Amadeus and The Reaper: Classical Sensibilities in Children of Bodom

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The link between classical music and heavy metal has long been recognised; in fact it has become something of a cliché. A scene in the 1984 mockumentary Spinal Tap showed the fictional band’s guitarist composing a delicate piano work, which he described as a cross between Mozart and Bach – “a sort of Mach really.” At the end of the scene he revealed that the piece was entitled ‘Lick My Love Pump’. The implication is that heavy metal musicians have tried to adopt elements of classical music in order to lend their music legitimacy, as a sort of tokenism. There are countless examples of metal bands appropriating classical works, [1] and they can lay themselves open to ridicule when they do so.

Neo-classical metal is the subgenre of metal that is overtly influenced by classical music, and had its heyday in the 1980s with guitarists such as Randy Rhoads and Yngwe Malmsteen. It has a somewhat naff reputation nowadays – for empty virtuosity and a certain amount of silliness. This is unfair, because it hugely elevated the technical standard of guitar-playing, as well as inspiring many other subgenres of metal. But it is true that neo-classical metal is superficial, appropriated; it’s often an indiscriminate fusion of different classical styles, a borrowing of motifs without an awareness of architecture. It is also important to distinguish between ‘neo-classical’ and ‘classical’. The former is an amalgam of anything vaguely classical; whereas ‘classical’ refers to a specific period and style. Most metal is in fact closely linked to the Baroque as opposed to any other period. [2]

One of the bands who have made their name incorporating neoclassical elements in a wider spectrum of metal is Finland’s Children of Bodom, whose main style is ostensibly melodeath. Their distinctive sound has been highly successful and they are currently on their twentieth anniversary tour. [3] In his youth, Alexi Laiho (vocals, lead guitar and composer) was a great admirer of the neo-classical guitar virtuoso Yngwe Malmsteen, and early Children of Bodom not only borrowed from Mozart but even used the whole lot of Symphony no. 25 to create the song ‘Red Light in my Eyes Part 2’.

However, Alexi Laiho is a more sophisticated musician than Malmsteen, bringing emotional depth as well as technical showmanship to his compositions. And Children of Bodom have a more fundamental link with classical music than simply being ‘neo-classical’. In this article, I’m going to write about Children of Bodom’s music as a direct descendant of the classical style, and by classical I mean the classical period (1775-1825), as opposed to the Baroque (earlier) or Romantic periods (later). The classical elements in Children of Bodom’s music are not tokens, not pastiche, not parody, but inherent in the music itself.

The classical period is synonymous with the composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791), and before we even examine the music itself, we can draw comparisons between him and Children of Bodom. Mozart often addressed dark themes in his music – In particular death and hell – but he had a wicked sense of humour, both in his music and in person, and a reputation for recklessness and partying. Children of Bodom’s lyrical themes are almost exclusively dark – the band’s emblem is the Grim Reaper – but they also have a distinct sense of humour in their work, with jokey cover songs and an almost carnivalesque ludicrousness to their keyboard/guitar interplay. And they were of course known in the past for their alcohol-fuelled escapades.

It’s fair to say that most Baroque and Romantic composers took themselves very seriously – humour is not something one associates with Bach or Chopin. The same can be said of most metal bands, in particular within the death metal subgenres. However, the classical era was marked by comedy, lightness, irony in music, and the same can be said for Children of Bodom. Sometime there’s almost too much going on in their enormous scalic passages accompanied by matching synths and blastbeats. The frantic dancing around the circle of fifths in ‘Needled 24/7’ would be almost too much if it wasn’t for the inherent humour in the music – the joyful chaos which is reminiscent of the moment in the movie Amadeus (1984), when the Emperor accused Mozart of having ‘too many notes’.

Music can be broken down and analysed in terms of Melody, Harmony and Rhythm, so let’s start with Melody, given that Children of Bodom are, above all, a melodic death metal band. Mozart was known for his beautiful melodies; he simply had an innate feel for a good tune, which makes his music far more memorable than any of his contemporaries. Could the average person sing a tune by Haydn? Hummel? Cherubini? Unlikely – but start off any number of Mozart tunes and I bet they could finish them.

The melody in melodic death is, of course, carried by the guitar and not the vocals, and Children of Bodom have intricate, complex, memorable melodies. In their songs, the notes are not notes for their own sake – they have a purpose. They are the modern equivalent of Mozart’s ‘passage work’, or ‘conventional material’ [4] – his frantic scales and arpeggios which are not ornamental (as Baroque scales were) but integral to the fabric of the piece.
Laiho’s fretboard wizardry is not improvised. Of course no guitar solos are truly improvised, but they are designed to give that impression. However Laiho’s solos arise out of the architecture of the song; as with Mozart’s cadences, they are designed to sound pre-fabricated, each note having its place. A good example is the solo to ‘Morrigan’, which does not appear arbitrarily but grows logically out of what precedes it. It takes us on a journey where each note has a purpose, a necessary moment. It uses the classical technique of perpetuum mobile, or continuous fluid motion, where our brains have to work harder to distinguish fast notes, and we get a rush of dopamine.

Children of Bodom

An excerpt from the ‘Morrigan’ solo. Transcription credit – Catherine Fearns

Moving on to Rhythm, in the Baroque period a uniform rhythmic texture was preferred, and was carried by the figured bass, a repeated chord of which the modern metal equivalent is rhythm guitar power chords and bass line. And of course it would be absurd to deny that Children of Bodom uses heavy and repetitive bass. However, in the classical period the repetitive bass line was attacked by a variety of new bass accompaniments, one of which was the Alberti bass. The Alberti bass breaks down chords into a continuous movement of their individual notes, in the pattern as shown, and Children of Bodom make much use of the Alberti bass as a motif. See the example below from ‘Are You Dead Yet?’, which first uses the Alberti bass as a melody and then develops it by taking it down into the rhythm section, giving a strong sense of fluidity.

Children of Bodom

Alberti bass in Mozart’s Sonata. Transcription credit: Catherine Fearns

Children of Bodom

An excerpt from ‘Are You Dead Yet?’ Transcription credit: Catherine Fearns

The classical style broke down the homogenous figured bass line of the Baroque; variation of pulse and rhythmic texture was essential, yet concealed and subtle, delicate. In a similar way, Children of Bodom use selective placement of blastbeats and tremolo picking to create rhythmic shocks.

Finally to Harmony; Children of Bodom are masters of surprising key changes, and this is essentially a classical-era technique. Of course, modulating through different keys is not exclusive to the classical era, but it was the classical style that dramatized this modulation, that made a key change an event. An unexpected key change creates a harmonic shock; it builds up our expectations and yet does not meet them, which has a profound yearning effect on the brain. The resolution back to the original key, when it finally arrives, causes immense satisfaction. It’s common in popular music to change key between verse and chorus, to make the chorus sound ‘important’, but Children of Bodom take their key changes much further. There are countless examples but two which could be pointed out are the kaleidoscopic succession of keys in the bridge passages of Are You Dead Yet; and the surprising key change in ‘Morrigan’ between the intro (C#) and the verse (B), which teases us with a number of possibilities.

The classical style’s greatest achievement was to bring balance, proportion, and symmetry to music. Children of Bodom’s success is, I believe, in their sense of balance. Their songs don’t leave us unsettled as other metal does, they leave us satisfied. Theirs is a balance of opposing forces; the harsh vocals and gang-shout choruses are a necessary foil to the prettiness of the melodies; the blastbeats and rough guitar tones a necessary contrast with the clean synthesised keyboard sound. The reckless attitude is part of the point – If they took themselves seriously, if they went to bed early, if they sang clean vocals, it wouldn’t work.

Classical composers no longer had to choose between expressivity and elegance; the newly sophisticated compositional techniques meant they could have both, and the emotional power could now come from the music itself rather than from outside factors. ‘Angels Don’t Kill’ and ‘Everytime I Die’ are unbearably poignant songs, but the poignancy comes from the music itself rather than from any extramusical factors (such as sound effects or audible lyrics). Children of Bodom are, above all, a metal band – but they are much less reliant on the Phrygian mode and other metal clichés to create atmosphere, and this gives them more freedom.

Is it pretentious to analyse death metal music in this way? Perhaps you think so. Would the members of Children of Bodom cringe if they read this? Possibly. The main purpose of their music is to create a profound emotional response in themselves and the listener, not through being beautiful or intelligent, but brutal, nihilistic, even ugly. It’s highly unlikely that Alexi Laiho sits down and constructs a song in sonata form, writing out the notes on staves. He just tries to come up with cool stuff and then tabs it. And surely that’s pretty much what Mozart did. Neither did Mozart define the tools of his trade the way we have done here – he just had a certain innate classical sensibility, which is also possessed by Children of Bodom. It doesn’t matter whether or not the band members had classical training5.

Music is a product of technology- composers use the instruments available to them in their time, and if Mozart were alive today it is possible to imagine him using blastbeats and down-tuned electric guitars. If Alexi Laiho ever decided to give up life on the road, he would be a wonderful film composer. But for us Children of Bodom fans, let’s hope the band continue for another twenty years and more.

Footnotes:
1. Eg. Necrophagist’s ‘Only Ash Remains’ (Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet); Deep Purple’s ‘Knocking At Your Back Door’ (Beethoven’s ‘Für Elise’); Diamond Head’s ‘Am I Evil’ (Holst’s The Planets)

2. The Baroque technique of basso continuo can be equated with bass guitar and drums; ostinato translates to the riff, and the resultant tones of the power chord could be seen as the modern equivalent of the church organ.

3. Source: our interview.

4. Charles Rosen, ‘The Classical Style: Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven’ (UK: Faber & Faber 1971)

5. They do have some formal training; according to our interview with Henkka, Alexi and Jaska went to the Pop and Jazz Conservatorium in Helsinki; Janne was a jazz pianist.

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