When I first started listening to metal music, I was a little taken aback when Iron Maiden’s “Flight of Icarus” appeared on a pre-made spotify playlist I was listening to at the time. Classical mythology and metal music were two areas which I, perhaps naively, was not expecting to intersect. As I listened to more of the metal genre and expanded on the bands I was listening to, I came to understand why classics fits so well within the musical genre. Metal music is often lyrically composed to tell a story, and it is not uncommon for bands to point to literature or film. With the “Flight of Icarus”, Iron Maiden tells Icarus’ story, showing him flying and his betrayal of Daedalus (his father), and eventually his fall. The lyrics show a simple retelling:
Fly on your way, like an eagle
Fly as high as the sun
On your way, like an eagle
Fly, touch the sun, yeah
Now the crowd breaks and a young boy appears
Looks the old man in the eye
As he spreads his wings and shouts at the crowd
In the name of God my father, I fly
His eyes seem so glazed
As he flies on the wings of a dream
Now he knows his father betrayed
Now his wings turn to ashes, to ashes his grave
This kind of retelling is characteristic of the genre, and was in its origins, with Led Zeppelin referring to Lord of the Rings in their songs “Ramble On” and “Misty Mountain Hop”. The contemporary metalcore band Ice Nine Kills also has a whole album, The Silver Scream, retelling classic horror movies. Thus, the story-telling style allows metal bands to relay ancient mythology or history in a way that is fitting of the genre, with regards to its subject matter. 94 metal bands have at least one song concerning stories of just the Spartans, and Greek band Sacred Blood has released whole albums retelling stories about the Battle of Thermopylae, Alexander the Great, and The Argonautica.
It is interesting to think about how the inclusion of ancient history in metal music, an example of classical reception, has parallels to the initial transmission and survival of the myths. We have evidence of how the myth of Icarus (in a similar way to many others) was mentioned briefly by a range of Greek and Roman poets and expanded on by some, though one of our main sources is Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Mythology relies on and is defined by retelling, and the idea that Iron Maiden reveals this classical myth to people, who might not otherwise pick up a copy of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, is one that interests me greatly. For many people, their only exposure to classics will have been through metal music.
KFB Fletcher, a classicist interested in reception and metal music, discusses escapism; metal music avoids everyday subject-matter and instead opts for the occult and fantasy imagery, allowing for an alternative to everyday life. Leigh Michael Harrison argues that the genres’ sound was heavily influenced by its working-class industrial origins in cities like Birmingham, the home of Black Sabbath and Judas Priest. Thus, the idea of looking for escapism makes sense and classical-inspired art and literature has often been accredited with the same purpose.
This escapism links well to the almost epic nature of some classical-inspired metal songs. Classical literature is marked by three main epics (The Odyssey, The Iliad, and The Aeneid), and these are characterized by their themes, style, and volume. This nature is well mirrored in metal songs retelling classical stories. For example, Symphony X’s “The Odyssey” is twenty-four minutes long, and Manowar’s “Achilles, Agony and Ecstasy in Eight Parts” is twenty-eight minutes long and has a five-minute drum solo called “Armor of the Gods”. These bands are not only retelling the stories, but capturing the grand nature of epic. Fletcher goes as far as to argue that the genre itself, and its concern with power, correlate to the themes of power found in epic. Metal as a genre is somewhat defined by its aggression and heavily distorted electric guitar, and it is possible to see how the “heavy” sound of the genre evokes the themes of power and suffering which are so common in classical literature.
Classicists are increasingly aware of the importance of classical reception, and the idea that our perceptions of the ancient world are so easily influenced by the perceptions which have already been given a voice. With that said, it is interesting to consider the genre of metal, as a somewhat unconventional sphere that has been retelling classical literature and ancient history for the past 50 years.