(Planet of Sound is a weekly speculative-fiction music feature.)
Something you may or may not know: there are a whole lot of metal bands that like a whole lot of fantasy. Horror, too, of course, right back to Metallica’s Lovecraft-inspired “The Thing That Should Not Be” and beyond, but not only death metal horror and gore. Quite often songs from major heavy metal bands involve fantastical narratives that, in a rock or pop song, would relegate the band to “geek” or novelty status.
One of the foremost modern metal bands (at least as far as those who cross over to other rock audiences) is Mastodon, and Mastodon’s most recent album, Crack the Skye, is a halfway-metaphorical conceptual project about astral projection, wormholes, and a journey through the spirit realm that takes a totally wrong turn into Tsarist Russia.
Um. Maybe I should let lyricist Brann Dailor give his own explanation?
“There is a paraplegic and the only way that he can go anywhere is if he astral travels. He goes out of his body, into outer space and a bit like Icarus, he goes too close to the sun, burning off the golden umbilical cord that is attached to his solar plexus. So he is in outer space and he is lost, he gets sucked into a wormhole, he ends up in the spirit realm and he talks to spirits telling them that he is not really dead. So they send him to the Russian cult, they use him in a divination and they find out his problem. They decide they are going to help him. They put his soul inside Rasputin’s body. Rasputin goes to usurp the czar and he is murdered. The two souls fly out of Rasputin’s body through the crack in the sky and Rasputin is the wise man that is trying to lead the child home to his body because his parents have discovered him by now and think that he is dead. Rasputin needs to get him back into his body before it’s too late. But they end up running into the Devil along the way and the Devil tries to steal their souls and bring them down…there are some obstacles along the way.” [source]
Did that help? No? Here, try a song.
Somehow it all seems a lot more straightforward with that incredibly propulsive guitar pounding onward like a stampeding mammoth, dragging your brain along like a Neanderthal hanging on to the creature’s back for dear life.
(Neanderthals may not have actually ridden mammoths, but I guarantee if Mastodon’s members had been around back then, they’d have been badass enough to make it work.)
There are plenty of metal bands I could have chosen to highlight here who are more direct with their science fiction and fantasy, not even counting explicitly fantasy-metal (in my opinion, rather cheesy) bands like DragonForce. For example, there’s High on Fire, whose Snakes for the Divine has cover art reminiscent of the sweetest old pulp sword and sorcery, and who have songs like “Frost Hammer,” the “epic tale of a warrior’s sojourn to the cold and barren Plateau of Leng, where he secures the fabled Frost Hammer that will be used to enact the final rites and complete the dark rebirth and reign of the Frost Child.”
I just happen to like Mastodon a lot more. They’re more varied, more progressive in style, and more willing to experiment—and not only with the novel concept of singing the lyrics so they can actually be understood. Admittedly, part of my enjoyment of Mastodon has to do with the fact that I’m not a hardcore metalhead, and Mastodon are willing to hybridize. But while I may not be a metal expert, the experts do agree: Metal Hammer, the U.K.’s largest-selling metal magazine, named Crack the Skye the #1 album of 2009.
Anyway: it’s not easy or anything, but if you wanted to parse “The Last Baron” for its part in Crack the Skye’s narrative, you’d probably look at lines like these:
Please, please take my hand
Please take my soul to rest
So we can always be around
Faltering foot steps
Dead end path
All I that need is this wise man’s staff
Encased in crystal he leads the way…
This is the part where Rasputin is shepherding the child’s soul back to his body, which fits, since “The Last Baron” is the final song on the album. However, the emotional tone, the overall feel, is apocalyptic on a larger scale. The lyrics that stand out most to me are the thrice-repeated lines, “I guess they would say we could set the world ablaze.” And the final lines of the song’s lyrics, before they start repeating, are less than confident.
Will he save me?
Will he save me?
I was standing staring at the world
And I can’t see it.
The boy’s journey has not yet concluded. It could still end in failure, with the boy unable to make it back to his own time and his own body, dead or in limbo. But I’d suggest the musical elements here say something beyond the lyrical content. This song is a journey of its own, and it continues for two full minutes after the vocals fade away. There’s grandeur in that instrumental epilogue, and power, and sadness and anger and determination. The message I take from the music here, a message the song doesn’t need or want its lyrics to convey, is this: it’s the fight that counts. Never give in. And also, never stop playing guitar, because thirteen minutes is not too long for a song to be.
Joshua Starr works for DAW Books, wrote for College Music Journal, and is a fan of speculative fiction in all media. ALL MEDIA.