Avalon Calling: The Arthurian Myth In Pop, Goth And Metal
Rocks Off got a press release the other day extolling the upcoming sixth studio album by metal band Anaal Nathrakh. We had no idea what the hell it was, and thought it was one of those weirdly-spelled porn spams we seem to get so much.
Luckily, our editor knew that "Anaal Nathrakh" was the first two words in Merlin's Charm of Making from the movie Excalibur. In the film, Merlin uses the charm to turn King Arthur's dad, Uther Pendragon, into the likeness of the Duke of Cornwall, with whose wife he wanted to make two and a half minutes of squishy noises.
The charm itself... is pretty much just gibberish based on Old Irish. If you really work at it, according to linguist Michael Everson, it translates as:
Charm of death and life
Thy omen of making.
That's if you follow the script, although the phonetics they use in the film are as bad as a Klingon speaker tackling Tolkien's Elvish. Wow... there may not be a single person reading this that would believe at this point that we've ever had the tiniest bit of sex.
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The immortal tale of King Arthur has fascinated us since we were little, after we got our hands on a VHS of a cartoon called Young King Arthur. This show has, as far as we can tell, has gone to pop-culture heaven and no longer exists. The legend combines all the greatest aspects of adventure and romance, so it's no surprise that the mythology has contributed greatly to modern song.
There have been a lot. Two award-winning Broadway musicals, Camelot and Monty Python's Spamalot have been based on King Arthur. Hard rocker Gary Hughes dedicated two whole albums, The Once and Future King Pts. I and II, to Arthur.
One of our favorite tributes is Iron Maiden singer Bruce Dickinson's song "Return of the King" from his 1998 solo album The Chemical Wedding. The song deals with one of the most potent and enduring aspects of Arthur's kingship; namely, that he is destined to return to rule England in its darkest hour.
According to legend, Arthur fell in combat with his illegitimate son - and nephew - Mordred during the Battle of Camlann in 537 A.D. The king's body was taken to the mystic isle of Avalon, the site where Excalibur was forged, and once he has recovered from his wounds he will rise to claim the throne.
Dickinson's tune makes many connections to the mystical aspects of the Arthurian legends, connecting the legends (as many fantasists have) with Stonehenge and the Beltane fires. No work has cemented that tenuous connection more than Marion Zimmer Bradley's novel The Mists of Avalon. The book deals much more closely with the relationship between Arthur and his half-sister Morgause, who in Avalon is combined with her sister Morgan La Fey to create a composite character.
You might be wondering about all the incest. Apparently you know nothing about how pure royal bloodlines are maintained, but at least in this case Bradley offers a more understandable solution. The king and his sis get in on during a pagan celebration where masked sexual partners are chosen at random, and only discover God's quirky since of matchmaking in the morning.
The reason we're going on about a book in a music blog is because Avalon inspired perhaps the greatest song paying homage to King Arthur in existence. That song is The Mission's "Deliverance" from their 1990 album Carved In Sand.
The Mission was formed from the shattered remains of The Sisters of Mercy by guitarist Wayne Hussey and bassist Craig Adams. The band has gone on to have a very solid career, but not nearly the career they should have had. In a just world, The Mission would have U2's album sales and maybe, just maybe, there would be a Spider-Man musical cursed by an angry and vengeful God.
We're currently a little miffed at The Mission because of a recent joke played on fans by Wayne Hussey. He announced not only a new studio album, but that it would include former Banshees and Creatures drummer Budgie, who is currently divorced from Siouxsie Sioux, his longtime musical and romantic partner.
Guitarist Mark Thwaite, a later Mission member and currently part of Peter Murphy's touring band, told Rocks Off at Peter Murphy's recent Numbers show that the whole thing was a prank.
Poor taste in humor aside, the band's catalog stands out as exemplary, and "Deliverance" maybe the best thing they've ever done. Like Dickinson, they draw numerous parallels to the fairy-tale aspect of King Arthur rather than the more accurate conquering/killing-things aspect. It focuses heavily on the symbols of apples and the Beltane fires, and brings more into focus the realm of magic and mysticism.
All this is absolutely exalted by Hussey's unbeatable guitar lines and baritone rock voice. If you haven't ever heard a Wayne Hussey guitar riff, you could best describe what he does as taking the troubadour aspects of early stringed instruments and applying them to metal and rock forms.
The result is something that is damn near too good to be true.
The legend of King Arthur is a grand weeping thing that has been contributed to by various sources, both learned and popular, for over a thousand years. It takes some truly epic music to really do justice to the true king, and in our opinions the only ones who've done so are The Mission and Bruce Dickinson.
Well, and Monty Python. There's a moral in there somewhere.
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