The Butter on the Bread of Metal

If Heavy Metal was bread, what then would be the butter? Hoping that you forgive me for comparing Metal to dry bread, my answer is: solos! A driving riff is enjoyable, and a heavy beat can definitely make us nod appreciatively, a growling bass might satisfy, a screaming voice can urge us to scream along – but only a solo can make usually reasonable adults play the air guitar, headbang like maniacs or close their eyes with a featherbrained smile on their faces. If a solid Metal song is the basis of a good mood, a perfect solo is the extra on top.

The term derives from the Italian word for ‘alone’, ‘solo’. However, for their musical solos the Italians use the term ‘assolo’. Hinting at its Latin origin, the plural form is ‘soli’, yet today the anglicised plural ‘solos’ is common. Soloing has a long musical history. Early classical music already employed a solo voice or instrument leading the listener through the composition. In Jazz and Dixie music solos are praised particularly: if onstage, every member of the band usually gets the opportunity to play at least one solo. At times, all these solos occur in the same song, one after the other, and are immediately applauded for by the audience. In modern music, Rock and Metal in particular, soloing has reached a new dimension: faster, longer, and as complex as possible.

One of the first champions of soloing was Eddie Van Halen, the legendary Dutch guitarist of the Californian band Van Halen. While young Edward Van Halen at first studied classical piano, then learnt to play the drums, his brother Alex Van Halen started strumming the guitar. It is said that Alex secretly sneaked into his brother’s room to play his drums, and when Eddie finally caught Alex red-handed, both agreed on swapping their professions. This decision turned out quiet successful. Eddie Van Halen’s widely known solo instrumental “Eruption”, part of their debut album “Van Halen” (1978), is said to have just been the guitarist’s warm-up exercise that had been recorded by accident, and which should bring its originator a brilliant reputation as a guitar god. While the original lasts only 1:44 minutes, Van Halen stretched the solo onstage into incredible 11 minutes. Both versions are amazing to hear and, in the second case, to see:

 

Another band famous for its fantastic guitar work during the eighties was British Artrock jewel Queen. Brian May is blessed with the talent to tailor every solo to its specific song, and he is proficient in a variety of styles. The guitar-centred song “Bijou” features the album “Innuendo” (1991) – and May, despite Queen existing with only half the original members today, still plays it live. In 2008, Freddie Mercury’s vocals were imported and the singer was shown larger than life on screen. Brian May was 61 at that time, and his soloing has lost nothing of its appeal over the years:

If you want the original, you’ll find it at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vz_d3sH0pwI

Amazing as well, yet no solo of Brian May, is the Flamenco passage in Queen’s mysterious song “Innuendo” (from the album of the same name, 1991). It was played by Yes guitarist Steve Howe, who ran into the band in Montreux rather accidentally and was persuaded by May, Taylor and Mercury to do some “crazy Spanish guitar flying around over the top.” The result sounds thus:

 

While you find many purely instrumental compositions in the wide world of Heavy Metal and Rock, the common song is often adorned with a solo as well. One musician who had made his mark in the Metal scene before deceasing much too early was Dimebag Abbott, Pantera’s famous guitarist. In an admirable way Abbott combined harsh guitar screeching with smooth whirls of sound, charging any song with energy or depth. As his main influences Abbott cited Ace Frehley (KISS), Tony Iommi (Black Sabbath), Eddie Van Halen (Van Halen, especially “Eruption”), Pete Willis (Def Leppard), Kerry King (Slayer) and several other artists. Three of his solos have been incorporated into Guitar World magazine’s Top 100 of all time: his soloing in “Walk” (from “Vulgar Display of Power”, 1992), “Cemetery Gates” (from “Cowboys from Hell”, 1990) and “Floods” (from “The Great Southern Trendkill”, 1996) is exceptional indeed. However, I want to introduce you to one of the less loudly praised solos of Abbott, which is the one giving “A New Level” (from “Vulgar Display of Power”, 1992) the final polish:

 

One of my favourite solos crowns Chimaira’s pearl “Six” (from their self-titled album, 2005), which is actually one of my favourite songs as well. Apart from the record being packed with variety, the solo is – I cannot express it in a better way – simply cool! It needs a while to develop, because Rob Arnold’s solo parts are interrupted by all the instruments falling in several times. Patience will be rewarded!

 

American Thrashers Machine Head are especially known for their “double-solos”, which means that Robb Flynn and Phil Demmel play their solos together and this way may reach an even greater complexity. Apart from containing a thrilling solo, “Vim” (from “Through the Ashes of Empires”, 2003) wonderfully displays Machine Head’s long time drummer Dave McClain’s astonishing skills. If he was not mentioned in my favourite-drummers-post, it was by accident!

 

The soloing of American Melodeath monsters Scar Symmetry has a very clear quality. Per Nilsson’s solos are precise, finely composed and highly addictive, like the one in “Illuminoid Dream Sequence” (from “The Unseen Empire”, 2011):

Scar Symmetry even dared to start off a song with a solo, which has produced an amazing result. “Seers of the Eschaton” (from “The Unseen Empire”, 2011) is a real blast from the start:

 

All these great solos create the impression that for soloing you necessarily need a guitar, which of course is wrong. Since I have praised ex-Slipknot drummer Joey Jordison in my latest post, I need not say much: watch Joey Jordison’s awesome live playing-and-turning performance!

 

Solos make the Heavy Metal world go round.

Get the Drumheads Burning!

Drum magic by the Master: Joey Jordison

Drum magic by the Master: Joey Jordison

If we were asked to explain Heavy Metal and be as stereotypical as possible, one of the first details to mention would be the guitar work. Preferably loud and shrill, brute or extravagant, this instrument has dominated heavy music from the very start. We would possibly enumerate long hair, leather, chains and spikes, tattoos, harsh voices and moshpits, but we ever forget the one instrument that holds Heavy Metal together: the drums! Imagining a Metal song without drums is like hoovering without a vacuum-cleaner – simply impossible. (Forgive me for this most unsuitable comparison.) Joey Jordison, the Iowa monster Slipknot’s longtime drummer and chief composer, once stated that he generally builds his songs around a drum pattern that brings together all the single elements making up a song. If you think about it, you might conclude that he was right: any sound is inevitably dominated by its underlying rhythm.

Roger Taylor in 1982

Oldschool: Roger Taylor in 1982

Despite having forever had a special taste and talent for rhythm, I learned to play the drums rather late in my teenage life. Even before that, however, I nurtured a close bond to musicians’ drumming styles and fell for bands who showed creativity behind their drumsets. Naturally, the drummer I first encountered stayed an important figure that will not loose its position all too soon. Roger Taylor, in his capacity as drummer for Queen, impressed not only with undeniable coolness but with a clear and crisp drumming style, precise as a clockwork and individual in every song. Besides, many of his rhythms were just as cool as he. Now, aged 65, Taylor still plays live shows, generally alongside Queen guitarist Brian May.

Simple, structured, great: “Headlong” (from “Innuendo”, 1991)

Equally energetic is their song “One Vision” from the 1986 album “A Kind of Magic”:

Impressive and disturbing: “I’m going slightly mad” from “Innuendo” (1991):

 

Perhaps the full opposite to smartly grinning Whisky-voiced Roger Taylor is the above-mentioned drumming wonder Joey Jordison, mostly present with long hair, wearing , if not the typical Slipknot overall, preferably black gear. He was next in line and his rhythms confuse and fascinate me at the same time. Active within projects such as Slipknot, Murderdolls and Scar the Martyr since 1994, Jordison has become a constant in the Metal drum scene, beside being proficient in more than a handful further instruments, including bass, piano and violin. Jordison is a master at the cymbals and the double-pedal, soaring up to extreme speed. Moreover, during Slipknot shows he was rotating on a platform while playing a solo – a feat which needs extreme concentration and body tension. Small wonder that the musician is often booked by various bands for studio sessions, recording the drums for bands of which he is no official part, or for touring. Among these bands are Korn, Metallica, Satyricon, Rob Zombie and Ministry, to name just a few. Since 2004, the talented musician is working on the producer side as well, being involved with Roadrunner Records.

The Master at work:

Try out the amazing pace of a typical Jordison song. “[sic]” from Slipknot’s 1999 selftitled album definitely rushes past:

Four years older, but not a mite slower: Jordison’s drumming in “The Nameless” (from “Vol. 3: The Subliminal Verses” (2004) is high-speed perfection:

 

I became involved with American Metal hybrids Chimaira next, and grew addicted to the clear style of drummer Andols Herrick, who has accompanied Chimaira on and off over the years. Although the band chose to break up officially in September 2014, they managed to leave a handful of great records wirh amazing drum work. I admire Herrick’s concise cuts and perfect double-bass technique. The same goes for Chimaira’s one-time drummer Kevin Talley (Dying Fetus, Misery Index), who played on the band’s self-titled record.

The song which actually made me listen Chimaira closely was “Everything You Love”, a pearl on “Chimaira” (2005):

After Herrick’s return to the band in 2006, Chimaira actually felt resurrected, which resulted in a powerful album titled “Resurrection”. Enjoy some musical “Pleasure in Pain”:

For me personally, “Coming Alive” (from “The Infection”, 2009) is one of Chimaira’s best records, a perfect example for how rhythm actually MAKES the song:

 

Convinced?

‘Til Mirrors Shatter…

There is a mighty instrument that cannot be produced by human hands. It creates music of the finest and most various kind: it can be raw and low, soft and sweet, shrill and icy. Its existence is endless and its power is great. It can put masses under its spell and arouse controversy. This instrument is the human voice.

Most modern music thrives on extraordinary voices and charismatic lead singers with outstanding vocal capabilities. It is a matter of taste whether you appreciate of the mainstream radio’s latest musical wonders or turn towards heavier spheres, yet the significance of voices is doubtless in both cases.

Heavy Metal is alive with powerful vocal chords, and vocalists have long since become the figureheads of their bands. Particular to Metal is the way the human voice and its limits are explored: apart from clean singing, heavy music includes growling, shouting, screaming and quite a number of other more or less appropriate sounds. Vocal abilities are fathomed by leading the human voice through pitches ranging from low to high, and eliciting sounds from it that no other musical style employs. Thus, the Heavy Metal world has born sons and daughters with some of the most extraordinary voice spans in the realm of modern music.

I have been fascinated with Metal voices from the start, without ever being able to explain what exactly made them so attractive to me. The first voice I ever admired, however, belonged to a man who created everything from Art Rock to Pop, yet never a Metal song. Freddie Mercury was the lead singer of British band Queen from 1970 until his untimely death in 1991. Despite the lack of professional training, Mercury possessed one of the world’s greatest voices. In his biography “Freddie Mercury Story: Living on the Edge” (1996), author David Bret describes the singer’s voice as moving “from a deep, throaty rock-growl to tender, vibrant tenor, then on to a high-pitched, perfect coloratura, pure and crystalline in the upper reaches.” Small wonder that Mercury recorded a full album with Spanish soprano Montserrat Caballé, who was astonished and fascinated with his enormous vocal precision and diversion. Today, Freddie Mercury’s voice is said to have had a range of more than four octaves, which renders it unrivalled. It was hard for me to make a choice, but wait and hear.

“Innuendo” (from the 1991 album of the same title) is one of the most impressive songs I know:

Mercury’s wonderfully clear voice sounds magnificent in “Don’t try so hard” (from “Innuendo”):

Caballé and Mercury’s well-known duet “Barcelona” (from “Barcelona”, 1988) was made the official anthem of the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona. It is only one beautiful example for the two singers’ fruitful cooperation:

Metal voices rarely equal Mercury’s in octave range, yet they display a range of sound as well: it is in the same way astonishing to hear someone growl in a low pitch, only to sing clearly and high-pitched thereafter. Christian Älvestam, former singer of Melodeath artists Scar Symmetry, does exactly this. Before I had seen a music video of the band, I was under the belief that two singers were performing for the Swedish act, so vast appeared the difference between his kinds of voice. The clarity of Älvestam’s high singing is astounding, and perfectly supported by the contrast of his low barks and growls.

Amazing vocal combinations in “Veil of Illusions” (from “Symmetric in Design”, 2005):

There are even different nuances in Älvestam’s growling, at times turning it into a caw or scream, as in “The Kaleidoscopic God” (from “Pitch Black Progress”, 2006)

In “Timewave Zero” (from “Holographic Universe”, 2008) Älvestam proves that his high-pitched voice is absolutely clean:

Far less fine, yet powerful all the same, is the vocal span of Phil Anselmo. The former singer of Pantera, nowadays mostly active under the banner of Down, has passed through several stages of vocal expression, and has proven thereby his enormous range of voice. Powerful screaming that borders on ranting is combined with high-pitched clean singing which resembles a classical Heavy Metal style. In contrast to Älvestam, however, Anselmo rarely combines his different abilities, rather he appears to go through them as he moves from one record to the next.

Go on a “Psycho Holiday” (from the 1990 record “Cowboys from Hell”):

Pantera’s longest song ever includes Anselmo’s competition with Dimebag Abbott’s guitar. Listen to his high pitch at 4:55 in “Cemetery Gates” (from “Cowboys from Hell”, 1990):

Screaming and growling are Anselmo’s new techniques in “I’m Broken” (from “Far Beyond Driven”, 1994):

Simply cool: “13 Steps to Nowhere” (from “The Great Southern Trendkill”, 1996)

Amazing instrument, the human voice.