Dear Readers, I’ve recently started writing for the International Society of Metal Music Studies blog. Some of my pieces will now be hosted there, but every time I write for them I will also post the lede paragraph of each article here. Please visit the ISMMS site to view this whole post, and while you’re there read through a few posts by their other excellent writers!
The history of Celtic Frost begins with the band Hellhammer. Hellhammer was founded as a trio in 1981 and released a couple of demos and an album before the members decided to end the Hellhammer project and reform under the name “Celtic Frost.” The band has promoted the idea that their work as Hellhammer was amateurish and earned such a bad reputation that they had to change their name to get people to take their music seriously. While I’m sure there is some truth to this story, the fact is that not *everyone* hated Hellhammer. One of the early German fanzines I’ve been reading recently actually gives a glowing positive review of Hellhammer’s first release! But it doesn’t entirely contradict the story Celtic Frost tells, just adds some fascinating nuance.
This article is about a technique in metal song composition that hasn’t received it’s fair share of attention, the turnaround. “Turnaround” is a term used more broadly than just metal, and it comes from blues music, where it describes a figure at the end of a twelve- or sixteen-bar blues that leads into the next verse or cycle of the blues form. Its use in metal is a bit more specific, and has to do with defining key. My goal is to explain a neat ambiguity of tonality in a turnaround used in Ozzy Osbourne’s song “Crazy Train” (and by “ambiguity I mean two conflicting possibilities, not vagueness). But to understand what’s happening in “Crazy Train,” you’ll need to know how turnarounds are used in riff-based metal songwriting.
Most metal music, and a lot of hard rock as well, is based on the repetition of a distinctive rhythmic/melodic unit called a “riff.” Riffs are often either repeated exactly, or varied slightly in a few ways. One example of exact repetition is the verse of “Crazy Train” by Ozzy Osbourne, which repeats the same guitar riff several times in a row without changing it.