Metal, Mountains, Magick Part One
Keyboard intros to metal songs aren’t really a thing. I love a bit of Van Halen, DLR era thank you Sammy, but alas, Jump isn’t metal. The Final Countdown? Cool, I suppose, when you’re 8. It’s very famous, but it’s maybe a victim of its own ridiculous success to be ever taken seriously. And of course it’s not metal either. Likewise the awesome, and heavy, Tom Sawyer by Rush. There has to be a load of Dream Theatre songs with keyboard intros, but I’ve never listened to that band in my life and I’m not dipping into their weighty back catalogue any time soon. Queensryche? Probably a heap of power metal too and there will most likely be some symphonic black metal that I can’t think of right now. Curse You All Men! Seventh Son, the song, is cool but that’s more synthy and it’s the guitars that actually play the riff. From Out of Nowhere by Faith No More is a good one. My personal favourite though is Rainbow in the Dark from Dio’s near perfect debut album, Holy Diver. It happens to be metal as fuck as well.
But the king of the bat-shit crazy keyboard intros of metal has to be Mr Crowley by Ozzy (see what I did there?) from 1981’s Blizzard of Oz. It’s a minute long, bears no relation to the rest of the song and unlike Rainbow in the Dark, it doesn’t reoccur at all. Genius. It was played by Don Airey, who seemed to be in every single significant band of the era, including Rainbow, Sabbath, MSG and is currently being John Lord in Deep Purple. He even played keyboards on Painkiller! Yup, that’s the same Painkiller by the ultimate heavy metal masters Judas Priest, though I’ll need to have a re-listen to find where the keyboards actually are*. Despite his mind-blowing credentials, (unsurprisingly if you’re aware of the Osbourne’s nefarious treatment of their musicians), Don wasn’t given writers credit for the intro to one of Ozzy’s most famous songs.
So why is the intro it even there? In the near 40 years this song will have been played live, they’ve never just missed it out, despite the intro having nothing to do with the track itself, musically anyway. The song would be unthinkable without it. What it does do, however, is set the theme of the song up. When Ozzy come in with the opening line “Miiiiisstttteerrrr Crowley, what went on in your head” for a full minute previously, you’ve been listening to this layered ceremonial piece that conjures up the world of magic, or magick in this case, that the real Mr Crowley created. I can imagine him swanning about in his ritualistic garb and triangular hat with an endless loop of Don Airey’s keyboards going on. I think Mr Crowley would’ve liked it.
But what the hell is all this metal talk doing on an outdoors blog? Aha! As perhaps a counter point to my previous piece about the Reverend Armstrong, who better to balance things out on the side of all things evil than the man once dubbed the wickedest in the world, whose own mother gave him his nickname The Beast as a child, the inimitable Aleister Crowley?
And it follows, why would Crowley feature in a blog known mostly for its pursuits of the beauty and inspiration of the outdoors, devote a thousand words to the great beast himself? Well the answer to this question is often missed or forgotten by those interested in Crowley, whether its occultists or Thelemic adherents or as an inspiration to countless heavy metal bands**. Like the good Reverend Armstrong, turns out Mr Crowley himself was not only a fan of the outdoors but a shit hot mountaineer as well.
Born into a wealthy family in 1875, Crowley had the luxury, surely a rarity at the time, of being well travelled as a youngster. He recalls his first trips to France and Switzerland in his autobiography at aged only 8, remembering the beauty of the sunrise over Rigi Kulm and the waterfalls surrounding the mountain. As a youth he was sickly and prescribed plenty of fresh air to treat a form of kidney disease called albuminuria, advice which he seems to have adhered to, taking to hillwalking in Wales, Scotland and the north of England with his appointed tutors. He took golf lessons in St Andrews of all places, with professional golfer Andrew Kirkaldy who placed 2nd in the Open Championship in 1889. This, crossing the path of the right people at the right time, was to be a reoccurring theme throughout Crowley’s life.
But it was holidaying with his mother during the summer of 1891 that Crowley was to experience a life changing trip to the Isle of Skye. Whilst staying at one of my favourite haunts, the Sligachan Inn, which was as popular then as it is now with people seeking not only the fresh air but access to adventure, the young Crowley fell in with a bunch of mountaineers that included Sir Joseph Lister, the pioneer of antiseptic surgery and father of modern surgery. Encouraged by his mother for the good of his health, the young Aleister, then still known as Edward, went off for what he suspected would be a quick jaunt up a hill. His experience climbing Sgurr nan Gillean gave him a new perspective and love of mountains and mountaineering which he was to fall passionately into for the foreseeable future.
Mountaineering then was a very different pastime to the one we recognise today. This was a new sport at the time and popular with the wealthy. However it was extremely dangerous, the use of ropes in its infancy and ice axe and crampons being almost non-existent, more of this later however. Until the second half of the 19th century, the mountains of the British Isles were used solely by snooty Alpinists, in training for their forthcoming seasons, or as was becoming more popular in Crowley’s day, in the more far flung areas of the British Empire. The Welsh mountains, the Lake District and the Highlands of Scotland as well as more localised rocky outcrops throughout the British Isles, however, offered a new and wholly unique take on the climbing experience. At the very least, each area is notorious for its ever changing weather systems. A lot of new experimenting was happening on these mountains in the latter part of the 19th century as rock climbing became a world-wide sport unto itself, and not just one for the Alps. The British Isles at the time was the place to be for this new breed of unconventional climber, and like it or not, Aleister Crowley, the great beast, was at the centre of this.
To find out how much, be sure to catch part two next week. And listen to the song if you don’t know it. I’m a big fan of the live version from the Randy Rhodes tribute album, the soloing is incredible.
Bruce Bryce is a writer of horror fiction amongst other things
*Touch of Evil of course! Great song, so I’ll put it as number three on my top ten keyboard metal intros.
**For more of this see Alan Averill of Primordial’s excellent podcast Agitators Anonymous, who recently did an episode about Crowley’s continued influence on metal.