I’m a big fan of art that blurs lines. I always find it really impressive when an artist can find that zone between styles and navigate it so precisely that it’s difficult to decide where exactly their art falls. This phenomenon is actually a huge part of why I like metal music. Countless bands that fall pretty squarely into the metal genre are very adventurous, stylistically. I think metal music is one of the most varied, promiscuous kinds of art there is. But even more interesting to me are the bands who don’t fall so squarely into metal, but still manage to make music that is quite ‘metal.’
So, I’d like to present to you some songs that I feel are very much metal songs, but don’t actually fall within the bounds of the genre. Here’s the problem, though. What is metal, really? This is a topic that has been kicked around a lot, even by yours truly, and isn’t really worth completely rehashing right here and now. But, I’ll boil my position down to this: you can’t take instrumentation into account when deciding if something is metal or not. If heavily distorted guitars are the prequisite of metal (which is what I would suspect many would say) then what are we to make of these songs from decidely non-metal bands like Smashing Pumpkins, Weezer, and Muse? [Seriously, if you scoff at that list of bands, listen to some of those songs and tell me those aren't some surprisingly heavy-as-fuck guitar tones.] They all have several instances of quite a bit of guitar heaviness in their catalogs, but none of them make metal songs, at all. Hell, there are heavy guitars in lots of stuff now. How about this D-12 tune? That was an Eminem vehicle from over a decade ago and as ridiculously commercial as it is, even that has heavy guitars , but it certainly isn’t metal. The point is, metal is the tone or emotion of a song, not the instrumentation, and all sorts of songs can be metal.
I’ll start off with an easy one: Present.
This wacky, late 70′s Belgian progressive rock outfit is a perfect example of what I’m talking about. Many of their songs capture that dark, alienated, completely visceral aspect so often found in metal music. I mean, look at how well it works with that metal-as-fuck video! [Full disclosure, I have no idea if that's a fan-made video or an official one.] Getting to metal from progressive rock isn’t really that huge of stretch, but they are LARGELY jazz-influenced, and yet it’s still so very metal to me. Complexity, dissonance, sinister tone; it’s all there. One can very easily hear the influence of a band like Present on acts such as Death (and of course Cynic) and maybe even Opeth.
Moving a little further away (and I may lose some of you on this one,) but staying with that dark jazz vibe, I give you: Mal Waldron.
Now, this song is less metal on the surface, but let me explain. First of all it’s about death. Mal Waldron was the piano player for Billie Holiday until her death from drugs and alcohol in 1959. This song was one of many that he wrote or adapted in tribute to her. Cryptic meanings aside, it’s really still all there as far as I’m concerned. As with a lot of his work, it’s very dark, frequently dissonant, and it’s technically impressive. Transposed to another, more typically metal instrument, say…electric guitar perhaps, this melodic line would fit right in with many metal songs. The entire roster of Peaceville Records, from bands like Katatonia and My Dying Bride have made long careers of this kind of slow, methodical, pensive atmosphere in their music.
And finally, we’ll go out with a real show stopper: Shostakovich.
I think a lot of people have a pretty easy time making the connection between metal and classical. The transposing of instruments like violins to guitar and vice versa has been proven effective time and time again. (See Yngwie Malmsteen for evidence.) But for a truly metal experience, one needs to look no further than glorious mother Russia. That country churned out more dark, twisted composers than practically anywhere else on the planet. One of the darkest is Dmitri Shostakovich. His 10th symphony is a triumph of bleak, oppressive, stirring, just-plain-heavy music. There’s really something about a full orchestra that can really stir the soul and get eerie and ominous like nothing else. I think orchestral music is the heaviest music around.
So there you have it. Three examples of metal that aren’t metal. Hopefully, I’ve given you pause to consider the bounds of your metal appreciation, and maybe, just maybe, expanded your metal repertoire just a little. Let me know if you can think of any others. I may do some more posts on this topic, because these kinds of songs are everywhere!