What if…?” is a question that is asked often in progressive rock and metal, sometimes to original and interesting results.  Terminal Degree asked “What if we made a metal album using violins instead of guitars?

Bet you didn’t see that coming.

What if Paganini played lead for a progressive-metal band? What if Heifetz played Carnegie Hall with metal drums and bass? What if we dual-tracked the violin and let it shred over pummeling bass and drums?

What if.

Wonder no more. “The Middle Of Nowhen” is an instrumental album of intense, heavy songs written and performed by a power trio of drums, bass, and violin.

Where guitars usually rule, the violin seriously rocks. This album featured a virtuoso performance from Stanley Chepaitis and a granite-solid back-line of Nathan Santos’ bass and Mike Barnett’s drums. Want to hear where classical music meets metal? This is it. The production is clean and clear, the drums punchy and driving, the bass heavy and steady and the violin playing technical, mixed-genre melody and solos.

Here’s a quick rundown of most of the tracks on the album:

Resisting A Rest
Ha ha! (I’m a sucker for paronomasic song titles). And indeed they do. Virtuoso violin parts, both rhythm and lead, propel this song. Tense lines, too – with a foot on the gas, but not at all frenetic. This is a great first track for the album. We know what we’re in for, here. And, like it says on the wrapper, no rests to be found.

Deep Phreeze.
More melodic than the first track, but easily as loud, powerful, and articulated. Is there some 1970s melodic prog sensibility here, perhaps? It’s hard to resist the comparisons to Kansas, but this is much more energetic, intense, and heavy than that.

The songs are composed to lead from one statement to the next fairly quickly – no lingering on a repeated phrase or progression. The songs get to the point, and develop the themes and ideas before returning to the original statement, or mood. Very classical compositional forms are at work here – and the songs stay interesting throughout.

Fool To A King
Hey, medieval! Parallel fifths and pagentry. But if you’re looking for ren-faire background dross, keep looking. This is the road-trip continuing to bring the heavy – if Ye Minstral In The Gallery could shred, this is what he’d sound like before rocking out through the middle of the song. I’m hearing a shreddy Jethro Tull, ELO kind of thing going on here.

Onward and Inward.
The first musically contemplative section so far on the album. The violin brings the sound into classical territory immediately, but the group brings it back to a complex ballad within the first minute. By the first third of the song, the mood picks up, and things return to the intensity found on the previous tracks. We’re on a journey now. The violin never loses it’s virtuoso thread, and keeps ahead of the back-line that’s relentlessly steaming forward. There is plenty of melody here, and it’s well balanced with some classi-metal four-string-and-a-bow shredding.

Firebow.
Ah, now here’s where Paganini would be proud of his metal descendants. The piece starts mid-flight, and doesn’t relent. This is a showpiece for Stanley Chepaitis. There are hints of Balkan or Hungarian modal elements in the solos.

Whimsicle.
I heard somewhere that all of the whimsicles sold out at Comicon this year, and people had to fall back to cold water and crushed ice. Regardless, the trio here continues the heavy violin-driven sound in one of the more complex, interesting compositions of the album. Complicated rhythms, key changes, and dissonant riffing before speeding into a middle double-time, rock-out \m/ exposition.

Crosshairs:
⅞ time at last! And some strange chord changes! (To be fair, if there have been any odd-time-signatures so far, I didn’t call them out or notice overtly, having been into and enjoying the music overall).

Psychodomy
A fine ending to the album, the last piece starts with a distant, lone violin before the pounding bass and drums kick in. The group returns to a complex arrangement and progression mid-song, and keeps iterating over different sections through to the end. Like a caravan through disparate and distant lands, this last piece is an interesting and surprising road-trip.

Heavy metal violin? Can’t say that’s a common occurrence these days. In a sea of 7-string copycats and hyper-compressed blast-beats, this album stands very far from the maddening crowd. The trio’s classical training and multi-genre sensibilities come through on the album, from the mid-nineteenth century Romantics to the Twentieth-Century Moderns and of course progressive rock and metal: there’s contemporary classical in here, in a mix with several sub-genres of metal. The result is a metal-classical fusion very much in sync with the spirit of the classical music Romantics of two centuries ago who fused foreign (to them) music with staid, classical motifs and traditions, and whose virtuoso performances thrilled their audiences – and also in sync with modern rock musicians and audiences interested in continued explorations of heavy, intense rock not limited to That Which Has Gone Before™.

A lot of credit goes to the violinist here – the violin is a very demanding instrument, and in order to pull off a compelling metal performance (let alone a classical performance!) your chops must be excellent. Stanley does not disappoint – his technique and performance here are top-shelf. I’d love to hear more variety of timbre and tone from the violin: gypsy-sounding one song, and perhaps JL Ponty-like the next. Because the instrument is the lead through all songs, the band has a lot of freedom to explore different textures and tones. But this is an editorial nit-pick — an option, and not a detriment, to the work as a whole. In the end, they pull off a thorough and successful fusion of classical and metal, borrowing ideas from Sarasate, Paganini, and the incredible virtuosity of Heifetz and placing them squarely in the context of progressive metal. Listening closely, you can hear a range of ideas from a Bohemian zegeunerlied to the style of Steve Vai.

Dr. Michael Barnett teaches Music of the Rock Era, Music in American Culture and several other music courses at CU. Barnett enjoys a rich musical background and also plays drums and piano.

This October, Barnett plans on releasing yet another album with his latest band, Terminal Degree. The ensemble brings a progressive element to heavy metal with their inclusion of cellos and violins in place of guitars.

His eclectic musical interests are evidence of an extensive knowledge of music.

“If you came to look at my CD collection you would think that there must be eleven people that live here,” he said.

Growing up, Barnett watched Soul Train, attended various rock concerts, went to see the Nutcracker and also describes bluegrass music as one of his favorite genres.

Artists like Beethoven, Rush, Metallica, Pink Floyd and Prince have helped shape his passion for music. He also cites the rich music scene of the 70’s as being a huge influence on his desire to become a musician.

Barnett managed to make his way through the music scene, beginning his musical career with his tight knit band, Phantom Crew, and eventually branching out to his current project, Terminal Degree.

After struggling to find a heavy metal guitarist, Barnett decided to completely forget about guitar and record using string instruments instead. He talked to his former CU instructor and convinced him to join the project and later added a few other professors, as well as a couple of graduate students to complete the ensemble that he has today.

The entire band is comprised of musicians with not only talent, but extensive musical education as well. While Terminal Degree draws more of a heavy metal crowd, Barnett describes it as being progressive and musically challenging.

“It’s hard music. It’s impressive to witness that kind of musicianship,” he said of his band mates.

Still, even with highly skilled musicians, Terminal Degree has its obstacles. Because it’s comprised entirely of CU faculty and students, Barnett finds it challenging to get the entire band together since each band member has different things they’re committed to.

“All of it has difficulties, but I have a faith, or a belief, that everything will kind of fall in place how I need it to,” Barnett said. “So far that theory has proven solid. I’m really lucky.”

Fortunately, Barnett doesn’t have to worry about maintaining the interest of his classically trained bandmates. Avery Johnson, a grad student at CU and cello player for Terminal Degree, has found the unfamiliar genre to be surprisingly comfortable.

“I’m not familiar with metal music, but I have been playing electric guitar for years and grew up in a rocker family,” Johnson said. “In a lot of ways, it’s more my style than classical, but I don’t tell my cello professor that.”

Barnett doesn’t seem at all nervous for the album release. He believes each time he releases a new album he’s created his best work yet, and his positive thinking isn’t wavering in the midst of this release.

“I think this has the ingredients of being the best thing I’ve recorded so far,” he said.

Terminal Degree BREED Out Now!

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