Christopher Lee’s Charlemagne: album review

Christopher Lee has done… questionable things. Yes, I learn from his website that (his website claims that) he was the only member of the whole Lord of the Rings film project who’d actually met Tolkien. Yes, Count Dooku is one of the only characters in the new Star Wars films played with any genuine irony. And no less lamented an ex-blogger than Jennifer Lynn Jordan has proclaimed, “I would break a lot of rules for Christopher Lee”; that’s a fanbase, ladies and gentlemen. On the other hand:

Cover of Christopher Lee's Charlemagne: by the sword and the cross

Cover of Christopher Lee's Charlemagne: by the Sword and the Cross

This was, indeed, reported in the post where Jenn and I had this conversation, and Jeff Sypeck at Quid Plura was on it soon afterwards, but unless I’ve just failed to notice, no further reports emerged. But someone who shall remain nameless got the album for me as a birthday present, and well, you deserve to know the truth. I used to do album reviews quite a lot in my underspent and hairy near-youth, so I’ll try and do the music in my old style and then I have to say something about the history under the new dispensation.

This has been described as a metal album wherever it’s been plugged, but in Jeff’s words, it’s likely that your city’s water supply has more metal in it. What we’re looking at here is something much more like Deep Purple’s Concerto for Group and Orchestra than even, for example, Metallica’s Slaves and Masters; there is a metal band here, or at least some people with those instruments, but they turn up only sporadically and the synthesizer gets all the biggest parts. The Mighty Riff is conspic. by its a.; this is mainly an orchestral album. Lee’s website reveals, as well as the fact that via a Carandini ancestry he himself claims descent from Charlemagne, that the guy who did the composition, Marco Sabiu, is “best known for his collaborations with Kylie Minogue, Take That, Ennio Morricone”. These are words to fill the strongest heart with fear, surely, but actually he’s no slouch with an orchestra. The arrangements are fairly simple but lively, energetic and rarely dull. If anything, the album’s natural tendency to melodrama makes it harder listening than it might be because it is usually off after an impact moment before any theme has had time to become established. Only with the bonus track ‘Iberia’ does the whole thing break down into movie soundtrack. On the other hand, the other bonus track, a version of ‘The Bloody Verdict of Verden’ (yes, really) without vocals does a good job of showing that really, there is music in here.

You will gather then that when there are vocals the music is not so successful. I believe Lee’s website when it claims that he is a classically-trained singer, I do, because the way he sings indicates that someone did their absolute best with him, but really, that must have been a long time ago now and his vocals are not what is needed here. Not only do some of the pieces really stretch his range too far (‘Starlight’, one of the few pieces without HUGE DRAMA scored into it from the bottom up, is especially bad for this) but he delivers everything, everything, in deeply ponderous tones as if every line were of world-changing seriousness and had to be delivered with Absolute Solemnity. Now, OK, there are some heavy events here; the album’s big schtick is the dying Charlemagne looking back over his life and wondering if he did well, and especially, whether the massacre of 4,000 Saxons at Werden in front of their families wasn’t going a bit too far. I am open to the idea that Charlemagne really did have good occasion to think, quite often, “I am about to embark on something that will change the face of Christendom! Third time this year too! Phew! What would Carloman say if he could see me now? Oh my poor brother!” etc., it is possible. But the musical result is that the album listens like one long national anthem, and not for a country that could afford Hadyn or Elgar either. And with lyrics like:

I forgive, for you were young, ambitious for your people
And your court was advising against me on principle

delivered at maximum stentorian setting, or

Defiant of baptism on pain of death
Tough measures call for me to be ruthless
To set an example to the rebels
Draconian for their worship of devils

I’m not really feeling it. You don’t believe me? It has a Youtube channel, a MySpace site, you can hear for yourself. This is probably the most metal thing about this album, in fact: certainly proper metal suffers incredibly from people who don’t realise (or perhaps don’t care) how silly their serious lyrics sound in English because it’s their second language. (Iron Maiden know, they’ve always known, come on, just look at them. Jury’s out on Metallica, for this as for everything else.) Here the guilty party is one Marie-Claire Calvet, who as well as managing to make a rhyme between ‘Pavia’ and ‘Saviour’ into assonance gives Pope Hadrian (who, marvellously, is sung by an Italian) these lines:

Encroaching closer upon Rome
Their leaders wanted to capture it for their own
And now King Desiderius
Has started to harass us

Scansion, sense, just not metal enough: all will fall before the force of that rhyme! The singer actually nearly manages to carry this mouthful off, but one’s final reaction still has to be in words that Michael Berubé once misattributed to Auerbach, to wit, “ew, ew, ew, ew”. You cannot listen to this straight; it would kill off all your higher language centres. These are the worst lines Lee has ever had to deliver, and he does so in such a way as to make them seem still more egregious.

So, in short: the artwork is impressive (is that map of Europe behind Lee on the cover burnished, or burning? I can’t tell but it’s great), the music, while not very metal, is not bad, but anything to do with the words here will make you want to switch it off unless you like real carcrash awfulness in entertainment. This is a Mystery Science Theatre 3000 sort of album in that respect. I think a metal album probably could be recorded about Charlemagne, probably by Mastodon who have done less likely things already (and would probably, given their name, feel obliged to mention the elephant), but this certainly lowers the bar, and indeed poisons the well, empties the fridge, spoils the broth, etc..

What about the history, then? Well, they are careful to set out right up front (or, in fact, back of the booklet, but you see it as soon as you open the case) that:

“Charlemagne: By the Sword and the Cross” is a musical concept album based on historical events. While the producers have tried to keep as close to history as possible, in all creative works some literary license is usually present. The contents of this album in relation with certain events and personality of the historical characters are not necessarily the opinions of the producers and all other participants.

Actually, though, they don’t really need to: the history here is remarkably clear and unmucked-with. Just in case the album weren’t ponderous enough, each act is introduced by a narration setting the historical context, and there is very little in these that I would mark wrong in an essay, for example, though I would probably add some notes about toning down the dramatic style at the end. The narrations threw me completely for a short while, however, by being in slightly-accented English by someone called Christina Lee. Now, I’ve met such a person, and so may others of you have: she does Viking studies at Nottingham and I wondered for some minutes how on earth she’d become involved in this before getting deep enough into Lee’s website to find that he has a daughter called Christina whom I suspect is more likely to be responsible.

They do sound remarkably alike

But we have a reasonable progress: calling for Einhard at his deathbed, hearing the voices of father Pippin and brother Carloman, of Pope Hadrian rhyming Desiderius, etc.; we get a brief reference to Aquitaine, then the Lombard campaign, the wars against the Saxons culminating in ‘The Bloody Verdict of Verden’, the forging of an Empire and a final look into a then-future with Fastrada. This is all real Charlemagne, not the legend, except for an appearance by the sword Joyeuse (which does take us into a further complication: Calvet appears to think that Charlemagne spoke French, and indeed called himself ‘Charlemagne’, a name that Lee’s character uses of himself many times in the course of the album—but I guess there is a need to use the name people know). The legend does turn up rather harder in the bewilderingly playscript-like ‘Iberia’, 12 peers and so on, but that is as I say only a bonus track, in which respect its position is actually fairly typical of the field of study, he says with studied bitterness.

All this is an interpretation of course. Specifically, and consciously, it is an interpretation of Charlemagne as an almost fanatical evangelist and one not afraid to put the sword behind what he feels to be ultimately necessary to build a better world. I’ve seen essays with no argument more sophisticated than that, and they certainly run with it to what would be good effect here if only the words weren’t so terrible. But it makes its own sense, and perhaps it is the strangest thing that on a metal album on which the lead singer is a man famous for playing a Bond villain, a wizard and a vampire, it is not actually the history that lets them down.

14 responses to “Christopher Lee’s Charlemagne: album review

  1. I wrote a review of this album several weeks ago, but I can’t bring myself to hit the “Publish” button, mostly because I don’t like being uncharitable towards other people’s labors of love. Maybe this weekend I’ll revisit that post, and the album, and have another go at it. (I certainly won’t soon forget Christopher Lee bellowing, “I shed the blood of the Saxon maaaaaan…”)

    • That is, without question, the worst bit of the whole thing and therefore hard to forget.

      I was always a lot tougher with music reviews than with academic reviews, largely because music is a commercial enterprise at least in part and in order for me to review the album someone has to buy it. Academia, somehow, everyone pays except the (eventual) publishers.

  2. Bravo, sir! Excellent review. I am so pleased for whatever small part our conversation all that time ago played in creating it. I will now break less rules for Christopher Lee

    (writes sadly in journal about betrayal)

    • Well, perhaps only one fewer, that being the one about ridiculous power metal. Or, you can take the alternative view, which I think that YouTube interview supports, and argue that he knows full well the whole thing is ridiculous and is hamming it to the absolute maximum. I quite like that as a possibility myself, but unfortunately it still doesn’t make the album any better.

      • With that album cover it has to be tongue in cheek, right? That’s what I’m going to hope for. I do like the view that he’s hamming it up, I have to say. Even if it doesn’t succeed, it’s only one small dis-drop in the huge Bucket of Awesome that is Christopher Lee’s career.

        • Well quite! And as I say, insisting to the grave that it’s all perfectly serious when it’s patently and evidently beyond the bounds of plausibility is one of the cornerstones of true metal. See absolutely any of Manowar’s album covers for confirmation!

  3. Pingback: Quid plura? | "Thrashing all deceivers, mashing non-believers..."

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  5. I haven’t listened to this, but I did give it as a parting-gift to one of your new colleagues (who may or may not be around this year). I have yet to hear his review…

    Still, lasts longer than unmixed wine, no?

    • My few twenty-year-old CDs seem to be holding up so far, so I guess so! Your identity and the colleague’s are all very enigmatic, or possibly I’m being obtuse. Doubtless I shall find out which eventually.

  6. No it’s alright, I am sounding enigmatic! (I think I’ve only commented here once before.) In part
    because, I hear, aforemetioned new colleague of yours has not just become enigmatic but entered Shia-like occlusion. But they’ll be back!

  7. Just downloaded the album after watching the Baftas (13/02/11). Curious. album, ponderous yes. More like a history lesson set to music. Best described as interesting. Less twee than Camalot which can only be a good thing.

  8. I am so glad to become a dedicated follower of Christopher lee, such a wonderful singer/actor, i love all his films and songs. he is such a marvellous gentle natured guy with a wonderful sense of wit and humour. God bless him.

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