Thursday, 14 July 2011

Why metal rules.

Phyte Club’s K8Y – Reply to a reply.

Thank you for the undeserved kind words. I really appreciate what you are doing. It took me a long time to come back to metal as proud and unreserved. Metal had been a guilty pleasure. But as you wrote, there is an essence, a vibe, a something to metal that a lot of music simply does not have. Predictably enough then, I have decided to write about just why that might be so. Here goes.

Why metal rules.

What is it that keeps the metal head transfixed? What is it that keeps us coming back for more? Why does metal hold the allure that it does? After thinking this through on the walks to and from work the other day I identified a number of elements I believe to be vital to my enjoyment of heavy metal. Naturally your enjoyment may be very different to mine, I do not mind. Go ahead, tell me, comments are enabled after all.

1. Rhythmic Intensity.

Rhythmic pleasure in metal can be divided into three categories: overall intensity, push-pull and swing. These categories are not isolated from each other and can be present simultaneously even within a single song, yet I would argue each offers a distinct form of listening pleasure.

Overall intensity refers to the stage of metal’s development at the present moment. That is a complex barrage of kick drums, busy cymbal work, rolling toms and blast beats. Drummers in extreme metal tend to be highly proficient, their rhythms complex, convoluted and lyrical. On the other hand, it can all sound a bit too “busy” and I find it at times exhausting. Metal has always relied on strong rhythms and as recording technology has improved, rhythm sections have become tighter and tighter and for some listeners, sterile as there is no timbrel diversity and all the sounds are quantised lock-step with a metronome.

The second category I call push-pull. This describes tempo and timing changes, Suffocation style from blast beat to breakdown, or an Obituary style death march tumbling into a poisonous swamp made from the syrup of zombies. And back again. More classically, the bridge of Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man” giving way to the recalibrated main riff. Push-pull tears the listener out of their comfort zone, giving him/her a song within a song, a derive into something else, somewhere else.

The final category is swing. Swing in metal often sounds as it does in jazz. A little lag here, a slight gallop ahead there. Especially evident in the bluesy shuffle of seventies metal and sixties proto-metal, swing originally embodied the spirit of the times, the apple had yet to rot and roll far from the tree where it had fallen. A great contemporary articulation of this is Clutch, who combine blues, jazz and funk with a form of hard rock which grooves as much as it roars.

Some of my favourite swing is that which appears in the punky “don’t give a damn” aesthetic of Swedish D-beat and early death metal. Without metronomes and post production studio wizardry the music of bands such as Dismember and Entombed relies on attitude and swagger instead of technicality for maximum rhythmic “brutality”.

Sometimes, as is the case with nu-metal, swing arises as a result of an adaptation of hip hop genre elements. The jazz and soul backbone of hip hop is mutated into a lurching funk which often takes the form of non 4/4 meters (6/8, 7/8 etc). Rage Against The Machine, Rollins Band and Living Color all matched the looseness of punk with the taught bounce of funk to excellent effect.

There is yet another version of swing, however, that I notice functions in metal. I call this distinct version “aural drag”. Aural drag, while not strictly musicological (though it certainly can be instigated by performers) is a definite rhythmic phenomenon. I use the term to refer to when the attack of the drums and bite of the guitar articulate a rhythmic phrase and continue to develop it while the rest of the sounds, particularly low frequencies and sludgy reverb lag just slightly behind the leading sounds. A great example of this is early High On Fire. The tempos often reach close to thrash levels yet there is a bassy meatiness to the production which means that great slabs of sludge are constantly hauled behind the galloping beats. Another version of this can be found where a riff is triple-picked/kicked and repeated several times so that the low frequencies again lag behind the click-attack of the kicks creating swing via subsonic rumble. Neat!

Finally, there is the hyper-calculated swing of strike points a la Meshuggah (conceptual borrowing and gratitude to Jonathan Pieslak). This is where rhythmic payloads are introduced but not completed until a specified point where the various meters, time signatures within a piece simultaneously intersect. In this case the “swing” is massive, each repetition within the larger macro-structure accelerates the listener toward the strike point creating an unmistakable tension resolved only through concerted engagement with the compositions.

2. The Riff (repetition)

Most music is based on repetition. Ostinatos, riffs and phrases are key to defining various genres. Yet ask any metal head what s/he love about metal and the discussion will turn to “the riffs”. But what makes metal riffs different to riffs in other contexts? My argument is that it is not just the riff, but it is the riff as it is amplified and augmented with distortion. Through distorting a guitar tone in various ways various tones in the frequency spectrum are amplified to audibility to an extent virtually impossible in a non-amplified context. The tones most frequently amplified correspond to roughly the octave and the fifth of the note played (that said, some wonderful effects such as the Boss Hyper Fuzz can be driven to such extremes that overtones are amplified and reamplified and begin to modulate making anything but single note runs impossible). To me, that octave and fifth, the very basis of the power chord, doubly enhanced through amplification resonates in the air, with the body in a very pleasing way. Listen to some of the amplifier worship of bands such as Boris and Sunn 0))). The sound saturates the body to such an extent that it feels as though ones very atoms are humming.

This distortion applied to a musical phrase, welded to a powerful rhythm and repeated over and over stimulates a most primal reaction to music, the trance at the same time that it conveys a vibrational pleasure. To what degree this is confirmed by actual research, I cannot say, and I must admit, I only describe my own experience here. Nevertheless, a gateway to such rhythmic/vibrational pleasure can be found in the music of Om and especially the pre-Om Sleep album, “Dopesmoker”.

3. Mortality Paradox

This is a topic I mulled over since I started writing this article a few days ago. Being that there is so much to think about, it is after all, life and death, I decided to put the bulk of said thinking into another article. For now it is suffice to say that because metal deals so explicitly with death it is life affirming.

Moving away from the musicological points outlined above and more into the realm of thematic interpretation for a moment that death plays an undeniable part in metal cannot be understated. This engagement with death takes many forms and there are as many paths leading into conceptual and philosophical depths that we are seldom able to face, let alone contemplate. Sometimes metal takes us there and back, other times it leaves us stranded. Walking with Autopsy or Cannibal Corpse can be a harrowing experience of gruesome sights and depraved reasoning, which I believe is far more successful than film because it allows us to imagine fears built from the materials of our own psychologies.

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