The phrase “Disney music” often conjures up images of doe-eyed princesses belting out Broadway ballads. But a new album comprised of classic tracks from the House of Mouse re-imagined with power metal vocals, crushing guitars and breakneck drumming is looking to upend that stereotype.
Metal Disney was released in Japan last year and became a hit, climbing to number three in the Amazon rock/metal charts and number two on the Kids charts. Disney has released the album stateside today, March 31st.
The well-respected heavy metal musicians that comprise the “D-Metal Stars” include Obsession vocalist Mike Vescera, who’s previously worked with Yngwie Malmsteen, and former Ozzy Osbourne bassist Rudy Sarzo. The band is rounded out by fellow Obsession guitarist John Bruno and drummer BJ Zampa, who’s played with Dokken, among others.
The album consists of faithful metal covers of beloved Disney tracks such as The Little Mermaid‘s “Under the Sea” and “It’s a Small World” from the Disneyland theme park ride, all performed with the energy and precision you’d expect of a Metallica record. Vescera sings Winnie the Pooh – sample lyric: “Tubby little cubby all stuffed with fluff” – with as much conviction and intensity as classic metal vocalists.
For Vescera, the combination of heavy metal and Disney makes perfect sense – “It’s all the stuff that I grew up on,” he tells Rolling Stone – with the rest of the band immediately onboard with the idea. “You would think the opposite, being hard rock guys or in that kind of field of music,” he laughs. “But everybody loves it. It’s crazy.”
The process of turning tracks such as “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo” into something that wouldn’t sound out of place on an Iron Maiden album was, Vescera says, “trial and error.” “I basically sat in the studio and tried a million different options,” he explains, drawing on his love of bands such as Kansas and Queen to re-interpret the songs. He was surprised, however, at the complexity of some of the compositions. “You think, ‘Aw, it’s a kid’s song,’” he says. “But when you get into how they wrote these things, they’re quite incredible and really well written and so it’s just figuring out what exactly is going on and then taking it piece by piece.”
Although Metal Disney was recorded between Nashville, Los Angeles and Connecticut, Disney initially balked at releasing it domestically, distributing it through the company’s Japanese arm last fall. Archie Meguro, executive director of Disney Music Group Japan and an executive producer on the album, tells Rolling Stone that Japan was an ideal place to debut the record. The company already has an established history there of re-releasing classic Disney tracks in a variety of genres, from jazz to French pop, with metal being extremely popular in Japan. “Old-school metal has always been very prevalent in our marketplace and so I thought just kind of a mixing of the cultures, of taking Disney and making it into metal versions, seemed like a cool idea,” he explains.
“Japan is just so much more open to everything,” says Vescera, who first worked with Meguro on a similar project called Animetal USA that involved English-language heavy metal covers of theme tunes from anime shows such as Dragon Ball and Neon Genesis Evangelion. Even in Japan, however, where there is an acceptance that Disney is as much for adults as for kids – the world’s first adult fashion Disney Store opened in Tokyo in 2012 – there was still concern that a heavy metal Disney album would be misconstrued given the brand’s family-oriented image. But, Meguro explains, “We kind of said, ‘Don’t say no before you hear it.’ And once everybody heard it, it was fine.”
Although the concept of Disney crossing over with alternative culture may seem anathema, it’s not the first time the House of Mouse has gone over to the dark side. In 2008, Walt Disney Records worked with acts including Marilyn Manson and Korn on a Nightmare Before Christmas cover album called Nightmare Revisited to celebrate the film’s 15th anniversary. Meanwhile, in California, there’s even an annual (albeit unofficial) goth gathering at Disneyland called Bats Day, which sees around 7,000 black-clad Mickey Mouse fans descend on the park, plenty of whom are sporting metal band shirts.
For Bats Day founder Noah Korda, there’s plenty to sink his teeth into when it comes to Disney’s back catalogue. “There’s a lot of imagery synonymous with Disney that’s very dark and foreboding,” he tells Rolling Stone, such as the Evil Queen in Snow White and demon king Chernabog in Fantasia.
Oscar-winning lyricist Sir Tim Rice, who has written songs for Disney including Aladdin‘s “A Whole New World” and The Lion King‘s “Can You Feel The Love Tonight” (both of which are featured on Metal Disney) admits he could never had envisaged his work ending up on a heavy metal album but, he says, “I think a good song, especially one with a decent tune, can always be done in almost any way.”
“For most people, Disney was part of their childhood and however you wind up you usually tend to have good memories of your childhood musical loves,” adds Rice. “You tend to stick with it to a certain extent so even if you become a spaced-out [member of] Mötley Crüe, you probably still love Nellie the Elephant – even if you can’t admit it.”