Luminiferous Aether: Science Fiction and Metal in 2016

Metal and science fiction clash along various cultural axes. Their marriage begins with tone; both have a penchant for the wildly grandiose and imaginative personas, for personality writ large across

7 years ago

Metal and science fiction clash along various cultural axes. Their marriage begins with tone; both have a penchant for the wildly grandiose and imaginative personas, for personality writ large across a vast canvas. The juxtaposition continues along more “meta” lines, with both being adopted (or perhaps relegated to) the “geek” persona, blending outsider traits with dedication to detail, lore and symbol-heavy communities. These ties have accompanied metal since its inception. Metallica (“Of Wolf and Man”, “The Thing That Should Not Be”), Iron Maiden (“To Tame a Land”, “Caught Somewhere in Time”), Black Sabbath (“Into the Void”) and many more classic metal or proto-metal bands all have tracks based on science fiction concepts. Furthermore, science fiction fueled the album cover art, lyrics and musicality of several movements in metal during the late 80’s and the 90’s including power metal, technical death metal, progressive thrash and more.

What do we mean when we say “science fiction”? The genre is famously hard to define; today, horror and fantasy have splintered off from it and stand as their own classifications but its nebulous borders used to include them as well. Science fiction means something different to different parts of culture, to different age groups and socio-economic demographics. For the needs of this post, we will take a very broad and encompassing approach to science fiction. Anything which deals with the future in an imaginative way — that is, doesn’t simply extrapolate from the present and assumes current trends will remain pretty much the same — can be considered science fiction. Thus, space opera, hard science fiction, new wave, afro-futurism, cyberpunk and more are all placed under the science fiction category for our needs.

Our main inquiry will be: where does the relationship between science fiction and metal stand in 2016? Has contemporary metal retained the symbolic relationships which earlier trends had with science fiction or has something shifted? This article aims not to provide an answer to this question (which is probably impossible) but, rather, to chart the tools and understandings needed to begin to approach it. During this article, we’ll attempt to explore the main trends of how science fiction interacts with metal and what kind of music/lyrics are written in relation to it. We will attempt to identify three major trends or traits in the relationship between metal and science fiction, whilst not limiting ourselves too harshly to the 2016 delineation and going back as far as 2014, although sparingly.

If the goal is to identify main trends within the relationship between science fiction and metal, defining them before the initial inquiry is a good idea. First, we will take a look at the deep ties between extreme metal (tech death, progressive thrash, blackened death and more) and what I dub “cold space opera”, expansive stories which focus on a very grim and grandiose vision of space. We’ll then explore a second trend in the way which progressive metal meets science fiction. This outlook usually has a more optimistic/utopian view of space, correlating to the New Wave of Science Fiction which began in the mid-70’s. It is concerned less with specific protagonists and their struggles and more with visions of a desired future. These two trends, while self contradicting, make up the majority of the approach to science fiction in metal today. While other approaches are certainly there (for example, Native Construct‘s quite bizarre Quiet World), they signify the sheer variety that science fiction offers. They certainly deserve research (and we might do that at some point in the future) but for now, these two contradiction yet complementary approaches will serve us well.

Per ardua, ad astra.

Mountains Above the Sun – Technical Metal and the “Cold” Space Opera

I’ve invested many words into the description of space opera elsewhere on the blog and thus won’t be spending too much time doing that here. Instead, I’d like to focus on one of the major themes or tones of space opera by which I mean the inherently “bright” palette classic space opera had. While not surprising from a genre coming straight from the depths of pulpy, sexualized science fiction, even the more complex and intellectual space opera had this certain of air of adventure, exploration and sheer wonder at space and the possibilities it might hold. Space ships are written as large, boisterous occupations requiring the cooperation of hundreds of men and women; star systems are troves of treasure and while challenge exists, the hero(es) are always up to defeating it.

This can be seen in the cover art to some of the more prominent works in the genre, although these were also heavily influenced by the aesthetics of the decades in which they were made. Regardless, it’s hard not to associate space opera with a certain joie de vivre, a willingness to tackle space with open hearts and minds. These tendencies made their way into metal through bands like Lost Horizon (especially on the track “Pure” from A Flame to the Ground Beneath), Star One, Edguy and more. These usually came from the power metal genre whose propensity for vibrant characters and adventures meshed well with its astral inquiries. Even “darker” genres, like the emergent progressive death metal scene or the dominant melodic death metal scene in the 90’s usually took a “lighter” approach to ideas of space exploration. Consider Cynic‘s Focus and Traced in Air for example.

However, in those very same sub-genres also lay a darker and colder approach to science fiction. In FlamesLunar Strain is a good example of that, as is later entries in their career, with its entities hungering for infinity in the endless void of space. Bands like Iced Earth also contributed to this more sinister form of space opera, emphasizing the alien nature and brutality of space. These ideas always ran as a counter-current to their brighter brethren, infusing metal’s vision of the space opera with a decidedly abrasive nature. This form ran deepest in the death metal sub-genres, perhaps as part of its overall tendency to put itself in opposition to many of the other trends in society and in metal in general.

These undercurrents seem to have burst forth in 2016, unfurling black fingers and digging into the very heart of how space opera is perceived within metal nowadays. The genesis of this movement can be found well before the previous year, of course. Ever since late 2000’s, plenty of bands have been “muddying” up metal’s aesthetic of space. Archspire, The Faceless and more have been carrying on the tradition of technical death metal’s approach to space opera. However, none of them seem to have the austere frigidness of space, that certain feeling of dread, abandonment and adversity that seems to tinge the ways in which science fiction was articulated in metal in 2016.

Take MithrasOn Strange Loops. From cover art to musical delivery, it sends the message that space is not something to feel passionate about; awe and dejection are the emotions the album conveys most. Man is small in the eyes of the void, our passions and dreams brought to nothing much in the scale of creatures/creations which span it. Mysteries of life and death and a decidedly human journey still lie in the middle of the album but the scales are re-adjusted, casting the aspirations of the protagonist in such a small and meaningless role as to almost elicit a laugh from the listener. Almost; the overall oppressive vibe of the album prevents that, delivering a powerful message of our insignificance and loss. The album ends far beyond the death of even the stars themselves and, while the universe is born again, ends with a question highlighting the insignificance of it all:

So come with me into the outer dark
We’ll pass the last redoubt
To where the cold closes in
And all the lights go out
There time stands still..
We’ll leap beyond the curve of space
For another time, another place
To rejoin the pantheon alongside our ancestors
And wonder
Why did we live?”

Another prime example of this is, of course, Vektor‘s masterful Terminal Redux. While I’ve spent many, many a word on analyzing this album’s lyrics, let’s focus for now on the simple fact of its scale. It rises from the hull of one space ship, through the more spacious arrangements of a station to the population of a planet and, finally, to the cosmic scale. Throughout all, our protagonist’s ambition is what motivates the story and keeps it moving forward; however, it ends with his final surrender. Even though this surrender also has a cyclical nature, when coupled with the severe album art and the hero’s madness, the listener is left with a bitter taste in their mouth and most of the album is spent in the darkness of oppression and mad aspirations—far from the bright-eyed power and adventurism of space opera in its earlier forms.

Another example, from a very different genre, lies within Cult of Luna‘s release from last year with Julie Christmas on vocals. While Mariner has its share of optimism, it also houses deep-seated fears of being pursued into space and an overall aesthetic of abandonment, fierce introspection and a chill that runs through its explorations. A psychedelic trip that is arguably both to space but also into the mind, Mariner gives off a distinct vibe of madness and frigid emptiness which drives the inner eye against itself in a way that is uniquely 2016, merging ideas of outward exploration with inward failings and struggles.

While earlier clashes between metal and the space opera sub-genre had their introspective elements, the modern iteration of the relationships seems obsessed with the idea of struggle, travel and conflict. Instead of an upbeat, wondrous and ultimately fruitful vision of space opera, metal seems to present day something sterile, austere and difficult, a vision of space that’s all about conflict and perseverance. Whether this is simply a natural progression of the genre or a result of changing times is hard to tell. Whether it mirrors trends within science fiction literature and thought is even harder to tell, but the return of hard science fiction that is slowly being felt across those communities might have something to do with it. Regardless, it creates metal that is right at home with the idea of human meaninglessness within an astral setting, painful, abrasive and powerful.

The Endless Knot – Progressive Metal and the New Wave of Science Fiction

The 60’s and the 70’s were a singular moment in the 20th century, a moment spanning two decades and numerous social groups and ideas. It was characterized by many different types of approaches but also by a common thread that ran through of them. The world seemed on the cusp of change and for the better; the Age of Pisces, signifying Christianity, conservatism and the dominance of masculinity was dying and the Age of Aquarius was being born. These New Age ideas (already explored by us, here) infected the nascent social and cultural movements with a heady, chiliastic notion of a world to come and intoxicating optimism that comes with that belief. With such cosmological foundations, is it a wonder that these ideas also manifested in science fiction?

Where the Golden Age of science fiction was male dominated (or, at least, only males got recognition for their writing), the New Wave of Science fiction was all about breaking boundaries. Gender roles, classic narratives, protagonists and the very scope of science fiction were all destabilized by a plethora of feminist, anarchist, libertarian, psychedelic writers working together as a community (a “republic of letters” also started forming between them, enabling their cooperation). Under their auspices, science fiction was reworked and made to bear on the social issues concerning the then prevalent movements within the (mostly) American intelligentsia. However, much of what characterized Golden Age science fiction remained and was even bolstered. The space opera genre which we described above enjoyed a massive revival, ushered along by Ursula K. Le Guin and her Hainish Cycle and Samuel R. Delany’s masterful works.

In many ways, before its transformation at the hand of the more extreme genres of metal, this is the science fiction which metal inherited. It was still very much the prime actor in science fiction when metal was being born, in the late 70’s and 80’s. Many of the bands cited in the intro fed off of these stories, although they certainly read and were influenced by the greats of the Golden Age. In 2016, the significance of this style of science fiction is still very much felt. Its wide-eyed optimism coupled with a penchant for agendas of radical social justice seem as relevant as they did when it was birthed as they are today and mesh exceptionally well with the themes of progressive metal. Something about the genre, born from artists like Rush (who were heavily influenced by the New Wave of science fiction), seems to respond exceptionally well to the bright colors and heavy weighted ideas of the New Wave. The aforementioned Iron Maiden, Watchtower, Ayreon and more all tied progressive music and the New Wave of science fiction together, a tie which lasts until today.

Take Haken‘s Affinity for example, an album that’s all resplendent, honest retro. In re-channeling the sounds of Rush and Yes (mostly, alongside some other influences like Dream Theater, naturally) is seems to have re-tapped into their brand of science fiction as well. Affinity is not a concept album, but its tracks revisit again and again the same concepts, namely human identity, social justice, the meaning of space exploration for our society and the path which we should take as a species into the future. It handles these with an almost utopian sheen. While there are threats and challenges, the album is infused with hope for a coming age, a surge in empathy, love and power which will lead to a more equal human society. In space, if possible. Just take a look at these lyrics from “Lapse”:

Dying of the Light
A million faces search the sky
The universe was huge enough for us to hide
Drifting with the tide
A rite of passage to the stars
I always knew the days were through for us to shine

Live, love, fade out

Days and nights seem never ending
Space and time bleed into one

Hold on to the light
To stay awake
To live and learn
To keep your sanity
Trace forgotten smiles
To feel the rage and hear the tale
Of how the mission fell apart
Stay here by the light
To turn the page and feel the pain
Of being loved and left behind
Sing the Sun in flight
To be afraid and live in vain
Let the rest of us remain

Even when writing what is inherently a song about abandonment (one imagines a dying world left behind by a colony ship, perhaps due to its failure or betrayal), Haken seem unwilling to conjure the same dark tones as the “cold” space operas we evinced earlier. This is extremely indicative of the New Wave influences on their perception of science fiction; darkness, failure and misery are portrayed as things to be overcome (“Let the rest of remain”, after all). New Wave wasn’t as optimistic as to never mention the negative. On the contrary, it usually involved a hefty measure of struggle and pain. But these ideas, as in the social/cultural movements of the day (who were mostly concerned with war, we must remember), were always painted as things to be overcome on the way to a better future.

Looking at the preceding years to 2016 reveals more examples of the tenaciousness of this trend. For one, veteran progressive artists (like Watchtower or Ayreon) are still producing music which feeds off of these ideas. Younger bands, like A Sense of Gravity, Coheed and Cambria (who deserve their own article on their ties to science fiction, if we’re being honest) or Gods of Eden, carry the banner besides Haken, reiterating and innovating on these ideas. The latter’s From the End of Heaven (2015) is a prime example. Channeling afro-futuristic reliance on Egyptian mythology (which is also a part of the New Wave of science fiction) their album includes multiple instances of the same enthusiastic, powerful vision of humanity in space, transformed into something new and, perhaps, better. Science fiction for them, as for Haken, is less about a specific story or protagonist.

Unlike extreme metal’s reliance on the “cold” space opera, these are concept albums only in the sense that they explore the concept of radical ideas through science fiction. Perhaps here, the true variety of what science fiction has to offer metal is reveled in full, in the comprehensive contrast between the genres and how they use it. It can offer a linear narrative, pushing the album forward in its efforts to tell a story. But it can also offer a more diffuse light, an inheritance of ideas, words and concepts that, instead of fueling an album in a linear sense, more informs the field in which it operates and gives it a vocabulary to work with. Regardless, the intersection between science fiction and metal is insanely fertile and more research is required to delve into the roots of their association. Perhaps the future will bring such an inquiry from us. In the meantime, we have plenty of music to keep us thinking about the stars which are, by force, our only possible future.

Per ardua. Ad astra. With metal at our side.

Eden Kupermintz

Published 7 years ago