In addition to being a die-hard metal fan, I am also a huge fan of opera and musical theater, owing to their storytelling qualities and grand, sweeping scope-qualities which they share with most heavy metal. Of particular interest to me is the style known as 'Music Drama', which was typified by Richard Wagner(The term itself was coined by Wagner after the composition of his opera Lohengrin). This style differs from other styles, in that the music follows the action of the story very closely, rather than being split into the traditional pieces which make up an opera: recitative, aria, etc.
Charlemagne: By The Sword And The Cross is just such a work. True, it is billed as a symphonic metal album, but that is certainly not what met my eager ears upon the first listen. Perhaps the most important distinction is that in traditional symphonic metal, the two elements which make up the style are presented almost apart from one another, as if the idea is to juxtapose the two against each other. In the case of Charlemagne, however, the metal elements are seamlessly integrated with the symphony; very well executed by the European Cinematic Symphony Orchestra And Choir, and conducted to a powerful interpretation by Composer Marco Sabiu. The metal instruments seem not as another element stuck beside the symphony, nor do they feel tacked-on; the metallic instrumentation feels like an extension of the orchestra. Also, the individual acts tend to be built up of repeating parts and arranged in a similar manner to metal songs, but this does not detract from their symphonic quality in any way.
It is interesting to note that the actual music bears a resemblance to many different styles in this genre: It wields its storytelling heavily, as in Wagner, but there are shades of Puccini's use of leitmotif, dialogue vs. aria juxtaposition and focused storytelling, as well as some chugging low strings and brass which remind me of the soundtrack work of Hans Zimmer. The metallic instruments are of the plodding, simplistic, distortion-heavy variety which gives Manowar their hammerblow impact. These elements are used somewhat sparingly, and never do they overstep their bounds: there are no excessive solos or wild, frenetic drumming to be heard anywhere on this album-which defied my expectations in the greatest of fashion.
Proving that age is but a measure of experience, Christopher Lee delivers a gripping and powerful performance as the elderly king of the Franks, who, upon his deathbed, remembers his legendary and bloody career as king, supported by a cast of characters from throughout his life. His commanding baritone singing contains all of the drama and expressiveness of his work in film. Interestingly enough, Mr. Lee can, through the Carandini family, trace a direct ancestry to the King of The Franks himself. His musical theater-style performance is the jewel in the crown of this album. Most of the supporting voices are well-chosen and well performed, but the best of these must surely be Vincent Ricciardi, whose strong, emotive tenor voice is well-cast in the role of young Charlemagne.
The narrator is an interesting touch; Christina Lee's voice lacks an overly melodramatic character, but for these purposes such is unnecessary. She provides the listener with the background information for each of the acts, which should be most helpful for those with little or no knowledge of the historical events behind this story.
This album is, to say the least, fantastically produced. The cover art and liner notes are polished and professional, avoiding the typical garishness of many symphonic metal releases, and giving the interior text in an easily-legible typeface. The storyline was obviously thought through very carefully, and is very human and personal, despite its seventy-year breadth. The album is divided into five acts, each of which provide a glimpse into the life of the emperor, and are bookended by the obligatory overture and finale.
Act I shows Charlemagne as an old man on his deathbed, making peace with his God and remembering his life. Act II recalls the events surrounding the subjugation of the Lombards, a people who settled in Northern Italy in the years following the decline of the Roman Empire. The best use of the metal instruments appears in this act. Act III looks at the controversial actions which Charlemagne took against the pagan Saxons, particularly the massacre of Verden, in which 4000 Saxons were ordered beheaded. This event is frequently referenced throughout the album, and a duet is sung by young and old Charlemagne; Here he is brought to task for the massacre, but in the final vocal line the triumphant justification and agonizing guilt for shedding the blood of the Saxon men are both apparent in his voice. Act IV shows the Emperor expressing his sincere desire for religious unity and peace in his lands, but all the while he is haunted by the memories of the slain. In Act V the emperor lays out his vision for a prosperous Francia, his empress Hildegard by his side.
The bonus tracks are hit and miss. The first is a hit: Iberia is a glimpse into the legendary side of Charlemagne's campaigns, particularly the campaign against the Muslim inhabitants of Spain. The twelve peers, his 'Paladins' fight alongside their aging emperor, only to face betrayal at the hands of their allies. This story is well-recounted in the oldest surviving French poem, The Song Of Roland; having just re-read this amazing poem recently, I could not help but smile thinking of Roland, Olivier, and Archbishop Turpin and their stunning heroism in the face of certain defeat.
The next bonus track is an instrumental version of The Bloody Verdict Of Verden. It stands so well on its own, but loses much of its impact without the brilliance of the vocals.
If there are quibbles to be had, they are few, and minor. At times I would have liked to have seen the heavy metal instruments used more-a guitar cadenza here, a bass line there-but I understand the use of restraint given the tonal range of the instruments and where they fit into the orchestra. Some of the voices caught me off-guard at first-particularly that of Hildegard, whose tonal quality is that of a female heavy metal singer at a more tender moment-when placed in context it works, but only just.
This is surely an album which will receive its fair share of derision from some fans of more traditional metal, as it is quite the change from even accepted symphonic metal. However, it is a very mature album, one which is far and away more innovative than much of the derivative, cookie-cutter symphony-shred which has appeared and disappeared over the years. It will find its fans among music lovers, history buffs and more open-minded metalheads who are willing to appreciate it for the giant step forward for the genre that it is.