Dungeons & Dragons has come out of the basement and into the mainstream in recent years. The fantasy role-playing game, once a target of Satanic Panic paranoia and nerdy niche appeal, has scored celebrity endorsements and features in The Washington Post and The New Yorker.
Of course, fantasy has always inspired heavy metal. So closely are the two related, that it often seems the worlds of high fantasy, sci-fi, and horror are embedded in the DNA of every metal band, as much a trope of the genre as screaming guitars and guttural vocals.
So for this third installment of “Heavy Rotations,” we’re offering a sample of recently released metal songs that, if not directly inspired by D&D, at least seem to share the same spirit of adventure and escapism. Each of these was released in 2019, and is listed in no particular order.
If you’re feeling particularly adventurous, grab a 20-sided die (d20) and roll to see where you’ll start your listening journey.
1 | “Warrior” by Wizzerd
Few albums approach the narrative tangles of a D&D campaign as wholeheartedly as this year’s self-titled album by Montana fuzzlords Wizzerd. Tracing a conflict between the band — singer/guitarist “Dragon,” bassist “Warrior,” guitarist “Wizard,” drummer “Phoenix” and keyboardist “Wraith” — against “The Wizzerd,” a mythical usurper responsible for a plague of chaos magick. “Will our heroes bring balance to their world, or will they perish at the hand of the Wizzerd? Tune in to find out…”
2 | “Navigator” by Mega Colossus
The new EP from Raleigh’s “Adventure Metal” stalwarts is securely in the band’s comfort zone of searing NWOBHM revival, big, bright guitar solos and rich harmonies backing dramatic retellings of fantasy tales. (This was the band that, back in 2009 was singing about Game of Thrones’ Clegane-bowl on “The Mountain That Rides” — a live version of which appears alongside “Navigator” on V.) Rich with melody, “Navigator” is among Mega Colossus’ most pop-leaning cuts, but it’s no less thrilling for its approachability.
3 | “Winds of Destiny” by Haunt
The massively prolific Trevor WIlliam Church has returned to Haunt for a full-length and an EP so far this year. This on top of last year’s debut and his ceaseless output in the doomy Beastmaker. “Winds of Destiny,” from the LP If Icarus Could Fly, finds Haunt in fine form, using the language of high fantasy to cast broad, anthemic hooks. “Follow the guiding light,” Church sings. “Watch as the fire grows/ The winds of destiny blow.”
4 | “The Sword Woman” by Smoulder
With their full-length debut, Times of Obscene Evil and Wild Daring, Toronto trad-metal troupe Smoulder make a bold statement. “The Sword Woman” is a perfect encapsulation of the band’s epic scope. Big, thick riffs buttress a soaring vocal from frontwoman Sarah Ann. Saturated with sword and sorcery intrigue, “The Sword Woman” is a warrior’s tale worth replaying.
5 | “Taste of Steel” by Inhuman Nature
Inhuman Nature’s self-titled, full-length debut is riddled with searing thrash riffs that recall fellow revivalists like Power Trip or Toxic Holocaust. But on “Taste of Steel,” the London, UK, quintet merges crossover intensity with epic solos and a vengeful Barbarian’s wrathful warning: “The taste of steel is the price you’ll pay/ The bloodied soil is the grave you’ll lay.”
6 | “Fire Wizards” by Haze Mage
Deep grooves, foggy fuzz, and a lead singer with a devilish croon all combine on Chronicles, the sophomore release from Baltimore’s Haze Mage. Indeed, there’s no masking the band’s love of riffs, fantasy, and weed with songs like “Bong Witch,” “Storm Blade,” and our pick, “Fire Wizards.” When I first heard the album, I quipped to friends, “This record sounds like Dungeons and Dragons and Danzig.” I’ll stand by that.
7 | “Templar Dawn” by Green Lung
While not specifically fantasy-inspired, English occult rockers Green Lung are probably this list’s top contender for spawning a legit Satanic Panic. This year’s infernally inviting Woodland Rites is a veritable buffet of lumbering riffs, soaring melodies, and Sabbathian melody that offers an easy route to the Left Hand Path. “Templar Dawn” veers from the album’s more magickal themes and rituals to pay homage to the famously eerie Blind Dead films. And, well, supernatural horror has as much place here as dragons and wizards.
8 | “The Wraith” by Sacred Monster
Inhabiting the mind of a murderous wraith, Chicago’s Sacred Monster make a stirring and affecting bit of vengeful horror fantasy on this cut from their Worship the Weird LP. The riffs are clearly spawned from the cult of Iommi, winding around the melody like a serpent, but the snarling vocal is what makes this song so powerful. “Falling snow will hide your body/ Just as lies hid your sins,” growls vocalist Adam Anderson. “Now lie here, undiscovered/ Until the spring begins.” I hope your saving throw is enough to avoid the vengeance of “The Wraith!”
9 | “High Fantasy” by Gygax
A band that takes its name from D&D co-creator Gary Gygax, and names its third album High Fantasy is an obvious pick for this list. But what’s most remarkable about this Gygax is how immensely catchy their songs are. “High Fantasy” has the hooks and harmonies of Thin Lizzy, with the epic dynamics of Dio, and a smooth production that captures the absolute joy of creative escapism.
10 | “Black Omen” by Paladin
Atlanta’s Paladin released their full-length debut, Ascension, through the stalwart label Prosthetic Records. And their technically dazzling power metal makes clear why the heavyweight label saw potential. But for all it’s melodic bravura and technical flourishes, the band knows how to settle into a riff, and stretch a hook. At its best moments — as on “Black Omen,” the band bridges Iron Maiden’s proggy pomp with the grit of melodic death metal.
12 | “Remote Void” by Wormed
The sci-fi obsessed Spanish band Wormed are also viscerally brutal and unsettlingly technical in their death metal onslaught. The blast-beats on “Remote Void” — taken from the band’s forthcoming Metaportal — seem to exert their own gravitational pull as guitars stab from obtuse angles, like Sarlacc teeth in the gaping crevasse of its jaws. This certainly sounds like some otherworldly stuff, less the triumph than the terror of the challenges that await any eager adventurer.
13 | “Birth and Death of Rish’Ash” by Barbarian
Italy’s barbarian refers to its sound as “obtuse metal,” and this cut from their recently released To No God Shall I Kneel merges death metal viciousness with triumphant trad-metal melodies. The result brings dynamics to their guttural assault, while keeping enough grit to steer clear of any hints of retro-cheese. This is the purest metal, timeless, powerful, and forged to endure.
14 | “Riding the Fortress” by Twisted Tower Dire
Raleigh’s Twisted Tower Dire released Wars In The Unknown, their first album in eight years, back in March, and the classic Maiden-meets-Manowar power metal on display here proves the band hasn’t lost a step in their time off. “Riding the Fortress” drives a perennially exciting triplet gallop riff that provides a strong foundation for dynamic vocals and solos that summon the spirits of every guitar hero from Eddie Van Halen to Herman Li and Randy Rhoads.
15 | “Born Into Fire” by Spirit Adrift
With Divided By Darkness, Arizona’s Spirit Adrift recall an era of heavy metal headliners that hasn’t been seen since Metallica’s ascendance. Managing to be both heavy and propulsive, melodic and muscular, “Born Into Fire” boasts the sort of ambiguous, imagistic lyrics that make anthems. Listeners can assign their own meaning to lines like, “We are the sea, the wave will crash/ We are the wind that howls at last.” But no matter what you read into the lyrics, the melodies, backed by crashing riffs, are as clear as day.
16 | “Manus” by Firelink
Inspired directly by Dark Souls — a role-playing video game, not a tabletop game — Atlanta’s Firelink nevertheless capture the excitement of a twisting, spontaneous narrative. Their fusion of black metal and melodic traditional metal effectively mythologizes their game’s heroes. “Manus” pays homage to a boss character, the Father of the Abyss, with a narrative tale gives the game’s Manus a backstory with shades of both a cautionary tale and hero’s journey.
17 | “Keeper of the Arcane Lore” by Temple of Demigod ft. Demether Grail
Temple of Demigod is the solo project of Armenian Mark Erskine. His project pays homage to the lore invented by H.P. Lovecraft and advanced by legions of fans in the forms of games, music and film. With this year’s Onslaught of the Ancient Gods, Erskine has composed a sort of chthonic take on Brian Wilson’s idea of “pocket symphonies.” Densely layered with frenzied blast beats, melodic guitar riffs and abrupt orchestral flourishes, “Keeper of the Arcane Lore” evokes the unsettling geometry of Lovecraft’s R’lyeh with its sudden rhythmic lunges and off-kilter countermelodies.
18 | “Grasping Time” by Vokonis
“Grasping Time” is the lead single from Vokonis forthcoming album of the same name, and captures the Swedish trio’s blend of atmospheric doom and melodic prog with a deliberate pacing and ethereal layering of melodies that evokes mystery and wonder more than darkness. Fitting for a song that portends “An endless journey/ Through the unknown.” Fluidly melodic and effortlessly dynamic, the song promises a strong release come September.
19 | “Flight of the Dragonship” by Troll
Truly, any of the expansive tracks from April’s Legend Master could have appeared here. But the album opener, evoking Earth in its meandering riffs, manages to capture the atmosphere of funeral doom while embracing flashes of bright tones and a lyrical narrative that finds liberation in isolation. When the climactic shift turns the song into triumphant, harmonic melody, it feels more than earned; it feels like the wrap of a campaign through which much was lost, but more was gained.
20 | “Freed From The Pressures of Time” by Lord Dying
Portland, Oregon’s Lord Dying leaned heavy into prog-rock for their third album, April’s Mysterium Tremendum. An ostensible rumination on death and mortality, the album stretches for a cosmic scope, and expands the band’s sound accordingly. Where once Lord Dying was content to carve deep grooves through sludgy thrash, here they embrace greater dynamics and more expressive melodies. Indeed, they’ve grown heavier by lightening their sound, and digging deeper thematically to produce a new career milestone.