What do metal and opera have in common?

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“Beethoven and Mozart were the rockstars of their time. They were living total lives of sex, drugs and rock’n’roll. Fucking animals!”

Hammer is talking to Perttu Kivilaakso of Finnish cello-metallers Apocalyptica, about the ongoing and culturally significant connection between classical music and heavy metal. Using cello as their instrument of choice since their days as a Metallica tribute band, Apocalyptica have long straddled both worlds. Now Perttu and partner- in-strings Eicca Toppinen have entered deeper into the classical establishment by creating Indigo, a work for the Finnish National Opera, which premieres this month. With a modern story about a shady corporation and a parallel universe, it combines a love for metal institutions such as Slayer with an appreciation of 19th century composers including Puccini and Verdi, and is scored for a traditional symphony orchestra. So not your usual West End Show.

“We didn’t feel the need for regular drums or electric guitar – that’d be too obvious,” explains Eicca. “We were more thinking about how we could make an up-to-date opera but be melodic, because modern opera nowadays is very atonal and definitely not romantic. We know the classical world, because we’ve been classical session musicians, but our approach comes from rock and metal, and we’ve never been ashamed to write haunting melodies.”

Over the last few decades, metal has enjoyed an increasingly close relationship with classical. There are multiple collaborations, metal bands that incorporate classical instruments, and a legion of symphonic bands with operatic vocals. Jan Butler, lecturer in popular music at Oxford Brookes, reckons the relationship has flourished because of similarities in their technical and thematic approaches. “There are things in classical music that really lend themselves to metal, such as virtuosity and the idea of power chords,” she offers. “They also share subject matter, with a tendency to write about madness, nature, Satan and so on, and those are things that 19th century romanticism was concerned with. This dark imagery has a close link to things in that era of classical music.”

The most famous crossover to date is perhaps Metallica’s S&M live album, made in conjunction with the San Francisco Symphony and conductor Michael Kamen in 1999, but there have been similar collaborative projects from X Japan, Satyricon, Dimmu Borgir, Therion, Manowar and Paradise Lost, who two years ago performed with an orchestra and choir at the Ancient Roman Theatre of Philippopolis in Bulgaria. The set’s just been released as a live album, Symphony For The Lost. Vocalist Nick Holmes explains that the classical instrumentation added a shadowy dimension to their gothic-tinged metal.

“We’d used choirs and strings in the past,” he tells us, “but when you pile it up and use a full orchestra, it’s a different thing altogether. We’ve always liked classical instruments, especially violins, cellos and timpani drums. Most of it stems from us listening to Celtic Frost; they always used those elements. It also stems from horror films with classical scores, like The Omen and Psycho with the violins. For us, it was always about the darker side of orchestration; there’s a subtlety, darkness and sombreness that you can get in cello that you just can’t get with an electric guitar – it’s too vibrant.”

Their passion for Celtic Frost and horror movies is shared by Japanese experimental extreme metallers Sigh, who combine black metal with passages of synthesised and real classical instrumentation to invoke feelings of dread and despair.

“When I started Sigh, one of my intentions was to mix heavy metal and horror soundtrack feelings,” explains Mirai Kawashima. “I wanted to write scary songs and noticed that horror films such as The Exorcist and The Shining often used 20th century classical music. I tried to study 20th century classical music theory, but, I didn’t understand it at all without knowledge about ‘normal’ classical music theory, so I started expanding my knowledge and taste backwards – namely 20th century stuff, the romantic era, and classical to baroque.”

Black metal in particular has a long history with classical. Nargaroth and Marduk have covered classical pieces, and there’s a proliferation of symphonically inclined bands such as Limbonic Art, Pensées Nocturnes, Carach Angren and, of course, Emperor and Dimmu Borgir. Dimmu’s Silenoz reckons it’s the shared sense of coherence and scale that make the genres such easy bedfellows.

“Classical and metal have a lot in common generally,” he says. “Both genres concentrate on compositions as a whole, and albums that consist of songs and themes that interact more than within other genres of music. There’s more of a sense of a ‘complete’ thing. You’ll never get the same feeling of being on a journey listening to a Madonna album.”

Ihsahn agrees, and points to the intense emotional responses that classical and metal both provoke as another obvious link.

“It was probably orchestral soundtracks that were the biggest influence [on Emperor],” he recalls. “These were the sounds we associated with everything that was dark, epic and larger than life, so by bringing these sounds into the arrangement, we could extend the emotional depth. A lot of extreme metal, with high tempos and very compressed volumes, can become kind of one-dimensional – especially with the atonal vocals dominating. Both metal and orchestral music have the potential for ‘massiveness’ and are good environments for expressing those ‘big feelings’, so combining them makes sense. The sounds also blend well and help give a sense of dynamics.”

That sense of blending is what Tarja Turunen hopes to achieve in her music. The classically trained former Nightwish singer has worked to reject the ‘crossover’ label that identifies artists who can work in both genres, and instead wishes to establish a solo sound that fuses them both.

“I’m trying to combine music styles, not to cross from one to another, but erase the borders between them,” she muses. “The biggest challenge is to be able to combine a pop tune with classical vocals and arrangements, including a heavy band with distorted guitars, and still have some space for choirs, soundtrack- like ambient sounds and keyboards.”

Children Of Bodom’s Alexi Laiho has also been informed by classical training. He started learning piano at age five, and then violin, and frequently draws on these influences in his frenetic guitar playing. He’s even covered music by Italian baroque composer Antonio Vivaldi.

“My favourites were always Vivaldi and Bach – they were just so rad, fun and extremely challenging to play,” he explains. “And Beethoven, who struck me as one of the most ingenious composers – his music sounds very dark even when it’s in a major key. Above all, though, has always been Mozart. It’s so mindblowingly brilliant and dark as fuck! There are similarities in classical and metal, no doubt. How the harmonies are used, the way certain unison runs or melodies are orchestrated, and the massive, pompous overall sound. Both are aiming for the dark and beautiful at the same time. It all originates from classical music – where would we be without minor and major scales?”

“Beethoven was the first metalhead,” states The Great Kat, the shredder who made her name in the 80s with virtuoso speed-metal renditions of classical compositions. “The powerful and aggressive pounding attacks of Beethoven’s music are a perfect fit for vicious, raw, heavy metal music. Another parallel is Niccolò Paganini’s blistering virtuoso violin speeds, which fit perfectly for guitar shredding. There are also many more composers, such as Wagner, Bach, Sarasate and Liszt, which fit brilliantly into shred classical versions.”

With so many metal musicians coming from a classical background, an increasing number are making a name for themselves in both disciplines. Christos Antoniou of Greek symphonic extreme metal legends Septicflesh has studied composition and orchestration to a high level, and is involved with Chaostar, a project combining classical, opera and vocal orchestra. Despite classical music’s elevated reputation compared with metal’s outsider one, he believes the pure human aspect of playing connects the genres.

Beethoven and Mozart were fucking animals!

“Metal doesn’t try to hide the human factor, whether that’s growling, shredding, performance or whatever,” he considers. “Likewise, classical music counts on the human factor that will adapt the personal performance to the demands of the song. Metal is inspired by many classical forms and musical vocabulary – I could say that many metal compositions are the nowadays ‘classical orchestra’ with electricity.”

“Most of the harmonic and melodic progressions used in heavy metal music come from music that was written two or three hundred years ago,” considers Tommaso Riccardi of Fleshgod Apocalypse. “It’s enough to quote Johann Sebastian Bach, probably the very first metalhead in history. Since classical and metal music have a lot in common and are both extremely powerful and dramatic, I always have the feeling that those two characteristics are pumped up by the mix of the two styles.”

As most classical music was written before the use of electricity, many musicians argue that the gap between the two music forms is a circumstantial matter of time and technology. Although classical and orchestral music may sound traditional or even old- fashioned to our ears, it was, just as heavy music is today, frequently at the cutting edge. And beyond all else, it was definitely metal.

“I think if electricity had been created earlier, Wagner would have been the first guy to use distorted guitar. He always wanted everything bigger and more bombastic, so that would be more than natural,” reflects Perttu. “I think the purpose of music has always been the same, from Bach to Judas Priest. You want to create melody and rhythm. You want to touch someone’s soul.”

Plucking Hell

The most metal pieces from the classical world, according to expert Dr Jan Butler

Symphonie Fantastique, Hector Berlioz (1830)
”This is the first symphony to explore a specific narrative. A young man, obsessed with his beloved, takes opium and has a series of disturbing hallucinations through which his lover, embodied musically, flits and transforms from an object of desire, to a tease, to his murder victim, and then a witch dancing at his funeral.”

Faust Symphony, Franz Liszt (1857)
“Liszt, who himself was thought to have made a pact with the Devil to have achieved his virtuosity on the piano, wrote several works based on Goethe’s novel in which a scholar, Faust, makes a pact with the Devil.”

Tristan Und Isolde, Wagner (1865)
“This opera offers a tale based on Schopenhauer’s philosophy, which equates the realm of night and death with the possibility and rapture of love. In the closing song, Isolde sings herself to ecstatic death to join Tristan.”

Carmina Burana, Carl Orff (1937)
“Composers in the 20th century explored more extreme harmonic writing and started playing more with different rhythms and textures. Carmina Burana is rhythmically interesting and contains the famous opening chorus, O, Fortuna, which is so inherently metal that Therion covered it [on 2000 album Deggial].”

Coro, Luciano Berio (1977)
“Different voices and instruments combine in shifting patterns, with lyrics based on folk songs exploring the nature of love, work and death. These are interspersed with versions of the words, ‘Come and see the blood, come and see the blood in the streets,’ sung in different languages.”

Perttu and Eicca’s Opera, Indigo, premieres in Helsinki on January 22. See opera.fi/en/productions/indigo.