Sep 062013

(photo by Brandon Hunt)

What I’m about to say won’t come as a complete shock to those of you who read NCS regularly, but it may still be a challenge to wrap your mind around it:  Nick Vasallo, lead vocalist and songwriter for the excellent technical death metal band Oblivion, has a Ph.D. in Music, is a professor at Cal State Polytechnic University (Pomona), and is a composer of classical music whose works have been performed internationally.

But even if you knew all that, you may not know that one of Vassalo’s compositions, and the one that earned him his Ph.D., represents a collision of heavy metal and classical music, and then ultimately a synthesis of the two. The name of the piece is Black Swan Events, and later in this post you’re going to see and hear the premiere of a video of its performance in Berkeley, California, on August 17, 2013.

The integration of metal and classical music in this concerto goes well beyond the fact that it was written for electric guitar, drum set, and orchestra. The integration occurs at a much deeper level, as I’ll do my best to explain in a moment. But first, it may help to know where the title of the work comes from.

The concept of a “black swan event” was developed by Nassim Nicholas Taleb and described in his bestselling 2007 book The Black Swan. It refers to a kind of rare and unpredictable event with a major impact, and the tendency of human beings to find explanations and rationalizations after the fact, as if the event could have been expected. As Vasallo explains in his Ph.D. dissertation:

One of my primary goals with Black Swan Events was to create an environment where two worlds collide and become one. I wanted to treat the appearance of Heavy Metal (“metal”) as a surprising event that has a major impact upon the structure of the work. By the end of Black Swan Events, the world of “metal” – represented by the electric guitar and drums – becomes so prevalent and enmeshed within the orchestra that its initial arrival, in hindsight, no longer seems surprising. The relationship between these two worlds – metal and western art music – transforms from instability to resolution and synthesis.

I mentioned a moment ago that the composition represents an integration of metal and classical music at a much deeper level than you might be able to guess. Vasallo began the composition process by recording his own extreme metal scream, and then he used experimental computer software to analyze the musical spectrum of the sound. Using that information, he then developed musical chords to mimic the scream’s spectrum, looked for patterns in the chords, and then used them to construct musical motifs that appear throughout Black Swan Events.

Many composers want their own distinct “voices” to speak through their music. Vasallo did that literally.

Vasallo also collaborated with Oblivion guitarist Victor Dods and incorporated his input into the development of the collection of musical motifs. On top of that, Vasallo developed the metal style in the piece further by including representations of nearly every element of virtuoso guitar playing that appears in metal, and he based portions of it specifically on techniques practiced by Eddie Van Halen.

Metal was not the only “black swan event” that Vasallo incorporated. The work also includes references and allusions to Neurosis, George Crumb, J.S. Bach, Kanye West, Igor Stravinksy, György Ligeti, Beethoven, and the concept of spectralism — because one of Vasallo’s principal goals was to compose a work that contained a multitude of styles and yet produce something that was highly unified.

This is a very compressed explanation of what went into the composition of Black Swan Events, and I hope I haven’t screwed it up. You can get all the detail you could desire by perusing Vasallo’s Ph.D. dissertation, which can be found here.

Because it’s so rare to see someone in a metal band with Nick Vasallo’s level of study and training in music history, music theory, and classical composition, I asked him what keeps someone like him interested in a pretty extreme form of metal. He answered as follows:

“There are certain things people fall in love with and carry with them forever. Some people get really into brewing beer. Others fall in love with oil painting. I am infatuated with the sound of extreme metal. There is something dangerously beautiful about the sonic amalgamation of electric guitar distortion, blasting drums, and overdriven vocals. What keeps me interested is creation. As long as I continue to create new sounds I will always be interested in extreme music.”

I also asked him whether there is anything he finds in common between classical music and extreme metal that has led both of them to be such important parts of his life. He gave this answer:

“There are many things in common between classical and metal music. For a more in depth response to that question, you can read my paper “Dark Reflections: The Disregarded Parallels Between Classical and Metal Music” here:!papers/ccca

“I think what makes both of these forms attractive to me is their complexity. This doesn’t necessarily mean the music has to be extremely difficult or technically dazzling, but the sonic possibilities of each style can be very complex. For instance, there is a lot of information in the sound of a distorted electric guitar. Just sustaining a drone note. There is power in there. I see and hear the same textural complexity in Ligeti or Varèse.

“Something else they have in common is that they both lie on opposite ends of the musical spectrum. On one end you have high art classical music, in the middle you have popular music, and on the other end there lies extreme music (subculture folk music). I tend to gravitate towards extremities and my musical inclinations are a good example of this.”

And now, on to the music itself. As promised, what you’re about to hear is a performance of Black Swan Events that occurred on August 17 at The Crowden Music Center in Berkeley, California. Victor Dods performed on the guitar, Vasallo’s Oblivion bandmate Luis Martinez was behind the drum kit, and the orchestra included roughly a dozen classical performers from the Bay Area. The orchestra was conducted by David Waugh, and the video was directed by directed by Brandon Hunt and Taylor Rankin. The music was produced and recorded by Nick Vasallo and was mixed and mastered by Zack Ohren.

Needless to say, I think the very idea of setting out to do what Vasallo did in creating Black Swan Events is metal as hell, and the music itself is fascinating. It’s discordant and vibrant, soft and droning, very complex and at times very simple, and ultimately I think Nick Vasallo succeeded in finding a synthesis in the power of all the seemingly divergent styles that are interwoven in this piece.

And holy shit, Victor Dods can really play some guitar!

I hope you enjoy Black Swan Events as much as I have.


  1. .lowpitch says:

    Well, that was awful.

  2. Darren says:

    For the love of fucking satan, don’t play in low quality!

  3. Darren says:

    Until the credits, I thought I was loosing my shit on where that brass-bass sound was coming from. Made it difficult to focus and enjoy the piece. Overall, I’d say 8/10, especially considering how difficult of a task it is to merge the two different sounds together. Fleshgod Apocalypse and Spawn of Possession did it better though; Can’t use the classical stuff as the center of the sound. Classical sounds should back up Metal sounds.

  4. Sean says:

    I thought that was rather interesting; it is a nice collaboration of ideas. It is definitely a dark, and chaotic piece that definitely does what it is intended. You can sense the friction between the two worlds of classical and metal. I found it all rather delightful, though I would have added a bit more harmony.

  5. Utmu says:

    On my second listen I’ve decided that the first section (Allusions) wasn’t as bad as I originally thought. In fact I found that it was at time, quite good. Although during other moments it sounded awful to me. There is a short portion where I believe the clarinet is a prominent instrument, and I feel the clarinet is really out of place here. I’m also quite ambivalent about the trumpet and the French horn. On my first listen I thought the French horn was too frayed, although now I feel it actually is fine, although I think it’s a bit too loud. The trumpet is an instrument which I normally like in metal, I enjoyed its inclusion on albums like Satyricon’s “The Age of Nero”, and I believe it also appears on Thou’s “Summit”; both times I enjoyed the trumpet’s input. But in the first section it sometimes seems a bit out of place when its used to make a melody rather than add to the rhythm.

    In addition to those instruments, I feel the guitar itself was also out of place and although I realize that Vasallo meant for this to be the case through some of the piece, I don’t feel it was effective in bridging the gap between the out-of-place to the orchestra-and-metal-guitar-can-work, in fact I feel it stagnated in the former for the most part. The very fact that it was made the solo instrument irritated me, and I feel that this is actually a large reason why it was out-of-place. The lower tuning felt also contributed to this, excluding (perhaps, I’m not sure) the buzz-saw tones. Higher-pitched contributions, especially the tremolo-picked licks added to the music I think, although I feel they would’ve been more enjoyable if it was used in conjunction with the orchestra in some way.

    Section II was probably my favorite part though, the guitar working with the orchestra was great, and I enjoyed the amazing dissonance created by the group. Section III was also quite nice–although the buildup was a bit lengthy, I feel it was well thought-out and added to the piece as whole. The trumpet during this portion added to the interest. At about 14:50 I don’t know if the change from guitar to orchestra is better the way it is, or if it were less abrupt, I think I’d like it either way; still, I’d prefer if the orchestra had accompanied a somewhat dominant guitar and at that point the guitar made the exchange of dominance to the orchestra. The moment at about 15:53 was a perfect example of the two entities (the orchestra and the guitar) working together with the guitar as the dominant instrument, but sadly it only lasts about a second. Finally, one thing that I really enjoyed throughout was the use of dissonance and the violinist’s use of that violin screech we so often hear in horror movie scores.

    This isn’t really an exhaustive comment-review, but overall, I think it was a very nice composition, and I’m interested in Vasallo’s work. Good luck to him!

  6. Booker says:

    You know I think in general these days we’re so accustomed to hearing a certain type of music, with repetitive structures, and certain elements that give it a kind of coherence – a solid rhythm or melody. Even in metal, which is much more diverse than say your typical pop album. So I think part of the struggle people have with listening to something like this is that it’s much more loose, meandering and lengthy structure, and that is kind of disorienting.

    Anyway, philosophizing aside, this is quite an impressive achievement. I find it difficult to ‘get into’, but I guess appreciate it from a more distanced perspective.

  7. djneibarger says:

    that is damn impressive.

  8. KSMASH says:

    I think I liked everything except for the drawn-out Van Halen tap solo. It was sloppy, which I would expect from Eddie himself but not in this setting. It was distracting, but the rest of the song was great!

  9. […] last we featured him in these pages (here), the subject was the composition that earned him his Ph.D., a unique collision of heavy metal and […]

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