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Unearthing Metal's Classical Roots

Manowar: laugh at the outfits, but these dudes fused metal and classical music.
Manowar: laugh at the outfits, but these dudes fused metal and classical music.

I wasn't raised on Anthrax or Zeppelin, or anything between in regards to the heavy metal alphabet.

No, the soundtrack of my youth was classical music. I competed in classical piano competitions for the better part of a decade, and Johann Sebastian Bach, Ludwig van Beethoven, and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart were my musical confidantes, and inadvertently, my guides to heavy metal.

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I even look to Bach as a heavy metal godfather of sorts, composing some of the darkest, most raw, technically complex music almost three centuries before Deep Purple or Hendrix did it. To this day, some of the most complex heavy metal still comes out of Eastern Europe, a place where metal musicians often learn "classical" as their first musical language.

It's not breaking news that classical and metal have much in common when it comes to complexity, creativity, and texture. But few think of classical arrangers as having much heavy attitude. Composers like Tchaikovsky and Vivaldi were seen as compositional masters much like Eddie Van Halen and Darrell "Dimebag" Abbott are today, and their compositions are often as wild and electrifying. You just have to listen closely -- beyond the distortion of a guitar -- to notice it.

It was purely by accident that I first connected with metal through my love for classical. My parents were advocates of those pesky "Parental Advisory" stickers, and to avoid the wrath of Tipper Gore, my older brother would slip rock records inside random classical and pop album cases. One day in his room I stumbled across Iron Maiden's The Number of the Beast, followed by Metallica's Black Album. From then on, my Walkman (yes, Walkman) was home to contraband metal tapes, and I would marvel at the double bass of Pantera's "Slaughtered," or daydream to Black Sabbath's "Wheels of Confusion." To my ears, the sound of those amplified guitars was angelic -- not unlike the classical sounds of Stravinsky or Brahms.

Niccolo Paganini -- pretty theatrical with his white face paint.
Niccolo Paganini -- pretty theatrical with his white face paint.

Heavy metal seemed just like classical music to me: It was ritualistic, accepting of death and change, questioned authority and normalcy, and satisfied that need for an overture or reconsideration. It was as if classical and metal both quenched my need to understand the positive strength and ultimately horrific nature of the world. Metal may be less refined, but it still seeks to express that philosophical assumption about life.

Heavy metal's roots are intertwined with those of classical music any way you look at it. The reflections of the Baroque and Romantic periods are filled the dark anguish and imagery. Take the tritone (or the flat fifth), for example. This interval spanning three tones was banned in several countries and forbidden in medieval ecclesiastical singing--the monks called it "diabolus in musica" or "the devil in music." But the tritone was used in some of the richest classical music of the Middle Ages, as well as by such Romantic composers as Liszt, and modern composers like Bartok and Stravinsky. Later on, known as "the devil's interval," Black Sabbath brought this unusual, creepy structure to its music, which is one of the reason it became so popular.

Of course, I must point out that the two genres are rooted in two different cultural traditions--classical is art music, whereas heavy metal is known as popular music--and the use of power chords in metal clashes with one of classical music's main principles. The use of octaves and consecutive fifths breaches the rules of harmony and classical aesthetic altogether.

 

Beethoven: Crazy and angry enough for metal?
Beethoven: Crazy and angry enough for metal?
super-conductor.com

But classical isn't necessarily supposed to be about structure, elegance, and formality. Listen to Bach's "Toccata & Fugue," one of the most famous classical organ pieces ever, and you'll hear some of the darkest melodies ever written, on display front and center. In the late 1700s, violinist Niccolo Paganini wore white face paint, had a rumored deal with the Devil, could bend his wrist joints in miraculous ways while playing the violin due to bone disease, and wrote violent pieces that were rumored to drive audience members crazy--or into lust. For a listen to one of the first every "heavy" recordings, check out Anton Bruckner's works from the 1800s, particular Symphony No. 5 in B Flat Major and his 9th Symphony. These compositions that entertained massive crowds with vast layers of symphonic sound.

It is from these classic models that we have such amazing guitar virtuosity and changes in the harmonic language of heavy metal today.

We can't vouch for the quality of this one, but check it out!
We can't vouch for the quality of this one, but check it out!

Fast-forward to the late 1960s, when Black Sabbath brought influences and chord progressions from European classic stylings. The same goes for Deep Purple/Rainbow guitarist Ritchie Blackmore. In the late'70s, Manowar admitted that one of their main influences was Wagner, and in the 1980s, Randy Rhoads, Eddie Van Halen, and Uli Jon Roth looked to early 18th-century classical music for its example of speed and technique, particularly from Wagner and Vivaldi. A deal with the devil? That's old news, nowadays. Just think of KISS, those once-again pesky Parental Advisory stickers coming into play, and bands being accused of Satanic backmasking.

A flurry of metal bands has followed since, with modern symphonic bands such as Dream Theater, Epica, and Nightwish blending the scope of classical music with the grit of heavy metal. It goes the other way too: you can find a staggering number of symphonic and string quartet tributes to such legends like Pantera, Metallica, Guns 'N' Roses, and Tool.

In fact, I'd love to see some heavy metal tributes to classical music. Can you imagine Slayer covering Bach? 3 Inches of Blood dabbling in Chopin? Who knows - it could open doors wide for fans of both genres.

To really understand how these musicians connect over time, there's a quote from English metal journalist Malcolm Dome in Metal: A Headbanger's Journey that comes to mind:

"I still believe if Richard Wagner had actually been around today he'd probably be in Deep Purple. Beethoven probably would've been happy to have been in Led Zeppelin."

It makes me think back to my childhood, playing Mozart by day and listening to Motorhead by night. Maybe that's what made me such a little hellraiser. As Lemmy sings in the song "Hellraiser," the mixture of classical and metal has me "Feeling all right in the noise and the light."


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