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Tuesday, June 17, 2003

One of my commenters is a bit nonplused after my off-handed admission yesterday of my appreciation of heavy metal music. Jason's surprised that a level-headed, literate fellow like myself would go for that stuff. (That's a paraphrase, of course!) So, an explanation is in order, I guess.

I was never that much of a headbanger, really. I didn't wear t-shirts with my favorite bands' logos on them. I've never owned a denim jacket. I didn't grow long hair until 1995 or so, the key influences there more being Braveheart than any rock band. And to this day I have never attended a full-fledged rock concert. But I did like the music itself -- some of it, anyway. I enjoyed Ratt and Saxon. Def Leppard was OK. I enjoyed Bon Jovi's early albums, although I didn't care much for Slippery When Wet, which was their breakout success. I got a kick out of Twisted Sister's sense of humor. KISS was interesting, as was Ozzy, but I was pretty much "take it or leave it" on all the "demonic Satan child" antics. I remember when I bought a Stryper album without knowing anything about them, and was thus baffled when they started singing about God and stuff. (Come on, that's really not the type of thing one expects from a metal album!) I never really warmed to Guns-n-Roses, mainly because I've always found Axl Rose's singing voice grating. And to this day, I adore Van Halen -- they're the band I'm likely to name on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays as my favorite rock band ever. (On Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays I'll name Pink Floyd; Sundays I reserve for oldies groups like the Platters.)

What I dug about heavy metal was the size and spectacle of it -- not the concert pyrotechnics, but the musical pyrotechnics, when loudness of volume and repetitious harmonic structure often concealed fascinating guitar work, excellent song construction, and interesting lyrics. A lot of metal acts based their songs on mythic tropes -- Iron Maiden was really into that -- and I was always surprised at the amount of literary allusion to be found in metal songs and albums. (It struck me as odd then, and it does to this day, that the people who partied to that music and scoffed at "literature" were, in fact, partying to music performed by people who didn't scoff at literature at all.)

And I also enjoyed the occasional classical music allusion that metal artists would employ. Eddie Van Halen was big on this -- his guitar solos will often include tiny quotes of Mozart or Debussy -- and in any case, I've always tried to see all music as being part of one giant continuum. Remember the scene in Mr. Holland's Opus when Mr. Holland (Richard Dreyfuss) realizes that his attempts to teach a music class have failed utterly, so he takes a different approach? He plays a snippet of a popular song of the day, "Lover's Concerto" -- and reveals to his students that it's actually based on a minuet by J.S. Bach. Then he says, "Try to hear the connecting tissue between this" -- he plays a few bars of the Bach minuet -- "and this," whereupon he launches into a bit of raucous, honky-tonk piano of the type that made Jerry Lee Lewis famous.

I've always tried to find that "connecting tissue" -- if not the direct musical connection, then the connection of spirit between the classical composers of the past and the musicians of today, whether we're talking about John Williams, Jerry Goldsmith, Wynton Marsalis, Vangelis, or Van Halen. When I consider the giant proportions of a typical heavy metal concert -- the huge sets, the fireworks, the guitar solos lasting ten minutes, the amps set to 11 (because, you know, most amps only go to 10!) -- and I then read about the things Hector Berlioz used to do, such as scoring a Requiem mass not just for orchestra and chorus but also four brass bands, placed antiphonally at the ordinal compass points in the cathedral for maximum echoing effect, or perhaps listen to Mahler's Eighth Symphony (often subtitled "The Symphony of a Thousand", for the sheer number of musicians required to perform it), or even a full-scale production of Wagner's Die Meistersinger or Lohengrin, how can I not think that in some way these artists all tap into the same spirit?

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