Concept Corner: Gloryhammer - Space 1992: Rise of the Chaos Wizards
Gloryhammer began from the ideas of Christopher Bowes, keyboardist and frontman of Pirate Metal band Alestorm. Being a big fan of Rhapsody (of Fire), Bowes wanted a departure from Alestorm, and had the idea to set an epic fantasy story in the nowhere places of Scotland (where he was from.) Thus, the first song came into being, "The Unicorn Invasion of Dundee." After recruiting lead singer Thomas Winkler from a youtube audition for DragonForce, of all bands, Gloryhammer created their first album, Tales From the Kingdom of Fife in 2013. As of this writing, Gloryhammer has three albums out, with the latest being Legends From Beyond the Galactic Terrorvortex.
It might seem odd to write a review only about the second album of a current trilogy, but I think you'll understand why soon enough.
The story begins in the previous album, Tales From the Kingdom of Fife, in the Tenth Century, the evil wizard Zargothrax attacks Dundee with cursed zombie unicorns to kidnap Princess Iona McDougall. The young prince Angus McFife embarks on a quest to gather three sacred artifacts and free Princess McDougall from the evil wizard's clutches. He makes allies along the way, the mysterious hermit Ralathor, the knights of Crail, and the barbarian of Unst, and with their help defeats Zargothrax by plunging him into a pool of liquid ice, sealing him away forever...
Or not. One thousand years later, in the far off future year of 1992, war was beginning. The evil Wizard Zargothrax, in his icy prison, has been moved to Triton, the moon of Neptune, guarded by the Space Knights of Crail. But a cadre of Chaos Wizards has plans to free Zargothrax, and send the universe reeling. [1. Infernus Ad Astra] The Chaos Wizards are successful, defeating the Knights of Crail and unleashing Zargothrax from his frozen slumber. [2. Rise of the Chaos Wizards] We meet Angus McFife XIII, the Crown Prince of Dundee, knee deep in a battle with goblins on the dark side of the moon. Prophesy states he must do as his ancestor did, and collect the three mighty artifacts and warriors from across the land to stop the plans of Zargothrax once again. [3. Legend of the Astral Hammer] While Angus begins his quest, Zargothrax proceeds with his own evil deeds, traveling to the realm of Dreadlord Myrkanos Barbak, Goblin King, to obtain a magical crystal key that will open a portal to hell underneath Dundee. [4. Goblin King of the Darkstorm Galaxy] We are then reintroduced to the very barbarian from Unst that aided the first Angus McFife in his quest to defeat Zargothrax. In the thousand years since, he traveled across the sea to the land of California, becoming its king through victory in battle and in film, and became known as The Hollywood Hootsman. He joins his former battle companion's descendant to once again rid the universe of evil. [5. The Hollywood Hootsman] On the devastated moon of Triton, only one survivor remains from the Chaos Wizards' assault, Ser Regulon, the last Spaceknight of Crail. He surmises the only way to defeat Zargothrax would be to rebuild the Knights of Crail of legend. Luckily, a hero cannot be defeated simply by making them die. The Technomages of Triton weave a spell over robots, bringing Ser Proletius, the Knight of Crail from legend, back to life as a hologram. His resurrection inspires knights from across the galaxy, who join Ser Proletius to recreate the Spaceknights to fight Zargothrax's forces. [6. Victorious Eagle Warfare] The Questlords of Inverness, led by Ulysses "Snakehands" McDougall mobilize to Mars, where Zargothrax's forces are assembling, unaware that Zargothrax himself is closer than they realize. [7. Questlords of Inverness, Ride to the Galactic Fortress] Angus McFife, having acquired his laserdragon steed, races to Mars, where his destiny awaits. [8. Universe on Fire]
Now that the forces of the Intergalactic Space Empire of Fife have arrived on Mars, Angus McFife XIII addresses the assembled host, the Spaceknights of Crail, the Questlords of Inverness, and the Astral Dwarves of Aberdeen. [9. Heroes of Dundee] While Angus and his forces prepare for battle in the skies above Mars, Zargothrax remains hidden on Earth. In the dwarven caverns beneath Dundee, the evil wizard activates the altar of the Chaosportal to the Galactic Nexus with the mystical crystal key, beginning the process to open a portal to the 18th Hell Dimension, to summon the Elder God Kor-Virliath which would annihilate the entire universe. Back on Mars, the battle turns against the united forces of Fife. The Dwarven King of Aberdeen was slain by a robotic space goblin, the Spaceknights of Crail defeated by the same Chaos Wizard who first decimated their ranks on Triton, and the Questlords of Inverness were obliterated by an infinity bomb which erased them from all of time. Before Zargothrax finishes the ritual to open the hellportal, the mysterious hermit Ralathor discovers his plan, and makes haste to space to warn Angus McFife and The Hootsman of the impending universal destruction. Fly as fast as they might, the heroes are too late to stop the dread summoning. Ralathor surmises only an explosion of tremendous power, one that would eradicate the Earth as well, would be enough to prevent Kor-Virliath's arrival in their galaxy. Luckily, The Hootsman happens to be a cyborg, powered by a neutron star. Despite the protestations by Angus, The Hootsman sacrifices himself, detonating his robot heart in a Neutronic Transnova Bomb explosion, destroying the summoning ritual and the crystal key. However, the ultragravitational terrorflux ripped apart the fabric of spacetime, creating a dimensional rift where the Earth once stood. Zargothrax, having survived the blast, curses Angus McFife and uses the last of his power to fling himself into the rift, quickly pursued by McFife, who swears at any cost to defeat Zargothrax, wherever he might end up...[10. Apocalypse 1992]
Hoo! What a rush! Compared to the previous album, this is a noticeable step up in cheesy sci-fantasy technobabble which, if you're not me, may be difficult to take seriously. But that's what I love so much about Gloryhammer; if you're willing to suspend your impulse to ridicule, there's a fun story that can be enjoyed on its own hammy merits. If there's deep themes at play here, I can't notice them beyond this self-consciously epic legend.
I mentioned earlier that Christopher Bowes was a fan of Rhapsody, and if you look at songs like "Power of the Dragonflame" or "Unholy Warcry" I think you can see where the influence is. What makes Gloryhammer special is its ability to be both parody and homage, taking the ridiculous parts of Power Metal to their highest possible point, but still taking them entirely seriously. Now, this is no Ayreon, they aren't trying to make a point with their crazy sci-fi concepts here. It's on the same level as one of those fun fantasy paperbacks you can find for 10 bucks at any bookstore. They're having fun, and they're not ashamed of what they're doing. It's so refreshing to have an album with a crazy concept like this, and it goes full throttle, 100% the whole way. It doesn't have to tell a joke to make me laugh, it just names someone Topazulon McGonagall VII, Herald of Dundee and the fact that this is perfectly normal makes me smile.
I'd be remiss if I didn't point out the particular inspiration for The Hootsman; a Barbarian lauded in Hollywood who obtains the highest seat of power in California and also turns about to be a secret robot in human flesh. Yeah, he's Arnold Schwarzenegger. They just made one of their characters The Arnold. I just think it's neat. In fact, each member of the band plays a character in the story. Thomas Winkler, lead singer, plays Angus McFife XII; Paul Templing, guitarist, plays Ser Proletius; James Cartwright, bassist, is The Hootsman; Ben Turk, drummer, is Ralathor, and most surprising of all, Christopher Bowes, keyboardist, is Zargothrax. The big evil wizard. They have him in the band. On stage they have little fight scenes. I have never been to a show of theirs but it's on my bucket list.
I have but one complaint for this story, and that's the state of our heroes during the narrative. It's essentially just introducing the various forces that Angus already has at his disposal because he is king of an intergalactic empire. You know, the thing that's usually evil in these. Zargothrax presents as a viable threat with that name alone, but the way it goes, Angus has the same warriors with him as his ancestor did to beat Zargothrax the first time. Luckily, Kor-Virliath is an effective counter to The Kingdom of Fife's dominance, even if what his arrival will do to the universe is introduced in the very last song. As a stand-alone, it's odd, but works as part of a larger narrative, despite not following your typical three-act structure. I like the first album, but it's a little too boilerplate fantasy for me to be really interested, and you know how I love Space Fantasy. And this album was just reintroducing the unnamed companions from that album.
If anything I've said so far has resonated, you can probably predict what I'm going to say about these tracks. Much of what I've said about the story can just as easily be applied to the music, and in the best way possible. They go full force with these tracks, in classic power metal style, complete with an actual orchestra and poorly translated Latin.
Special mention must be made to drummer Ben Turk, who was also responsible for scoring and conducting the orchestral sections, along with the pure orchestrated versions of each track. Oh yeah, I forgot to mention that, in the deluxe edition each song has an entirely symphonic counterpart, perfect as background music or if you can arrange it, played simultaneously with the original for a real epic experience.
"Rise of the Chaos Wizards" is a great opening track, complete with chanting that may or may not make sense. It bursts out of the gate with your classic double-bass pound followed by a galloping beat by Turk. Trumpets peek out in the background occasionally, along with a harp during the spoken monologue that I love so much. If you don't know what Gloryhammer is about, listening to this song gives you a pretty good idea.
"Universe on Fire" is one of my favorite tracks, a song that starts with assorted strings and a harp to accompany Winkler, which are joined by drums and bass (played by James Cartwright), before a guitar lick rips in and kicks the whole thing into high gear. It's a very high-energy track, the driving drums and propelling bass provide constant force on the low end, while ascending scales on keyboard and harp provide complexity on the high end. My favorite thing about this song are the little pauses it has, one beat of silence before each chorus. There's one section where every instrument rests save for the harp and keyboard, building back up with bass, again, followed by a key-changed chorus to close out the song. And check out these lyrics!
Gliding across the sun to soak up all its might
Charging my solar gun and prepare for epic fight
Questing through nebulas in search of crystal stone
That gives me the overdose of force to claim space throne
And I would be remiss if I didn't highlight the closer of the album, "Apocalypse 1992". A nine minute thirty-nine second conclusion that cashes in on the preceding album's promises. It starts with keyboard (played by Zargothrax, remember) and a voiceover describing Zargothrax's plan under Dundee set in motion. A scare chord builds on mention of Kor-Virliath, leading to an explosion of guitar and drums. This song has a lot of variety, killing off each of the forces we've been introduced to throughout the album, not to mention two whole monologue segments. It's impressive that this song has such varied verses while returning to the same chorus seamlessly. Let's have a look at that chorus, shall we?
Fly high through apocalypse skies
Fight for the world we must save
Like tears of a unicorn lost in the rain
Chaos will triumph this day
One last thing to note is that the song ends with the same chords as "Rise of the Chaos Wizards" under the final spoken section, wrapping up the album in a beautiful bow covered in atomic flames.
You don't find something like Gloryhammer every day. That's not to say there aren't metal bands that successfully pull off that over-the-top style, but there's few that do so with a wink and a nod you can't really be sure happened. My interest began with the whimsical world and outlandish concepts until I recognized the aspect of parody. But there was a third, even deeper layer exactly the same as the first one. Like with pie. Gloryhammer is still ongoing, though they won't be touring til 2021, at least. Since Space 1992 they've put out one more album, Legends From Beyond the Galactic Terrorvortex in 2019. And considering that album features a magical mystical jetpack, rest assured I'll be taking a look at that before too long.