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(My favorite song from a “fantasy” album – Decemberists, Hazards of Love. At 2:00 it gets amazing)

I read an interesting post over at Superior Realities, in which the author asks a fun question: “Is fantasy music a “thing?””

“One conversation comes up a lot… “Tyler, you should post about the bands you like! It’s your blog; it should be about your interests.” At which point I calmly explain, “The blog is about sci-fi and fantasy, my writing, and where those two intertwine. Music doesn’t have anything to do with sci-fi or fantasy.”

And it’s true, isn’t it? There’s no such thing as sci-fi/fantasy music. Sure, there’s soundtracks for sci-fi/fantasy works, and I have talked about them a bit, and then there’s filk, but… we’re not going to be talking about filk. True fantasy music — serious, professional music on fantastical themes intended to be enjoyed on its own merits — isn’t something I ever thought existed.

But now, I’m not so sure.”

He goes on to detail some lyrics from “Of Monsters and Men,” describing how the songs feature very fantasy-heavy lyrics and then concludes:

Now that I think about it, it does occur to me that Of Monsters and Men may not be a unique example of speculative (sci-fi/fantasy) music. Isn’t there a Rush song that’s supposed to be about being chased by giant robots or something? There’s also that Iron Man song by Ozzy Osbourne, and as much as it pains me to say it, I must admit some of Led Zeppelin’s songs flirt with the fantastical. Zeppelin. How I loathe thee.

So maybe Of Monsters and Men isn’t as original as I thought. But they’re still pretty cool. So what do you think? Is my theory of high fantasy music crazy like a fox, or crazy like Fox News?

Of course, my first reaction was, gasp, how can you loathe Zepplin?!

I jest. (Maybe). That aside, the post got me thinking. It’s a good question!

Let’s just look at some examples to start. Tons of work in the 60’s/70’s take influence from fantasy elements. Many rock songs featured lyrics about magical, mystical and mythical concepts. Off the top of my head, some of the ones I can think of are Led Zepplin (King Arthur/Tolkien/LSD), Jefferson Airplane (Alice in Wonderland), Steppenwolf (Arabian Nights), a personal favorite from War (The Hall of the Mountain King) and Jethro Tull (Ian Anderson freaking WAS the pied piper).

You thought I was joking?

You thought I was joking?

Then, of course, there was the entire folk music movement. Not only did these songs take lyrical influence from both fantasy and history, they also drew upon stylistic elements to create tunes like “Scarborough Faire” – pieces we could almost imagine playing in the background at a banquet in Game of Thrones or in a village in The Hobbit.

These songs are from an era when LOTR was just emerging into popularity, partially as a counterculture movement. My dad tells me about how he first discovered Tolkien: he glimpsed some graffiti scrawled on a grimy subway wall in NYC. The writing was barely legible, but something about it seemed urgent, demanding, and it drew his eye. He paused, and read the words….”FRODO LIVES.”

For many people, being introduced to Tolkien opened their eyes to the fantasy genre, and for many people in the 60s, it was the same story as LOTR (and completely unrelated, I’m sure, LSD) began to gain followers. Heck, my dad named his band Shadowfax. Some of his old songbooks are adorably hilarious compilations of fantasy cliches, tropes and attempts at elfish twists of phrase (Let’s just say, blues is much more his thing).

Soooo, being raised by an ex-hippie musician who was a fan of fantasy had me growing up listening to tunes like these – and I loved it. Hearing rock music with lyrics about fantasy? Best of both worlds, in my opinion!

Of course, bands in the 80’s and 90’s continued to use fantasy themes. Folk music branched out into several movements. Celtic and new age sounds (think Riverdance or Enya) became quite popular, and the term “Neo-Medieval” was even coined to describe music which emulated the antiquated sounds of the middle ages. Seriously, this is an original composition from 1999:

Gothic music also incorporated the fantasy themes and there is a whole genre of metal that focuses itself around myth and fantasy. I’m not a huge metal fan, but I can appreciate some of the music, just because it covers fun topics. A friend ages back sat me down and had me listen to Virgin Steele because I’m a nut about mythology. The band does theme albums, with each one covering a story from ancient Greece, like the Trojan War or the fall of the House of Atreus. I found the concept cool. Tons of metal bands, to this day, embrace fantasy in their music:

…and if you listen closely, I’m sure you can hear similar tones and chord progressions between some of these songs and early video game music.

Of course, to assume that modern musicians invented the concept of fantasy music is presumptuous of us. This song is probably one of the most famous melodies around. I dare you to have not have heard it before:

It’s not about Christmas. Or people being distracted. Or Inspector Gadget. Or whatever montage ad agencies slap over it. No, this famous tune is Edvard Grieg’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King,” composed in the late 1800s for a play by Ibson.

“The piece is played as the title character Peer Gynt, in a dream-like fantasy, enters “the royal hall of the Old Man of the Dovre (the Mountain King).” The scene’s introduction continues: “There is a great crowd of troll courtiers, gnomes and goblins. The Old Man sits on his throne, with crown and sceptre, surrounded by his children and relatives. Peer Gynt stands before him. There is a tremendous uproar in the hall.” (source: Wikipedia)

Even more famous is a tune EVERYONE knows (if they say they don’t, they are lying!). Interestingly, this piece wasn’t inspired by Lord of the Rings – instead this work inspired Tolkien!

Wagner’s epic (in all senses of the word) operas, “Ring of the Nibelung” is basically (ha! Basically! The complete work would last nearly a DAY if performed at once!) a lengthy, intense opus that weaves together Germanic and Norse myths, taking the stories of the Poetic Edda and the Volsunga Saga and transforming them into an elaborately rich and layered musical performance. If there ever was a definition of fantasy music, I’d say that Wagner hit that nail on the head.

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I think it’s interesting that in today’s music scene, the songs with the fantasy elements are the odd ones out. Most music we hear today is about love, failed love, revenge for failed love, forgiving revenge for failed love and shoes. But for most of history, songs about romance went hand-in-hand with stories about valor and quests, tales of myths and mystics. Before reading and writing became prevalent, songs and poems were how people shared stories. This oral tradition often had words accompanied with music both as a form of a mnemonic device (a song is often much easier to remember than a speech) and to enhance the performance for the audience. In some cases, like in Mongolia’s long song, elements of the performance carry additional meaning. The long song, for example, is a song about the Mongolian landscape, which charts the topography of the subject by the rise and fall of pitch in the song. That is, when the singer’s voice rose, it was indicating a physical rise in the terrain, like a hill or mountain.

Many of the ancient and classical stories we know today – the Trojan War, the Odyssey, the tales of the Norse gods, Beowulf – were passed down to us through oral tradition. At some point they were recorded onto parchment, and slowly, eventually, the singers died out, leaving only words with no voice. Stories with no song. Silence.

Which is where modern artists pick up the thread.

So, to return to the original question: Is fantasy music a thing?

Yes, a million times, yes. It’s ingrained in the very tradition of music. It spans all genres and styles. It’s anything that moves us and transports us, whirling us along, enraptured, as we listen to its tale. Sometimes that tale is about heroes and knights and princesses. Sometimes the story has magicians and myth and monsters and dragons. Sometimes the plot is simple and sad, the characters tenuous and fragile.

To me, fantasy music is nearly anything that transcends basic, mundane lyrics about real life. And, like fantasy writing, the power lies in that transcendence – being removed from the normal world shifts the focus over to the fantastic elements of the story: the power of the hero. The struggle against evil. The tragic romance. The key parts of the story shine and metaphors stand out, crystallized in far greater focus. Emotion swells and imagination soars. Incorporating fantasy into music makes a song more than just something to listen to – it makes it into a story…and a story is often far more compelling than just a tune on its own.

Plus, there’s probably dragons. YAY DRAGONS.