Tuba or Not Tuba: Reflections on Life, Loss, and Orchestral Metal

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Some ideas begin with all the best intentions. A project is born within pure, innocent mindspace, an ambitious venture touching on multitudes and branching out to environs untraveled and unknown. The Toilet would overflow with so much goodness any plumber called to the scene would fall to their knees and pray to never see anything of its like ever again. Such was the origin story of this post.

All the way back when the Good Lord Spear blessed us with His supreme disappointment in Blind Guardian’s latest, the other Toilet Noble, the Lord of House Bork, thought it might be a good idea to write a piece about which one was worse between the orchestral train wrecks of Yngwie Malmsteen’s Concerto Suite for Electric Guitar or Metallica’s S&M 2. Being well-versed in aural torture, I jumped on the opportunity to do a “whose was worse” project. The Lord of Bork reached out and offered to do a collaboration on his piece, this very piece here, and I immediately accepted. What could stop a Bork x Pork collab?

The answer, it turns out, was metal with real orchestra accompaniment. We were originally going to take several albums each of this type and write up little mini-reviews, tying it together somehow depending on how the albums told us the story of Metal with True Classical Trueness.

That was the idea, anyway.

Like starving folk at a buffet, we piled our plates high with the richest, fattiest fare, Bork starting with Dream Theater’s Score and I with Nightwish’s Dark Passion Play. But once we began ingesting our assignments, our stomachs quickly revolted.

“You aren’t putting any more of this in here,” they said.

Ignoring our foolish GI tracts, we pushed forward, regardless. What were they gonna do, make us puke? We’ve done that a thousand times before. No big deal.

But after a few hours of lying helpless on the floor, retching dry heaves possessing our souls, we relented. The project could not go on as originally conceived. There are limits on the amount of
pompous cheese two humans can consume before incapacitation. We had reached, and quickly surpassed, that limit.

So now, as you see here, the scope is greatly narrowed for our own sanity. We chose one (1) song from each album below, listened to it repeatedly, and composed our thoughts on said song, with orchestral elements forefront in mind. This was bad enough. Here goes. – Black Metal Porkins

***

Some ideas begin with the best intentions. This was not one of those ideas. I fully expected this to suck when I suggested it. What I didn’t expect was just how badly it would suck, or how easily I could find someone else to drag down into the darkness. 

Porkins and I flew too close to the sun, and we were punished for our hubris. Look upon our failure and despair, you goddamn maniacs. – Lord ov Bork

***

Porkins, First Movement (Adagio)

Nightwish – Dark Passion Play, “For the Heart I Once Had”
Spinefarm (Finland [not a real country]), Nuclear Blast (Europe [other than fake countries]), Roadrunner (US and A) – September 26, 2007 (Finland [again, not real]), September 28, 2007 (Real Europe), October 2, 2007 (Estados Unidos)

Before you start reading, you should know something about me so you can quickly dismiss anything I say in this piece: I am not a fan of symphonic metal. At all. I’m the last person who should be writing about it if you want a serious evaluation. I’m not here for that. I’m here to deliver The Content™.

For someone averse to sympho-cheese, there was no better place to start than the undisputed champs du fromage, Nightwish. But that meant I had to learn things about Nightwish, and this album in particular. I guess Dark Passion Play was made after some drama with the band. The first singer got kicked out of the band and was replaced with the lady who sings on this one. She only made two albums and got kicked out, too. Now they have a lady named Floor, which, to me, a stupid American, is a funny name but probably pretty normal somewhere else.

Anyway, this record features the London Session Orchestra, a gospel choir, and a couple Irish dudes chipping in. All this extra shit doubled the cost of making the album. I’m sure it was worth it.
I picked “For the Heart I Once Had” mostly because the song title guarantees the cheese I crave for these purposes. I was rewarded with a sappy, paint-by-numbers pop ballad seemingly manufactured in a lab for listeners whose ears wilt because Evanescence goes too hard. The song is built like most radio pop: quiet verse transitioning into a building bridge followed by a climaxing chorus.

The orchestral elements emerge in the bridge and explode during the chorus to give it extra punch, with choral accents tossed in the background for depth. Repeat that formula twice and you’ve got yourself the perfect song to complement any meal composed of mayonnaise on white bread.

Bork, Second Movement (Allegro)

Dream Theater – Score, “Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence”

Rhino Entertainment – August 29, 2006

Unlike Porkins, I actually thought that I liked this style of metal. This would be quickly proven false.

At the recommendation of Spear, I checked out Dream Theater’s Score. Thankfully only the second and third discs of this live album feature an orchestra, which means the running time is reduced to a measly 90 fucking minutes. Before Porkins and I massively cut back the scope of this project, I actually listened to the majority of this thing and holy shit, I wasn’t ready.

I had a pretty low opinion of Dream Theater going in, but I also didn’t really know much about them. For some reason I thought that this experience might actually redeem them a bit in my eyes; who knows, maybe they wrote some actual-ass classical music to go along with their whole schtick. Surely no serious band with an enormous fan base would waste everyone’s time with a needless, self-indulgent orchestral session.

How fucking wrong I was.

Because they’re improbably rich and have no shame, these obnoxious dorks hired a 30-piece orchestra to tag along and provide color. Seriously, that’s it. Dream Theater wrote a long, meandering prog metal song and then somehow made it even more unbearable.

The “Overture” of this godforsaken monstrosity sounds like music behind the opening credits of a movie that now plays after a disclaimer about how racial attitudes have changed since the ’40s. After the Overture, the orchestra damn near disappears. You could get the same effect by recording a backing track or, better yet, just playing the original song that doesn’t feature a single, solitary second of orchestral backing.

This song qualifies as gaslighting. Dream Theater is playing live, so interspersed with meandering piano and strings are sounds of the crowd losing their goddamn minds. Imagine how much these chowderheads must have paid to see this abomination in person, and then remember that most Americans have no hope of ever paying off their student loans. 

What did I learn? Don’t trust rich dipshits with an orchestra. If you want a vision of the future, imagine Jordan Rudess farting onto a keyboard accompanied by fifteen violins—forever.

Porkins, Third Movement (Largo)

Helloween – Unarmed: 25th Anniversary “The Keeper’s Trilogy”
Victor Entertainment, SPV/Steamhammer – December 23, 2009 (Japan, Southeast Asia), January 29, 2010 (Errrwhere else)

I almost never power metal. But when I do, I prefer Helloween.

There’s something about Andi Deris’ vocals that work for me and the Keeper of the Seven Keys joints are pretty damn rockin’. After being coated in a hard layer of Nightwish sugar, I needed something to give me a ray of hope that this venture wouldn’t be a total loss.

Perhaps lucky for me, Helloween released an anniversary record with a 17-minute track, “The Keeper’s Trilogy,” a medley of “Halloween,” “Keeper of the Seven Keys,” and “The King for a 1000 Years” from Keeper of the Seven Keys Parts 1 and 2 and The Legacy, respectively. The 70-piece Prague Symphony Orchestra (who also collaborated with Iced Earth and Therion) translates the original metallic texts into classical.

The original tracks in the medley tip the scales at over 13 minutes each and are the epic romps on their respective albums. “The Keeper’s Trilogy” distills them to their essences, mostly focusing on building to the chorus before shifting to the next movement. From what I can tell, distorted guitars (or any guitar or bass, for that matter), are absent. The melodies are carried through brass, string, wind, and various percussion, including a typical drum kit.

Never go full orchestra, fam.

What we’re left with here sounds more like a collection of showtunes than anything originating from the swamps of metal. You could have told me the “Halloween” portion was a song from Nightmare Before Christmas and I wouldn’t have thought twice. “The Keeper’s Trilogy” morphed into a gospel-tinged Broadway musical number, which…was definitely one of many choices available. The final movement, “The King for 1000 Years,” settles into generic Disney-fied territory complete with violin not far removed from disco at times. I felt like Andi Deris was singing along with a host of cartoon sidekicks like in Mary Poppins.

I wouldn’t listen to this voluntarily again.

Bork, Fourth Movement (Presto)

Dimmu Borgir – Death Cult Armageddon, “Progenies of the Great Apocalypse”

Nuclear Blast – September 9, 2003

I’ll admit this is a bit of a cop-out of a choice—I actually used to blast Death Cult Armageddon a lot in high school. Please make fun of me in the comments. But as they say, familiarity breeds contempt, and boy is there a lot of contemptible shit here.

Proving that you don’t need money to have poor taste, Dimmu Borgir hired the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra to play their pseudo-Wagnerian (in terms of bombast and racism, one can only assume) garbage. To their credit, them Dimmu boys actually bothered writing music for the orchestra to play that wasn’t just reheated versions of songs they’d written years earlier. No, the Borgir bunch sat down and wrote some wholly new garbage for their workaday orchestra.

Evidently piano/synth player Mustis wrote the music to this one, a few years before he would be fired from the band by text message. For reference, this wasn’t the keyboard player who wore top hats and capes, but rather that guy’s understudy. A little internet research revealed that “Progenies” is the only song Mr. Mustis (if that is his real name) wrote himself for Dimmu Borgir, which says a lot about them as this is the best song on the record.

Let’s get it out of the way: the worst part of this track is the band itself. Maybe it’s because everything Dimmu Borgir gets involved in is both pretentious and poorly thought out, but this track managed to make black metal the more boring half of a black metal/symphonic mashup. I actually think the horn-heavy intro and operatic vocal chorus are legitimately good, and to some extent they nail the “epic and evil” vibe the band was going for. That said, they melded terribly with double bass drums and chugging power chords. Either make classical music or don’t, but don’t leave me stuck in the middle with the worst of both sides.

As a bonus, this song also features newly blotto vocalist Abbath on backing vocals (get well soon, oh trollish one). Unfortunately, even he can’t make this nightmarish mess fun.

At this point, I was despondent. Given the choice of listening to these last two songs one more time or to Bon Jovi’s “Runaway” on repeat for 18 hours a day, I’d pick Mr. Bovine Joni every time.

Porkins, Fifth Movement (Cornholio)

Within Temptation – Black Symphony “Deceiver of Fools”

Sony/BMG – February 7, 2008

After the Helloween debacle, this was the point in our proceedings when I had the choice to try to find something maybe enjoyable from the bottomless pit of surefire misses staring me in the face or…I could deliberately torture myself for your pleasure.

Because I love you all so much, I went with a track from Within Temptation’s interminable 122-minute, 3LP live album, Black Symphony, featuring the Metropole Orchestra and Pa’dam Choir.

Of the twenty-two potential lucky recipients of my ire, I chose “Deceiver of Fools” because the title encapsulates what Bork did in getting me to agree to do this project. But, I’m sorry to report, Within Temptation produced the least hated track of the bunch. The orchestral integration feels the most organic, giving a sense that the song was written together with the orchestra instead of thrown on top of a pop song like Nightwish or adapted from metal like Helloween.

Unlike “The Keeper’s Trilogy,” distorted guitar is retained to chug away in a supporting role while the orchestra leads, giving it a distinct metallic flavor prowling underneath the heavy symphonic cheese layer.

Now, even though “Deceiver of Fools” is the best option on a menu of bobbing turds, it is still a bobbing turd. In the “female-fronted” Nightwishcore game, you better bring an A-level vocalist that can belt the ever-living fuck out of a song, especially on a live album where studio trickery can’t hide flaws. While Sharon den Adel is generally fine, there is no power behind her mezzo-soprano. It’s delivered mostly limp and lifeless, an over-controlled performance that seems fearful of letting go. When vocals are the focal point and placed forefront in the mix, this is a real problem.

One other thing (a bit more personal) is during her crowd work, she inexplicably shouts “Ahoy!” Not being a sea-faring or otherwise pirate-affiliated album as far as I could tell, I have no idea why she chose to say that but I, for one, am offended. The crowd, though, lapped that shit up. They obviously know nothing of my people.

Bork, Sixth Movement (Fabio)

Rhapsody – Symphony of Enchanted Lands, “The Dark Tower of Abyss”

Limb Music – October 5, 1998

Orchestral metal fled across the desert, and the Lord ov Bork followed.

How many days have I wandered this barren hellscape, seeking in vain some small respite from the bitter sun, from pretentious dickweeds who somehow know where to hire classical musicians? What are the roots that clutch, what siqqqq riffs grow out of this stony rubbish? 

There, in the distance—could it be… an Italian guy literally named Fabio fronting a power metal band? Violins and flutes playing over lyrics about fucking dragons (I assume)? Cover art that looks like a discontinued Amgia text adventure? Could it be—Rhapsody?

God help me, I enjoyed every second of this stupid, stupid song. There was a baroque string and harpsichord figure that broke into a shred riff with clearly audible bass. There was an operatic vocalist whose name isn’t James LaBrie and whose voice isn’t annoying beyond the ability of Man to grasp. I found myself bobbing my head to a string section—a fucking string section.

Is there something wrong with me? Am I dead?

I thought that this would be the absolute nadir, the worst I could possibly find. How gloriously wrong I was. So help me God, this pointless exercise has driven me to legitimately enjoy power metal. Do I have to register somewhere now? Is there a website that is legally required to notify the community when I move? These are tomorrow’s questions—today belongs to Symphony of Enchanted Lands.

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