From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

COSMIC POWERS

Nonfiction

When Wizards Rock

J.R.R. Tolkien never started a band. Instead of an electric guitar, his instrument of choice was the pen. But Tolkien is still an incredibly influential figure in rock music: His creations have been inspired albums, songs, stage names, costume choices, and transfigured entire musical genres. He is not the only fantasy author shaping the rock world, either. It’s as if fantasy literature has cast a spell upon musicians around the world. Here’s a look at magic, amplified.

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The Weirdly Fantastic: Lovecraft Rock

Weird Tales was one of the earliest fantasy magazines, and H.P. Lovecraft made a name for himself in its pages. His work spans the sister genres of science fiction, horror, and fantasy. Lovecraft’s most important works establish a mythos he spun from science fictional elements (traveling space creatures that settled prehistoric Earth), folkloric references (at least one of his recurring monsters is drawn from Egyptian mythology), and his own alternate history of the occult. The result is a creepy fantasy universe referenced in books, games, and dozens of rock songs.

Many musical groups have taken their very identities from Lovecraft and his mythos. For example, the band H.P. Lovecraft was an early folk rock/psychedelia group that sought permission from the author’s estate before taking his name as their own (although later, the band would shorten their name to Lovecraft, and later still, Love Craft). H.P. Lovecraft is best known for their unique combination of operatic and folk singing, combined with rich orchestration to create a multi-layered eerie sound. Their most successful original work is the song “The White Ship” (inspired by the Lovecraft short story by the same name), released in 1967, but which you can still catch some late nights on independent radio stations.

Other bands styling themselves after Lovecraft’s works include Canadian rockers The Darkest of the Hillside Thickets, whose name references the Lovecraft short story “The Tomb,” a tale of a young man so obsessed with a mausoleum hidden in “the darkest of the hillside thickets” that he goes insane. Most of the band’s songs and albums explore Lovecraft stories. All in all, there have been four bands named “Arkham,” a town mentioned in several Lovecraft works, and one rockabilly group named The Arkhams. Even Lovecraft’s monsters have been honored with offerings of band names: Shub-Niggurath, a forest being, has given her name to both a French progressive rock group and a Mexican metal band.

But a band doesn’t need a Lovecraftian handle to be inspired by him. With works emphasizing the occult and dark forces, it’s no surprise Lovecraft’s fiction has made appearances in many metal songs. Black Sabbath produced the 1970 classic “Behind the Wall of Sleep,” based on the short story “Beyond the Wall of Sleep.” Metallica recorded “The Call of Ktulu” and “The Thing That Should Not Be”—each an homage to Cthulhu, a tentacled and winged monster appearing in several Lovecraft tales—and “All Nightmare Long,” inspired by a story about time-traveling monsters called the Hounds of Tindalos (the Hounds are inventions of Lovecraft’s, but the story Metallica referenced was “The Hounds of Tindalos,” by Frank Belknap Long, a good friend of H. P. Lovecraft). The monstrous Cthulhu is further described and even summoned in two songs by Michigan metal band The Black Dahlia Murder: “Thy Horror Cosmic” and “Throne of Lunacy.” And for those with a taste for more progressive rock, Dream Theater included a Lovecraft monster in their recordings—”The Dark Eternal Night” is about Nyarlathotep, a quasi-Egyptian creature from Lovecraft’s mythos.

With all of these musical offerings, Lovecraft’s tribute-hungry Elder Gods would be pleased with themselves. The magicians and wizards who toiled so hard to translate the forbidden works of Lovecraft’s fabled Necronomicon couldn’t have spread the message of the weird and otherworldly half as well as these hard-rocking bands.

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Lord of the Rock: Tolkien

In The Lord of the Rings and its related texts, J. R. R. Tolkien created a detailed world of magic and personal valor. Its themes, settings, and creatures launched high fantasy as an important genre, and it didn’t take long for rock music to begin absorbing his creations.

Tolkien’s work drew significantly on Old English and Norse myths, and many readers have found connections between The Lord of the Rings and Wagner’s Ring Cycle. With these roots, it’s no surprise that several Scandinavian bands have played homage to his works. Amon Amarth, a Swedish death metal band whose music primarily focuses on Viking themes of war and adventure, took their name from one of Tolkien’s languages; Amon Amarth is one of the names for Mount Doom. And while metal giants Dimmu Borgir are best known for their darkly medieval look, their vocalist’s stage name (Shagrath) is borrowed from one of Tolkien’s orcs. Orcs were important to Norwegian band Burzum, too, whose name not only means “darkness” in Orcish, but whose original band name was “Uruk-Hai,” after a particularly violent troop of orcs. The group’s front man even went by the stage name Count Grishnackh, a moniker taken from the orc leader.

Many musicians have touched on Middle-earth in their songs. Led Zeppelin wrote at least two songs that have clear Tolkien references in the lyrics (“The Battle of Evermore” and “Ramble On”); Rush recorded the song “Rivendell.” But some bands made Tolkien’s world their own stomping grounds. Blind Guardian is so well known for their Tolkien references that in Metal: The Definitive Guide (Outline Press Ltd, 2007), Gary Sharpe-Young describes the band as “middle-earth metal.” The Finnish band Battlelore not only draws all its lyrical inspiration from Tolkien, but its members often perform in middle-earth styled costumes.

The depth and exuberance of Tolkien fan references in rock music has helped promote wide-spread acceptance of fantastical elements in the musical world. There are many bands who might not directly reference Tolkien’s characters or stories but who still enjoy a high fantasy motif in their appearance or lyrics. Groups like Dragonforce and Skyclad routinely write songs about dragons, swords, and nobility. And it’s hip to dress in fantasy costume. GWAR regularly takes to the stage in full-body armor, although their style is more over-the-top than stylish. But more fashion-conscious examples range from Stevie Nicks’s “hippie-elf couture” ensembles to Lady Gaga’s Red Queen costume. Fantasy is apparently an au courant flavor of rock.

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From the Ministry of DIY Magic: J.K. Rowling

The newest wizard on the rock block is Harry Potter. The teenage wizard has spawned an active fan culture since his appearance on the literary scene in 1997, including a number of DIY pop bands. Fans dubbed the motley music scene “wizard rock,” and it stuck.

The first Harry Potter-themed song was probably “Ode to Harry,” written in 2000 by pop-punk band Switchblade Kittens, but two brothers in Massachusetts blew up the genre when they founded the band Harry and the Potters. Joe and Paul DeGeorge started making music about J. K. Rowling’s universe as a joke, but soon found themselves traveling the United States, playing gigs in libraries and backyards. They were joined by groups like Draco and the Malfoys, The Whomping Willows, and The Luna Lovegoods. The Wizrocklopedia currently lists close to 880 bands.

Most of these “wrock” bands perform in costumes pulled from J.K. Rowling’s books, with the musicians’ stage personas drawn from characters in the stories. Like the novels, there is a distinct element of social consciousness to wizard rock music; bands have created fundraisers to help fight social injustice and buy books for underprivileged children. Lyrics in many songs, especially by genre leader Harry and the Potters, reflect upon individual responsibility and friendship in dark times. It’s rock with consciousness—and magic.

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There’s a reason fantasy writers J. K. Rowling, J. R. R. Tolkien, and H. P. Lovecraft have inspired so much great music. They are world builders par excellence, designers of universes big enough for not only their own imaginations, but dozens of other writers and musicians who have wanted to traverse the same realms. These three authors alone have created some of the most memorable occultists, magicians, and wizards in the genre.

Wizards and magicians play important roles in fantasy literature. They bring wisdom and magic to their universes. They even the odds in battles too large for ordinary people. These same qualities have brought them to the rock show. Fantasy rock music and fantasy novels offer their fans a place to escape the ordinary world with its prosaic difficulties. Listeners or readers can enfold themselves in themes that our hyper-rational modern society often downplays or denies: personal heroism, adventure, supernatural experience. These are components of human existence we hunger for. As the DeGeorge brothers said in their song “Voldemort Can’t Stop the Rock”:

We all know that there is nothing we like more
Than watching the wizards rock it out like this.

Sauron, Cthulhu, and Death Eaters be warned: Wizards were meant to rock.

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Wendy N. Wagner

Wendy WagnerWendy N. Wagner grew up in a town so small it didn’t even have its own post office, and the bookmobile’s fortnightly visit was her lifeline to the world. Her short fiction has appeared in magazines and anthologies including Beneath Ceaseless Skies,The Lovecraft eZine, Armored, The Way of the Wizard, and Heiresses of Russ 2013: The Year’s Best Lesbian Speculative Fiction. Her first novel, Skinwalkers, is a Pathfinder Tales adventure. An avid gamer and gardener, she lives in Portland, Oregon, with her very understanding family. Follow her on Twitter @wnwagner.