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.