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| The Iron Maiden Commentary | Rants | Rant 10: Alexander The Great: History and Heavy Metal |


Alexander The Great: History and Heavy Metal


Alexander the Greatís superhuman martial achievements find epic expression in the military beat, heavy metal chords and harmonic yet driving guitar solos of Iron Maidenís 'Alexander the Great', the final track on their Somewhere In Time album.

Even though heavy metal continues to elicit sneers, often seen as the music of mindless, pimply-faced Beavis and Buttheadized suburban youths, the fact remains that its ballads and rock arias can make powerful musical statements. Perhaps this contempt has largely been a result of the fact that Metalís muses have rarely been sighted at the "in" places or with the "in" crowds.

Yet, far removed from the East Village, L.A. or Seattle, it is Metalís character as essentially a folk music which gives it its honesty and its ability to capture as well as express the force, hopes, violence, fantasies and tragedies of young men growing up in middle and working class neighborhoods in places like Liverpool, Frankfurt and Queens.

While the warrior spirit of Metal stems from this background, many of its followers also come from a surprisingly diverse cross-section of society, including professionals, women, academics, rich and poor alike, who appreciate its pulsating life-force, its emphasis on epic struggle, individualism and freedom, its organized composition and focus on both dark and positive aspects of human experience, and its capacity to release as well as invigorate with explosive doses of emotion and energy.

Iron Maidenís 'Alexander the Great' presents the perfect argument of how the only medium that could effectively capture the power, force and epic vision of Alexanderís mythic heroism and godlike historical stature are classical opera, symphony and heavy metal. Moreover, "Alexander" was not an aberration. Iron Maiden, for example, had based other songs on epic historical struggles such as that of Ghenghis Khan and, in 'Invaders', of Norse-Germanic struggles:

Axes grind and maces clash as wounded fighters fall to the ground
Severed limbs and fatal woundings bloody corpses lay all around
The smell of death and burning flesh the battle weary fight to the end
The Saxons have been overpowered victims of the mighty Norsemen

Trying to avoid the projection of Metalís mores onto the past – as the theme of medieval or ancient battle is one that runs throughout – it is nevertheless not as difficult as one might think to envision that, had they a choice, Spartan hoplites, Roman cavalry, Viking marauders or medieval knights may have ridden into battle with their field musicians playing an appropriately inspiring selection by Iron Maiden, Metallica, Judas Priest, Queensrˇche, Anthrax, Megadeth or any other number of epic-minded metal bands.

Perhaps what is most refreshing about Iron Maidenís "Alexander", during these times of rampant revisionism, historical deconstruction and distortion in the service of radicalized political agendas, is the fact that Alexander the Greatís Greek identity is never doubted but celebrated.

Near to the East in a part of ancient Greece
In an ancient land called Macedonia,
Was born a son to Philip of Macedon,
The legend his name was Alexander.

I remember hearing the song for the first time one weekend on a radio station. My first reaction was that of surprise upon hearing that a heavy metal band had dedicated a historically sophisticated song to Alexander. After listening to both the lyrics and the music itself, I was not disappointed. "Alexander the Great" starts with an ancient wind blowing across the Macedonian landscape. We hear Philipís immortal words, "My son, ask for thyself another kingdom, for that which I leave is too small for thee", and a dirge-like military rhythm of slow marching drums sets the tone for the start of Alexanderís legendary advance towards Persia. As the drums become louder, the expectant melody and hymn-like background build and finally unleash an epic crescendo of guitar chords and a driving rhythm evocative of the march and gallop of determined troops advancing across battlefields, continents and across History itself.

The fourth longest song in Iron Maidenís entire repertoire, the lyrics touch upon the major highlights of Alexanderís campaign.

King Darius the third, Defeated fled Persia,
The Scythians fell by the river Jaxartes,
Then Egypt fell to the Macedon king as well,
And he founded the city called Alexandria.

By the Tigris river, he met King Darius again,
And crushed him again in the battle of Arbela,
Entering Babylon and Susa, treasures he found,
Took Persepolis, the capital of Persia.

The lyrics also include an important insight evincing an impressive degree of historical depth:

Hellenism he spread far and wide,
The Macedonian learned mind
Their culture was a western way of life,
He paved the way for Christianity.

Interspersed with inspiring guitar solos and shifting rhythms, the piece concludes with a narrative of the end of Alexanderís short but glorious life:

The battle weary marching side by side,
Alexander's army line by line,
They wouldn't follow him to India,
Tired of the combat, pain and the glory

Alexander the Great, His name struck fear into hearts of men
Alexander the Great, He died of fever in Babylon

In this age where the past is considered increasingly irrelevant and Historyís extinction is hastened by the proliferation of false revisionism in the service of extremist ideologies, efforts such as Iron Maidenís 'Alexander the Great' underscore the importance of popular culture in involving and educating the world's youth about history, its relevance to our own time, and its significance for our future.

10th July 1999

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