Eastman Grad Students Form Harp-Only Metallica Tribute, Harptallica

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:: Harptallica :: Quixote’s True Blue :: May 3 ::
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By Brian Kenney

There’s much to be said about tribute bands. For the most part, their shows are a guaranteed greatest hits package, and in some cases a tribute act’s enigmatic popularity even approaches proportions of the very bands they cover. It also helps when they put a twist on their presentations.

Such is the case with Harptallica, which is a unique, harp-only female duo who interpret Metallica classics with a style and flare which makes it seem that tracks like “One” and “Orion” were meant to be played on giant 34-string concert grand pedal harps.
Harptallica is the brainchild of Ashley Toman, who became intrigued with the speed metal of Metallica in a music theory class while a graduate student at the infamous Eastman School of Music — a classically influenced program on the University of Rochester campus. An assignment offered a chance to transcribe a tune of her choice, whereupon she chose “Fade to Black,” ultimately arranging the Metallica classic for two harps.

“As an experiment I started to play around with some of their stuff on the harp. Then I thought it was easier to divide it up between two harps,” Toman said about Harptallica’s conception in a recent interview with The Marquee. “I had a couple of arrangements done and I asked (the other half of Harptallica, fellow harpist) Patricia (Kline), who I was going to school with, to read through them. Eventually, I ended up doing an album’s worth of arrangements and we recorded.”

A few months and ten Metallica gems later, they left a studio with a debut CD, Harptallica: A Tribute, and they now reign as the Hells Belles of the Metallica kingdom. Since then, it’s been split personality between metal and classics, between Metallica and Bach, and, to borrow a word from Spinal Tap, a “Mach” collection.

Both harpists are classically trained, with Master of Music degrees from the Eastman School, and are intensively involved with harp on a classical level, be it private instruction or performing in orchestras and weddings. But since the fury that is Harptallica has ignited as a phenomenon, the duo have toured extensively on the East Coast and in the Midwest, hitting such well-known rooms as New York’s Knitting Factory and St. Louis’ The Underground. They even performed at  “Metallibash,” the annual “all things Metallica” convention onboard the Queen Mary in Long Beach, Calif.  “We had no idea how the idea of harp in metal clubs and bars would go over but it did well. So we figured we’d do it again,” said Toman.

The harpists’ attraction to Metallica’s ominous sounds may come from the E-flat tuning of Metallica’s early Kill ‘Em All / Master of Puppets era, which featured a signature ‘dropped tone,’ giving the band an identifiable foreboding sound. Perhaps this distinct sound ultimately lead the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra to cover selections of Metallica songs. And perhaps it’s why it sounds so wicked when plucked  on dueling harps.

“A lot of Metallica has a sound —and I don’t want to call it classical, exactly — but the bits and pieces such as that slow section of ‘Master of Puppets,’ that really works well with harp,” Toman said. “And a lot of lyrical lines that James  (Hetfield) sings, I can work with on harp. I tried to work with some of the stuff in Slayer songs but they don’t translate as well.”

But beyond all the chord progressions and the theory, Toman said she just loves the raw energy of metal. “It makes me feel very energetic. Maybe it’s the surge of power of the guitars together or whatever, but their music itself spoke to me. Metal does that to me, in general. Maybe because it’s directly opposite of what I usually play with harp, but there’s an energy to it that I really like,” Toman said.

You’ll find none of Metallica’s disillusioned “alternative” stuff (off of St. Anger or Load) on the Tribute disc, but the album highlights include “One,” “Enter Sandman” and “Welcome Home (Sanitarium).” “For Whom the Bells Toll” and “The Unforgiven” are standouts among the collection, and “Orion” rivals Rodrigo y Gabriela’s flamenco-guitar version of the 1986 Puppets epic.
But, specifically, it’s the interlude of “Master of Puppets” — originally masterfully crafted by Kirk Hammett — by the duo, so desolate and utterly haunting, that makes it seem as if Hetfield and Lars Ulrich wrote these pieces just for the harp. It’s the perfect marriage of progressive classical composition for this rocket-fueled song.

Recommended if you like:
• Metallica
• Helles Belles
• Rasputina

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