Long before he released a series of heavy rock concept albums, and even before it had fully evolved as a genre of music, the late Christopher Lee was living a pretty metal life. As the centerpiece of some of the best horror films made by British production company Hammer and hundreds of spooky movies thereafter, Lee inhabited diabolical monsters and sinister psychopaths, lending each role a guttural hardness that would inform both filmmakers (you can draw a straight line between 1970’s The Curse of Frankenstein and the entirety of Rob Zombie’s entire career) and musicians (it’s not difficult to imagine 1973’s The Wicker Man being a hot topic of conversation among the members of Iron Maiden during their earliest rehearsals).
Lee was destined to have a proper metal career, though few could have predicted that it would happen so late. Lee had provided vocals for a number of musical projects over the course of his life, including contributions to a Lord of the Rings tie-in album and a solo record in 2006 called Revelations that consisted primarily of traditional numbers and showtunes. In 2004, he began working with Italian metalheads Rhapsody of Fire, primarily providing narration for their various concept albums. But in 2010, he teamed with a handful of British metal artists to release Charlemagne: By the Sword and Cross, a crunchy, symphonic power metal re-telling of the life of the titular Holy Roman Emperor. Lee mixes together spoken word pieces with his rich baritone, and the effect is both educational (he really knew a lot about political intrigue during the Middle Ages) and headbangingly satisfying.
Lee followed By the Sword and Cross with a sequel, Charlemagne: The Omens of Death, in 2013, and mixed in a handful of EPs as well (including two separate releases that featured metal versions of Christmas songs). He even received the “Spirit of Metal” prize at the Metal Hammer Golden Gods ceremony in 2010. Here are five highlights from his late career resugence as a proper king of crunch.
“The Bloody Verdict of Verden”
The third act of By the Sword and Cross is pretty bonkers, and it got the appropriate accompanying music video. Lee is great, wielding a sword and wearing his crown like a true king. Plus, extra props to the hesher standing in the middle of a green screen forest swinging a sword next to a pile of skulls. Intense!
While not really a song (though it is backed by the same sort of symphonic accompaniment that many of his metal songs have), “The Raven” is the most metal poem there is, and Lee lends the same sinister inflections to this as he does to the Charlemagne series. This appeared on the 2006 release Edgar Allan Poe Projekt — Visionen, which is a pretty metal title.
Rhapsody of Fire, “Reign of Terror”
In all honesty, a lot of Rhapsody of Fire’s output falls on the wrong side of the “Wait, is this metal album too goofy?” debate. Their album The Frozen Tears of Angels largely belongs in that category, though the Lee totally saves “Reign of Terror” from falling off a cliff. His presence immediately lends a heft to the song that would otherwise be absent.
“Little Drummer Boy”
Both of Lee’s A Heavy Metal Christmas EPs are an absolute joy, and the way he hits the “Pa-rum-pa-pum-pum” part of his extra-loud version of “Little Drummer Boy” is a holiday miracle.
“Charles the Great”
Lee’s best album is the second Charlemagne release, The Omens of Death. And the best song he ever contributed to was one called “Charles the Great,” which also happens to be one of the most fun songs to play on the now-defunct Rock Band video game series. Go ahead and toss up your devil horns in honor of Christopher Lee.