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The storytelling power of power metal

by Tt Shinkan

(Editor’s Note: This article was updated on 10/31/2019. None of the content was altered, but the photos were re-aligned in order to conform to Byte style guidelines).

Throughout history, music has been used to tell stories. From the bards of the medieval times reciting tales of a noble’s history to modern-day musicians like Taylor Swift singing about her relationships, there aren’t a lot of artists who stick with a consistent theme for every song or tell a story throughout the entire album. Then comes the world of metal —m ore specifically European power metal.  Power metal is a new genre for me, having only discovered it in the last few years. This subgenre of metal uses “clean” vocals instead of the aggressive, growling vocals most commonly associated with stereotypical metal. The sound is generally more uplifting and feels almost inspirational and theatrical. Most bands in this subgenre sing about fantasy, mythology, emotions, personal struggles, and even war and death.  Some power metal bands have taken those lyrical themes and adapted them into their look and overall concept. Some base their songs on historical battles or monsters, some dress like and sing about pirates, and others have created characters and tell a continuous story from album to album. These bands are just a few of what this subgenre has to offer; however, they all offer something unique to either their lyrical themes, wardrobe, or overall concept. 

Sabaton

I’ve written about Sabaton before, and if you’ve read that feature, you would know how much I love them. For those who don’t know them, they’re a power metal band from Falun, Sweden that centers most of its songs around historical events or people. The band consists of five members: Joakim Brodén (vocals and keyboard), Pär Sundström (bass), Chris Rörland (guitar), Hannes van Dahl (drums), and Tommy Johansson (guitar). Since forming in 1999, the band has released nine studio albums, with the most recent one being released this year on July 19. I’ve already discussed the historical significance behind some of their albums; however, their most recent one, The Great War, was released after the publication of that feature, and I didn’t have a chance to discuss it in that article Every song on the album focuses on some specific event or person during World War I. For example, the song, “82nd All The Way,” talks about Sergeant Alvin York, who earned the Medal of Honor by leading an attack against a German machine gun nest on Oct. 8, 1918. The song title refers to the 82nd Airborne Division, which York was a part of in the U.S. Army. “Attack of the Dead Men” refers to the battle of the same name where the Germans attacked the Russian-occupied Osowiec Fortress and the zombie-like appearance of the Russians after being hit by chlorine and bromine gas. What makes this album unique is the fact that two versions of the album were released: the regular version and a history version. The history version is unparalleled in that before every song, with the exception of “In Flanders Fields,” has a short narration from Bethan Dixon Bate. Bate precedes each song with a short introduction saying what the song is about.  They even take their war theme and incorporate it into their clothing. If you’ve seen a photo of the band, chances are you’re greeted by four men with very long hair, wearing what appears to be a type of bomber jacket. There is also a muscular man with a mohawk and goatee wearing aviators and a sleeveless shirt, with metal plates on the chest and abs. All the members wear gray, black, and white camo pants. 
Image from Grande Rock
Even their website takes on the historical theme. In addition to the normal band website attributions, Sabaton offers a calendar with the historical events they’ve sung about. The calendar has the title of their song and a short description of the event the song is referencing, as well as the exact date it happened.  The history theme has become such a huge part of who they are that they’ve teamed up with historian Indy Neidell to create a history YouTube channel. Every episode focuses on one of their songs and the actual event it’s about.  At the time of writing this, Sabaton has released an online board game where you try to expand the Swedish Empire. It’s a strategy game where players try to conquer different countries in Europe and battle Russia, Poland, and the Holy Roman Empire. I played a bit of it and it was a little hard to understand at first, but the longer I played, the more I understood. And I have to say, it got pretty addicting.  Sabaton continues to be a unique band not only from their lyrical theme, but also how they continue that theme with other forms of media. They continue to be an international hit because chances are, they’ve written a song about your country's heroes, and they will continue to do that for as long as history allows them to. 

Powerwolf

Monsters and metal go together like peanut butter and jelly. No matter who you are, you’re fascinated by the supernatural and the different legends that history has produced. The members of Powerwolf have taken this fascination and built their career on it. Formed in 2003 in Saarbrücken, Germany, the members of Powerwolf decided to use pseudonyms for themselves as well as create a small backstory. So, the members of Powerwolf consist of “brothers” Charles (bass) and Matthew (guitar) Greywolf, Falk Maria Schlegel (organ), Roel Van Helden (drums), and Attila Dorn (vocals). Regarding the backstory, Dorn was the only one who actually came up with a full backstory for his alter ego. 
Image from Louder Sound
According to his lore, Dorn is half-Romanian and half-Hungarian. He met the Greywolf brothers in a pub in Sighișoara, Romania, where the brothers invited him to join their band. Soon after, Dorn moved to Saarbrücken and became Powerwolf’s frontman.  Powerwolf’s theme, if it isn’t obvious by now, is supernatural legends. They're mainly Romanian legends, like werewolves and vampires. This was what drew me to them; I love anything to do with supernatural beings, especially vampires. Being half-Romanian myself, the use of Transylvanian lore was something I haven’t heard in music before.  All of their songs have something to do with a supernatural element, or sometimes a spiritual theme, with them singing about the Bible or the cross. However, the band does not characterize themselves as a religious band. Matthew Greywolf even stated in an interview with Ghost Cult that, “ Powerwolf is not a band delivering any sort of religious or political message. As far as religion in general is concerned, I’m convinced that the question about higher spirits and the sense of life lies within man and is universal.”  Unlike Sabaton, Powerwolf doesn’t tell full stories in all of their songs, but rather discuss a theme; however, there are a few songs that do tell a story. “Incense & Iron” tells the story of werewolves fighting to create their own Evangelist nation, but they are looked at as monsters and forces of evil by the church. The song, “We Drink Your Blood,” is a reference to the Christian communion, but with a more “vampiric” tone.  Regarding their sound, Powerwolf is unique. They still use the traditional metal instruments; however, an organ is used, giving their songs a more symphonic sound. Even Dorn’s voice sounds more opera-like than normal bands in their genre. These unique elements adds to their supernatural theme.  Even the way they present themselves sets them apart from other bands. They utilize the use of face makeup or corpse paint. This makes them look zombie-like. Even their costumes add to their overall aesthetic. The best way to describe their costume style is a mixture of gothic and colonial. This is probably a horrible description, but looking at a photo of them, the members dress like what people would wear in the 19th century, specially in old monster films.  If you ever decide to give Powerwolf a listen, I do have to warn you there are some pretty dark themes explored in their songs, like Satan and demons; however, to reiterate what Matthew said, the purpose of the band is never to deliver any message. The purpose is to simply deliver metal music to their audience. 

Alestorm

If you thought power metal was all about fantasy or acts of heroism, then you’ve probably never heard of Alestorm. Similar to Powerwolf and Sabaton, Alestorm has a distinct theme that they base the subjects of their songs on. However, unlike the other two, Alestorm’s musical style is classified as “pirate metal.” Yes, pirate metal.  Originally formed under the name of Battleheart in 2004, the lineup consists of Christopher Bowes (lead vocals and key-tar), Gareth Murdock (backing vocals and bass), Peter Alcorn (drums), Elliot Vernon (unclean vocals and keyboards), and Máté Bodor (guitar and backing vocals). The band was intended to be a basic power metal band, but after the success of their song “Heavy Metal Pirates,” the then Battleheart decided to adopt a pirate theme and incorporate a more folk sound. I do want to note that the band originates from Perth, Scotland, approximately 4,399 miles from the Caribbean, a place where the band bases most of their songs. The band changed their name to Alestorm after they got signed to Napalm Records in 2007, due to Napalm having a band named Battlelore. This was to avoid confusion. 
Image from Louder Sound
The band’s sound sets them apart from other bands. They take advantage of utilizing orchestrations typically found in folk music. And just like Dorn, Alestorm’s frontman, Christopher Bowes has a unique voice that fits the band’s theme. When listening to any of their songs, it actually feels like a real pirate is singing.  All of their songs have a pirate theme. In the song “Drink,” the band literally sings about drinking alcohol and getting drunk. One of my favorite songs by them is called “Mexico,” which is about the group sailing to Mexico to party. However, Alestorm’s song “1741,” does tell a story about the Battle of Cartagena de Indias, which was a part of the War of Jenkins’ Ear between Spain and Britain from 1739-1748.  Unfortunately, the band doesn't dress like pirates for every performance, only in music videos; however, they still have a unique look. Upon first look, you would probably think the band was a 2000’s pop-punk band with ripped skinny jeans, snapbacks, wristbands, and tank tops. But when you look further, you’ll find that Bowes wears a kilt, taking their Scottish origin literally. It’s not as gimmicky as the other two bands I’ve mentioned so far, but it’s still unique. Also, they perform with a gigantic rubber duck on stage. The story behind that is, according to Bowes, the band was performing on a ship, which had no internet. The venue asked them if they had a graphic for them to project for their backdrop. Vernon opened his laptop and had a photo of a banana with a duck face and the rest of the band designed a backdrop for their set. After that, they took the joke a step further and purchased a $200 giant inflatable duck from Amazon.  The band presents themselves as a more humorous band. In fact, Bowes even stated that power metal isn’t the type of music they care the most about, nor pirates. They all have fun playing in a band together and making nonsense. According to Bowes, “It’s a fun band to be in, it’s not necessarily our purest expression of the music from the depths of our souls. It’s just what we like to do, to make fun.” 

Gloryhammer

Unlike Sabaton, which tells the stories of actual people and events, Gloryhammer does something different: it tells their own story. Alestorm frontman, Christopher Bowes, formed the band in 2010, which is a complete 180 from his pirate-themed band. They’re still power metal, but the band’s sound is more similar to a soundtrack because the band tells an entire story throughout an album. In fact, the story is so important to their brand that each band member represents a character from the story.  Thomas Winkler (vocals) is Angus McFife XIII, Prince of Fife; Paul Templing (guitars and backing vocals) is Ser Proletius, Grand Master of the Deathknights of Crail; James Cartwright (bass and backing vocals) is The Hootsman, Astral Demigod of Unst; Christopher Bowes (keyboards and backing vocals) is Zargothrax, Dark Emperor of Dundee; and Ben Turk (drums and backing vocals) is Ralathor, the Mysterious Submarine Commander of Cowdenbeath.  The story Gloryhammer tells is the story of good vs. evil. Dark Emperor Zargothrax invades and conquers a fantasy version of Dundee, a city in Scotland, in the 10th century and kidnaps a princess. It’s then up to the prince of Fife, Angus McFife, to set out and rescue her from the evil wizard. Angus eventually saves her and his kingdom. However, the story doesn’t end there.  Their sophomore album, “Space 1992: Rise of the Chaos Wizards,” continues the story by having Zargothrax return in 1992, a millennium after the events of the first album “Tales from the Kingdom of Fife.” The album ends with Earth being destroyed by The Hootsman and Zargothrax escaping into an alternate reality, followed by Angus McFife XIII, the descendant of Angus McFife from the first album. The band’s most recent album, “Legends from Beyond the Galactic Terrorvortex,” picks up where the last one ended. This album seems to conclude the entire story by having The Hootsman defeat the evil wizard Zargothrax, resulting in him turning to dust. Unfortunately, Angus realizes that he was stabbed by the Knife of Evil and dies. However, the story ends on a cliffhanger with a mysterious morse code message: “Activate Zargothrax Clone: Alpha 1.”  This story is told throughout their songs. Some have a character narrate what’s happening, while the song explains it. In addition to their story, the use of an orchestra is used as well as a choir to achieve a sort of cinematic tone to their overall display.  Regarding their appearances, Glorryhammer does costumes of their characters. However, their styles change from album to album to reflect the story. In their first album, Angus wears green knight armor similar to what royals would’ve worn. Ser Proletius also wears knight armor, but his looks like something straight out of Monty Python. The Hootsman looks similar to a barbarian with chainmail armor. Zargothrax and Ralathor both wear hooded cloaks with the former’s being all black and the latter’s being navy. 
Image from Louder Sound
In their second album, since the story takes place in the future, their appearances change. Angus now wears what appears to be armor similar to Iron Man’s, but is green. Ser Proletius now looks like an astral god with blue skin. The Hootsman still looks like a barbarian, but now wears what the band describes as “wolf armor.” Zargothrax and Ralathor are again wearing their cloaks, but they now don glasses. With their latest album, their appearances change once more, but this time look more, "movie quality." Angus’s armor is similar to his first appearance, but now he wears a cape. Ser Proletius no longer has blue skin, but he now wears a hooded version of his original costume with a darker scheme of colors. The Hootsman still dons his “wolf armor,” but it’s more prominent. Ralathor no longer wears a cloak, but now wears something similar to a modern military uniform, complete with a beret. Zargothrax’s costume is still black, but now looks more like an evil dark lord.  I also want to note that their music videos are a production of their own. There aren’t many, but the story is brought to life through the ones that are there. Some of their older ones are a little cheesy, but it’s still cool to see the event the band sings about in that song.  Gloryhammer is doing something different. They’re taking a concept that would normally be told on screen, but they use music. Actually, what they’re doing is what musicals do. But instead of the album just being a compilation of all the songs in the performance, the albums are the performance. Besides the limited music videos, there’s no visual element. That means it’s up to the listener to visualize the story and interpret it in their own way, which is a cool way of producing music.   All of these bands are just a taste of what the head-banging world of power metal has. Of course, there are other bands like Brothers of Metal who all dress and sing about vikings, and Grailknights who dress up like colorful superheroes, that tell their own stories as well. The bands above all bring something unique to the table. They have all developed a gimmick that not only sets them apart from other power metal bands, but other mainstream artists. Sure, they might not be as popular, and that could be in part to them all being from Europe, but they all continue to generate fans from all around the world. Their fans know exactly what to expect from these bands and eagerly await for the next chapter in the story, or the next historical hero to be immortalized, or the next monster ballad, or just another song about sailing to Mexico and getting drunk. All of these bands are different from each other; however, they all have two things in common: consistency in storytelling and kickass power metal. 
Grande Rock

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