Heavy Metal, Tradition, and the Good Life

A series on the paradox of modernity’s loudest critics.

Heavy metal music, especially extreme metal, is frowned upon among many circles of the classically inclined, and completely anathema among most of the American Church. It is derided as ugly “nihilistic trash,” inseparably shackled to modernity, mindlessness, drugs, and Satanism. Forever cast by some as “the soundtrack to the coming of the Antichrist,” metal’s place in the good life is commonly framed as it was in my homeschool health curriculum – alongside pornography and violence, inherently in conflict with virtue and happiness. Besides offering evidence to the contrary, I would argue that much of the genre has more to offer in complex beauty and thorough contemplation of the human condition than any other form of popular music today. What follows is the first in a series of brief reflections on metal that, while not likely to convert classicists into avid fans, will perhaps shed light on what we are told is a “shadowy place” that falls “beyond our borders (you must never go there”). The Kingdom and the good encompass everything the light touches. The first plank in my case for metal’s place in the well-rounded life is to demonstrate its peculiar and uniquely close relationship with an established musical tradition.

Part 1: The Classical Origins and Orientation of Metal

Metal is arguably the most classically influenced genre of contemporary popular music. If Heavy Metal’s paternal lineage is Folk to Jazz to Blues to Rock ‘n’ Roll, its direct maternal line is found in the classical tradition, a heritage that is by no means distant or forgotten. As chronicled in an excellent interview with the late Sandy Pearlman (producer of Blue Öyster Cult and Black Sabbath fame), the musical lineage of Berlioz to Liszt, Wagner, and especially Bruckner, gave birth to sounds that were louder, layered, and even distorted. Many disciples of this tradition fled Germany to America in the 1930s, and went on to compose beautifully discordant and chaotic scores for horror and sci-fi films after WWII. These were a direct influence on the very first heavy metal artists, who devoured these “incredibly aggressive” and complex soundscapes in cinemas every weekend as young men.

Without this historical context, one might be confused to discover that Bruckner’s Symphony No. 9 is the subject of analysis in extreme metal blogs, or that Classic FM would draw a connection between a passage of Bruckner’s 9th and the riff from Metallica’s “For Whom The Bell Tolls.” Pearlman specifically notes the Dies Irae sequence of Hector Berlioz’s Requiem Grande Messe de morts, composed in 1837, as a formative precursor to metal music. He even describes the piece as one might their first experience of a Motörhead concert: “It is shockingly frightening, and it presents instrumental textures and volumes that were never, ever, ever, ever seen before. This is completely off the scale.” It was truly overwhelming at the time, to the point that some audience members “even broke down and cried during the performance.”

This ever-present classical heritage is confirmed by the artists themselves. When the late Jon Lord of Deep Purple was asked in a similar interview, “what do you think Bach’s contribution has been?” he jokingly replied “Okay, so this is a four week program, is it?” Lord goes on to discuss how Bach proved that music “was at the service not of science or a system or a scheme, but at the service of the human heart and emotion . . . . You can practice and practice and practice on the guitar, the keyboard, or whatever until you are blue in the face and fleet of finger, but if you don’t play from the heart then you might as well stand out in the street and whistle tunelessly.” The echo of 1 Corinthians 13:1 in this insight is unavoidable. Even extreme metal maintains deep ties to this tradition, as discussed by Gorguts frontman Luc Lemay. He recounts how his recent return to a childhood love of violin and Baroque led to formal training in classical composition, which has in turn enriched the band’s latest album (a single piece in seven movements on how the writings of antiquity were preserved in the House of Wisdom).

The dearly departed Sir Christopher Lee, a devotee of metal since its birth and metal artist in his own right, provided narration for power metal artists Rhapsody and Manowar before recording his own music late in life. The aforementioned role of horror films on the birth of metal was manifest in a 2013 promotional interview with Black Sabbath guitarist Tony Iommi. Lee said to him “you are the emperor of metal, the man who started it all,” to which the guitarist exclaimed “No, you started metal! . . . . Black Sabbath [was] influenced by seeing a lot of your movies.” As a man trained in the classics, who aligned his work in metal toward ancient kings and the romantic chivalry of Don Quixote, one should not lightly dismiss Sir Christopher Lee when he says that metal “is very poetic, enormously powerful . . . [and] a unique form of music.”

Once illuminated, the innate classical orientation of metal (often called neo-classical) seems glaringly self-evident in hindsight. Deep Purple wrote a Concerto for Group and Orchestra and performed with the Royal Philharmonic in 1969. Through the 1970s, Ritchie Blackmore moved on to infuse Baroque stylings into the music of Rainbow, Uli Jon Roth began incorporating European classical composition and ornate arpeggios into Scorpions songs, and Randy Rhoads’ lifelong training in classical guitar propelled the music of Ozzy Osbourne to new heights in his solo debut. The torch was then handed off to shredding master Yngwie Malmsteen, whose unapologetic classicism set the metal world ablaze with artists covering the great composers (a practice that, while less common, continues today), and helped spawn whole genres of metal music that still thrive, chief among them power metal, progressive metal, and symphonic metal.

Even in extreme metal, many of today’s most promising new bands and innovators are those who are very prominently incorporating classical compositions and elements. Symphonic black metal (a 1990s fusion that reinvigorated the classical heritage in a metal bloodline that turned to embrace hardcore punk influences during the 1980s) is now a mainstay of the genre. Explicitly classical (even medieval) projects like Aquilus, Obsequiae, Wilds Forlorn, Galar, and others generate the most enthusiastic buzz among metal critics. Even in death metal, one of the most influential releases of 2016 was King by Fleshgod Apocalypse, an Italian band backed by an overwhelming symphonic accompaniment, and at times even operatic soprano. I cannot help but feel a strong likeness between the emotions induced by the arresting explosion of blast beats, brass, strings, piano, percussion, and choir in the album’s opening song “In Aeternum” and those stirred by the previously noted “shockingly frightening” passage of Berlioz’s Requiem.

Classical music speaks to the bards and banshees of metal because the emotions it captures and the stories it tells are ancient, all-encompassing, and overwhelming. This foundation equips metal music to do what all good music should: open a window, giving voice to the seasons of the human heart and the chapters of the human tale. This classical character is in large part why metal speaks to a breathtakingly global audience . . . . And don’t even get me started on metal and folk music!

Jonathon Cosgrove has studied at Geneva College, the John Jay Institute, and the Institute of World Politics. He thanks his wife Becky, brother David Cosgrove, and friend Michael McKinney for their feedback on this article.


Image: Beethoven und Bruckner, via Wikimedia Commons.

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