It’s fair to say that heavy metal was co-opting classical and jazz even before there was a name for it. Deep Purple helped invent metal in the ‘70s, but before churning out genre-defining albums such as In Rock and Machine Head, the band famously performed at London’s Royal Albert Hall with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Way before even that, the legendary Cream employed a “jazz rhythm section” (according to bassist Jack Bruce in the venerable Jazz Times) that laid the foundations not just for Eric Clapton’s guitar histrionics but many say for heavy metal itself.
And these genre reclamations have continued: Metallica collaborated with The San Francisco Symphony and the band’s current bassist, Robert Trujillo, studied with Joel DiBartolo from the NBC Orchestra and veteran jazz and session bassist Max Bennett before producing a documentary on Jaco Pastorius. Even in extreme metal, grindcore and jazz made unlikely bedfellows in the ‘90s when saxophonist John Zorn formed Painkiller with Mick Harris (Napalm Death, Scorn) on drums. Elsewhere, German black metal group Nargaroth did a version of Franz Schubert’s “Der Leiermann” on 2007’s Semper Fidelis.
None of this past history makes the self-titled album from Les Chants du Hasard any less remarkable.
Les Chants du Hasard is a solo project from a Frenchman who goes only by the name Hazard. I, Voidhanger, the label that released the album, is pitching it as “No guitar. No bass. No drums. Orchestra is the new black.” Hazard himself elaborates that he took influence from composers such as Mussorgsky, Prokofiev, and Strauss, as well as Ulver and Emperor.
Black metal at its essence is about atmosphere and the emotions that Les Chants du Hasard conjures are dark and ominous. Aside from gothic incantations such as on “Chant III – L’Homme,” the sneering growls as vocals are typical of the genre even if the instrumentation is not.
Steve Holtje is the classical and jazz editor of The Big Takeover and he composes his own music, but also is known to do drone deejay sets in Brooklyn and is no stranger to metal. When I asked him about it, he said that he wanted to like it more than he actually did.
Even a classical neophyte understands what he means. At times the album comes off somewhat cartoonish–you can envision Elmer Fudd’s infamous singing of “Kill the wabbit” over Wagner–and the album can be a bit overwrought, stumbling over its own ambitions. But the epic grandeurs’ drone can also be hypnotizing and enchanting, making it easy to forgive the limitations and pretensions.
Pretentiousness is something that you would have to expect when your band name means rare and unfamiliar, yet marvelous and wondrous. Fortunately, Selcouth lives up to the lofty expectations of that moniker on Heart Is the Star of Chaos.
Not so much a band as a collective, Selcouth (the name is Middle English) boasts an evolving international lineup from Finland, France, Spain, Russia and Argentina, musicians who have spent time in the likes of Khanus, Smohalla and Stagnant Waters. The debut album, also on I, Voidhanger Records, is jazz fusion reimagined as post-rock romanticism.
In a very strange universe that would be great for vacationing, “Nightspirit” would be a feelgood summer hit. The vocals are Mike Patton by way of Bela Lugosi; female operatic vocals shine like thunder; hepcat synths contrast searing guitar riffs, but most importantly the drums alternate between rambunctious paradiddles and ferocious metallic pounding depending on the direction the song wants to take you.
The rest of the disc, while not as memorable, falls into a similar pattern. Every song features a jazzy percussive foundation overlaid with flourishes that vary from track to track. “Gaia” employs mournful horns and Ofra Haza–meets–Sisters Of Mercy vocals; “Querencia” is gothic be-bop; “Below Hope,” dissonant shoegazing; album closer “Rusticus” is a galloping calliope ride to a planet far away.
If Selcouth offer a dark-clothed, pale-skinned, avant-garde ethereal take on jazz, Ex Eye genuinely swings, albeit in very unorthodox fashion, on its eponymous debut, out on Relapse. The group is led by saxophonist Colin Stetson, known as the multi-reedist that indie rock bands call when they want to get horny; he has played with Arcade Fire, Bon Iver, and Bell Orchestre. On drums is Greg Fox of Brooklyn hipster black metal troupe Liturgy, and he adds more than just metal cred as he artisanally pounds the hell out of the drums, cymbals, and whatever else gets in his way.
Just having sax does not make something jazz. Morphine was not jazz. Neither was James Chance and the Contortions. You can make a case that Ex Eye isn’t either about half the time. “Anaitis Hymnal, The Arkose Disc” is a 12-minute shimmering dronescape that after about three and a half minutes of intro kicks in like Deafheaven or Wolves in the Throne Room, the bleating of a saxophone instead of guitars propelling the psychedelic chaos. Still, lead track “Xenolith, The Anvil” is indeed jazzy, a cacophony of low-end that locks into a groove and doesn’t much deviate (and doesn’t much need to), showing that even progressive music can be rooted in simplicity. And “Opposition/Perihelion, The Coil” is Ministry if Al Jourgensen got into Mahavishnu Orchestra instead of Megadeth when he got tired of synth-pop.
Metal has always looked to classical and jazz for inspiration. Les Chants du Hasard, Selcouth and Ex Eye look a little harder than most and as a result have released three of the more interesting metal albums of 2017. In a year where Zeal and Ardor combined black metal with negro spirituals, that’s no mean feat.