Christopher Lee's Concept Album: When Saruman Went Metal

by Mike Barthel

Generally the problem with vanity projects is that the vanity object/subject seems less interested in making a good album than in getting credit simply for having made one at all. But for Christopher Lee, maybe the bare fact of him having recorded a metal album at the age of 88 — Charlemagne: By the Sword and the Cross, a “symphonic metal” rock opera about the titular figure, was released in 2010 — is worthy of praise in and of itself. Still, Lee, who made a veritable mountain of B-movie classics and was a rightfully beloved cult actor even before he played Saruman in the Lord of the Rings movies, shouldn’t be allowed to coast on his reputation, and so will be subjected to the same rigorous critiquing process as our previous entrants endured. Come, let’s learn about the first Holy Roman Emperor, with Count Dooku as our guide!

THE SONGS: If you are familiar with Dwayne’s Franz Kafka rock opera from Home Movies: that, but about Charlemagne. This is not your Tommy kinda rock opera, in which a bunch of moderately connected songs are strung together to form a sort of fanciful, meandering narrative. This is the actual story of the emperor’s life, from point a to point b, the kind of production that’s one slight packaging change away from a spectacularly misguided educational product. These people are sitting you down and telling you about the life of Charlemagne through song. There’s a narrator; different vocalists play different parts, with Lee doing the emperor; and it runs from Charlemagne reminiscing about his life to flashbacks of some of his major battles. So yeah, the songs are 8-minute dramatic recitatives about religion and murder in 9th-century Europe.

THE PACKAGING: You know all those No Limit album covers from the 90s designed by Pen and Pixel? The ones that looked like someone put glue on an unregistered shareware photo editing program and rolled it around in the spangles aisle of a Michael’s? It looks like they got those guys to do it. It looks like they got those guys to do it and then set it on fire.

DID IT SELL? Who knows, but they’re making it into a musical!

CURRENT AVAILABILITY: There are not currently any new copies available on Amazon, at least not any that would ship within the month. But maybe that’s because it’s so popular?

SKETCHINESS OF LABEL: The label is called “Charlemagne Productions Ltd.” Here is a good rule of thumb: when the name of the album also appears in the name of the label, it’s 99% sure to be sketchy.

MOST HILARIOUS QUOTE FROM AN AMAZON REVIEW OF THE ALBUM: “How cool is it to listen to Count Dooku sing?”

WHO MADE IT: Marco Sabiu, who receives the sole writing credit for all but two of the songs, came to prominence in the early 90s as half of the Italian house production team The Rapino Brothers. As “Rapinaton” they had a #22 hit in the UK with “Love Me the Right Way” and did a bunch of remixing. They’re most notable for having produced the majority of the initial version of Kylie Minogue’s Kylie Minogue, the first album she made without Stock Aitken Waterman, the trio behind “I Should Be So Lucky” and other big UK hits. Unfortunately for Marco, the version was scrapped, and only one of the Rapino Brothers compositions ended up on the finished product. (It’s kinda too bad for us, too, since the lost tracks suggest the original concept was much more fun.) After splitting with partner Charlie Mallozzi, Sabiu moved on to more orchestral stuff, and somehow ended up with Lee, doing this Charlemagne thing. Once you get past Sabiu’s name on the credits list, things get murky. Most of the personnel have only this album to their name on Allmusic, and Marie Claude Calvet, who’s listed as the lyricist, is also credited as the stylist on a 2005 DVD by the French artist Zazie. Christopher Lee’s daughter, Chrsitina, does the narration, having played a similar role alongside her father on a Rhapsody of Fire album (more on which below). Her voice doesn’t have quite the same heft as her father’s, but then, whose does?

WHEN HE MADE IT: Christopher Lee specializes in villains. He played Dracula more times than he would have cared to in productions for Hammer, the evil doctor in Gremlins 2, and other notable roles as well. Then film geeks like Peter Jackson started getting giant budgets, and naturally wanted Lee to play villains for them, too. And so in the last decade he’s been in two Star Wars films, an as-yet-to-be-determined number of Tolkien adaptations, and five Tim Burtons, a lovely little career capstone. He’s also done a whole bunch of video games, which makes sense: his voice, so plummily malevolent that it exists nowhere else in nature, is what makes him a perfect villain.

Lee’s been recording music, on and off, since 1973, when he sang one of the songs from The Wicker Man. Then there was the narration for the 1977 folk-rock concept album from two members of Steeleye Span, a song by the Rocky Horror guys in a 1983 superhero parody called The Return of Captain Invincible, and of course the creepy narrator in a 1989 italo disco track (which in retrospect probably served as the inspiration for Ian McKellan’s turn in the Scissor Sisters’ “Invisible Light”). The impetus for our current object of focus, however, was his involvement with the long-running symphonic metal band Rhapsody, who in 2004 got Lee to provide the narration for an album they titled Symphony of Enchanted Lands II — The Dark Secret. This album is like the aforementioned Kafka rock opera except instead of being about a historical figure like Kafka, it’s about how Nekron, son of the Hell God Kron, has written seven books in angel blood prophesizing Nekron’s return and thus the destruction of the world, etc. This gave Lee the bug, it seems. As a result of the Charlemagne album, he was given the “Spirit of Hammer” award at the 2010 Metal Hammer Awards, for being super metal. At the beginning of the promo video for the album, a quote from Lee runs across the screen: “Metal is a way of life. I have been metal for many years only I did not know about it.” This is a reasonably good summary of where Lee was at the time of the album. He had been doing his thing for his entire life, and suddenly what he had been doing fit perfectly with metal albums and mainstream blockbusters, so he did metal albums and mainstream blockbusters.

THE MUSIC: Anyone who’s spent any time poring through old record bins can tell you that a lot of really, really, really weird shit used to get pressed to vinyl. It’s that sort of album, much more so than a contemporary metal album, that Charlemagne takes after. In theory, this fits right into the kind of symphonic metal that Rhapsody of Fire and other bands are making, but in all honesty, there’s a lot more of the orchestral than the metal on display here — not surprising at all, given the backgrounds of the primary people involved. Indeed, this feels a lot like Charlton Heston reading the Bible — or a radio play. It gets a little bit more musical when the group chants “I SHED THE BLOOD OF THE SAXON MEN” but otherwise you really are getting dramatic reenactments of moments from Charlemagne’s life over what sounds remarkably like the Trans-Siberian Orchestra. Is this good? Kinda! Lee is one of the people who truly could read a phone book and have it sound great, so getting a history lesson from Sauruman isn’t an unpleasant experience. If you’re looking to have your socks rocked off, you’ll be disappointed. But if a little historical metal kitsch sounds fun, then Charlemagne might be for you.

Previously: Listening To Lindsay Lohan’s 2004 Album

Mike Barthel has a Tumblr.