There's not much I can write about the illustrious career of Sir Christopher Lee that hasn't been covered thousands of times already – I mean seriously, this man embodied one of the best screen versions of Dracula, and he's played super-villains equally matched against Obi-Wan Kenobi, Gandalf and James Bond – but it's still worth mentioning that at age 91 (as of this week), the ultimate genre Renaissance man is not only continuing to take on media projects, but has also forged ahead with his latter-day career as a heavy metal vocalist. Lee has contributed guest vocals to other musical projects (most notably on albums by Manowar and Rhapsody), but three years ago he ascended to the leading role in the rock opera Charlemagne: By the Sword and the Cross, a sweeping, bloody and cinematic concept album about the first Holy Roman Emperor, also known as King Charles the Great.
Now, I think you should pause for a second to let the awesomeness of that last paragraph sink in. Done that? Good. Because Lee's recent regal ventures into metal are quite a milestone in his already impressive life's work, and more than just a high-concept stunt. Sword and the Cross and its newly-released sequel The Omens of Death take their subject very seriously, and for good reason: Charlemagne, the most powerful man in Europe in the First Century A.D., is Lee's ancestor on his mother's side of the family, and he has spent much of his life developing a scholarly knowledge of Charlemagne's words, deeds and legacy.
Lee channeled that passion into the first album, which used the power of metal and the grandeur of a full orchestra and choir to bring the King's many battles and conquests to vivid life. The second chapter, The Omens of Death, takes a slightly different path, discarding most of the symphonic elements in favor of an old-school power metal core. Most of the music was arranged and performed by guitarist Richie Faulkner, who left before this album was complete to join Judas Priest (replacing K.K. Downing), leading to additional contributions by the equally skilled virtuoso Hedras Ramos. According to Faulkner, Lee was the driving force behind many of the new tracks; once he had recorded his own melodies, the instrumentalists then stepped in to provide the most suitable accompaniment, all with live performance in mind (damn, what I'd give to see that show). But Faulkner's touch is also immediately evident, as the songwriting and performance styles on cuts like "The Ultimate Sacrifice” and "Let Legend Mark Me As the King" are pure, old-school British Steel, dripping with melodic hooks and shot through with flashy, shred-happy solos.
As the lead vocalist and narrator (accompanied by a legion of supporting vocalists), Lee portrays Charlemagne in first person, again as neither hero nor villain, but a man driven to extremes by his belief that he has been chosen to save the souls of all nations... even at the cost of thousands of lives. To describe Lee's vocal interpretation as “commanding” would be the understatement of the century – or any century, for that matter – because his famed ominous baritone is practically godlike. Though heavily coarsened by time, on tracks like “Judgment Day” and "The Siege," it still carries the same power that sent chills up my spine when his Dracula first spoke onscreen, and his classical training is still evident. You will truly believe this is the voice of a man who beheaded thousands of his enemies.
On the downside, with the exception of more complex pieces like "The Devil's Advocate" (one of the best tracks on the album), the lack of an orchestra's wider dynamic range sometimes leads to an uncomfortable imbalance of energies, with Lee's tracks too far removed from the music; the result often sounds like an action-packed metal score to an audiobook narration. Now don't get me wrong here; I would totally buy that (hell, even furniture assembly instructions would be epic with Lee reading them), but it's not as cohesive a piece of music as the first Charlemagne album.
With that said, Lee's legion of fans should get plenty of entertainment value out of The Omens of Death, and for experimentation's sake I found that randomly shuffling it together with Sword and the Cross, restoring the much-needed symphonic sweep (without too much sacrifice in the storytelling thread), made for a seriously epic playlist. Speaking of which, you can sample a bit of each track from the album below...