Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Grimdark Fantasy/Heavy Metal Pairings

I've always had eclectic taste in music, but Spotify has clearly exacerbated these scattershot tendencies. For a while, all I could listen to was opera. Then I fixated on the indie rock of my teenage years before switching gears to a heady mix of minimal techno, 90s hip-hop and alt-country. Lately, though, I've been listening to almost non-stop metal. Among other things, the experience got me thinking about parallels with fantasy, and specifically, with the dark, anti-heroic fantasy variously called "gritty" or "grimdark."

Both exhibit similar preoccupations--with death, violence, suffering and a moral compass that either problematizes or outright embraces the things traditionally categorized as "bad." Both, moreover, embrace "darkness" to such an extent as to border on the ridiculous. When it all works, both gritty/grimdark fantasy and metal can be some powerful, visceral shit. But most popular art isn't good, and neither grimdark nor metal is an exception to the rule. Making matters worse, in these cases the crap generally takes the form of corny-ass pubescent male power-fantasies. And we really need is more of those, right?

Metalhead/Grimdark Aficionado
For the moment, though, let's put all that aside and concentrate on the good stuff, the expertly crafted, complex and full-bodied vintages of grimdark and metal alike. And while we're at it, let's wonder: what if we paired some really good grimdark books with some really good metal albums? After all, like wines and foods, or snacks and movies, certain albums just seem to go with certain books.

Selection Criteria

Okay, here are the rules. First, I've chosen 6 grimdark fantasy books, perhaps not the exact 6 best ever written, but 6 of the best I've ever had the pleasure to read. Next, I paired these will metal albums that, in my mind, best exemplify what these books mean to me. I decided to limit my choices to those available as full albums via Spotify. (This meant that I couldn't link to Black Sabbath's seminal album Paranoid, but that's not a huge deal.) I've embedded Spotify links to each, and if you listen to them, the bands will get some money (not much per listen, but it aggregates). I've also included Amazon links for both the books and albums, so if you like the look of any of them, you can support the creators (and us!) by purchasing via the link provided.

Now, keep in mind that, when it comes to metal, my tastes run to the black. Black metal is--and of this there can be no doubt--the most absurd style in music history. Its primarily influences are, in no particular order, thrash metal, Wagnerian opera, crust punk and "evil." The drumming and tremelo picking are so fast that melodies are typically forced to run at half-time. The guitar noodling of thrash and death metal is, by and large, dispensed with, yet compositional arrangements are as indulgent as the noodliest prog rock. And in its quest for "ultimate darkness," black metal often veers into self-parody. (Oh, and did I mention that a bunch of black metal fools in the 90s Norway went around killing people and burning down historical landmarks? Because they did.*) Still, if you can get past these kinds of things (and the growling), then you'll see that some of this shit, at least, is ill as fuck.

But even if black metal is overrepresented on this list, I've also included a few classic albums, and another that falls into the de-Satanized category of post-black. So without further ado, I present to you six Grimdark/Metal pairings. Don't forget to swish and spit after you taste...

The Pairings

1. Chronicles of the Black Company by Glen Cook/Black Metal by Venom

Glen Cook basically invented grimdark fantasy back in the '80s. Yet despite being the one who first raised banners against the dreary Tolkein clones that dominated the genre in those days, he remains criminally under-read and underappreciated--even, apparently, by many of the authors he blazed trails for. That led me to pair this omnibus of short novels with Venom's hugely influential album Black Metal, which, among other things, convinced a bunch of Scandinavians to put on corpse paint, declare their allegiance to Satan and start acting out the stuff Venom were having a laugh about. The fit is just about perfect: both Chronicles of the Black Company and Black Metal are almost absurdly grim, dripping with gooey Lovecraftian darkness to the point where it becomes funny. Not only do both Cook and Venom recognize that, they positively revel in it. And besides, doesn't "Countess Bathory" feel kind of like a tribute to The Lady?

Have a listen...

2. A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin/Hammerheart by Bathory

A Song of Ice and Fire has always reminded me a bit of the Niebelungenlied, the medieval epic about a hero who travels to a foreign court and gets murdered for it. It also served as a major inspiration for Wagner and a tidy slice of 19th century Germany Romanticism, and since that's basically the root of all modern fantasy, it makes sense to pair A Game of Thrones with the most Wagnerian of metal album: Bathory's 1990 Viking metal masterpiece Hammerheart. Like A Game of Thrones, Hammerheart has served a gateway of sorts for many a fantasy fan--the kind of thing that opens up a world of possibilities never before imagined. Neither is perfect, but they are touchstones for a reason, and a vast cut above the glut of impersonators that would follow in their wake. I mean, "Shores in Flame"--come on! Have you ever heard anything that epic? And for that matter, "One Rode to Asa Bay" could easily double as a lament for Ned.

Have a listen...

3. Best Served Cold by Joe Abercrombie/Seventh Son of a Seventh Son by Iron Maiden

Considering not only black metal's absurd darkness and comical grimness, but also its fixation with swords and other medievalisms, you might think I'd bust out the Enslaved for Lord Grimdark himself. Joe Abercrombie, though, is not your average grimdark practitioner. Superficially he seems a lot like Glen Cook, in the sense that they both write about violent mercenary antiheroes in war-torn fantasy worlds, and because they can both be awfully funny in the process. But Abercrombie's approach feels more playful, the humor more overt (and English) and thus distinct from Cook's nightmare absurdism. So corpsepaint and synthesizers just didn't seem like a fitting tribute my favorite of Abercrombie's novels. Rather, when I think of Best Served Cold, the sound I hear is a falsetto belted out above galloping rhythm guitar, from a singer grasping a sword raised high into the air as the pyrotechnics blaze behind him. And that could be mean only one thing: Iron Maiden!

Have a listen...

4. The Company by K. J. Parker/Reign In Blood by Slayer.

The Company is sort of an odd duck on this list, but not because KJ Parker may be a woman (as in, is a gender neutral pseudonym for a person commonly thought to be a woman) writing in a genre dominated by men, or because (s)he is an exceptionally good prose stylist (which (s)he is). Rather, the principle difference is of scale: though The Company centers on mercenaries in a war-torn land, a common theme among our entries, Parker dumps them on an island sandbox and then has them go at it. The result feels like a cross between Lost and the Danny Boyle film Shallow Grave. It's intimate and claustrophobic, like a tightening noose, with Parker studiously refraining from cutting the tension with humor. Claustrophobia and humorlessness combined with technical expertise? That sounds like death metal to me! And though Slayer isn't technically death metal, there would be no such thing without Reign in Blood, which incidentally is also cited by many as the greatest thrash album of all-time. Like Parker's novel, this album works because of Slayer's tight focus on the man-made horrors of war and violence. And because the riffs are just heavy as hell.

Have a listen...

5. The Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe/Celestial Lineage by Wolves in the Throne Room

The Book of the New Sun is considered by some to be the best fantasy novel/series ever written. Only it might not actually be fantasy. Categorization issues aside, Wolfe interweaves the assumptions and expectations of quasi-medieval fantasy into the fatalistic futurism and stargazing of dying Earth science fiction. Exactly like Wolves in the Throne Room's 2011 masterpiece, which is one of the most complex and challenging records metal has ever produced--I mean, just sit back and let the majesty of "Thuja Magus Imperium" cascade over you. It's ridiculously good. Of course, both Wolfe and Wolves are also distinctly acquired tastes, things that don't gratify quickly as much as reward patience. But that's all part of their appeal to me. And hey, you know what else? Wolves in the Throne Room not only make mesmerizing black metal symphonies, but actually have interesting things to say about life as well. So there's that too.

Have a listen...

6. Gardens of the Moon by Steven Erikson/In the Nightside Eclipse by Emperor

Though The Lord of the Rings and A Song of Ice and Fire are much more widely read, and though The Book of the New Sun and The Mists of Avalon are arguably more literary, you will never fall short of people making a case for Erikson's Malazan Book of the Fallen as the most significant fantasy series ever written. Whether that's true or not, the Malazan series (which also includes books written by Erikson's collaborator Ian Esslemont) is certainly one of the most ambitious. Ken from Neth Space once described this sprawling, complex and on-going work as "post-modern and meta-fictional," and I'll be damned if that's not exactly what it is. So what could possibly pair better with that than Emperor's meta-black metal opera In the Nightside Eclipse? Like Erikson's Malazan novels, Emperor delves into the darkness that inhabits the human psyche, human institutions and perhaps most interestingly, the environments humans inhabit. The vast nighttime wilderness of Norway can be felt in every riff and soaring synth pad. Plus it's one of those albums, like The Beatles White Album, that just feels like the definitive iteration of a sound, like there really isn't much else to be said after it's been said so emphatically. And to be honest, until I heard Wolves in the Throne Room and Deafheaven, I openly questioned whether there was anything left for metal to say post-Emperor. I was thankfully wrong, but this is still the most artistic and sophisticated metal album I've ever heard.

Have a listen...

*Now I know these are big hurdles for most people, and I respect that. I personally draw the line at Burzum (the one featuring the dude who killed the other dude and then became a Nazi).