At first glance it might appear to be a simple task to differentiate between classical music on one hand and Metal on the other. What can be overlooked at the first reading of this challenge is that Metal as a genre is a singular one. The same could be thought true of classical music, but just as classical divides into periods and styles, so does Metal.
Classical Music vs Metal
Metal really does not accurately describe the layered collection of sub-genres that this broad title masks. Under that single word comes to music that is highly diverse. Consider, for instance, the more familiar Heavy Metal with Pirate Metal; or Thrash Metal with Soft Metal. This area of popular music holds a rich musical offering just in the same way that classical music does. I am taking this opportunity to examine the connections and the complications that surround these two musical worlds.
Metal, often called Heavy Metal has its musical origins placed firmly in the Blues and Rock. Bands such as Cream, The Rolling Stones and The Kinks laid the foundations in the late 1960s for the next popular music innovation. By altering the speed of older blues or rock tunes, ‘unison riffing’ and the increased use of highly amplified guitars these musicians and many others opened the doors towards Metal.
As popular music moved into the 1970’s legendary bands like Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath and Deep Purple were beginning to establish a new form of music. This became known as Heavy Metal, as characterised by loud, distorted guitar-driven songs, compelling riffs and at times operatic vocals. By the late 1980’s other strains of Metal had evolved to include Thrash Metal, with bands like Metallica, Anthrax, Slayer; Death Metal centring its subject material around blasphemy and diabolism in the work of Possessed and Necrophagia; Black Metal, using Paganism for material in artists like Venom and Hellhammer; alongside, Power Metal and Doom Metal.
This briefly illustrates the vast array of music that has come from and continues to be written under the banner of Metal. On the surface of these descriptions, it is perhaps understandable to consider Metal and classical to be ions apart and unconnected. Actually, on closer inspection, there are links that bring an understanding of the genre in unexpected ways.
Consider for a moment the Romantic era in Western Classical musical history. Many of the composers writing at the time drew inspiration from legend, myth and the eternal battle between the light and dark. The human spirit searching for redemption is not uncommon in Romantic music. This directly parallels to many albums composed by Metal bands. In the early work of bands like Deep Purple, Black Sabbath and Judas Priest, the links become increasingly evident. These bands along with others began to move popular music into directions that were relatively uncharted.
The three-minute, chart-topping single, move aside to make room for more expansive, complex, concept albums that linked the songs together more like a Schubert Song Cycle. To be more specific, listen to Iron Maiden’s song titled “Enter Sandman”, and then Schubert’s “Erlkönig’, a setting of the Goethe poem. Enter Sandman takes nightmares as its subject matter and Schubert draws on the terrifying tale of a father trying to save his sick child as the Earl King pursues them.
There are also direct connections between the genres in terms of influence. Many Metal artists openly admit their inspiration for much of their work has come from the Classical repertoire. This in itself encompasses a broad range of classical music from Vivaldi to Paganini. Geezer Butler, the bass player of Black Sabbath is a has gone on record numerous times to say how influential classical music has been on his work. According to some sources, the solo Van Halen delivers on the track “Eruption” is derived from the famous Toccata and Fugue in D minor by JS Bach.
This leads on to another similarity between Metal and Classical music: virtuosity. The Van Halen solo is one of many metal performances that demonstrates the extensive technical skill these musicians possess. In tandem, many of the composer/performers active during the Romantic period such as Lizst, Chopin, and later Rachmaninov to include only a few, were all exceptionally gifted performers. Many of the compositions written by such Romantic composers demand a level of technical fluency that few possess. The same parallels in the lead guitar solos of many of the metal performers who have in turn raised the bar for all guitarists that follow.
One of the most phenomenal guitar solos has to be on the track “Tornado of Souls” by Megadeath. Guitarist Marty Friedman shows an impressive array of techniques during this blistering performance. It is also worth keeping in mind that this solo was improvised, not thought out and notated. Classical composers, Beethoven, Bach, Chopin and Liszt were all exceptional improvisers and this continues in the Metal music of today.
Another lead guitar solo that demonstrates a vibrant virtuosity is on Powerslave by Iron Maiden. Not only are there some eye-wateringly difficult solo passages but Iron Maiden can be considered as one of the most progressive of the Metal bands. Similar to Metallica and Megadeath the development of musical form is a feature of their work. Like all notable composers of the classical genre, Iron Maiden have not allowed their musical output to stagnate with tried and tested structures.
Instead, the songs frequently show the inspired use of extended musical forms often meticulously woven around a historical or mythical narrative. The final track on their album “Powerslave”, called “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” (after the Coleridge poem), is a worthy testament to Iron Maiden’s devotion to the progression of Metal as a musical genre.
Whilst there are obvious connections between all types of music on the levels of harmony, melody, rhythm, tempo and structure, for me, there is a richer tie between Metal and the world of Classical music. Next time you put on a piece of music, try some Megadeath or Maiden and perhaps listen with new ears.