BMCR 2020.06.26

Classical antiquity in heavy metal music

, , Classical antiquity in heavy metal music. Imagines: classical receptions in the visual performing arts. London; New York: Bloomsbury, 2020. xi, 260 p.. ISBN 9781350075351 $108.00.

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

Bloomsbury’s relatively new series, Imagines: Classical Receptions in the Visual and Performing Arts, produces scholarship on the reception of classical antiquity in modern media. Other volumes in the series have given us insights into Classics in popular culture, such as video games and theme parks, and this installment brings us heavy metal music. This musical genre is without a doubt the most “clamorous” realm of reception studies, offering a simply astonishing number of classically inspired tracks and albums. The editors Fletcher and Umurhan acknowledge that this volume is but a small foray into an ever-expanding area, not least in terms of discography. To my knowledge, it is the first attempt to break new ground by marrying Classics with metal music studies in an edited volume, and so it is to be commended.

The volume under review is the result of a panel held at the 2014 Annual Meeting of the Classical Association of the Middle West and South (CAMWS), with some articles commissioned later. It now makes a timely arrival on the scene. Almost simultaneously appeared Medievalism and Metal Music Studies: Throwing Down the Gauntlet. The subtitle “throwing down the gauntlet” expresses the sort of interdisciplinary challenge that scholars face when taking on heavy metal music, whether based on the medieval or ancient world. Metal music studies is itself a new area—it got its first academic journal, Metal Music Studies, in 2014—but it grows at a rapid pace.[1] Consequently, serious engagement with the topic should hardly need justification, and the editors make few such justifications.

The volume targets both classicists and scholars of metal music. Accordingly, the introduction sets forth all the essentials for the uninitiated in an amenable fashion. The editors succinctly lay out their understanding of Classics, reception studies, and heavy metal music (readers will no doubt appreciate the brief tour through the history of heavy metal, 6-10). The editors compare “Mediterranean Metal”, as they term the classical world in heavy metal music, with the more common “Viking Metal”. This comparison provides a neat parallel, as well as some justification for extending their own exploration into another geo-historical area (10-12). In terms of key differences between the two areas, the editors highlight the bands’ increased engagement with the ancient texts themselves in Mediterranean Metal. They consider the volume’s exploration of lyrics the principal contribution to metal music studies, which normally tends to downplay the importance of lyrical text as opposed to the music (13). An outline of the volume and a general conclusion complete the balanced introduction (13-21).

The chapters that follow can best be described as case studies, focusing on a variety of key themes, from gender to national identity discourses. There is little repetition, and the contributions complement each other to reveal the richness of the subject matter. This “unity in diversity” establishes a good flow between the papers, which is not always possible to achieve in an edited collection.

Fletcher gets the show on the road with the challenging topic of identity politics. He launches into a discussion of three different Italian bands’ interpretations of Vergil’s Aeneid, which he introduces admirably. Stormlord, Heimdall, and Hesperia engage with the poem in various ways, which Fletcher brings out by studying the language in the lyrics, interviews with the artists, and album booklets. He has chosen three examples that show different levels of “nationalistic” engagements with Vergil, before ending with a comparison of these receptions to much more extreme cases by right-wing bands (40-43). The first entry is therefore a frankly unsettling read, but it sets the tone by showcasing the dynamism between the global and the national identities being negotiated in heavy metal communities through classical works.

Taylor continues the exploration of identity politics in certain regions of Europe through the concept of transculturation. He focuses on Eluveitie’s use of the Gallic War of Julius Caesar and SuidAkrA’s reception of different attacks on Celtic and British lands. Their readings of the classical sources in the original inform their production of anti-colonial tracks and albums, including “Helvetios” (2012), which deals with Helvetian resistance to Caesar’s invasion. As Taylor argues, these receptions are also post-colonial in the sense that they depend on material by the invaders. Taylor’s studies of SuidAkrA’s Caledonia (2006) and Eternal Defiance (2013) sustain this picture for Britain.

Apergis ups the ante on identity politics by covering Ancient Greek hymns in modern Greek. Using the Athenian band Kawir’s discography, he looks at how the Homeric and Orphic hymns have been set to music, Black Metal no less, with particular attention to the Hymns to Zeus and Apollo. The latter track carries real religious significance for contemporary Greek pagans in that it serves a liturgical function. Apergis also pays due attention to modern political debates in Greece, even if Kawir generally stays out of those. Lastly, Apergis introduces the occult as an important category of the classical world that bands explore.

Åshede and Foka turn to gender, which is pertinent because of the widespread view of heavy metal as ultra-masculine. However, the two female scholars argue that the two subgenres of Gothic and Power Metal show an increasingly strong female presence, not only among artists, but also in terms of content. Their pivot for discussion is receptions of the prophetess Cassandra, who remains a tragic figure, but one to rally around. They analyze the track “Cassandra” from the album Aegis (1998) and two tracks by Blind Guardian (“Under the ice” and “And then there was silence”), which unveil Cassandra’s powerlessness; Åshede and Foka suggest that this powerlessness is a sophisticated way for the bands to articulate power.

Crofton-Sleigh unites the focus on gender and Italian bands by investigating Heimdall’s “Ballad of the Queen”. She examines the figure of Queen Dido, showing how the band reinterprets classical tropes, such as madness, to make Dido a strong character, displaying power and heroism. This is significant because it demonstrates the often large gap between the classical past and modern interpretations that are specific to a particular art form. This contribution also has a strong musical analysis, aside from its study of the representational aspect in the lyrics.

Magro-Martínez delivers perhaps the most well-rounded contribution in its holistic treatment of Caligula, not only through analysis of a single track, but also through other heavy metal tracks (131-2), films, music videos and performance culture in post-fascist Italy. All of these facets inform the balanced exegesis of Ex Deo’s “Caligula”, a character who embodies the “totalization of evil”. This representation hones close to the ancient representation of Caligula, and it is therefore rather fitting that this piece comes after Crofton-Sleigh’s study of the metal Dido. This piece thus evidences the breadth with which bands can engage with the classical world. Considering Magro-Martínez’s wide-ranging coverage, there is no need for his apology for being a classicist (138).

Another strong contribution takes us fully out of the mainstream and into the arcane. Whereas Apergis had brought out some occult features of modern Greece, Secord turns to occultism in Sweden (Therion) and Switzerland (Celtic Frost). Such bands, he demonstrates, do not always return to antiquity for content, but rather find material in esoteric writings like those of Lovecraft and Howard, or personalities like Aleistair Crowley (“the Great beast”). Like the Greek bands, Therion also have connections to modern pagan milieus (Dragon Rogue). Furthermore, for these bands’ taste, classical antiquity can apparently be “too civilized” (admittedly a strange idea after reading about Caligula, but it is an important point). Secord makes plain that, for some bands, it is simply the obscurity of the pre-modern world that appeals, and not just an assumed interest in the Classics for its own sake.

Olabarria provides the ideal perspective on the classical world by bringing in Egyptomania. She focuses on the American band Nile and their engagement with pre-Hellenistic Egypt as a treasure trove of history and the occult. Aside from the issue of finding content, performing also provided a musical challenge, because Nile had to invent a range of sonic themes to create their unique Egyptian sound. The band emphasizes particularly gory themes, such as human sacrifices, necromancy, and bloodthirsty ithyphallic war-gods, which Olabarria links to various sources, including the writings of the Egyptologist and polymath E. A. Wallis Budge (1857-1934). Most prominently, Olabarria explores how Nile’s discography reflects popular, contemporary Orientalisms.

Umurhan’s coda may close the volume, but more importantly it opens up the conversation about what Classics is to non-specialist communities in various media. While summarizing papers and commenting on the heavy metal communities’ interpretation of the classical world, he offers some good sidelights on the key themes, such as gender, noting the all-female metal band We Start Wars (based on women like Helen of Troy/Cleopatra). He stresses in particular new forms of receptions of antiquity through globalized heavy metal: what happens when a non-European/North American band explores classical antiquity through other heavy metal receptions? Umurhan’s discussion highlights the many ways in which heavy metal promotes the broadening of the international knowledge of classical antiquity, which is a welcome perspective.

The editors have put together an engaging volume with many thoughtful contributions. Contributors are a good mix of early career and senior scholars, and there is an almost equal gender distribution. As a teaching-oriented bonus, Fletcher and Umurhan make suggestions for a heavy metal playlist for undergraduate courses in Classical Epic and Greek and Roman History.

I trust that the scholarly community cannot help but to hear the plea for more research in this direction; we shall see who heeds the call. For now, this book remains a great first point of entry for interested parties.

Authors and titles

F. B. Fletcher & O. Umurhan, Introduction: Where Metal and Classics Meet, 1-21.
K. F. B. Fletcher, Vergil’s Aeneid and Nationalism in Italian Metal, 23-51.
M. Taylor, Eternal Defiance: Celtic Identity and the Classical Past in Heavy Metal, 53-76.
C. Apergis, Screaming Ancient Greek Hymns: The Case of Kawir and the Greek Black Metal Scene, 77-96.
L. Åshede and A. Foka, Cassandra’s Plight: Gender, Genre, and Historical Concepts of Femininity in Goth and Power Metal, 97-114.
L. Crofton-Sleigh, Heavy Metal Dido: Heimdall’s “Ballad of the Queen”, 115-129.
I. Magro-Martínez, A Metal Monstrum: Ex Deo’s Caligula, 131-153.
J. Secord, Occult and Pulp Visions of Greece and Rome in Heavy Metal, 155-171.
L. Olabarria, “When the Land was Milk and Honey and Magic was Strong and True”: Edward Said, Ancient Egypt, and Heavy Metal, 173-199.
O. Umurhan, Coda: Some Trends in Metal’s Use of Classical Antiquity, 201-16.


[1] Metal Music Studies (editor-in-chief Niall Scott) consistently publishes three issues a year ( Intellect, Metal Music Studies).