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Heavy Metal Music and the Appropriation of Greece and Rome

From: Syllecta Classica
Volume 23 (2012)
pp. 127-152 | 10.1353/syl.2013.0000

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The past decade has witnessed a surge of interest in comics and cinema regarding antiquity and the Classics. Popular examples range from Frank Miller’s 300 to Hollywood’s Gladiator and HBO’s Rome, which have been subjects of many studies in classical reception.1 In addition to the popular media of cinema and television, heavy metal music has also drawn on classical material, both historical and mythological, for subject matter, but this musical genre has received little attention from the field of Classics.2 Since the late 1970s classical works, themes, and characters of Greek and Roman antiquity have inspired the lyrical, musical, and visual content of many heavy metal groups. The classical topics are broad; they include Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, Aeschylus’ Oresteia, the foundation of Rome, and the rise of the Principate. Classical reception in heavy metal would therefore seem to merit the same scholarly attention, since it illustrates an independent engagement with the Classics by the world outside academia and thus can help scholars and students better understand the impact of the field on contemporary non-academic media.

Why consider two seemingly disparate media? Music, like cinema and literature, is a medium that communicates contemporary ideologies and functions as a means of engagement with the historical past. It can reflect, respond to, or initiate social or political change, as in Igor Stravinsky’s classical composition The Rite of Spring and the Russian Revolution, or Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, which commemorates Russia’s resistance to Napoleon’s advances on Moscow with its signature firing of cannons and chimes that duplicates Russia’s final martial stand. Rock, folk, and rap music of the twentieth century offer comparable outlets, as in Bob Dylan’s “The Times They are a-Changin’” of the late 1960s or the late 1980s rap group N.W.A. and its denunciation of the brutality and racial profiling practices of the Los Angeles Police Department.3 No matter the genre (classical, folk, rock, rap, etc.), music with its array of aural, lyrical, and visual components provides a locus for the articulation, contestation, and negotiation of personal, social, and political values. This musical medium constitutes anything from a three-minute track of a modern pop song to a thirty-minute movement of a classical symphony to several tracks, movements within a larger symphony, or a modern ‘concept’ album. Ultimately, music speaks volumes about an artist’s understanding and appropriation of the historical past, as well as those features that resonate with both the artist’s and the listener’s experience of the present.

In the following I explore how and why heavy metal music lends itself to the reception of classical subject matter. This musical genre demonstrates a usage of classical material unparalleled in other contemporary genres of music. Heavy metal’s aesthetic generally consists of a vigorous musical articulation of and response to adolescent frustration and anger directed at a variety of contemporary society’s ills, including youthful alienation, wherein the genre’s style acts as an appropriate vehicle for male aggression and the celebration of Greek and Roman military prowess. I offer two test cases as a springboard for the discussion of classical reception in this genre: Iron Maiden’s “Alexander the Great” from the 1986 album Somewhere in Time and Ex Deo’s 2009 release “The Final War (The Battle of Actium)” from the 2009 album Romulus. For both songs I will examine how the music and lyrics receive and articulate distinct features of the classical material — namely, their focus on the individual hero and the emotional and psychological costs of war. Iron Maiden’s treatment of Alexander, for example, is not only reminiscent of some classical accounts preserved in Plutarch and Arrian, but also speaks to German scholar Johann Gustav Droysen’s view of Alexander in light of nineteenth-century German politics and to British classical scholar William Wordthorpe Tarn, whose scholarship on Alexander stressed sentiments of unity and the reconciliation of disparate ethnicities. Both scholars were responsible for shaping the view of Alexander as a beneficent ruler seeking to unite the fractured Greek states and kingdoms east of Asia Minor.4 From an examination of the music and lyrics in...



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