Magic’s newest upcoming expansion, Kaldheim, embraces the “metal” music in a direct and tangible way. Today, I’ll be discussing examples of how Magic and metal music have always had a direct correlation to one another and how themes and tropes of metal music have always been present in Magic flavor.
I’m not a metal expert, and I certainly don’t want to imply I speak on behalf of the metal community, but I am a fan and appreciator of the genre. For today’s article, I’ve reached out to various friends I consider experts and die hard fans of metal and Magic in order to unpack and better understand the implicit connection between metal & fantasy aesthetic.
The first thing I want to present in today’s article before I get to a single card is “metal music” isn’t a singular, conformed sound. Metal has dozens of subgenres, each with their own distinct attributes. My friend, Ben Perry (@libraryofleng on Twitter) gave me a quote for my article that I think is quite intriguing:
“Metal music is as diverse as Magic” – Ben Perry
It’s a compelling statement because we all know Magic is infinitely diverse in terms of who can enjoy the game as well as the different elements of the game that can be enjoyed.
Let me begin by saying I’m a fan of all kinds of musical genres. I’ve collected vinyl records since my early teens when I learned to play guitar. I sang, played guitar and wrote songs in various rock ‘n’ roll bands in my teens and twenties. Sharing the billing and hanging out with local metal bands at local shows and parties was a fairly common occurrence for me.
Personally, the thing I’ve always appreciated the most about metal music is the experience of seeing it performed live in concert: the raw emotion, devotion to craft, speed and precision of musicianship required has always amazed me.
Of all the various subgenres of Metal, the area where I have the greatest area of expertise are the early hard rock pioneers of the late 1960’s and 70’s. Popular super-groups like Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath and AC/DC changed the landscape of rock music by integrating a heavier sound, darker themes and fantasy themes into their art. It’s fair to say all of these groups were heavily influenced by the blues, but they certainly took those influences and did something that was conceptually different with them.
A metal blimp that doesn’t fly very well… it’s hard for me to imagine the creators of this card didn’t have some sort of a Led Zeppelin tribute in mind. It’s very fitting for a fantasy game to pay tribute to one of the metal pioneers, because Zeppelin was very much inspired by fantasy writers like J.R.R. Tolkien; they infused their music, lyrics and album art aesthetic with direct references to the fantasy genre. Metal music today, as well as in it’s proto days, has always had a close tie to telling stories that move beyond the typical stories we’d expect to see in popular music: typically, expressions of romantic love or sadness at the loss of romantic love.
Other early pioneers like Black Sabbath incorporated darker elements of fantasy and mysticism into their aesthetic. A famous song, “War Pigs” directly evokes the mystical and fantastic in order to critique contemporary culture:
“Generals gathered in their masses
Just like witches at black masses
Evil minds that plot destruction
Sorcerer of death’s construction”
In the first verse, we see reference to both witches and sorcerers, but it’s done to create a very different type of anti-war protest song from something like “Give Peace a Chance,” or “Blowin’ in the Wind.” It’s a significantly angrier protest song and it draws upon iconic fantasy themes give voice to those cultural critiques by drawing correlation between the evil of hawkish militaristic views to witches and sorcerers from fantasy tales who would use death, destruction and war as a means to corrupt ends.
Metal music is also about telling stories that often incorporate symbolic fantasy or sci-fi themes. Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man” is a great example and cautionary tale of the perils of nihilism that is played out in the story of a man who is transformed into the thing he fears and despises, a disconnected, unfeeling robot.
“Heavy boots of lead
Fills his victims full of dread”
Metal Music, or even these early hard rock metal pioneers, was never something that was listened to in my household growing up. My dad loved 60’s and 70’s country and my mom was a fan of Motown and The Beatles. My first exposure to hard rock was contemporary alternative music on the radio, with groups like The Smashing Pumpkins, Stone Temple Pilots and Soundgarden. These were all groups with music that really spoke to me as a teenager and ultimately inspired me to learn to play the guitar.
When my uncle saw me noodling on the guitar and listening to modern rock, he was the first person to expose me to metal music. He gave me his old copies of Ozzy Osborne’s “Diary of a Madman,” Kiss’s “Destroyer” and Alice Cooper’s “Greatest Hits” to spin on my turntable. To this day, I still love all of these records and play them often. In fact, Randy Rhodes’ guitar work on Ozzy Osborn’s solo records is among my favorite examples of exemplary guitar excellence. It’s so fast, creative, expressive, and incredibly crisp and precise.
It’s hard to argue that Ozzy isn’t the planeswalker of metal music. Not only was he an early pioneer of the genre with Black Sabbath, but he’s influenced and innovated the genre for more than 50 years!
Alice Cooper and Kiss are pioneers of an early subgenre that would ultimately become known as glam metal. It’s largely characterized by heavy, catchy riffs and hooks but it’s also about visual spectacle, shock and awe: costume, pyrotechnics and a larger than life experience.
The Rakdos perfectly embody these glam metal pioneers, their wild boundary-pushing stage show performances, as well as the pyrotechnics! If there was a Kiss or Alice Cooper Secret Lair, I would be shocked if it did not include a card with the “spectacle” mechanic.
this SCREAMS Metal for me: pic.twitter.com/vk1Fm2Ro67
— Luiz, agora com 2 folgas por causa do COVID-19 (@TheForeverDM) December 16, 2020
To me, the entire flavor of the Rakdos Guild, and their creepy or uncanny relationship to performance draws heavily upon the sensibilities of shock rock music. Alice Cooper, for instance, the motif of a nightmarish circus or carnival.
Fascination with the uncanny, black magic or death, isn’t something that heavy metal music invented or has a monopoly on. John Henry Fuseili’s “The Nightmare” (1781) clearly evokes the viewers imagination to explore these themes, internalize, and explore. Most people love a good ghost story or horror film. On the whole, people have always been fascinated by what is unknown or unfamiliar.
It’s clear these early proto-metal artists tapped into elements of style that resonated strongly not only with fans, but also other artists who took these ideas of a heavier sound, darker subject matter and the inclusion of the fantastic and took it in completely new and innovative directions.
Pioneers of subgenres like speed metal, such as Judas Priest and Motorhead, trended the sound away from the traditional blues influence and emphasized playing hard and fast, while also incorporating elements and sensibilities of the emergent punk scene in the last 70’s and early 80’s.
Speed Metal 🤘🤘 pic.twitter.com/oDKMQZ7VzL
— golgariguy (@golgariguy) December 16, 2020
One thing I often believe gets lost is how difficult it is to perform music so fast! Yes, it’s a choice a group makes to decide at what tempo a song will be played, but it is way more difficult to play precisely and on beat when the tempo is so fast. I guess the same can be said of Magic! It’s difficult to line up answers and make great plays when the opponent cranks the tempo up to 11.
In the 1980’s what would become known as heavy metal and thrash metal (there are characteristics that delineate each) had a mainstream surge with bands like Metallica, Megadeth and Anthrax.
While these groups tend to get painted with a broad brush as loud, angry and culturally subversive, the thing that tends to resonate most strongly with me is their technical excellence as musicians. From the perspective of an amateur musician, who has studied musical theory and played the guitar for 20 years, these groups (and especially Metallica) have deep roots in classical musical music and arrangements. It’s largely why their music translates so well to being played with an orchestra. They combine all of these elements, the darkness of theme and flavor, the heaviness of sound and the speed and precision of highly trained musicianship into a focused heavy metal sensibility.
Many of these groups, and groups that build upon their innovations, use album and merchandising imagery that evokes the same sensibilities I’d associate with Black’s color identity of the color pie: death, skulls, skeletons and black magic. Again, many of these themes were introduced by earlier pioneers of genre lake Black Sabbath or Alice Cooper.
One of the things I often see as being confused by people who don’t understand or appreciate metal music, is that the genre is a celebration of individuality and personal expression. It’s ultimately a rejection of conformity and aversion to a dominant cookie cutter suburban ideology.
These musicians and fans essentially march to the beat of a different drum and the music, culture, artwork and imagery are statements that celebrate individualism that cannot be cleanly made to fit any specific mold. Not every songwriter’s vision of contemporary culture needs to be a populist and sugary “boy meets girl and they fall in love” story. Music is often a place where cultural critique takes place or individuality is expressed and that is a huge part of what makes the genre so appealing to a wide and diverse audience.
Art has the power to not only critique culture but also to influence and change it by engaging an audience. The poet Ezra Pound wrote, “Art is the antennae of the human race,” meaning it’s a mechanism by which we are able to perceive elements of culture that are often glossed-over or misrepresented on the surface. All musical genres are avenues for artists to critique as well as protest inequality, conformity, war or any other concern.
The inclusion of averse or jarring iconography or lyrical subject matter is an intentional marker of the metal genre as being unique or in opposition to a mainstream perspective. It’s especially important to keep this in mind when considering the cultural context of the 1980’s, where art and politics were in direct conflict with one another in a literal sense regarding issues of censorship and morality. In a sense, pushing the boundaries of what is comfortable is an issue of free speech and metal music is very much about allowing people to speak their truth.
These cards are neat because not only because they reflect elements of Magic that overlap with heavy metal, but because they’re rendered in an artistic style that is distinctly referencing heavy metal artwork.
As there is clearly a strong correlation between the fantasy and black magic tropes popularized in metal music as well as fantasy literature, art and games, there is a ton of overlap. The aesthetic of Magic (particularly black and red mana cards) and the lyrical and artistic themes of metal overlap and have a broad appeal. While these are the first cards I’ve seen printed that look explicitly like heavy metal posters, I’ve seen individual fans alter their cards to look more metal.
When I asked Twitter for input on Metal cards, one of the most popular responses came in the form of distinctly metal custom alters, which is very much in tune with my assertion that spanning all iterations, subgenres (even the ones I likely don’t even know about and am unfamiliar with), and spanning history and influences is that the core of genre is a celebration of individualism and a rejection of conformity. In Magic, altering the appearance of one’s cards to be different from other cards is an expression of individualism.
Both of these alters are from Ben Perry’s personal collection and again, it’s an expression of individualism and customization.
— Owen Fletcher (@MtgOwenFletcher) November 28, 2020
These Led Zeppelin album cover alters also blew my mind. They’re gorgeous.
Metal has a ton of great concept albums that tell stories based on fantasy and sci-fi themes and that’s a big part of what the musical genre and flavor of Magic go hand in hand. Both are interested in telling stories where elements of mysticism, sorcery and monsters play a central role.
Keldon Warlord is definitely a member of Manowar pic.twitter.com/xuizGaD8Ml
— Super Cobrah (@supercobra82) December 16, 2020
I thought this Tweet was pretty funny, and also Shaman Ben’s comment “Keldon Gwarlord.” I’m admittedly more of a dabbler in metal (especially anything newer than the 1990’s), and so I let Ben take a look over the article to make sure I wasn’t going to say anything he’d find offensive or a mischaracterization about metal music. He made the suggestion of including a quote from a Manowar song “Brothers of Metal” that he felt was an incisive characterization of the Kaldheim’s flavor:
“Let us drink to the power drink to the sound
Thunder and metal are shaking the ground
Drink to your brothers who are never to fall
We’re all brothers of metal here in the hall
Our hearts are filled with metal and masters we have none
And we will die for metal, metal heals, my son”
It suggests to me that the spirit of metal is something that bonds people together, something timeless and individualistic, and the spirit of what the music represents taps into something that is passed down from one generation to the next. Also, it suggests a catharsis and a healing or comforting element associated with the music. It’s may be strange to say, but I personally find hard rock and metal music to be comforting when I’m feeling anxious or uncomfortable as it allows the listener to tap into those feelings and sort of emotionally let loose. I get the same comfort from playing Magic with my friends in the evening after a tough day at work, or if something in my life is bothering me.
It’s not just a distraction or escape, it’s also a comfort and release.
I’d also hope that Manowar includes everyone besides just “brothers,” as enjoying music or Magic: the Gathering should always be an activity that is open and inclusive to everyone. While metal and Magic have always had a much wider representation and visibility with men, those are stereotypes that are broken down over time: there are obviously tons of incredible people in metal and Magic.
I’ve barely mentioned the upcoming Kaldheim expansion yet and I’m almost at the end of the article! Vikings and Norse mythology is a popular trope in metal music. There’s even a subgenre of Metal called “Viking metal.” It makes a lot of sense why Vikings and their mythology translates well and is popular with fans of Metal music.
On the whole, and especially relative to other contemporary ancient cultures, the Vikings were quite individualist as a culture. While most ancient cultures tended to fall into feudal monarchies that stayed in one place, the Vikings built baller boats and explored the farthest reaches of the world. The Viking empire also didn’t have a centralized government ruled by one king; instead they were organized as independent clans who coordinated. Also, their mythology, gods and monsters are incredible.
Did they also pillage and plunder? Yeah, a bit… but what empire doesn’t? Still, it should be clear that the idea of the individual and exploring the limits of the world (as well as baller mythology and monsters) make the Vikings and their mythos a perfect fit that resonates strongly with metal and Magic fans: Valkyries, adventurers, fierce and fearless warriors, thunder hammers, as well as gods that have really interesting stories.
As I wrap up my discussion of metal and Magic, I’d also like to point out that the term heavy metal is derivative of a lyric from the 1968 hit “Born To Be Wild” by Steppenwolf.
“I like smoke and lightning
Heavy metal thunder,
Racing in the wind
And the feeling that I’m under.”
The song is about freedom, adventure, and exploring the world, particularly from the perspective of motorcycling culture, but if you read the lyric it could easily be descriptive of a Viking adventure on the high seas and even invoking the highest of the Norse gods, the mighty Thor himself.
Who doesn’t want to experience that feeling of freedom, individuality and being alive? In my life, two of the ways I’ve experienced those feelings most profoundly has been through the music that I love and playing Magic. Two of the biggest adventures of my life have been getting up on a stage and performing music and also exploring the world while traveling to Magic tournaments.
Both music and gaming have an incredible power to bring people together to create a sense of togetherness that is also a celebration of individuality. At the core of both music and MTG, is the sense that we can be a part of something collective, while also maintaining and expressing that sense of our individual self.
So, throw up the horns and rock on.