Classical v. Metal

Classical music is regarded as the highest form of culture- intellectual, profound, glorifying the universe through the genius of beautiful sound. Heavy metal is seen by many as the lowest form of culture- moronic, superficial, noisy, unlistenable. But the truth is much more complex than that, and not just because plenty of classical music is rubbish, while numerous heavy metal compositions can be regarded as works of genius. The two musical forms are in fact intricately linked. I have no doubt that my love for heavy metal is directly linked to an early training in classical music. Not in the sense of a teenage rebellion- looking for a complete contrast to the ordered, sedate music I had been taught to play and appreciate. On the contrary, there are profound links between classical and metal music.

There is nothing new of course in my making this connection, in fact it’s something of a cliche. Recent studies by scientists at University in Edinburgh and the University of Warwick have attempted to prove that classical fans and metal fans have very similar personality traits. A study at the University of Queensland found that listening to metal calms people down as much as classical music.  As far back as 1984, a scene in the spoof documentary movie Spinal Tap showed the fictional band’s guitarist composing a delicate piano work which he described as a cross between Mozart and Bach, ‘a sort of Mach really’. The joke arose at the end of the scene when he revealed that the piece was entitled ‘Lick My Love Pump’.

The implication is that heavy metal musicians have tried to adopt elements of classical music in order to lend their music legitimacy, ie. a sort of tokenism or quotationalism. But Robert Walser, the first and foremost metal scholar, gave metal musicians more classical credibility in his analysis of metal/classical links. He showed how in the 1980s metal began to adapt the chord progressions and virtuosic practices from eighteenth century European music, particularly Bach and Vivaldi. He pointed out that many of the most influential metal musicians were classically-trained. Ritchie Blackmore of Deep Purple had studied the classical guitar and cello, and frequently used melodic figures derived from Baroque composers in his guitar solos and riffs. Deep Purple took their classical inspirations to great lengths; countless Deep Purple songs lift passages from classical pieces directly, as well as using classical motifs such as arpeggios, square phrase structures and the ‘circle of fifths’ chord progression. Deep Purple’s keyboardist John Lord even composed a Concerto for Group and Orchestra, which Deep Purple performed with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in 1969.

Metal guitarists tried to adopt the professionalism of classical musicians in the 1980s. Randy Rhoads, the young and brilliant guitarist for Ozzy Osbourne, was incredibly humble in his attitude to musical learning, taking lessons whenever he could even when on tour and continuing to perfect his knowledge of music theory.  Eddie Van Halen, inspired by the fearless innovations and technicality of Jimmy Hendrix, pioneered what became known as ‘shredding’, the fretboard wizardry and impressive scalic passages and chromaticism performed during guitar solos. Yngwe Malmsteen is a Swedish ‘shredder’ who writes pieces with titles such as ‘Arpeggios From Hell’, and has also composed concertos for electric guitar and orchestra. Guitarists such as Rhoads, Van Halen and Malmsteen not only created the subgenre of neoclassical metal, and raised the level of proficiency expected from guitarists.

Randy Rhoads died tragically in a plane crash in 1982 at the age of 25. Despite his short-lived career he is still revered today and one can only imagine what he might have achieved. Van Halen influenced a generation of guitarists, although both he and Malmsteen probably although suffered from the fall from grace of shredding during the Nineties grunge era. Malmsteen is still going strong but is often maligned by metal purists for his perceived arrogance and his ‘fetishization of technique’ which can occasionally sound empty. So the classic shredders may have moved on, but their legacy was to imbue metal with the components of technical proficiency, virtuosity and complexity, which are necessary requirements for metal musicians today, and of course are prerequisites for classical musicians.

There are countless examples of metal and classical musicians teaming up. Following Deep Purple’s lead, Metallica have also performed with full orchestras, and have also duetted with pianist Lang Lang to perform ‘One’ at the Grammys. Steve Vai played with Japanese composer Ichiro Nodaira in 2002 to play the solo in a concerto for electric guitar called ‘Fire Strings’. Apocalytica are a Finnish cello ensemble that only play metal. Wolf Hoffman, the guitarist for German metal band Accept, has released two neoclassical metal albums which are tributes to classical composers, one of which is called ‘Headbangers’ Symphony’.

There is also the crossover genre of symphonic metal, which use orchestral elements or keyboards with synthesised strings. Symphonic metal bands often have female singers who are operatically trained. But the point is not the crossover, because any two genres of music can be combined. The point is that it’s no coincidence that symphonic metal exists. I don’t think Robert Walser goes far enough. Even the language used in his important article on classicism in metal ‘Eruptions’, uses the world ‘appropriation’, which implies borrowing, quoting, but this does metal a disservice- the links are more profound than that.

After all, the electric guitar, bass guitar and drums are musical instruments just as much as a violin, cello or flute. Electric guitars have to be plugged in, and they are products of technology, but all musical instruments are the products of technology. The violin had to be invented. Electric guitars are able to use plug-in devices to vary their sound effects, but this just adds to the options of the musician; in fact it could even be argued that the electric guitar has more musical capabilities than classical instruments. Skill and musicality are required to select and produce the appropriate effects, and electric guitarist require a technical understanding of acoustics which most classical musicians do not have.

Detractors of the electric guitar would say that it lacks the dynamic range and sensitivity of ‘proper’ musical instruments, but this is unfair. While it’s true that the volume is controlled by a dial rather than by the power of the player, volume is only one aspect of dynamic range. The electric guitar is just as capable of vibrato as any other stringed instrument, and the string bending performed by electric guitar players of all musical genres can create a wide range of expressions, emotions and in-between-tones.

Classical music requires active, complex listening to be fully appreciated, and so does heavy metal. It cannot be background music; it requires your emotional engagement. And classical composers could be just as rebellious, as shocking, as metal musicians. Necrophilia may seem to be a theme appropriate for death metal only, but in 1907 Richard Strauss had Salome passionately kissing the severed head of John the Baptist as an orchestra built to an orgiastic climax. The heavy metal musicians of the past forty years, whether they realise it or not, are continuing a centuries old tradition of powerful, emotional musical composition.

Metal for Classical Fans:

Diamond Head ‘Am I Evil’

Nile ‘Rameses Bringer of War’

-both lifted from Holst The Planets

Rainbow ‘Difficult to Cure’ (Beethoven’s 9th)

Ozzy Osbourne ‘Mr Crowley’ & ‘Suicide Solution’- uses Baroque harmonic progressions, and solos with diminished arpeggios and chromaticism taken from Bach and Vivaldi

Deep Purple ‘Knocking On Your Backdoor’- Ritchie Blackmoor managed to seamlessly combine Beethoven with anal sex

Children of Bodom- Red Light in My Eyes part 2 (Mozart’s Symphony in G minor)- the intricacy of Leiho’s solos often invoke Mozart

Savatage ‘Prelude to Madness’- an arrangement of Grieg’s ‘In the Hall of the Mountain King’ from Peer Gynt

Dream Theater ‘Overture 28’

Blotted Science ‘The Machinations of Dementia’- uses Schoenberg’s 12-tone theory

Necrophagist ‘Only Ash Remains’- incorporates Prokefiev’s Romeo and Juliet

Classical for Metal Fans

Wagner ‘Ride of the Valkyries’

Liszt ‘Totentaz’; Prelude & Fuge on the Name of Bach

Beethoven’s 5th Symphony

Schubert ‘Death and the Maiden’

Rachmaninov ‘Prelude in C sharp.’

Bach Toccata & Fugue in D minor

Mozart Kyrie, Dies Irae

Orff Carmina Burana

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