Thursday, June 6, 2013

album review: 'charlemagne: the omens of death' by christopher lee

Let's talk about vanity projects.

You all know the ones. These are the dreams of the rich auteur that nobody could expect or predict, the passion projects to produce something for which mainstream society did not ask. The artistic endeavours of solitary vision, often entirely bankrolled and controlled by the auteur himself. These aren't pieces to fill out a balance sheet or made for contractual obligations, these are works made often for their own sake, or to convey some artistic vision for which the auteur must have absolute control. These are projects like Tommy Wiseau's The Room, the new Will Smith movie After Earth, and Kanye West's Runaway short film.

But let me make something absolutely clear: just because something is a vanity project doesn't mean it has to suck. Indeed, you could argue that in some cases giving the auteur absolute control can produce art of mad genius that would have been inevitably axed on the cutting room floor. But there's a reason that most vanity projects tend to have a negative stigma, and that's because such works become rife with the absolute best and worst traits of the artist, and without a steadying hand, these projects can run wildly over budget or completely out of control. They're a nightmare for studios, because they're often rightly terrified that such projects will ultimately fail and potentially destroy their creators, not to mention prove ruinous to the financial backers.

So when Sir Christopher Lee decided to create his own record label and make a heavy metal album, it's hard not to see it as a vanity project, particularly considering the subject matter. I mean, it's a symphonic metal concept album based around the life of Charlemagne, Frankish king and first Holy Roman Emperor, filled with meticulous historical accuracy - outside of the sheer novelty of it, where is the audience for this?

Well, perhaps novelty would be enough, if not the sheer audacious awesomeness of the project. Keep in mind that in 2010, Christopher Lee was nearly ninety, with a massive career in film spanning over two hundred movies and several iconic roles (oh, and plus he was in the British S.A.S. and worked as a real Nazi hunter, in addition to playing Dracula and Saruman). And while he had done voice work before and even collaborated with other metal acts like Manowar and Rhapsody of Fire, it was a little hard to believe that now he wanted to make his own full-length metal album.

But Christopher Lee was undaunted by age or typical conventions of what most people in their 90s do, so he made the album anyway, releasing Charlemagne: By The Sword and The Cross in 2010 and winning the 'Spirit of Metal' award in the 2010 Metal Hammer Golden God ceremony. What I have found interesting, though, is that while many people have acknowledged that it is indeed awesome Christopher Lee was releasing metal albums at his age, very few people have actually listened to the album, or bothered to leave any sort of critical review on it. And really, who am I to criticize one of the greatest badasses - both on screen and in reality - who ever lived, a man with the passion and ambition to make heavy metal albums at his age and deliver a characteristically imposing performance?

And indeed, all of that is true. But having actually listened to Charlemagne: By The Sword and The Cross, I can't help but feel slightly underwhelmed. Don't get me wrong, it isn't bad by any stretch of the mind - Christopher Lee has done far worse throughout his career, believe me - but there are problems with this album that are really difficult to ignore. For starters, while the level of historical detail is impressive, too often the lyrics read like a history textbook, and certain segments become hard to follow. Another problem is that it really isn't as heavy or booming or impactful as you would expect a Christopher Lee metal album to be, and while the man has a great voice, there are too many times you feel that more energy on his part would have greatly strengthened the drama he was trying to create. And while some of the performers on the album do all right, I can't really think of any standout moments in the instrumentation or the lyrics or the performances. 

Once again, it's not a bad album - it's clear that it's a labour of love and it's incredibly articulate - but the lack of poetry in the lyrics and instrumentation doesn't lend itself to a good dramatic presentation of Charlemagne's life. And considering that Christopher Lee definitely chose the right genre and tone to encapsulate this bloody time in history, it's a little disappointing that he doesn't quite get the emotional stakes consistently. After all, there have been plenty of metal albums about war and bloody conflict and European history, but the best of the material tends to ground the stories in potent emotion and humanity, and there really isn't enough of that here. In comparison to, say, Les Miserables, which could have done well to appropriate some of the greater historical weight of Victor Hugo's novel, Charlemagne: By The Sword and The Cross could have done well to try for greater emotional stakes. As it is, the album sometimes feels a little inert, stylistically sound but lacking true soul.

Fortunately,  Christopher Lee wasn't quite finished with his Charlemagne story, and this year, he has released a new album of material (along with rumours that there was going to   be an adapted musical of By The Sword and The Cross, which might not really be a bad way to go). One thing that definitely intrigued me was Christopher Lee's statement that this album would be less symphonic metal and more death metal, heavier and darker. So what do I think of Charlemagne: The Omens of Death?

Well, I'll say this: it's definitely an interesting album and there are signs of real improvement here that made Charlemagne: The Omens of Death an good listen, but there are also some significant problems that keep it from being a true great. 

And the first problem becomes apparent very early in the album - mostly because the first half of the album is basically a heavier remake of Charlemagne: By The Sword and The Cross. I'm serious here: hook, chorus structure, the majority of the lyrics, all straight-faced copied from the previous album and with the addition of heavier guitar and bass. 

Now, the first time I heard this, I was more than a little annoyed, but I didn't quite mind the further I got into the album, mostly because the heavy metal treatment of the songs was done well. Someone clearly stepped in to rewrite the lyrics so they flow a little better, and the virtuoso work from Hedras Ramos Sr. and Jr. was enough to redeem the songs all by themselves. However, they didn't fix all of the problems from the previous work, and thus for some reason we end up getting the overwrought performance of Lydia Salnikova as Charlemagne's wife, an issue I had with the first album and one that wasn't fixed here.

But at precisely the halfway point of the album, newer songs are introduced and I have to admit that I initially really liked what I heard. Christopher Lee brings more energy than on his previous work, and the heavier metal is a natural fit for his presence. It helps matters that he shares the stage with Vincent Ricciardi, a tenor with a magnificent voice that compliments Christopher Lee well as the younger Charlemagne, and the standout single 'Let Legend Mark Me As The King' does a lot to justify the whole project. It captures the pathos of a warrior king well, and it owns the pomp and bombast that comes with it.

And then the album abruptly shifts gears for the next three songs to describe Charlemagne's campaign against the Saracens and the Gascony betrayal (complete with the narrator returning) and while Christopher Lee does well here, we have to deal with a sudden onslaught of harsher metal vocals, including growling and screaming. And normally this wouldn't be a problem (I've mostly gotten over my issues with dirty vocals), except that the dirty vocals just suck. The growling very rarely has any of the menace or intensity needed to make it compliment the rest of the music, and the screaming would be laughed out of the average metalcore band. Coupled with shockingly poor production and mixing, this only serves to drag down an album that was doing pretty damn well, albeit with recycled material.

And then it just ends. The last song 'Judgement Day' is good, but it doesn't feel like Charlemagne's story has advanced or any deeper theme has been explored. It's darker, sure, but outside of that, the album feels distinctly unfinished. There's the slightest hint that justice was meted out against the Gascony betrayers, but it's distinctly unsatisfying. And with all of that, I'm left asking only one question: why does this album exist?

Yeah, I know the question is harsh, but I can't help but feel a bit cheated here. Charlemagne: The Omens Of Death may have reused the material of the previous album well, but it still feels like I'm listening to a remix album with a bonus EP of five songs that were left off of the first album for no adequately explained reason. And it doesn't help matters that the quality of the material on that back half of the album is inconsistent at best. And sure, you can expect some redundancy in vanity projects as the auteur hammers in on his case, but here it feels like Christopher Lee ran out of ideas, unable to stretch the Saracen campaign into a longer statement to sustain a whole work. And the unfinished feeling I get at the end of the album leaves me with the frustrating feeling that Christopher Lee is going to continue the Charlemagne story even further, even if there isn't anywhere else to really go with it. 

And the frustrating thing is that I think there are a number of places that Christopher Lee could take the story. There are many more military campaigns and stories about Charlemagne that could have been told instead of recycling the old material, and it's a bit of a shame we don't see more of that. What's more of an issue is the recycling of thematic elements without advancement - yes, Charlemagne is a warrior king, ruling by cross and sword, but whenever this album attempts to go for introspection, it feels shallow and abortive, without the literary muscle to really get into the motives and struggles of the characters. And while Christopher Lee does his damnedest to impart that character with emotion and personality, it feels like they're just skimming the surface. Sure, the themes are given a darker twist on this album by virtue of the instrumentation and the delivery, but without a solid finale, the album loses that cohesion it needed to stick the landing.

So in summary, Charlemagne: The Omens Of Death isn't a bad metal album, but it has the distinctive feel of a second draft, with some new material and some of the rougher patches ironed out, but not nearly at the level of a final product. The songs still don't flow quite as well as they should, and while the instrumental collaborators lend the album a good energy, Christopher Lee should definitely seek stronger vocal collaborators if he's considering using dirty vocals on any future works. Somewhat ironically, I would definitely recommend the heavier cuts of the songs on this album than those of By The Sword and The Cross, but the haphazard quality of The Omens Of Death's back half makes it less of a cohesive piece and a bit of a weaker album.

And if Sir Christopher Lee happens to read this, I will say that I'd like to see more and that steps were taken in the right direction. But unlike most of your contemporaries in the metal scene, you don't exactly have time to waste.

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