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Middle Earth In Metal

T’was in the darkest depths of Mordor, I met a girl so fair/But Gollum, and the evil one, crept up and slipped away with her‘, echoes within the melody of Robert Plant’s tenored voice during the final pre-chorus passage of 1969’s “Ramble On”. It’s a line you’ve likely heard before, even if you don’t generally listen to likes of Led Zeppelin. Within the musical sphere of rock, metal, and prog, we often see this kind of overt influence of external narratives inspire the lyrics and themes of songs, worming their way into the identity of each individual track. The inclusion of Tolkien imagery into this classic rock track, for example, is as memorable a quality and unique an identifier as the infectious acoustic opening or the core riff that drives the chorus line.

When looking at the influence of fantasy elements, metal in particular apes a lot of ideas from this realm of stories – more so than perhaps any other genre of music – with countless bands and songs titled after a myriad of mythical worlds and monsters. From the likes of Dio singing of slayed dragons to Blind Guardian cycling the Wheel of Time, these narratives hold an important place among the history of metal. Chief among these influences is undoubtedly the father of fantasy, John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, or simply: Tolkien.

J.R.R. Tolkien has written a fair number of prolific works (including literary criticism and children’s books), but it’s his seminal pieces in the world of Middle Earth that have easily garnered the most attention. To say his work in The Hobbit or Lord of the Rings has been influential would be more than a simple understatement, as even to this day, the ideas he brought forth and the narrative architecture he laid are at the very core of nearly all the greats that followed. It’s no wonder then that it would be rife with ideas and imagery to use in the world of music – which is exactly what we are going to dig into today! With the overwhelming amount of bands/songs that fall under this umbrella, comprehensiveness is not an quality that you will find here. With that said, and being about a short week past his 126th birthday, let’s look at the broad strokes of how the worlds Tolkien envisioned have guided the world of metal music over the years.

The Power of a Name

You seem familiar with my name, but I don’t seem to remember smelling you before. Who are you and where do you come from, may I ask?‘, questions the indomnible behemoth of scales and greed. ‘I am the clue-finder, the web-cutter, the stinging fly‘, replies Bilbo, knowing that the devious dragon Smaug could hardly resist a riddle. It’s a clever way to characterize such a beast that is often represented with feral imagery, and one that carries a dual significance by also characterizing the journey and growth Bilbo has experienced throughout the novel. Bilbo knew that a name carries power; a fact that Tolkien himself and a great many musicians had known as well. A name that borrows from the work of others carries a responsibility and a clarity in direction – a direction that countless acts have done in the name of Tolkien when crafting their music.

From the gates of the oldest of the warning beacons, Amon Din (melodic death metal from Serbia), to the Valar (black metal from Finland) whose power resides over Aman, the places and creatures of Middle Earth have served as monikers for musicians since the nineties in popular metal – and likely earlier if you include smaller groups. The island kingdom of Númenor stands as the title for a Serbian black metal group; the gardens of Valinor is where the Spanish power metal set Lorien draw inspiration; the Norwegian group Isengard, an indomitable iron fortress of black/folk metal; the black pagan metal outfit Hithlum pulling from the north Beleriand Elven realm; the pagan black Minas Morgul; black folk Nazgul; black folk Rivendell; as well as melodic death Bane Of Isildur, among a great many more, draw from Tolkien’s mythos. The guardian Galadriel, demonic spirit Balrog, weapon Orkrist, script Tengwar, mountain pass Cirith Ungol, phrases Draugûl and Burzum; it goes on and on.

Band names are a far cry from the only time we see this, too, with many albums bearing similar influences in their titles. A powerful ancient sword, Elexorien is also a symphonic folk/power metal album by a group of the same name from the Netherlands. Similarly, Witchking get their name from one of the nine lords of men, corrupted by Sauron. Lost In Moria by the dungeon synth/folk group Argonath references the great underground dwarven city. Even more overt titles such as Tales From Midgard from The Ring have found a place within the genre. It’s near impossible to cover all that share a name, but this list here does a pretty good job of getting the bigger ones – and if you’re yelling at your screen about a particular one or two I haven’t mentioned yet, please scroll down ever so slightly.

Of Monsters, Men, And Mythos

That’s quite a bit of music to stomach all at once, and it’s more than a little overwhelming. While there’s more to Tolkien’s influence than simple names, It Djents is all about music discovery, and so I’d be hard pressed not to suggest a handful for you today. Not all stand equally on the shoulders of this literary giant though, so let’s highlight a few great bands/albums that are undoubtedly worth exploring more thoroughly!

The Force Of The Ancient Land by Eldamar

Eldamar themselves are not focused on Tolkien’s work itself entirely (as seen in the track ‘Valkyrjur’, which is plural for Valkyrie from Norse mythology), but are heavily inspired by Middle Earth in much of what they do. The name ‘eldamar’ itself is a reference to the ‘Elvenhome’, ‘coastal region of Aman, settled by the Elves’. This is also seen in the track “The Border of Eldamar”. ‘Galaðwen’ is another name for Vidumavi, a princess in the lands of Rhovanion. Their Bandcamp page also cites Tolkien and ‘elven magic’ as a strong influence on the music they make. The music in question is a beautiful blend of atmospheric black metal that has a strong sense of melody and patience. It creates and ambience that you can easily fall into and pine for long after it finishes. The band’s albums also have some great artwork to match the music!

Nightfall in Middle Earth by Blind Guardian

Nightfall in MIddle Earth is unquestionably the most unabashed depiction of the bunch, being a concept album directly focused on the War of the Jewels that can be found in The Silmarillion. The cover contains visual representations of Lúthien and Morgoth from the mythos, and it has a host of song titles directly referencing characters and events. There is a heavy emphasis on narrative here, with many spoken passages and lyrics that recount the battles fought. While it contains most of the traditional power metal slants that Blind Guardian are known for, the focus on a grand tale led to the inclusion of choral-like arrangements and an operatic approach at times. This is one of those rare examples in which a fantasy-driven power metal albums successfully manages to keep a dramatic tone and high quality of musicianship throughout.

Minas Morgul by Summoning

Minas Morgul is the name of the fortress city of Gondor, also known as Minas Ithil or ‘Tower of the Rising Moon’. This album marked the band’s transition into this heavily Middle Earth-influenced style, and Summoning has since gone to be one of the most notable leading acts within the sphere of Tolkien metal (which accounts for Tolkien-inspired black metal in a similar vein – with a few notable exceptions in other genres). The dark tower of “Lugburz” (in the black speech), the river “Morthond”, the misspelled name of the mother spider “Ungolianth”, and many more all make appearances on the album. The music here is quality black metal, and despite its age, it still sounds as brutal and powerful as it should.

Far From The Madding Crowd by Wuthering Heights

While notably the least influenced by Tolkien of the bunch – in turn being influenced by a larger pool of narratives – there are still some clear-cut references to Middle Earth in Far From The Madding Crowd. The strongest example of this being “Lament for Lórien”, a near six-minute track on the master of visions and dreams. The music itself also dips into folk and power metal territory, crafting a similarly grand narrative to the musical stylings. Imagine old Sonata Arctica mixed with your pick of a popular power prog band and give them a bit more aggression. This one is for the more traditional metal fans.

Where The Dreams No Longer Exist by Amon Din

For something a bit more ‘in your face’, Amon Din brings crushing brutality to the realm of Middle Earth. As stated earlier, ‘Amon Din’ is the name of the easternmost and oldest of the warning beacons of Gondor in Lord of the Rings. Lyricially, it takes a fair bit from fantasy (and Tolkien specifically), though you’d be hard pressed to notice without a lyric sheet. This is melodic death metal through and through, with a mid-nineties edge to their sound that kicks you in the teeth.

Sword’s Song by Battlelore

The Battlelore discography has always been based around the lore in Tolkien’s sagas, but with Sword’s Song, they undoubtedly improved their songwriting and crafted a strong album to back up the lyrical content. With “Sons of Riddermark” basing itself on those from the land of the knights, “Horns of Gondor” referencing the kin of the horn Boromir carries in The Fellowship of the Ring, and “Khazad-Dûm Pt.2” bearing the ancient name of Moria, the Tolkien influence is also worn on its sleeve in nearly every tracks. Battlelore have a more symphonic sound with touches of prog and a larger feel to the music that mixes frequent melodic cleans and gruff growls.

The Prominence Of Storytelling In Metal

Before we jump into Tolkien himself, I want to touch on how more fantasy-oriented text has influenced the genre so to set the stage for why Middle Earth works so well. The case for how folklore, mysticism, and mythology have gripped the minds of metal musicians has been made time and again for decades now. Vikings and other ‘heathen’ influences are prime elements in Trafford et al. and Granholm’s works. The former explores how, while the superficial idea of the inherent characteristic of violence in depicted imagery is undoubtedly a factor, an important second is the idea of sailing, exploring, and, most importantly, freedom (Trafford et al, 2007, p. 58). The latter builds upon this by touching on the belief of authenticity and rebellion in rock-oriented music (Granholm, 2011, 515). These qualities are rife in all forms of metal, from the catchy proclamation of freedom “Running Freeà la Iron Maiden, to the drinking of blood from skulls of the fallen in Unleash the Archer‘s “Cleanse The Bloodlines“.

It’s more than imagery and a sense of longing for escape from the shackles of life that breed the want for the fantastical, though. While Norwegian black metal is perhaps a bit more modern a subgenre, Ross Hagan does a fantastic exploration of how the music and ideology is contextualized within the culture, ritual, and mythology in northern Europe (Berger et al, 2011, p. 180-200). Religion and ritual in particular have always been a source feeding the stylings of metal even outside this subgenre, with discussions of satanism and devil worship following decades of discourse among fans and detractors alike. There are quite literally dozens of articles on the topic of devil imagery in metal, but I’ll direct you to a film called Satan Lives by Sam Dunn if you want a more palatable and entertaining explanation.

These tales and ideologies all feed into the belief that music can be used as a form of storytelling, with these particular aggressive and larger-than-life allusions being a particularly good fit for the equally aggressive and larger-than-life implications metal music puts forth. From the crying of “Heaven and Hell” by Black Sabbath to the “Sultan Curse” that follows in Mastodon‘s Emperor of Sand, the variety and expressiveness that metal affords sets the stage for most any kind of story to be told. Of all these possibilities, it is a wonder then that, aside from Viking and Norse mythology, Tolkien is perhaps the largest influence here – though classical literature is also a noteworthy piece to the puzzle as well (Bayer, 2009, p. 8, 113).

Some explanations for this range from the impact the novel had on ‘hippie counterculture’ in the 60’s (Straw, 1984, p. 118) to the prominence of the novel as a piece of modern classical literature (Bayer, 2009), and the ‘epic’ nature of the story in Lord of the Rings (Berger et al, 2011, p. 75). With the disproportionate amount of black metal bands that use Tolkien as an influence (Kuusela, 2015, p. 89 – 91), it’s worth a quick mention separately. Benjamin Hedge Olson does an incredible deep dive into the understanding of the influence of mysticism and identity on the genre, citing three major reasons: ‘the conflict between radical individualism and group identity‘, ‘an extravagantly romantic view of nature and an idealized past‘, and ‘celebrates the irrational and primal‘ as a critique of secularism and rationalism (2008). Much of this discussion mirrors ideals present in Tolkien’s works, reinforces some of what was previously said, and is just an interesting read in its own right.

At the end of the day, the stories Tolkien wrote were simply important, and contained the right elements for the metal community to latch on to. Its balance of complimentary ideals, depicted imagery therein, and grand scope all fall in line with the types of stories that this genre is inherently drawn toward. It being such a seminal and influential work only bolstered that impact, which in turn creates a trickle down effect of bands being influenced by others that draw from this well of ideas. We are already seeing a shift toward new prominent fantasy novels as a source of inspiration (such as in A Song of Fire and Ice or The Wheel of Time), but there will always be a piece of Middle Earth in the annals of metal history.

The Sound of Saruman

An entertaining tidbit that some of you might not be aware of is that prolific actor Christopher Lee (aka. the fallen wizard Saruman in the Lord of the Rings movies) was involved in metal music himself. The late performer spent much of his twilight years providing vocals in a number of places. His first venture into the world of metal was as a guest on a track by the Italian symphonic power metal giants Rhapsody of Fire; the track “Unholy Warcry” begins with an ominous monologue from the incredibly talented Lee. In 2010, the actor created an album based on Charlemagne, with the incredible video for “The Bloody Verdict of Verden” following shortly after – something you truly don’t want to miss out on! He followed this up with not one, but two metal Christmas albums in subsequent years. There is simply nothing quite like imagining this great and evil villain singing metal songs about the winter holidays, and his legacy in the metal community should not be overlooked.

There and Back Again

Thanks for joining us on this trip through Mordor – we hope you found some good music or learned something interesting along the way! Metal and works of fiction have a long and fascinating history together, and we look forward to delving into this topic again in the future. Be sure to share your favourite Tolkien-related music in the comments below, and any feedback on this style of article is welcome. Stay tuned for more pieces like this in the future, and as always…

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