Thursday, 8 March 2012

Why metal rules II – Rhythmic and Harmonic deconstruction

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Looking back at the earliest entries on this blog, I realise that there was a focus on reviews, particularly music. Recently, my writing has turned more towards social commentary, which is to be expected, since a quick traverse of a mere modicum of sites I would consider relevant tend to yield results conducive to outrage. I am going to honour my pledge and stay away from commentary about Japan and return once again to one of my great loves, music.

I have written about the undeniable radness of metal before. In fact, some of this entry will run close to treading the same ground. Nevertheless, as a listener of metal, as a metal head, I believe my ability to appreciate and comprehend metal increases over time and repetition. This is true of any music, the more times you listen, the more you learn to listen for and once you have found that it becomes possible to find the next hidden element.

I want to extend this dialog of discovery to the particular context of death metal and more specifically, technical death metal. First of all, some background.

The concept of extreme metal coheres around three broad genres: death metal, black metal and grindcore. These genres are not mutually exclusive and border-crossing and cross-pollination occur as frequently as they are opposed by genre purists. What they have in common is an origin in thrash. What separates them is their reaction to each other. In other words, where as death metal begins as an extremity of thrash, incorporating explicitly macabre themes, frightening textures and low pitched vocals it eventually moves toward technicality, melodic/harmonic sophistication and a broader palette of lyrical themes. Black metal sounds at first closer to thrash in that it rejects the technicality and the brutal theatricality of death metal in favour of higher pitched sounds and a general timbre of misanthropy. Later it incorporates anguish and isolation and a broad range of themes frequently stemming from identity and belonging at the margins of society as sonic and lyrical concerns and becomes increasingly technical, layered and textural. Grindcore meanwhile, as the genre name suggests takes metal down a noisy route aligned equally with punk, free jazz and noise rock as much as metal. The subject matter ranges from the grotesque to political and social commentary, its distance from other metal gauged by its adherence to non-metal musical tropes when creating musical extremity. Even so, metallic influences in grindcore have increased over time and even melody has been foregrounded in some instances.

What all three genres have in common, however, aside from distorted guitars, non-traditional vocals and prominent rhythm sections is the capacity to deconstruct stubborn musical concepts in the mind of the listener. In my opinion, extreme metal owes a far greater debt to jazz than it does rock. After all, it was jazz which decoupled harmony from rhythmic limitations imposed by European thought.

Before diving into a musicological direction, I want to briefly discuss one of the major stumbling blocks the casual music listener faces when coming to extreme metal – the vocals. For most people the vocals in a composition are the focus of listening. After all, most of us have voices, we use them everyday for speaking. Some of us sing better than others and some of us believe we can sing better than we do. Voices are used to communicate love, give directions and convey information, they are intimate and integral. A raised voice indicates anger and a hushed implies danger, secrecy or affection. With this in mind when listening to extreme metal for the first time common reactions include revulsion, confusion, anger and even fear. The fact is that voices in metal have also been used to attain specific thematic and aural effects: the deep growl of early death metal invokes hell-spawned denizens, the shrieks of black metal signify the tortured antipathy of human turned wraith and the shouting of grindcore contributes to a wall of white noise to shatter and break-down conceptual limitations. What is difficult for the new listener to grasp is both the musicological and theatrical function of these kind of vocals.

Extreme metal vocals have become a point of contention, even among the biggest fans the various genres. Some critiques posit that extreme vocals are now obsolete, especially since their co-option by more mainstream, less forward thinking musical genres. In a sense, it is possible to argue that extreme vocals have become a cliché. On the other hand it is vital to recognise their musicological value. To achieve this the listener must begin by experimenting with active listening. Once a vocal style has been decoupled from everyday logic of vocal use it can then be more accurately assessed as a musical element and not only as a voice. In other words, if we take the guitar as an example, we could say that it was never “meant” to be electrified. Early on, distorted electric tones were undesirable and considered noise, yet now they make up (along with distortion itself) a part of contemporary musical expression. Similarly, as jazz proved, tritones do not have to sound “evil”, wrong or inharmonic and that in fact when harmonic theory is decoupled from specific rhythmic and metric restraints whole new vistas of musical expression become possible. To put it most simply, it is only the limitations of the individual’s cognitive-aural conceptual framework that prevent her/him from comprehending radically “different” or inventive forms of music such as extreme metal. Using this as a starting point I now want to jump to rhythm and harmony.

If the blues and later, jazz, provided a stable and recognisable yet nevertheless radical departure from western musicological thought, extreme metal has caused a cognitive-aural explosion on par with the conceptual revolution caused by the posts (modernism, structuralism, colonialism) in literature. Unlike similarly extreme music such as found at the outer edges of the jazz world, the extreme metal musician/composer has an equal possibility of being either fully musically illiterate or in the possession of the highest level of music theory. This is what makes it so compelling. But what is it about extreme metal that allows such a level playing field? The simple answer is chromaticism coupled with rhythmic density. Divided into single coloured semi-tomes, the guitar readily lends itself to chromatic exploration. What is more, standard tuning of the strings puts a range of intervals at the hands of the guitarist which would be unlikely on a keyboard instrument. Further, with only a little practice slurring of notes (bending, glissando) as well as tremolo and vibrato are techniques easily utilised in a variety of different contexts. Add to this a range of incidental sounds such as natural and artificial harmonics, light to heavy muting and easily switchable timbres (changing pick ups, volume or tone on the fly) and the electrified guitar is an instrument virtually custom built for musicological deconstruction.

Meanwhile, thanks to jazz, extreme metal drumming is not limited to the traditional one-TWO, three-FOUR of the rock music it is descended from. Once we move into the extreme realm there is no reason why a bossa rhythm cannot cohabitate with rock as well as the off-kilter metric practices of free jazz and still remain consistent with genre conventions. Meshuggah have demonstrated numerous times just how a rhythm can sound “simple” yet in fact be incredibly complex when listened to in its full articulation. In other words a seemingly basic common time beat is frequently nestled within a larger, self-contained multi-bar rhythm which once again is given further depth and complexity when listened to as an entire cycle. This is not “easy” listening but it is rewarding and deeply life changing.

Extreme metal encourages the listener, musician or otherwise to attain a degree of musical literacy in conjunction or simply coincident with formal musical theory. Its melodies reject the sense of traditional cadences and point to new aural experiences. Harmony takes on new roles and is no longer limited to major/minor, happy/sad. Then the devastating rhythms allow listeners to stretch attention spans and cognitive possibilities to their natural limits. This complete and utter destruction, deconstruction can then be utilised in order to increase the listening pleasure of more conventional musics since the listener is now capable perceiving the context around standard rhythmic, melodic and harmonic articulations.

And that friends, is why metal rules!
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