Imagine you’re a funding board for theatre in Oxford. Among the myriad ideas heading your way comes this curveball: an experimental rendition of life in the higher echelons of ancient Babylonian society, complete with – wait for it- a heavy metal soundtrack. The premise of Ashurbanipal: The Last Great King of Assyria is exactly that, an intriguing attempt to reconcile three seemingly disparate corners of the arts.
Examining playwright Selena Wisnom’s attempts to understand the bloodthirsty writings of Ashurbanipal himself, the reasoning behind the choice of music becomes more apparent. However, the soundtrack does not merely pander to metal’s stereotypes of evil unwashed Satanists; it’s an altogether more erudite affair, pairing crunching prog riffs with more ambient electronic passages. “Our aims…were to provide momentum through the more experimental scenes” state Andrew Garner and Tom Clucas, the composers of the soundtrack.
With obvious inspiration from the likes of Opeth, Mastodon and Porcupine Tree, nobody could accuse the soundtrack of being original. However, Garner has plans to add a range of vocals over the top of the soundtrack, providing a narration of the play in ancient Akkadian, for all of those Classicists who will understand…
How does the rest of the team feel about working with a metal soundtrack? “It was a big risk” admits Wisnom, but it appears to have paid off; with 3-6 hours put in to every minute of the music, it has been carefully tailored to meet the needs of the play. Others weren’t quite so keen to begin with- “I can’t say I was exactly thrilled when this was announced to me,” said producer Alexander Woolley, “…but I’ve come round to Tom’s way of thinking: the heavy metal will impart a vitality to the play that a more traditional, slightly operatic soundtrack would have been unable to provide.”
So will this evolution in thinking spark a metal revolution in the Oxford drama scene? Garner certainly hopes so: “I have plans to write a metal musical at some point” he says; Wisnom also intends to create a series of plays on the topic of Assyrian Kings if Ashurbanipal is a success.
Unfortunately for metalheads everywhere, the genre remains stereotyped and divisive; however, if Ashurbanipal is a success, Oxford should start to seriously consider the versatility of metal as an art form.