Heavy Metal History

I’ve written a lot about how music inspires me. I listen to it while I’m writing, planning, and even editing. The right playlist helps set the tone for creative work. But outside that, it also inspired me to read several classic novels. To the long list of things music (especially heavy metal) has inspired me to do, I can now add take an interest in history.

Everyone listens to music differently, and for different reasons. My husband primarily pays attention to the guitar. The rest fades into the background. I primarily pay attention to the lyrics (which is why I need instrumental music when I’m doing high-focus tasks like editing). When I first listen to a song, the lyrics float through my head. I’m drawn more to songs where the lyrics have meaning. The songs on this list draw me both for personal reasons and because they awakened an interest in historical events that I wouldn’t normally research.

Song: Wolfpack
Band: Sabaton
Album: Primo Victoria

The song that started it all… My husband gets annoyed because I have a habit of listening to the same few songs over and over until it drives him bonkers. Around the time we moved to England, he introduced me to a Sabaton album. About halfway through our year-long stint in England he finally told me, “I have their other albums, you know.”

When I first listened to Wolfpack, I thought the song celebrated a group of soldiers who called themselves a ‘wolfpack’ (probably because I’m unfamiliar with the finer details of WWII). It was only after I looked up the lyrics that I realized the ‘wolfpack’ were the bad guys.

To their own shore came the world war
Gleaves and Ingham
Leading the Bury west

This song is about Wolf pack Hecht’s attack on convoy ON 92. During the second world war, it was common practice for a convoy of battleships to escort cargo ships back and forth across the Atlantic. England relied on those supplies and it was common practice for the Germans to sink their critical cargo ships. My husband tells me this practice started during World War I. But the attacks during the second world war were particularly insidious because of the wolf packs; groups of German submarines that lay in wait below the waves.

In their own track came the wolfpack
Gleaves led the convoy
Into the hornets nest

The song makes reference to two encounters with the same German wolf pack. The names ultimately drew me to look into the historical events on which the song is based. I initially thought they were generals. Gleaves and Ingham were actually US battleships. The other ship, Bury, carried special equipment that was supposed to help the convoy detect the German U-boats. However, due to inexpert use, the equipment proved unhelpful.

Song: Carolus Rex
Band: Sabaton
Album: Carolus Rex

This is the album to which my husband first introduced me, and the album I spent most of a year listening to. The entire album is based on the rise and fall of Charles XII of Sweden. Shortly after we landed in England, while we were still half-delirious from the blurring of two days into one, I asked my husband to ‘tell me the story’ of the album, and he did.

This particular song involves the crowning and policies of Charles XII (whose Latin name is “Carolus Rex”). Some of the lyrics are quite ear-catching.

I was chosen by heaven
Say my name when you pray
To the sky, see Carolus rise

Humility didn’t seem to be his thing. While Carolus Rex is my favourite song on the album, and the one that initially drew my interest to the historical significance, pretty much every song on the album is worth your time. The Carolean’s Prayer and The Lion From The North are particularly good as well.

Hear my orders question me and die
What I say was said in heaven and so it shall be done


Song: To Hell And Back
Band: Sabaton
Album: Heroes

When I set out to write this post, I told myself I couldn’t devote it all to one band. But I really could. There’s a level of passion and detail in Sabaton’s work that impresses the hell out of me. This is the song that made me realize how detailed Sabaton’s research into their subjects must be. It’s about one Audie Murphy, a young man from Texas who was one of the most decorated soldiers of World War II.

If there be, Any glory in war
Let it rest, On men like him
Who went to hell and came back

At the age of 19, Audie Murphy single-handedly held off an entire company of German soldiers for an hour. He later led a successful counterattack while wounded and out of ammo. And that’s just the first paragraph of his extensive Wikipedia entry. What’s most interesting about this song, is how the band chose to memorialize this man. They could have made an extensive list of his war-time accomplishments, but instead they sing about how the man was tormented by his time at war. Murphy suffered severe PTSD after his retirement.

Later in life, Murphy wrote a book called To Hell and Back. In it, he included a poem he wrote, though it is attributed to one of the book’s characters. The poem is called The Crosses Grow on Anzio. Not only did Sabaton include the name of the poem in their song, they included a large portion of the poem’s first verse:

Oh gather ’round me
And listen while I speak
Of a war where hell is six feet deep
And all along the shore
Where cannons still roar
They’re haunting my dreams
They’re still there when I sleep


Song: Paschendale
Band: Iron Maiden
Album: Dance of Death

I think Iron Maiden features heavily in every heavy metal post I write. Paschendale appears on the first album they released after I became interested in the band, and is probably my all-time favourite song of theirs. In fact, one of my favourite characters claims this as his favourite song and, every time I listen to it, he speaks to me.

In a foreign field he lay
Lonely soldier, unknown grave
On his dying words he prays
Tell the world of Paschendale

This song is about the battle of Paschendale, also known as the third battle of Ypres, which took place during World War I. The battle took place on the Western Front, from July to November 1917, for control of the ridges south and east of the Belgian city of Ypres in West Flanders, as part of a strategy decided by the Allies. The details and wisdom of the battle seem to have been hotly debated by historians in the years since the war. A great many factors contributed to what some call a disaster, including unusually wet weather in the region at the time.

Many soldiers eighteen years
Drown in mud, no more tears

The song is truly epic, there’s no denying that, but the heart of its power lies in the vivid details. It paints a picture of the bloody battlefield viewed by a dying soldier in his final moments. Nothing I can say can do this song justice, you should just listen to it.

In the smoke, in the mud and lead
Smell the fear and the feeling of dread
Soon be time to go over the wall
Rapid fire and end of us all

Blood is falling like the rain
Its crimson cloak unveils again
The sound of guns can’t hide their shame
And so we die in Paschendale

Of course Paschendale isn’t the only song by Iron Maiden to touch on war as a theme. Two Minutes to Midnight touches on the ‘romanticism of war’ in the Cold War era by referencing the symbolic Doomsday Clock used by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, which represents a countdown to potential global catastrophe, and has some poignant lyrics as well.

Song: The Ghost (T.E. Lawrence)
Band: Running Wild
Album: The Brotherhood

I liked this song for a long time without realizing it had any historical significance. The song plays out like a romantic tragedy about a man who wandered listless until he was finally able to join the army. He proved his mettle on the battlefield before dying a tragic death. I’m uncertain why the song has a tragic twist at the end, since the song’s subject actually survived.

The ghost, the gallant rider on the edge of the desert storm
A miracle written in the sand, the desert plans for eternity

Thomas Edward Lawrence was an archaeologist and British Army officer renowned for his involvement in the Arab revolt. He recorded his experiences in a book called Seven Pillars of Wisdom, which has since been proven largely embellished. Still, he had an impressive list of accomplishments to boast.

“I will go if you will go to cross the deadly plains”
“I am here, the world to show what you are able to face”

All in all, I continue to be drawn to heavy metal music because a small bit of prodding beneath the surface often reveals much deeper meaning. There’s a lot to be learned if you take the time to look.

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