.Editorial - Horny For Harpsichord
Metal Reviews

Release year: 2022
Reviewed by Ben

The two most popular instruments are piano and guitar. Here in metal land guitar reigns supreme, but there are also quite a few stellar keyboard players as well. Something that I've noticed in metal, especially Power Metal, and ESPECIALLY Finnish metal, is that they really like to use the harpsichord setting on their keyboards. So much so, that when I listen to a harpsichord (digital or real), I associate the sound exclusively with classic Power Metal. Piano is a different story. Since it is so popular, I and most other people have been exposed to the sounds of a piano at a very young age. But harpsichord just hits different.

Brief rundown on what a harpsichord is: It is the precursor to the piano and it was the keyboard instrument of choice for Baroque composers which is the era that came before the "classical" and "romantic" music periods. Beethoven, Chopin, and Liszt were classical composers who propelled the piano to great heights with highly emotional and evocative pieces that are recognized the world over even today. But what many people don't know is that other household greats such as Bach, Handel, Scarlatti, and Mozart didn't write for the mighty and ubiquitous piano, they wrote for the smaller and more primitive harpsichord.

While looking very similar at first glance, the differences between a piano and harpsichord are vast. For one, the innards of the harpsichord essentially consist of a lever that activates a quill plectrum to pluck a string, much like the motion of playing strings on guitar with a pick. A piano however, utilizes a felt covered hammer which is activated by a lever that hits the string in the piano instead of plucking it. This produces a much more rounder sound than a harpsichord as well as gives the player the ability to control dynamics with their "touch." In addition, the piano is equipped with usually three pedals for dampening, sustain, and other techniques. The harpsichord is devoid of pedals as well as the ability to control dynamics. For this reason, the piano essentially replaced the harpsichord and reduced it to an extreme minority. Because of the metallic sound of the harpsichord one is forced to use different technique than that of a piano player. Most chords are given a slight roll instead of being played straight down, and there are there lots more trills and ornamentation (like tapping on guitar) than piano. To counter balance the lack of dynamic control that is available on the piano, what ends up happening is that the left hand plays a completely different melody than the right while staying in harmony together. Composers would often have three or four separate melodies (also called voices) being played at once by one person with two hands. Also, much like metal rhythm guitar, harpsichord playing is very rhythmically orientated. Unfortunately, since harpsichord is unpopular, information and real life tangible playability becomes an issue. If you go poking about it is hard as hell to find a real harpsichord to play on and the people that play them mainly play super old school authentic Baroque music and that's it. So, if the piano is seemingly better in almost every way on paper, why are there such passionate harpsichord fanatics out there and how did they all lean towards playing metal?

The sound a harpsichord makes is like none other. While there is a huge difference between the real and digital, one will never mistake the sound of a harpsichord for that of a baby grand. To me, a harpsichord is kinda like an Esquire guitar. Very trebly, twangy / metallic sounding, and difficult to reign in. However, this is precisely why the sound works in tandem with electric guitar. They fit well together. Taking a look at the metal world you can see how the harpsichord has been adopted by many of the great keyboard players. The most prominent figure would be Jens Johansson, he of Stratovarius and Yngwie Malmsteen fame. Trilogy Suite Op. 5 is a blazing instrumental duel between Jens and the titular red jacketed guitarist that is full of harpsichord mania. It is with Yngwie that the harpsichord sound was cemented as an essential part to neoclassical metal on par with frilly shirts. Jens Johansson would also kickstart the modern Power Metal craze of harpsichord madness when he joined Finnish metallers Stratovarius in 1995 / 1996. The first album featuring his playing, Episode, contained a Trilogy Suite type instrumental shredfest with lots of harpsichord called Stratosphere. Also, the song Will The Sun Rise? (released in Japan as a single) has a break midway that is a quote from Bach and an ideal example of counterpoint melody. Jens is playing a harpsichord motif while Timo is playing a different melody on guitar. But perhaps the biggest contribution to harpsichord mania is the song Black Diamond. One of Stratovarius' biggest hits on the album that inspired every Finnish metal band since, this has powerful harpsichord feels all over. The intro is unmistakable and an instant classic.

Following Jens Johansson are three bands that really propelled the harpsichord out there. Children Of Bodom, Nightwish, and Sonata Arctica. Coincidentally, they're all from Finland! Finland loves their harpsichord settings. Janne Wirman in Bodom was a bonafide shredder and his work with them has put the itch in many player's asses today. He also had a solo career with Warmen and their best songs are all the ones that have tons of harpsichord. Nightwish used harpsichord heavily on their first few albums. Look to Fantasmic or Sacrament Of The Wilderness for upfront examples. Sonata Arctica ran wild with the h-chord on their first few albums as well. UnOpened is a more hopeful Black Diamond and speedsters like Revontulet, Wolf And Raven, 8th Commandment, and Victoria's Secret are examples of their affectation for the instrument.

There's some honorable mentions like the debut album from Wintersun and its burst of harpsichord sounds. Spanish groyp Dark Moor uses it to great effect on practically every album, but the harpsichord takes more of a "basso continuo" role (aka support) in their songs rather than being an out and out lead instrument. Same with Italy's Rhapsody. Heavenly from France get down with the harpsichord too. Their song Evil from their best album Dust To Dust prominently features the instrument which is played by singer Ben Soto. There's also quite a few Black Metal bands that have used the sound for darker purposes than most Power Metal too. It's kinda funny how the classical world is in the dark over how much the harpsichord is used in metal. Like I said in the intro, I really associate the sound with that of metal, but piano is more universal. Harpsichord is definitely a niche instrument and because of its lack of popularity it can be confused with 12 string or acoustic guitars. I thought Lisbon by Angra had acoustic guitar in the verses for a long time. Nope, that's a harpsichord! Not trying to start some keyboard war here but if you feel compelled to do so, go back into your favorite band's catalogs and see where this instrument pops up. The humble harpsichord might have basically died out IRL amongst the classical crowd, but we over here in metal land are gonna keep it alive.

Killing Songs :
Ben quoted
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