Viking's Choice: Heavy Metal Anthems To Battle Heavy Times
Updated July 23, 2019: This is weekly, updated playlist. So if you missed one, especially a themed playlist, justhit me up on Twitter and I'll hook it up.
Over four years ago, I received an illustration in the mail of a viking warrior astride a giant boar, blowing an ancient horn that had to have been carved from a tree that's seen some history. The accompanying note said the drawing was inspired by me, which is just about the most flattering and kick-ass thing anyone could say about someone who writes about metal, punk and experimental music. "Here's a thank-you drawing of @totalvibration heralding great metal bands & opening my ears to awesome new music!" he tweeted. (That drawing is framed and hanging above my bed, and is now the artwork for the weekly Viking's Choice playlist.)
That artist is Daniel Warren Johnson, author and illustrator of the comics Space Mullet and the Eisner-nominated Extremity. It's easy to become absorbed by Johnson's detail — he loves gratuitous blood splatter, fantastically labyrinthine-lined monsters and onomatopoeic fight words — but that visual feast always serves a purpose, to punctuate an emotional note like a pinch harmonic squealed from the depths of the soul.
Johnson's extremely metal comic Murder Falcon, now available as a trade paperback, is not just a comic about heavy metal. I mean, it is — there's an anthropomorphic, bionic falcon who kills demons from the underworld by the power of guitar shredding! Murder Falcon is also full of metal references, from the Pelican and Power Trip patches on a character's battle vest to a run of variant comic book covers playing on classic metal album artwork like Bolt Thrower's War Master, Iron Maiden's Somewhere in Timeand Pantera's Vulgar Display of Power.
There's plenty of inspiration to make a playlist from those notes alone, but over eight issues, the lead character Jake struggles with pain that doesn't resolve neatly into a triumphant chord. Between and especially during battles to save humanity from evil, the community around Jake battles for his mental health. Murder Falcon understands that depression isn't so easily fixed, it's ever-present.
These are heavy metal anthems that fight heavy times. The battles found in tunes by Bolt Thrower and Manilla Road come from real life and fantasy, but also from within. We begin in the 1980s with Racer X's "Living the Hard Way" (featured early in the comic in a bonding moment between Jake and Murder Falcon), barrel through Chastain's "I Fear No Evil" (when Leather Leone wails, "I'm in command, I call the shots," it echoes this one heartbreaking moment, in particular) and "Turn Up the Night" with Dio-era Black Sabbath. Both the Canadian doom-metal band Smoulder and Cleveland black 'n' roll maniacs Midnight brandish steel in the face of certain death. "Don't fly close to the sun / My battle's just begun," sings Trevor William Church on Haunt's "If Icarus Could Fly," a neoclassical shredfest worthy of Randy Rhoads. But sometimes you blaze through the "frosty path to sorrow" like Immortal, and sometimes, as Darkthrone's Fenriz so eloquently puts it, you just need to tell someone to "f*** off and die."
More often than not, in the throng of banging heads, you find your family. That's why this playlist ends with "Thank You" by High Spirits, the high-energy heavy metal band that radiates positivity with a song about friendship. "Looking out to tomorrow / Facing the sun we will stand / When the night comes alive again / To the dark we will run hand in hand."
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