On Saturday, the Birmingham Royal Ballet will take the stage, not to the languid string melodies of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky or Adolphe Adam, but to the distorted power chords of pioneering heavy metal band Black Sabbath. The new production, “Black Sabbath – The Ballet,” honors the hometown musicians whose eponymous debut album helped spark a global musical movement following its 1970 release.
Described by the press as “daring,” and celebrated for having “turned heavy metal into high art,” this special programming invites comparisons between two genres that appear distant, but share many characteristics.
Dr. Olivia Lucas, an Assistant Professor of Music Theory at Louisiana State University who researches and teaches heavy metal music, finds abundant common ground between metal and classical music. “Speaking broadly, I think both traditions value virtuosity and virtuosic display,” Lucas told me. “Both traditions value advanced musicianship and instrumental ability, and don’t mind openly showcasing those abilities.”
While certainly virtuosic, Black Sabbath’s music fits into this framework in an oblique way, as they do make explicit classical references. A more clear connection to classical music may lie in their music’s heightened symbolism, which emphasizes the occult as well as the horrors of the atomic age. Similar imagery appears in intensely dramatic scenes from 19th-century opera, like Carl Maria von Weber’s “Der Freischütz.”
Along these lines, Black Sabbath’s preference for unconventional forms and embrace of instrumental music, some of which features strings, may be seen to parallel the creative values of classical music. The band’s signature doomy, gloomy, loud, and lurid sound palette resonates with many intense moments in orchestral repertoire. Black Sabbath’s output also displays a highly expressionist character that retains, sustains, and iterates on its dark, spacious, and intense aesthetic. The result is a remarkably wide range of sounds, from the relentless riffs and satanic imagery of the eponymous “Black Sabbath” to the completely atonal, proto-noise track “FX.”
An important component of the heavy metal blueprint Black Sabbath helped establish is a popular musical style that moves beyond simply copying the blues and R&B. Like any rock genre, metal emerges from the precedents of various Black musics. It is not hard to hear the way Black Sabbath used basic elements of classical music, and even jazz, to produce an idiosyncratic musical language that is, sonically, more distant from—though no less indebted to—Black music.
Guitarist Richie Blackmore, one of Black Sabbath’s peers in heavy metal’s formative period, demonstrates how the genre more directly invokes classical music. Representative solos from Blackmore’s time with Deep Purple and Rainbow fluidly move between blues guitar tropes, quotations of Beethoven and Bach, and a brackish mixture of other influences.
In contexts like these, heavy metal musicians use classical music reductively and symbolically, to represent a sense of order, restraint, and mastery. Events like “Black Sabbath – The Ballet” and other singular collaborations between metal bands and traditional performing arts presenters reciprocate this practice. Inviting heavy metal into the concert hall appears, and is typically received, as an edgy, though necessarily impermanent, transgression of classical music’s norms.
A 2022 podcast interview between Alex Skolnick, the lead guitarist of American thrash metal band Testament, and Yulia Ziskel, a long-time violinist with the New York Philharmonic, illustrates a deeper mutual appreciation between these genres and their practitioners. It is meaningful that Ziskel and Skolnick strive to identify characteristics, like the sound of string playing, timbral bombast, dissonance, and rhythmic intensity, that both musical spaces share, rather than focus on flashy moments of crossover. (An accompanying article Skolnick wrote for New York radio station WQXR lists many of the compositions mentioned in the interview.)
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Of all classical musicians, living composers seem to incorporate, respond to, and honor aspects of heavy metal with the most imagination and enthusiasm. You can find works of concert music of any instrumentation that draw on heavy metal in various ways, and locate its influence in music created by composers throughout the field. Even the classical music press reads metal influence into pieces with certain characteristics (see these reviews of David Lang and Julia Wolfe’s music), regardless of whether the composer clearly states the connection.
Jamie Leigh Sampson is a composer who teaches at the Interlochen Arts Camp in northern Michigan. Sampson experimented with references to heavy metal aesthetics for the first time in an in-progress orchestra work titled “Gutted,” and found deep resonances in this newfound musical world. “It was a huge departure for me,” Sampson said about her pre-compositional research, “but in the end, [heavy metal and classical musicians are] listening and composing with the same parameters. We’re asking the same questions, though admittedly through a slightly different lens.”
Informed by his experience touring as a guitarist in metal, hardcore, and punk groups, composer and producer Andrew M. Rodriguez explores similar creative continuities between classical and metal music. Rodriguez describes a delicate approach to writing for the electric guitar part in his chamber work “Desperate for Context” (2018). “I really wanted to capture the energy of performing and listening to those genres of music,” he said, adding, “I set out to write a piece that felt like it came from a metal band without it sounding like I simply transcribed a Meshuggah song for chamber ensemble.”
Like Rodriguez, Boston-based composer/performer Forbes Graham played in metal bands before pursuing composition in a contemporary classical context. His “String Quartet No. 1” (2015) draws on the metal subgenres “technical death” and “djent” in its second movement. “I didn’t really think about how it fit, I just knew that it was what I wanted to be there,” Graham explained. “It’s a faster section and that type of melodic and rhythmic material is perfect for that approach.”
These composers and their peers help outline a potential mutualism between these genres. Clearly, heavy metal offers a template for an enthralling, energizing expression of rhythm, melody, and timbre; classical music returns grandeur and imperiousness. As a composer who finds inspiration in heavy metal as much as I listen to it, I also think the motivating connection distills to corporeality. The frenzied physicality of heavy metal proffers a form of visceral expression that contrasts with the classical concert hall’s polite restraint, while the classical emphasis on self-control and mastery, much of which lies in the body, balances heavy metal’s freneticism.
Among metal bands, the Greek symphonic death metal outfit Septicflesh may be the only group attempting to mirror the thoughtful, generating cross-genre exchange seen in the work of so many contemporary composers. “For me, my brother [Spiros Antoniou], and Sotiris [Vayenas],” explained Septicflesh’s guitarist, composer, and orchestrator, Christos Antonous, classical music “is of equal importance to metal.”
Founded in 1990, Septicflesh began collaborating with the FILMharmonic Orchestra of Prague in 2007, and has since released five albums that include new orchestral music composed by Antoniou alongside the music’s metal elements. “The backbone of our songs is the orchestra,” Antoniou said. “Either I give my brother and Sotiris the orchestra parts for them to put the metal parts on top of it, or the opposite.” Antoniou recognizes Septicflesh’s approach differs from that of their peers: “Other metal bands use the orchestra more like a keyboard accompaniment, but for us it is a totally different procedure.”
Antoniou holds degrees in composition from the London College of Music and Royal Northern College of Music. Like composers who write for the concert stage, Antoniou works at the piano and uses notation software. Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” inspired Antoniou to pursue composition: he admires the orchestral writing in Xenakis’s and Penderecki’s music, is currently studying John Corigliano’s Symphony No. 1, and regularly visits the Score Follower YouTube channel, which features a range of avant-garde contemporary compositions. He may tour internationally with Septicflesh, but he views his creative process as fundamentally classical. “The majority of the time I’m working, I’m thinking like a composer who writes orchestral music,” he said.
The way Septicflesh engages with orchestral music is not superficially symbolic: Antoniou refers to the orchestra as the band’s “fifth member.” Recording “Communion,” their first album with a live orchestra, was a transformative experience for Antoniou and his bandmates. “It was a new world for us,” he said, “and that is the reason why we alway will record with an orchestra on every album we release.”
To date, Septicflesh has only once performed live with an orchestra: a 2019 concert at Mexico City’s Teatro Metropólitan that featured 100 supporting musicians from the local Symphonica Experience Orchestra, Enharmonía Vocalis Choir, and National University of Mexico Children’s and Youth Choir. This performance of the song “Persepolis” from that event demonstrates Septicflesh’s unique style, as Antoniou’s orchestral writing serves as a major melodic voice that, at times, the guitar, bass, and drums accompany.
Antoniou and Septicflesh’s commitment to the orchestra as an organic component of their creativity reflects what we find in the work of many composers. Both groups borrow from the other respectfully in order to invest in new modes of musical expression that expand and transgress their home genre’s normative and traditional techniques.
Events like “Black Sabbath – The Ballet” and Metallica’s famous 1999 collaboration with the San Francisco Symphony may receive more attention, but it is unclear how they contribute to the formation of new music practices. Hopefully, whatever success Birmingham Royal Ballet’s new production enjoys will lead to intersections of classical music and heavy metal centered around mutualistic, generative collaboration. ¶
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