Headbanging, Hugs and Hyperfemininity

Living near Berlin entails the obvious benefit of always being just one step away from the next heavy event. Life made an offer and I took it: Scar Symmetry came to the capital! My tickets were bought faster than you can say ‘Metalhead’, even though the Swedish act was merely the guest band accompanying Epica from the Netherlands and the Swiss Folk Metal band Eluveitie on their European Enigma tour.

I had the pleasure to experience a band I adore, no matter how short their show. Scar Symmetry played an agreeable set in a very enthusiastic manner – sadly enough in front of what could hardly be called a crowd. I and my-boyfriend-the-Metalhead enjoyed every second of their concert, heads banging, singing along at the top of our battered voices. The band’s performance was like weekends: great, long awaited, and way too short. For a band of their renown, skill and experience, Scar Symmetry’s touring as support band seemed far too tiny, too modest a role. They, however, appeared to have preserved a down-to-earth attitude. Their set done, the band mingled with the crowd. I took my chance and asked Lars Palmqvist for a photo. He gave me a hug and we squeezed on a photo with my boyfriend and Roberth Karlsson. The result is simply cool and I got it printed to adorn my living room, reminding my every day of how good it feels to have some Metal in my life.

SS+PM

 

Eluveitie played an energetic concert including songs sung in Swiss German (To tell you the truth, I expected this to sound hilarious, then was impressed.) and sing-along parts. I would not call myself a fan of Eluveitie, but they are inventive songwriters who play with obvious zest, rendering their show worth a visit. Epica, the concert’s main act, then made a dramatic entrance, followed by a show built around the figure of their singer Simone Simons. It was neither Eluveitie’s Swiss singing nor Epica’s keyboard-style grandeur which intrigued me most, though, but the composition of and atmosphere among the audience.

Firstly, the audience appeared tame to me who is experienced in Machine Head and Skindred concerts with hairy hardliners turning their dreadlocks into whips and beer cans into missiles. With the folk calm and peaceful, moshing and jumping were no option and headbanging was rare. It was easy to simply stand among the crowd doing nothing and not even be touched by anyone. Secondly, the concert stood out by the powerful presence of women of every age and making. My comparably meagre concert experience had made me expect an underrepresentation of my sex, but perhaps the fact that both Eluveitie and Epica include female members attracted an exceptional audience.

Female Heavy Metal musicians are rare. I wonder, why. And are female fans of Heavy Music equally rare? I’d like to delve deeper into this intriguing issue in my next post, before hopefully returning to the promising topic of heavy lyrics.

Voiceless Heavyness

We all know these Heavy Metal opponents, who grimace whenever they hear the screams, screeches or growls typical of heavy music. Feeling the urge to spread my favourite music all the same, to make Heavy Metal’s instrumental beauty available for the tentative, I went for the one form that connects Metal to any other musical genre in the world: I introduced my faint-hearted victims to instrumentals!

There is hardly any category of music around the world that strictly depends on vocals (no Hip-Hop, no R’n’B, definitely no Schlager without a singer, I suppose). Purely instrumental songs did not only emerge in indigenous cultures, but were popular in every musical era from baroque styles to Viennese Classicism, from Romanticism to Jazz, Swing and Folk music. It is said that one of the oldest instrumental tradition originates in India, where musicians played the nadaswaram (the world’s loudest non-brass acoustic wind instrument) and the tavil (a drum shaped like a barrel, of which one side is played with the hand and thumbcaps and the other with a thick stick). The tradition of creating music purely centred on the instruments has not ceased to be a matter of fascination.

Since wikipedia (I am aware that this is a debatable source…) states that an instrumental “might include some inarticulate vocal input”, the first heavy instrumental I want to introduce to you contains quite a number of imported audio records. Machine Head’s debut album (“Burn my Eyes”, 1994 ) features “Real Eyes. Realize. Real Lies.”, which – upon listening very closely – actually contains a critical message, albeit remaining rather simple musically. It can be called instrumental even though vocalist Robb Flynn screams once towards the end of the song, because he merely utters the title’s five words.

Helping to establish the instrumental by putting it to the test were Black Sabbath, who recorded “Rat Salad” for their second album “Paranoid” in 1970. It is a classic example of Tony Iommi’s modern, skillful guitar play and Bill Ward’s occasional epileptic drumming seizures, both of which fit together perfectly to create a hitherto unknown sound.

Stunning guitar work and a martial rhythm characterise legendary British Art Rock band Queen’s instrumental “Chinese Torture” (from “Kind of Magic”, 1989). I am not sure about the connection to the method of Chinese water torture, which means the slow dripping of water onto the victim’s forehead until he or she retreats into insanity. Indeed, Brian May’s guitar experiments might seem like torture to some listener’s ears, but they are fascinating all the same.

Since Heavy Metal veterans Metallica are undoubtedly the kings of prolonged intros and endless riffing before getting to the point, it is small wonder that they have produced a number of excellent instrumentals. In fact, they appear to get quite lost in their music now and then – with pleasant results! In their instrumental “Suicide & Redemption” (from “Death Magnetic”, 2008) they seem to create an invisible storyline, because the song guides the listener through different stages. It’s quite an artistic journey, Metallica riffing at length as usual but – for once – with the sole purpose of doing so.

James Hetfield likes his little joke (“Should I tell them the title – I mean, that’s stupid..? – Ok, you’ll know it!” – Do they?). Enjoy a high-quality live performance, and while you’re at it, pay attention to Robert Trujillo‘s awesome bass work!

It was October this year when the latest record of my Scandinavian favourites Scar Symmetry, “The Singularity (Phase 1: Neohumanity)”, was published. I fell for their guitar solo-centred instrumental “Children of the Integrated Circuit” immediately. It’s a shame that this of all tracks is not available on youtube. However, I found an amazing guitar cover by a user called Jamie Williams, which I urgently want to share with you because it is extremely close to the original, and I find it fascinating to watch his fingers work.

Having no voice to sing for it doesn’t make a song voiceless.

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.

‘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.

Afterthoughts: Christian Melodeath

When contemplating my last post I recognised that one very important Melodic Death Metal band was actually missing! This might have happened because they are only partly classified as Melodeath, being sometimes referred to as a blend of Technical Death Metal – a term I’m not usually using – Progressive Death Metal and Metalcore. The one that must (at least in a blog of mine) be mentioned is American White Metal band Becoming the Archetype. White Metal is a subgenre of Heavy Metal which is characterised by its representatives’ dedication to Christianity and religious lyrics. Between 2004 and 2011, Becoming the Archetype have spread the message of Jesus Christ via four incredibly entertaining and highly virtuosic albums.

I came across their first record “Terminate Damnation” (2004) when I was around 16 and my Metalhead career was already going at full speed. The band caught me with their strange habit of surprising the unsuspecting listener with harmonic, playful, even soft but always complex passages in the middle of a real blast. They are capable of indulging in a five-minute piano solo, only to double-bass your ears off at the next opportunity. While doing so, Becoming the Archetype uphold a striking level of proficiency bordering on perfection. Their songs often resemble classical music structures (sonata form and the like), but do not lack heaviness either.

Becoming the Archetype's mascot: Clifton the Beardskull

Becoming the Archetype’s mascot: Clifton the Beardskull

After having released a bomb of creativity with their 2011 album “Celestial Completion“ (which is quite heavenly, actually), a very unfortunate event occurred: as seems too fashionable among current Metal bands, Becoming the Archetype parted ways with their vocalist Jason Wisdom. They also replaced two other musicians, leaving the band with only two more or less original members. Of course I bought their latest record “I Am” (2012) – and I was thoroughly disappointed. The bands amazing core – variety, skills and some kind of magic – had disappeared, rendering Becoming the Archetype just another of these flat half-Core-half-Metal bands.

Some comfort to me is the immortality of the band’s previous records, which I can but recommend to you wholeheartedly. They are immensely diversified, the tantalising sound always perfectly embracing Wisdom’s rather straightforward albeit far from dreary Core/ Death voice.

Six out of nine tracks on their first album “Terminate Damnation” are at least five minutes, the climax being the 11:16 “Elegy”, including the aforementionted piano solo. I’d love to show it to you. Actually, I’d like to show you a handful of Metal jewels of this band’s creation, but the GEMA wag their finger at me. I cannot get access to any album at the moment and all the live recordings are awful in quality… Perhaps I can make up for this lack of material later, once these GEMA guys have finally reached a decision.

What you can see without having listened to any song is: Heavy Metal wears many faces – and one of these is deeply Christian. Despite the conservatives’ persistent mistrust in and rejection of Heavy Metal as dangerous, anti-religious and destructive, White Metal embodies that kind of serious faith any regular churchgoer might strive for. There are countless Metal musicians who are capable of uniting various metallic subgenres with their personal religious attitudes. Heavy Metal, at its best, means tolerance.

Metal Melodrama

At the roots of Melodeath: In Flames (Sonisphere Festival, 2011)

At the Roots of Melodeath: In Flames (Sonisphere Festival, 2011)

Among the great many eccentric and exciting metallic developments of the nineties was the rise of another subgenre: Melodic Death Metal. I consider this style some kind of a more subtle and diversified sister to Death Metal. Melodic Death Metal’s place of birth is the Swedish town Gothenburg (Göteborg), which is why this type of Metal is alternatively called Gothenburg Style (Göteborger Schule). The Swedish city has made Melodic Death Metal popular on the entire globe. Three most famous founding bands originate from this place, namely At the Gates – whose album “Slaughter of the Souls” introduced Melodeath in 1995 – Dark Tranquillity and In Flames. The Brits of Carcass equally helped develop the genre after turning their backs on the Grindcore of their early days.

Melodeath draws on its successor Death Metal’s harsh thrashing and low-pitched growling vocal techniques, yet adds harmonies and grooves which undeniably origin from classical Heavy Metal as well as Thrash Metal. Melodic patterns, incredibly fast riffing, extensive solos and the occasional intrusion of acoustic guitars are accompanied by synthetic sounds, since later on in the course of the 1990s musicians discovered the pleasures of keyboards. Double-bass is an indispensable feature of Melodeath, as is a combination of harsh growling and clean vocals up to falsett tones. Fans’ ears are attacked with blast beats, a drum technique that may simply be described as sudden and violent musical explosions within a drummer’s performance.

When it comes to experimenting with elements of other musical genres, Melodic Death Metal is far more open than many heavy subgenres. Especially fusions with other metallic styles have gained popularity over the past years. Finland’s Children of Bodom are frequently associated with Power Metal, whereas the Swiss Eluveitie incorporate Folk Metal, thereby creating an explosive and highly intriguing mixture. DevilDriver, a band grouped around the charismatic frontman Dez Fafara (who, by the way, does not sport a beard on his chin, but a tribal tattoo instead!) successfully interweave Groove Metal and Melodeath. Fusions with Metalcore are popular, too, as Heaven Shall Burn from Germany and the Canadians Threat Signal loudly demonstrate.

DevilDriver's Dez Fafara (The Netherlands, 2009)

DevilDriver’s Dez Fafara (The Netherlands, 2009)

 

Further famous names paving Melodeath’s impressive way into the headbangers’ hearts are All That Remains, As I Lay Dying, Amon Amarth, Ensiferum, Kataklysm, Soilwork, Sonic Syndicate, Scar Symmetry and countless others. You might have already noticed that lists of Melodeath bands tend to read like a dramatis personae. There is indeed a strong drive for theatrical exuberance in band names and lyrics, album titles and compositional style. Soft melodies are often abruptly cut off by extreme shredding, and harsh gnarls or excessive screeches take it in turns with high-pitched dramatic vocals. There is a distinct eccentricity to many Melodeath bands.

To me, one of the most eccentric and wonderful outbursts of Melodic Death Metal is created by the Swedes of Scar Symmetry. The band was founded in 2004 around the amazing voice of Christian Älvestam and the mystical lyrics of drummer Henrik Ohlsson. With a pitch ranging from extremely high and clear nearing falsett to enormously low with Death Metal growls, Älvestam has for years been the band’s recognition feature. Again and again, I listen to older Scar Symmetry records with rapt attention and hold my breath, fascinated. The musicians somehow manage to combine tonal violence, harsh breakdowns and barking growls with revelations of clean singing that make the hair in the back of my neck stand.

Älvestam left Scar Symmetry in 2008 and is currently member of around 10 bands and projects – a successful workaholic. In context with his latest solo project “Self 2.0”, Älvestam was reported to have explained: “It’s not exactly a secret that I have a weak spot for more pop-oriented stuff – especially in the vein of the sound of the ’80s. In fact, I have always been listening to softer music, alongside the heavier stuff, which is probably why my own music so often, unintentionally, tends to end up being a mixture of the two.” His urge to pursue softer music might have been a significant force in his breakup with Scar Symmetry. However, the band did not remain devoid of a voice for long: in 2008, Roberth Karlsson and Lars Palmqvist joined the team. The former produces growls and backing clean vocals, whereas Palmqvist sings clean and growls in the background. Fans’ opinions are diverse when it comes to whether or not Älvestam’s leave has changed too much about Scar Symmetry. I consider the two new singers very able musicians. The bands style and song quality has not changed a mite and their combined voices are powerful enough to support the dramatic sound.

I could provide you with more brilliant Scar Symmetry songs than my blog could hold, but I’m afraid I have to decide…

This record from Scar Symmetry’s “Holographic Universe” (2008), sung by Christian Älvestam, always amazes me:

 

Karlsson and Palmqvist convince with vocal power as well. I love this one, taken from the band’s 2011 album “The Unseen Empire”:

 

Isn’t that dead melodic…?