From its emergence out of the hard rock genre, heavy metal has drawn from the inspiration of swords & sorcery. “The Wizard” is the second track on what is considered the first metal album, the eponymous Black Sabbath. Uriah Heep upped the ante with its albums Demons and Wizards and The Magician’s Birthday. Manowar’s epic song “Battle Hymns,” from the album of the same name, channeled all the blood and thunder of heroic fantasy into 6 minutes and 55 seconds. Behold:
Gone are the days, when freedom shone – now blood and steel meet bone
In the light of the battle’s way, the sands of time will shake
How proud our soldiers stand, with mace and chain in hand
Sound of charge into glory ride, over the top of their vanquished pride
Other bands have gone as far as spinning songs directly from actual stories and novels. The Sword, for example, has Game of Thrones-inspired “To Take the Black,” and Manilla Road drafted both the plot and title of of a Robert E. Howard story for their “Queen of the Black Coast.”
The point is, metal and S&S have been fist in glove for many a year now. They have the same penchant for extremes — the big gestures not the subtle, small ones. The idea that heavy metal musicians could turn their love for S&S into prose makes perfect sense.
And that’s exactly what D. M. Ritzlin has encouraged, starting with last year’s Swords of Steel, an anthology of heroic fantasy written by members of heavy metal bands. While I gave it a mixed review, I was utterly sold on the idea. The authors’ ardor was undeniable, even overwhelming weaknesses in some of the stories. Each story was illustrated with a work of hand-drawn lo-fi art that harks back to sketches on the backs of D&D character sheets and murals painted on the sides of vans. Flaws be damned, I enjoyed the book and was happy to learn that a second volume was being planned.
Now Ritzlin has released Swords of Steel II. Again, the writers bring tremendous enthusiasm if not always craft, but there’s a fundamental flaw with this book: it needs more swords & sorcery. Out of eight stories, only four are heroic fantasy, the rest being a mix of horror and other things. A case can by made for a parallel affinity between metal and horror, but the cover and title imply heroic fiction.
Ernest Cunningham Hellwell (bassist, Manilla Road) kicks it off with some straight up and brutal S&S action in “The Forgotten City of Tehm.” Caravan guards and desert bandits converge in the lonely wilderness in savage combat. Only the arrival of an exiled war hero and the seeming sanctuary of ancient ruins keep the guards from death. As the bandits follow the guards’ trail into the ruins, new dangers are discovered.
Byron A. Roberts (vocalist, Bal-Sagoth) introduced his Elizabethan freebooter Captain Blackthorne in the previous volume’s “Into the Dawn of Storms.” In “A Voyage on Benighted Seas” the Captain, chased by a black ship, makes way for a mysterious island. There he hopes to uncover who has placed him under a curse. I find the anomalously diverse crew (a Norseman, an African, a Japanese, and a red-haired Celt) a little too much like one of those heterogeneous street gangs in 1970s and 80s movies. Other than that, the story cooks right along with some bloody good bits and I’m looking forward to the conclusion next time around.
“That Which Can Be No More Terrible” by Michael Scalzi (singer, Slough Feg) is a horror story billed as philosophical fiction. This makes perfect sense as Scalzi is by day a philosophy professor. It’s very short but manages to pack a mean little punch.
I’m not sure what to make of Scott Waldrop’s (guitarist, Twisted Tower Dire and Walpyrgus) phantasmagorical “Mystery Believer,” except that it’s definitely not S&S. A grotesque man comes out of the darkness to impart his strange memories and stories to some people telling their own stories around a campfire. There is some fascinatingly strange imagery on display, and for that alone it’s worth the visit.
“At the Crossroads: Swords, Sorcery, and Heavy Metal” is a non-fiction detour by S&S great David C. Smith exploring the junction between the two art forms. It makes the same case I made earlier, but better.
Heavy metal is a natural complement to stories of this kind. Paul Batteiger, who blogs as Sargon the Terrible, defines metal this way: “Metal lyrics are active, they tell stories, and they dwell on the mysterious, the grandiose, or the tragic. War, death, disaster, ancient cities, gods, and peoples… Metal does not just depict, it challenges, it evokes, it thunders.” Howie Bentley of Echoes of Crom Records has said, “Robert E. Howard… was writing heavy metal back in the ’20s and ’30s — he was just expressing it through literature instead of music.”
“Beneath Dead Lake” by Jeffrey Black (guitar, Gatekeeper; keyboards, Scythia) gets the book back on the S&S track. A young girl on the run from unsavory relatives and a very unpleasant marriage, meets a birdman. Discovering he isn’t as terrible as stories have made his kind out to be, and that he is crippled, she forms a quick alliance with him when her pursuers arrive on the scene. I really liked Black’s story, “Blue Mistress,” in the previous volume, and I like this one as well. He writes cleanly, fleshing out his protagonist, setting the scene just enough, and doesn’t stint on the action and atmosphere.
In “Red Ochre,” my favorite story of the anthology, James Ashbey (drums, Solstice) brings a horror spin to a tale of past lives. An archaeology student decides to make his own study of one of those thick books of esoteric knowledge best left alone: Cthonic Cults of Prehistory. Next thing you know, he is stalking ancient game in his dreams:
I must tell the tribe. The furs are heavy on my shoulders, but I can still run. Not far to Hrulskala, the lookout rock — from there they will hear my hunting horn. I will sound the mammoth-sound.
Jaron Evil’s (Archspire, Funeral Fornication, Ringbearer, Almuric) “Darke Manor” is a haunted house story told like an opium dream. The narrator, suffering from severe ennui, decides to brave the “bleakest house” and risk the madness that has cursed all its visitors. Skin-crawling good, but not swords & sorcery.
I didn’t love Howie Bentley’s (guitarist/writer, Cauldron Born and Briton Rites) story “All Will Be Righted on Samhain” in the first collection, but his return to that story’s setting in “The Heart of the Betrayer” is much better. It opens on a battlefield as marauders and their werewolf leader butcher a village’s defenders, to the man. After that the action only intensifies.
There are also two poems, “The Sword of Shaitan” by Howie Bentley and “Vitiated Life” by Alex A. Avdeev. Like the poetry in Heroic Fantasy Quarterly, they both work to remind us of the genre’s roots in the ancient storytelling tradition of our savage ancestors.
Like the first collection, Swords of Steel II is a laudable undertaking that stumbles a few times. Nonetheless, I liked it, flaws and all. It’s got an unpolished grittiness that feels more like authentic love and understanding of the genre than it does amateurishness. It’s easy to get caught up in the book’s passions.
Oh, there is one thing that would hold me back from buying the next collection: the font. It’s half the size and lighter than that in the previous book, making it difficult for those of us with aging eyes. I had to switch from one pair of glasses to another as I looked up excerpts in the book and then typed them into this piece. Not good. Not good at all.
Fletcher Vredenburgh reviews here at Black Gate most Tuesday mornings and at his own site, Swords & Sorcery: A Blog when his muse hits him.