A Brief History of the Trill in Heavy Metal
The stylistic embellishment, most commonly used in classical music, has found a second life on a variety of heavy metal albums.
Illustration by Na Yon Cho
Since heavy metal's inception in the early 80s—or 70s, depending on who you ask—heavy metal has been criticized for its flagrant obsession with cultural taboos and longstanding love affair with Satan, and from a purely musical standpoint, musicians on the outside looking in often have a hard time accepting metal because of its extreme guitar tones and unclean vocals. But these are all just surface level things, as those of us who have delved into the scene know. Metal's vast musical heritage go farther back than your music appreciation professor would care to admit; it obviously owes a lot to early rock 'n' roll, blues, and punk, but there are rich deposits of classical music as well. That classical influence is apparent in the playing of modern metal pianists and composers like Øyvind Johan Mustaparta, Vegard Sverre Tveitan, and Jordan Rudess, and in bombastic, overarching genres like symphonic black metal. However, there's also been a more subtle classical carry-over: the stylistic embellishment known as the trill.
For those unfamiliar with the trill, it's a technique that early composers used due to its rhythmic, melodic, and harmonic properties. By rapidly alternating between two adjacent notes—usually a half-step or whole-step apart—composers could create a brief sense of dissonance and tension that clashed with the tonality of the respective piece. The trill naturally creates a sense of tension, and when used properly, it lends itself well to somber moods and melodies. Metal musicians picked up on this early on and, by passing it down through the airwaves, have made it a hallmark of heavy music today.
Historically, the trill has acquired associations with doom, gloom, and even the occult. More specifically, two noteworthy composers, Guiseppe Tartini and Franz Schubert, adopted the trill to express a sense of melancholy in some of the most definitive pieces of their oeuvre. While these composers were certainly not the only ones to use the trill in incisive ways, their use of the classic embellishment distinguished their work.
Giuseppe Tartini (1692-1770) was a Baroque era composer from the town of Piran, which is now located in modern day Slovenia. Although Tartini was the first to play a violin fashioned by Antonio Stradivari himself, his true claim to fame is his famous Violin Sonata in G minor, also known as the Le trille du diable, or The Devil's Trill. As Tartini tells it, the piece was inspired by a visitation from the Devil himself. He claims the Devil appeared before him and offered to become his servant. Upon agreeing and enlisting the Devil as his steward, Tartini handed him his violin to see if the Devil had any musical ability. Of course, as legend has it, the Devil proceeded to play an entire sonata so awe-inspiring that it awoke Tartini from his sleep, at which point he seized his violin and feebly attempted to transcribe what he had heard performed before him. Now, the piece is considered standard repertoire for solo violin because of its technical difficulty. This is due in part to the rapid licks that dominate the sonata, but also because of the trills which serve as much of a melodic function as the theme itself.
Franz Schubert (1797-1828), a Romantic era composer known for his prolific output and keen ear for melody, applied the trill in a completely different manner. His last contribution to classical music was his Sonata in B flat, the final piece he composed before he died shortly after. What stands out about Schubert's use of the trill is its abrupt placement within an otherwise pleasant melody. Indeed, the moment the listener hears the encroaching snarl of Schubert's famous trill, a sense of dread and dark uncertainty fills the air. Classical aficionados often attribute Schubert's brusque application of the embellishment to his knowledge of his impending doom: Schubert suffered from typhoid fever—or, as others purport, syphilis—and his death was close at hand.
The Sonata in B flat is one of the more deliberate uses of the trill in classical music. Rather than adorning cadences with excessive filigree like his Baroque forebears, the plodding heaviness of Schubert's trill stops the piece dead in its tracks before allowing the dainty melody to resume. When compared in this way, listeners can hear the various uses of the trill as it evolved throughout history. During Tartini's time, it functioned as an ornament that served to transition a piece from theme to theme; however, not even 100 years later, we see the trill applied sparingly, making for a grander, if not more impactful, statement.
When Tony Iommi deified himself in 1970 by unleashing upon the world that seminal riff from Black Sabbath's infamous title track, he not only laid the groundwork for the future of heavy metal music, he also single-handedly executed one of the most noteworthy trills in rock 'n' roll history. Combined with the sound of pouring rain and the ominous ringing of the bell, his use of the trill on "Black Sabbath" demonstrated the latent power the classical embellishment has always held, but had hitherto never been actualized with proper amplification.
The pioneering work of 70s hard rock gods like Jimmy Page, Ritchie Blackmore, Alex Lifeson, and many others must also be acknowledged here, as their contributions to the electric guitar and rock 'n' roll undoubtedly incorporated the trill at various points in their solos and compositions. For the sake of establishing a timeline, some of the first mentionable metal musicians to co-opt the trill were guitarists like Iron Maiden's Adrian Smith, Celtic Frost's Thomas Gabriel Fischer, and Saint Vitus's Dave Chandler in the early 80s. It's important to note that as these guitarists appropriated the trill, they essentially repurposed it to suit their needs. In other words, the trill took on a more integral role as opposed to its original intent during the Baroque era.
From the year 1990 on, metal grew in many directions, yet despite the genre's shifting landscape, though, the trill can still be heard as a prominent characteristic. In the 90s, bands like Electric Wizard, Cathedral, Emperor, and Gorgoroth used it throughout their songs, and special attention should be given to the work of Dissection, particularly the Baroque-esque classical interludes scattered throughout their debut album, The Somberlain. The song "Crimson Towers" combined Baroque-era counterpoint, frequent trills, and sorrowful melodies to form a unique hybrid sound that distinguished Dissection from their atonally-focused peers in other formative black metal bands of that time.
Around the late 90s and early 2000s, bands like Six Feet Under, Melechesh, and Gorerotted took the trill to new levels by layering it over their song structures, while similar use of the trill can be heard on Cannibal Corpse's "Raped by the Beast" and Nile's "Lashed to the Slave Stick." By infusing the rapid flickering of the trill into chaotic guitar passages, these artists produced a furious sound entirely unique to heavy metal. Groups like Beastmaker, Samsara Blues Experiment, R.I.P., Pilgrim, Wretch, and Petyr exhale the hazy, slow-burning trills once heard on classic Saint Vitus and Witchfinder General albums, while other modern doom bands, like Crypt Sermon and Stone Magnum, lean more towards the 'epicus metallicus' trill perfected by that of Candlemass and, much later, Solitude Aeturnus.
It all comes full circle. As a form, the trill has been passed along through history, and in time, contemporary composers and modern bands in other genres will likely reclaim the trill, picking it back up where Mozart and Haydn left it. But, for now at least, heavy metal has claimed it as its own. To get an idea of how the trill has evolved, here are some of the best examples over the last 30 years:
Iron Maiden - "The Trooper"
Iron Maiden's "The Trooper" from their 1983 album, Piece of Mind, featured the trill as an irresistible hook that carries the listener through the song, qualifying it as one of the most memorable and catchy riffs from the band's extensive catalog.
Celtic Frost - "Dethroned Emperor"
A year later, Celtic Frost would debut Morbid Tales, an album applauded for its formative influence on death metal and early black metal. Their song "Dethroned Emperor" includes one of the grimiest and drawn out trills in the bridge (listen around the 2 minute mark) . Similar to that of Schubert's trill, Celtic Frost's use of the embellishment fills the void as the drums and bass drop out, connecting the song to a visceral solo. For an exceptionally well-done version of the song, check out Obituary's live cover.
Megadeth - "Tornado of Souls"
In 1990, Megadeth would release Rust in Peace, one of the thrash legends' most popular LPs. The main riff on Tornado of Souls reels the listener in with a blazing, characteristic Mustaine lick, and part of the appeal of this riff is the lightning quick trill bridging the rest of the passage together. It's catchy, and similar in function to the trills Tartini incorporated throughout the Devil's Trill sonata.
Old Man's Child - "Black Seeds on Virgin Soil"
A definite must-hear is the song "Black Seeds on Virgin Soil" by Old Man's Child, a side project founded by Dimmu Borgir guitarist Galder. The dramatic use of the trill in this particular track demonstrates just how twisted a musical ornament can become.
Emperor - "The Acclamation of Bonds"
Emperor's 'The Acclamation of Bonds' from their 1997 release Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk contains one of the most epic trills in black metal. Played high on the register, Ihsahn's masterful trill stalls the intro just long enough for the listener to sense the ensuing rush of tremolo guitar, bleeding synthesizer chords, and blast beats.
Saint Vitus - "Burial at Sea"
Saint Vitus's Paul Chandler undoubtedly plays one of the meanest and most distinct trills in doom metal, as heard of "Burial at Sea," a track off the California outfit's self-titled 1984 debut. This particular lineup features original singer Scott Reagers (though later they would join up with Scott "Wino" Weinrich of The Obsessed and Spirit Caravan, who fronted the group through most of the 90s and for a period in the 2000s).
Beastmaker - "Nature of the Damned"
California doom crew Beastmaker's sound hearkens back to the proto-doom and early heavy metal sound that came about during the NWOBHM period in the 80s. In 'Nature of the Damned,' they throw a trill into the main riff for good measure because, well, it's just what proper doom metal should do.
Dissection - "Heaven's Damnation"
Around the 2 minute mark, Dissection plays one of the heaviest trill-laden riffs on The Somberlain. Their sound would slightly change going into their second album, Storm of the Light's Bane, as guitarist John Zwetsloot left the band. His classical training had a major influence on all the material heard on The Somberlain.
Zach Painter is trilling up a storm on Twitter.