There are songs which can change one’s general perceptions of a genre – that it’s loud, soft, sentimental, deep, superficial, or whatever. Many people identify rock and metal with deafening sound. The Bulgarian symphonic metal band Metalwings has a number of songs which can change that perception with their lyrical beauty and innovative approach to both technique and content.
“Crying in the Sun” is the first Metalwings song I came across while surfing the net. Experience teaches you not to select songs on the basis of numbers on You Tube. There’s a lot of junk out there viewed by millions. But ‘Crying in the Sun’ with more than 15 million views is one of those deserving cases, and I decided to learn more about this Bulgarian metal band and their music.
Metalwings is a six member band headed by Stela Atanasova, band leader, song writer and moving spirit. They are all young, and their current line up is – Stela Atanasova (vocals, songwriter, electric viola), Krastyo Jordanov (Dracovallis) – guitar, flute, male backup vocals; Nikola Ivanov (Blackie), drums and growls; Milen Mavrov (Mavro) – bass, male vocals; Grigor Kostadinov – guitars; and Angel Kitanov – keyboards.
Their genre is symphonic metal, perhaps an uncommon genre these days, especially to those who associate the term ‘metal’ with names like Black Sabbath and Metallica. As Stela puts it: “Perhaps in recent years there has been a withdrawal of fans from this style in music. Something that makes me sad because there is still a lot of potential in this style and I do not agree that it’s exhausted and that every new band that makes music in this style is doomed because they copy one of the big ones. This is not true. The band’s music is a reflection of the people who make it and, as we know on this earth there are identical people, with the same DNA, way of thinking or algorithm in making music, so for me each band is unique in itself.
“The fact that the music industry is currently trying to impose new, easily digestible styles for the larger audience – is the real problem of music as a whole, not just for symphonic metal. I never wanted to do cliché music – to follow the rules, to do the kind of music that would be listened to. I prefer to be an outsider, but to stay true to ourselves than to make the kind of music that is sold today. That’s because if this is the motive that leads us along the way, then what will we do tomorrow and which way will we take if we have already lost our right to choose after a few wrong turns in the name of money and fast glory?”
The band’s music is a reflection of the people who make it and, as we know on this earth there are identical people, with the same DNA, way of thinking or algorithm in making music, so for me each band is unique in itself
That is the voice of a dedicated artist. It came as a surprise that small Bulgaria, a former Soviet bloc country (111,000 sq. km., population 7.5 million) could support a vibrant sub-culture of locally created English medium pop. But there’s nothing surprising about this. Nor can English or pop in English over there can be called a sub-culture. It looks pretty much mainstream.
The globalization of English, experienced by countries as far apart as Jamaica (population just over two million in 1980) and Sweden (with 8,300,000 people in 1980) was a key factor contributing to the emergence of Bob Marley and Abba. It may be less surprising in the case of Jamaica, a former British colony – Bob Marley was born 17 years before Jamaica gained independence in 1962). But Sweden was never colonized by Britain, and neither was Bulgaria. Sweden had hundreds of pop groups singing in English when ABBA got their act together.
Former Eastern bloc countries, where musical genres such rock and metal were banned under communist rule, have been late to catch up. But, if bands such as Metalwings are anything to go by, Bulgaria at any rate has caught up with a vengeance.
Apart from their original, bittersweet songs, it’s their stubbornly independent attitude which sets Metalwings apart. It won’t kill them if the international music labels don’t sign them up. As Stela puts it, this isn’t “cliché music,” tailor made to fit the taste of mass audiences.
Like many good, hard working musicians all over the world, Stela and her band members work at other jobs. “As I like to joke,” she says, “I work as a university lecturer during my free time.” But she takes her job teaching music and computer courses seriously. It’s continuous study of music and language from her childhood days, rather than computer programmes, which turned her into the stellar musician and singer-songwriter that she is today.
Her mother was a renowned teacher and musician who played piano, oboe and accordion. During her childhood, Stela found spending up to six hours a day playing the viola hard going, while her friends were having fun playing in the streets. But she persisted.
After graduating as an opera singer and violist, she decided to learn something fundamentally different, and went to study in four different universities within four years. In the fifth year, she enrolled in a study course of electronic music, and got hooked. After obtaining bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in computer music, followed by computer security and defence technology, she began working on her PhD, resulting in a doctorate in fractal and algorithmic music.
During that time, she returned to music and formed a trio with the idea of travelling the world performing classic music and evergreens. But this did not happen and she went on to form a band instead, deciding on the name Metalwings herself.
Metal as a genre has a mass following in many parts of the world. When Sri Lanka’s veteran metal band, Brian Obeysekara’s Stigmata toured Bangladesh, 30,000 fans turned up in Dhaka. When Metallica visited India, the venues were filled to the brim with raving fans. While the songs may sound like heavy sonic layerings of unintelligible and deafening sound to the uninitiated, the genre has its classics – such as Fade to Black (Metallica), Welcome to the Jungle (Guns N’ Roses), Crazy Train (Ozzy Osbourne), Iron Man (Black Sabbath), and the Trooper by Iron Maiden – which are musically extremely well-thought out, with tantalizing melody lines and harmonies, and as well-crafted vocally and instrumentally as anything else in the history of music.The overall impression that only Western bands are really good at this have changed with new bands from Asia, Africa, Eastern Europe and Latin America working hard to introduce new musical idioms into rock and metal. The Mongolian heavy metal band. ‘The Hu’ is a good example. The Iranian metal band in exile ‘Master of Persia’ is another. It’s a pity that Western music labels continue to ignore such talent. But the music is now heard worldwide thanks to You Tube and other online channels.
‘Crying in the Sun’ with its compelling opening lines and melody, creating an irresistible mood of deep longing and yearning right from the start, is one of those very special songs which define a band. The trick is to follow it up, or the band will be a one song wonder. Metalwings have succeeded in the perilous follow up act with other songs, such as Fallen Angel in the Hell and the more recent ‘For All Beyond’. Considering that Metallica has been in the business for thirty years or more, this isn’t bad at all for a band which was formed less than a decade ago.
Apart from her eerily powerful soprano voice, Stela Atanasova’s strongest asset is her song writing ability, and she is able to evoke good poetry in her song writing. The tone colour is usually dark and Gothic, but with rays of hope. The Gothic touch is central to her work. In ‘Slaves of the Night,’ you hear about a time when “ in the stillness of falling night/When the soldiers of the light fall asleep and the eyes of vampires wake up.” (Romania is Bulgaria’s northern neighbour).
The language is poetic, and the imagery is lyrical, sometimes metaphysical, juxtaposed in complex ways and unsettling in turn. In ‘Sad Hearts’ she sings: “Sad leaves die in the rain/sad hearts dance in the night/sad flowers died in the mud/how to get you back in the dream.”
In ‘Fallen Angel in the Hell,’ she sings: “There is always beauty when you feel someone’s heart/In the frozen steps of someone’s life/Break the surface of the mantle’s dark/Blind for your soul full of blood.”
In ‘Crying of the Sun,’ the lyrics are as intense as they can get: “I want to hear your scream of pain/Don’t stop to cry my sun/I feel you fly into a rage/Memory of night/Day of thousand tears/The eyes are oceans of the pain/The crying of the sun.”
The overall impression that only Western bands are really good at this have changed with new bands from Asia, Africa, Eastern Europe and Latin America working hard to introduce new musical idioms into rock and metal. The Mongolian heavy metal band
Stela says inspiration for the song came as she played one of her favourite melodies on the piano, “when I felt my fingers begin to play the original motif of the song.”
She knew instinctively that she had touched gold, and the feeling was confirmed when she played the melody to her band members that evening. Writing the lyrics, she says she knew that “the text must be strong, compelling, containing sadness, but also will. This is one of the songs I have created with a lot of lightness and very clear consciousness of what I mean and tell people through it. I wanted to bring beauty, purity, joy, delight and grief. To combine and recreate into music much of the emotions that dominate the mind of our world. And I think I succeeded.”
With Stela Atanasova as song writer, Metalwings are in the front ranks of the truly original contemporary bands. As for the music, one thing you notice about the good rock and metal musicians is that quite a few of them were classically trained, like Stela, before they chose a different path in music. This grounding is noticeable in Metalwings’ keyboard arrangements, with their Bach-like undulations, and in the use of viola and Irish flute, and of course in the vocals, a high flying sonic layer above the instruments.
Metalwings released their first full length album “For All Beyond” in April this year.
The music video released in November (like the band’s other videos) focuses on mood-emphasizing imagery, of light and dark, without bowing out to the easily marketable ‘sexy’ storytelling which rules the roost in pop and hiphop.
As Stela puts it: “Things happen here and now, not yesterday and tomorrow. Time’s job is to pass. Ours is to develop, grow up and improve ourselves in every area of life. There is time for everything if you wish to live through the dream.”
The band is busy right now preparing for a tour of Vienna and several Romanian cities in March 2019 with the Russian rock group Imperial Age. It looks as if Metalwings are ready to not just take off but soar.