I’m not getting any younger. As the saying goes, 1990 was ten years ago. For the last twenty years.
I was born in the fall of 1979; not sure what generation that makes me, but I’m definitely an eighties child. A nineties teenager maybe but an eighties child. Jason Donovan lightened up the summer of ’89.
For a while, the eighties were looked back upon with a mild degree of embarrassment at hair bands, Voguing, Eastern European terrorists, whatever Prince was up to, Michael Jackson’s face, and the best, worst, and campiest fantasy ever recorded on film and anime.
Conan the Barbarian. Dragon Ball Z. Red Sonja. Fist of the Northstar. The Labyrinth. Berserk. The Princess Bride. Akira. The Barbarians and The NeverEnding Story and the list goes on, and on, and on …
The eighties were a decade of wild experimentation in the shadow of mutually ensured destruction. Unsurprisingly, pop culture was rife with nuclear fantasies. A decade of decaying urban spaces inspired Escape from New York, LA, and Robocop.
I’m glad to see that forty years later, the eighties are making a comeback. I see kids raving about The Weeknd, but all I hear is every 80s soundtrack ever. Stranger Things resurfaced the 80s and Metallica’s Master of Puppets in spectacular fashion, and of course: Steel Panther. I feel like a child again. A child with bills.
But beyond the mainstream surface, the legacy of that glorious epoch where bad meant good and awful meant worse, is alive and strong in another genre of music: Heavy Metal.
What is more natural? Just look at the basic structure of a power metal song:
I mean: Dragons. Devils. Whoaaaa! From visuals to lyrics and soundtracks, heavy metal, fantasy, and anime are caught in a feedback loop of epicness and none more than, wait for it, The NeverEnding Story.
What prompted this here paean was the godawful film adaptation of Stephen King’s mind blowing Dark Tower series, The Dark Tower featuring Idris Elba and Matthew McConaghy. I hated that movie. And then I realized: it’s The NeverEnding Story.
- The Dark Tower is a movie about a fatherless brown-haired Caucasian teenage boy who magically enters a fantasy world of his imagination through a magical house. Events in the fantasy world have an impact on our own, and a vaguely defined nothingness created by dying belief in the fantasy world’s reality threatens its destruction. To save this fantasy world our adolescent must thwart the imminent destruction of the world’s core. And
- The NeverEndingStory is a movie about a motherless brown-haired Caucasian teenage boy who magically enters a fantasy world of his imagination through a magical house. Events in the fantasy world have an impact on our own, and a vaguely defined nothingness created by dying belief in the fantasy world’s reality threatens its destruction. To save this fantasy world our adolescent must thwart the imminent destruction of the world’s core. And I mean, they even both save a blond love interest. It’s uncanny.
It happens all the time. Movies with the same plot spread over decades. Honest Trailers rightfully equated the plot of X-Men: Days of Future Past and Terminator 2. James Cameron’s Avatar movies manage to be Dances with Wolves, The Last Samurai, and The Jungle Book all at the same time. No big deal, except I started thinking, digging, and realized, dude, The NeverEnding Story is actually everywhere … in metal!
Could The NeverEnding Story be the most metal fantasy movie of all time?
Surprisingly, a lot of evidence actually supports that.
Let’s start with Atreyu, an American Metalcore band out of California formed in 1998. Originally called Retribution, they changed their name to Atreyu, after, you’ve guessed it: Atreyu, the hero native to Fantasia in The NeverEnding Story.
From what I gather, that’s the only reference to the film. Full disclosure, I’ve never listened to Atreyu’s music until today. I remember them thanks to their name, not their music, so I hopped on YouTube to find a song I could recommend.
Sadly I can’t. It’s actually hard to believe how bad Atreyu sucks. Like most Metalcore bands, the various elements that comprise the somewhat ill-defined genre don’t coalesce very well, and Atreyu don’t stand out from other similar American bands like Papa Roach, or sadly, Crazy Town (remember “come come my lady?” Yes, them). They are no Bullet for my Valentine is what I’m saying, so take your pick out of any of the few songs hyperlinked if you care enough to waste an hour only to forget a band.
See for yourself:
“Got into my head!
Falkor is caged and Atreyu is dead!
Atreyu is dead!
Dead! Brain fucking dead!
And Bastian doesn't care he's playing Warcraft instead!
Fantasia turned black!
Brain fucking dead!”
Shokka is a pretty great album as an old school fan of hardcore, incorporating elements of thrash verging on death metal. And those into the New York hardcore scene like Cro Mags and Sick of it All, will feel all the feels with that of thrash-crossover bands like the one of a kind Suicidal Tendencies. I’m so into this album, my wife just threw a sock in my face to catch my attention. I’m doing research for Strange Horizons, is my defense.
Finally, the world renowned Nu Metal band Korn titled their 2019 album The Nothing, after The Nothing in the film. Korn frontman Jonathan Davis chose the title as he was still struggling with the death of his estranged wife Deven Davis. Jonathan had said: “I was struggling with the thing that’s chasing me—that's always freaking with me. I tried to give it a name and it just fit.”
I hadn’t listened to The Nothing or to Korn for a while and boy am I glad I wrote this article. The Nothing is Korn at their best. The bagpipe intro The End Begins sets a great tone, and the follow up Cold is fantastic as is the rest of the opus.
On to anime now, and the delightfully retro yet unbelievably original, Finnish disco Power Metal band, Beast in Black. There is no way for me to describe their music other than if Manowar and Abba had a child, while Judas Priest and Survivor have a child and then those children meet, and they have a child. That child is Beast in Black.
I discovered them on a flight with their 2019 album From Hell With Love. My go-to on any plane is to find the heavy metal playlist. There they were with one of the kitschiest covers I’d had the pleasure to see. And that opening song Cry Out For a Hero! I was rocking so hard other passengers started looking over my seat to see what I was listening too. I felt like I was rediscovering metal, that something I thought had been swallowed up by the nineties steamroller had laid dormant and awakened. And then the lyrics:
“On this godforsaken planet
Smoke and death in the opal mines
Nuclear war-torn cities fill your sight
Oh, it's a world of sadistic killers
Men are tortured as they die
Is there a savior
Who can turn the tide?”
I knew this world. I knew it very well. I couldn’t be certain but by the second hook:
“All our lives are on the line
We need a hero—Hero!
The seven scars and fists of fury
He's the chosen one
The savior of the people - Hero!”
Set in a post-apocalyptic word, ruled by warlords whom radiation had turned into gigantic mutants, Kenshiro, under the training of his master Ryuken is one of the three practitioners of the old Chinese art of Hokuto Kung-Fu, destroying your enemies from the inside out by hitting their vital points. Made heir to the legendary art after the presumed passing of his adoptive brother Toki, and the failings of his other adoptive brother Raoh, Kenshiro is a kind and gentle boy. He is more concerned with the love of his life, Yuria, and somehow bringing back plants and turning the barren wasteland into a garden again. He is forced into his heirloom when a friend from a rival school of Kung-Fu, the Nanto Seiken master, Shin, kidnaps Yuria, inflicting Kenshiro with the seven scars that define him and leaves him for dead.
Hokuto no Ken is my favorite anime of all time. Easily one of the most unapologetically violent cartoons ever made, it is so much more than that. Driven by a profound spirituality, ecological message and concern with love in all its forms, romantic, brotherly, empathetic, kind and fierce in the belief that it can change the world. Listen to the metal AF theme song Ai Wo Torimodose (I will bring back my love).
I had to look into Beast in Black more and had them on a loop for several weeks after that. It turns out the band’s fascination with anime did not stop nor start with Fist of the North Star. Indeed Beast and Black appear to have dedicated a significant portion of their song-making to exploring the various aspects of the anime classic Berserk.
Set in a medieval Europe-inspired dark fantasy world, the story centers on the characters of Guts, a lone swordsman, and Griffith, the leader of a mercenary band called the “Band of the Hawk.” Guts struggles with destiny itself and is constantly resisting the pull of predetermination while Griffith chases his dream of ruling his own kingdom, despite his lowborn origins. Berserk definitely falls into the grimdark category of fantasy, with complex characters, sometimes unbelievable cruelty; fans of Game of Thrones would love it if they aren’t already watching. Central to the story as it progresses is the will-they-won’t-they relationship between the star crossed lovers Guts and Casca, a young female warrior and estranged companion of Guts.
Beast in Black pay a beautiful homage to both Guts and Casca and the recently deceased creator of the Berserk series Kentaro Miura with the song Broken Survivors, speaking to the harrowing experiences of both characters who struggle with their love for each other and the weight of their destinies.
“I’m facing my past tonight
A friend lost in darkness
Your hate, my confusion
The crossing of blades
Unifies our fates
How can our love be wrong
No it can't be
Something that feels so strong
Melting two hearts of stone
Broken survivors on their own.”
I cannot overstate how good Beast in Black are. Their songs speak to better days. Days where head-banging metal warriors rode the plains, mighty and armored in blood.
Last but certainly not least, the British glam metal band The Darkness close this here exercise in futility. Famous for the smashing hit “I Believe in a Thing Called Love,” off their seminal album Permission to Land. The band’s career has suffered from ups and downs and the curse of never quite living up to their first, explosive success.
This is totally undeserved in my opinion. While some albums are less impressive than others, The Darkness has consistently released great music since, and their 2021 opus Motorheart is excellent. Their singular style of self-deprecating glam is so British they are truly in a league of their own, proud heirs of AC/DC and Queen. There are only two bands that have never disappointed their fans: AC/DC and Slayer. You can add The Darkness to that list.
Enter the 1980 British fantasy cult classic Hawk the Slayer.
Hawk the Slayer is a traditional epic fantasy movie as you could expect from the era. It is simple and full of tried and true clichés of the genre, which fans of Terry Pratchett’s earlier work and film adaptations such as The Color of Magic will recognize, and maybe even embrace.
Many argue that the movie aged poorly. I will argue that it was never very good to begin with, with poor production value and poor effects even at the time. In that light it has aged wonderfully. If bad wine stays bad, isn’t that a good thing?
The story is a simple one, exploring the rivalry between two brothers, Hawk and Voltan, fighting to gain control over a magical sword. We know that it’s magic because the hilt glows emerald green. It seems enough to inspire fear in the hearts of miscreants.
I suspect many a British youth of their day hold a special spot for Hawk the Slayer in their hearts, much as American kids now turned old still worship The NeverEnding Story despite how poorly it has aged as well.
References to the film appear twice in the bands discography. “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now,“ the lead single from their 2012 album Hot Cakes, starts with a quote from the movie. Voltan’s son Drogo addresses Hawk thus:
“I am no messenger, but I will give you a message. The message of death!“
A pretty great threat, if eventually empty.
The references are clearest on The Darkness’ 2015 album The Last of our Kind. Both the album title and the title track are directly inspired from the following quote in Hawk the Slayer, delivered by Hawk himself:
“The ones we seek are the last of their kind. Gort. The giant from the mountains at the edge of the world. Crow. An elven bowman from the Silver Forest, now burnt and blackened. And Baldin, a dwarf from the Iron Hills.”
The song’s lyrics are a straight nod to the above quote and the themes explored in the movie:
“We have sat like this just waiting for their arrows to blacken the skies
Many times before and we will again God willing
I am honoured to have served alongside men who inspire defiance
Sometimes I tire from the fighting and the killing
We are survivors
The ones left behind
Defenders of the legacy
The last of our kind”
In the words of the band’s lead vocalist Justin Hawkins:
“The lyric of it is inspired by that film Hawk the Slayer. It’s kind of a swords and sorcery thing. Anyway, Hawk the Slayer, there’s this bit where it’s a little bit like The Hobbit, he’s got a few friends around him; one is a giant, one is an elf, one of them is a dwarf with a hearty appetite and he’s really handy with a whip and there’s a guy who has lost half his hand and is a great crossbow enthusiast.
It’s just about going to battle with the baddie and the elf is lamenting the fact that when they go into this battle, if he is killed, that’s the end of his entire civilization. These baddies have wiped out his whole family and it’s just him, he’s the last of his kind. So, it’s kind of inspired by that.
When you finish an album and you’re sort of getting ready to show it to the press, it does feel like you’re about to pop your head up and charge into battle. I was trying to make it into a song that’s about being an elf that’s going into battle and releasing an album.”
This all the space I have to cover the topic in this column, but there must be many, many more. Do you know of any yourselves? Leave a comment if you do, I’d love to listen.
 Someone had the brilliant idea of playing the song to clips of Hokuto No Ken https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y_dnLnHYQhQ&ab_channel=WeaselII
Editor: Gautam Bhatia.
Copy Editors: Copy Editing Department.