Warfare is a perennial source of lyrical and visual inspiration for heavy metal artists. In this, they are far from alone — from time immemorial composers have been impassioned to write music by the struggles and conflicts of their day. Few other genres, however, are quite as fascinated by the visceral experience of warfare itself. The song titles, subject matters, dress and iconography of the metal genre are heavily coloured by militaristic themes. Nor, it is fair to say, are other musical genres quite as sonically suited to convey themes of warfare. The sheer intensity and sonic violence of metal — especially in its extreme permutations — arguably constitutes as close a mimicking of the cacophony of battle that modern music can offer. That metal can sound so violent makes it a platform well suited to sing about overtly violent themes, which it does so in abundance. War is one such theme that has been repeatedly revisited throughout metal’s history and across its subgenres.
As a starting point, it is worth emphasising that there is no lyrical or musical heterogeneity in metal’s portrayal of warfare. Lyrical stances can vary between patriotic veneration of military history to outright criticism of war. They can range in taste too, and for every delicate handling of the undeniable horrors of war, other metal artists or songs seemingly rejoice in the brutal gratuity of battle for nothing more than shock effect. What, therefore, can be said about the relationship between the phenomenon of war and its artistic representation in metal music? This article inquires into metal as a medium through which to portray aspects of warfare. It will inquire into whether warfare is simply a conveniently dark theme that metal repeatedly — and perhaps self-serving — mines for material, or whether there is a deeper, more fundamental relationship between the art and its subject. It will do so not merely through the obvious discussion of how portrayals of warfare can vary in musical terms between metal subgenres. It will consider a number of other angles that link the music of metal to the phenomenon of warfare.
One of these angles will be to inquire how real protagonists of war can seek inspiration or solace in metal music, whether they are the soldiers waging war or the civilians surviving it. Another angle will be to consider the proximity of metal artists themselves to the phenomenon about which they are writing. Since this article is concerned with the varying ways in which metal musicians represent war, it will pose the question as to whether the (usual) physical detachment of the metal artist from their subject matter impedes or enhances their portrayal of war. Finally, this article will inquire into whether metal musicians have a responsibility to their subject matter, which after all is a real phenomenon that scars and ends lives, and that determines the destinies of peoples.
Broadly speaking there are three banners under which metal musicians tackle the subject of warfare. The first is the storyteller’s approach; the second emphasises the visceral horror of battle, and the third is revulsion at the suffering and exploitation inherent in war. The following discussion of these categories makes no claim to comprehensively classifying all of the different ways in which metal has covered warfare. Instead, it serves to organise subsequent thoughts around how the metal catalogue is broadly divisible in its coverage of the war.
Metal is a genre that has perfected the art of the musical history lesson. In this category, Iron Maiden are undoubtedly masters. Whether it is the march of Alexander’s armies, the charge of the Light Brigade in the Crimea, the mud and blood of Third Battle of Ypres, or the clash between Royal Air Force and Luftwaffe over southern England’s skies, Iron Maiden are sure to have documented the tale. Singer Paul Bruce Dickinson (himself a history graduate) has latterly donned period military garb while holding aloft the British Union Flag during live performances of ‘The Trooper’. Many traditional metal artists have followed this storytelling mould, varying in the degree of patriotism attached to their recounting of history. For America’s Iced Earth, an entire album, ‘The Glorious Burden’, comprised of songs based on a variety of military historical theatres with a distinctly patriotic overtone (including a thirty-three-minute musical retelling of the Battle of Gettysburg).
For traditional metal artists of this ilk, war is a suitably epic theme that sits comfortably alongside the epic bombast of their frequently long and intricate compositions. Together, music and lyrics stimulate the passions of listeners by provoking excitement at the clash of arms, veneration at the display of heroism, and sorrow at the scale of loss. This is executed in a manner that is quite akin to a cinematic telling of the same historic tales.
Historical tales of war also inspire extreme metal bands. Holland’s God Dethroned composed a concept album, ‘Passiondale’, which documented several defining military themes of the Great War in impressive detail, going as far as to quote historical archives of soldiers’ testimonies. However, for many extreme metal bands, it is the myth of the warrior that dominates their accounts. For Sweden’s Amon Amarth, Viking and Norse mythology drives their tales of war. Their lyrics lean heavily towards evoking general themes of honour, loss, courage, determination, survival and suffering. These are perennial themes for metal whether war is the subject or not, but are particularly effective when conveyed through a militaristic vernacular.
Regardless of the specific stylistic approach adopted, metal’s storytelling function is a valuable one. Few genres of popular music take the trouble to sing their way through a history lesson with such theatrical aplomb as metal so regularly does. In this realm, metal ought to be more widely applauded for the manner in which it serves a quite under-appreciated basic educational function. Metal can provoke and reflect an interest in history amongst its audience. Although no substitute for the studious consideration of history, when a considerable complement of metal’s audience comprises of young teenagers, metal’s contribution may prove a telling one in shaping formative interests and attitudes to history.