Prior to an overseas trip in the early nineties, I hosted a Book Party. The goals were threefold: to reduce the amount of stuff I needed to put into storage, see people for a farewell drink and chat, and perhaps raise a few shekels for the travel fund.
So I put the word out, mentioning a savage cull of the sizeable science fiction and fantasy collection, and inviting friends to re-home the refugees in exchange for a donation to the Vinyl Connection Travel Fund. (A piggy bank was provided).
The preparation for this gala event was simple but time-consuming. Discarding books is no easy task. Particularly knotty was the problem of series. Do you keep one? All? Make a selection?
Some series were pretty easy. I’d loved the early Gor series by John Norman, despite some misgivings about his gender politics, but as they’d gone on (and on) the misogynistic survivalism of the stories began to grate. So a dozen counter-Earth books were easily reduced to two (which I have never re-read, incidentally). Another example concerned the classic E.R. Eddison series. Only the first, The Worm Ouroborus, (1922) was retained.
When it came to Robert E. Howard’s Conan The Barbarian tales, however, I struggled. All half-dozen paperbacks had been read at least twice, but the stories kind of blurred together a little. In the end I simply picked the first couple and put the rest on the Help Yourself Desk.
This long-winded back story is to explain how delighted I was to come across a flash looking compendium of Conan stories in my local Op Shop. At two dollars for a volume fatter than an Aquilonian trader it was a steal. But I paid anyway, and brought it home as triumphantly as any returning hero with saddle bags full of gold.
What has it been like, re-immersing myself in the printed adventures of the barbarian hero so memorably portrayed by the former Governator in the 1982 film? To be honest, mixed is the word I’d choose. The relentless Dungeons and Dragons violence starts to numb the senses, lacking the variety of, say, Jack Vance’s classic Dying Earth stories, while the limited emotional range of the hero excludes the refreshingly sardonic humour of Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser in Fritz Lieber’s tales. Still, there are moments that are simply thrilling in their elemental savagery and there’s always R.E. Howard’s creative and colourful use of language to enjoy. So I’ll continue travelling the countries of Hyboria with Conan for a while yet, propped on the couch with the remains of a bottle of red in the quiet time after normal mortals (aka my family) have succumbed to the heavy-lidded inducements of Hypnos.
On one such evening, as Tangerine Dream’s Hyperborea swayed and pulsed in the background, I found myself pondering a question that has troubled fantasy-loving music freaks for decades. What would Conan’s favourite record be?
Wonder no more, friends, for after much arcane research and extensive consultation with Dionysus I can reveal the answer. When your favourite chainmail wearing, broadsword swinging, helmet cleaving hero wants to power up for some serious adventuring, there is one record that stands above all others like a blood spattered hero atop a mound of fallen enemies… Paranoid by Black Sabbath.
“War Pigs” is a hell of a way to open an album. The initial riff rocks and sways like a drunken sailor, a siren ululates in the background then—surprisingly—silence. The voice of Ozzy Osbourne delivers lyrics of battle and violence, cueing the hard-riffing guitar sound of Tony Iommi.
Sorcerer of death’s construction
In the fields the bodies burning,
As the war machine keeps turning
Death and hatred to mankind
Strap on your weapon of choice, comrade. Join Conan and the Sabbs for a trip to hell.
Released on 18th September 1971, Paranoid was the second album by Birmingham’s finest purveyors of first-wave heavy metal. Actually, creators rather than purveyors. But that’s history. Today we want to know why in Crom’s name they didn’t open the album with the charging riffing monster that is the title track. “Paranoid” is quintessential hard rock: a prototype killer riff, chanting vocal, rock solid rhythm-base from Bill Ward and Geezer Butler. Oh, that’s history too. Conan doesn’t give a rat’s arse about yesterday. Nor tomorrow. As long as there are foes to fight, wine to drink and wenches to er, wench with, he’s as happy as a head-banger in a mosh pit.
So he might not like “Planet Caravan”, a slow, tabla-driven Eastern tinged ballad with a quiet, echo-laden vocal from Ozzy and some delicate picking from Iommi. But I like it. There’s a lull in every storm, you know.
An incredible first side closes out with “Iron Man”.
I am Iron Man
A twisted guitar slash leads into one of the most iconic riffs in rock. Ozzy sings in unison with the guitar. It is simple, but not in the way of a child’s wooden blocks. This is simple in the way Stonehenge is simple. Eternal, monolithic.
Side two of Paranoid opens with all the frivolity of a gothic horror film on “Electric funeral”. Yet the dark stuff has a sense of theatre, of dark spectacle rather than any intrinsic nastiness*. This song, for instance, has an almost jaunty middle section where the band chant the title lyric like sneery weasels before the lurching riff returns and Ozzy moans about evil souls and hell. If this was playing through stacked Marshall amps during a battle, Conan would bellow with laughter as he lopped limbs and disembowelled miscreants. “Hand of doom” has a similar feel (and that, of course, is one of the sustained criticisms of Black Sabbath—the lack of variation in, well, everything) until it speeds up for an energetic middle section (Ha! Take that, previous bracketed criticism!).
“Rat salad” is an instrumental that includes a bit of drum solo shenanigans from Ward. Paranoid closes out with “Fairies wear boots”, the odd lyrics of which should probably not be examined too closely, lest clinical paranoia results.
Overall, one of the great second albums of all time, and a worthy winner of King Conan’s Album of the Age.
Before we leave mythical Hyboria I must report that your correspondent—diligent in both investigative journalism and wine consumption—spent further grape soaked hours seeking the perfect comedown album for our favourite barbarian. I mean, after all that killing and whatnot, you need to chill-axe don’t you?
Lurking in the VC collection were a couple of albums by little known Norwegian band Tangle Edge. This fascinating instrumental group released their first album In Search of a New Dawn in 1989. Full of unusual tunes, sounds and instruments, it is a wonderfully varied exotic treat. Imagine a blend of psychedelic folk and space rock, Tangle Edge are doing it. Eastern drones, crunchy phased riffs, shifting rhythms, acid-drenched guitar—often all in the same piece. Occupying some disputed terrain between the Mahavishnu Orchestra, psych-folk band Trees and Kula Shaker, Tangle Edge are well evoked by the titles of the pieces on In Search of a New Dawn…
Isis At The Invisible Frontispiece
Caesar’s Integrated Flaw
A Secret Inside Clopedia
The Approaching Triptykhon Sunset [listen]
The Centipede’s Tune
Later Than The Pinworm Era [listen]
Mushy Shadows From a Lost Caravan
If this is the soundtrack to your after-battle party, be prepared for some pretty intense tripping. Conan’s advice? Wear loose clothing, keep the wine flowing, and have plenty of pliant companions at hand. After all, you’ll probably die tomorrow.
* Unlike the infamous 1971 Rolling Stone review of Paranoid, which is utterly revolting. Not only foul, but confused. Author Nick Tosches conflates Black Sabbath with Black Widow.
Let me know what you think of the Hero / Music fantasy idea. There could be more…