Unearthing Metal's Classical Roots

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.
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.

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