Satan‘s Court in the Act exists in a unique space between the New Wave of British Heavy Metal and speed metal. As a wholly metal album that attempts no pandering to mainstream radio rock unlike seemingly every other NWOBHM band, Court in the Act is by far the strongest studio album of that sub-genre/movement and incredibly influential to American speed metal bands Metallica, Megadeth, and Slayer.
Nirvana’s Nevermind turned twenty five yesterday but since we at the Death Metal Underground condemn pop-punk Boston worship, we will celebrate a different anniversary today. Morbid Angel‘s Blessed Are the Sick was released twenty-five summers ago. Blessed Are the Sick was the last Morbid Angel record focused on inwardly improving the music rather than compromising it for commercial appeal to a mainstream market. The band had been obsessed with refining and expanding upon their compositions since Trey Azagthoth shelved the release of 1986’s Abominations of Desolation and fired then drummer/vocalist Mike Browning.
For most of the bands we cover here at DMU, indirect influence from classical music and musicians is rather more common than direct performance of classical music, to the point that you’ll find more discussion of authentic period-style performance than metallic recontextualization. When word reached me of Exmortus honoring the 245th anniversary of Ludwig van Beethoven’s birth by releasing an adaptation of his 23rd piano sonata (the aforementioned Appassionata… well, the final movement of it), I figured listening to what the band could do with this material would make for some interesting writing. It’s worth noting that Exmortus has already done something similar for Beethoven’s Moonlight sonata, shredding their way through its fast and technically complicated final movement.
Since I’d never actually sat down and listened to the original Appassionata in any form, I started by listening to a performance. It’s been a while since I was properly attuned to Western classical music, but in my quick inspection I was able to pick up on many of the period tropes (it’s worth noting that Beethoven bridged the often lighter styles of the late 18th century with the melodramatic and more technically accomplished works of the early “Romantic” period of classical music), and I noticed how much mileage he was able to get out of a few relatively simple leitmotifs through various elaboration techniques. The sonata is clearly worthy of further study, although in the mean time one of our more classical-oriented writers would probably be able to shed further light on its hidden depths.
My main goal with this article, anyways, was to take a look at what Exmortus themselves did with the material. In their original moments, Exmortus plays a modernized speed metal style that takes some aesthetic cues from contemporary death metal; this recipe has in the past produced things like ATG’s Slaughter of the Soul, although this band’s usually a bit more subtle in their exploration of such tropes. Their adaptation of Appassionata makes very dramatic changes to the organization of the original. Much of these would be expected due to the mere change in instrumentation; perhaps the most notable is a consistent layer of percussion that understandably makes for a different texture. They’ve also condensed their adaptation down a bit; it would take me further listening to say which parts were specifically cut, but this is definitely an important change. Perhaps the greatest weakness of Exmortus’s version is that it also compresses the dynamic range down to nothing, and it does nothing with texture or rhythm to compensate for that. While the aesthetic needs of metal music often allow for reduced dynamic range, one of the more striking parts of the 3rd movement of Appassionata is that a skilled pianist can create strong contrasts despite the lengthy periods of rapid, stamina-draining performance, and that the ‘metal’ adaptation feels somewhat diminished for lacking this crucial element.
This track is still an interesting novelty that might push a few people to explore the original work. The album this single belongs to (Ride Forth) will go on sale January 8th, although I don’t expect it to contain any more neoclassical efforts. For an example of how original work in this vein can open up new possibilities, try Helstar’s “Perseverance and Desperation” off Nosferatu.