Showing posts with label christopher lee. Show all posts
Showing posts with label christopher lee. Show all posts

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?