Tower of the Hand

The Music of Dragons

1/29/2014 10:00:00 AM ET

As devoted fans, there are many ways we can express ourselves. For fans of great stories like A Song of Ice and Fire, there are many ways to indulge in the passion - some people may have replicas like Longclaw hanging on the wall; others write essays and books and blogs; there are those who collect the miniatures, and those who play the card and board games; and I am sure there are even a few who have braved the bad-to-bland computer games. And then you have those who let Martin's works inspire them in their own creative endeavors - I'd argue Martin has influenced quite a few of the up-and-coming fantasy authors of today, for example.

In the world of music, fantasy literature has always been a source of inspiration. Two authors whose works have influenced numerous lyrics and compositions are J.R.R. Tolkien and H.P. Lovecraft. As other, more recent fantasy authors have gained popularity, their words and worlds, too, have begun to crop up in the world of music.

In certain areas of the world of music, to be more specific - for some reason, the genres of heavy metal and folk music seem particularly prone to the influence of fantasy literature. Now, heavy metal is a very broad genre, and it has countless subgenres, and two of these are particularly influenced by fantasy: black metal and power metal. These two genres (and I totally love both, for the record) are also closer to folk music than other metal subgenres (except folk metal, but I am trying to be brief here). Pick up a random black metal album (if you dare), and chances are there's something Tolkien-related on it. To illustrate my point, here are the names of some known and lesser known acts: Burzum (that's the black language of Mordor right there), Amon Amarth ("Mount Doom"), Azaghal (a dwarf king), Balrog, Cirith Gorgor, Cirith Ungol, Dagor Dagorath, Draugluin, Ephel Duath, Fangorn, Galadriel, Gorgoroth, Isengard, Morgoth, Osgiliath, Rivendell, Sauron, and Minas Morgul. Just to name a few.

Seeing as Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire saga also seems to have that elusive X-factor that turns otherwise healthy people into obsessive fans, it is no surprise that his work is also cropping up in the lyrics of various artists. And, as with Tolkien and Lovecraft, he seems primarily to show up in the lyrics of metal and folk bands.

In power metal, a subgenre of heavy metal which is more epic and symphonic, we have a number of bands who have let themselves be inspired by George R.R. Martin.

One of the first bands (I believe) to take their worship of the Seven into their music was an American band who called themselves Winterfell(!). Hailing from York, Pennsylvania, they were active between 2000 and 2005 but are currently not doing anything (as far as I'm aware, the entire line-up left with the exception of one man - maybe there was a dispute over the quality of A Feast for Crows? "Damn you - you made us call ourselves Winterfell, and now we have Brienne riding around looking for a maid of ..." Just a joke, Feast fans. But they did split up in 2005.)

They released an EP in 2002, called nothing but Winter Is Coming. It featured four tracks, but only one was directly inspired by George R.R. Martin's words - the title track. It's not the greatest lyric the world ever saw, but I remember I loved seeing the band's love for Westeros expressed this way. And the lyrical content matches the music, I suppose - a song about the Others invading Westeros. That's metal, all right. Metalheads like stuff that's dark and twisted and evil and all that - it's the auditory equivalent of liking horror movies, I suppose.

Winterfell released a full album in 2005 (independently), which has a few more songs based on Westeros - "The Beggar King," which is, as you might have guessed, about Viserys Targaryen, and which is also written from his perspective, making it kind of fun. "Clearly my birthright, to sit atop the Iron Throne!" and "All I need, a crown of gold. For I am king of what you stole," should delight any fans of the late prince. The rest of the songs on the album aren't directly based on anything from Ice and Fire, but titles like "Autumn Knight" sound Martinesque anyway. If you can stand the buzzing guitars and hectic drum work, that is. I know - metal is not for everyone. Personally, I eat it. Nothing gives me more energy or makes me happier. I'm one of those old metal-for-lifers, I suppose. Anyway.

While Winterfell drifted off into obscurity (all right - they drifted further into obscurity), another power metal band that has done really well is the German outfit Blind Guardian. These fellows have released a host of albums over the years and are among power metal's biggest successes. My favorite album of theirs is based entirely on Tolkien's The Silmarillion. This album was released in 1998 (seven hells, where does time go? I was thinking, Yeah, probably released around 2005 or so. Would you look at that - I remember buying it as if it was, well, not that long ago. It was the first album in ages that I bought that did not have death metal cookie monster vocals, and I had to get used to actual singing again) and was called Nightfall in Middle-earth. It's such an excellent piece of work, I had to mention it here. In 2010, the band released their so-far latest album, At the Edge of Time, featuring two songs based on Martin's books. Up until this point, the band had always dabbled in Tolkien's world and the medieval world, but now even the mighty Blind Guardian had fallen for Martin's greatness.

The two tracks, "A Voice in the Dark" and "War of the Thrones," are both interesting pieces. The former is a song about Bran Stark, with ominous and great lines like, "When dead winter will come again, there from the ruins I will rise." The latter is actually not directly about the War of the Five Kings but, rather, an accusing finger at the nobility of the south who isn't preparing for the arrival of the Others (thematically closer to Winterfell's "Winter Is Coming," then, but with a different angle).

On the same album, Blind Guardian chose to honor Robert Jordan's The Wheel of Time, as well (and Elric has shown up in their lyrics, to boot). Maybe we'll get more Westerosi songs from Blind Guardian in the future. Their next album is due in May 2014, and among the announced song titles we have "Winter's Coming" and "The Throne." A safe bet, I'd say, that Martin continues to inspire this band.

Staying in power metal land, there is the Swedish band Hammerfall, who really lets Martin's world influence them on their album Unbent, Unbowed, Unbroken. I suppose the title kind of hints about it. On this album, you can sing along with the wildlings in "Fury of the Wild," or if you support the Night's Watch, there's "Take the Black."

Yet another power metal band is Seven Kingdoms (from the US), who released an album entitled Brothers of the Night. Or how about Dutch metalists Arkngthand (doesn't exactly roll off the tongue), whose entire debut album was devoted to the series - called Songs of Ice and Fire, it is unfortunately not a very interesting album, musically. In other metal subgenres, Martin still has to make his presence well-known, although there is the American stoner metal band (don't ask) The Sword, whose two songs "To Take the Black" (popular theme) and "Maiden, Mother, & Crone" are directly inspired by George R.R. Martin.

Leaving metal behind (not really, not ever, baby) we can find Martin's influence in a number of folk music acts, like the Celtic punk rock zaniness known as Irish Moutarde, who made their own adaptation of Martin's "The Bear and the Maiden Fair" before the TV series existed. You also have a band like Paddy's Allstars, operating in the same musical vein (combining Celtic folk music with punk) who sings about the Wall.

I am sure I am missing a good many artists, but it does look certain that, so far, Martin appears mostly in power metal and Celtic punk (I wasn't even aware of this genre), but as his popularity continues to grow, I am sure we'll see his world crop up more and more across other music genres, as well - his story seems destined to become one of those cross-generational epics that people just love obsessively, be they Celtic punk rockers, metalheads, or, dare I say, rap artists. I am not waiting for Justin Bieber to write songs like "Mother of Dragons," "Bran the Man," or "Queen of Love and Beauty," however.

A few YouTube links to complement the article:

Blind Guardian, "A Voice in the Dark" (official music video)

Blind Guardian, "War of the Thrones" (lyric video)

Winterfell, "Winter is Coming"

The Sword, "To Take the Black"

Arkngthand, "The Waterdancer"

Paddy's Allstars, "North-northwest of the Wall"

Irish Mourtarde, "The Bear and the Maiden Fair"

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