Gustav Holst: Heavy Metal Pioneer?

Apr 4, 2016

Holst unknowingly wrote heavy metal's first - and most significant - riff.

Gustav Holst: a verdant image of the lush English countryside immediately rushes to mind when you hear his name. But how about this for an image – the occult, witchcraft, Satanism …Ozzy Osbourne? Sadly, Holst’s time passed before he had the opportunity to head bang front-row at a heavy metal show (could you imagine?), nor would he ever find out that a brief passage from his magnum opus would inspire the first heavy metal band to write the first heavy metal song.

Arising from the industrial (an appropriate breeding ground for a metal band) metropolis of Birmingham, England, Black Sabbath was forged by four young, rather geeky blokes with a penchant for blues, jazz, rock and roll, and, frankly, loud amplifiers. Credited as the “godfathers of heavy metal,” the group harnessed influences from these aforementioned genres, and with their revolutionary artistry and stick-it-to-the-man stubbornness, slowed down the speed of music while conversely cranking up their amplifiers’ gain knobs. It is fairly foreseeable that the first heavy metal band would draw influences from blues and rock, but there is another, unseemly source of influence: classical music.

That’s right! Sabbath’s debut album, titled Black Sabbath (go figure), was set free onto the world in February of 1970. Heavy metal’s premier album opens with the head-banging anthem “Black Sabbath” (again, go figure). Being the first track, it was society's fearless introduction to the new genre. The seeds of metal as we now know it were sown with one of the most simple, yet elemental riffs of all time: a single tritone.

A quick aside: a tritone is the interval between two notes, halfway between a perfect fourth (the opening two notes of "Here Comes the Bride") and a perfect fifth (the opening two notes of "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star"). Because of its harsh and unwelcoming sound, it earned the nickname "diabolus in musica," or “the devil in music,” in medieval times – the perfect thing, then, to utilize in a band hell-bent on a dark, lamenting sound.

Now, that single tritone in “Black Sabbath,” as uncomplicated as it is, was not an original riff written by one of the band members. In fact, fellow Englishman and guitarist Tony Iommi reimagined it from the opening passage of Mars from Holst’s celebrated orchestral suite The Planets.

Here’s Sir Charles Mackerras conducting the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra in Mars:

And Sabbath’s video performance of “Black Sabbath”:

This tritone sound became so ubiquitous in heavy metal that it has since gained an inextricable association with the genre. Forty-six years after the release of Black Sabbath, bands in every imaginable subgenre of metal (there are well over fifty) still continue to capitalize on this dark, brooding sound – and it’s all thanks to one Holst fan, who so happened to love loud amplifiers.

To conclude, here’s an interview with bassist Geezer Butler, and his recounting of the infamous riff:

By the way - mentions of classical music in a VH1 documentary? Sounds like a case of #ClassicalAnywhere.