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Sunday 12 May 2024

Fortean-themed music, from opera to metal

Prompted by some comments on a previous post, I thought I'd write something about "UFO-themed songs". But after looking into it, I decided there isn't really anything I can add to the many times it's been done before (even Wikipedia has a list of songs about close encounters with aliens). Instead, I've decided to focus on a selection of more substantial musical works (e.g. operas and concept albums, such as those pictured above) that fit my broad definition of "fortean". These include several less well-known items, including some I discovered while researching my two books about music - SofSFM (2020) and SofM (2023). Here's what I came up with, grouped under the 6 headings of Aliens, Ghosts, Atlantis, Esoteric Traditions, Science Fiction and Comics.


Christus Apollo (1969) by Jerry Goldsmith. An obscure work by a far-from-obscure composer, this was one of several interesting discoveries I made while writing SofSFM. It's a religious cantata with words by SF writer Ray Bradbury, portraying Christ as a spacefaring super-being known by different names on different planets.

Alien Encounter (1996) by Phil Thornton - a purely instrumental album with tracks including "Arrival of the Mothership" and "Visions from the Homeworld". It comes from one of my all-time favourite CD labels, New World Music, which was particularly popular in the 1990s. I've got quite a collection of these  - other artists on the label include Medwyn Goodall and Terry Oldfield (brother of Mike Oldfield).


There's never been any shortage of operas with supernatural themes - several of them featured in my Fortean Opera post. Here are two more:
The Lighthouse (1980) by Peter Maxwell Davies - another discovery I made while writing SofSFM. It's based on the same real-world "Flannan Isle incident" as the 1977 Doctor Who serial "Horror of Fang Rock". In the latter, the mysterious disappearance of the lighthouse-keepers is down to an alien; in the opera, it's caused by a series of ghostly apparitions.

The Turn of the Screw (1954) by Benjamin Britten. This is based on the classic "psychological" ghost story of the same name by Henry James - but whereas the ghosts turn out to be imaginary in the original version, in the opera they're very real.


Eagle-eyed readers will notice that one of the CDs pictured above also featured in my recent post about Lemuria - and that's the 2004 album of that name by the symphonic metal band Therion. But there are two other albums worth mentioning in this category that I only have in intangible form in my Spotify library:

Atlantis (1969) by Sun Ra. A fascinating individual who claimed to come from the planet Saturn, Sun Ra featured prominently in SofSFM. But not all his albums are about outer space - this one has tracks called Mu, Lemuria, Yucatan and Bimini, as well as the really excellent 22-minute title track.

Atlantis Ascendant (2001) by Bal-Sagoth - another symphonic metal band, and definitely my favourite (their music always makes me think of a Masters of the Universe cartoon, for some reason). Their concept albums also have really great plots; according to Wikipedia, this one "centres on the exploits of a fictional 19th-century archaeologist and adventurer who has dedicated his life to the field of antediluvian anthropology".


Voyage of the Acolyte (1975) by Steve Hackett - the esoteric tradition in this case being the Tarot. All the tracks are inspired by specific Tarot cards, such as "Hands of the Priestess", "The Hermit" and "Shadow of the Hierophant". There's also a Tarot connection in The Lighthouse, as PMD explains in the liner notes: "The structure is based on the Tower of the Tarot, whose number symbolism is present in all the music".

Tales from Topographic Oceans (1973) by Yes, based on Hindu mysticism. In its original form as a vinyl double album, each of the four sides comprised a single "movement" relating to the four categories of Hindu scripture: the shruti (revealing), the smriti (remembering), the puranas (ancients) and the tantras (rituals).

Zos Kia Cultus (2002) by Behemoth. A previously unsuspected music genre I discovered while writing SofM was what you might call "highbrow" metal, and of the bands I listened to, Behemoth was the one I liked best. This particular album is based on the occult writings of Austin Osman Spare, who I first heard of when he featured on the cover of Fortean Times in March 2001.

Masonic Music (1783-91) by Mozart. I mentioned last week that The Magic Flute was featured in my Fortean Opera post, one reason being its inclusion of a Masonic-style secret society. Mozart himself was a Freemason, and this CD contains several works incorporating Masonic ideas. One in particular, the "Little German Cantata" of 1791, must have seemed as blasphemous to some listeners as Goldsmith's Christus Apollo, with its reference to "the creator of the universe, whether named Jehovah, or God, or Fu, or Brahma" (Fu being a Chinese deity and Brahma a Hindu one).

Also featured in my Fortean Opera list was Wagner's Parsifal, which could equally fit here with its strange fusion of the Grail legend with the mystical writings of Schopenhauer. It features quite strongly in Philip K. Dick's novel VALIS (1981), which brings me neatly to the next item...


VALIS (1987) by Tod Machover - a short opera based on Dick's novel. Most of PKD's writings are fortean to some extent, but none more so than the mishmash of metaphysics, religion, alien super-intelligence and conspiracy theories that is VALIS. As for the opera, it's discussed in some detail in SofSFM, so all I'll say here is that anything that combines Wagner and rock music has got to be worth a listen.

The Chronicle of the Black Sword (1985) by Hawkwind. There's always been a close connection between Hawkwind and the writings of Michael Moorcock, but this album (their best, in my opinion) has particularly strong fortean credentials, being based on the adventures of Moorcock's sword-and-sorcery hero, Elric of Melniboné.

(Fortean) COMICS

The Power Cosmic (1999) by Bal-Sagoth. No excuses for mentioning this band a second time, as even the album title reflects one of Marvel's more fortean superheroes, the Silver Surfer. He's also referenced, under his real name of Norrin Radd of Zenn La, in the song "The Scourge of the Fourth Celestial Host", together with several other Marvel characters, including Arishem of the Celestials - the archetypal "ancient alien".

Miss Anthropocene (2020) by Grimes. There were two reasons I sought this album out while writing SofM: (a) I was under instructions to include popular young artists, and (b) she'd spoken out in praise of AI in music, which was one of the topics in the last chapter of the book. I have to say I enjoyed her style much more than I expected, and was pleasantly surprised to find two songs inspired by the distinctly fortean comics that Jack Kirby did for DC in the 1970s: "Darkseid" and "New Gods".

While I could have found plenty more items to go in the preceding categories, that's not true here, as beyond those two albums I'm not aware of any other fortean comic-inspired music (unless you want to include "Grimly Fiendish" by The Damned). But there's a picture of Doctor Strange on the cover of the Pink Floyd album A Saucerful of Secrets (1968), and he's as fortean as superheroes get (see my post Master of the Mystic Arts). The picture, drawn by Marie Severin, is taken from Strange Tales #158, and it's quite hard to see unless you peer very closely. Here's a photograph I took of my CD version, where I've  contrast-enhanced the relevant part (and outlined it in red), to make it a little clearer:


Colin Jones said...

Andrew, thanks for that link to Wikipedia's list of songs about aliens but I think there's one missing from the '80s section. In 1988 The Timelords reached No.1 in the UK with DOCTORIN' THE TARDIS which, as you might have guessed, was about Dr Who, an alien!

Andrew May said...

Thanks Colin - but you need to take that up with Wikipedia, not me! However, you may have noticed that I did slip in a gratuitous reference to Doctor Who in discussing the Ligthouse opera, which is based on the same story as a Doctor Who serial just three years earlier. Not sure if that was a coincidence, or if PMD was a Doctor Who fan!

Another reference I slipped in was really aimed at testing whether Kid Robson was paying attention - which presumably he wasn't (or didn't think it was interesting enough) as he hasn't commented on it! But the Damned song "Grimly Fiendish" is almost actionably close to the title of the Grimly Feendish comic strip than used to run in Wham, which is a comic Kid often mentions. As it happens, though, I did belatedly think of another comic-related song - "Magneto and Titanium Man" by Wings.

Colin Jones said...

Doctorin' The Tardis might have been overlooked in that Wikipedia list because it didn't fit the narrow definition of a close encounter with an alien (or maybe the compiler didn't know that the Doctor even IS an alien??). Anyway I'd prefer a much broader category which includes ALL outer-space themed music such as Rocket Man (Elton John), Star Trekkin' (The Firm), Walking On The Moon (The Police), I Lost My Heart To A Starship Trooper (Hot Gossip) and even The Planets Suite by Holst!

Andrew May said...

Maybe you should give it a try yourself some time when you've got nothing better to do, Colin. But I'll warn you it's much harder than it looks. This was by far the most time-consuming blog post I've ever done. With all the research and planning, it took something like 12 hours spread over 3 days. I definitely need to give blogging a break for a few weeks after that. I mean, I've got things piling up that actually need to be done, as opposed to staring at a computer screen and trawling through Google/Wikipedia/Youtube for hours at a time!

Colin Jones said...

Your effort is appreciated, Andrew, and I'm not surprised if you fancy a break. Apparently Kid hasn't been leaving any comments because of chronic fatigue but he also thinks you're getting annoyed with some of his comments!

By the way, I keep meaning to mention that although I haven't bought Fortean Times for over two years I've got Bob Fischer's Haunted Generation blog bookmarked. I always enjoyed his column in FT but I must admit that I didn't feel the '70s to be haunted!

Andrew May said...

Thanks Colin. Fortunately I don't suffer from chronic fatigue in the same way as Kid, but I have found that in the last 3 or 4 years I've had much less energy, both physical and mental, than I used to. Coupled with still wanting to do everything I used to be able to do, that's very frustrating, so unfortunately I'm always getting irritable and impatient. But that's only at myself and the world in general - sorry if Kid (or you) ever took it personally. I'm also getting fed up with this Blogger platform, which has barely evolved in the 13 years I've been using it. Every other social media platform has things like a "like" button, so you can show your appreciation without having to type out a comment, and you can put emojis in the comments so people know when your "insults" or "criticisms" are really just jokes. Without those visual cues, it's very easy to take offence when none was intended.

Anyway, that's interesting about Bob Fischer's blog - I'll check it out. I've always found his FT column mystifying, and to be honest I've never really understood what it's about!