From Hell’s Heart September 2011
‘Robert E. Howard and Heavy Metal Music:
A History Of Inspiration’
by Howie Bentley
We are very pleased to announce a special guest contributor for our most recent edition of Hell’s Heart. Howie Bentley, founder of legendary USPM band Cauldron Born and current mastermind behind Briton Rites, has been branching out into the metal industry. He recently founded a new Record label ECHOES OF CROM. Feel free to check out his label and site. We also interviewed Howie recently to discuss his new label.
ROBERT E. HOWARD AND HEAVY METAL MUSIC:
A HISTORY OF INSPIRATION
“Robert E. Howard is my favorite writer of all time. I believe he was writing heavy metal back in the ‘20s and ‘30s – he was just expressing it through literature instead of music. He put a lot of his own personal philosophies and anger into his writing. He believed that barbarism is the true state of man, and that it would always conquer civilization in the end. ”Howie Bentley in an interview for Den Of Iniquity (heavy metal fanzine / issue # 2 June 2001)
At the time that interview with me was published, my band, Cauldron Born, had just finished recording a partial concept album, inspired by Robert E. Howard’s Bran Mak Morn stories. This album is called …And Rome Shall Fall, and is, to this day, a landmark in epic heavy metal and an album that I will talk about in further detail, a little later in this article.
Ten years have passed, and I still believe that Robert E. Howard was injecting the same aesthetic into his stories that is present in heavy metal music, long before this artistic expression of the wild and primal spirit of man was channeled through an electric guitar plugged into a Marshall stack.
Since I released …And Rome Shall Fall in 2002, a growing number of bands have delved into the fantastic worlds and characters of Robert E. Howard’s works in an effort to capture some of the power, mystique and mayhem inherent in the iconic Texan’s tales of blood and thunder, and sinister sorceries carried out in weird spiraling towers.
Why do these bands write songs about barbarians who split their enemies’ heads open with swords and axes, wizards conjuring demons, and strange dreamlike worlds? Why did man invent sports games? To stop him from killing his fellow man, for the hell of it. He could kick his buddy’s ass at lacrosse, football, or whatever, then help him up, and they could go have a beer.
When a guy isn’t particularly fascinated with sports, he sometimes finds more obscure interests to occupy his time. We live in an age when you just don’t go out on a battlefield and swing a sword to take out your aggression. Men are from Mars. They are warlike by nature. In this day and time an electric guitar makes a fine substitute for a sword. If you don’t believe me, click on this link and listen to Heavy Load’s “The Guitar Is My Sword” – an obscure, old Viking-metal classic from 1982.
Now, take what I just said with a grain of salt, as I am sure that if you ask ten heavy metal bands why they write about sword and sorcery, it is quite likely that you will receive ten different answers. Maybe we should just consult REH himself on the matter:
The little poets sing of little things:
Hope, cheer, and faith,
small queens and puppet kings;
Lovers who kissed and then were made as one,
And modest flowers waving in the sun.
The mighty poets write in blood and tears
And agony that, flame-like, bites and sears.
They reach their mad blind hands into the night,
To plumb abysses dead to human sight;
To drag from gulfs where lunacy lies curled,
Mad, monstrous nightmare shapes to blast the world.
— Robert E. Howard
A MUSICAL AND LYRICAL PROGRESSION
While lyrics in rock music referring to specific examples of fantasy literature go all the way back to such proto-metal bands as Led Zeppelin – Led Zeppelin II (Atlantic Records 1969), and a little later, Rush – Fly By Night (Mercury 1975) – the Howard influence didn’t come into play until 1982 with a band from Wichita, Kansas called Manilla Road.
Manilla Road was formed in 1977 by singer, guitarist, and songwriter Mark Shelton. Thirty-four years later, fifteen studio albums, two live albums, and an assortment of splits, demos and compilations, and the band is still going strong. They released their first album titled Invasion, in 1980. Two years later, they put out an album called Metal, which featured a song titled “Queen of the Black Coast”, which directly alluded to Robert E. Howard’s story of the same name, in the lyrics. Ever since the release of Metal, Manilla Road has made references to REH’s works, on and off, throughout their career.
In this article, I would like to talk about my band, Cauldron Born and my own brand of Sword And Sorcery Heavy Metal, which is also the name of my forthcoming EP. I will also talk about some other bands that tread the path of blood and thunder – a trail originally blazed by REH over eighty years ago. The following time line includes the year, band (as well as country of origin of the band on the first entry of that band), the album title, and record label that the album was originally released on.
1982 Manilla Road (USA) – Metal (Roadster Records). The album features the song “Queen of the Black Coast” with detailed lyrics, referring directly to the REH story.
1983 Manilla Road – Crystal Logic (Roadster Records). No titles are present alluding to REH stories, but “Volusia” (Valusia) is mentioned in the spoken introduction to the album (titled “Prologue”), which is clearly a reference to the Kull stories. There is also a line in the song, “Necropolis” that says: “In the crypts of Atlantean Kings, I found what I was looking for,” – yet another obvious REH reference.
1983 Jag Panzer (USA) – Tyrants (Azra Records). This album features a song titled “Iron Shadows,” and the lyrics refer directly to REH’s story of the same name.
1985 Manilla Road – Open The Gates (Black Dragon Records). Though references to REH’s writings are made with the song titles “Road of Kings” and “Hour of the Dragon,” neither song is about REH’s works. The song “Metalstrom” does mention Crom, however.
1987 Taramis (Australia) – Queen Of Thieves (Metal For Melbourne). There is a song on this album called “Path To Aquilonia”, but nothing directly related to REH other than the song title.
1990 Manilla Road – The Courts Of Chaos (Black Dragon Records). Here we see titles such as “Dig Me No Grave” and “The Books of Skelos” – the former only related to REH in title, and the later referring mostly to H.P. Lovecraft’s works, as many other Manilla Road songs tend to do.
1996 Bal-Sagoth (UK) – A Black Moon Broods Over Lemuria (Cacophonous Records). Taking their name directly from the REH story “The Gods of Bal-Sagoth” (also known as “ The Blonde Goddess of Bal-Sagoth”), this band is mostly related to Howard’s writing in name only, but the band’s lyrics are loaded with the classic Weird Tales – like atmosphere.1997 Cauldron Born (USA) – Born Of the Cauldron (Underground Symphony). While the Howardian blood and thunder of “Crusader” are present in the opening track, setting the tone for the rest of the album, the only song to explicitly reference REH’s work is “In Fate’s Eye A King” – a song about Conan. Born of the Cauldron owes just as much to H. P. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith as it does to Howard. At the time I recorded this album, I had never heard any of Manilla Road’s music and had not known that any metal bands had ever written a song referring to Howard’s works.
1998 Cauldron Born – God Of Metal (Underground Symphony). This is really just a compilation of two earlier demos: Beyond The Shade Gates (1993), and Swords, Sorcery, And Science (1995). The song about Conan, “In Fate’s Eye A King”, was on the latter demo and, therefore, appears there in an earlier, slightly different version than the one on the debut album.
…AND ROME SHALL FALL: THE BIRTH OF SWORD AND SORCERY HEAVY METAL
I am going to go into a little extra detail here about this album, because, when I am through, it will be evident why I think that this album is the inception of – and contains the very essence of – “Sword and Sorcery Heavy Metal.”
2002 Cauldron Born – …And Rome Shall Fall (Underground Symphony). This is a partial concept album about Bran Mak Morn and his Pictish tribes waging war on the Roman legions trying to invade Scotland. The album kicks off with “By This Axe I Rule” –a song about King Kull, who, REH tells us, was “…one to whom the emperor of Rome is as but a village headsman.” Here is the first chorus to the song:
They try to poison me in my wine,
They try to kill me in my chambers at night,
But, I was a man before a king,
By This Axe I rule!
If the hair on the nape of your neck isn’t standing up by then, turn the volume up and keep listening…It will!
The second song on …And Rome Shall Fall is the title track, and we see Bran Mak Morn getting ready for one of the best battle scenes ever written in the genre. Bran has rallied his Pictish tribes, along with the Irish Gaels, led by King Cormac of Connacht. The success of Bran’s battle plans depends on a band of Vikings, whose chieftain (Rognar) died in a fight with a band of Roman scouts. The Vikings are refusing to fight because it was Rognar who swore an oath to Bran. With Rognar’s death, the Vikings would just as soon fight for Rome as the Picts and Gaels. It turns out that the Vikings will only follow a king of their own race. By sorcerous means, the Pictish wizard Gonar calls King Kull forth from ancient Atlantis – some 100,000 years fallen to dust, and submerged beneath the ocean. The Vikings agree to follow Kull, an ancestor of their race, if he will fight for the leadership with their current chieftain. Kull quickly destroys his adversary, and this legendary fantasy battle is on! I won’t say anymore. If you are already an REH fan, you have surely read “Kings of the Night.” It is one of the greatest sword and sorcery tales ever written, if not THE greatest. Anyway, the song “And Rome Shall Fall” tells the whole story in detail over a background of fist-pumping metal music that is quite likely to make you feel just as “ten-feet tall and bullet proof” as a fifth of Jack Daniels on a Saturday night.
The third track on the album references REH’s ultimate tale of vengeance, “Worms of the Earth”, with the song, “Finder of the Black Stone”. Here, Bran Mak Morn has made an unholy pact with the demonic Worms of the Earth to take revenge on the Roman military governor, Titas Sulla, who had one of Bran’s own tribe crucified in front of him.
Next we have, “Blood Bath In The Arena.” Here, I introduce my own character, Thorn–a demonic and barbaric godlike creature, summoned by an Irish sorceress in a diabolical, eldritch, runic ritual. Thorn is the mascot for Cauldron Born and appears on the covers of Born Of The Cauldron, as well as …And Rome Shall Fall. I will tell more about Thorn in another installment, hopefully. In the lyrics to this song, I borrowed heavily from Richard L. Tierney’s Simon of Gitta tale, “ The Sword of Spartacus.” For future conceptual material involving Thorn, I have some of my own stories worked out.
Track five is “Dragon Throne,” and it tells the story of Henry Kuttner’s Elak of Atlantis, and how the exiled prince reclaimed his throne.
Weird Tales editor Farnsworth Wright had brought Kuttner in to try to fill the gap left by Howard when he took his own life in 1936, and as far as I am concerned, Wright could not have made a better choice. No, Kuttner was not Howard, but he still was a damned fine storyteller in his own right.
Track six – “Clontarf!” — was inspired by REH’s “The Grey God Passes” (AKA “The Twilight of the Grey Gods”). We join High King Brian Boru in the final bloody battle that rid the Irish of the Viking menace, long plaguing the Emerald Isle.
Track seven is “Storming The Castle,” and it throws us into battle with Kane (Karl Edward Wagner’s legendary antihero) as he has a massive siege underway.
The album ends with “People of the Dark Circle” – a song that borrows from Howard in title (his story was actually called “ People of the Black Circle”) but has more to do with H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Festival” than anything else.
THE TIME LINE CONTINUES : A GROWING INTEREST IN REH’S WORKS IN THE UNDERGROUND METAL COMMUNITY:
2002 Manilla Road – Mark Of The Beast (Monster Records). This album was recorded in 1981 and was intended to be Manilla Road’s second album, originally titled “Dreams of Eschaton.” Some of the material was released as a bootleg and floated around for about twenty years, before it was officially released in its entirety as Mark Of the Beast. The album has a song on it called “ Black Lotus,” but it doesn’t refer to anything specific by REH.
2003 Battleroar (Greece) – Battleroar (Omicron Music). Their debut album features a song called “Almuric ” in direct reference to the Howard novel.
2003 Rosae Crucis (Italy) – Worms Of The Earth (Scarlet Records). This is a concept album that is entirely about the REH story of the same name.
2004 Domine (Italy) – Emperor Of The Black Runes (Dragonheart Records). While Domine is primarily known for their obsession with Michael Moorcock’s Elric saga, they did have “The Aquilonian Suite Part 1", which makes direct references to the “Conan the Barbarian” movie.
2004 Iron Sword (Portugal) – Return Of The Warrior (Shadow Kingdom Records). This album has Howard references all throughout, particularly in songs like “Way of the Barbarian,” “Nemedian Chronicles,” and “Dragons of the Sea.”
The following is an excerpt from an interview with Tann, Iron Sword’s founder, guitarist, and vocalist. The interview was conducted by Sargon The Terrible (AKA Paul Batteiger), and was published at the Metal Crypt website on May 4, 2004:
Sargon: You use Robert E Howard for inspiration a lot. (Which is great for big Howard fans like me!) Are you a fan of some other bands that do the same? Such as Bal-Sagoth, Cauldron Born, and Battleroar?
Tann: Yes, I am a big fan of Robert Howard and our bassist player Rick Thor as well. He’s been my favourite writer for a long time, especially with the Conan stories, but also Bran mcmorn, cormac mcart, king kull. To tell you the truth I don’t know too much bands that have Howard has inspiration, but I like very much Cauldron Born and Battleroar. Bal-Sagoth has also some good ideas. (click here to read the complete article) www.metalcrypt.com
"Sargon The Terrible" (AKA Author Paul Batteiger) at Robert E. Howard’s grave site in Brownwood, Texas.
2005 Manilla Road – Gates Of Fire (Battle Cry Records). This is an album divided into three trilogies. The first three songs are about the REH story, “The Frost Giant’s Daughter.” The second trilogy is about Virgil’s Aeneid, and the third trilogy deals with the story of the Spartan King Leonidas and the battle of Thermopylae.
2005 Battleroar – Age Of Chaos (Black Lotus). Battleroar’s second album features two very direct REH-related songs: “The Tower of the Elephant” and “Sword of Crom”.
2006 Assedium (Italy) – Rise Of The Warlords (My Graveyard Productions). This album features the song “Cimmerian Steel.”
2006 The Gates Of Slumber (USA) – Suffer No Guilt (I Hate Records). The album has a song titled “Children of the Night,” but the track is an instrumental. I included this album because of the instrumental title referring to Howard’s work, and the importance of their 2008 release, listed below.
2008 Iron Sword – Overlords Of Chaos (Shadow Kingdom Records). This album is loaded with such songs as “Cimmeria”, “Wrath of Crom”, and “Hyborean Hordes” – all alluding to Howard’s works. One of the most interesting things about this album, lyrically, is the fact that the band incorporates REH’s death poem into their song, "The Pyre Of Kings", – a fitting tribute to the man who is the father of a whole literary genre as well as a writer who is an ever-growing influence on epic metal music.
2008 The Gates of Slumber – Conqueror (I Hate Records/Profound Lore). This is an album with several songs inspired by, and directly referring to REH’s writing. Included in the album is the song “Dark Valley Suite,” which is presented in the following four segments:
1. Black River I
2. Lines Written in the Knowledge That I Must Die
3. Call of the Black Gods
4. Black River II
2009 Hyborian Steel (USA) – An Age Undreamt Of… (My Graveyard Productions). This is Hyborian Steel’s debut album (and the only official release at the time this article was written). An Age Undreamt Of…features several REH-inspired songs, such as “Hyborian Steel”, “Cimmerian”, and “Pirates of the Black Coast.”
2009 Solitary Sabred (Cyprus) – The Hero, The Monster, The Myth (Steel Legacy). One of the more interesting bands that is relatively new on the scene, their debut album has the Howardian track – Anvil of Crom / Avengers of Set.
Being from an island rich in mythology and legend like Cyprus, is there any wonder that a band like Solitary Sabred (roughly translated as “lone swordsman”) is totally immersed in fantasy literature. In a recent email from the band, they told me about their relationship to REH and sword and sorcery in general:
“For us, Sword & Sorcery literature is one of the greatest and most underrated forms of art. As opposed to more "commercial" forms of writing, good s&s takes the human soul, strips it of all political correctness and civilized mannerisms, and throws it in a primal environment where only the strong shall survive, which in essence, is a reflection of how the world has always worked in its core, regardless of time, age or even species! Being immensely entertaining also helps! As with all good art forms, it helps you escape reality and explore worlds beyond imagination. Worlds where steel and magic collide, mythical beasts still roam the earth and the word HONOR (or lack of) actually means something!
We draw our inspiration from various authors. Robert E. Howard has been a HUGE influence both lyrics wise, and as a philosophy of life in general. I literally grew up on Conan comic books and novels. I still remember the first time I watched the "Conan the Barbarian" movie, must have been around ten at the time, and ten minutes in I was literally smitten by the sheer brutality of it all! Mind you I’d watched plenty of horror films by then (courtesy of my older sister), but the opening scene where Thulsa Doom’s riders raze the village to the ground and Conan watches his own parents decapitated and mangled by Rotweillers was just hardcore! Fast forward 18 years later, and you have Anvil of Crom / Avengers of Set, based on that very same scene. While on the subject of the movie, I must say that I consider it one of the greatest films ever made regardless of genre. The imagery, the cinematography, characters, story, and of course the most EPIC music ever written by man, composed by maestro Basil Poledouris. The dialogue is scarce, but when it comes the lines are just deadly . Incredible stuff. Though "Avengers of Set" is our only song today directly derived from Howard’s universe, we have drawn a lot of influence from it towards our new album.”
IF ANYONE GOT LEFT OUT…
If you notice that I have omitted any heavy metal bands from the time line, feel free to let me know. As the influence of Howard’s works on lyricists grows, it becomes increasingly harder to keep up with all of the bands and recordings. I did not include any bands without an official release on an actual record label.
Though a small handful of bands have cited my work with Cauldron Born as a musical and lyrical influence, I don’t profess to have influenced even half of the bands that claim REH as a lyrical inspiration. I suspect a good part of it is merely a matter of convergence. How do you keep two things so similar from eventually merging–heavy metal music and Robert E. Howard–a surge of power, triumphant–the human spirit unchained!
“WHERE CAN I FIND THIS STUFF?”
Most of these albums that I have mentioned in this article have been released on European record labels and are available only as imports. Echoes of Crom Records is a USA-based record label that imports and stocks many of the titles mentioned in this article. Echoes of Crom specializes in releasing works by bands that have lyrical subject matter inspired by Robert E. Howard, H. P. Lovecraft, and related authors.
© Howie Bentley, February 18, 2011