Metal Twilight: Why Metal Bands Do the Best Ballads

I love the playlist concept. It allows me to fine-tune my song selection depending on my mood or activity. My “running” playlist is made up of mid-paced metal and rock tracks that really help with the jogging rhythm, with bands like Sevendust, Fear Factory, Disturbed and In Flames contributing to my motivating engine. I have a “best of 80′s”, “best cover songs” and yes, even a “classical” playlist. We’ll talk about that one another time.

The playlist I’d like to explore today is the contemplative one, the playlist that lets me breathe a little slower and in a more relaxed state. “Metal Twilight” is the name of this playlist. These are the softer songs, some acoustic, some simply slower and more deliberate – but they all share a common thread of being labelled the “ballad”.

I’ve had one version or another of this playlist for years, maybe more than a decade. For all the crushing rhythms and insanely fast and heavy riffs that a band can produce, they are also capable or the most subtle, reflective pieces that make you wonder how they can occupy both musical universes. To me, it is still the same world they are living in, and it comes down to this: intensity.

Metal bands are the masters of contrast. Take the opening licks of many metal albums over the past couple of years and you’ll find many of them begin with an acoustic arrangement. Metallica utilised this for the opening track of “Master of Puppets”, a thrasher called “Battery“. It starts with an acoustic riff that builds to a melody, which is then carried on by drums, heavy guitar and bass. Spine shivering. Just have a listen to the latest albums by Lamb of God and Chimaira: both begin with a soft passage that build and segue into the pulverising remainder of their albums. And what do I do? I practically bite my nails waiting for that wailing riff to take me by the throat and slam me into the ground – the suspense kills me!

It takes real talent to pull that off, and just as much musical skill to produce a song that doesn’t rely on the volume to be set at 11. The “metal ballad” can sometimes showcase a band’s technical prowess in its quieter moments that present a wider appreciation of their abilities in songwriting, singing and performing.

As I mentioned before, it’s about the intensity. These tracks can leave you just as breathless and impressed as the rest of a band’s repertoire. Because a lot of these bands exist on the fringes of the mainstream music market, they don’t get the exposure or success that might occur if that same song were performed by a more recognisable, safe band. Take for example, Creed’s “Arms Wide Open“, a song about the impending birth of a child. I think Sevendust are lyrically and musically superior with their tune “This Life“. But because they are less well-known, people don’t have the chance to enjoy it, and it’s left to the true fans to spread the word.

Challenging and thoughtful subject matter from a lyrical point of view is something that has always attracted me to the metal genre (more on that in another future blog post), and the same applies to the ballads by those bands. Some non-metal friends often point out that “you can actually understand what they’re saying, for once!“, but my view on metal vocals is that it’s another instrument in the band as much as a deliverer of lyrics. Their point is taken on board, though. These songs should help the band reach a wider audience that may then become a fan of their heavier material.

So I thought I’d share some of the compositions that you may not be familiar with if you’re not a metal fan, avoiding completely obvious references to Metallica’s “Nothing Else Matters” and the like. Here are a few treats that you may enjoy regardless of your music taste. Hopefully it widens your horizons to seek out some of these bands’ other material.

Dark Tranquillity – Auctioned

Evergrey – Waking Up Blind

Helloween – Don’t Stop Being Crazy

James Labrie – Coming Home

Opeth – Harvest

Sevendust – This Life

Spock’s Beard – Shining Star