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on 11 April 2010
The Cast:
Charlemagne: Sir Christopher Lee
Narrator: Christina Lee
Pippin The Short: Phil S.P.
Pope Hadrian: Mauro Conti
Young Charlemagne: Vincent Ricciardi
Hildegard : Lydia Salnikova
Storytelling Singer : Christi Ebenhock
Additional Vocals: Dave 'Grav' Cavill, John Wistow

In addition to being a die-hard metal fan, I am also a huge fan of opera and musical theater, owing to their storytelling qualities and grand, sweeping scope-qualities which they share with most heavy metal. Of particular interest to me is the style known as 'Music Drama', which was typified by Richard Wagner(The term itself was coined by Wagner after the composition of his opera Lohengrin). This style differs from other styles, in that the music follows the action of the story very closely, rather than being split into the traditional pieces which make up an opera: recitative, aria, etc.

Charlemagne: By The Sword And The Cross is just such a work. True, it is billed as a symphonic metal album, but that is certainly not what met my eager ears upon the first listen. Perhaps the most important distinction is that in traditional symphonic metal, the two elements which make up the style are presented almost apart from one another, as if the idea is to juxtapose the two against each other. In the case of Charlemagne, however, the metal elements are seamlessly integrated with the symphony; very well executed by the European Cinematic Symphony Orchestra And Choir, and conducted to a powerful interpretation by Composer Marco Sabiu. The metal instruments seem not as another element stuck beside the symphony, nor do they feel tacked-on; the metallic instrumentation feels like an extension of the orchestra. Also, the individual acts tend to be built up of repeating parts and arranged in a similar manner to metal songs, but this does not detract from their symphonic quality in any way.

It is interesting to note that the actual music bears a resemblance to many different styles in this genre: It wields its storytelling heavily, as in Wagner, but there are shades of Puccini's use of leitmotif, dialogue vs. aria juxtaposition and focused storytelling, as well as some chugging low strings and brass which remind me of the soundtrack work of Hans Zimmer. The metallic instruments are of the plodding, simplistic, distortion-heavy variety which gives Manowar their hammerblow impact. These elements are used somewhat sparingly, and never do they overstep their bounds: there are no excessive solos or wild, frenetic drumming to be heard anywhere on this album-which defied my expectations in the greatest of fashion.

Proving that age is but a measure of experience, Christopher Lee delivers a gripping and powerful performance as the elderly king of the Franks, who, upon his deathbed, remembers his legendary and bloody career as king, supported by a cast of characters from throughout his life. His commanding baritone singing contains all of the drama and expressiveness of his work in film. Interestingly enough, Mr. Lee can, through the Carandini family, trace a direct ancestry to the King of The Franks himself. His musical theater-style performance is the jewel in the crown of this album. Most of the supporting voices are well-chosen and well performed, but the best of these must surely be Vincent Ricciardi, whose strong, emotive tenor voice is well-cast in the role of young Charlemagne.

The narrator is an interesting touch; Christina Lee's voice lacks an overly melodramatic character, but for these purposes such is unnecessary. She provides the listener with the background information for each of the acts, which should be most helpful for those with little or no knowledge of the historical events behind this story.

This album is, to say the least, fantastically produced. The cover art and liner notes are polished and professional, avoiding the typical garishness of many symphonic metal releases, and giving the interior text in an easily-legible typeface. The storyline was obviously thought through very carefully, and is very human and personal, despite its seventy-year breadth. The album is divided into five acts, each of which provide a glimpse into the life of the emperor, and are bookended by the obligatory overture and finale.

Act I shows Charlemagne as an old man on his deathbed, making peace with his God and remembering his life. Act II recalls the events surrounding the subjugation of the Lombards, a people who settled in Northern Italy in the years following the decline of the Roman Empire. The best use of the metal instruments appears in this act. Act III looks at the controversial actions which Charlemagne took against the pagan Saxons, particularly the massacre of Verden, in which 4000 Saxons were ordered beheaded. This event is frequently referenced throughout the album, and a duet is sung by young and old Charlemagne; Here he is brought to task for the massacre, but in the final vocal line the triumphant justification and agonizing guilt for shedding the blood of the Saxon men are both apparent in his voice. Act IV shows the Emperor expressing his sincere desire for religious unity and peace in his lands, but all the while he is haunted by the memories of the slain. In Act V the emperor lays out his vision for a prosperous Francia, his empress Hildegard by his side.

The bonus tracks are hit and miss. The first is a hit: Iberia is a glimpse into the legendary side of Charlemagne's campaigns, particularly the campaign against the Muslim inhabitants of Spain. The twelve peers, his 'Paladins' fight alongside their aging emperor, only to face betrayal at the hands of their allies. This story is well-recounted in the oldest surviving French poem, The Song Of Roland; having just re-read this amazing poem recently, I could not help but smile thinking of Roland, Olivier, and Archbishop Turpin and their stunning heroism in the face of certain defeat.

The next bonus track is an instrumental version of The Bloody Verdict Of Verden. It stands so well on its own, but loses much of its impact without the brilliance of the vocals.

If there are quibbles to be had, they are few, and minor. At times I would have liked to have seen the heavy metal instruments used more-a guitar cadenza here, a bass line there-but I understand the use of restraint given the tonal range of the instruments and where they fit into the orchestra. Some of the voices caught me off-guard at first-particularly that of Hildegard, whose tonal quality is that of a female heavy metal singer at a more tender moment-when placed in context it works, but only just.

This is surely an album which will receive its fair share of derision from some fans of more traditional metal, as it is quite the change from even accepted symphonic metal. However, it is a very mature album, one which is far and away more innovative than much of the derivative, cookie-cutter symphony-shred which has appeared and disappeared over the years. It will find its fans among music lovers, history buffs and more open-minded metalheads who are willing to appreciate it for the giant step forward for the genre that it is.
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on 24 March 2010
This is an extraordinary venture and has worked extremely well and not in any way a novelty. The man's 87 and inspired by his work with Rhapsody of Fire has decided he wants some of the action himself. In homage to his distant ancestor Charlemagne he's created this brilliant project. The music is just awesome and really helps tell the story, I shuddered when the previous reviewer compared this to apocalyptica, no offence but there just isn't any comparison, it's not really like it. A better comparison would be Rhapsody of Fire or another Symphonically inspired band. The music isn't balls out metal, or even as metal as RoF, it's more inspired by metal, lots of orchestral work (which is fantastic and done by the European filmscore orchestra or something) with heavy riff driven bits interspersed, often chorus work.

The story itself is confusing enough to follow at the beginning, you really need to read the booklet the first time through as this means you don't miss any words. The history is interesting and it's amazing to think that Lee is a direct descendant of this man. The only bad bit is the narration, it is important as it sets the scene for each piece, but the woman's voice doesn't quite work in my opinion. She doesn't always sound right.

But anyway, this is recommended to all, it's a great ride, even if you only listen once, Christopher's voice really fits the subject matter, he sounds just like an old king retelling his story. If you are a Symphonic or Filmscore metal buff (Fairyland's genre) then this is a must (I'm neither, I'm just a metal fan who likes Lee) and to everyone else, it's worth a go. It's just so surprisingly good.

But anyway, good luck in your decision, but this isn't to be missed.
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on 9 April 2010
Christopher Lee is my favourite actor. Best Dracula ever.

Goddammit! Now he comes out with Charlemagne and me being a fan of metal, I had to buy this.

It's not Iron Maiden stuff but hell yeah, his voice still brings shivers to your spine. The music is a kind of big orchestra with metal guitars and drums thrown in. Works for me dudes. It's badassery!!!

I shed the blood of 4000 saxon men!

Album of the year.
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on 20 April 2010
I'm going to mention a name--Sir Christopher Lee. What does that bring to mind for you? Legendary British film icon who terrified us in the infamous Hammer Films' productions, The Curse of Frankenstein, The Horror of Dracula, and The Devil Rides Out? The charismatic Lord Summerisle from the legendary cult film The Wicker Man? James Bond's nemesis, the assassin Scaramanga, in the 007 film The Man With the Golden Gun? Perhaps his memorable roles in the Tim Burton films, Sleepy Hollow, The Corpse Bride, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and most recently Alice in Wonderland? Would it be his role as Count Dooku in the Star Wars prequel films, or as the wizard Saruman the White in The Lord of the Rings films? Maybe it would be his masterful performance of Muhammad Ali Jinnah, founder of modern Pakistan, in the film Jinnah?

For me, the first thing that comes to mind is his remarkably distinctive voice; a deep baritone that rings with the authority and gravitas that could make a mere mortal man tremble in his shoes. His is a voice so distinctive that you know exactly who it belongs to as soon as you hear it, even if you cannot see his face. In fact, it could easily be the voice of a noble king on centuries past. And that would be his latest and intensely intriguing performance.

Sir Christopher Lee portrays one of the most important men in the development of Western Civilization, the King and the first Holy Roman Emperor, Charlemagne, on his new cd, Charlemagne: By the Sword and the Cross. His performance and rich singing voice and an outstanding symphonic metal musical score combine to produce a powerful concept album that tells the tale of Charlemagne as a ruler and a warrior king, and as a man who was haunted by bloody decisions made in battle, as recounted in "The Bloody Verdict of Verden" in which 4000 Saxon men were beheaded in a single day by order of King Charlemagne. We see the steely-eyed warrior as a young king, but we also see the older, wiser man seeking to make peace with his God, seeking redemption and validation as he lies dying. Sir Christopher's performance as an older Charlemagne looking back upon his past with a mix of regret and resolve is remarkable, bringing depth and humanity to a long-dead historical figure and allowing us to connect with the character in a very intimate way.

The music that swirls and surges around this story is what is being called "symphonic metal," and it is a truly interesting medium upon which to paint this tale. The music is indeed symphonic, being performed by the European Cinematic Symphony Orchestra & Choir as arranged, orchestrated, and conducted by Marco Sabiu, and it engages the senses wonderfully as it not only serves as a backdrop to the story, but sometimes seems like a participant. Swelling strings mix with electric guitars, bass, and drums to exceptional dramatic effect, guitar arpeggios fade as the orchestra rises and huge bells toll. The mixing of such instruments, however, has been done with great care, skill, and craft--for each complements the other, and neither overwhelms.

Musically, it is an adventurous endeavor. While there are certainly aspects of classical music, it is not classical. While operatic and theatrical, it is not opera. And while there are the charging, heavy rhythms and soaring guitar solos of heavy metal, it is not heavy metal. For me, in places, it recalls Pink Floyd's magnum opus, The Wall. It ambitiously mixes and integrates various styles to convey the moods and passions of the conceptual story, and it succeeds quite well.

All in all, this is something new and different, and it works very well. The vocal performances are remarkable, and the voice of Sir Christopher entrances and enthralls in a tale that spans the life of a remarkable king who led Europe out of the Dark Ages, and harkens back four centuries that preceded him. Charlemagne: By the Sword and the Cross will appeal to fans of progressive and art rock, and is a treat for those rock fans who may want to challenge themselves to taking on something a little different, yet still somehow familiar.

Brent A. Soileau ~ aka "Baton Rouge Brent"
Deep Purple Hub
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on 10 April 2010
Well, I was curious about such a weird concept, and about the legendary Christopher Lee "singing metal"?!? This is why I decided to buy "Charlemagne".
I have to say this is excellent stuff, well produced, well performed, and great music. One of my best buys this year.
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on 9 April 2010
I've bought this album after reading a positive review on Kerrang!

Charlemagne is a great idea for an album, why has no one thought about this before beats me. Here we have someone who has ventured before into the metal genre, having worked with Rhapsody of Fire and Manowar a few years ago. This time, Christopher Lee takes the lead role as the King of Franks, who later became the First Holy Roman Emperor. The story starts with Charlemagne on his death bed, recounting his life and towards the end of the act, he dies and comes back as a ghost. The ghost of Charlemagne is transported chronologically to key events in his life. The Bloody Verdict of Verden being the most controversial of them all. He ordered the beheading of 4000 Saxons and that stayed in the back of his conscience.

I don't know if the style of music can be called Symphonic Metal but it would be certainly the closest description. There is a 100-piece orchestra and choir, playing together with two metal bands. The metal bands being more an extension of the actual orchestra. Both elements blend in as opposed to standing out on their own.

The compositions are superb and very impressive. Marco Sabiu, who has an enviable CV and has created hits for the likes of Kylie Minogue, Take That and has worked with Pavarotti, Morricone and most recently, was the musical director at the world-renowned Sanremo festival, delivers something that is in line with an epic film score.

There are also some very talented singers, Vincent Ricciardi being the stand out vocal performance as the young Charlemagne. But the main interest in this album is Christopher Lee and that's the reason why I bought it to begin with.

To think that this man is 87 and still capable of delivering such power and dramatic performance with his voice, is totally astonishing. To my delight his voice takes centre stage as opposed to when he worked with Rhapsody of Fire, in where we were only treated to snippets of his voice.

The narrative in a story like this, is necessary, especially when it comes to mp3 downloads where one does not get the libretto. Christina Lee, Sir Christopher's daughter narrates the story in a non dramatic way. I assume that the intent here is to bring back the listener into modern-day reality, thus avoiding any biased opinion. The contrast works well, since she isn't one of the characters in the story.

I've heard that this album is being made into a musical. I cannot wait to see this performed on a stage.
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After listening to his highly idiosyncratic previous album, Revelation, I was intrigued as to where Christopher Lee would go next with his previously underused fine singing voice. This full blown rock opera is another change in style, and one which suits Lee's voice to a tee.

This is an epic and sweeping album which tells the story of Charlemagne, his rise to power and constant struggles and wars. Lee plays Charlemagne in old age, looking back over his life and achievements. There is a grand full rock opera backing in the best style, and Lee attacks the whole thing with a certain amount of relish and gusto, both combine to give an album with a grand quality, with a bit of depth.

An excellent album, recommended to all those who enjoy good story telling, fans if Christopher Lee and/or fans of good heavy rock.
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on 26 December 2013
After hearing the songs of this album, I am a great fan of Christopher Lee. My friends told me about the album and I bought the album
And i must say you can totally count on it ,amazing stuff you will love it . I just love Christopher lee for this , Awesome job done !
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on 24 May 2010
CHARLEMAGNE - BY THE SWORD & THE CROSS

I really didn't know what to expect when I started to play this CD. I purchased it because I have been a huge fan of Christopher Lee over the many, many years and I have confirmed my belief that he is one of the most underrated actors of all time. On playing this CD his powerful voice filled my room and I could actually picture him acting out all the scenes. The music is described as "heavy metal" but I would expect hardcore fans of this genre to be a little disappointed. Personally, I loved the music. It is a history lesson told in words, music and song. The story is well written withe music that is rich, choral and melodic in a powerful opera style.

Christopher Lee is superb. His majestic, rich and powerful voice dominates throughout whether he is talking or singing. The rest of the performers, including a 100 piece orchestra, two metal bands and a choir are excellent. Unfortunately, for me, Christopher's daughter, Christina, who narrates, does not have the voice for such a demanding role. She almost sounds amateur and does not gel with the rest of the "mixture".

Highly recommended.

Colin Wilson
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on 19 March 2010
I first heard about this on BBC 6Music and the clips they played weren't the best, but were enough for me to splash a few quid on novelty value. This is a strange collaboration. A gothic-prog-rock-classic-concept-opera about a dead French king that hardly anyone in the UK will really know about in any detail (thanks, GCSEs).

On the plus side the music is full and atmospheric and the intro sections give you enough to whet your appetite about Charlemagne until you can get to Wikipedia. If you like Apocalyptica and Christopher Lee's voice, then you can't go too far wrong. There are choirs and other professional singers too, as well as some very talented musicians, so don't think it's a one man show. Christopher Lee himself has a spoken word singing style, similar to Rex Harrison's in My Fair Lady, and as you might not expect is rather good.

On the down side, as a whole it doesn't completely hold together, the story jumps around too much and assumes too much prior knowledge of it's subject. You sometimes sense that it's almost trying to be the musical of Les Mis (not necessarily a bad thing) and I do wonder if it might be better live on stage. You also have to wonder if it was originally performed in French as some of the lyrics don't quite scan but musically it's superb.

Overall three stars is possibly a little unfair; some pieces deserve more, "The Bloody Verdict of Verden" being a stand out piece. If you're downloading don't be tempted to try to save cash by missing out on the Intros or you'll not have a clue what's going on!
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