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| The Iron Maiden Commentary | Rants | Rant 15: Metal Classics/Classical Metal |


Metal Classics/Classical Metal


Ever since the Liverpool Symphony Orchestra recorded some of the Beatles' standards, classical music and modern rock have been intimately intertwined. A few cover versions have also been made of classical pieces in the last 30 years or so. I would just mention the famous 5th symphony of Ludwig von Beethoven covered disco-style in Saturday Night Fever in the late 70s, but there are many others. I am not talking about the current pathetic rap theft (pompously called "sampling") of other people's creations, but of real cover versions made by real musicians in their own style. The first real encounter of Metal (called Hard Rock at the time) with classical music dates back in 1969 when Deep Purple performed at the Royal Albert Hall with the London Symphony Orchestra.

Most of Iron Maiden's songs could very well be played by a philharmonic orchestra. Their compositions are such that very little arrangements would be needed. Didn't Steve Harris himself adapt some classical pieces to Metal? Very few people are aware that 'To Tame a Land' is adapted from the Spanish composer Isaak Albeniz's 'Asturias' – a famous piece that every classical guitarist learns. The main theme of 'Mother Russia' originates from a traditional Russian folk song and there are many other Maiden pieces that sound like they have a classical origin. Doesn't 'Rime of the Ancient Mariner' sound like an old Irish ballad?

Recently, Metallica released a live performance accompanied by the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra. Some will say that it is just another publicity stunt, and they may be right, but the result is to me quite remarkable, although the band seems to stifle the orchestra at times and Lars Ulrich makes quite a few mistakes. Whether one likes the mixing of Heavy Metal with classical arrangements or not, we have to admit that it tends to reconcile the genres. Deep Purple's performance with the London Symphony mentioned above is a good example and the result is also musically quite impressive, although different from Metallica's.

How many times have I heard a classical music listener tell me that Heavy Metal is just loud noise for spotty dumb-witted teenagers? I have also heard Metal lovers say that classical music is only for old farts and that it lacks all sort of energy Metal provides. It seems to me that the main misunderstanding resides in the generation gap – or does it? Many young musicians start by learning classical pieces, whatever the instrument, then either stay with classical or move on to more modern stuff. Nigel Kennedy, the famous British violinist, used to have a Punk look and nowadays looks like a Hippie, indicating that he listens to various modern pieces, although his job is mainly to play Brahms and Mozart – which he does very well. He also founded the Kennedy Experience, who plays rock standards the classical way, but the result is sometimes dubious (anyone who has heard Jimi Hendrix's 'Purple Haze' played by Kennedy will know what I mean!). On the other hand, Steve Harris was advised to start by playing classical guitar before he founded Maiden and turned to a radically different style, but he still introduces classical elements in his compositions.

Let's examine what the major differences between Classical and Metal are. Is it the music itself? Of course it is! But just think: many people who listen to Metal also enjoy there and then a bit of classical stuff. So the problem must lie elsewhere. An orchestra can be composed of up to 100 musicians or more, whereas a Metal band usually has 4–5 musicians. The effect in concert is therefore quite different. Besides, it is a bit difficult to jump around on stage with a trombone or a cello!

Classical musicians wear a very formal outfit: tuxedos for the men and evening dresses for the ladies, whereas Metal musicians wear more casual stuff (I'll leave aside the glamour bands like Mötley Crüe, Aerosmith and others...). This difference in the way they dress and in their behaviour on stage – the ones being formal and quiet, the others wearing street wear and acting wild – creates this feeling of old age for the classical players, as opposed to young and rebellious for the Metal musicians. However, if you look closely at an orchestra you'll see that the average age is probably around 30, whereas some Heavy Metal bands have an average of about 40 if not more. Alice Cooper and Ronnie James Dio are way past the 50 years limit of age and are still going strong. Black Sabbath are dinosaurs, not only in the figurative sense, but also literally (during last year's concert in Frauenfeld, near Zürich, Switzerland, Ozzy Osborne had even to be helped to get on stage!), although their music hasn't lost any of its energy. Eddie's boys themselves are in their 40s, but they musically still sound "young".

So the difference doesn't appear to lie with the musicians themselves, but mainly with the audience. AC/DC's audience was about 16 in the 70s... and it still is in the 90s! The ones who were kids then and headbanged on 'Highway to Hell' despise nowadays the kids who headbang on 'Who Made Who' and the latter call the former boring old twits. They all seem to forget that the band is still roughly the same and still play the same music (an interesting example of musicians evolution forgot!).

Metal and classical music, when mixed together, give each other a new unusual but interesting dimension. The album Nightfall in Middle Earth by Blind Guardian, although not strictly speaking a mix of Metal and classical, is constructed like an opera. Richard Wagner himself – considered by some as a precursor of Metal – could have written it. A friend of mine mentioned Vovin by Therion, an album mixing classical and Metal, and compared it to "Mozart's Requiem played with Metal guitars". The French band Trust recorded on its fourth album back in 1983 four pieces based on the story of Faust and containing the voices of the choir of the Paris Opera. This list of examples is by no means exhaustive, but gives an idea of how Metal and classical can be played together in complete harmony when the arrangements are properly done.

All it boils down to is that, whatever the original style, real musicians can virtually play anything in their own respective style. Apocalyptica, a Finnish quartet, plays Metallica with four cellos and, although the result is quite different from the original pieces, it is both interesting and enjoyable to listen to. On the other hand, Edward Van Halen's solo 'Eruption' is loosely based on one of Johann-Sebastian Bach's Toccatas. As a result, it is possible to conclude that the barriers between styles need not be so high and impassable, and that tolerance toward a different kind of music should always be put forward. After all, it is a matter of both taste and open-mindedness.

6th December 1999

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