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Heavy Metal’s Alright (If You Like Saxophones)

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Ever since Adolph Sax invented his titular horn in 1846, the saxophone has traversed many forms of music. It has roots in military bands and classical ensembles, but also serves as the foundation of jazz and a fixture in early rock and roll. Today it is present in such diverse styles as punk, noise, funk, reggae, and other world music genres, but what about heavy metal?

The family tree of heavy metal and saxophone begins with the blues, but takes off with the 1950s free jazz pioneers, who pushed the boundaries of what the instrument is physically capable of. The 1970s post-punk groups then incorporated these techniques into more aggressive and confrontational forms of rock, while heavier prog rock groups updated where the hard bop saxmen left off. The legacy of rock and saxophone continues into heavy metal, but it is often overlooked or forgotten.

Personally, I have had a long fascination with the versatility and tonal range of the saxophone. While it is mostly associated with the smooth and the cool, the sax can convey the broad range of emotions associated with metal, such as anger, disaffection, introspection, mania, and ecstasy. The sax is perfect for the multitude of metal styles; it covers dissonance and harmony, the amateurish and the technical, the sensual and the cerebral.

For the list of top 10 sax metal songs, I chose to include only modern metal and avoid bands that blur the lines of prog/hard rock (such as Hawkwind). Second, I did not want to include any bands that use synthesizers in place of real instruments or use other brass instruments like trumpet or trombone. Third, I wanted to avoid “fusion” groups like Painkiller, Naked City, or Zu. I feel that while these bands make great music, they are hybrid styles (or do not fit a genre) and would not be classified as metal.

I am not an expert on the subject of saxophones and metal; it is merely something I am interested in and feel is worth writing about. When doing the research for this article, I found many new bands, both good and bad. I found several others that did not make the list, but sparked my interest and made me rethink what music could be, such as Lithuanian outsiders Anubi and Boston’s Maudlin of the Well. The joy of finding new music is an essential part of being a fan and is something I strive for every day. In the comments, let me know what some of your favorite metal songs with saxophones are. I will make another post of “honorable mentions” that contains songs I might have missed or bands that did not quite meet the parameters. I will also include some “dishonorable mentions”, because let me tell you, I found some bad ones!

Now, let’s begin our sax education . . .

10. Ephel Duath – “Breed”
from Through My Dog’s Eyes, 2009, Italy

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Ephel Duath is progressive metal band from Padova, Italy. Mainstay Davide Tiso has blended jazz, metal, and hardcore effectively since the band’s 2000 debut Phormula but did not incorporate any sax until 2009’s Through My Dog’s Eyes, a concept album about viewing the world from the perspective of a dog. Saxophonist Stephano Ferrian provides the heavily processed and whirling intro.

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9. Wrnlrd – “Genital”
from Myrmidon, 2009, USA

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Wrnlrd are lo-fi black metal weirdos who combine all that is unpleasant and disturbing and put it to tape. Myrmidon is their seventh proper album, and it has the Arlington, Virginia creepers jamming with saxophone player Swanson Hill on the track “Genital”. Listen to the solo beginning at 2:30 and make sure the lights are on. Check out more about Wrnlrd here.

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8. Nachtmystium – “Seasick (Part 2: Oceanborne)”
from Assassins: Black Meddle Part 1, 2008, USA)

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Championed as the heroes of innovative metal by some and dismissed as black metal for bros by others, Nachtmystium are a polarizing band. Blake Judd and company wear their Pink Floyd influence on their sleeves and aim to create a seamless mix of psychedelia and black metal. Their degree of success is subjective, but Part 2 of the “Seasick Trilogy” could easily be the metal version of “Us and Them” with saxophone courtesy of Yakuza’s Bruce Lamont. Check out the Kenny G-like smoothness at 0:56.

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7. Aenaon – “Black Nerve”
from Cendres et Sang, 2011, Greece

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IM1F4HH9bQ8

Greek horde Aenaon are fairly new to the progressive black metal scene, but their 2011 full length debut Cendres et Sang has been heavily praised for its viciousness and eccentricity. Aenaon implement many black and death metal trappings, but also incorporate jazz flourishes that do not seem out of place. “Black Nerve” is one of their mid-tempo numbers with an instrumental break at 3:16 and jazzy sax at 3:40.

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6. Shining – “21st Century Schizoid Man”
from Blackjazz, 2010, Norway

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King Crimson’s 1969 prog anthem “21st Century Schizoid Man” is a respected anti-war classic that some say contains the first doom riff. Since I would not really consider King Crimson metal by today’s standards, we will let nu-jazz via industrial metal band Shining’s 2010 version represent this dirge to postmodern fragmentation. The track features Enslaved vocalist Grutle Kjellson and has enough distortion and sax freak outs to leave the neurosurgeons screaming for more.

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5. Lugubrum – “At the Base of Their Tale”
from Heilige Dwazen, 2005, Belgium

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Lugubrum hail from Belgium (appropriately enough the birth place of the sax!) and play a Black Sabbath- meets-Darkthrone brand of metal they refer to as “Boersk Blek Metle”. Lugubrum write their high-speed songs in wonky time signatures with a skill few can match. They incorporate oddball instruments like the banjo and of course, the sax. Needless to say Lugubrum are weird as hell, but make for an interesting listen. It was hard to pick just one song, but listen to full time sax player Bhodidharma lay down a sick solo at 1:45. Not bad for a band whose main lyrical concerns are alcohol and filth!

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4. Yakuza – “Obscurity”
from Way of the Dead, 2002, USA

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When the words “heavy metal” and “saxophone” are uttered in the same sentence, Chicago group Yakuza is often the first to come to mind. Headed by saxophonist/vocalist Bruce Lamont, Yakuza have been kicking out the jazz and world influenced jams since 1999. Once again it was hard to pick just one song as Yakuza have released five studio albums. I decided to go with the track “Obscurity” from their 2001 debut Way of the Dead since it features two atonal saxophone duels with jazz titan Ken Vandermark at 1:00 and 1:30.

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3. Sigh – “Musica in Tempora Belli”
from Scenes from Hell, 2010, Japan

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Japan’s Sigh have always been innovators in extreme metal. Founded in 1990, they are regarded as the first Japanese black metal band and have flirted with avant-garde tendencies over the years. They first experimented with saxophones on 2005’s NWOBHM-influenced Gallows Gallery (sax performed by Bruce Lamont) and recruited full time saxophonist/vocalist Dr. Mikannibal for 2010’s Scenes from Hell. The songs on Scenes from Hell all feature horn sections, but “Musica in Tempora Belli” features one of the best solos at 4:10. Dr. Mikannibal is also a legit doctor with a Ph.D. in physics!

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2. Ihsahn – “A Grave Inversed”
from After, 2001, Norway

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jQ0vYjrefO4

With his third solo venture After, the Emperor main man created one of the most mature post-black metal records to date. Ihsahn recruited saxophonist Jorgen Munkeby of Shining and Jaga Jazzist fame for an album that integrates multiple musical styles that are both heavy and progressive. It was a hard choice between the ripping “A Grave Inversed” and the epic closer “On the Shores”. “Grave” won out because it showcases Munkeby’s versatile saxual skills; he has the chops to double the rapid-fire guitar riffs and can improvise the dissonant, Ornette Colman influenced solos at 1:00 and 3:40.

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1. Carpathian Forest – “Cold Murderous Music”
from Defending the Throne of Evil, 2003, Norway

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With a myriad of metal artists who have used a saxophone over the years, picking a number one song was difficult, but Carpathian Forest’s “Cold Murderous Music” stood out as something completely unique and original. Allmusic describes the song as “Portishead fronted by a tracheotomy recipient”, but this description hardly does the song justice. Nattefrost enlisted sax player Arvid Motorsen for the track, and it demonstrates how the polar opposites of grimness and smoothness can combine with unexpected yet stellar results. I never knew black metal could be so sexy . . .

Didn’t see your favorite sax metal song on the list? Stay tuned for the honorable/dishonorable mentions!

— Tom Brandow

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