Symphonic Rock

By Michael J. Legeros

"Fortissimo at last!" - Gustav Mahler,
 on seeing Niagara Falls for the first time

In college, I once played chess for seven hours straight.  From
midnight till dawn, against a dorm mate who was working as a se-
curity guard.  (That night, he was guarding an office building.)
Mark was also a musician, a member of the marching band, and a
frequent commentator on my eclectic musical tastes.  He once ob-
served that my seemingly strange split preference of "classical"
and "metal" was as simply explained as "they're both loud."  Truer
words were never spoken.  In the years since, both baton and bass
guitar have remained at the forefront of my listening adventures.
Wagner, Verdi, Beethoven on one side; Ozzy, Priest, Accept on the
other.  And as I've sought to appreciate *each* genre on its own
terms, I've also been consistently attracted the *blending* of
those two forms-- those so-called occasions of "symphony rock."

And so, with that ultra-flimsy excuse for writing yet another es-
say-disguised list, here are a handful of notable "symphonic rock"
recordings, both individual songs and entire albums.  The criteria
for inclusion is that the works combine "electric instruments" and
either woodwinds, strings, or both.  (Horns alone don't count.
That's too easy.)  The examples are, for the most part, examples
of *harder* rock.  And at least one piece has been omitted, Yngwie
Malmsteen's "Concerto Suite For Electric Guitar and Orchestra in E
Flat Minor Op. 1," which I've written about elsewhere.  Also omit-
ted are orchestra *only* efforts, such as David Palmer's excellent
Queen collection "Passing Open Windows."  Or the dynamic, Eastern-
tainted Led Zeppelin tribute "Kashmir."  Or even Telarc's recent
reissues of the London Symphony Orchestra's "Symphonic Rock" ses-
sions.  I'll save those for another time...

    Roger Waters - "The Wall: Live in Berlin" (Mercury, 1990)
    Gloriously grand Grand Guignol, with Pink Floyd's second
    most-popular album performed at the Cold War Wall with
    props, choirs, orchestras, and everyone from Brian Adams
    to The Scorpions.  (My favorite credited ensemble:  The
    Military Orchestra of the Soviet Army.)  This double-disc
    set has both better and worser moments, plus a bonus song
    at the end, Waters' "The Tide is Turning."  (Written for
    the occasion?)  By strict heaviosity standards, the best
    sequence on either platter is "In The Flesh," "Run Like
    Hell," "Waiting For The Worms," "Stop," and "The Trial."
    From brassy fascism to musical testimony, with the latter
    presided over by judge Albert Finney (!) and courtroom
    characters Tim Curry, Thomas Dolby, Ute Lemper, and Mari-
    anne Faithfull.  Bravo.

    Ozzy Osbourne - "Diary of a Madman" (1981) and "So Tired"
    (1983)  Blame Randy Rhoads, the budding guitar god whose
    work with the former Sab undoubtedly influenced the lat-
    ter's songwriting style.  (A classical taint that contin-
    ues to this day, though Rhoads died in 1982.)  "Diary,"
    from the same-titled album (CBS) and co-written by Randy,
    is a crunching, melodically haunting tour through a cer-
    tain person's tortured mind.  "Hooked on Classics" crea-
    tor Louis Clark arranged the sad-sounding strings.  The
    rousing choral finale apes "O Fortuna" from Carl Orff's
    "Carmina Burna," a work which Ozzy also opened concerts
    with.  "So Tired," from "Bark at the Moon" (CBS) and on
    the other hand, is a lush, slower-tempo ballad with full
    orchestral participation.  Plus a little electric guitar
    from Jake E. Lee, who replaced Rhoads' replacement Brad
    Gillis.  Plus lovely piano playing per usual from Don
    Airey.  The only downside to either of these two:  both
    are before Ozzy began effectively multi-tracking his vo-
    cals.  Be prepared for fine whine.

    Deep Purple - "Concerto For Group and Orchestra" (1999)
    First performed in '69, the subsequently lost score was
    reconstructed three decades later for a live show with
    the London Symphony Orchestra, Mr. Paul Mann conducting.
    'Tis an utterly interesting work-- three movements over
    forty-or-so minutes, blending blues riffs, horny fan-
    fares, vocal passages, and barely perceptible strings.
    Guitar and drum solos, too, plus an extended (cheesy)
    organ interlude.  Ten listens later and I'm still trying
    to figure it out...  From "Deep Purple Live at the Royal
    Albert Hall" (Spitfire), a double-disc set that includes
    *13* additional songs from both the band and select solo
    members.  Guest musicians:  Aitch McRobbie, Margo Buchan-
    an, Pete Brown, Mario Argandona, Sam Brown, Miller Ander-
    son, Ronnie James Dio, Graham Preskett, Steve Morris, Ed-
    die Hardin, The Kick Horns, and the Steve Morse Band.

    British Rock Symphony (Point, 1999)  The dream project of
    pop promoter David Fishof augments assorted English clas-
    sics, circa '60's and '70's, with a studio orchestra and
    choir.  Plus a passel of all-star performers.  Some are
    melded into medleys, such as the Paul Rodgers-sung "Ima-
    gine; Penny Lane; Blackbird; Give Peace a Change; Come
    Together."  Others are left intact, like a bass-drum bo-
    oming "Kashmir" with Roger Daltrey and Ann Wilson alter-
    nating vocals.  There's one instrumental as well, a fid-
    dle-featuring "While My Guitar Gently Weeps."  (With vio-
    linist Nigel Kennedy making us cry.)  Alas, at least a
    *third* of these rate as slack or only slightly higher.
    Like why-bother renditions of "Another Brick in the Wall"
    and, yawn, "Stairway to Heaven."  Fabulous finale, howev-
    er, with Alice Cooper and Tommy Shaw splitting the songs
    on the medley "Start Me Up; A Hard Day's Night; 5:15; See
    Me, Feel Me; Listening to You."

    Gary Moore - "Led Clones" (1988)  The Irish guitar great
    and one-time Thin Lizzy member enlisted Ozzy Osbourne to
    sing this string-assisted, "Kashmir"-styled comic commen-
    tary on all those annoying Plant/Page sound-alikes of the
    late 1980's.  (Such as Whitesnake, Great White, and King-
    dom Come, though none are named in the song.)  The album,
    "After the War" (Virgin), was Moore's last hard-rocker
    before plunging into Chicago-style blues.  (He's since
    started stepping back, but don't dare miss "Blues Alive"
    from that period.)  Cozy Powell's John Bonham-sounding
    drums are awfully good here.  And yet, I think it's the
    synthesizer-emulating strings that drives this one home.
    They stay busy, blending "Whole Lotta Love" with bits of
    Ravel's "Bolero."  Fabulous.  Other players:  Neil Carter
    on keys and former Ozz player Bob Daisley on bass.

    Aerosmith - "Dream On" (1993)  From the CBS soundtrack to
    "Last Action Hero," a forgettable John McTiernan-directed
    Schwarzenegger flick, this full orchestra-accompanied
    version was arranged and conducted by the film's composer
    Michael Kamen for MTV's "10th Anniversary Special."  The
    live-recorded results rock, no question, though with an
    arrangement more sledgehammer than subtle.  (Gee, kinda
    like... Kamen's score-writing style!)  Steven Tyler and
    the boys certainly rise to the occasion, matching the tux
    wearers heavy chord for heavy chord.  Don't miss listen-
    ing to this one.  Same is also available on 'Smith's 13-
    disc "Box of Fire."  Spin the movie tunes, however, and
    you'll enjoy a Rick Rubin-produced AC/DC number ("Big
    Gun") that happens to kick harder than anything on their
    subsequent, Rubin co-produced collection "Ballbreaker."

    Metallica and the San Francisco Symphony - "S&M"  (Elek-
    tra, 1999)  Michael Kaman again, arranging the tunes and
    conducting the backing orchestra at a pair of Berkeley,
    CA dates that James Hetfield and Company played in April,
    '99.  Way too much to digest in a single setting, this
    double-disc set suffers from a mixed-quality mix and the
    regrettable inclusion of later-era (read: suckier) Met
    material.  That said, hearing a thundering string section
    chug through the opening of "For Whom The Bell Tolls" is
    one of life's rarer pleasures.  As is the amusing race to
    the finish on the thrash classic "Battery."  Are they
    playing with each other or against?  Oh, and that's Ennio
    Morricone's "The Ectasy of Gold" performed over the open-
    ing.  From his score to Sergio Leone's spaghetti western
    "The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly."

    Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice - "Jesus Christ Super-
    star" (MCA/1970)  Deep Purple's Ian Gillian sings (and
    wails) the title role in this groovy, still-snappy-af-
    ter-all-these-years, double-disc rock opera that prob-
    ably taught as many baby boomers about Christ as any Sun-
    day school classes did.  Lots of strong (if a bit atonal-
    ly dated) melodies, most of which are always accompanied
    by bass, drums, and electric gee-tar.  Plus horns.  The
    only real stylistic side-trip is "King Herod's Song," a
    ragtime number.  (And, I guess, a ballad or two that's
    more soaring than screaming.)  The best moment, by far,
    is still the crashing, familiar fanfare that opens the
    Murray Head-sung, Gospel choir-accompanied "Superstar."
    That'll raise your pulse.  Alan Doggett conducted the or-
    chestra that featured the strings of the City of London
    Ensemble.  'Twas also the top-selling album in the States
    for that year.

    Rainbow - "Gates of Babylon" (1978)  This Eastern-flavor-
    ed, mid-tempo rocker rocks with a mix seemingly swiped
    straight from "Jesus Christ Superstar."  (I know, eight
    years apart...)  The producer is Martin Birch, later of
    Iron Maiden fame; the album is "Long Live Rock 'n' Roll"
    (PolyGram).  Ritchie Blackmore plays guitar, of course,
    with Ronnie James Dio singing, Cozy Powell drumming, Bob
    Dais-ley bass-ing, and David Stone on keys.  Rainer
    Pietsch both scored and conducted the song's strings,
    featuring the Bavarian String Ensemble.  (With Concert
    Master Ferenc Kiss.)  The eerie, opening notes, however,
    are synthesized.  (Sidebar: The aforementioned Mr. Malm-
    steen covered both this and other Blackmore-era classics
    on "Inspiration," his 1997 collection of Other People's

    Extreme - "Everything Under The Sun" (1992)  From "Three
    Sides To Every Story" (A&M), this three-song, twenty-min-
    ute medley is more airy pop than aggressive rock.  Inter-
    mittent crunch 'n' wail, with a boatload of melody and an
    appealing, Beatle-esque tint to the whole thing.  If mem-
    ory serves, the orchestra-accompanied tracks were taped
    at Abbey Road in London, the same place that Sgt. Pepper
    taught the band to play.  A tour de force from the now-
    defunct foursome, with vocalist and later one-time Van
    Halen front man Gary Cherone the clear MVP.  His voice is
    so stunningly clear in spots it brings Goosebumps.  Other
    terrific tracks: "Seven Sundays," perhaps the first hard-
    rock waltz ever recorded, and the two-minute, two-second
    "God Isn't Dead?", a wee ballad with the most beautiful
    piano playing I believe I've ever heard.

    Pat Boone - "You've Got Another Thing Comin'" (1997)
    Joke.  It's a joke.  It's a joke.  The recording is real,
    however; a big-band cover of Judas Priest.  Believe it or
    not, the Christian Crooner (who, coincidentally, current-
    ly lives next door to one Ozzy Osbourne), recorded a doz-
    en such "standards" on his squarely un-hip "Pat Boone in
    a Metal Mood" (Hip-O).  Covered in white are AC/DC, Alice
    Cooper, Guns 'n' Roses, and even Metallica.  (Best moment
    on entire album:  the spoken-word section of Van Halen's
    "Panama" where he "reaches down, between his legs, and...
    fastens his safety belt."  Second best moment: "choooooo
    chooooo" chimed during "Crazy Train.")  The guest list
    includes Ritchie Blackmore, Dweezil Zappa, and well-known
    metal chick Sheila E.  (Yup, Prince's old protege.)  Al-
    so, real rocker Gregg Bissonette slaps the skins.  This
    particular track is hilarious for the female vocals that
    chant the chorus.  You'll never listen to the original
    the same way again.

Copyright 2000 by Michael J. Legeros


Search Mike Legeros

Copyright 2023 by Michael J. Legeros