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Many wars have been fought over religious differences, each side believing theirs is the one true faith. The heavy metal community has its own zealots, and today’s power metal scene – often the subject of ridicule for its “Dungeons and Dragons” imagery, fans all decked out in medieval battle garb and its “happy metal” accessibility – is full of them. Huge in Europe, where festivals such as Metal Camp in Slovenia pack them in, power metal is populated by bands such as Hammerfall, Manowar, Falconer, Primal Fear, and female-fronted Finnish-Swedish power metal royalty Nightwish, among others. For the latest episode of “Metal Evolution,” filmmaker Sam Dunn, with silent partner Scot McFayden working behind the scenes, traces the roots of power metal all the way back to Rainbow and Ronnie James Dio, Judas Priest, Iron Maiden and the Scorpions and attempts to figure out where it all went so haywire.
Even Dunn isn’t quite sure what to make of this thing. Traveling overseas, he goes to great lengths to explore every single facet of a sub-genre marked by bombastic, epic arrangements, singers with operatic range, melodic guitars that fly at unheard of speeds, questionable fashion choices, and gothic sensibilities. At Wacken, there’s a small costumed marching band – with a drum major wearing a wig of long, flowing hair – that walks past Dunn playing Europe’s “Final Countdown.” An on-again off-again meeting with neo-classical guitar god Yngwie Malmsteen is scrapped when the notoriously flighty and sometimes difficult Malmsteen decides not to show up; then, Dunn is supposed to interview Malmsteen in a castle. Eventually, it takes place, and Dunn, finding the whole situation funny, graciously gives Malmsteen the spotlight to explain how he’s merged classical music and metal over the years, and all is forgiven.
His patience already tested, Dunn is also eager to tell the story of Manowar, the shirtless, loin-clothed defenders of what they’ve referred to as “true metal,” and their obsession with Conan the Barbarian. But, founding member Joey DeMaio refuses to sit down with Dunn. Undaunted, Dunn turns to ex-Manowar member Ross the Boss, also known for his past association with punk heroes The Dictators. Unlike DeMaio, Ross is comfortable talking about Manowar, whether or not they were “true metal” and why they were so into Conan. It’s so tempting to make jokes at Manowar’s expense and others have, taking jabs at their hyper-macho, caveman-like appearance and fantasy-laden lyrics. But, because Ross clearly doesn’t take himself or Manowar too seriously, it’s probably time to just leave them be and appreciate their actual dedication to bringing power metal back to its origins. The likeable Dunn, smiling all the way through “Power Metal,” takes the high road and does just that.
Where past installments of “Metal Evolution” have, perhaps, treated the subject matter at hand with reverence, “Power Metal” comes off as something of a lark. That’s not to say that Dunn, obviously having fun in revealing all the pomp and circumstance this kind of metal has to offer, has tongue planted firmly in cheek throughout or that he shows metal’s most outrageous sub-genre any disrespect. Dutifully, Dunn constructs a rich history of power metal through informative interviews with writers like Martin Popoff and Metal Hammer’s Sandro Buti, and members of power metal’s most influential artists, including Priest’s Rob Halford, Dio, and practically all of Iron Maiden. The German angle is pursued vigorously, with Dunn connecting the dots between Tokyo Tapes-era Scorpions and Accept and some of the newer power metal acts from that country. Meanwhile, contemporary power-metal players like the ultra-fast, “Guitar Hero”-gunslingers Dragonforce and the wintry, gothic, and breathtakingly dramatic Nightwish all explain how they are forging a new course for heavy metal. And when Nightwish keyboardist Tuomas Halopainen passionately discusses his love of making music for film and how that could be the new classical music, you can’t help but believe him.
Described somewhat disparagingly early on in the episode as “happy metal,” power metal in all its glory seems to be a force to be reckoned with in Europe. Like Maiden, these acts infuse melody and harmonics into an immense wave of sound, and it has caught on over there – especially with female fans. The popularity of Nightwish is living proof. And while power metal, with its festival crowds singing and chanting along as one big sweaty, foul-smelling mass of joyful metal unity, has not conquered North America, it could invade at any time and crash through our snobbish defenses to scale the charts with a sound that isn’t so different from Evanescence or Trans-Siberian Orchestra. Always straddling that line between being unforgivably cheesy and stunningly beautiful, power metal has come a long way, baby, and Dunn comes to that realization by the end of the show. Still incredulous, though, at its sheer audacity, Dunn celebrates power metal in all its ridiculousness, and in the end, sees it as not only harmless fun, but also as an art form that has its own magic and majesty.- Peter Linblad
Metal Evolution - Power Metal
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