METAL AND SYNTHESIZERS
As a metalhead and a metal musician, it has always amazed me that metal research that touches on organology (the musicological term for the study of musical instruments) is mostly on the electric guitar in some way. There is very little in terms of timbres or techniques that are considered “metal” for non-guitar instruments, such as bass guitars and/or drums. Although synthesizers have been in use in metal music since 1988, with Iron Maiden’s Seventh Son of a Seventh Son, and since then the metal spectrum has widened to contain many a synthesized instrument ranging from keyboard and guitar synths to drum machines, vocoders and turntables, still no significant volume of research exists about metal and synthesizers.
This is not to say that a wide selection of metal music subgenres rely heavily on some sort of non-guitar sound. Actually some subgenres that sound-wise would have been indistinguishable from each other, such as nu metal and metalcore, they are often sorted by the presence or absence of synthesizer sounds or by electronic elements in the sound palette and vocal effects. Throughout various metal genres, synthesizers are used in a variety of ways: in the case of industrial metal, it is just a noise machine, or a splash of machine–like colour on the dense fabric of the guitar riff work. Rammstein for example is particularly fond of the piano sound and are known to make acoustic piano songs (‘Diamant’, from the self-titled last album, for instance). Synths can provide ethnic flavour and can also contribute heavily to the melodic fabric of the music created, albeit subordinate to the guitar sound, as is the case with Orphaned Land. With Sonata Arctica and Stratovarius, the virtuosic solo keyboard lead is a partner in crime with the (lead) guitar; and it can steal the show, as is the case with many symphonic (such as, the hallmark example, Nightwish, which only occasionally features a guitar solo) and most progressive metal bands (like Simulacrum) we can name. And how about the keyboard-driven new music of Amorphis: the track ‘The Golden Elk’ has more “natural” sounds, emulating the symphony orchestra timbres we associate with Finnish symphonic metal. Finally, there is also the purely “synthetic” sounding keyboard sounds, like in Dream Theater’s ’The Dance of Eternity’.
To understand the keyboard-generic sound world of metal, one should, besides live performance and composition practices of keyboardists, also have some notion about the preference for sounds used in metal production. I would also like to tackle the lack of a paradigm of metal music keyboard style Being a keyboardist myself and having interviewed metal keyboardists such as Jordan Ruddess, Einar Solberg, Arjen Lucassen and Coen Jansen among others, I aim to provide insight as well as a track of common practices among keyboardists. A history of metal music from the perspective of the keyboard aficionado remains to be written, and I hope my research would be significant to initiate amendment for this.
Songs to keep in your ear (besides those mentioned in the text)
- Listana, ‘Persona Non Grata’