Metal Nationalities and Traits: Italy

One thing that has always struck me about the European metal scene is the uniqueness certain bands have with respect to their nationality. This is an attribute that goes beyond genre and preference. It’s something that is firmly ingrained in the music due to several factors. Essentially, the metal music coming out of certain countries always bears some type of distinctive mark. The cause of this mark often varies, but the social, economic, geographical, historical, cultural, and linguistic characteristics of said nation are usually involved. Consequently, with so many different factors in play from place to place, the identity of the mark itself varies. Make no mistake, this does not and can not apply to every single band in every single European country. Rather, it is meant to be taken in general terms, referring to a good chunk of a nation’s bands but by no means all of them.

Let’s first examine Italy, a country with a rich and complex history. For thousands of years, this peninsula has been the center of some very important aspect of European life. During the years of Roman dominance, which lasted approximately 1,000 years, almost the entire known world bowed to Rome. Once the Empire’s days were spent, a new force arose: The Church. Although inferior to Byzantium for a period of time, by the year 1000 the church’s influence on Western Europe was great. Medieval life was centered around religion, and the church used this fact to wield their power effectively in manipulating kings and peasants alike. Once the Renaissance set in during the fifteenth century, which country produced the most thinkers, artists, and musicians? You guessed it, Italy. In addition, during this period of time, northern Italian cities such as Milan and Venice were established as trading centers. For the next four hundred years or so, up to the World War era, Italy had great economic influence as one of the major hubs of European trade. Along with Germany, they formed the “Axis” of fascism during World War II, displaying a radical new form of government. As we all know how that turned out, this probably wasn’t such a good idea. Anyway, nowadays Italy is known as the fashion capital of the world.

Great, a history lesson. But what does this have to do with Italian heavy metal? A lot, actually. Basically, I showed you how, at one point or another in its history, Italy dominated. Whether it’s through government, religion, culture, economics, or even apparel, their influence is always heard. What aspect of Italian music can I possibly be relating to all of this – what is Italy’s mark? You may not see it right away, but there is a correlation between all of this information and the complexity and melody of Italian metal. The two are very closely tied together, but I’ll take them apart separately at first.

In my mind, the Italians have a grand history of pomp and power. I’m not talking about individual people, mind you, but the nation or collection of states that now makes up the nation, as a whole. By “ruling” Europe (either directly or indirectly through the church, arts, or the economy) Italy has a history of being on top. When you’re on top, you let people know, generally with lavish displays. From Roman palaces to the rich and greedy church of the Middle Ages to the wealthy merchants to beautiful work of art (the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, anyone?) one this is common: the Italian big shots weren’t afraid to show it off. I see this manifested in the grandeur and complexity of most Italian metal. Granted, some of these past things were sometimes questionable at best – the church’s corruption and desire for material things being a prime example of the worst. However, nowadays when this tendency shows up in heavy metal, you’d have to be crazy to complain. Now do you see what I’m getting at? Take any Italian metal band you’ve ever heard, and you’ll immediately notice the complexity of the music. A relatively well known band, like Stormlord or Aborym, definetley apply this mantra to their music. Even though they play somewhat different types of metal (symphonic black versus experimental/electronic black) they both share this trait. Stormlord’s guitar parts are highly intricate, and when they’re coupled with the keyboards an epic effect is achieved. Aborym, on the other hand, take a much darker, rawer black metal (with Attila Csihar doing the vocals up until now, how can it not be?) and combining it with extremely unique and creative electronic effects, which, to say the least, is a huge undertaking. Even the lesser-known groups, like Elvenking and Tystnaden (although if you’ve been reading anything I’ve written, you should know Elvenking by now!) we see this pattern. Folk metallers Elvenking combine Euro power/speed metal with Celtic and other European folk melodies with immense results. Tystnaden, on the other hand, are half melodic death and half melodic female-fronted… aka a dual male/female vocal approach! Add this to some excellent keyboards and you get a fresh batch of metal with lots of different things going on and working well together – essentially a complex setup with good results.

Now you must be screaming, why have you forgot Rhapsody?! They are the essence of complexity and pomp merged into one giant ball of fantasy! Don’t worry folks, I’ll get to them. But first we have to talk a little about melodic aspect of Italian metal. I can’t say I’ve heard every single Italian band (and I doubt anyone can) but each and every one that I have heard has had a very melodic aspect with regard to their music. Take the four that I mentioned before (although I doubt you’ve heard Tystnaden, you really must!). It’s not that uncommon for folk metal to be very melodic, as this is often a key to the genre, as it obviously is also with melodic death. However, with out two black metal bands we have a slightly different story. Melodic black metal isn’t rare, but it also isn’t the most common form either. Stormlord have established themselves as a leader in the field of melodic/symphonic (remember, symphonic doesn’t automatically equal melodic… think about Emperor) black metal. Even more interesting is the case of Aborym. Take out the electronics and this is a raw black metal band. There is absolutely no similarity to most other Italian bands (where raw black metal is quite uncommon). Instead, we have a situation where a strange, albeit effective aspect is added to their music, inadvertently aligning it with all these other bands. Why does this occur, this need for melody? Well, I have the feeling it all stems from Italy’s wealth of great classical composers.

Ah, now you all see where I’m going to tie Rhapsody into this, right? Let me not deviate too soon; we still have to talk about classical music! Ever since the Renaissance and beyond into the seventeen and eighteen hundreds, there have been loads of notable Italian composers. Some wrote concertos, some wrote operas, some wrote both plus everything in between. Men like Vivaldi, Puccini, Rossini, and Verdi all wrote memorable pieces. Their works have forever ingrained classical influence on Italian music. This influence shows up in many forms – vocal styles, melody, or even by directly siphoning classical music and implanting it into the metal compositions of today. No band does this better in all of Italy, or all of the world, than Rhapsody. Sure, they are not only influenced by Italian composers, I would be shocked if I learned that Mozart or Bach played no role whatsoever in the development of this band’s music. The culmination of Italian metal as a genre came with Rhapsody’s latest effort. “The Magic of the Wizard’s Dream” not only features Christopher Lee on vocals but a 20 piece choir and a 40 piece orchestra. Everything in the history of Italian music seems to have led up to this moment – the combination of metal and classical music with glorious results.

Well, that’s all I have for now. Hopefully you got something out of this while trying to sift through my convoluted thought process. Anyway, next up I’ll be looking at a few more places, including Germany, Great Britain, and Scandinavia, in no particular order.