For The Classical Music Fan – A List of Unique Masterworks

MUSIC 2011: MAR 03 - Apocalyptica Concert - Fort LauderladeThe following post was co-written with Contrapuntist.

If you’re a classical music aficionado looking for something different, how about trying some progressive rock and metal music? Now before you run away screaming, give me a moment to explain. As mentioned in a previous post, both Contrapuntist and I are metalheads and classically trained musicians. We arrived at our similar musical tastes from opposite ends of the spectrum. I started out as a classical violist and got into metal music. Contrapuntist started out as a metalhead and became a classical guitarist. Here is what Contrapuntist had to say about his background:

When I first started to play guitar, the last thing I thought I’d become is a classical player.  Like many teenagers, I was rebellious and didn’t understand classical music or why people listened to it.  When I picked up the guitar, I wanted to play like Alex Skolnick, Zakk Wylde, and Kirk Hammet.  It wasn’t until my family took me to see the Romero family that everything changed.  My world instantly turned upside down, and my new found passion for classical music was born. I become captivated with Andres Segovia, John Williams and Elliot Fisk – what a difference a concert made!

As for me, my journey from classical to metal music began started in high school, with my first boyfriend. He was a bass guitarist, and even though I was highly skeptical, he got me to listen to other things besides Bach and Beethoven. In particular, I got hooked by an instrumental section in the song “I Alone” off of the album Throwing Copper by the band Live. But the song completed my conversion was “Whole Lotta of Love” from the album Led Zeppelin II by Led Zeppelin. It was instrumental music like I’d never heard before. I liked the rhythm, the chords, the technical skills of the players, and the power of the music. Once that door was open, it led me to all kinds of other things, and my love of progressive, hard rock, and metal music has lasted ever since.

It would seem that I’m not alone. My viola professor in college, who is a member of the Cleveland Orchestra, was a huge fan of Led Zeppelin. He even got to play in a string quartet during a concert with former Zeppelin bandmembers Jimmy Page and Robert Plant. There are other artists who either play both classical and metal, or who started out as classical musicians and transitioned to metal. Violinist Rachel Barton plays classical music and also has her own metal band, Earthen Grave, which covers songs from artists such as Metallica and Ozzy Osborne. Emilie Autumn started out as a violin prodigy and has morphed into a gothic/industrial/metal artist. The Great Kat started out as a Juilliard trained violinist and became a heavy metal guitar shredder.

Believe it or not, classical and metal fans have a lot in common.

So for those of you who’ve been brave enough to stick with me so far, here is a list of music that Contrapuntist and I have compiled to introduce you to the world of metal and progressive rock. Just approach it with an open mind. Remember the first time that you heard Alban Berg or John Corigliano? You might not have liked the music right away, but after listening to it several times, you got into it. Here we go…

Please note, after each section there is a YouTube playlist including every track.

The Most Easily Approachable Metal Music

  • Apocalyptica – This Finish cello quartet formed while the four members were students at the Sibelius Academy. The band initially became well-known for its transcriptions of heavy metal bands such as Metallica and Slayer. In addition to doing covers songs, the band also writes its own music. Check out the song “Romance” off of their album, Cult
  • Within Temptation – This Dutch symphonic/gothic metal band creates epic works which often incorporate real orchestras into their music. The lead vocalist, Sharon den Adel, has a gorgeous voice. Here is “The Howling” off of the album The Heart of Everything
  • Opeth – Normally, I wouldn’t include this Swedish band on a list of recommendations for classical music aficionados, but their album Damnation has clean vocals, unlike their other albums, with intricate harmonies.  The songs on Damnation can appeal to just about anyone.  The songs are dark, but Benjamin Britten wrote many dark operas. Check out the album’s single, “Windowpane”
  • Dream Theater – Contrapuntist and I are biased towards this band because it is one of our favorites, so we’ll be sprinkling examples of their music in many different categories. They are an American progressive metal band, and each musician is a renowned virtuoso at his instrument. Singer James LaBrie’s voice is beautifully expressive and has fantastic tone color. The band is well-known for its epic songs. One of my favorites is “A Change Of Seasons”, off of the album of the same name

For Fans of Grand Symphonic Works

  • Dream Theater – Two fantastic songs which incorporate an actual symphony orchestra are on the live album, Score . Check out “Metropolis Part 1” and “Octavarium”. You’ll also want to check out the concept album Scenes from a Memory. Many fans consider this the band’s masterpiece, and it’s the very best way to get acquainted with their music.
  • Symphony X – This is a progressive/symphonic metal band, in some ways similar to Dream Theater. Check out the title track from their album Divine Wings of Tragedy, which directly quotes “Mars, Bringer of War”, from The Planets by Gustav Holst.
  • Nightwish – This is a symphonic/gothic metal band which typifies the “beauty and the beast” gothic metal aesthetic of using a female vocalist (Anette Olzon) with a “clean” voice and a male vocalist (Marco Hietala) with a “heavy” voice. Check out “Meadows of Heaven” off of their album, Dark Passion Play.
  • Ayreon – Arjen Lucassen has produced a series of albums under the name Ayreon, each of which has a different supergroup of musicians and vocalists. My favorite album is The Human Equation , since it highlights the voice of Dream Theater vocalist James LaBrie. One of the most incredible tracks is “Day Eleven: Love”. It has a stunning array of vocalists:
  • Transatlantic – A progressive rock supergroup consisting of Neal Morse (formerly of Spock’s Beard), Mike Portnoy (Dream Theater), Roine Stolt (Flower Kings), and Pete Trewavas (Marillion). This is Beatles-flavored, psychedelic rock, with some great instrumental jams and beautiful harmonies. Check out “All of the Above” from the album SMPTe
  • Queensrÿche – In the mid 90’s, the radio often featured the hit song “Silent Lucidity,” which was accompanied with an orchestra.  However, it was the concept album, Operation: Mindcrime that put them on the map.  The album is about a fortune hunter whose disillusionment with Reagan-era American society leads him to join a shadowy plot to assassinate corrupt leaders.  Check out the song “Suite Sister Mary”

For Fans of Virtuosic/Instrumental Music

  • Jordan Rudess – the keyboard player for Dream Theater, Rudess plays in a broad range of styles including classical, jazz, progressive, and metal. Rudess had some early training at the Juilliard school. Check out “On My World” from 4NYC.
  • Joe Satriani – Few people know that this guitar great taught Metallica’s guitarist, Kirk Hammet, as well as Steve Vai.  Satriani stormed onto the music scene with his release Surfing With The Alien . Since entering the spotloight, Satriani has consistently experimented with technical possibilities on the electric guitar.  Check out one my favs “Circles” from Surfing and the title track from The Extremist
  • Steve Vai – After studying with previously mentioned Joe Satriani, Vai went on to study and graduate from the Berkelee School of Music (in Boston).  In short, Vai took what Satriani started and took five steps further developing his own guitar techniques such as  tapping the fretboard using both hands and all eight fingers.  Check out the comical “The Audience is Listening” from Passion and Warfare
  • Yngwie Malmsteen – Time Magazine listed Malmsteen as one of the 10 best electric guitar players for his technical facility and ability to fast.  As part of his own musical training, he practiced Nicolo Paganini’s Violin Caprices, Op. 1 on guitar.  At his core, Malmsteen is a classical musician who plays metal.  Take a listen to “Trilogy Suite Op. 5” from Trilogy and “Far Beyond The Sun” from Rising Force
  • Marty Friedman – Most famous as the guitarist of Megadeth during the 90’s, it is his solo albums that offer a more unique flavor of instrumental rock/metal music. The album Scenes from his pre-Megadeth days is more on the mellow side, with the song “Tibet” highlighting Friedman’s Asian influences.  His more recent release, Music For Speeding, is pure experimental rock bliss; take a listen to “Nastymachine”

For Fans of Cerebral Music

  • Pain of Salvation – the Swedish progressive metal band is fronted by the brilliant Daniel Gildenlow. He has one of the most amazing voices you’ll ever hear, and he’s the driving creative force behind the band. For example, Gildenlow masterminded the concept album, Be, which explores the existence of humanity in relation to God. For a more detailed description of the ideas behind the music, check out this link. In the meantime, for a taste of their music, please listen to “King of Loss” off of the album The Perfect Element I
  • Spock’s Beard – the American progressive rock group sounds a little more old school rock with influences that include the Beatles and Rush. The band’s music often requires several listens to catch all the different complexities in the long epic songs. It is also important to note, that Neal Morse is also part of Transatlantic, which is listed above.  Take a listen to the epic track “At The End Of The Day” from V , considered as one of the best tracks written by the group

For Fans of Bold and Brassy Composers Such As Prokofiev, Stravinsky, and Shostakovich

  • Metallica – this American godfather of thrash metal bands recorded a live symphonic album, S&M , with the San Francisco Symphony orchestra. Listen to “No Leaf Clover”, written especially for this concert, and Nothing Else Matters (from the Black album)
  • Iron Maiden – this British metal band not only writes songs with catchy grooves and riffs but also epics with great instrumental sections. Lead singer Bruce Dickinson has a soaring, operatic-type voice. Check out “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” off of the album Powerslave. The song starts out heavy and loud, but there is a great mellow section about five minutes into the piece.
  • Dream Theater – if you like Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, check out Dream Theater’s “Dance of Eternity”, off of the album Scenes from a Memory. Although the two pieces sound nothing alike, they have a couple of things in common. Both are extremely challenging for the musicians, and both go through some extraordinary time signatures and rhythms
  • Judas Priest – another British metal band absolutely worth including in this list and the band responsible for making leather formal metalhead garb.  Musically, the ripping vocals from Rob Halford combined with two fierce guitarists created a unique blend, and set the foundation for many metal acts that followed.  Although the band’s most recent album, Nostradamus, didn’t receive positive feedback from the metal community; this is likely because it is different from previous albums.  Nostradamus is a metal opera, which makes it more appealing to a classical aficionado.  Take a listen to “Pestilence and Plague” and the title track

For Fans of Minimalists Such As John Adams and Steve Reich

There are several progressive rock bands which use techniques similar to those of the classical minimalists, including simple chord progressions and repetitive riffs.  Here are just a few:

  • Riverside – It’s difficult to fit this Polish band into only one category. They list some of their musical influences as Dream Theater, Tool, Yes (a 70s progressive rock group), and Genesis (another 70s progressive rock group). Listen to “Schizophrenic Prayer” off of the album Rapid Eye Movement . The song has a hypnotic pulse and vocals, and you might find yourself going into a trance
  • Katatonia – This Swedish band has morphed from its initial doom metal roots to become an atmospheric metal band. It is a little bit similar to Riverside in its use of hypnotic pulse, but it is darker and heavier. Check out “Day and Then The Shade” from their most recent album, Night Is The New Day
  • OSI – A progressive rock project by Kevin Moore (former keyboardist for Dream Theater) and Jim Matheos. Each album has had guest artists ranging from Opeth’s lead singer Mikael Akerfeldt to Dream Theater drummer Mike Portnoy. The band is a unique mix of ambient progressive rock and heavy metal riffs. Check out “When You’re Ready” off of the album OSI
  • 3 – This American band combines a polyrhythmic pulse with metal guitar riffs and melodic vocals. Listen to “All That Remains” off of their album The End Is Begun

Photo credit: Perttu Kivilaakso and Paavo Lštjšnen of Apocalyptica by Luis Blanco

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