Space Music: best heavy metal albums with SF themes

Space Music:
A Top 10 Listing of Heavy Metal Concept Albums with SF Themes
by Octavio Ramos Jr.
Heavy metal is best defined as the music of the outsider. Metal listeners often are portrayed as deviants, Satan worshipers, and overall misfits. Metal music is shunned by radio; mainstream music critics call it cheesy, noisy, and juvenile; and the media sensationalize its so-called 'dangerous' themes and aggressive style. Although metal music draws much of its inspiration from humanity's baser instincts, predominant among them fear and anger, it also incorporates a sense of wonder into many of its compositions.
Tracing metal to its earliest beginnings demonstrates that horror, fantasy, and science fiction were all driving forces in the development of what became known as heavy metal. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, there were three principal bands that shaped the world of metal. Interestingly enough, each band selected one of the genres as its principal focus.
Black Sabbath: Horror (tracks such as 'Black Sabbath', 'N.I.B.', and 'Paranoid')
Led Zeppelin: Fantasy (tracks such as 'Ramble On', 'Kashmir', and 'Battle of Evermore')
Deep Purple: Science Fiction (tracks such as 'Child in Time', 'Space Trucking', and 'Stormbringer')

At the turn of the century, there are literally hundreds of bands, both signed and unsigned, that have built upon the creations of these pioneers. In the science fiction world, book authors such as Michael Moorcock and John Shirley contribute lyrics to established bands and many more authors, from Ray Bradbury to H.P. Lovecraft, serve as inspiration.
This article presents an overview of heavy metal that incorporates science fiction themes into the music. Because a comprehensive overview of the bands in this genre would take a book to fully explore, this article presents only a select few bands for analysis and discussion.
Top-Ten Concept Albums
Top 10 lists are intriguing affairs because they often lead to heated discussions. I have prepared a list of the ten best heavy metal concept albums with definite science fiction elements. My hope is that this overview helps those not familiar with heavy metal, particularly those interested in hard driving music with science fiction themes and stories. For those of you experienced with the metal genre, I hope that this list inspires contemplation and debate. We begin in reverse order...

Inspired by the pulp science fiction, horror, and sword and sorcery tales that appeared during the 1930s in magazines such as Weird Tales, the British band Bal-Sagoth brings to the genre the songwriting and musical inspiration to attract many fans.
The name 'Bal-Sogoth' is itself taken from a Robert E. Howard (creator of Conan and King Kull) short story The Gods of Bal-Sagoth. The name is linked to Atlantis, for it is believed that it is a fragment of that once mighty civilization. It is said that the humans and humanoids living there worship a bizarre god whispered about as Gol-Goroth. This explanation is just the tip of the iceberg with respect to this band, for its albums require even more explanation, but for those who enjoy being immersed in mythology and magic, there is nothing better.
After its limited-distribution self-release titled Demo in 1993, Bal-Sagoth ushered forth A Black Moon Broods Over Lemuria in 1995. Leading the charge are vocalist Byron Roberts, supported by keyboard player and drummer Johnny Maudling, guitarist Chris Maudling, and bassist Jason Porter.
A complicated concept album filled with characters, places, and horrifying adventures and situations, A Black Moon Broods Over Lemuria pays homage and builds upon the writings of H.P. Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, Robert E. Howard, and several others who during the pulp era created a variety of 'shared worlds' that to this day are still built and expanded upon.
Lemuria, for example, was originally conceived by Lovecraft. According to the Lovecraft-penned legend, Lemuria sank beneath the Pacific Ocean at the dawn of man. Indeed, it was believed that humanity was 'spawned' on this landmass. Lovecraft postulated that perhaps this land was similar to Mu or R'lyeh (the latter serving as the 'kingdom' of Cthulhu, perhaps Lovecraft's most remembered creation), both of which at one time housed alien races, cosmic gods, and powerful artifacts. Also appearing on the album are Howard's Serpent People, who here are referred to as Serpent Kings.
Using these creations as a springboard, Bal-Sagoth begins to build its own myths and breed its own magic, using music and poetry to create compositions that are at once brutal and beautiful. Johnny Maulding manages to create haunting melodies with his blend of synthesizers, while the remainder of the band stay true to the black metal form. Unfortunately, this also means that the vocals are mostly barked and growled out, and thus the lyrics lose much of their impact.
The potential problem with creating such epic efforts is that the band is considered a 'cheese' product or that only the hardcore will appreciate its efforts. In my opinion, this is a band to seek out and enjoy (particularly for the science fiction and sword and sorcery buffs among us), so long as low-growled, barking vocals do not bother you too much.

Harnessing the aggressiveness of Manowar and the epic-styled, science fiction driven delivery and imagery of bands such as Gamma Ray, Metalium represents the cutting edge of epic and power metal. Although a new outfit, Metalium brings together metal veterans from a number of well-established bands. Leading the charge are guitarists Chris Caffery (Savatage) and Matthias Lange (who just before joining the band had been offered a guitarist slot with Helloween), who are anchored by bassist Lars Ratz (Velvet Viper) and drummer Mike Terrana (Yngwie Malmsteen and Gamma Ray). Out front, bringing the music together with powerful lungs and a very metallic voice, stands Henning Basse, who reminds me of Bruce Dickinson (Iron Maiden), although Basse has a refined style of his own.
In late 1999, Metalium made its debut with Millennium Metal, Chapter One, which carries the motto "when metal hits the millennium" and can be considered a 'loose' concept album that mixes fantasy and science fiction elements (the former no doubt influenced by Savatage and the latter by Gamma Ray). After a short introductory instrumental, the album starts off with a power metal anthem titled 'Fight', which takes me back to the days when Manowar reigned supreme. The onslaught continues with 'Dream of Doom', which features excellent guitar work, and the driving 'Break the Spell' and bass driven 'Revelation'. A more orchestral, slower style comes into play with tracks such as 'Metalium', 'Void of Fire' (great bass and guitar licks!), and 'Free Forever' (complete with a rousing choir-like chorus). And then there is 'Metalians', which gives this band another dimension, one that is more akin to HammerFall and Blind Guardian.
There are also what I would call power ballads in the mix, such as 'Pilgrimage' and 'Metamorphosis' (my personal favorite). I call these compositions power ballads because Metalium never truly slows down by much, preferring to remain grounded in power metal. Closing out the album is a cover of Deep Purple's 'Smoke on the Water' (an excellent interpretation faithful to the original but with a much harder edge) and the track 'Burning'.

Hawkwind formed in the summer of 1969 and since then has been creating its own unique style of psychedelic space rock, and although at times the band has followed musical trends, it for the most part has maintained its identity and musical style. The band originally consisted of Dave Brock on guitar, harmonica, and vocals, Nik turner on saxophone, Mick Slattery on guitar, John Harrison on bass, Terry Ollis on drums, and Dik Mik on audio generator and electronic gadgets. Line-up changes followed (including a stint by Lemmy Kilmister, who went on to form the take-no-prisoners band Motorhead), with fantasy and science fiction author Michael Moorcock contributing lyrics to the band long before he would work with bands such as Blue Oyster Cult.
Because of its prolific output, it is difficult to select an album from this band. Albums such as 'In Search of Space', 'Warrior on the Edge of Time', and 'Masters of the Universe' are classic works, but they all have loose concepts. Of Hawkwind's conceptual works, 1985's 'The Chronicle of the Black Sword' is perhaps the band's best, although the concept owes more to fantasy than science fiction. The album is based on the works of Michael Moorcock, specifically his tales detailing Elric, his black sword Stormbringer, and a rich world filled with chaos and sorcery.
My favorite track on this album is 'Needle Gun' (which reminds me of the sound generated by Blue Oyster Cult), although 'Elric: The Enchanter' and 'Horn of Destiny' come a close second and third. The musical compositions are epic in scale, incorporating electronic sounds and noises that augment the traditional instruments.
Hawkwind's sound is difficult to describe. It has a number of influences and styles, but the band merges these in such a unique way that it sounds like nothing else. The electronic sounds and samples are much in the vein of early Pink Floyd, and in later years Lemmy's bass work yielded a style owing more to traditional metal, as played by the likes of Geezer Butler (Black Sabbath). Each album is a unique sound and lyrical experience, and for this alone Hawkwind is essential listening to anyone interested in space rock.

Gamma Ray
Fans of Helloween were baffled when founding member Kai Hansen left the band, but Hansen would not be long away from the world of heavy metal. Teaming up with vocalist Ralf Scheepers (who presently fronts Primal Fear), Hansen developed a project eventually labeled Gamma Ray. Hansen possessed a wealth of material that had proved unsuitable for Helloween, so he and Scheepers, joined by an array of studio musicians, began to record the tracks. The end results served as the project's first album, which was released in 1990 as 'Heading for Tomorrow'. Although Scheepers left later to front his own band Primal Fear, Hansen quickly took over as vocalist, proving equally adept handling voice and guitar duties.
In 1998, Gamma Ray released 'Somewhere out in Space', a loose concept album that addresses the common theme of invasion, be it either from an alien race or from within humanity's inner minds. The track 'Men, Martians, and Machines' is inspired by the H.G. Wells' novel The War of the Worlds, but Gamma Ray cleverly uses it as an example of just one of many invasions that humanity must endure. The track 'The Guardians of Mankind' explores another dimension within the Earth, in which super-beings help humanity evolve and endure the unpredictability of the future (hints of Clarke's Childhood's End here). Tracks such as 'The Landing' illustrate more invasion scenarios, whereas tracks such as 'Lost in the Future' discuss how humanity itself can take the path to self-destruction.

  Steel Prophet
Power metal is a dish best served with operatic-styled vocals and a sustained dual-guitar attack, and Steel Prophet never disappoints. Building upon the works of Iron Maiden (the vocals and the guitars), Fates Warning (the progressive elements are there), and Judas Priest (the rhythm section), Steel Prophet is far from a clone but rather a collective of innovators who have a thorough understanding of metal's more progressive roots. The results are fresh and new, although the elements that are used to create the compositions feel like old friends.
Formed in the early 1980s, Steel Prophet was founded by guitarist Steve Kachinsky Blackmoor and vocalist Gary Stocking, who was soon replaced with several other vocalists. The present line-up consists of guitarist Blackmoor, vocalist Rick Mythiasin, guitarist John Pons, bassist Vince du Juan Dennis, and drummer Pat Magrath.
In 1999, Steel Prophet made its American début with the release 'Dark Hallucinations', a concept album based on Ray Bradbury's novel Fahrenheit 451. A utopian novel, Fahrenheit 451 concerns Montag, a future 'fireman' who does not extinguish fires but rather starts them. In this future world, books are illegal, and these firemen burn any type of printed material, as well as anyone foolish enough to own or create one.
The album tells the story, only the songs are not arranged as the chapters are (however, a CD player can quickly rectify this). Instead, Steel Prophet arranged the songs in an order that best conveyed the music, and this decision is very sound. Like a novel, there are 'action' pieces with heavy riffing that create tension and a sense of urgency and 'introspective' pieces that provide necessary plot points and create mood.
Unlike many other concept albums, this one refrains from using narrative pieces, extensive use of keyboards, and even the use of sound effects. Instead, the band uses a sustained dual-guitar attack and quick tempo changes to propel the story forward. The opening track, 'Montag', reminds me of early Iron Maiden, particularly in Mythiasin's vocals. Almost immediately the band establishes its dual-guitar attack, with both guitarists creating extended musical jams that are luscious treats for the ears. 'New Life' slows things down a bit, but then comes 'Strange Encounters' which picks up the pace to a furious level. Every track on this album is excellent, alone or as a collective.

Formed in Seattle in the early 1980s, Queensrÿche originally consisted of opera-trained vocalist Geoff Tate, bassist Eddie Jackson, drummer Scott Rockenfield, and guitarists Chris DeGarmo and Michael Wilton. In 1983, the band recorded a four-song tape, which began to attract the attention of fans across the northwest. Self-titled, this EP contained the band's signature track, 'Queen of the Reich'.
In 1998, Queensrÿche released 'Operation: Mindcrime', a masterpiece of power and progressive metal. It is on this album that the band finally coalesced, with all the band members shining on every track. Although the concept is not very original - taking elements from Orwell's 1984, Huxley's Brave New World, and even the Russian author Eugene Zamiatin's We, the album does succeed in merging political elements with a solid musical foundation, thus making 'Operation: Mindcrime' an undisputed success. Every track on this album is essential, but in particular, I like the hard-driving 'Remember Now', the sombre 'Suite Sister Mary', and the catchy 'Eyes of a Stranger'. Incidentally, the narrator of this tale is excellent, his voice filled with emotion and pathos. This is a must-listen album.
Queensrÿche is an acquired taste, but if you are a fan of chameleon-like bands such as Fates Warning, you are likely to be a fan of this one. Progressive in the most literal sense of the word, Queensrÿche will never please all its fans, but that's the way it should be.

When a listener thinks of Rush, images of synthesizers, complex lyrical and musical arrangements, and an almost 'soft' approach dance like sugar plums in his or her mind's eye. But there was a time, namely between 1975 and 1978, when Rush delved into the world of heavy metal, stamping the genre with its brand of progressiveness.
In 1976, Rush unleashed '2112', which dedicated an entire album side to telling a science fiction tale that details a world in which artistic forms of expression are outlawed (in the same vein as 1984, or perhaps even better, We. Despite these parallels, drummer Neil Peart's inspiration was Ayn Rand and her novella Anthem. Although the ending of this epic is a bit of a downer (the protagonist kills himself when he discovers the beauty and freedom inherent in art), the music is anything but. Filled with Alex Lifeson's aggressive riffs and hooks, Geddy Lee's always present bass chops, and Peart's relentless thumping, the music draws you in and never lets go. The second side of '2112' features standalone tracks, some of which continue the science fiction theme - 'Twilight Zone' comes to mind.
Although Rush has its detractors (most so-called 'music' critics consistently brush this band aside), the band has establish a very loyal following, particularly among musicians of all kinds. The band's complex arrangements, layered solos, and incomparable ability to jam make Rush a band to seek out.

Fear Factory
An alchemist's mixture of death metal and industrial gothic, Fear Factory consists of Burton C. Bell (vocals), Dino Cazares (guitars), Andrew Shives (bass), and Raymond Herrera (drums). Into this mix come all types of simple and complex innovations, from storytelling openings (complete with sound effects) and string arrangements to multilayered distortion and experimental synthesized sounds.
Formed in late 1991, Fear Factory has released a number of albums tinged with science fiction themes. Perhaps the band's best release is 'Obsolete', a loose concept album that deals with a world dominated my machines. The booklet that comes with the disc contains a screenplay that augments the songs. Unfortunately, no concept videos were ever created to support the band's vision.
In a nutshell, the album deals with a character by the name of Edgecrusher, a human attempting to save humanity from extinction. Standing in his way are nonfeeling, noncaring machines that have at their disposal terminator-like beings bent on destroying Edgecrusher (this plot is inspired not so much by the movie The Terminator but rather the basis for the film: Harlan Ellison's short stories). Ass-kicking tracks include 'Shock' (driving black metal), 'Edgecrusher' (speed metal with electronic insanity), and 'Smasher/Devourer' (again, a fusion of hard-driving metal with electronic overtones).
There are also slower pieces, such as 'Securitron' (a mixture of bone-crunching riffs and intricate melodies), 'Descent' (the most commercial-sounding track of the lot), and 'Obsolete'. My personal favorite is 'Resurrection', where Bell uses more of his voice's range to create mood and emotion (as he does with 'Descent'). The slowest track is 'Timelessness', which abandons metal and emerges full-blown as industrial or perhaps even as a ballad. Although many fans think this last track is the album's weakest link, it serves a special purpose that is more directorial (remember, the inspiration for this album is a screenplay) than musical. Thus, 'Timlessness' serves as a fitting coda to this great 'movie' on compact disc.
Needless to say, this album sounds best when played as loud as possible. Still, it works much like a Pink Floyd album (or even better, a Kind Diamond or Iced Earth album) in that you can put on a set of headphones, close your eyes, and experience a great story with characters and situations designed to take you into a bizarre and exciting world. Incidentally, Gary Numan ('Pleasure Principle') appears on the album, providing some post-narrative on the track 'Resurrection'.

Blue Oyster Cult
Blue Oyster Cult (BOC) represents one of the most interesting facets of heavy metal in that the band is in constant flux, changing its musical colors like a chameleon. Sometimes the effects are undeniably fantastic ('Agents of Fortune' and 'Imaginos') and sometimes forgettable ('Club Ninja'). With songs like 'Don't Fear the Reaper', 'Godzilla', and 'Burnin' for You', BOC has forever stamped its impression on the annals of heavy metal and music.
Long before BOC and its signature icon (Cronos) came into being, Donald 'Buck Dharma' Roeser and Albert Bouchard formed the band The Disciples. The following year, they formed a new band, Travesty, but it too eventually broke up.
In 1967, Donald and Albert, joined by Allen Lanier, formed Soft White Underbelly. This band in turn mutated into Blue Oyster Cult, with Albert's brother Joe joining to play bass and Eric Bloom taking on the roles of lead vocalist, guitarist, and keyboard player.
In 1988, BOC released 'Imaginos', its first and only concept album to date. Long-time producer Sandy Pearlman and drummer Albert Bouchard (who had left the band at the time of 'Imaginos') had conceived 'Imaginos' as a solo project for Bouchard. Indeed, both men were responsible for writing most of the songs and for producing the final effort, with the remaining BOC members serving almost as 'session musicians'.
The liner notes for the album label the story a "random access myth." The truth behind this claim is quite amusing. During the final mixing, the song order was somehow mixed up, so the story was scattered. Pearlman attempted to 'fix' the blunder by making it a random access myth, meaning the songs were jumbled purposefully.
The plot of 'Imaginos' is too complex to delve into with any depth, but in essence the story is about a character (perhaps a god, an alien, a mutant, or all three) who presents the human race with the challenge of evil by consistently influencing humanity's history. Fortunately for the earthlings, 'Imaginos' (as he is called) rebels against this sinister alien race and enters and epic battle of good versus evil that involves an array of worlds, alien races, and incredible technology. BOC pulls all the stops out, using the richness of human history and literature to create a complex and exhaustive tale that borrows from many sources, predominantly the work of H.P. Lovecraft.
Many of the songs on this album have appeared before, either as complete compositions or as 'pieces' of a greater BOC puzzle. There are other puzzles in the BOC world, many of them fascinating, but I digress.

Like the early Alan Parsons Project, Ayreon is an experimental project led by a single musician who creates an environment for many talented instrumentalists and vocalists. Talented Dutchman Arien Anthony Lucassen is the man behind Ayreon; he writes the majority of the material, assembles all the talent, lends a hand in the production studio, and also participates on the tracks as vocalist and instrumentalist.
Although each Ayreon album is unique and powerful in its own right, the double CD 'Into the Electric Castle' is the most exciting and layered release to date. The album's underlying structure drips space opera. Eight diverse individuals lifted from different eras and cultures find themselves in a strange and dark dimension. Suddenly, a mysterious voice beckons them into the Electric Castle, a strange and dangerous place that creates and destroys, bestows enlightenment or imparts insanity, and enacts free will or elicits subjugation.
The vocalists on this album include Fish (Marillion) Anneke van Giersbergan (The Gathering), Thijs van Leer (Focus), and Damian Wilson (Landmarg). Musicians include Robby Valentine on piano and synthesizers, Jack Pisters on sitar, Erno Olah on violin, Ed Warby on drums, and Lucassen on electric and acoustic guitars, mandolin, bass, and keyboards.

Final Thoughts
Although not as strong an influence over heavy metal music as horror, science fiction themes continue to be explored by many metal musicians. Even genre veterans such as Ronnie James Dio have mixed science fiction into their music. In 2000, Dio created 'Magica', an album that blends traditional fantasy elements with science fiction ideas and themes. Other bands include Iron Maiden ('Somewhere in Time'), Stratovarius ('Infinite'), Warrior ('Ancient Future'), Anathema ('Alternative 4'), Iced Earth (Something Wicked This Way Comes), Fates Warning ('No Exit'), and Nevermore ('The Politics of Ecstasy'). As we enter a new century, these and other bands will continue to explore the future and in the process create a unique style of music.