Metal has been widely divided into many subgenres, mostly based on sonic elements. We have the death, doom, black, prog and so fort, but there are always certain streams that defy genre but are constant. For example, Viking metal can range from pagan black metal to cheesy folk metal, as long as the Viking theme is present. There’s another type I’d like to mention: barbarian metal!
Disclaimer: This is merely a bit of thinking out loud… excuse me, thinking on paper. I’ve not really delved into the literature on this, I’m just thinking about what our changing society might think of something like barbarian metal. Can it still exist? Sure it can, I think.
Let me elaborate on this subject. It’s not metal about barbarians, it does feature certain imagery and references. The imagery is close to the sword & sorcery themes, featuring strong looking men, often bare chested, wielding heavy weaponry. The sound is also strong, pounding and rarely features subtleties. I’ll elaborate on this in the following paragraphs. What I want to adres mostly is the inevitable question about this stream in metal. Does it have a place in the now? With gender equality and beyond, does Conan metal still have a place?
The Eternal Warrior
I came across the concept of the ‘Eternal Champion’, through a similarly named band. The concept is derived from the work of Michael Moorcock. Wikipedia has defined the champion thusly: The Eternal Champion, a Hero who exists in all dimensions, times and worlds, is the one who is chosen by fate to fight for the Cosmic Balance; however, he often does not know of his role, or, even worse, he struggles against it, never to succeed. But as the man describes it himself:
Now, if we look at fiction, we could define many versions of the eternal champion. Drizzt Do’Urden, Aragorn, Varian Wrynn maybe even. Any sci fi franchise has their own. There is one verson though, that I would like to isolate here and that is the one of Conan The Barbarian. Conan exemplifies the expression found in what I call barbarian metal, whose progenitors are Manowar. A band loved by many, but clearly embracing the essence of this Eternal Warrior.
Conan, Masculinity and Metal
Conan is pure in all his emotions, he is cunning, fierce or benevolent, but he is always a warrior standing alone versus the tide. Bare chested with bulging muscles, he epitomizes the masculine directness that we find in various characters in fantasy and that is embodied in pretty much every Manowar song. Manowar even has a mascotte, named Manowarrior, who is pretty much Conan, standing on top of his battered and beaten enemies.
The music expresses the same values, it features muscular riffing and a straight forward approach. There are the pumping, heavy hitting rhythms and everything about the sound is ment to evoke that same feeling of epic manliness in a barbaric sense. There is little doubt about the inspiration for this, especially if you see the picture of Manowar in their loin-furs:
Mind, this is not a write-up on the whole gender matter. This is a theme that has been present in metal and fantasy for a long time, where masculinity (as we seem to have defined it) is pushed to its human limits with bulging chests, curving biceps and a full display of the male body as an invincible tool. It’s almost resembling the way we end to depict women these days, but this is not sensual in any way. This is a warrior. His body is his weapon, it’s the engine that drives the blade or axe to smithe the enemies.
It’s easy to make fun of Manowar, but their appeal is worldwide. It’s a band that attracts through its particular charm of masculine power, remarkably catchy songs and brotherhood vibe. They’re one of the great bands in the metal history.
The music is similarly strong, loud and boisterous. It deals with exactly the warrior themes, but without any complexities or discussion, morals or any crap. It’s a straight forward masculine approach. To want is to take, to fight is to win.
Bands following in the steps of Manowar hold on to that notion of aggression and climactic songs. It’s music to pump your fists to, to bang your head to and stand with legs wide and raised fists. It’s empowering in a very pure and direct way. Though some bands might include this in their package, there’s no attempt to be knowledgeable about history as Iron Maiden does. No attempt to incorporate the occult and spiritual, like Led Zeppelin does. No politics and social themes like in Metallica‘s music. It reduced it to force.
Force and power, those are the main values. Domination of the other and the continuous struggle. It oversimplifies struggle to something that can be resolved with fists and bravado. With flexing muscles and the warriors cry. These have always been part of the metal discourse, as discussed by the more academic analysis of heavy metal. But what does that mean for todays attempt at gender equality?
The thing is just, this is something we love. Something primordial that lifts us up and makes us feel better. Listening to a Manowar album or even one by Conan themselves can lift you up. It can make us do things with less fear, because the music makes us feel better. It doesn’t make us feel superior as men, but it does profoundly affect us.
Gender Equality and battle music
Now, we live in a time where gender equality is kind of a big deal. In a sense this would seem to be one of those last bastions that needs to be conquered and overthrown. But does it really? Is this masculinity really something that is bound up with gender that much or is there a place for female listeners too? Do they perhaps have equal desires for some fight, for power and strength? Wasn’t there a Red Sonja next to Conan? Don’t girls play video games, where crushing your opponents is awesome? Don’t they love fantasy and science fiction and playing Dungeons & Dragons? There is no gender bound up with this mentality and love for the sword.
Perhaps we always will have some warrior element in us and probably this is not just bound up with man, woman or whatever one claims to be. It’s a part of us it seems, regardless where it comes from what charges it. We all feel affinity with the warrior, with glory, with brotherhood… or sisterhood?
So if we leave out the manly, maybe this leaves metal as a perfect bonding ground of whatever sex you are or chose to be. We can all raise our horns together.