Wednesday 29 July 2009

A Crash Course In Battle Metal

Battle Metal has been around for ages, but the thing is, no-one can still quite come to any agreement as to what it actually is. Many people even argue that there is no such genre as Battle Metal, as there can be two Battle Metal bands that share no musical similarity whatsoever. This then, is an attempt to clarify, and aims to provide exactly what the title says: A Crash Course In Battle Metal.

Battle Metal can probably be traced as far back as Led Zeppelin if you fancy a good old argument, but the godfathers of modern battle metal are Swedish group Bathory, and American group Manowar. Manowar often used sword & sorcery/high-fantasy style artwork on their sleeves and themes in their lyrics; whereas Bathory, whilst originally utilising a style similar to the First Wave of Black Metal, introduced Viking themes into both their visual and musical output.

Battle Metal can primarily be divided into three different distinct styles – although as always there are some acts that cross over between two or more of them. Firstly, there is the type descended from Power Metal, using keyboard or orchestra segments, and primarily taking their influences from bands like Iron Maiden, Helloween and to a lesser extent Manowar.

Secondly, is the darker, more Death Metal based style, which draws its influence from Games Workshop’s pet-project Bolt Thrower, and presents either a more realistic modern warfare, or dark sci-fi style.

Finally, there is the Viking heavy style, often mixing in elements of Folk and Black Metal. This style sometimes contains rather heavy Nordic undertones, but this is counterbalanced by its pomposity or theatricality. Originally performed by bands such as Bathory, it has seen a revival in the hands of more recent bands such as Turisas, Tyr, Amon Amarth and Finntroll.

Battle Metal is, at its core, fun, upbeat, and very silly. Any genre that seems to require the artists to dress up in funny costumes (be it woad or plate-mail) is plainly more about the Spinal Tap theatricality than genuinely trying to make a statement. This is not to say that technical ability is lacking, however. Like most other sub-genres of heavy metal, many musicians are virtuosos –lighting fast guitar or keyboard solos are prevalent, and when the music features orchestral sections - as is the mainstay of bands such as Rhapsody (of Fire), Bal-Sagoth and Fairyland – the orchestral arrangements are not merely for the sake of atmosphere, and are comparable to the works of many famous composers.

However, for all the prog-rock pretentions, Battle Metal is pretty basic in its theme. Basically, if the music doesn’t make you want to crush your enemies, see them driven before you and hear the lamentation of the women, then it should at least make you want to do this:

And why not? A central band to the genre, thematically if not musically, Bolt Thrower had the vast majority of their album artwork supplied by Games Workshop after a representative of the company heard their music played by legendary DJ John Peel. Here then is another staple of Battle Metal: Completely Dorking Out.

Whether its playing D&D across a five concept-album spanning saga or running around the woods in woad and pissing around with a fake battle-axe, Battle Metal is finally making metal something isn’t hasn’t been for years – fun.

For probably the last decade or so, metal has been about screaming at your parents because they sent you to your bedroom, wearing trousers that are way too baggy, self-mutilation (and not in a good Cannibal Corpse way), and enough angst to power a steam train. There were gestures towards fun, such as convincing people that you were, in all actuality, doing it for the nookie, but all in all it became about real people with real problems. Hey, guys, that’s nice and all, but we’ve got hardcore for that. Metal’s about cutting loose and having fun. Motorhead wrote a song about playing cards, Judas Priest held up a bank with guitars, GWAR made movies about the lead singer’s penis being put on trial...take off the NHS glasses, come downstairs, hang out with your friends, and DESTROY SOME ORCS!

That there is the Canadian band Three Inches of Blood. I included their promo video for several reasons. 1) They’re an example of a Battle Metal band who blend all three of the above styles I mentioned. 2) Their first single used artwork from the Fighting Fantasy gamebook Deathtrap Dungeon. 3) If you watch it, there’s one speccy guy in the band who doesn’t do anything apart from shout backing occasionally. I like to believe that the whole thing was originally a LARP that has gotten terribly out of hand, and as the DM, he doesn’t quite know how to stop it now.


  1. Kudos from the bringer of metal..

    Also Drinking Metal? Korplikaani for starters! I suppose any sub-genre of metal can be greated by putting an adjective before the word -metal.. but its whether bands are doing it.. i suppose you tube is a fine source for such reasoning.

  2. An interesting and informative article about a subject of which I know nothing: you're either going great guns or losing your touch! ;)