Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Big Bottoms: A response

Photo by Peter Matis, Supplied by Jeroen Thesseling
Used with permission.

Last week Metal Sucks 'John Myungnotta's* inaugural Big Bottoms (interviews with metal bassists) regular feature was posted with Killswitch Engaged's Mike D'Antonio as the first interview subject. As a metal (head and) bassist myself I am always looking for flickers of resonance and recognition of metal's (quite often deservedly) unsung laborers. Starting with D'Antonio marks an interesting choice, Killswitch Engaged are not exactly renowned for their up front bass grooves. They are however a popular and polarising band and as suggested in the commentary beneath the original article, have the potential to bring a greater volume of traffic and therefore a greater potential future readership to the site. Nevertheless, DAntonios perspective does require some unpacking.

While D'Antonio certainly appears to enjoy his craft, again as noted in the comments his attitude is (stereo)typical of a certain type of bassist: stay out of the way, don't practice, don't "muddy up the sound", be simple and don't practice. It is no wonder that with this attitude bassists tend to earn little respect as musicians in metal. However, let me be clear: bassists in most musical situation are wing (wo)men. Their sound frequency range, their chosen timbre does not always lend itself to prominence. Some of the best non-metal bassists do stay in the background, in the pocket, pushing and pulling the beat and swangin' that thang in a way that most (non-musicians and for that matter many musicians as well) are unable to cognitively apprehend.

One of the zeitgeist metal memes is the colonisation of the bass space by extended range (seven, eight etc stringed) guitars. Commentators frequently argue that the bass (guitar) is becoming irrelevant to an extent because a lot of the low end can now be provided by these new guitars which frequently have tunings that extend into the standard bass range (in fact, yours truly has an 8-string tuned to F# sailing up the Pacific to one day find home again). But just like bassists who use high gain distortion in their signal path these meme makers are missing the point.

Despite the common stereotypes the bass (guitar) is a complex instrument. Many guitarists display contempt for the bass, deriding it as simple for its mere four strings and decrying as unnecessary when it has six or more. But we hardly call the trumpet with its three buttons simple, the same again for the measly four strings of the violin and the cello. But what makes the bass guitar so complex. I would go so far as to argue that the electric bass is almost two instruments in one. As many a bassist knows (and usually doesn't let on) the low E and A strings have a completely different timbre to the high D and G strings. Many anonymous bass players rarely stray beyond the two lowest strings and almost never again above the fifth fret. And it that's what gets the job done in their context, more power to them. What I am moving toward here is a different approach to the bass, an approach taken by a significant few in which the bass guitar is conceptualised not merely as "an octave below the guitar" but as a guitar with a unique timbral range.

Jeroen Thesseling has demonstrated in both Obscura and Pestilence how a bass can seamlessly fit with, augment and enhance low tuned guitars while still being heard. His fretless tone blooms and slides underneath the guitars, moving between registers to fill space but also to provide it. Go and listen to Pestilence's Doctrine, even tuned to F# (yes, he is using a 7-string, extended low range fretless bass) his tone is audible and engaging. Steve Digiorgio does the same with Death and Sadus: he locks in with the drums with a sense of groove not normally possessed by linear thinking guitarists and knows exactly how and when to shine - even when the guitars are also at the forefront.

Then there is Roger Patterson from Atheist, where innovative, rhythmically complex thrash/death is composed on the bass guitar. The same applies for doomy heshers, Saviors. One would think that in bands such as Pantera, where the focus was all about stellar guitarist Dimebag Darrel, there is little chance for the bass to be noticed - but it is. The band and their production knew what they were doing and while Rex Brown is no Les Claypool, neither is he a slouch. Crank up Cowboys from Hell, you can even hear his bass back in the bad old days of smiley face EQ settings, over compression and over dubs. In short, even when guitars start to encroach on the bass frequency range (in actuality, they always did, such incursions arent always cognitively audible is all), recording smarts alone can be enough to bring out the bassist in a mix. With a solid understanding of timbre coupled with bassists willing to go the extra mile, who practice and get to write their own parts his/her role is safe from harm.

Meanwhile, groups such as Meshuggah and Gojira blend the bass into the overall guitar sound. In these situations the bass is not particularly distinct but it does contribute to the overall guitar sound of the album. It adds timbral depth and complexity.

Big Bottoms will hopefully engage many more bassists with different perspectives and willing to talk technique over equipment. The role of the bassist in metal needs a serious re-think by bassists and metal listeners equally.

*Presumably, like the rest of the Metal Sucks staff, a pseudonym.
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