“Behold my true form, and despair!” — Count Dracula, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night (Konami, 1997)
Few bands inspire images of fantasy or hope in the face of tragedy or ruin in quite the same way as English power metal act, DragonForce, does. As we fast approach DragonForce’s impending Australian tour near the end of this month, for this edition of Geeks In Metal, I take a look at a couple of the band’s more lyrically interesting tracks: “Symphony of the Night” (off their 2014 release, Maximum Overload) and one of their newest songs, “Curse of Darkness” (from their latest release, Reaching Into Infinity). What both these two songs have in common is the subject matter their lyrics deal with, which, as I’m sure a number of you game aficionados have already picked up on, are direct references to Konami’s Castlevania series of games.
Specifically, these include the eponymous Symphony of the Night, which was first released on the Sony PlayStation back in 1997; along with Curse of Darkness, which, although its storyline takes place earlier in the chronology, was released on the PS2 in Japan in 2005 and in Europe in 2006. These two games — with Symphony of the Night, in particular — are considered to be high points in the series. Under the then co-direction of Toru Hagihara and Koji Igarashi, Symphony of the Night was responsible for changing how the series would progress gameplay-wise from there on out, forging itself through its unique platforming and open-ended gameplay aspects into a staple of the RPG genre. Equally, the iconic illustrations of Ayami Kojima would provide the art style that would flavour Castlevania moving forward. The characters went from colourful NES sprites with oddly chosen attire (given their locales and time periods) to fully-fledged, aristocratic and anime-inspired pieces of art.
Further credit must also be given to Michiru Yamane, the principal composer for both the aforementioned games and a number of others in Castlevania’s history, along with Kenichi Matsubara, who was the main composer for Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest (1987). A keen ear can spot cues and homages to movements from both Yamane’s compositions in the two songs, along with, but not limited to, the opening notes of “Bloody Tears” from Simon’s Quest, principally composed by Matsubara.
Few things seem more appropriate than having a band like DragonForce tackle the Castlavania series. The music of Castlevania has never been one to shy away from the use of metal and gothic passages, and, for as flamboyant, high-energy and full of self-aware cheese as DragonForce are, the same can be said of the Castlevania series — a series which is just as lauded for its Gothic settings and fanciful imagery as it is for its typically Japanese over-the-top in-game dialogue.
Castlevania is a series I’ll admit I was a late-comer to. I never owned an NES when I was a kid, and I didn’t really invest much time into the series until much later, during its PS2/PS3 eras. The storyline, however (as growingly convoluted as it may be today), has as such always been of interest. I’ve always loved the idea of Gothic, Georgian and Victorian-era style vampires ever since I first watched the film adaptation of Anne Rice’s novel, Interview With the Vampire (1994). The aristocratic touch always seemed so apt. And when you take that smugness, that sorrow over eternity, and those self-righteous attitudes, the idea of exaggerated dialogue no longer feels as campy or forced. It feels quite ingrained in the idea of how one would be during that period, and how being an immortal probably would give one the idea to speak with an elevated tongue.
What’s then just as apt is how DragonForce cleverly approached their lyrical angle with the song, “Symphony of the Night”. Ultimately, it reads as both narrative speak and dialogue from the game’s main protagonist, Alucard, the progeny of Dracula. Set in the year 1797, it becomes Alucard’s quest to stop his father’s reign of tyranny and end Dracula’s trying war against mankind. Whilst it doesn’t use direct quotes, the lyrics are very much inspired by cutscenes from the game, and though Dracula is not specifically mentioned save for a single cry of “Father!”, the events used are taken from the climactic moment in the game where Alucard confronts his father and the two argue over Alucard’s mother, Lisa — the woman who was Dracula’s great love and the reason for his malice and war against humanity.
Hiding in the fog
Where darkness meets the moonlight
I will sing a melody ’til the morning comes
Living for you only
Take my hand and show me
There will be much sorrow when the morning comes
The opening lyrics of the song immediately set up the stage, covering Alucard’s mission to fulfil the wish of his mother and bring peace to humankind. Alucard lives only for her, and even despite her death is still guided by her message. His will drives and condemns him.
Fearless I’m fighting the pain burns inside of me
Find the forces of my soul
No one can understand me
Am I condemned to ride the blackest night alone?
What is also interested about these introductory verses is that they’re open to interpretation, and contextually can also fit that of Dracula’s plight. Over three hundred years earlier, Lisa — a healer and a gentle, kind woman; one who had reminded Mathias Cronqvist (the man who’d become Dracula) of his wife, Elisabetha, when Mathias was still mortal — would be after a time tried and executed, under false suspicions of her medicinal practices being the work of witchcraft. Mathias, who had by then sired a son grown to Lisa — Adrian Fahrenheit Ţepeş (Alucard) — was driven mad by the knowledge of her death when he awoke that night. He’d swear eternal revenge against those who’d crucified the woman he loved and stolen away his heart. This loathing and this pain is mirrored in the sights Alucard witnesses upon entering ‘Castlevania’, or ‘Castle Dracula’. As it is told in a few select verses, it is a prison beholden to the dark emotions and power of Dracula and gives rise to all manner of demonic play and twisted creatures.
Tragic paintings on the walls
In this castle where affliction reigns
Torment and sadness unleashed through these corridors
Fear is leading to the night
Bloodline of vampires doomed to fulfill their need
Once united by the light
Interestingly, Alucard was present during the events of his mother’s execution, and though he was unable to prevent the deed, his mother’s final words haunt him still.
I hear the voice
Rising from the void
Of the memories gone by
The urgency and Gothic aesthetic of the game is reflected well in the use of the opening keys, with the overall speed of the track matching the high stakes present in the gameplay, as well. Approaching the main confrontation with Dracula, Alucard’s suffering rings through his words…
Father! Look into my eyes
I shall kill you tonight to avenge
All those who died in vain
Hear their distant cries
By the time the lyrics reach the main crux of the narrative, it bounces off the beats of the story and leads into its chorus, before soon being followed by the sorrowful tones of the rhythm and solo leads of Sam Totman and Herman Li.
This is my symphony
My dark blessing falls from the sky*
Dark is the path for me
I’ll find my peace another way
Under the stars where we’ll shine again some day
[*a reference to the family heirloom on Lisa’s side, aptly titled the ‘Alucard Sword’, as well as Alucard’s magical abilities and transmutation powers]
It would be Lisa’s message of her undying love for Mathias, however, and of only wanting peace for he and men, that would ultimately persuade Dracula upon his defeat to end his madness and to feel regret in the face of the many horrors he’d committed.
The song ends on the hopeful and longing line of…
’Til the stars where we’ll shine again some day
Even with all that has been taken or has been lost, Castlevania illuminates with divine light: returning to the stars.
With the song, “Curse of Darkness”, the story takes place in the year 1479, serving as a sequel to Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse (1989/90), which chronologically takes place 3 years earlier and was the beginning of Dracula’s war against humankind. Ironically, Dracula’s Curse is in itself a prequel to the first two games, set 215 years before them.
Following the events of Dracula’s Curse when Trevor Belmont — of the famous Belmont Clan of vampire hunters: humans exiled from Dracula’s homeland of Valachia (or Wallachia); and, of which Trevor’s descendant, Richter, featured in a minor return role in Symphony of the Night, following his protagonist spot in Rondo of Blood (1993) — slew Dracula, with the help of his three allies (including Alucard, no less — who took the name here as opposition to Dracula’s position and seat in power), the curse of Dracula still breathes over the Valachian countryside, spreading all manner of horrors across the land.
Unlike Symphony of the Night, which was the story of a son and his father, Curse of Darkness follows the character of Hector, a former ‘Devil Forgemaster’ (humans trained in the dark arts and capable of ‘forging’ demonic beasts) who served as a general under Count Dracula and betrayed him at the last, allowing Dracula’s defeat at the hand of Trevor Belmont. Attempting to lead a normal life and leaving his old life behind him, Hector found contentment in the arms of a church healer named Rosaly, who had cured his wounds following his defection from Dracula’s forces. In a tragically ironic event that ties Hector’s tale of woe to that of Dracula’s own, Rosaly is burned at the stake as a witch — an act Hector soon discovers was orchestrated by his former comrade, Isaac. A fellow ‘Devil Forgemaster’, Isaac is a self-mutilating and psychopathic nightmare. After uncovering this, Hector seeks revenge against Isaac, unawares of Isaac’s deeper and more terrible plans to resurrect Dracula himself.
Through the lyrics of “Curse of Darkness”, Hector’s tale of revenge becomes apparent…
Driven by sorrow and eternal hatred
Hear my endless cries
I am a shadow of the man I used to be
But I know tonight
Your pain will be my delight
Although the lyrics deal principally with Hector and the events surrounding Curse of Darkness, references are also made to Lament of Innocence (2003), a game set in 1094 and centred on the protagonist, Leon Belmont. This particular storyline is relevant for dealing with the origin of the feud between Dracula and the Belmont Clan, the underlying ‘curse’ that haunts the Belmont’s for the next several centuries.
The Gothic elements in the music for this song are pushed further than in “Symphony of the Night”, developing the blend of narrative and music into a stronger whole. There is also quite a touching moment at the bridge, where the song takes a step back, and above the acoustic passages, vocalist Marc Hudson convincingly embodies the voice of Hector as his eyes turn to the stars above and his mind returns to the thought of his beloved Rosaly.
As I look to the stars, I feel your presence in my heart
How I wish I could hear your voice again
Like my tears in the night, your memory still shining bright
On this lonely road I ride
Wandering… through the circles of Hell
Emotionally broken, Hector drives on forward in the name of his fallen wife. As if peering into his personal thoughts, the song’s chorus touches on Hector’s mindset and his refusal to let go.
Ride on your way, this is your curse of darkness
Ride through the night and one day you’ll be free
Look to the sky where our hope’s burning bright
Hear the laments of innocence rise
Driven to the end of his road, all around him is swallowed by the darkness; and, as reflected in the looming shadow that has claimed Valachia, the blackness within his Hector’s own heart deepens also. DragonForce then make small reference to the Greek mythological figure of Sisyphus, here referred to under the title of ‘king of Ephira’ [alt.-spelling: Ephyra]. Making the connection between Sisyphus and Hector’s plight, Sisyphus was the Odyssean figure condemned to forever push a massive boulder uphill, only to watch it roll back down. As it is with Sisyphus, Hector’s climb to peace, to the defeat and Isaac and Dracula, and to a life without hate is one riddled by turmoil and hardship. He is a ‘haunted soul’, but eventually he does find his peace in the end.
All alone, I am lost in the maze of this aeonian nightmare
Torn within, bound to suffer ’til I die
For centuries, just like the king of Ephira trapped for eternity
Haunted soul, I have the force to slay your kind
Ultimately, DragonForce does a fine job honouring the long legacy of the Castlevania series and embodying the spirit, tension and high emotion of the games. Not only does the music excel in conveying the urgency and themes of the games, but so too do the lyrics pay successful homage to the characters who inhabit it. One can only hope we get to see more adaptations from the Brits in the future, and where the band choose to take those next!
Reaching Into Infinity is out now, and DragonForce’s Australia tour kicks off on June 20.
Tickets are on sale now through.