The notion of Christopher Lee making a symphonic metal album about Charlemagne is not as daft as it sounds. For a start, it would appear that Lee is a direct descendent of Charlemagne. Then there’s the acting career and the roles for which he is most famous – Dracula, of course, and more recently Saruman in Lord Of The Rings. He made his name in the shadows of the darker side of life, so what better medium to use for this project than classical metal?
As it turns out, this album is likely to disappoint anyone expecting something along the lines of Metallica‘s S&M album. Charlemagne is a far more symphonic than symphonic metal. Composer Marco Sabiu has created a soundscape that occasionally features a chugging guitar riff (although it must be said, the same chugging guitar riff) and a quick lead flourish, but for the most part Charlemagne has more in common with cinematic soundtracks than symphonies or metal carnage.
In terms of composition, it can be impressive at times, notably when establishing mood behind the narrative interjections, but all too often Charlemagne sounds a little too predictable and tired. Motifs are constantly returned to as the story unfolds, creating a strange déjà vu effect that is rather disorientating. The military pomp that runs throughout is exactly as you would expect it to sound – surging triumph brass, solid wood wind, urgent string parts and crashing cymbals. It’s all fairly straightforward stuff.
But let’s be honest, we’re here for Dracula’s turn as a bloodthirsty Holy Roman Emperor. Lee plays it all with invigorating gusto, clearly enjoying the role. “I shed the blood of the Saxon men” he bellows with a stern authority that suggests they probably had to hide any sharp objects in the studio during recording, lest he went on a campaign of decapitations to get into character. It’s all gloriously cheesy and strangely enjoyable.
But there are a few low points. A narrator, who sounds like they’ve been drafted in from an old 1970s Schools and Colleges programme – or a London Underground “mind the closing doors” announcement – continually breaks the flow of the story. The straight delivery sounds like it is being read by someone who’s been told to speak slowly and clearly and forget about intonation, rendering the whole thing rather flat. As soon as a crescendo is reached, we’re bought back down to earth with a short history lecture. Had they laid it out more like a play (like Pere Ubu‘s Long Live Pere Ubu) it might have worked.
The other problem is the celebratory feel of the music, which soundtracks the story of a man who rampaged across Europe killing heathens in a campaign of religious conversion. Is George W Bush likely to get a symphonic opera in years to come thanks to the Iraq war, which some have suggested he presented as a kind of Holy War in his briefings? You’d hope not.
Quite who this album is for is anyone’s guess. There’s not enough metal for the rock audience, the symphonic elements are a little too obvious to be taken seriously in classical circles, and an album about Charlemagne is hardly likely to find itself nestled on any coffee tables alongside Dido. The most comparable album is Jeff Mills‘ War Of The Worlds, but in terms of quality and storytelling, Charlemagne doesn’t come close. It seems destined for the drawer marked “Curios” alongside Music For Biscuits and The Glorious Sound Of Wasps.