OPETH, BLACK SABBATH, AND ENSLAVED GET MELLO…YOU SHOULD TOO
I recently contacted Bazillion Points book publisher and heavy metal author Ian Christe about reviewing his books for MetalSucks. Bazillion Points is best known as the home of Daniel Ekeroth’s excellent tome, Swedish Death Metal.
Ian was kind enough to send me a hardcover of Hanoi Rocks guitarist Andy McCoy’s autobiography Sheriff McCoy. I was not able to start on that book as I was neck-deep into Slash’s autobiography. Luckily for me, Ian also enclosed a DVD of a feature-length documentary, Mellodrama.
During one of my reading breaks I decided to pop in this film and am I glad I did. Mellodrama is easily one of the most entertaining, informative, and educational music documentaries I have seen in ages. It even has a little something for you metalheads, prog rock types, and horror film score fans in MetalSuckistan.
I knew absolutely nothing about the musical instrument known as the Mellotron going into this film. What I came to learn is that it was the first keyboard to emulate other musical instruments via the usage of magnetic tapes. In plain English, the Mellotron was the first sampler. Well, I should say that the Mellotron was actually a rip-off of another instrument, so, in essence, a sampling of a sampler.
It was (and is) also an instrument used by various rock/metal types including Opeth, Enslaved, Black Sabbath, and Led Zeppelin; as well as Italian film composers including Goblin and Fabio Frizzi, for such classic horror flicks as Suspiria, Zombie, and The Gates of Hell.
Director Dianna Dilworth traces the origins of the Mellotron back to the 1950s as the invention of American Harry Chamberlin, whose ultra-heavy tape-driven keyboard was titled, imaginatively, the Chamberlin.
The story of how Harry’s invention was basically stolen from directly underneath his nose is fascinating in its own right. His chief salesman ran off with two of the instruments and sold them to a company in England as his own idea. The British version, known as the Mellotron, soon became a favorite amongst musicians with bands such as the Moody Blues, Yes, and the aforementioned Led Zeppelin. The intro to The Beatles’ “Strawberry Fields Forever””probably best exemplified the unique sounds created by the Mellotron.
Dilworth expertly chronicles the deception in the creation of the Mellotron, the rise of the instrument among some of the world’s most famous recording stars, as well as its inevitable decline. She also does a brilliant job of laying out how Harry Chamberlin became the original Godfather of sampling, the evolution of sampling from the Chamberlin to today’s reliance on synthesizers, to the retro-fascination with the Mellotron by many of today’s musicians including Michael Penn, Kanye West, and Radiohead.
It’s not often I learn something new about music or musical instruments these days. Mellodrama, however, introduced me to an entire world I had no idea existed. From the fascinating instrument to the current culture of worship that surrounds it to the exposure and creation of sampling, Mellodrama opened my eyes on several fronts.
While not an obvious entry into the heavy metal documentary realm, Mellodrama jumps to the front of the pack as the best so far for 2010. Plain and simple, if you are fascinated by music — any genre of music — then you will appreciate this film. It is well-made, informative, entertaining, and gave me something new to chew on and add to my musical lexicon.
(4 1/2 out of 5 horns)