I’m going to compare Lamb of God to Chopin. And you can’t stop me. Lamb of God are a metalcore band who describe their music as ‘unlistenable’, while Frederic Chopin was one of the greatest composers in history. But the riffs in Lamb of God’s ‘512’(2015) and Chopin’s ‘Revolutionary Etude’ (1831) produce the same affective response in the listener, and it’s worth investigating why.
These are the two passages we are talking about:
The first is the main riff from ‘512’, the haunting and desolate song inspired by vocalist Randy Blythe’s time in a Czech prison. In 2012, Lamb of God were plunged into a nightmare of almost Kafkaesque surreality, when vocalist Randy Blythe was arrested on arrival in the Czech Republic, accused (wrongly) of the manslaughter of a fan who fell off stage eighteen months previously. This was a tragedy for metal as a whole, and could have fueled a whole new round of bad press for the genre, but Blythe and Lamb of God conducted themselves with immense dignity throughout the trial and its run-up, all of it documented in the film ‘As The Palaces Burn’. He was acquitted but spent an agonizing few months in prison, which inspired a number of the songs on their album ‘Sturm und Drang’.
512 begins with a dissonant opening chord which is immediately unsettling, followed by a high register opening riff which rings out, reminiscent of a siren. The song is moderately paced, slower than most Lamb of God songs, but the slower pace allows more focus on the emotion. And the double-time blast beats prevent the song from plodding. The rhythm guitar plays an insistent pattern based on C sharp, adding in octaves when the main riff comes in, for maximum effect.
The riff in question is so beautiful it gets to stand out by itself without vocals first time around. As with many metal songs, the instrumental and vocal parts are on a par, neither dominating the other. The riff played extremely legato, the palm-muted verse chords only serving to highlight this legato, which evokes a storm and therefore inner turmoil. A simple set of notes in & minor continually and plaintively returning to the tonic- is unbearably beautiful and demands to be listened to over and over again.
The mood of this music is only enhanced by the guilt-ridden lyrics, invoking Lady Macbeth as Blythe repeatedly screams ‘My hands are painted red’.
My immediate thought on hearing this riff for the first time was its similarity to Chopin’s Revolutionary Etude. The tortured Romantic composer and virtuoso Frederic Chopin wrote Etude opus 10 number 12, known as the ‘Revolutionary’, around 1831, inspired by the 1831 Russian attack on Warsaw during the November 1830-31 uprising. As an etude, it is supposed to be an exercise in technique, but it is still a fully developed concert piece and is one of Chopin’s most iconic works. It is anaphonic representation of a storm; an outpouring of emotion; instantly recognizable, it forms a core part of any professional pianist’s repertoire. It was probably the first piece of music I heard that really inspired me to work hard at the piano.
In C minor, a difficult and stormy key, the piece begins with crashing dissonant right hand chords, a similar portent to the opening sirens in 512. When the piece kicks in, although the melody is in the right hand, the melody is almost incidental to the furious torrent raging in the left hand. This is also reminiscent of metal- often the vocals take second place to the guitar riffs, the accompaniment being more important than the melody.
The left hand plays an unremitting sweep of semiquaver runs, constantly returning to the lower C, and repeated over and over again. The legato sweeping passages create the same impression of turmoil as those in 512, the relentless return to the tonic resolving tonically but not resolving emotionally. However 512 is somehow more claustrophobic- the Revolutionary has a larger pitch range, giving it more freedom to evoke a storm, whereas 512 has a very narrow pitch range, providing the claustrophobia of a cell.
Both 512 and Revolutionary use cross-rhythms which require extreme precision and co-ordination by the player. Revolutionary gives some respite from the tension of the storm with some quieter pensive passages- although it doesn’t last long. 512’s respite passage is the solo, which uses a wah wah pedal, but the remission is short as during the solo yet another riff comes in underneath, to continue the attack. The musical direction of Appassionato is entirely appropriate to both pieces.
The three final chords of the Revolutionary Etude are three of the most satisfying chords in the classical piano repertoire, a catharsis of pain, surprisingly ending in C major but with absolutely no hope implied by this major chord.
So there you have it. Mark Morton, LofG’s lead guitarist and composer, says of his writing process that he just plays the guitar until something comes up. He collects bits and pieces and melds them into songs. Like many popular musicians, he is unable to explain eloquently how his creative process works, further than ‘just trying to come up with cool stuff’. But Chopin was also just trying to come with cool stuff- is there really any better way to put it? Why should Chopin automatically be any more of a tortured genius than Morton or Blythe? Chopin wrote some of the most emotionally powerful, technically difficult piano music that will ever be written. He tapped into something profound and timeless. But Lamb of God, despite being marketed at teenage boys, have a sophistication in their sound that transcends teenage angst; they have tapped into a bleak and impossibly modern musical style all of their own.
There’s no such thing as high and low culture. Of course some heavy metal is rubbish, but some classical music is rubbish as well. There’s nothing more boring than listening to, say, most symphonies. Schoenberg is absolute drivel. But every piece of music should be judged on its own merits, and comparing across genres brings new insights. If we analyse every piece of music by asking: how does it make us feel, and why?, with the assumption that all music has equal potential aesthetic value, then our experience of music will be fundamentally enriched.
As a child I learnt the Revolutionary in a slapdash manner, throwing my lefthand up and down the piano and hoping for the best with the sustain pedal held down. As a teenager I went back and learnt the thing properly, spending painstaking hours slowly running up and down the left hand scale passages until they became second nature.
And I am now determined to nail 512 in the same way.