Charlemagne; By the Sword and the Cross is a concept album where Christopher Lee sings in the role of the dying King Charlemagne reflecting on his life. The album attempts to be epic, but fails miserably, due to several factors, despite having Christopher Lee's incredible voice. Christopher is joined by a pair of heavy metal bands, an orchestra, and guest singers, none of which contribute to making the album memorable. A lot of the blame goes to the songwriting, horrific guitaring, and intrusive narration. But more than anything, the album does not feel like a musical recording. Instead, it comes off like a man lecturing about history, as some instruments in the background are playing.
At least half the songs on the album have spoken word parts by the narrator. The narrator speaks blandly in her English accent, for no other reason than to fill the listener in with huge amounts of exposition. Not only does she do nothing more than that, she also consistently ruins the pacing of the album, not that the music is well paced to begin with anyways. Whenever Christopher, or a guest vocalist is singing, the music immediately turns into an emotionless background noise. It would seem like anytime somebody is singing, any generic instrumental music could take the place of the orchestra. When there there is no singing, the orchestra is actually able to sound polyphonic, melodic, and interesting. This is a sign of poor song writing. Instruments and vocals should be able to produce better music when combined, but in the case of this album, it is the polar opposite. But the biggest crime here is the electric guitars, as this album has some of the worst guitar parts ever written in the history of the instrument. Whenever the guitar is played, it is usually the same short power chords played repeatedly, for almost every song there is on the entire album. The songwriter blatantly had no idea how to combine an electric guitar with an orchestra, so the guitars were relegated into making the same chugging noise over and over again. Only at the very last minute of the album, is there anything resembling a half decent guitar solo.
As bad as the instruments are, the singing is not much better. Considering that Christopher Lee has a phenomenal voice, not even he could save the album from the bad songwriting. He comes off more like he's telling an elongated story, than he is singing. It also does not help that in some parts of the album, he is not actually singing, but instead, is talking to soldiers. It seems like the producer wanted this not to be a music album, but an audio log of a play, complete with stupid sound effects, including swords, crowds, and horses. As for the guest vocalists, they take away from Christopher Lee's time on the album. With the exception of Chrisi Ebenhock's incredible soprano vocals, none of the other singers added anything to the album. Listening to Christopher Lee redundantly sing the same line with a guest vocalist of "I shed the blood of saxon men," in power metal style, is infuriatingly irritating, to the point that this obnoxious line will get stuck in every listener's head.
The other factor that contributed to the poor music is the bad performance of the choir. Though the choir's role is small, it also gives them that much less of an excuse to sing their church gospel-like sound badly. It is safe to say that there was virtually no rehearsal, as the choir singers could not even get the timing of the lyrics right. But then again, there is not much that is right about this album. The album comes off as a combination of a lot of efforts, that in the end, turned into several separate pieces being forced together. The one thing that was supposed to be able to tie all the parts together, songwriting, failed to do so, and what was left, is an album that is bland and boring, but could have been so much more.