First of all, I won’t be wasting a lot of pixels explaining the cinematic legend that is Christopher Lee – sorry, make that SIR Christopher Lee – because if you’re reading these pages, you know damn well who I’m talking about. If not, shame on you – and do your damn homework! Suffice to say the genres of horror, fantasy and science fiction would not be remotely similar – or nearly as classy – without the commanding voice, penetrating eyes and godlike presence of Lee, one of Hammer Films’ most beloved performers, and whom many horror aficionados consider the finest screen personification of Dracula.
But what’s even more fascinating about the man with genre cinema’s most impressive resume is the part you may NOT have heard: Lee happens to be a descendant (on his mother’s side) of King Charlemagne, aka Charles the Great, the first Holy Roman Emperor (crowned in 800 A.D.) and one of the most influential figures in European history. Better yet, the actor has decided to use his performing talents to acknowledge his regal ancestor… and best of all, he’s chosen the medium of symphonic metal to bring the epic tale of Charlemagne to life. That’s a bold move in anyone’s book, and well worthy of a listen. I got a chance to hear the album recently myself, and it’s a one-of-a-kind experience. The full review lies on the other side, so flip it over and find out about the best history lesson you’ll ever hear…
“I have been metal for many years,” Lee declares in the trailer for Charlemagne: By the Sword and the Cross. “…only I did not know about it.” That’s an important statement on many levels, but most of all it acknowledges the range, power and versatility of metal as a musical medium. There’s really no limit to the kind of stories you can tell within its lyrical and melodic structures, especially with the right talent at the helm. Tales of noble heroes, epic quests and violent, apocalyptic battles are all familiar turf for a metal artist – the modern version of the famed poet warrior. So it’s not such a surprise that Lee – whose many talents include a stunning operatic baritone – chose the medium of symphonic metal, with the backing of a full orchestra and choir, to enact the tale of his iconic ancestor.
This isn’t Lee’s first foray into the metal medium – he’s actually contributed quite a bit of voice work to projects by Manowar and Rhapsody – but this is the first time he’s had direct creative involvement in the story and lyrics, as this particular tale is close to his heart. The instrumentation for Charlemagne was approached by composer Marco Sabiu in the same style as that of a film score, with Lee and other vocalists (including his daughter Christina, whose deep, authoritative voice is nearly as commanding as that of her father) singing and speaking the various roles. Wrapping himself fully in the spirit of the project, Lee portrays his ancestor neither as hero or villain, but a man driven by a holy mission – perhaps even to the level of mania – to save countless souls. Emboldened by world-changing power, the fatalistic emperor was often driven to bloody extremes, often graphically illustrated in the lyrics of tracks like The Bloody Verdict of Verden.
Charlemagne plays out as an epic rock opera in five acts, each with a spoken introduction (narrated by Christina Lee), and the story arc is bracketed with an instrumental overture and finale. Multiple vocalists musically enact all the principal figures in the king's life, including a massive backing chorus at appropriately grandiose moments. The first act, King of the Franks, opens the tale with a pensive melody, as Charlemagne on his deathbed takes part in a dream-dialogue with his late father, looking back on his life and works, weighing his deeds. The Iron Crown of Lombardy suggests the gathering storm in the western world, with the weight of the chugging riffs, stabbing cellos and thundering orchestral percussion underscoring the massive challenges set before our protagonist.
The most intense and memorable act, The Bloody Verdict of Verden, depicts the king's brutal and extreme measures against the Saxons to end their pagan practices, going as far as to order thousands decapitated: the refrain “I shed the blood of four thousand Saxon men!” is a line only an actor like Lee – the voice of Dracula, Saruman and Dooku – could properly carry off. These blood-and-thunder lyrics are carried on piano-driven dirges with sudden bursts of tremolo guitars.
The Age of Oneness Out of Diversity, told once again from Charlemagne's deathbed, begins as another pensive interlude, but frequently gives way to bright explosions of triumphant strings and intricate lead guitar, as the dying ruler weighs his sins of violent extremity against the greater good of his intentions, and ultimately sees the weight of his role in history. That is brought home in the final act, Starlight: in his final breaths, the emperor cherishes the peace he has brought to the Franks (“...and the world will be as one forever...”) and ultimately finds peace within himself. This climax is expressed as a robust arena-rock closing anthem, finishing with a multi-part choral finale backed by a massive full orchestra.
The album is rounded out by the bonus cut Iberia – which mixes intermittent narrative with melodic passages and lots of bone-crunching sound effects to depict the Franks' victorious (but ill-fated) battle against the Saracens – and an instrumental version of The Bloody Verdict of Verden.
The sweeping, theatrical performances and equally broad symphonic scope can barely be contained by the boundaries of a simple CD, and conjures the feel of an elaborately-staged Broadway musical featuring a cast of thousands. With this in mind, the album largely succeeds in its mission, mostly overcoming the occasional cheese-factor that can result from such melodramatic execution. The album also serves the additional benefit of being an incredibly entertaining and extremely detailed history lesson, as it packs volumes worth of medieval history in the span of a single hour… maybe a little TOO much history, as the wordiness of the text occasionally threatens to bog down the natural flow of the music. But when Lee's voice is front-and-center – where it rightly belongs – his presence blows away any misgivings.
In his late eighties, Sir Lee has surpassed the lifespan of his historic ancestor – who died age 71 – but he continues to amaze me with his skills in every aspect of performance. “I have added another string to my bow,” Lee has said of this new venture, and it's a testament to his unstoppable persona that his talents continue to grow after more than sixty years in show business. That’s why, when I hear the words “command performance,” this is the man whose image and voice springs to mind.