Instigate Sonic Violence: A Not-so-Brief History of the Synthesizer’s Impact on Heavy Metal
Locrian's Terence Hannum explores the profound impact that synthesizers have had on heavy music, from Queen to Iron Maiden to Mayhem.
From the moment of Queen’s inception, they proudly stated that no one played synthesizers on their albums. They would post small declarations on the back of their album sleeves and on the liner notes to 1974’s Sheer Heart Attack that said “No Synthesizer” to further their commitment to the unsynthesized. For over a decade and up until 1984’s album The Game, Queen established a specific judgment about the use of synthesizers in their music, saying that to use them would somehow be a detriment to their technical prowess (though it's worth noting that the top UK bands in 1984—Depeche Mode, Frankie Goes to Hollywood and others—were defined specifically by their use of synthesizers and their electronic music influences). I cite this example to make clear an attitude that waxed and waned in different decades, sometimes as a reaction to over proficient noodling with the backlash for symphonic black metal or other times as a stance against the atmospherics. Quite frankly; no bullshit, no synthesizers. This is similar to a position that Rage Against the Machine would take in the liner notes to their self-titled 1992 album.
I believe that synthesizers belong in metal and have been on seminal albums and used live from the inception of the genre. From Black Sabbath to Sadist, from Abruptum to Dream Theater, the synthesizer has its place as an element of how we understand not only these bands but the genre itself. The technological developments from analog to digital, and more recently to analog again, find their presence mirrored on the albums.
Before we get to heavy metal as a genre I want to take a look at three areas wherein synths prevailed and had direct influence on heavy metal: progressive rock, psychedelic music and “kosmiche” music (Krautrock).
Concerning prog rock, I would specifically point to bands like Yes, whose second keyboardist Rick Wakeman was the embodiment of the over the top keyboard player. He often played surrounded by a room of gear on the stage, cloaked in a shimmering cape with a mirror behind him for the crowd to see all that he was doing. He even played with Black Sabbath on 1973’s Sabbath Bloody Sabbath. The late Keith Emerson of Emerson Lake and Palmer would also play live while surrounded by walls of gear—he was even known to stab knives into his Hammond. This excess of gear—modular synths, organs, mellotrons, and so on— and over-the top-theatricality was buttressed by the abilities of the players; Emerson could play Bach backwards, Wakeman would play Brahms. Likewise, Canadian progressive-rock band Rush found their success with 1976’s synth driven concept album 2112 and increased the synth influence even more on 1977’s A Farewell to Kings.
The development of kosmiche music or “Krautrock” first took hold in Germany, where bands such as Tangerine Dream, Popol Vuh, Kraftwerk and many others combined rock and electronic music into a new sound. Conrad Schnitzler, a former member of Tangerine Dream and founding member of Kluster, would even go on to compose the intro to Mayhem’s 1987 debut Deathcrush—"Silvester Anfang."
However, coming out of the orbit of psychedelic rock, Hawkwind–with the dual synth assault by Del Dettmar and Dik Mik—thought of synthesizers in a much different way. In the BBC DocumentaryHawkwind: Do Not Panic, the Mik and Dettmar played up the fact that they had no experience, but sought to use the synthesizers not as an intellectual exercise (a la Karlheinz Stockhausen), or device to showcase their musical expertise, but rather as a device that would be what it was itself that could harm the audience. There were special speakers called “Eliminators,” and Mik further stated his desire was to “instigate sonic violence”.
I think these poles of proficiency and pain are unique to heavy metal—a genre that celebrates both playing ability and the ability to be somehow louder, faster, more aggressive, and more extreme, and that uniquely suits the use of the synthesizer. Perhaps its earliest use in a heavy metal context was by Tony Iommi on Black Sabbath’s 1973 album Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, though he had experimented with synths on Master of Reality, and mellotron on Vol. 4. However, it was on Sabbath Bloody Sabbath that prog and metal truly met, since not only did Iommi play, but so did the aforementioned Rick Wakeman.
When it was released in 1970, Led Zeppelin’s III would also introduce the use of the Moog from John Paul Jones, who used it as more a textural exploration. On subsequent albums, the synthesizers used by both Jones and Jimmy Page would be used more often in the studio and live. Page would even compose an unused score for Kenneth Anger’s Lucifer Rising using a theremin to handily combine two of his own interests: the occult and electronic music. These connections would prove to hold heavy influence over the trajectory of metal’s development.
The synthesizer began appearing on more metal albums in the 1980s, just as it became more cost-effective for the home user. These early synthesizers in the 1970s were very expensive and temperamental – many of these machines were not designed to be crated up and brought on tours. There was also a more affordable approach with the proliferation of FM synthesis in the early 1980s. Although FM synthesis was used in modular systems as early as the 1960s, with the modular Buchla system, it became a way for digital synthesizers to replicate the timbre of instruments – like creepy strings, choirs, and so o. Suddenly, a band of four people could sound as if it had a string section. For example, Ozzy Osbourne's debut solo album, 1980's Blizzard of Ozz, featured a post-Rainbow Don Airey on synthesizers before his time with Whitesnake. In a few short years Airy went from “Mr. Crowley” with its heavy analog Moog use to “Here I Go Again”, apparently played by three dudes with Yamaha DX-7s (picture included).
Perhaps the strangest turn around in the 1980s came from Iron Maiden, who on their 1983 album Piece of Mind proclaimed, “No synthesizers of ulterior motives”. In 1986, just three years later, those ulterior motives would be revealed with their album Somewhere in Time, which relied heavily on guitar synthesizers. This use of guitar synthesizers, where notes are matched to the guitar simultaneously, alienated many fans and critics. However, it opened the gates for the full on synthesizer embrace on 1988’s Seventh Son of a Seventh Son which was met with both critical acclaim and chart success.
Before Seventh Son of a Seventh Son, I would argue for perhaps the most full use of keyboards to be by the former glam band Queensryche on their groundbreaking 1986 album, Rage for Order, where a more progressive approach was brought in. Using more conceptual themes such as robotics, surveillance and artificial intelligence, the synths— played by vocalist Geoff Tate and producer Neil Kernon—only solidified the concepts of the album, and set the stage for their future classic records, Operation: Mindcrime and Empire.
Sometimes the keyboard player was invisible. For example, on Thin Lizzy’s next to final album Renegade from 1981, the band debuted the first credit for their keyboard player, Darren Wharton. Even though finally listed in the credits and as a songwriter, he did not appear in any photos for the album. He remained invisible, even as he wrote what was arguably the best song on the album, the atmospheric opener, “Angel of Death”. The keyboard would only be emphasized more on the final Thin Lizzy album, 1983’s Thunder and Lightning.
It wasn't all just rock'n'roll, either. Keyboards were also used on many different studio albums by King Diamond for both Mercyful Fate and his solo concept albums (like the immortal Abigail, for example) and some of the most visible synth enthusiasts in this particular era were Faith No More. Starting in the mid-1980s, keyboard player Roddy Bottum would play his two E-Mu EMAX synths as a defining element of their sound.
However, perhaps the most indicative and interesting use of keyboards within a heavy metal framework came not from the bands themselves, but from one of German kosmiche music's biggest names, Conrad Schnitzler. Schnitzler was an early member of Tangerine Dream and cofounded Kluster (which later became ambient pioneers Cluster) before recording essential electronic albums under his own name.
How he came to appear on Mayhem’s black metal classic Deathcrush is a particularly interesting story. In an interview with The Quietus, Mayhem bassist NecroButcher explains that Euronymous “had Schnitzler's address, so he went out there to see him. He rang the doorbell, but Conrad Schnitzler's wife had told him that there was a weird looking kid hanging round outside the house, who looked like he wanted to come in. Conrad didn't dare open the door and said to his wife, 'Don't worry he will probably go away soon.' But he didn't, he just stood outside the door. So eventually Conrad came out and invited him in for tea. And then they talked.” This resulted in one of the most memorable album intros—and one of the stranger connections—in the history of extreme metal.
As synthesizers became more affordable, a trend developed where a studio would have one on hand so that when a band came in, they could mess around with it. Typically, it would be digital and contain a lot of presets. In heavy metal, this typically resulted in eerie atmospheric interludes and intros These fragmentary uses of synthesizers were apparent before the 1990s, but has not been my focus here—however, it is worth noting that the proliferation of the "creepy" intro/outro made popular on Obituary's seminal Cause of Death album in 1990 actually owes a lot to an engineer at the famous Morrisound studios. Kent Smith played keyboards on Obituary’s Cause of Death as well as albums from Pestilence, Iced Earth, Coroner, Sepultura, Toxik, Resurrection, and many more. So while many of these bands are not defined by the keyboard use live or in the studio, it did show that synths were able to add the necessary atmosphere they needed for their albums.
The 90s were one of the most fruitful periods for the use of synthesizers in heavy music. As the subgenres splintered, keyboards would oftentimes find themselves welcome, be they on gothic metal founders Tiamat’s groundbreaking 1994 album Wildhoney or on Finnish funeral doom pioneers Skepticism's excellent 1995 album Stormcrowfleet. Godflesh’s divisive 1994 album, Selfless (that would predict Justin Broadrick’s next band Jesu by a deacde), employed synths for the first time, alongside the drum machine that made Godflesh’s sound so distinctive. For further examples of the 1990s' obsession with synths, look no further than these three definitive albums: The Key by Florida death metal weirdos Nocturnus, Above the Light by Italian thrashers Sadist, and In the Nightside Eclipse by Norwegian black metal band Emperor.
Earlier I had pointed out some of the precedents of synths in metal with progressive rock, kosmiche music and space rock, but those weren't the sole culprits; another hude influence came courtesy of the horror movie soundtrack. In a 2014 interview for Decibel Magazine, Emperor's Ihsahn confessed “I have to admit, as much as we listened to black metal, we listened to a lot of soundtracks. Horror movie soundtracks. Inspiration came from these big, grandiose, larger-than-life sounds.”
This approach to atmosphere was apparent from not only Emperor but in the work of their peers like Burzum, Enslaved, and Thorns. The influential sphere spread wider as the boundaries of what metal even was continued to be pushed—though this is not to say that there was no pushback in the 1990s. In fact, a certain traditionalist, reactionary and conservative approach permeated some scenes. There were absolutely attitudes that expressed blatant exclusion of the keyboard, even as pioneering bands as diverse as Neurosis to Satyricon were exploring their possibilities live and in the studio. This would be summarized by the phrase “No keyboards” and sometimes “No keyboards, no female vocals”. Perhaps the band most unapologetic in their hatred of the ivories were the Czech black metal band Maniac Butcher, who proudly proclaimed “No Keyboards!!! No Female Vocals!!!”.
This term would be echoed by many black metal bands in interviews. It wasn't entirely shocking to see certain bands promoting such absolutist views in the 90s, especially since black metal was still caught in the throes of a decade marred by extremist posturing and actions. One assume that this reaction from the more "true" black metal practirioners at this time was derived from the specific sounds of symphonic metal bands like Nightwish from Finland, or even as a reaction to the popularity that bands like Limbonic Art or Dimmu Borgir received (especially after the commercial success of the latter's heavily symphonic black metal opus, Enthrone Darkness Triumphant). For many more extreme metalheads, to deny the keyboards was to encourage something more raw—although I would encourage anyone to listen to the first Abruptum seven-inch, Evil, and find me something more primal.
The negative reaction could have also something to do with the live performance. Perhaps most the most succinct description of performing keyboards live comes from death metal band Nocturnus, when some reason they were featured in 1991 documentary Hard ‘N’ Heavy: Grindcore and keyboardist Louis Panzer admits “the only thing that is limited is movement, as far as being able to move around a lot. I’m pretty much locked behind there anyway, I’m limited to just thrashing where I’m at.”
The Finnish black metal band Beherit complicated matters further with Drawing Down the Moon, a heavily synthesized album that stands revered as an absolute black metal classic. Released in 1993, this would be their last conventional metal album – and it is anything but conventional. Drawing Down the Moon crafts a heavy atmosphere, with whispered vocals, ambient passages and pummeling black metal. They entirely gave up on the precedence of metal with their 1994 follow up, H418ov21.C, a complete dark ambient outing.
In almost every subgenre of heavy metal, synthesizers held sway. Look at Cynic, who on their progressive death metal opus Focus (1993) had keyboards appear on the album and during live performances, or British gothic doom band My Dying Bride, who relied heavily on synths for their 1993 album, Turn Loose the Swans. American noise band Today is the Day used synthesizers on their 1996 self titled album to powerfully add to their din. Voivod even put synthesizers to use for the first time on 1991’s Angel Rat and 1993’s The Outer Limits, played by both guitarist Piggy and drummer Away. The 1990s were a gold era for the use of synthesizers in heavy metal, and only paved the way for the further explorations of the new millennia.
THE OUTER LIMITS
I have a distinct memory of looking in the used music store at a wall of synthesizers sometime in 1989, and inquiring what the price was on a very interesting-looking synth. It was white and had a large rack with lots of lights. It looked like what I saw in music videos or on album jackets. I didn’t know what it could do, I just knew Mic Michaeli had a lot of keyboards around him in the video for Europe’s “The Final Countdown,” and this looked like a lot of keyboards. When I asked the salesman about the price, he laughed at me and said I might as well buy a car. I couldn’t do either, since I was 10.
I wound up getting a Casio SK-5, complete with dog sound and sampling capabilities (Rick Wakeman eat your heart out). It wouldn’t be until almost a decade later, after I was given a dusty Moog, that I'd begin having more experiences with analog and digital synthesizers.
Just as many excellent albums have been made using synthesizers as haven’t been (and conversely, entire albums and bands function with synthesizers that are absolute garbage). What I have hoped to do is lead us up to the era where bands like Pinkish Black or the immense low end of Sunn O)))’s MOOG assault (which appeared first on 3: Flight of the Behemoth) only adds to the subfrequencies of their live set, or even consider Wolves in the Throne Room’s move to using only synths (a la Beherit), or the likes of Author & Punisher, WOLD, Summoning, False, and many more whose lineage to metal only further fragments.
There is no way that I could write a complete history of the synthesizer in heavy metal. I am already leaving out tons of important albums and live performances (and would encourage you to post your favorites in the comments). I don’t view this project as complete at all, but rather as the beginning of clearing the good name an instrument that I have spent most of my musical career obsessing over in many genres, from synth-pop to industrial. But for me, exploring its impact on heavy metal has been the most beguiling, because the synth has been with it since its beginnings—and will be there until the end.