I have a sliding scale to determine how severe my depression is at any given moment: the more power metal unironically inspires me, the more depressed I likely am.
Now, as a metalhead of old, I love taking a jaunt through a Grailknights, Theocracy, or Dragonforce album. Interlacing arpeggiated guitars sprint alongside breakneck drumming while the lead singer yodels over the entire thing about dragons, days of yore, and various types of good and evil magic. It’s as if some enterprising guitarist listened to a few Dio records and said to themselves “Gosh, this could be much, much nerdier.”
I accept power metal for what it is, and that’s delightfully cheesy.
Much like realizing that Dungeons & Dragons wears a story cloak to justify arguing over math for a few hours, embracing the over-the-top nature of power metal is part of its enjoyment. By pressing “Play,” you agree to wink and disengage the safety on your suspension of disbelief.
So how do we draw the line between Blind Guardian’s “The Bard’s Song” and crushing existential stress? My working theory is that my depression breaks down the armor between mind and spirit, exposing my deep need for transcendental themes. I long for paragons and paladins, for virtuous warriors worthy of tapestries and songs, because I know that somewhere, he exists.
This ever-connected, ever-angry, and ever-watching world continually belches its dragon smoke:
Fairy tales are just that: tales. There is no Exemplar and your heroes are dead. Middle-earth was the product of a professor who shared drinks with another professor who created Narnia, and nothing more. They point to nothing, signify nothing. Stories of bravery in the face of world-threatening foes may flare your imagination, but have no place in your heart. Paragons don’t exist, so cease your striving.
However, in my weakened state, I can’t keep the firewall of mere reality in place. My heart soars with the guitar solos and falsetto voices screaming of power that can defeat evil for all eternity. I know that there’s a truth these stories are intrinsically drawn to: we need a hero, we need a power outside of ourselves, and (with apologies to C.S Lewis) evil wizards can be slain.
Lord knows that hits home these days.
Last year, I rediscovered my love for power metal when I providentially clicked on a Gloryhammer music video. I was greeted by a chap in full costume wielding a comically large hammer while flying a submarine through space. The antagonist keyboard player manipulates a holographic projection with his notes, firing attacks at our heroes. The entire thing crescendos with Protagonist McCosplay firing off a blast of lightning by swinging his hammer at the floor of his spaceship. Over the visual chaos, the lead singer belts out his pride of being a part of something called “The Hootsforce.”
I felt a particular kinship to this Saturday Morning cartoon come to life, and I injected it into my music rotation with gusto.
Thanks to the magic of the almighty algorithm, I soon came across another power metal band, less a lovechild of Flash Gordon and Thor and more akin to LARPing with guitars. I was immediately entranced by this more restrained take on the genre. Fellowship’s The Saberlight Chronicles became a staple in my car, in my headphones while working, and in my earbuds while doing dishes. I haven’t felt this uplifted and inspired by an album since Becoming the Archetype’s Celestial Completion or Oh, Sleeper’s Children of Fire. Over eleven years had passed since my spirit connected with a metal album on such a personal level. It’s a heartfelt, refreshing, fast, and catchy ball of cheese—and I don’t think the band would have it any other way.
Rather than covering mystic battlefields and mighty deeds, The Saberlight Chronicles follows a brooding hero unsure of his worthiness of the title. This is not Gloryhammer’s Angus McFife, faffing about with full knowledge that he’s here to smash goblins and chew bubble gum, and he’s all out of bubble gum. This isn’t Dragonforce’s Herman Li throwing down a year-long solo so the other guitarist can chug a beer. It’s not Rhapsody of Fire riding Dio’s coattails into Merlin’s tower, chanting their unholy war cries. This is a band born from the internet fame and fortune-obsessed 2000s, whose hero is unsure of their place in the world. They would take the ring, but they do not know the way.
As their track “Oak and Ash” says so simply:
Here I stand, I’ve got my heart in hand
It’s made of oak and ash
Someone tell me, am I worthy?
Be at peace, please help my heart release
All of this anxiety,
Someone tell me, am I worthy?
The album’s theme is attached to a nagging sense of self-doubt and a longing for direct answers. In a world where so many can’t understand their merit without some form of attention, Fellowship dares to question the hierarchy. As a culture, we’ve dunked ourselves in the deep end of the dopamine pool, dripping with a false sense of what intrinsic worth is. Loneliness in the digital age hovers over us like a fog, and without some kind of pointer toward true strength to carry on, we lose sight of the imago dei.
Fantasy literature pierces the veil, taking the things we fight every single day and depersonalizing them. It puts them on the backs of wargs, in the horror of Dementors, and in a sleigh with the White Witch, giving us space to strive with them in a realm where they can’t actually hurt us.
Power metal has the same categorical effect, attaching our struggles to the common grace of music and amplifying their underlying issues through melody. The gift of song has a distinct way of sparking the imagination, and by consequence, an outside-in view at the state of our own hearts. It might take dozens of lectures, books, and discussions to equal the impact of a single song. That’s not to demean those avenues by any means, but God has embedded music with a very unique set of tools that can chisel away at reclusive and hardened hearts.
To wit, I wrote this because some British lads dressed as hobbits wrote songs that made my heart soar toward the God who laced the world with transcendent desires. The Saberlight Chronicles channels the heart of a world weeping with John in Revelation 5: Who is worthy to conquer evil and set right the wrongs of the world? The True Myth, the longing for that which cannot be satiated any other way, relentlessly finds his way through our meek defenses. He is our Paragon, the High King, the One in whom we find both our worth and our rest.