By Jonathon Besanko
Good tidings, fellow adventurers! Welcome to a new weekly column I will be writing to discuss a topic that has long intrigued and fascinated me (being the rather dorky metalhead that I am); that of ‘Geeks in Metal’, and this shared notion of a number of musicians in metal bands around the world being fans of traditionally ‘geek culture’. I’m not just talking your run-of-the-mill power metal band here, but well regarded extreme metal bands such as Summoning and Bal-Sagoth, alongside respected veterans of the power metal genre like Blind Guardian; bands that have not just dabbled with the idea of writing music and lyrics based around that of comic books and the works of J.R.R. Tolkien and beyond, but have rather moulded it into art worthy of its basis in the source material.
Follow me on this journey as I unravel the meaning and worlds behind the lyrics and themes chosen by these bands and others, and how they tie the mythologies of those artists before them — who inspired and continue to inspire them now — into their music: weaving that fine silken thread of music and reading into a rich whole.
Kicking off this column will be a song I often return to for the simple fact it shocked the Hulk out of me when I first heard it […I’ll let myself out]. Here we have an English symphonic black metal band singing about Marvel comic book characters I grew up reading! Amidst the harsh vocals and the many layered symphonic elements was a narrative chronicling the advent of the ‘Fourth Celestial Host‘ and more specifically the plight of Norrin Radd, better known as the Silver Surfer. I am, of course, talking about none other than Bal-Sagoth with their 1999 gem, “The Scourge of the Fourth Celestial Host”; off their fourth studio album, The Power Cosmic.
Inspired by the writings and creations of the late, great Jack Kirby, the song opens to a hopeful riff and the bold narrative of Uatu the Watcher (as spoken brilliantly by band frontman/mastermind, and traditionally harsh vocalist, Byron Roberts). This immediately sets the exulted tone of the song, as well as a hint to the darker direction it soon takes. As the drums of Dave Mackintosh roll with the steady march of the titanic Celestials, the “Gods of the Stars” (ancient cosmic entities that stand 2,000 ft tall; are nigh-omnipotent; and were responsible for early human genetic experimentation and influencing the path Earth’s history would take), to the ascending symphonies and double-kick, truly do you feel the weight and presence of these enormous, armoured alien beings returning to Earth; as if they were coming to step before your very eyes — looming with an uncaring and cold gaze.
The story of Norrin Radd is a tragic one. Opening with an ultimately fruitless plea by Silver Surfer with the Celestials to spare our “insignificant planet”, as he had once done with Galactus (referred to by his native name of ‘Galan of Taa‘ in this song) to spare his own home world of Zenn-La and the life of his lover, Shalla-Bal, the Empress of Zenn-La (a woman he’d been made to leave behind — “never more to embrace Shalla-Bal”). It, however, fails as the matter-of-fact words of The Living Tribunal soon follow, ushering in the doom we are soon to face. Met with the terrible sight of Arishem the Judge and Exitar the Executioner — two key Celestials in the narrative — Uatu reveals the purpose for their return after a thousand years of absence: their desire “to reap the evolution harvest”. You feel this in the music very strongly, comparatively tying the sorrow of Norrin Radd with the terrible return of the Celestials.
Ghostly, fading words then sing in:
Time, Space, Soul, Mind, Reality, Power.
They describe the six powers of the ‘Infinity Gems’ and serve as a nod to the individuals who wield them in the tale. They serve as six aspects of existence, and are impossibly powerful.
Following the return of Galactus (as told by Uatu), and coming to recognise the dawning futility of his situation as the “edge of oblivion beckons”, the music builds with strong symphonic overtones and gorgeous guitar work from Chris Maudling to an awesome moment of triumphant resolve where Norrin Radd states: “I am the protector of this world; I wield the Power Cosmic!” A nod to Thor is made, adding “my ally speeds to lend his might” and “the power of his Uru hammer to the fray!” as the Silver Surfer then cries out to Arishem and Exitar: “I shall scatter your ashes to the four cosmic winds!”
The song races at a break-neck pace then with the essence of war raging amidst its extreme symphonic barrage, as it comes to a close with a poignant quote from the Silver Surfer: “Paradise unearned is but a land of shadows.”
Throughout the narrative and musical setting, “The Scourge of the Fourth Celestial Host” resonates with a great sense of peril for this looming threat. The symphonies add depth to the layers of extreme music that assail your ears, and it fits the lyrical content appropriately. It builds tension well, and like a modern David and Goliath story, you root for Norrin Radd to succeed; to overcome the colossal monsters that stand at his proverbial door. You see him stand in the face of adversity and triumph, and the emotional shifting in phrasing with the music conveys that wonderfully.
This song is one that never fails to inspire me, and there is so much to discover with it and learn on each new listen. For any comic book fan and metalhead out there, check this song out!
As they say, “Make Mine Marvel!”