Heavy metal has traditionally been associated with heavy riffs, grandiose concerts and epic lyrics about dragons, witches and military battles. Medieval stylistics in the design of disc covers and musicians’ paraphernalia has become an important component of the genre around the world. However, this was not always the case.
Fantasy world of heavy metal
Since 1982–83, heavy metal has been gaining worldwide popularity, in connection with which a gradual departure from a pronounced protest and political content is planned. The musicians continued to cover the themes of alienation, power and strength, but the appeal to the subjects of national history and mythology became a key element of their artistic language.
The musical statement was formed from several elements: textual (group name, album, lyrics), musical, visual (symbols, clothes) and performative (concert performances). If we sum up the general trends of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal movement, then from the beginning of the 1980s, musicians began to actively turn to the themes of heroism and epic, chaos and war, fantasy stories, dystopian plots and the problem of mechanization of society.
Lyrics became predominantly intertextual and contained a large number of quotations, allusions, references and cross-references from classic English literature, famous films, fiction, television programs.
In the design of the album covers, complementing and illustrating the direct content of the songs, horror motifs, occult symbols, mythological creatures, monsters, technocratic motifs, weapons and pictures of war were used, demonstrating strength, aggression and power. The names of the groups also corresponded to this style – Venom, Saxon, Samson, Angel Witch, Raven, Witchfynde, Spider and others.
The music was characterized by a high level of technicality and melody. The fundamental innovation was the change of the harmonic scheme. The musicians moved away from the use of blues harmony, which was the basis of the previously popular styles of rock music (rock and roll, hard rock, beat rock and others), in favor of the Western European tonality.
As a basis in heavy metal, works of the Baroque and Renaissance eras, marches, symphonic and folk music more often acted.
Heavy metal and the imaginary Middle Ages
One of the key sources of inspiration for heavy metal musicians is medieval history and mythology. If we talk about specific historical events, then most often the musicians made references to military plots and historical figures: the Crusades, the War of the Scarlet and White Roses, William the Conqueror, Richard the Lionheart, etc.
Celtic and Scandinavian myths were also popular in heavy metal: the Elder and Younger Eddas, the epic about King Arthur and the legends of the Knights of the Round Table, the legend of Beowulf, stories about the Wild Hunt. The musicians did not appeal to specific events, but represented a mythologized and imaginary past.
First of all, heroic images of national history became popular. The topic of defending the lands and upholding the honor of one’s country turned out to be one of the key ones.
No less important was the demonstration of their national identity and “Englishness”, represented through medieval stylistics. Musicians often used references to visual images that were clearly perceived by their listeners as English in a broad sense or having certain local/regional characteristics.
The Middle Ages became somewhat of an escapist fantasy. Musicologist Robert Walser notes that the depiction of emotions and feelings (strength, power, aggression, power) in the images of depersonalized and supernatural characters or mythologized historical heroes who cannot be rationally comprehended and which is difficult or even impossible for an ordinary person to resist, had an important explanatory and identification value.
Heavy metal was a space for collective imagination and emotional release. Hence the widespread popularity of costumed concert performances, the use of make-up, paraphernalia and scenery.
British heavy metal has become a creative exploration of reality and its difficulties. Such a cultural outlet turned out to be extremely relevant for the British working youth of the 1980s in the conditions of a severe socio-economic crisis and the campaign of the Thatcher government aimed at de facto discrediting the trade union movement.
The song themes, musical form, and iconography of heavy metal bands emphasized the masculinity and heroic fantasy content of the genre. The musicians created grandiose utopian paintings, where history intertwined with mythology, having the same emotional expression. Having gained wide popularity in the UK, it was this style that from the mid-1980s began to characterize heavy metal as a musical genre.