Among the countless different music styles in the world hardly two seem to be more unlike than Heavy Metal and classical music. At first glance this might be true, Metal exhibiting brute musical violence, whereas classical works appear much subtler. If you take a second look, however, both music styles share more traits than our traditional cultural point of view would suggest. Heavy Metal music does not only rely on classical structures of rhythm, melody and composition, but also draws inspiration and influence from its conservative counterpart.
Since the middle of the 18th century, classical music has employed the sonata form most beautifully. This large-scale musical structure consists of three main parts: the ‘exposition’ presents themes and harmonies, followed by their elaboration and contrasting in the second phase called ‘development’. The last part is named ‘recapitulation’ and leads into a harmonic resolution. Such three-part structures are indeed not only widely used in classical composition but in Heavy Metal songwriting as well. American Melodic Death Metal band Becoming the Archetype is well-known for their theatrical sound and complex classical song structures. The band’s 2011 album “Celestial Completion” features a three-part opus by the name of “Requiem Aeternam”, which follows the exact same sonata pattern that innumerable classical composers have designed for centuries.
Heavy Metal has also enthusiastically indulged in another characteristic classical phenomenon, the tritone. Called ‘Diabolus in Musica’, this musical interval is composed of three adjacent whole tones. The structure causes harmonic and melodic dissonance and thereby avoids traditional tonality. Although the tritone was used for creating contrast, classical composers grew to reject it as a most unstable and dangerous interval which is hard to play and sing. Due to its ‘evil’ sound, the tritone was soon associated symbolically with the devil, and is frequently referred to as ‘Satan in music’. Like classical composition, Heavy Metal employs the Diabolus in Musica for the sake of creating dissonance, utilising the resulting contrast to rebel and provoke. However, the use of the classical tritone bestows negative associations upon the Heavy Metal scene. The Diabolus in Musica once again supports the connecting of a musical style with witchcraft, demons, the occult and death.
In discussions about Heavy Metal similarities with classical music, one pioneering composer of the 18th century constantly emerges: Richard Wagner reformed the orchestra by adding extra basses, tubas, and an octabass to achieve an even deeper pitch. His late style introduced revolutionary ideas to the musical world, especially with regard to harmony and the melodic processes around the leitmotif. Wagner explored the limits of the traditional tonal system and paved the way for 20th century atonality. Considering that the composer controversially ascertained the extremes of his contemporary music, it is small wonder that many of today’s Heavy Metal musicians claim that Richard Wagner is one of their grandest influences. Indeed, Wagner’s martial rhythms frequently seem to appear in Rammstein songs. Joey DeMaio of Manowar not only calls Wagner “the father of Heavy Metal”, but also pays “tribute to the Master”: Manowar’s 2005 DVD “The Absolute Power” displays a concert in the presence of an entire orchestra. As a foreplay to the band’s song “King of Kings” the orchestra musicians intone Wagner’s prelude to Act III of “Lohengrin”, before giving free reign to Manowar.
Further Metal bands have recognised classical music’s potential for becoming heavy. In 1999 famous Thrash Metal giant Metallica recorded their live album “S&M” (short for “Symphony and Metallica”) at Berkeley Community Theatre. The band performed their songs with additional sound contributed by The San Francisco Symphony orchestra, and with noteworthy success.
Heavy Metal and classical music appear to go hand in hand musically. There is a tendency towards the pompous and theatrical, the dramatic and the great in both genres. You find no less virtuosity in a Van Halen guitar solo than in Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue”. The theatrical grandeur in the world’s most famous tenor voices mirrors Rob Halford’s (Judas Priest) and Freddy Mercury’s (Queen) outstanding falsett singing. If musicians of both styles share tastes, traits and techniques, a likely conclusion would be that respective listeners resemble each other as well.
Between 2005 and 2008, Professor Adrian North of Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh has conducted extensive research in the field of applied psychology of music. The psychology expert and amateur musician explored how personality and musical taste are connected. He compared listener personalities from all over the world and obtained astonishing results: the Metalhead and the lover of classical works share many significant personality traits. Both are creative, at ease with themselves and at times introvert. These listeners handle music obsessively, prefer theatrical shows and feel comfortable with numerous subgenres. North emphasises a shared “love of the grandiose”. As cited by Jane Collingwood for Psych Central, he claims that “the general public has held a stereotype of Heavy Metal fans being suicidally depressed and being a danger to themselves and society in general, but they are quite delicate things.” Professor North suggests that musical taste transcends national boundaries. A Metalhead will always be more similar to a fellow fan from a different continent than to a different listener from his home country.
Perfect evidence for both North’s study results and suggested Heavy Metal and classical music similarities is Carpe Noctem, an aspiring young ‘String Metal’ band. The five German students Friedrich Busch (violin), Cornelius Wagner (cello), Martin Streicher (cello), Sascha Dobschal (e-bass) and Daniel Cebulla (drums) have been educated in classical music and instruments since early childhood, which has distinctly affected their later musical preferences. However, their music collections unite Antonio Vivaldi with Rammstein, Johann Sebastian Bach with System of a Down. Inevitably, both genres have an impact on the band’s musical creation. “Classical music is where we originate, but Metal is what we move towards”, says violinist Friedrich Busch. It was the musicians’ aim to create music no one has ever heard before. Classical roots develop into a metallic flower without losing their traditional sound.
By inventing a style they call ‘String Metal’, Carpe Noctem have created music hitherto unheard of. They compose according to classical rules and employ typical harmonies and rhythms. The band arranges classical string compositions with metallic undertones and additional drums and e-bass. Initially experimenting with cover versions of Metal songs on their first record “op. 1: Obscuritas”, the band developed techniques of adapting Metal songs for the strings – and grew addicted: “Listening to any music, I regularly catch myself pondering how best to adapt it”, cellist Martin Streicher admits, laughing.
For Carpe Noctem, Heavy Metal and classical music are inseparably interwoven. Friedrich Busch claims that “there is hardly any aspect Metal and classical composition do not have in common, even though people are not aware of that.” Metal songs were composed in a similar manner, yet with different and fewer instruments and less complexity due to the smaller instrumentation. “You can take any classical work and make it more metal, and this works the other way round as well”, Busch states. He believes that the essential aim when performing classical and Heavy Metal music is the same: “It’s most important that you are convinced, and your musical expression convinces your audience.” Carpe Noctem manage this balance perfectly. I once experienced them on stage during a student festival. They created the sound and feeling of a heavy concert while their instruments were an exceptional sight on a Metal stage.
Having moved among the Metal and classical scene for the past years, Busch and Streicher wholeheartedly agree to Adrian North’s study results: “You meet the same kind of creative people both in the orchestra and in Metal concerts”, Friedrich Busch explains, and considers himself and his bandmates fitting the pattern perfectly. These analogies between Heavy Metal and classical listener personalities might be unconscious reasons for the band’s choice with regard to guest singers, who originate mostly from the Metal sector. However, Carpe Noctem do not commit themselves to Metal voices only: “Every voice is suitable if it fits our ideas”, says Martin Streicher. If they had free choice, Trivium singer Matthew Heafy or Metallica’s James Hetfield were a good match, the musicians state, laughing.
Carpe Noctem’s exciting new Metal has already attracted attention among classical musicians and experts. During the last two years the band was invited to compose the entire music for the drama adaption “Supertroja Wonderland” of renowned Jena theatre, and given the opportunity to cooperate with the youth orchestra of Jena. Encouraged by their mentor and conductor Martin Lentz, Carpe Noctem re-wrote several of their songs for orchestral amplification and performed a number of highly successful concerts with the orchestra of their youth in Germany and Denmark.
Carpe Noctem are living proof that a fusion of Heavy Metal and classical music is not only natural and smooth, but also opens up new vistas of creativity and composition. The band plans to record their new album over the summer and release at the latest in early 2015. Until then, longtime fans and curious explorers can enjoy their current record “op. 2: Allegro con fuoco” (2012), join concerts and check the Carpe Noctem homepage.
Music can surprise you anew every time you listen to it – the fusion of seemingly opposing musical styles is a chance. Accepting that these styles are bonded by an enormous amount of shared qualities and similarly characterised admirers, open-minded listeners may encounter new, fascinating worlds of music. “After all, Vivaldi did pretty much the same during his lifetime as we do today”, muses Friedrich Busch. If you like Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons”, why not give Carpe Noctem’s String Metal a chance? You never know what you might win.
Picture Richard Wagner: Taken by Franz Hanfstaengl in Munich, 1971 (wikimedia commons: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Richard_Wagner#mediaviewer/File:RichardWagner.jpg)
Picture Carpe Noctem: Taken by Christian Zepter
Manowar (Joey DeMaio): “King of Kings.” In: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jxQCHZdAXkA
Derbyshire, David. “Take note: Fans of heavy metal and classical music have a lot in common, study finds.” In: Daily Maily Online, 2008.
Collingwood, Jane. “Preferred Music Style is Tied to Personality.” In: Psych Central, 2008.
Carpe Noctem Homepage: http://www.carpenoctemband.de/index.php?type=news
Friedrich Busch and Martin Streicher, Carpe Noctem