The 11th of the 11th, or Remembrance Day, is a date that holds incredible resonance all across the world; as a date it represent a global cultural shift, the moment when the Victorian age ended, generational attitudes towards war altered, the de facto stance of the average citizen became anti-war, and our entire dialogue as human beings changed inextricably.
In Britain the scar runs particularly deep, to this date it remains our one true day of national unity and celebration, or more specifically mourning. St. George’s day goes by unnoticed, we have no Bastille Day, no Independence Day, no Cinco Di Mayo, instead the harrowing ravages of the Great War remains the only shared memory in our entire history capable of unifying a diverse nation in a solitary moment of solemn reflection, tearful introspection, and togetherness.
When considering the real life cost of war it may appear churlish, crass even, to turn the discussion back to music, but just as the First World War failed to live up to its billing as “The War To End All Wars”, musicians have yet to run out of conflicts to decry and tragedies to immortalize. The United Nations reports that there are still, at this very moment, 12 on-going conflicts with casualties in the thousands, one of which (The Nigerian Sharia conflict) happens to be enduring one its bloodiest years, despite starting in 1953.
Music and art still play a crucial role in shaping, solidifying and in some cases defining the image and interpretation of conflict, and over the years guitar music has proved particularly proficient in capturing the visceral brutality of war. So with that in mind Guitar Planet embarks on a whistle stop tour through a selection of war songs, from glorification and black humour to disgust and remembrance.
No band has embodied the grandeur and swelling sentiments of war quite like Iron Maiden. By combining the seemingly endless scope of progressive rock with the macabre dissonance of metal and the drama of Bruce Dickinson’s operatic vocal, Maiden found themselves uniquely poised to encapsulate the thrill and sheer scale of war.
Maiden have always dealt in epics, and unsurprisingly they’ve written more war songs than most. Unlike their peers however, Maiden rarely wrote explicitly anti-war efforts or direct critiques, instead Steve Harris, the band’s principle songwriter, crafted broader narratives, full of drama and grand climatic sweeps. “The Trooper” is perhaps the finest example of this aesthetic choice; the band use their classic galloping guitars and the immediacy of Bruce Dickinson’s wail to create an incredible sense of motion and immersive action. The song, based loosely on The Charge Of Light Brigade by Tennyson, captures the frenetic anarchy of the charge and the thrill and confusion of battle, as Dickenson yelps sudden fleeting observations atop careening guitars. It remains one of the most fluid tracks ever written.
There are more strings to Maiden’s bow than mere literal description however; on 2006’s “These Colours Don’t Run” the band recaptured form with a track which glorified the soldier, if not pro-war per se, rather, a heroic tome. Maiden project the image of soldier ever willing, never fearing, eternally sacrificing “for the power, for the glory, for the passion, for your country”. It stands as a marked contrast to the band’s other latterly epic “Passchendaele”; a track laden with grotesque visuals, despairing imagery of bodies on barbed wire and dead friends, where the battle’s gallant combatants have no heroic identity, no purpose, their merely “killing time”, a cheesy but effectively sardonic pun.
Maiden don’t hold a monopoly of the break neck paced battle hymn however, in 2007 Bullet For My Valentine released a “Scream Aim Fire”, a macabre 21st century reboot of “The Trooper”, this time focusing on the trenches of World War One (although it remains largely placeless). B4MV use the blistering pace of their guitars and some truly relentless drumming to create the frenzied atmosphere of war, and the notion that for most, it’s over before it’s even began. The track flies by like a hail of bullets and the line “as I scream, aim, and fire, the death toll grows higher” seems strangely appropriate; there is no glory in “Scream Aim And Fire”, just a mighty death toll and plenty of excitement.
System Of A Down’s Armenian heritage was destined to give the band, who already possessed a fearsome taste for black humour and juxtaposition, a cutting insight into the oppression and hypocritical double standards that War entails.
“War?” from the band’s 1997 self-titled debut, remains the band’s finest statement on bloodletting. While it alludes strongly to both the conflicts between the Seljuk Turks and Armenians, and the Crusades, the song instead boils war down to a simply fatalistic formula; nations, governments, and people create demons that must be destroyed, and they rally others to crush, kill and destroy these “heathens”. Serj Tankien’s performance is particularly sensational, his wild vocal fluctuations capture the wide-eyed frenzy of blood lust while still leaving plenty of room for devilish parody as he screams “We will fight the heathens, we will fight the heathens!”
At the tracks climax Serj runs through the false narratives and justifications that lead men to war; “Now international security, the call of the righteous man, needs a reason to kill man, history teaches us so, the reason he must attain, must be approved by God.” By 2005 System abandoned subtlety delivering the most twisted satirical work of their career’s in “B.Y.O.B”, a stark criticism of the Iraq war which was loaded with the intentionally quotable couplets; “Why don’t President’s fight the war/Why do they always send the poor?” and “You depend on our protection, and yet you feed us lies from the table cloth.”
Pink Floyd tackled war in a range of different ways across their career most notably on the group think parable “Sheep”, but their finest interpretation came on the strangest of records. The Wall, Roger Waters solipsist rock opera about how dreadful it is to be rock star (and how his miserable attitude, you know, isn’t really his fault), might appear the most tactless place for a heartfelt reflection on war to appear. However, in crafting the back-story for the fictional rocker paranoid rocker Pink, Roger Waters delved into childhood memories of war and the blitz.
“Goodbye Blue Sky” represented juxtaposition at it’s finest, as birdsong and warmth of Roger Waters’ beautifully plucked acoustic guitar are contrasted with the monolithic oozing of Richard Wright’s keys. The bleak mood of darkness creeps in, consuming the light, creating a stark and harrowing shift in mood. “Goodbye Blue Sky”, in keeping with Floyd tradition, is not overly specific, instead it deals in mood, and it captures the tension and bleak hopelessness of war, as optimism and confidence are replaced by a weight of grief, gloom and eventually pessimism.
When Metallica chose to tackle the subject of war head on, they opted for gorgeous gloom, and like so many before them, they chose to contrast beautiful intricacy with thudding primal monotony. “One”, considered by many to be their greatest work, is a sprawling quasi-ballad full of dexterous playing and rooted around a single harrowing tale. Interpreting Dalton Trumbo’s 1939 Johnny Got His Gun, James Hetfield takes the role of the soldier, beaten, battered, scared and left for dead in a military hospital. The protagonist is very much alive, but devoid of life, as he is rendered immobile, unable to speak, unable to see, unable to even bat an eyelid, trapped in side his own body, fully conscious. Unsurprisingly, the arrangement shifts from the clean and beautiful into the pitiless and frenzied as Hetfield’s character spirals into suicidal depression and self-loathing. The marriage of mood, music and lyrical intent achieved on “One” is nothing short of sensational.
Finally, sometimes the most powerful gesture a great rock band can make is to put the guitars to one side; sending the clear signal that this is no hedonistic rush and no time for exhilaration let alone glorification. Motorhead did just this on “1916” their album closing anthem, that saw Lemmy backed only by an organ and a brief blast of military drum work, and forgoing his formidable growl, in favour of a fragile croon. The typically tough singer’s decision to present himself, as a vocalist, at his most fragile perfectly reflected his intent to capture the vulnerability of the combatants in the Great War. It remains Motorhead’s most endearing work, and a perfect note on which to end, and reflect upon the lives that have been lost in the past 93 years.
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