It’s been a while since I wrote something for the column, but I have been doing a lot of work and studying behind the scenes, which explains why there hasn’t been a lot of music writing lately. However, now that I have some time before grad school restarts, I can start talking about music again.
Blessed be thy gods.
For this episode of the column, I wanted to talk about a genre that combines both my love for classical (read: orchestral) music and metal, as I spend a lot of time listening to both genres. While symphonic metal tends to focus more on the vocal and operatic aspects of what we consider classical music to be, we tend to talk about instruments and instrumentation in accordance to their sound in a specific genre or in how they add texture to a song.
It’s time we talked about Neoclassical Metal.
I Blame Jeff Lynne for All of This
As many of you probably know, I am a cellist. Although I am not a composer – I didn’t learn that aspect of my instrument because I chose to not put myself through that in university – I can read one clef very well and perform said clef. This meant that I have spent a lot of my time being involved in orchestras, especially at the university level. Hell, I was even symphony librarian for a year, where I had to set up for rehearsals and concerts and pass out sheet music. This also meant I had to erase a lot of the pencil marks the symphony members made when they had to write a cue or change a note (RIP erasers).
The thing that got me to start playing in school orchestras in elementary school were essentially two things: my parents and Electric Light Orchestra.
Yes, that Electric Light Orchestra – the one with Jeff “Mr. Blue Sky” Lynne and 14 records since the early 70s, with two albums out since 2015.
While my parents liked the idea that their daughters should learn how to play an instrument, the cello was not my first choice. I ended up with it because my sister picked the violin. Looking back, my relationship with the cello has always been acrimonious – I hated playing it as a kid (it dwarfed me) – but it has since gotten better, especially after I got my own cello a few years ago. I grew to like its sound – the deep rumblings of the C string, the fun staccato on a series of notes, the glissando as you move up and down the string, and the pizzicato that always made the music much more intimate: it was always something I looked forward to when I was in orchestra. Anything featuring a cello’s sound, and I am immediately on board.
It’s why I tend to like bands that utilize the cello in some capacity, such as Diablo Swing Orchestra, whose fun stems from the operatic vocals and the superb instrumental backing.
However, what inspired my parents – particularly my mom – to have their daughters play a string instrument was Electric Light Orchestra. Ever since we were young, my parents had the band’s cassettes playing in the car. I have a vivid memory of us traveling from Carelmapu (a very small port town in Southern Chile) to Santiago, where my mom would play the same tape again and again to keep my sister and I entertained during the long drive. As it happens, my sister grew incredibly attached to “Strange Magic,” one of the band’s better-known songs, while I liked their heavier songs, such as “Rockaria!” and “Turn to Stone”.
(Can you see the pattern here?)
Since ELO’s comeback in 2014, I have seen them four times, and they don’t disappoint. Now mind you, while I do like ELO they are not a band I will listen to on my own. However, you can see where my interest in orchestras came from. Yes, I blame them for my introduction to orchestras and my instrument of choice, but what should come to no one’s surprise is it led to one of my favorite bands: it is, of course, Apocalyptica.
Imagine this: you are 13/14 years old, and Pandora has been your music resource for some time. All the music you have been hearing has been the heaviest thing you have gotten your hands on since you discovered all of the emo music that keeps playing in the radio. However, one night, after listening to music on the small portable radio that sits in the bathroom, you hear what sounds a deep bassline and Corey Taylor’s voice crooning about something that you came to understand was about child abuse (I am still unclear on what “I’m Not Jesus” is supposed to be about). As the music played and you listened intently, the bassline and the sharp, melodic backing gave way to shredding, which blew your mind. After all, who the hell shreds on a fucking cello?
Apparently, these guys could, and the rest was history.
Neoclassical Gateway Albums
Apocalyptica – Cult (2000): If you didn’t think I was going to write about Apocalyptica when it comes to discussing this genre, then you don’t know me very well.
I have talked about Apocalyptica a lot in the past – I even spent an entire week talking about them – so it’s clear this band means a lot to me. As one of the first metal bands I encountered that broke rank, they stood out because they had a clear gimmick and utilized it to the point that, if nothing else, the first-time listener would be intrigued. The best part was that these were three classically trained cellists who were also metalheads (to an extent), and they used their instruments to great effect. Before I heard Apocalypta I was on the fence about continuing to play the cello; I continued to see it as a cumbersome chore rather than something that could be played for fun. Imagine my delight when I first heard this band, a highly cohesive unit of instrumentalists who divided their parts into three main sections – melody, rhythm, and bassline – while a drummer kept beat.
Simple, yet effective.
Because I hold this band in such high esteem, it was hard to talk about an album, as they have experimented with vocalists during Cult’s release. However, with the release of Cell-0 (which I am saving for this year’s EOY), it’s time to look back at Cult, as this stands as my (current) favorite Apocalyptica album. Back when I first wrote about Cult, I commented on how personal it was:
After my lukewarm reaction to Inquisition Symphony, I had high hopes for Cult. There have been very few albums that I have listened to that have left a lasting impression on me—and that’s saying something. For me, Cult became incredibly personal; even though it had no words, I identified with the music and its intricacies. I loved the passion that exudes from it. I loved its subtleties, the way it worked with emotion, the way the songs flowed. The transitions between each song were flawless. I don’t think any other Apocalyptica album has had this much thought put into it—after all, it was do or die.
For context, this was an album that signified major change in the band, as one of their founding members (and one of my personal favorite cellists) Max Lilja left the band due to creative differences. For me, Cult is the last album before big calamities and changes in both the band’s sound and their overall aesthetic became prevalent. In comparison to the succeeding album Reflections, Cult shows a band coming to their own, becoming comfortable with composing their own material and then playing it. They could have ended up becoming the world’s most famous cover band, but they opted for combining their love of metal music with their classical training and became a behemoth of a band. And a behemoth they have become.
Speaking of behemoths…
Symphony X – Underworld (2015): Back in 2015, two significant events happened: I got my first job post-undergrad and I found Bandcamp. Although I didn’t immediately start buying albums digitally, I had a job and it helped me buy albums from a music store near my house (that store has since closed and has become a furniture store). During one of those visits there was a sale, and I picked up two albums that had been released at that time: Kamelot’s Haven and Symphony X’s Underworld.
While I loved Haven, back then Underworld seemed to get lost underneath all the music that suddenly became available to me, so I didn’t remember it very well, if at all. But to be fair, it has sat there on my shelf with all the albums I have bought over the years, so I clearly liked it enough to buy it. I have also heard about Russell Allen throughout my own forays into various projects that big names in metal have made (i.e. Ayreon), so I had some expectations about Symphony X.
Now that I have listened to this album for the first time in about five years, I can see why 21-year-old Hera liked it. Like opera and any sort of choral music, orchestral music holds a sort of dramatic flair that intensifies whatever emotion the composer had in mind. For example, in a piece like the introduction to Verdi’s La Forza del Destino, the strings continue to increase in speed and dynamic before the trumpets kick in and the clarinet starts to mimic what was played in the first few measures. That whole wind interlude is just a quiet before the expressive violins come, pulling you in before kicking you in the face again. This piece is a build-up to the events that occur in the opera, but as one of my personal favorite piece that I played in the past, the drama that comes from the crescendos and the shifts in tonal emotion is impressive to deconstruct, especially in the latter half.
The thing about Underworld is that it’s an album whose emotion and flair for the dramatic is exemplified not only by the vocals, but also the instrumentation that comes from creating said flair. Although Symphony X can be described as a progressive metal band with neoclassical leanings – especially in their composition – Underworld emphasizes those neoclassical influences. Whoever did the mixing and mastering made sure to showcase any strings-like and winds-like instrumentation on the record. The keyboard is also a nice touch, rounding out the classical edge make the album sound more symphonic than progressive (if there is even a separation between the two at this point). One can read Underworld as this elaborate, almost theatrical concept album about a journey to retrieve something, with enough flair that keeps the listener entertained. Although there are moments where the music bloats and takes the listener out of enjoying themselves – “Run with the Devil” and “Swan Song” are the weakest songs on the album – Underworld is still a good album that keeps the listener engaged. I had a good time listening to it, especially with Russell Allen’s high-intensity and emotive vocals adding color to the music.
Galneryus – Into the Purgatory (2019): Outside of talking about introductory albums and how they can connect to the genre I chose to discuss, I also like diving into the unknown and providing any interesting gems that I can get my hands on. This tends to come from following a line of red thread that links from one genre to an artist to an album, and then finding something similar that I either never had heard about or have an interest in and never got around to it.
For this part of the column I had another album in mind – the ever-brilliant and friend-recommended Matenrou Opera’s Chikyuu, which I first listened in 2016. However, the album is not on Spotify, so I went into the next best thing: Galneryus’s Into the Purgatory, an album and band that I knew nothing about, but falls within my interest of the interplay between visual kei and metal.
The first thing that hits you about Into the Purgatory is how bombastic the music is, including the vocals. Sho’s highly operatic vocals stand out as the most complex and brilliant part of the album, which says a lot about a band whose genre classification can be described as “power metal with neoclassical influences”. Just like Symphony X, their music holds a dramatic flair that I can only describe as “overindulgent”. Power metal tends to be incredibly cheesy, and Into the Purgatory falls into that description sincerely and wholeheartedly, as evidenced on the track “Fighting of Eternity”. The music pushes boundaries during the two solo portions, becoming more dramatic as the tempo changes, as if to compete with the vocals. “Bombastic” is the album’s main theme and, given their propensity for fast solos and changing dynamics, it only makes sense that they try to beat out the last song by tweaking something in the next track.
Into the Purgatory also nails the neoclassical aesthetic by letting the music end abruptly before towards the next track. Although this serves to give the listener some time to assimilate to the changes between each track, it also allows for some suspense building. Like any good movement within an orchestral piece, only the performers know how the next part will sound, giving the audience a moment of disbelief when the first measure plays. Unless someone has heard the piece before, no one truly knows what the resulting product will be like until the last note is played. This can be said about any album that is played for the first time, but Into the Purgatory is different due to its ever-changing dynamics, as evidenced in “The Followers”. What you end up with is an album where you never know what is in store, allowing the listener to maintain their sense of disbelief even after it ends, and then re-listening again to see what else you missed during that initial listen.
Nothing gets the juices flowing like a great orchestra piece, albeit some of the things that famous composers do and get involved with are so crazy that you wonder how they had so much time to do anything (See: Tchaikovsky’s penchant for a cannon for the 1812 Overture).
Because I am running out of genres to discuss – and I would like a change of pace – how about you guys recommend me a genre? Hell, it can even be an album and then I can find two other albums associated with it, whether it is a concept album or have similar themes.
Tune in next time as I decide to look into something near and dear to my heart.
Hasta la proxima!