They say music is a universal language, and you certainly don’t have to understand the lyrics of a song to appreciate a good composition on its sonic merits. And indeed, what better way to connect with a hypothetical intelligent alien race – which, if it exists, probably is too wildly different than humanity for any kind of meaningful verbal interaction – than with song? That’s one of the reasons why there’s so much music encoded on the Voyager spacecraft’s “Golden Record,” and why science fiction-themed music is so apropos.
Unfortunately, it’s hard to get a handle on how exactly to adapt sci-fi to music. Some attempts – see Koto’s Italian disco tribute to Jabba the Hutt – are baffling, and others, especially ones involving former Enterprise captains, are just disastrous.
Fortunately, there are some rays of light – many sci-fi songs reach not only adequacy and enjoyability, but real greatness. Here are four of them.
One of the reasons metal music and its fans are infamous among music scenes in general is their ever-more-specific categorization of obscure subgenres, of which “space metal” is purportedly one. Insofar as genre has any real meaning at all, this is usually technically or orchestrically inclined power metal with science fiction – and especially space travel – themes, and I enjoy listening to many of the bands that are exponents of it. Gamma Ray and Iron Savior are relatively well known, but Keldian is one of the least recognized space metal bands out there, and that’s a shame, because they literally managed to make a song themed after a cult-hit spaceship simulator PC game with lyrics about smuggling and interstellar politics written around tinkly keyboards and a holy-sounding violin line not only coherent, but downright epic.
Everyone’s favorite eccentric spacetime Brit who’s actually a 900-year-old alien with a penchant for kidnapping young women into his high-tech phone booth (you know, it’s hard to make this show sound anything but suspicious on paper) has spent an incredible five decades on the airwaves, bar the odd hiatus, and naturally every go-round his theme song sounds different, much like the Doctor gets a new look and personality. It’s hard to pick just one, from the funky 60s originals to the driving symphonic force of the newest ones, but they’re basically just arrangements of the same thing: A twangy repetitive string line combined with UFO woo-woo theremin noises that sound more like time travel than any other piece of music ever written.
So heavy metal does demonstrably lend itself pretty well to science fiction narratives, especially the gritty kind. Unleash the Archers, that uncommon breed of Canadian female-fronted melodic death metal band, actually put out an entire sci-fi concept album several years ago with their latest release, “Demons of the Astrowaste,” with a lot of standout songs, but “Daughters of Winterstone” might be the best of the best. It’s actually a purported adaptation of the “miner’s lament” variant of folk song – the ones about working all day and night in terrible conditions, selling your soul to the company store and all that – only one that sprung up in the far future and on a distant planet. All that hopelessness makes for a stark beauty that can be appreciated even when the body of the song is about digging for winterstone ore to fuel the death machines of a tyrannical megacorporation.
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