Mellotrons in Metal: 7 Great Songs Featuring the Strange Organ
Recently, my wife directed MELLODRAMA: The Mellotron Story, a documentary about a California inventor who unveiled an organ in 1956 that could replay the sounds of other instruments using magnetic tape. His idea was lifted by an employee and sold abroad, and soon the Mellotron caught fire and became a rock music staple, championed by everyone from the Beatles (on "Strawberry Fields Forever") to Lynyrd Skynyrd (on "Free Bird").
While making Mellodrama, my wife interviewed baby boomers like Mike Pinder of the Moody Blues and Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys. She talked to pro pioneers from Yes, Genesis, and King Crimson, bands that based their entire sound around Mellotrons. But as I heard this strange, haunting instrument being played around the house, I realized that Mellotrons have als played an inspiring and evocative part in heavy metal dating back to the early 1970s. Black Sabbath and Opeth ended up in the film, I'm happy to say, and here's a sampling of majestic and metallic Mellotron moments that range from eerie strings to the choirs of the damned.
'Guessing Game,' Cathedral
The title track to Cathedral's double-length masterpiece is just the beginning of the Mellotron overdosing that happens on the album, but it's a good theme and a great starting point for demonstrating the drawn-out and organic sound of the Mellotron.
'Changes (live),' Black Sabbath
The Mellotron is the key to the mystery of why "Changes" is one of the least-played Ozzy-era Sabbath tracks. As Tony Iommi and Geezer Butler explain in Mellodrama, "Changes" was a huge hit in Australia, and the Mellotron featured heavily in press coverage of Sabbath's 1973 trip down under. Unfortunately, when they got there, the Mellotron didn't work- a common problem for the highly erratic and fragile machines! Nonetheless, Sabbath continued to use Mellotrons live and on record through the 1980s Dio era, even using a Mellotron live to trigger tape samples such as the rain intro to "Black Sabbath. When Ozzy Osbourne and daughter Kelly remade "Changes" in 2003, though, they went fully digital.
'Devils,' Iron Claw
Though far less known than Sabbath, Scotland's Iron Claw played boulder-crushing heavy rock, and their 1974 track "Devils" is a masterful and bewitching interchange of Mellotrons and distorted guitars.
'The Grand Conjuration,' Opeth
Opeth, grand champions of all things arcane and atmospheric in metal, unfurled the black velvet curtains with lush disorienting Mellotron strings on their Ghost Reveries album. "The Grand Conjuration" shows that Mellotrons can be married with majestic power, and used as a satanic aftertaste to the mighty roar of death metal growls. For the following album, Watershed, Opeth recorded the B-side "Mellotron Heart," recorded entirely on Mellotron and Moog synth.
'As Fire Swept Clean the Earth,' Enslaved
As these survivors from the old guard of Norwegian black metal have edged deeper and deeper into prog territory, the Mellotron has become more prominent in Enslaved's songwriting. The Below the Lights album is just drenched in creepy Mellotron keys, especially this song.
'Roulette,' System of a Down
Though this is hardly a typical frantic System of a Down song, it's worth pointing out that even this nu metal powerhouse turned to Mellotrons when it came time to summon some atmosphere to back up acoustic guitars and overly emotional vocals.
'Main Theme from City of the Living Dead,' Fabio Frizzi
Though far from a heavy metal musician, Italian soundtrack composer Fabio Frizzi has carved his influence on the DNA of metal via his hair-raising scores for Lucio Fulci and other directors in films including Zombie, The Beyond, and City of the Living Dead. He compares the Mellotron choir tapes to "the voices of the dead." Perfect.
Ian Christe is the author of Sound of the Beast: The Complete Headbanging History of Heavy Metal, and the publisher of Bazillion Points Books, home to modern classics like Swedish Death Metal, Metalion: The Slayer Mag Diaries, and Murder in the Front Row: Shots From the Bay Area Thrash Metal Epicenter.