The contributions of Allan Holdsworth to the possibilities of metal fell like two stones separated by more than a decade into the same pond. The first little pebble was articulated during the rise of early to mid nineties technical death metal (particularly Cynic and Pestilence and to a more limited extent Atheist and Death). The ripples of this first drop washed over a young Fredrik Thordendal (Meshuggah). Thordendal would go onto elegantly extrapolate Holdsworth via Meshuggah leading to a second stone – the rise of djent (some of my favourites include Tesseract, Viljdharta, Monuments and the singular Contortionist along with the Faceless and Veil of Maya) and a re-conceptualisation of metal in the twenty first century.
What is it though about Holdsworth that makes his work so integral to metal? On first listen of a classic such as Metal Fatigue the listener with little knowledge of electric guitar technique or harmony generally simply hears some pretty jazz fusion with a few odd noises not un-entirely unexpected for the genre. However, digging deeper when armed with a smattering of musicological knowledge there are two key aspects to Holdsworth’s playing which make him stand out within his chosen field and come to influence metal.
The first technique is his use of non-standard and extended range chording. Holdsworth frequently extended some of the more complex chords of the jazz vocabulary across multiple octaves and achieved their sounding via quite unique, non-standard playing. Holdsworth plucked as well as tapped out his chords to create ethereal, shimmering angels of harmony.
The second technique and perhaps the hardest to grasp for a novice listener is Holdsworth’s use of slurs, glissando and note bending. Rarely did he proceed in “proper” in diatonic harmony from A to B, he would create slippery, fluid lines that snaked in and across octaves and arrive at quite unexpected intervals yet always sound musical and accessible. Indeed such is the extent that Holdsworth’s melodies frequently defied conventional melodic tropes the result is that they can easily sneak past the listener unnoticed with their unfamiliar cadences.
The effects of these two techniques and their relevance to metal are threefold. The first two are somewhat oblivious. Non-standard chord voicing equips the metal guitarist with a new harmonic vocabulary, an opportunity to expand the metallic sonic palette without compromising on the aesthetic values of the genre. The second technique was perhaps always inherent in metal anyway, particular after the advent of thrash metal, particularly evident in the soloing techniques of Slayer where melodic progression is eschewed in favour of noisy, dangerous sounding dive bombs, outlandish vibrato and deliberate dissonance. In other words, Holdsworth’s playing, committed to modal exploration and fluidity acts as an explicit engagement with the same principles of (dis)harmony played intuitively or “from the gut” so to speak of the non-musically-schooled.
The third effect is more abstract and theoretical and can be seen to be characteristic of djent. The deconstruction and critical analysis of Holdsworth technique. Following on from non-standard melodic articulation it is performed with a kind of hyper-attention to detail with every interval specifically mapped out very much the opposite of the Slayer “gut” approach. Interesting, however, is that this form of hyper-technicality is being passed onto a new generation of guitarists as a standard technique. It will be fascinating to see where this leads as we approach the 2020s. So hats off to you Mr Holdsworth, we stand a world apart from your original creations and intentions. Your electric guitar revolution was not as loud or bombastic as that of Hendrix but for those who heard it was as equally profound.