As there are hundreds of books and thousands of websites dedicated to all the bands I'm going to mention here, I wouldn't bother reading any further if I were you. Go on, just Google Hawkwind or Pink Floyd or Yes or Bolt Thrower. They’ll tell you all you need to know about these bands and perhaps more comprehensively than I can. So why am I writing this blog entry then? Being a member of the Northampton Science Fiction Writers Group, my intention was to write a comprehensive guide to the role Sci-fi plays in rock music. I’m not gong to do that. Instead I’ll tell you what I know.
Twelve was quite an important age for me. My reading age caught up with my real age thanks to James and Frank Herbert, I got into music and became a fanatical enthusiast of the genre heavy metal. Another world of imagination opened up. I was as keen on listening to music as I was on reading horror and sci-fi. Sometimes they over lapped.
Iron Maiden’s 1983 album Piece of Mind concludes with a six minute track called To Tame a Land. Reading the lyric sheet I noticed that they were using phrases from the book I was reading at the time; Dune by Frank Herbert. Phrases such as Stillsuits and Gom-Jabbar. I even wrote to the Iron Maiden fan club to clarify this and received a note from their manager in hand-written scrawl.
You were right. To Tame a Land was inspired by Frank Herbert’s Dune
Like it wasn’t obvious, but to the twelve year old me it wasn’t.
Quite how much a writer’s taste in Music affects their work is subjective and debatable. Alistair Reynolds entitled his short work Diamond Dogs, inspired or in reference, to David Bowie’s 1974 Album. The Klaxtons called their first Album Myths of the Near Future after a JG Ballard collection. Our very own NSFWG member Ian Whates is a keen fan of sci-fi prog-rockers Yes.
The history of science fiction in music consciously goes back a few years. In the Year 2525 was a kooky sixties record by Zager and Evans. Other artists dabbled with the themes of space including Pink Floyd. Floyd’s early work is laden with space references. Cirrus Minor, Interstellar Overdrive, Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun all refer to space travel; pushing out into the boundaries of the unknown but obvious references to the use of hallucinogens serve a dual concept as the spacey elements become almost metaphors for the psychedelic elements. Notably on Cirrus Minor (from the soundtrack to the film ‘More’) where the lyrics tell of a chap taking trip from a woodland glade to Cirrus Minor. He isn’t using a space shuttle to get there, guys.
Moving into the Seventies and the progressive rock movement unashamedly ally’s itself to Sci-fi. The band most associated with Sci-fi, who operate under the banner of ‘space rock’ and wear their sci-fi credentials on their sleeves is Hawkwind. If being a rock band and associating with sci-fi were a criminal offence then Hawkwind would be sentenced to instant vaporization. Collaborations with Michael Moorcock on the 1975 Warrior on the Edge of Time LP and ten years later with their Chronicle of the Black Sword LP saw Hawkwind embrace the imaginative elements to the maximum with mind melting stage shows and brilliant conceptual pieces such as Sonic Attack and Space is Deep.
Sonic Attack and Space is Deep being monologues with sinister undertones. Sonic Attack is a mock public information soundbite on how to survive a sonic attack, chillingly reminiscent of the government’s Protect and Survive campaign a few years later advising the British public how to survive a nuclear attack.
As an adolescent I needed to be spoon fed songs and anything without immediate lyrical and musical cohesion lost my interest. Sadly I only really started to appreciate the above two bands much later on in life. For instance, my brother played me Hawkwind’s debut and I remember thinking on hearing Be Yourself ‘This is just eight minutes of weird sounds. What rubbish.’
Now I listen to it thinking: ‘Wow, this is eight minutes of weird sounds, great.’
In the seventies there were a host of sci-fi friendly bands under the progressive banner. The foremost of these being Yes. Musically more objective than Hawkwind and certainly less influenced by narcotics (although some might debate this point), Yes made songs with titles like Starship Trooper and The Gates of Delirium. Their covers were works of art by renowned fantasy artist Roger Dean. Although Yes’s aesthetics and music appealed to sci-fi fans Jon Anderson took the sci-fi aesthetic to boiling point with a concept about space travel, Olias of Sunhillow, a good old fashioned concept album about an alien called Oilas piloting a spacecraft called the Moorglade Mover from his home planet, which has experienced a volcanic catastrophe, to a new planet called earth (small e). How sci-fi is that? The cover art looks splendid as well.
I first heard Yes being played on Tommy Vance’s radio show when I was a kid and decided I didn’t like Jon Anderson’s high pitched voice. These days I listen again and I think it suits the music. I must admit that I only really like their Rodger Dean artwork period. Tales from Topographic Oceans is an album for long car journeys unless any of your passengers hate prog rock which most people I know seem to.
When I was growing up in the 1980’s there was a mini prog-revival with bands such as Twelfth Night and IQ being played on the Tommy Vance Friday Rock Show. To my knowledge, the only one of these bands to adopt the sci-fi imagery and lyrics explicitly was Pallas. Their 1983 album The Sentinel was a semi-concept album focusing in the destruction of Atlantis. The cover art alone was enough to get me to ask my parents for it on my 13th birthday. I was so cool. While all the other boys were pulling girls to Duran Duran (a band whose name was taken from a character in Barbarella) I was at home studying the lyrics to prog opuses like this. Talk about wasted youth.
Another aspect of my life that guaranteed my virginity into my twenties was my love of heavy metal. Back then girls didn’t like metal. These days girls walk around in Marilyn Manson and Slipknot t-shirts. Talk about being born too early.
Heavy metal and horror go hand in hand but metal is no stranger to Sci-fi. Iron Maiden I’ve already mentioned but Brummie metallers Judas Priest wrote some fine sci-fi themed songs. Invader from 1978’s Stained Class album begins with the sound of a UFO in take-off mode and warns of aliens invading. Electric Eye from 1982’s Screaming for Vengeance uses as its subject matter satellite monitoring but the finest conceptual song from this band, in my opinion, is The Sentinel from 1983’s Defenders of the Faith. (The one with a metal lion on the cover armed with missiles and named the Metallion. Metal-lion? Get it?)
The lyrics depict a post-apocalyptic future of upturned, burned out-cars and a shell of a cathedral where hordes of Mad Max type thugs challenge The Sentinel to a fight. He kills them all with throwing knives. The drama and intensity are ramped up to the maximum by the music and Rob Halford’s powerful voice. The times I’ve nearly crashed the car singing along to this one.
Birmingham’s other, more famous sons, Black Sabbath have flirted with Sci-fi. Planet Caravan; a nice, laid back ditty describes a travel through space while Into the Void tells the story of refugees escaping a dying earth to begin a new life on a better world.
From space, looking to the Earth, it would seem as if all the sci-fi excesses in music happened in the Seventies with Yes and Hawkwind (I don’t count ELO in this even if they did have a spaceship). So what about now?
By now I mean the last twenty-odd years. Well, our old friends Iron Maiden had an album out in 2010, The Final Frontier, which had a wrecked spaceship on the cover. I’ve discovered a few sci-fi gems myself. In 1998 industrial thrashers Fear Factory had released a concept album called Obsolete. The protagonist of the story being a terrorist/freedom fighter who calls himself Edgecrusher, battling a megacorporation hell-bent on taking the Earth to the edge of destruction and oppressing its people in the meantime. The Edgecrusher fights the system without much success before finding inner piece in a ruined church. Liner notes written by Burton C. Bell, vocalist, describe the concept written as a short story. This was the only time Fear Factory dabbled with the concept album idea which was a shame as it worked very well. They even had Gary Numan on guest vocals.
Put this on at a party when you want your guests to leave.
Finally, in this day and age, the sci-fi concept album as something of a re-emergence with modern prog bands such as Transatlantic, Star One and Spock’s Beard. Leading this resurgence is Ayreon (no, I can’t pronounce it either), a band formed by Arjen Lucassen. Lucassen is a Dutch Multi-instrumentalist who gets his mates involved with his projects. Mates such as Fish from Marillion, Devin Townsend, Mikael Akerfeldt from Opeth, Sharon Del Adel from Within Temptation and the bloke who played the flute from Focus. Ayreon release good old fashioned concept albums that span two whole discs and that is a lot of Music. 010111001 is the title of one of the concept alums and not a Stockholm telephone number, as is The Theory of Everything and Universal Migrator (parts 1 and 2)
I’ve only heard two of these double disc concept albums. Musically there are influences from Yes and Marillion as well as a lot of what could be termed Eurometal. The Human Equation is a concept album about a bloke in a coma going through his life. The other one that I’ve heard is the sci-fi epic Into the Electric Castle: A Space Opera (He even entitles it a space opera, how sci-fi is that!).Various characters from history get taken out of time to the electric castle by a seemingly benign entity voiced by Peter Daltrey (no relation). He begins by telling them not to be afraid then tells them that some of them may die in the tasks they will be expected to undertake (so no need to be afraid, then) and ends by having some kind of vocoder melt down as the minds of the characters that the entity has captured are the only things keeping him alive. Some songs sound like they could be entered for Eurovision and to the cynical ear this is nothing but flamboyant and pretentious. I don’t have a cynical ear and simply enjoy it for what it is; imaginative, slightly cheesy and as I can’t play a note I’m really in no position to criticise music. Also, there are some great keyboard parts and the guy from Focus can really play that flute.
So, if you made it this far you have either a) been given some musical pointers b) been taken on a tour of songs and bands to avoid. Thanks for listening.
Originally published on Paul's blog at http://paulmelhuish.wordpress.com/