Updated: Jun 23, 2020
In my opinion, it is the musical works of Uli Jon Roth, Ritchie Blackmore, Eddie Van Halen and finally, Yngwie Malmsteen that laid the foundations for "shred" guitar, a musical phenomenon that would in turn give birth to a new generation of guitarists within the world. Following their wake, America suddenly became the shred capital of the world with Shrapnel Records carrying the torch and becoming the go-to label in North America when it came to the distribution of shred oriented heavy metal. Seriously, if you're even remotely interested in shred and fast, flashy guitar playing, chances are, you KNOW who Shrapnel Records are and what they did. Chances are, you are also aware of how much this California-based label changed the game. From solo artists like Joey Tafolla, Tony MacAlpine, Paul Gilbert, Jason Becker and Vinnie Moore to bands like Vicious Rumors, Apocrypha, Hexx, Cacophony & Racer X, the Shrapnel Records' roster was made up of the best musicians in the game. It is also clear that Mike Varney had a sixth sense for being able to scout and find new talents and push them in the direction he desired. Because of Mike Varney's vision and the raw talent that came from the artists he worked with, the label single-handedly changed how the rest of the world perceived American heavy metal and shred guitar. One question remains : How come Shrapnel Records never signed non-american artists? I understand Mike Varney had his reasons but it is something I often ask myself, especially when I listen to Elegy's third demo released in 1988, named "Elegant Solution". Why Elegy specifically? Why this demo? How are they relevant to Shrapnel Records?
Spearheaded by a young, brilliant and gifted guitar player named Henk Van De Laars alongside elite dutch guitarist Arno Van Brussel & 4 string shredder Martin Helmantel, Elegy made a name for themselves in the underground Dutch scene, rapidly becoming known enough to tour with the likes of Death Angel with the release of 2 demos under their belt, named "Matricide" & "Better Than Bells". By 1988, the band managed to release a third demo in a row which surpassed all their previous output and single-handedly creating the genre known as progressive/technical power metal. Not just that though. That demo and the ones before not only rivaled everything Shrapnel Records had put out by then, but it also rivaled everyone else : The Italians, the Brazilians, even the Germans and their speed metal bands. After all, when you have Ed Warby behind the kit, you know shit's for real. Dare I say : Elegy's demos even surpassed the works of Yngwie Malmsteen when it came to incorporating neoclassical melodies into heavy metal. So, what's the connection with Shrapnel Records? Well, I think this demo took everything the Americans did on the other side of the Atlantic, ie taking the same formula and the same ingredients, but bringing everything up a notch and setting a new standard, proving to be truly groundbreaking even by today's standards. You could say Watchtower and Sieges Even pioneered technical metal too, but demo-era Elegy did it in their own special way, without EVER compromising on catchiness and accessibility. It was the best out of both worlds to have this level of technicality while ensuring the songs never became a blur of notes. With this demo on the streets, Elegy could have been the biggest thing and could've had the world at their feet. There's just one problem with that, though : They're not Americans! Therefore, the "main" market for this genre at the time (alongside Japan) was unaware of their existence.
I think Mike Varney may have missed on an opportunity to help Shrapnel Records reach another level by scouting for more young talents outside America in order to establish a direct link to Europe and bring over talents from overseas, starting with Elegy being at the forefront of this movement. Of course, he likely had his reasons : Distribution, budget constraints, and proximity. I just think Elegy would've fit perfectly amongst the label roster, setting a new standard within the international scene as Elegy were way ahead in the game. This is also where Elegy could've become an household name in the shred community across the world alongside the greats, and not just within obscure prog-power circles. If not Elegy, I think Henk Van Der Laars at the very least deserved a solo career record contract !
Of course, there was no internet back then and so it was much harder for people in Europe to correspond or trade with people in the American market. We must also think about the possibility that maybe Elegy never even established contacted with Mike Varney to begin with or even cared to do so. Who am I to assume such a thing? My take on this is that Elegy obviously took inspiration from their American counterparts. You can hear the Racer X and Cacophony-isms and Henk's riffs and solos. Had I been him, I would've likely tried to reach out to Varney as he's the one responsible for putting out the music that inspired Elegy in the first place. Understanding my reasoning? Or maybe Henk did send the tapes to Varney who likely threw the tape into a pile of countless demo submissions that would collect dust inside a cardboard box for decades to come. Who knows? Better yet : Who cares at this point? Only fools like me do!
Elegy remained relatively quiet for a few years following the release of this demo, as I imagined they struggled finding a suitable label for this type of music. It did take them 4 years to write and release their debut album "Labyrinth of Dreamss" which had a noticeably different direction. They made their sound more accessible and less hectic too, which is by no means a bad thing because they eventually *DID* find their success, making a name for themselves within Europe with the release of numerous albums with a proggier, more eclectic direction and with the inclusion of numerous power-ballads and mid-paced material that would contrast with the breakneck speed and over the top technicality of the demos. They toured Europe and Japan extensively with many notable headlining acts, and are remembered fondly for the impact they did on prog-power as a whole. As I am writing this, I am myself re-listening to their debut "Labyrinth of Dreams" with a huge grin on my face and enjoying the shit out of it to this day.
See, I don't think Elegy missed the mark as a whole. They are very well respected and pretty much all of their releases are great, from the melodramatic and flamboyant "Labyrinth of Dreams" to the shredtastic and punchy "Forbidden Fruit", all despite being drastically different from the demos, and I cherish them all equally. They did re-record the demo era material on Forbidden Fruit 11 years later, but as much as I'm a BIG fan of Ian Parry's vocals and Patrick Rondat's guitar playing, I don't think these versions have the same "bite" or the same charm as the demos. Speaking of which, I think Hovinga and Parry are both fantastic vocalists and I don't get why Elegy fans are so divided between both eras. Both are some of the most charismatic front-men I've ever heard. This is also one of the reasons why I like the demos so much. The band's amazing vocalist at the time, Christian Terheijden, actually sounds like a mix of Parry and Hovinga, making these demos a must hear for any Elegy fans that are only familiar with the full length albums.
I can't help but wonder how things would've turned out had Elegy been signed in the 80s and got introduced to the american market around the time they started releasing demo tapes. Their 86 and 87 demo tapes are just as captivating but this one will often have a special place in my heart. A full length album in the vein of this demo would've turned the metal world upside down and set a new standard in the scene, as it manages to capture and do what even most shredders couldn't do in terms of songwriting. Not to mention that in terms of pure technical ability, even the technical death metal groups that started to emerge in Florida at the time couldn't even hope to get close to the level of musicianship displayed on these 3 tracks. The last song on there is especially quite spectacular and vibrant with emotion and atmosphere.
I uploaded the demo on my own channel for your own listening pleasures if you wish to see for yourself. Dear Martin Helmantel, Arno, Henk, etc, if any of you are reading this, first of all : I apologize if I got some information wrong and second : please re-issue these demos for the love of fuck!
Written by Phil Tougas // The Vault
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