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Keyboards In Metal: Examining The Evolution Of Heavy Music's Most Maligned Instrument

Keyboards in metal songs - I have always liked them. I was only a wee pup when Van Halen released 1984 and the smash hit single "Jump", and when Judas Priest went "pop" on 1986's Turbo. I've only heard echoes of the backlash, especially with regard to Judas Priest. Without any prejudice, I hear "Turbo Lover" and think it's a just great song, despite it's inherent poppy-ness.

There are those who are just diametrically opposed to keyboards or synthesizers in their metal. They will say it's cheesy or choose a politically incorrect effeminate describer to communicate their disgust and opposition. I get it. When we think of legit, old-school metal bands, we picture scruffy dudes in jeans jamming in a dingy garage like Sabbath or Pantera. There's loud feedback, empty beer cans strewn about the floor, and it probably smells like feet and Doritos. Fluffy keyboards have no place amongst the gritty basics of the rock 4-piece (or 5 if you have dual guitars).

I may have built a decent straw man to take down, but for my money, keyboards belong right there with the meat-and-potatoes instruments: guitar, bass, drums, and vocals. As far as I'm concerned, instruments outside of the staples associated with rock and metal are just colors to add to a palette. Refusing to consider them on principle is cutting yourself off at the knees.

I think the 1980's, the decade itself, gave keyboards and synths a bad name. We think of neon colors, break dancing, teal blue blazers with the sleeves rolled up, androgynous glam bands, bankers doing blow, and sparkly pop that reveled in the fact that it was "morning in America." When any of us think of the '80s, it's hard not to think about the theme song to Miami Vice or Beverly Hills Cop. The "sound of the future" was really just the sound of the present, and is forever encapsulated in a collection of kitschy, pop-culture relics that have evolved into quaint novelties.

Although rock music, and specifically progressive rock throughout the 1970's, was interwoven with keyboards and synthesizers with bands like Yes, Boston, or Deep Purple, the advent of harder edged heavy metal in the '80s created a divide. My first exposure to keyboard laden metal that was actually respected by most true metalheads was Randy Rhoads-era Ozzy Osbourne.

The keyboards didn't hinder the heaviness or metallic authenticity. To my ears, they seemed to elevate the majesty and grandiosity, which should be in lock-step with the fundamentals of heavy metal. With Randy Rhoads' musical training background, mixing classical influence with heavy metal seemed like a match made in heaven. Traditional heavy metal already borrowed much from classical's composition and somber, minor chord movements.

Naturally, this blending of sounds led to a more theatrical and operatic aesthetic. With classical, orchestral music being one of the most impactful cultural and artistic European exports, it's difficult not to exert these influences without sounding European. The keyboard is often just a place-filler for not having an entire symphony or choir at your disposal. I mean is there any band that embraced Euro-synthesized glory more than Swedish band Europe on "The Final Countdown"?

In the '80s, there were a handful of acts that I believed served as a bridge to expansion of how keyboards would be infused in metal through the forthcoming decades. I'd like to share them with you now.

King Diamond

Much like Ozzy Osboure, the Danish King Diamond used his solo band as conduit to expand the creative and sonic boundaries that were perhaps forbidden ground for their former, more traditional bands. The imagery, baroque chord changes, and King's flair for the dramatic distinctly influenced the symphonic black metal that would arise in the early 1990's.

Dio

Although Ronnie James Dio is American, hearing his band's epic instrumentation, and Dio's dramatic and emotive vocal style, you might think the band hailed from Germany. This combined with the fantastical imagery and lyrical content, Dio's influence on the keyboard-loving sub-genre, power metal, is undeniable.

Faith No More

Faith No More is unique in so many ways. Their keyboardist Roddy Bottum has been given equal billing in the band, and is integral to their identity. Their key influence was showing the heavy music world was that their were no rules. They showed you can showcase a keybordist without sounding glam, pop, or cheesy. They are known for influencing nu-metal, but they opened the door for all weird, left-of-center metal that didn't follow conventions.

Yngwie Malmsteen

Yngwie Malmsteen's material was always viewed through the prism of his virtuosic guitar playing, with the profundity of the actual songs coming in a very distant second place. One element that is often overlooked was the platform he gave to his legendary keyboard player Jens Johansson (Stratovarius, Dio) to shred nearly as much as Yngwie did. This was a predecessor to bands like Dream Theater, Symphony X, and Children of Bodom.

Savatage

Led by keyboardist and vocalist Jon Oliva, Savatage is one of first metal bands that ventured into self-described rock opera territory. Continuing to have global success with Tran-Siberian Orchestra as well as Jon Oliva's Pain, this style of progressive, keyboard led metal has clearly had a magnificent impact.

Industrial & Gothic Metal

It would be a grave sin to not mention industrial metal and it's journey from new wave synth pop beginnings to really having perhaps one of the biggest impacts on alternative, groove metal, and nu metal in the 1990's. This is a style of music that wouldn't exist with out synthesizers and the advent of drum sampling and looping technology developed in this era. This is a sub-genre I am NOT an expert on, so I am cautious not to speak out of turn. From what I do know, the biggest influencers going back to the '80s are probably Ministry and Nine Inch Nails, but you have also mention Godflesh, Skinny Puppy, and KMFDM.

In some ways, it's difficult to tell where industrial metal ends and gothic metal starts because there was so much cross-pollination between the two sub-genres. A key band that in many ways embodies what we think of gothic metal today would be Type O Negative. Their keyboardist Josh Silver was an indispensable component the signature Type O Negative sound. It was spooky, and altogether ooky. Forgive me for that last line. Other notable bands in this sub-genre would be My Dying Bride, Paradise Lost, Anathema, etc.

Fear Factory

In the '90s, Fear Factory was really a coalescence of all the gothic and industrial influence from the '80s but also with healthy nod to death metal and a primed core of Pantera-esque groove metal. The way they used keyboards over their signature staccato, machine gun attack along side Burton C. Bell's smooth vocals really set a standard that shaped how keyboards would be used for the next decade. Whether it was bands like Strapping Young Lad, Threat Signal, Mnemic, Static X, or even a band like Disturbed, you have to look at Fear Factory as setting a template that didn't previously exist.

The 1990's as a decade is when things really seemed to open up with genre blending. Traditional metal had grown past it's adolescence, and younger bands were looking to expand the stale uniformity that began to stagnate at the end of the '80s. This led to death metal, black metal, progressive metal becoming even more progressive, metalcore, grunge, funk metal, rap metal, nu metal, melodic death metal, math metal, and everything in between. There was a general openness to experimenting. Keyboards became just another tool to use, and in some ways, it became ok to be just weird.

Symphonic Black Metal

I'm not sure who was the first black metal band was to incorporate keyboards, but bands like Emperor, Dimmu Borgir, and Satyricon were expanding upon black metal's lo fi beginnings with keys in the early-mid '90s. I discovered black metal through it's more symphonic bands like Cradle of Filth. I know this is often viewed as mainstream black metal, but the regal, lush melodies amidst a cacophony of speed and viciousness really transports you to another world. It's like audio version of Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992) - fantastical escapism at it's finest. Bands like Dimmu Borgir went on to work with full orchestras later in their career to truly elevate the idea that makes keyboards so important in this kind of black metal.

Melodic Death Metal

Like black metal, melodic death metal spawned out of Europe (primarily Scandinavia), and has a distinct European quality. The 3/4 time signatures are perfect swinging a flagon of ale, and the melodies are purely medieval. Whether it's In Flames, Children of Bodom, Dark Tranquility, Opeth, Amorphis, Soilwork, or Scar Symmetry, keyboards have more or less been part of the tapestry of this sub-genre. I supposed it has something to do with Sweden's cultural affinity for creating irresistible pop music that has bled into all facets of their musical exports.

Nu Metal

Nu metal is unique in it's relationship to keyboards and electronics as a whole. It was one of the first sub-genres of heavy music to embrace modern influences like electronica, hip hop, and many types of dance music. Often, the bands didn't have a keyboardist; they would employ a DJ like Incubus, Deftones, or Limp Bizkit, or have a sampler like Chimaira or Slipknot, who had both a DJ and sampler, but no keyboard player. The keys would be tracked or sampled in the studio, and sometimes ran on a backing track, so the sounds of keyboards and synths were present during live shows. Nu metal was kind of a meeting ground for all things heavy that were a bit goth, a bit industrial, or electronic. Were bands like Rammstein, White Zombie, or Marilyn Manson nu metal? Judged purely on sonics, it's debatable, but they each certainly got their break riding the nu metal wave.

Progressive Metal & Power Metal

I know some of you metal nerds are probably upset that I combined these two sub-genres, but I'm not trying to write the bible here. I'm just saying some of you triumphant motherf---ers with beautiful, flowing, Prell-cleansed long hair, and puffy shirts tucked into your jeans while attending Renaissance fairs probably like both Dream Theater AND Dream Evil. It's not a stretch, and many of these bands fall into both progressive and power metal categories: be it Kamelot, Sonata Arctica, or Blind Guardian. I would be lying if I said I was an expert on these sub-genres either, but I am fan of both when done well. Keyboard players really get to shine and take a bit of the spotlight, and these dudes SHRED! For more detail, I highly recommend the Banger Films docu-series Metal Evolution, which has episodes dedicated to both sub-genres.

Metalcore

Keyboards in hardcore music were a bit of 3rd rail until the late '90s and early '00s. Two bands changed the perception of having keys in your "core" band were Bleeding Through and Underoath. Bleeding Through was drawing from black metal influence, while Underoath was pulling more from post-hardcore and indie rock sources. The combined after-effects changed metalcore forever. Bleeding Through influenced bands like Winds of Plague and Motionless In White, while Underoath set the stage for bands like Attack Attack, who went on to open the door for bands like Issues. In today's metalcore landscape, it's almost weird if you don't have some dub step-y synth line beneath your chugged breakdown. The exception has become the rule. Whether you are talking about Born of Osiris or Asking Alexandria, keys have become standard with the Warped Tour set. It's just too bad most of the bands don't hire keyboardists, and run the keys on tracks live, because there are bunch of young bucks out there wasting those 10 years of piano lessons.

I think I've written more about keyboards than I ever thought I would. If you've made it this far, you are a bigger nerd than me. I didn't even get into Djent-y prog bands who heavily use (midi) keys like Periphery, or even get into synthwave, which is probably one of my favorite new discoveries. (Even if it's not new. Looking at you commenters!) So, go out and give a keyboardist a hug, and thank them for keeping metal bubbly and epic as f--k. Enjoy some Zombi as the article outro jam!