Picture it. You’re in the pit, rocking out to your favorite metal band, (Is it Metalica? It’s probably Metallica.) Suddenly, in the midst of the searing guitars and double-bass, a reedy, high pitched squeal breaks through the din. It’s a saxophone, and it’s the best, freshest metal you’ve ever heard. The saxophone usually conjures up ideas of marching bands, of swing music or that one instrument your parents made you play in middle school. But the saxophone has always had a heavy side, to the swirling complexities of Charlie Parker’s Bebop, to the existential chaos of King Crimson’s “21st Century Schizoid Man.” While it’s most notably associated with Jazz, I propose, that the saxophone should take a larger role in metal music, and not just as a gimmick, but as a full-fledged partaker in the heaviness. After all, the line between jazz and metal is grayer than it may seem.
Metal, especially the more progressive forms, have always had jazz influences. Notable bands like Atheist and Cynic have brought heavy syncopation, dizzying time-signatures, and more experimental instrumentation to Death Metal. Digging deeper into the avant-garde, acts like Naked City have incorporated metal into jazz fusion. However, while there are certainly influences, especially in early metal (ie. Early Black Sabbath), jazz is an additive element, and often feels like a gimmick. Historically it has been unusual to find jazz instrumentation, especially saxophone, in metal. Those that incorporate it, often do it sloppily (I’m looking at you Avenged Sevenfold). And it seems like any band that adds woodwinds or reeds to the mix is automatically labeled folk metal. There have been, of course, notable exceptions: artist who use the sax to explore different vibes and push the genre forward.
The Norwegian band Shining has featured a saxophone, played by front man Jørgen Munkeby, since they formed in 1999 as a free jazz group. Over time, the group added more and more heavy metal elements to the band, putting out several heavy metal albums in the 2010’s. Munkeby has contributed saxophone to other metal compositions, most notably, songs by black metal legend Ihsahn. His song, “The Eagle and the Snake” serves as one of the best examples of saxophone metal. In it, Munkeby utilizes the instrument, not just as a replacement for the guitar, but as its own instrument, jumping in and out of the mix, soloing, keeping the rhythm, or crafting harmonies. It’s these examples that stand out, and as the genre moves forward, were seeing more and more examples of musicians exploring these new sounds.
It may be because I’m looking for it, but I’ve found many examples of saxophone from metal music of the past year. Easily the most popular example comes from Ghost, who squeezed out a quick and jazzy sax solo on “Miasma.” While the solo is short, and lacks context, Ghost’s potential influence cannot be ignored (Their album Prequelle (2018) reached number three on the Billboard 200 this year). Other bands have taken up the sax mantle as well. Rivers of Nihil implemented the Sax heavily in Where Owls Know My Name (2018). It appears on half the tracks on the album, marking it as probably the largest contribution this year. Classic metal bands have hoped on the bandwagon as well, albeit, more conservatively. Enslaved added horns in “Hiindsiight” in 2017, as did Amorphis on “Daughter of Hate” (another Jørgen Munkeby contribution).
Metal has been around for almost fifty years and it sometimes seems like musicians are stretching the genre to it’s limit, but I think there’s still room to grow. Bands adding significant saxophone contributions may seem like a bold step forward, but keep in mind, we live in a world with more than one pirate metal band. Next to Alestorm, saxophones seem tame. With so many bands leading the way with their sax a tootin’, I predict the best is yet to come. Gimmicks aside, I’ll be satisfied when bands can implement the saxophone well and explore new rhythmic and melodic ideas, because I want to headbang to more sax solos.
King Crimson – “21st Century Schizoid Man
Atheist – “Mother Man”
Cynic – Veil of Maya
Naked City – “Bonehead”
Shining – “House of Warship”
Ihsanh – “The Eagle and the Snake”
Ghost – “Miasma”
Rivers of Nihil – “The Silent Life”
Enslaved – “Hiindsiight”
Amorphis “Daughter of Hate”