Metal Versus Classical

slayer classical dueling

Article by Lance Viggiano

Metal, like nearly every form of contemporary western music, carries legacy traits from western classical music. Noting these inherited qualities and their contribution to metal’s identity is a fruitful venture worth study. Yes, some artists such as Emperor created music that may as well have been performed by an orchestra. Nevertheless there is a distinct tendency among metalheads to validate metal through this heritage. The logic behind this is eloquent and simple: Classical maintains an esteemed position and metal retains compositional/artistic characteristics of classical; therefore metal is good (insert adjective for good: High Art, Quality, etc.). This does a disservice to metal however as it forsakes the baroque for the succinct while deriving much of its power from textural aesthetics. Metal needs to be qualified and judged according to its own merits.

Both forms of music arrange motifs according to an underlying narrative. The pathos of western classical music is derived out of experiments in harmony that attempted to imitate a well ordered and intricately planned cosmos. The composer embodies the role of the One God who conceives and executes a nature in which each of its parts cooperate in accordance with divine law  or in the case of music: its score and story. Metal however is all about the riff; not just its position in the score but also the way it sounds and the way it feels. Downtuning a guitar, plugging it into a bass amp, and dialing the gain knob to its upper limit are not trivial or accidental decisions. The textural component gives the music body which allows for succinct motifs to achieve significance out of relative simplicity. On the other hand, classical must take on a ”notey” characteristic to give the music weight. The roar of an ensemble is a force of its own, yet it is comparatively tame next to the bludgeoning delivered by an amplifier and a few pedals.

Classical entices the mind with intricate and ornate patterns while metal ignites the heart by delivering an unabashedly barbaric, vitriolic and brash force of will. With each occupying distinct but equally valid dimensions of the human experience – The mind and the heart, respectively – it becomes clear that using one to validate the other does a great disservice to each form of music. Unplug metal and survey its patterns next to classical and one will find that it sounds as if it was composed by intellectually immature children. Plug classical patterns into metal and one finds that the need to make tonal sacrifices to retain clarity while distilling patterns down so as to be performed by fewer instruments results in sterile powerless wank which exists without proper support.

The Romantic movement turned its gaze back to the primacy of nature from the perspective of the civilized man who took all of his habits of thought with him; retaining his clear, distinct abstract patterns and hard mental boundaries. He walks at a distance from the forest so as to keep his boots from the blemishing mud and his coat from the shearing thicket. The Romanticism of metal walks barefooted against the cold soil, barely managing to escape the weather but never the bonds of nature. His damp stone refuge is aerated by a primate musk so thick that the festering gobbets and searing tendons of his kill cannot penetrate it. The civilized man understands nature as an idea from which he is blissful detached and divinely endowed to understand while the uncivilized man understands nature as an irrational outpouring of desire against which his only freedom is attained by projecting his own will against the world. Each vantage point offers a unique view of the same landscape. From that summit the artistry of metal ought to be discussed and ultimately, loved.

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37 thoughts on “Metal Versus Classical”

  1. Mythic Imagination says:

    Great article, there are themes and feelings in Black/Death metal that classical could probably never adequately express and vice versa.

    1. vOddy says:

      How do you define “classical” music?

      To me that name doesn’t sound like a genre, but like a collection of works that are now considered classics.
      Those classics did not express what black and death metal did, but an elite composer with an orchestra to use certainly could if he wanted to and was inspired to.

      1. vOddy says:

        All of those works have some things in common, but they vary a lot, too.
        My point is that it would be possible to express something similar to what black metal does through that style – the compositional methods and the instruments allow for it.

        Imagine if Mozart had decided to do that. He would of course have been able to. Would the result stand out as not being “classical” music? Or would it just be a certain piece that stands out due to its character?

      2. Poser Patrol says:

        Orchestral music could approximate metal’s mode of expression, but in the end it would be a pale imitation. Metal is like an atomic element, you can’t break it down any further without completely changing what it is. One of the fundamental properties of that element is the distorted guitar; you can’t have something be metal without it, thus you cannot produce the same effects upon a listener without it.

        Imagine Deicide – Legion arranged for orchestra. It would be an utter mess and the communication of the music would be lost. You could attempt to abstract properties out of that album and create a composition with those properties that better fits the classical template, but the intended effect would be lost in translation.

        1. vOddy says:

          I didn’t say that it would be metal. I said that it would be able to say the same things.
          But metal isn’t only about what is said, it’s also about how it’s said.

          1. vOddy says:

            The way to do it would not be to play metal structures with orchestral instruments.

    2. Vigilance says:

      It goes both ways. The point I hoped to get across is that the artistic aims of each genre are different.

  2. fenrir says:

    IGNORANCE
    IGNORANCE
    IGNORANCE.

    1. Vigilance says:

      Your tombstone will read:

      David Rosales

      “No one understood.”

      1. Rosie O Donell says:

        lmao

    2. Blake Jugg (Death-Aware Carebear) says:

      Go back to Mexico! Trump 2016!

      1. LostInTheANUS says:

        Remove taco

  3. Johan says:

    I think you have a point about the silliness of comparing classical to metal/etc., or even worse, using “high art” reference for legitimation.

    A parallell to this can be found in progressive rock, where many bands used superficial traits of western classical as an emblem of quality. However, a small clique of progressive rock bands opted for a deeper integration of whatever they found useful in classical music (For example contrapuntal composition). These bands may sound very much like other prog rock of the era, but on a compositional level they excelled their peers.

    1. Vigilance says:

      I’m only familiar with the most mainstream professive rock so I’ll have to take your word for it. Or perhaps read your articles ;)

  4. trystero says:

    Whether or not the ultimate point of this article is right, or has merit, one particular part meant a lot: Metal needs to evaluated on its own merits, and I would add BY DMU to that. Who else is going to give metal a respectable treatment from the inside? I find breakdowns based on classical/romanticist aesthetics to be utterly boring because the interesting level of engagement is within the tradition.

    This whole place is about metal and for a reason, because metal is awesome. This very website, in its incarnation as the DLA, created a platform to enable that with its stream of consciousness reviews that put the material itself above all other conerns. I feel that example is slowly being sidelined/missed in favour of the equivalent of university student theses that are not only uninteresting but also shallow in their engagement with aesthetics/artistry. Everyone is writing the equivalent of Prozaks Metal FAQ when they should be writing the equivalent of DLA/Neoclassical reviews or their own original material that is authentically metal.

    Metal is good enough. I think Lance overdid the criticism of using classical discourse as signalling more so than genuine analysis but his point resonated a lot.

    1. untermensch who criticizes and doesn't contribute says:

      I think a happy medium can be found between the scholarly style and the free association style.

      Rosales’ reviews contain useful information about the music but they lack the expressive power found in Prozak’s writing because there’s no metaphorical language or any kind of emotive description. David is a more than competent writer, certainly beyond my abilities, but he’s so hung up on the “holistic structure” spiel that his reviews can be rather dry reading.

    2. vOddy says:

      Noting the similarities between metal and classical music is all right. There are many significant differences, but there are a few similarities, too.
      But I agree, that metal should not be praised, because of those similarities. It should be praised based on its own nature.

    3. Vigilance says:

      Whatever the intention, I get the impression that the appeal to academics is an effort to legitimize metal in the ears of a group of people who don’t like it to begin with. The funny thing is, the best you can really hope for is for that demographic to respect metal. They will never love metal. So ultimately, it is a pointless project.

      1. vOddy says:

        They do not understand it, probably never will, and if they did, they would dislike it even more.

    4. Mythic Imagination says:

      David writes the best reviews on this site, after the original DLA reviews of course. His examinations paint a better picture of the albums than any reviews you will find elsewhere.

  5. Poser Patrol says:

    Music for the heart and music for the mind don’t have to be mutually exclusive. Metal can be very cerebral when it needs to be, even simple bands like Celtic Frost can pique the intellect through abstract riff shapes and structures. And classical can be deeply stirring, which I don’t think I need to qualify.

    1. Vigilance says:

      I had to forsake nuance to speak generally.

  6. Belano says:

    Interesting article. I highlight and share two ideas. 1) Metal shouldn’t need to be compared to classical music for it to be legitimate. I can understand why that happened and why it was necessary (after all, something similar had happened with various new forms of arts) but I think that, currently, metal has enough classics and has developed a personal language so that we don’t need those comparisons anymore. 2) Music is more than the “structure” of a song, at least how that term is used normally here, even if that is one of the main elements to judge music. So, yeah, texture and also “syncronic structure”, for example, are really important. The only idea I think is wrong is classical=mind and metal=heart. Both kinds of music are constructed and listened to by the “mind” and the “heart”, even if a particular piece can favour one over the other.

  7. “Classical” can be dumbed down into film scores. Aside from a handful of legitimate metal classics (on this site already), everything else falls between serviceable but well crafted (on this site already, for the most part) and mediocre or worse. Even then, most of those musicians (perhaps unintentionally) opened the gates for or engage with the pop culture dumbassery which is now embedded into it – Dethklok, Marvel comic book artwork, Affliction brand styled merchandise… Swedecore, Nile-slam, Norsegroove… Enslaved are hippies… Darkthrone turned into comedy… At the Gates is cutesy mall music… Incantation is spooky long form grindcore for alcoholics… Immolation progressively rendered themselves karaoke friendly… Opeth…

    Liers in Wait and old Napalm Death are brash forces of will, sure, but were they ever beyond serviceable tier when compared to (some of) their peers? Just another project mirroring something better from the same time… There is no culture/power to be found there other than a temporary distraction. The fact is even the people who bought Onward to Golgotha when it came out and even now “don’t get it” (one of the members even joined a wigger band, John McEntee champions Entombedcore). The best metal is tempered will, not chaotic gobbledygook (like this comment). That is its only tenuous connection to so called classical music. Beyond those 30 releases in metal which would stand the eugenicizing, everything else is entertainment industry tier crap by bored lifestyle pursuers and symptomatic of society (not in a good way).

    Is there anything after Sort Vokter worth listening to? No. The vast majority of metal with all its pedal boards and high end tube amplification sounds tame when compared to the “weight” of Der Tod Wuotans…

    1. vOddy says:

      Hopefully, in the future, only the good metal will be remembered. There’s probably a bunch of shit music from the classical, baroque, and romantic periods that no one cares about anymore.

      Realistically, though, that won’t be the case. People will still put Pantera on equal footing with Demilich, like people today still remember what ever vapid pop work got popular in the past.
      Elvis Presley is a good example of this. So are The Beatles.

      1. vOddy says:

        By the way, if you think that classical symphonic music can’t be mutated until it’s no longer the same on the inside, but resembling it on the inside, then you are wrong. It already has.
        Look up Two Steps From Hell if you don’t believe me.

        It’s just like deathcore and metalcore. The instrumentation is the same, but the large scale structure is verse refrain, and the small scale structures are weaker.

        1. Yeah, that stuff has been done before (I’m sure many times) like on the Requiem for a Dream soundtrack where they steal a motif from Mozart and make emo out of it. That’s what I mean by dumb down into film scores. There probably aren’t many good ones, but in recent times its loud violin swells over loud brass for loud “epic” distractions so no one has a chance to become self aware and realize what they’re watching is complete shit (see soundtracks for the recent Batman movies).

          The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, etc. generated (and still generate) a lot of income for the recording industry. Their substandard (and stolen from prior artists) “compositions” are the pillars by which a lot of today’s illuminati pop music stands on. Pantera is a method used by a protocol for social control, and what better way to control American males than to tell them popping pills and drinking cheap beer is a good way to pass time while the forebrain numbing (“music”) degrades them into a future convict so we can still get our license plates made.

          1. vOddy says:

            The music may indeed have the effects that you mention, but I don’t think that the purpose is to control the population. The purpose is to make money, and as a side effect, it makes people more vapid and less intellectual.

            Hard things don’t sell. Complex, challenging, or scary music will not sell as much as the opposite.

  8. Misanthrope says:

    Please write an article about Heidegger’s discussion of technology vis-a-vis Being and whether such a view of technology relates to metal or not. If I remember rightly, Heidegger once ventured that the enframing of man within technique would ultimately lead to large scale conflict and a “primal” experience of Being.

    1. Vigilance says:

      Heidegger is the original hipster. Hide the fact that you have nothing to say within hazy prose.

    2. Vigilance says:

      The philosophy of being is simply plagiarized Schopenhauer.

      Heidegger makes a few points about science and technology that were not novel even in his time:

      1) Science finely maps our central nervous systems and that this process excludes internal valuations. Thus, facts differ from values and pragmatic considerations are not the only ones that matter to human beings.

      2) Science and Technology are defined by a mode of thinking which conceives the universe as a mechanism and this reduces beings into raw materials fashioned into components.

      3) These two habits lead to exploitation of the natural and human world.

      The efficacy of modern technology enabled by burning hydrocarbons when combined with a perspective that reduces the natural world – including humans – to raw materials leads to the illusion than Man may conquer Nature. Heidegger decided to steal from Nietszche and assert that the illusion could be smashed by an Overman who reintroduces meaning and value. Specifically, the primacy of Nature.

  9. hhhhhh says:

    The correct thing to say is that metal is more influenced by classical music than by folk music. People typically assume that metal is “rock on steroids,” which is an insult on many levels. I’ve never seen a metal musician say their influences were Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly, or any subsequent rock bands. This is because metal does not follow in the folk tradition, though it does retain some folk elements. Can jazz be considered a descendant of rock music? I don’t think it can any more than metal can. No one argues that metal is “jazz on steroids” because they have similar instrumentation, but it is as valid a comparison as that of metal to rock. Any similarities exist solely because they were spawned by the same society, and that’s as far as it goes.

    Metal does not use the same forms and theory as classical did; therefore it is not classical. An emphasis on dissonance and “power chords” for example illustrate that metal is a unique musical movement; however, if metal bands composed solely on the classical forms but with only slightly revised music theory, it would still be recognizable as metal. So the problem here can be that “classical music” is a misnomer. Baroque is not classical is not romantic, etc. Then you can subdivide each category further by nation and eras. These categories, such as baroque, in aggregate are called “classical music” as a convenient, yet not technically correct, shorthand. It then follows that metal is merely the inheriter of the “classical tradition” and is the latest movement within that tradition. Therefore, you can say the movements of classical music are the Baroque, Classical , Romantic, Modern, and Metal. You can quibble on specifics, but metal should be added to the list. What is missing though is a solid book on metal theory that encompasses it entirely. Such a book would ‘legitimize’ metal and preserve the tradition. While there is an advantage to keeping it organic, such as in folk tradition, it seems any advantage to that has since passed. Metal theory must be codified now. In particular, a book on marches and requiems within metal would be an easy starting point given that clearly most songs are based on those two styles. I have also heard a few songs that were suspiciously similar to fugues. Thus, I suspect the easiest starting point would be here where merely revisions were made to established forms.

    1. vOddy says:

      When you say folk music, of which culture do you mean?
      American folk music (not the natives, the settlers)?

      Because from what I have heard of Scandinavian folk music, it doesn’t apply to that. It doesn’t apply to my folk’s medieval music.

    2. Belano says:

      And what do you mean exactly by rock?, only rock and roll? Because it’s factually incorrect to say that metal musicians never had mentioned rock bands as influence. For example, Iommi had said “I liked John Mayall’s Blues Breakers. I thought they were really good. Of course Eric Clapton was a part of that. I liked the work that Clapton did later with Cream, but I really liked what he was playing with John Mayall. I listened to all kinds of blues records”. So, at least, blues rock in the case of Black Sabbath have been an influence. Halford has said Freddy Mercury was an influence, and also Tipton had mentioned Hendrix, Zeppelin and Fleetwood Mac. So, even if I think as you that Metal is a unique genre, different than rock, classical and blues, metal has influences from those three genres.

    3. Vigilance says:

      I didn’t think people took Quorthon seriously when be said he’s spent all his life in a dungeon surviving entirely on Wagner and raw venison he killed at nighttime to minimize his exposure to other humans and their record collections.

  10. C.M. says:

    This article is a good way to close out the metal vs. classical discussion. It’s just a mangled horse carcass anymore.

    Probably the thing that people forget most is that classical music is defined strictly by the methods of structure used to craft the music. Structures exist like Platonic forms and music is molded within them. Also important was the organization of instruments – chamber music sounds different from symphony orchestras sound different from string quartets…

    Meanwhile, metal is totally free from the constraints of classical structuring, and also eschews rock/blues/folk structuring. The continuous reliance on power chords alone is enough for metal to be considered separate from any classical influence.

    Classical : The instrumentation defines an outlined shape that is colored in by the composer.

    Metal : The composer draws an outlined shape and the color comes from the instrumentation.

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