to the bands' interpretations and how Tolkien metal affects the fan community.
Blind Guardian is arguably the most popular of the Tolkien metal bands. Formed in the mid-'80s in Germany, they released several Tolkien-themed songs, culminating in 1998's release Nightfall on Middle Earth, a concept album chronicling the Flight of the Noldor as per Tolkien's Silmarillion. The band describes their music as "Tolkien inspired fantasy lyrics meet extremely melodious heavy music" (Lewis 1999). Their music is complex and layered, with intricate time changes, orchestral accompaniment, and sweeping choruses that capture the imagination. In songs like "Lord of the Rings," they even experiment with folk influences. They utilize the technique of overdub, whereby music tracks (most notably the guitar and vocals) are layered one over the other, creating the impression of a great army of musicians playing and singing in harmony.
Singer/songwriter Hansi Kürsch explains his desire to perform Tolkien music: "I believe everyone who is into the story knows how many emotions, smells, pictures and noises he/she has to face until he/she reaches the end of that magnificent journey. We use these feelings and transpose it into music." (Lewis 1999). How Blind Guardian achieves this level of emotion and still remains quintessentially metal is a complex question, especially considering its love of folk-like ballads (while "Lord of the Rings" and "Skalds and Shadows" are sung by a metal band, they can't musically be called metal songs). Weinstein's first definition of power (Dionysian revelry) is notably absent in Blind Guardian's music (as it often is in Tolkien), though lust is explored through the power of the ring to corrupt. In "Into the Storm," Morgoth and Ungoliant struggle for the possession of the Silmarils:
Blackheart show me What you hold in your hand I still hunger for more Release me From my pain Give it to me How I need it. (Blind Guardian 1998)
This lust has more in common with chaos than Dionysian revelry. Blind Guardian explores chaos further, particularly by examining good versus evil, betrayal, and death. In "The Curse of Feanor," Feanor relates the deeds he commits—in particular, the Kinslaying—in his wrathful pursuit of Morgoth:
I will always remember their cries Like a shadow which covers the light I will always remember the time But it's past I cannot turn back the time (I) don't look back There's still smoke near the shore But I arrived Revenge be mine. (Blind Guardian 1998)
"Time Stands Still (at the Iron Hill)" is about Fingolfin riding to the gates of Angband to challenge Morgoth. Fingolfin wounds Morgoth seven times before the Dark Lord finally strikes him down:
The iron crowned is getting closer Swings his hammer down on him Like a thunderstorm, he's crushing Down the Noldor's proudest King. (Blind Guardian 1998)
In all of these songs the music rises and falls with the action in the lyrics, dragging the listener along. The double bass drum pounds through the song like a war drum. And the poetic style of the vocal track is reminiscent of a bard retelling a dramatic battle. But while Blind Guardian stays true to metal's code, its music carries a certain light, a hope of salvation. The instrumentation is bright and lively, peaking at the chorus and reaching climax during the instrumental bridges. If we listen closely to "Time Stands Still," we can hear the success of the overdub technique in the chorus: "The fate of us all, lies deep in the dark / When time stands still at the iron hill" (Blind Guardian 1998). The sweep of the guitar and the layered vocals sound like an army is singing. It's catchy, inviting the listener to sing along. The song ends with an edge of hope, accompanying the lyrics: "The Elvenking's broken / He stumbles and falls / The most proud and most valiant / His spirit survives / Praise our king" (Blind Guardian 1998).
And despite their lofty themes, complex musicianship, and sold-out arena shows, Blind Guardian is an intimate band, as anyone who has seen Blind Guardian in concert or on DVD can attest. Audience participation at its shows is a given, and it peaks during choruses like a call to metal arms, a battle cry, or a public mourning. The emotional response of fans is visible, and Hansi comments on this: "To a lot of our fans, our music contains the same vibes and the same brightness [as Tolkien]" (Lewis 1999). Blind Guardian achieves a sense of community with its audience while remaining the remote musicians.
Battlelore is another power metal Tolkien band, this time from Finland. Although Battlelore writes nearly exclusively on Tolkien's themes, it (unlike Blind Guardian) chooses to eradicate any overt reference to him in its lyrics. Vocalist Tomi explains that the band members wanted to "make the lyrics more universal. Now you can enjoy the lyrics even if you don't have any idea of Middle Earth" (Bower 2008). Battlelore differs from Blind Guardian in other ways: its riffs and song structures are much more simplistic, and the emphasis is not on musical virtuosity but on defeating the barrier between fan and musician. Also, Battlelore seeks to capture the themes of hope, redemption, and innocence in Tolkien's work. It is the only Tolkien metal band that explores Tolkien's imagery of food and revelry, in songs like "Buccaneers Inn":
Open your barrels Bring me your finest wine Where are the women? Your heroes have arrived. (Battlelore 2003)
Its stage show incorporates elaborate costumes and lighting, and lead singer Tomi often sports a longsword (Bower 2008). They're also one of the few Tolkien-themed bands to include female vocals as a significant part of their sound.
With the added dimension of female vocals, Battlelore has an opportunity—unlike most other Tolkien metal bands—to explore Tolkien's representation of females. As a man often noted for his portrayal of virginal and "pure" maidens who have no place in the war of men (Skeparnides 2002), Tolkien has found a friend in heavy metal. Both Walser (1993:102-119) and Weinstein (2000:103-134) explain how metal is fundamentally directed at a male audience. Metal's misogyny is often aimed at masculine solidarity, culminating in Walser's "fantastical worlds without women" (1993:110). This is similar to Aragorn's quest to unite the races of man against Sauron. In Tolkien, the women—Arwen, Galadriel, and Eowyn—are cast through a male gaze as "maidens" in need of male protection. Eowyn's rebellion against the male system of Tolkien's world—where she must disguise her womanhood—serves to cast the reader's eye to her femininity (Skeparnides 2002). Battlelore achieves much the same effect. Rarely do male and female vocals accompany each other, but each has their own passages within the songs, where the dynamics shift to softer instrumentation during the female vocal sections, and back to full-on electric riffs during the male sections. The lyrics sung by the female parts include praise for their male heroes in "The War of Wrath":
All ablaze for the glory of their arms Swell of the trumpets filled the sky Morgoth banished from the Middle-Earth His reign, never shall rise again. (Battlelore 2003)
The women exhort their men to fight during "Storm of the Blades":
If you should survive You can come back and Claim your reward Bring us victory and I will make sure That you will regain your freedom Once again. (Battlelore 2005)
The melody and delicacy of the female vocal passages serve to highlight the gruff, masculine voice, and the inclusion of female vocals in the masculine heavy metal only enhances their femininity.
Burzum, the one-man black metal project of Norwegian Varg Vikernes, is another matter entirely. Varg is infamous in metal circles as one of the leaders of the Satanist black metal scene in Norway during the late '90s. Varg was instrumental in the stave church burnings; several historic churches across Scandinavia were burnt by members of the black metal scene (Moynihan and Søderlind 1998:33-45). Varg (aged thirty-five) is currently serving a twenty-one-year prison sentence for stabbing his bandmate twenty-three times with a boot knife (Moynihan and Søderlind 1998:105-137 and Vikernes 2004a). Though in the beginning he labeled himself a Satanist, Varg reinvents himself every few years, becoming first a follower of Asatru (the worship of the Norse gods) and then a staunch neo-Nazi. Many of his writings can be found on his official website.
Burzum was inspired by Tolkien from the outset, though Varg has a fringe theory of Tolkien's themes, and as Varg's own views change he reinterprets Tolkien. Varg writes,
In my teenage interpretation I pretty much saw the Hobbits as children or simply boring. The dwarves reminded me too much of greedy capitalist-pigs and they too were pretty boring. Their rules were cool and Moria was a wonderful place, but I disliked their greed vehemently—and who wants to be short anyhow? The elves were fascinating, beautiful and especially their immortality and closeness to nature was cool, but they were kind of dull and they fought for the wrong side. Instead I felt a natural attraction to Sauron, who was the person who gave the world adventure, adversity and challenges in the first place. (Vikernes 2004b)
Later, when his interests moved away from Satanism and subverting the Christian left, and instead toward exploring Asatru and pagan religions, Varg's readings of Tolkien became more extreme. His fundamental concept was that the one ring represents time:
We are all ruled by time, found by time, brought into obvious darkness by time and bound by time—it is just a matter of time before we all die and forget, and none of us can escape it. Time has no beginning or end, like a ring. It goes on forever, and Sauron needs this corruption of time to cover the world in his darkness. The only person in the book that doesn't seem to be much affected by neither death nor time is Gandalf the Grey. (Vikernes 2005a)
Varg goes on to say his attraction to Tolkien's "bad-guys" arose from the writer's use of Scandinavian myths in the creation of Sauron (Odin) and the Uruk-hai (Vikings) (Vikernes 2004b). This in turn was the reason behind the band name "Burzum" (darkness), from the engraving on the one ring: "ash nazg thrakatulûk, agh burzum-ishi krimpatul"—"one ring to bring them all, and in the darkness bind them" (Tolkien 1995:247). While other black metal bands chose English names—like Immortal, Emperor, and Darkthrone—Varg liked that the name Burzum was "solis sacerdotibus [Latin: 'solely for the initiated']. Only initiates [of Tolkien's works] knew what it meant" (Vikernes 2004b).
Varg's music is minimalist at best, creating a kind of fuzzy black metal meditation soundtrack. With two exceptions, he recorded every song in only one take. The fuzzy guitar lines on Filosofern were not recorded through an amplifier but by playing the guitar through fuzz pedals and his brother's stereo (which he broke) (Vikernes 2005b). The mistakes on the albums are left in deliberately; Varg says "the whole point of the musical rebellion was not to make perfect albums . . . a few mistakes makes the music alive and personal . . . an embrace of honesty and an appreciation of the pure and natural" (Vikernes 2005b). This "honesty" to which Varg aspired was the overarching theme he took from Tolkien's work: "Tolkien wanted to tell us with his books: embrace the true beauty of our world and rid yourself of bare and self-destructive weakness such as greed" (Vikernes 2005a).
Silenius—a member of Summoning, another black metal band—explains how his interpretation of the Flight of the Noldor on its album Oath Bound differs so drastically from Blind Guardian's stadium-anthem style. "I really like to make slow motion hypnotic, trance-like hymnal and epic music and as I was a fan of fantasy literature since my childhood it was totally obvious that this music fits best to this kind of genre" (Bowar 2006). Summoning's distinctive sound is characterized by quiet guitars, multi-layered synthesizer tracks, and heavy, programmed, reverberated drums, giving the songs a cavernous quality. Vocals—sung in the rasping black metal style—are often reverberated as well. In its earlier albums, Summoning focused exclusively on Tolkien's "evil" creatures, in order to stay within the realm of black metal, but more recent releases have seen it branching out, though it still focuses on chaotic themes (Bowar 2006). Like Varg, Summoning is a studio band and does not play live. Like Burzum's, the music has a trance-like quality, and the subtle use of countermelodies and song construction make the songs meditative.
Each of these four bands relies on its own interpretation of Tolkien, and these interpretations differ radically. The themes the bands chose to explore are in keeping with the rules of their particular subgenre: Blind Guardian and Battlelore explore fellowship, battle, the triumph of good over evil, and in the case of Battlelore, revelry. Burzum and Summoning are fundamentally interested in evil and chaos. With Blind Guardian and Battlelore, the themes resonate with their fans, as the music draws them into Tolkien's world, into fellowship with each other and with the band. Battlelore also strives to make its music accessible, with universal themes of bravery, trust, and defeating evil.
Varg's interpretation of Tolkien is insular; his reading is taken from his idiosyncratic worldview and he makes no effort to make this accessible to a wide audience. His idea is that only initiates of Tolkien and of Varg's personal writings will understand the full scope of the music. Fans of Burzum and Summoning go without concerts—the primary focus of heavy metal culture—and, aside from Internet forums and discussion, might never converse with other fans. Varg's writings in particular pay homage to oft untouched themes in Tolkien's writings: the environmental destruction caused by Saruman when he creates the Uruk-hai; and the industrialization and urbanization in the scouring of the Shire. These are all processes Varg saw around him when growing up in Norway, and they deeply influenced his writing (Vikernes 2004b).
While one cannot assume that followers of one subgenre are fans of another, or that the metal audience of one country is comparable to another, or that fans in the 1980s are similar to fans in the 2000s (Weinstein 2000:97), the community surrounding these four bands is more or less the same. All four bands originate from Europe, and each is at the top of its genre in terms of respect and notoriety. Blind Guardian and Battlelore continue to tour extensively, Varg Vikernes continues to draw attention to himself and his music through his writings, and Summoning increases their exposure with every release. With the Internet as a tool for promoting music and fostering fan communities (Hodkinson 2003), it is unlikely that fans of one band are unfamiliar with the others, even if they don't enjoy the music.
Members of Battlelore in Spain, 2004. Offstage, this band's male and female "dress codes" are similar. Battlelore promotional image.
Although metal audiences are split roughly 50/50 along gender lines (Weinstein 2000:134), with metal musicians an overwhelming proportion are male, and metal's themes center on untamed masculinity in all its forms. It is not surprising that metal bands commonly identify with Tolkien's writings, where men do the battling. There is a sense of a "boy's only club," like the Inklings formed by Tolkien and C. S. Lewis during their Oxford days. Even Battlelore's female vocals serve as a means to highlight the difference between the two genders. Tolkien's world is the ultimate metal fantasy—a world almost without women, a world where the metal ideals of freedom, power, and (male) fellowship are prized above all else.
The only thing that tempers metal's misogyny is its sense of community. Female fans who do not flaunt their femininity are treated as equals. For example, in clothing, the female metal fan has two choices: the male uniform of jeans and a baggy black metal T-shirt, or an emulation of the "bitch goddess" in leather miniskirts, cleavage-revealing tops, and spiked-heeled boots (Weinstein 2000:134). One is male fashion, the other is male fantasy. In much the same way, Eowyn must disguise herself as a male and enter the world of men in order to defeat the Lord of the Ringwraiths.
Above all else, metal music unites fans. Even Burzum and Summoning, who do not perform live, draw their audiences together with their exclusivity. Online forums and communities discussing Tolkien's work and Vikernes's personal manifesto are popular with fans wishing to connect with each other. Battlelore uses universally applicable lyrics and popular themes, and fun stage shows to connect with its fans. Blind Guardian's epic music, catchy songs, and overdub technique bring fans together in the ultimate concert experience. All four bands adhere to the "metal code," and ironically, so does Tolkien. Overall, Tolkien metal instills pride in its fans. Heavy metal music is an idealized representation of the subcultural lifestyle—their cultural norms and values expressed in musical form. For fans of Tolkien metal, the bands legitimize, articulate, and redeem their audiences. Fifty-five years after the publication of Lord of the Rings, Tolkien's themes remain relevant in the hearts of heavy metal fans worldwide.
Trafford, S., and A. Pluskowski. 2007. "Antichrist Superstars: The Vikings of Hard Rock and Heavy Metal." Marketing the Medieval: Essays on the Middle Ages in Popular Culture. D. W. Marshall (ed.). Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Company.
Vikernes, V. 2005a. "Paganism: Part III—The One Ring." Burzum Official Website. http://www.burzum.org/eng/library/paganism03.shtml. Accessed April 2008.
Vikernes, V. 2005b. "A Burzum Story. Part VI—The Music." Burzum Official Website.http://www.burzum.org/eng/library/a_burzum_story06.shtml. Accessed April 2008.
Vikernes, V. 2004a. "A Burzum Story: Part II—Euronymous." Burzum Official Website. http://www.burzum.org/eng/library/a_burzum_story02.shtml. Accessed April 2008.
Vikernes, V. 2004b. "A Burzum Story: Part I—Origin and Meaning." Burzum Official Website. http://www.burzum.org/eng/library/a_burzum_story01.shtml. Accessed April 2008.
Burzum. 1993. Det som engang var. Cymaphane Productions.
Summoning. 2006. Oath Bound. Napalm Records.
Summoning. 2001. Let Mortal Heroes Sing your Fame. Napalm Records.
Content advisory: The writings on the burzum.org Web domain include racist and eugenic mythopoeia (invented mythology), misrepresented as historical beliefs and practices. Wikipedia's article and associated discussion page on Varg Vikernes provide some external coverage of this issue.
Stephanie Green lives in New Zealand with her cantankerous drummer husband and a cupboard full of swords. By day she transcribes braille and produces large-print and audio books for the blind, and by night you'll find her tearing up the mosh pit at her local heavy metal bar.
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