Imagine, if you will, an instrument that is absolutely unsuited for conveying the aggressiveness of metal music. Let me guess: you chose the saxophone, didn’t you? Maybe you even went as far as to include every type of saxophone, not just one of them. Yeah, yeah, KING CRIMSON had saxophone on the iconic prog onslaught, “21st Century Schizoid Man,” already on their haunting 1969 debut, as though heralding all the beautiful, yet extreme possibilities that this reed instrument could bring to heavier music but… let’s face it: the instrument is most notably associated with jazz and jazz – despite the flagship status it once had as the Devil’s voodoo music – is one of those obscure genres that have not exactly been in vogue in the metal fraternity (except for some no-holds-barred oddball groups, right)? Maybe jazz is way too often viewed as the vintage-flavored, happy-go-lucky swinging on the sunny side of the street when, in fact, it has its darker sub-genres, too. Charlie Parker with his frantic be-bop was practically the Yngwie Malmsteen of the alto sax (without the neo-classical leanings) and the works of late John Coltrane‘s certainly conveyed the same raw emotions as, say, many a black metal outfit has done decades later. Then again, as the beauty of music quite often lies in the stark contrast between the heavy and the serene, the sax appeal does not necessarily have to rely on the raw free-jazz aesthetics, not even in the metal context. Sometimes, the softer approach can work like magic when juxtaposed against the brutal heavy-metal riffage. Here, I compiled a list of metal songs that incorporate saxophones in a somewhat more significant role than as a mere gimmick; so, there won’t be any angry saxophone guys performing “Careless Whisper” or impersonations of Kenny G. atop a bunch of metal riffs. I went for the songs that rather beautifully implement the saxophone in the downright nasty and brutal metal context.
- Ihsahn: “Undercurrent”
Back in the day, I once saw some random internet guy describe EMPEROR as the PINK FLOYD of black metal. He wasn’t entirely wrong at the time, but I think the moniker would fit even better to IHSAHN‘s later solo endeavors. Take “Undercurrent” from his 2020 album, “After,” for instance. It incorporates the same dynamics as, say, the songs on the 1974 album classic, “Dark Side of the Moon,” by PINK FLOYD: the tension builds slowly from atmospheric serenity to full-on prog blast – or, as in the case of “Undercurrent,” from the mellow, atmospheric verses to the nothing short of an intense onslaught of blast-beats, IHSAHN‘s signature black-metal snarls, and raw, free-jazz saxophone legatos played by the SHINING frontman, Jørgen Munkeby.
- Voivod: “The End of Dormancy”
The title track on VOIVOD‘s 2020 EP, “The End of Dormancy,” actually features a whole lot of brass instruments. The arrangement takes a rather deep nod toward the jazz colossus, Charlie Mingus, as the band reworks the song from their 2018 full-length, “The Wake.” The clever play of quartal melodies over a pedal point is a trick straight from the jazz composer’s playbook. It’s a little bit tricky to single out the saxophone from the dense layers of jazz brass, I must confess. The EP comes with a live rendition of the song, recorded at the Montreal Jazz Fest in 2019, however. The live version features a saxophone solo that channels the ghost of John Coltrane in nothing short of a spectacular manner.
- Rivers of Nihil: “The Silent Life”
If IHSAHN is the PINK FLOYD of black metal, RIVERS OF NIHIL deserves the same moniker with regard to technical death metal. They are extremely brutal, yet melodic – and have the nerve to layer their metal schlagers with a hearty amount of jazz, electronica, and the like. In terms of saxophone, their back-catalog has a lot of spectacular songs to choose from. I could have picked “The Void from Which No Sound Escapes” from their latest album “The Work,” released last year – but as an incurable nostalgic, I simply have to go for the track that converted me to the parish of die-hard RIVERS OF NIHIL fans. It was the other-worldly hybrid of haunting serenity and brutal aggression, “The Silent Life,” from their 2018 outing, “Where Owls Know My Name.” The atmospheric mid-section of the song, featuring a kick-ass saxophone performance by Zach Strouse, is a pure PINK FLOYD moment right there.
- Crib45: “Province”
The unsung heroes of Finnish post-metal, CRIB45, released their debut full-length, “Metamorphosis,” in 2009. Traversing deep in the same sludgy, yet atmospheric sonic terrain as CULT OF LUNA, this Helsinki-based bunch threw in a bit of a curve-ball in the form of “Province.” Featuring a beautiful soprano sax solo by guest musician Sami Kurppa, the song rather nicely shows that the slow-grinding, brutal metal crunch goes perfectly together with jazz aesthetics. The soprano sax has quite a sublime tone by default, and the phrasing here is nicely reminiscent of the melancholic style of the Finnish jazz saxophonist, Tapani Rinne. On this track, CRIB45 is oozing with the vibe of something like CULT OF LUNA goes RINNERADIO – and it is just perfect!
- Tesseract: “Of Energy – Embers”
What could possibly go wrong if you mixed djenty, percussive guitar riffs, chugged out in strange time signatures, oceans of languidly reverberating atmospherics, and smooth jazz (but not necessarily smooth-jazz) saxophone? Let me tell you: absolutely nothing. The British djent-gone-full-fledged-prog outfit, TESSERACT, released their career-defining album, “Altered State,” in 2013 and it came jam-packed with all the aforementioned finer nuances of progressive metal. The saxophone was featured on two tracks, of which the album closer, “Of Energy – Embers” sounds more like a proper song, compared to the other sax track, “Of Reality – Calabi Yau,” which clocks in at only 2 minutes. It needs to be said, however, that both tracks do kick ass. On the latter, the saxophone is not introduced until the ambient coda, where it weaves dreamy and smoky jazz ornaments against the stripped-down guitar arpeggios. The other saxophone track is way more fierce in terms of jazz and raw emotion, but the instrumental interlude really should last longer! The saxophone flavor here was delivered by Christopher Barretto, who was better known as the vocalist of PERIPHERY from 2008 to 2010.
- Callisto: “Wormwood”
The Finnish post-metal circles are quite small, but what the “scene” maybe lacks in size, it definitely does not lack in substance. One of the gravitational forces in the field is CALLISTO, blending traces of Slavic melancholy to the somewhat NEUROSIS-like, slow-burning post-metal grind. Their 2006 outing, “Noir,” features quite a few unusual instruments, such as Wurlitzer piano, Theremin, flute, and – of course! – saxophone – that is, unusual instruments for a metal band. The opening track, “Wormwood,” features plaintive saxophone legatos by the guest musician, Esa Klapuri. Albeit the saxophone section resonates more with the post-rock air of bands such as BOHREN & DER CLUB OF GORE rather than with the full-on assault of your stereotypical metal bunch, the song is yet another fine example of how saxophone can really complement a metal composition. It’s all about the beauty of contrast.
- Oddland: “Vermilion Pt.4: Feed the Void”
Not only does this track prove beyond any reasonable doubt that the sun-dried Latin music vibes do mix with the djent-infested Slavic melancholy rather brilliantly, the flagship-band of Finnish prog-metal, ODDLAND, also throw in a mesmerizing saxophone solo that channels the ancient Middle Eastern desert spirits better than William Friedkin ever did with his 1973 horror classic, The Exorcist. It takes some talent to sound evil and entertaining in equal measures.
- Mendel: “Horizon”
MENDEL is a one-man progressive metal storm hailing from the Netherlands. Instead of going for mindless pyrotechnics, his 2015 outing, “Oblivion,” is characterized by class-A songcraft that puts hi-tech metal riffs to good use. One of the stand-out tracks on this album is the one entitled “Horizon,” featuring a beautifully jazzy saxophone solo by Reina van Triest. By turns, the song resonates with the overindulgent prog aura of bands such as ANIMALS AS LEADERS and the soft, atmospheric moods of, say, jazz guitarist Pat Metheny, even.
- Ever Forthright: “Screen Scenarios”
Mixing the progressive aesthetics of PERIPHERY and the restless fury of DILLINGER ESCAPE PLAN, the progressive jazz-metal outfit, EVER FORTHRIGHT, from New York, USA, released their eponymous debut full-length in 2011. One of the highlights of the album is “Screen Scenarios.” In general, the outing does sound slightly erratic at times, what with the epileptic jazz rhythms going all over the place, but on this track, everything comes together just beautifully. The more I listen to it, the more I am convinced that djenty and jazzy sax appeal is a thing.
- Fractal Universe: “Black Sails of Melancholia”
Back in the day, it used to be a recurring theme in the English comedy shows to make fun of the fact that the French didn’t know how to play rock’n’roll. I’m not sure if there ever was any truth to the claim, but now, it is a solid fact that the French do know how to play metal, what with bands such as GOJIRA, KLONE, ALCEST, VOUS AUTRES, and STENGAH, to mention a few. One of their national treasures is the progressive tech-metal band, FRACTAL UNIVERSE. Their latest studio album, “The Impassable Horizon,” is layered thick with technical death metal with progressive leanings. Among the tracks, “Black Sails of Melancholia,” stands out for its soul-crushing, melancholic atmosphere, which is further pronounced by the nothing-short-of-haunting saxophone work by the band’s frontman, Vince Wilquin. The song is an intriguing mix of subtle, sepia-filtered prog nuances from the dark dungeons of time and crushing death-metal riffs – a match made in heaven, if you ask me.
- Klone: “The Eye of Needle (Part 1)”
With the eponymous track divided in two parts of 10 and 7 minutes, from the 2011 EP, “The Eye of Needle,” the French experimentalists of KLONE plunge further than ever into heavy psychedelia. The band has been around for more than 15 years but still, they seem to remain criminally unknown, as though confirming the label given to them by Total Guitar magazine once: “Possibly the best-kept secret in France right now.” The saxophone conjurations, courtesy of Matthieu Metzger, layer the heavy riffs with mesmerizing, oriental flavor that creates a fleeting impression of something like SOUNDGARDEN playing a lysergic homage to the classic album monolith, “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” by THE BEATLES. Okay, I have to admit that I am a sucker for the sound of soprano sax… and here, the spiraling jazz tapestry conjured by the instrument, juxtaposed against the bellowing wall of distortion, just melts my brain.
- Amorphis: “Drifting Memories”
On their fifth studio album, “Am Universum” (2005), the Finnish metal pioneers, AMORPHIS, stepped away from their old metal style into a more progressive realm. The album featured saxophone on two tracks, of which I quite obviously found “Drifting Memories” more appealing, simply because of the song’s strong KINGSTON WALL vibes. You can’t really miss them – they shine through straight off the bat in the song’s intro. Now, the saxophone is not exactly the instrument that one would associate with a band like AMORPHIS, but as the song goes to show, music sounds better when listened to without prejudice.
- Kingston Wall: “The Real Thing”
It must be said upfront: KINGSTON WALL does not have much to do with metal but all those wild live performances these freaked-out rock ruffians conducted during the band’s short journey, along with the haunting legacy of their three studio albums, made such a huge impact on everyone, including the aspiring metal musicians of the early 1990s, that I think it simply has to be included in this list; AMORPHIS, for example, covered the KINGSTON WALL song, “And I Hear You Call,” on their 1997 “My Kantele” EP, showing the importance and influence of this crazy bunch. Released on the spectacular swan song of an album, “III – Tri-logy,” in the summer of 1994, one year before the tragic death of the band’s frontman, Petri Walli, the album’s closing track, “The Real Thing,” is a mind-bending, 18-minute journey through throbbing ambient soundscapes and the unrestrained, improvised retro-psychedelic guitar fury of Walli. The spectral rhythm section – the drummer, Sami Kuoppamäki and the bassist, Jukka Jylli – lays down a groove that could move mountains. The song features an amazing saxophone solo by Sakari Kukko of PIIRPAUKE. I simply cannot think of a more spine-chilling song to end a band’s career with. Still, after almost 30 years, the song gives me goosebumps.
This devil’s dozen of metal songs should provide ample evidence that the saxophone is a perfectly valid instrument to hold a candle to the Devil with, don’t you agree?