WASHINGTON, Nov. 30, 2010 - William Tecumseh Sherman once declared “War is Hell.” The Civil War general that devastated the South and won the conflict for the Union didn’t know how right he was in 1879 when he uttered his bleak declaration. War is one of man’s constants, an eternal cycle of slaughter never lacking in causes for its genesis. History is full of conquerors and the conquered, those who built empires in blood and those who lost them in battle.
Heavy metal recognizes this, finding in human conflict an excellent inspiration for its recurring themes of violence, hatred, patriotism and willpower. In keeping with war’s vast scope, the genre is crowded with examinations of battle ranging from deification to disgust. I’ve thus found it appropriate to celebrate metal’s honesty towards warfare given American soldiers remain fighting overseas in Iraq and Afghanistan. Over two posts I’ll point out ten compelling albums on the topic of battle – there’s no specific ranking, just powerful music focused on military themes. My hope is that readers will understand why war not only happens but fascinates us as well – for every act of horror, there’s one of heroism. Here are the first five recordings about war that’ll have metalheads saluting:
10.) Operation Winter Mist – “Imperial Grand Strategy” (2005) –
These combat-loving Canadians formed in Calgary in 2001 and quickly rose through the ranks with their blend of chilling guitar tones and militant percussion. Drawing from Canada’s WWI and WWII history, the group’s Myspace declares they focus “primarily on real war history and the brave men and women that sacrificed themselves to provide us with our freedoms.” “Imperial Grand Strategy” proves a fitting tribute – “Death and Honour” celebrates the sacrifice of soldiers with triumphant riffs while “The Cold Front” mixes jangling bass notes and frigid guitars. “A Call to Arms” marches past with reveille-worthy drumming only to explode into slamming metal, while “Northern Aggression” bludgeons with thick guitar riffs and a blitzkrieg of blastbeat percussion. Now on hiatus, Operation Winter Mist has entered the reserves with quite the ammo clip under their belt – the Edmonton Sun called the band “A Canadian history teacher’s dream.”
9.) Rotting Christ – “Aealo” (2010) –
It’s fitting Rotting Christ hail fom Athens, Greece as “Aealo” could serve as a soundtrack to the battles of the 300 Spartans. Named after the ancient Greek word for “destruction or catastrophe,” “Aealo” is a fist-pumping album about the fight for freedom. “Eon Aenaos” stomps its way through the sounds of war, backed by a rousing Greek choir and finger-picked melodies. “Demonon Vrosis” mixes operatic wails with over-the-top brutality, while “Noctis Era” unleashes massive grooves backed by war-like chanting. The album’s crowning moment is “Fire, Death and Fear,” a melodic death metal masterpiece which captures conflict’s paradoxical glory and violence.
8.) Vreid – “I Krig” (2007) –
Vreid’s third album means “At War” in English and deals with the Nazi occupation of Norway during WWII. Eschewing the bleakness common in Scandinavian metal, this Sogndal, Norway quartet instead injects rock influences into their sound, producing an album as entertaining as it is extreme. “Jarnbyrd” is a mini-epic comprised of frosty piano keys, ethereal acoustic chords and confrontational riffs. In contrast, the title track mixes melancholy violin strings with arena-worthy metal, while “Vaepna Lengsel” goes for the jugular with a song both catchy and crushing. The album’s thematic highlight is “Fangegard,” which captures the murkiness of Nazi appeasement with smoky guitar notes soon dissolved by thrashing metal symbolizing the struggle against oppression frequent in occupied territories.
7.) Skyforger – “Kauja Pie Saules (The Battle of Saule)” (1998) –
Skyforger are based in Riga, the capital of the tiny Eastern European nation of Latvia. The group is renowned worldwide for its brand of heavy metal livened by Baltic folk instruments like the kokle, the mouth-harp, the giga and the rattle-stick. Songs like “Kauja Pie Saules 1226 (The Battle of Saule, 1226)” and “Viestarda Cina Pie Metzotnes (Viestard’s Fight at Meznotne)” capture this fusion perfectly, mixing Latvia’s war-filled history with up-tempo metal and traditional music interludes. Other tracks like the rustic battle ballad “Kursi (Kurshi)” and the flute-laden “Kauja Garozas Sila 1287 (Battle at Garoza Forest, 1287)” show why the Latvian Culture Capital foundation sponsored their 2003 album “Zobena Dziezma (Swordsong)” en route to the group winning their country’s equivalent of a Grammy in 2004. Skyforger is now making waves overseas, having recently signed with the American recording label powerhouse Metal Blade Records.
6.) Slayer – “Seasons in the Abyss” (1990) –
“Seasons in the Abyss” marked the end of an era for Slayer, the Huntington Park, Calif. thrash legends losing their original drummer Dave Lombardo until 2001. Taking this to heart, Slayer delivered a post-‘80s classic, as heavy in memorable song-craft as it is in decibel levels. Opening cut “War Ensemble” rips with the manic speed of an RPG while “Blood Red” drops twisting rock riffs like an artillery barrage. “Expendable Youth” covers drug wars in America’s gangland with a pummeling, slow-burn of a song while “Hallowed Point” is high-velocity metal about the horrors of guns. Rarely has Slayer – or metal in general – offered a record so sinister but worthy of sing-alongs at the same time.
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