Developmental variation and underground metal


What is developmental variation?

The term developmental variation was coined by Arnold Schoenberg as a name for the principle which governed his compositional technique, which he claimed to have inherited from the music of the great Germanic composers such as Haydn, Beethoven and, in particular, Brahms. The technique consists of generating development in a piece through variation of an initial idea. Each new slice of content is developed from, and naturally connected to, the previous one, so that the whole piece is an elaboration of an initial idea. This provides unity and logic within dramatic movement and variety.

Why developmental variation?

Since the end of black metal around 1996, underground metal has found itself in a rut. As if struck dumb by the dizzy heights achieved by its greatest practitioners, most underground metal bands have veered into three equally fruitless directions:

  1. Blatant imitation of a specific set of bands from the past (New wave of old school death metal, Thrash revival, Darkthrone clones, etc.)
  2. Commercialization of the aesthetic, achieved through simplification of lyrical themes and musical structure (In Flames, Dimmu Borgir, deathcore, etc.)
  3. Experimentation in texture and instrumentation, fusion genres (Norwegian avant-garde, Djent, etc.)

One would assume that the practitioners of this third path feel, at least, the anxiety that naturally comes with working beneath the shadows of giants. Their response, however, betrays that anxiety to an excessive degree, as they scramble madly to distance themselves from those past greats, usually through the most immediately striking means they can find. Often with releases of this variety one is left with the sensation that they could be truly great works of art if they stopped hovering uncomfortably around the ghost of metal, and simply embraced their external tendencies. In other words, the solution most of these artists seem to find to the problem posed by the intimidating canon is to escape metal altogether, as many of them ultimately do.

This is not, however, because of any inherent flaw in the style, or any linear finality implied by the greatness of the canon. There is no denying that, in a sense, underground metal is a restrictive style. There are strict boundaries regarding instrumentation, tonality, and even lyrical themes (that old Euronymous joke about carrots notwithstanding). Though these may at times be somewhat malleable, when they remain blatantly unobserved the music simply stops sounding like underground metal. It is largely the imposing presence of these boundaries that has scared many promising musicians away from metal, and into the realm of the often masturbatory and self-referential pseudo avant-garde.

What this ultimately means is not that there is no room for growth within heavy metal, but that said room is to be found in a less immediately evident, but ultimately more significant element of musical construction; structure. Underground metal’s unpitched vocals allow it freedom from many structural conventions of popular music in which vocals are the lead instrument. Its literary and historical inclinations give it plenty of places from which to draw extra-musical influences. Heavy metal titans Iron Maiden have successfully done this in the past, shaping their more structurally ambitious and musically exciting pieces around the contours of literary or historical subjects.

The aforementioned underground metal greats have already exploited these natural tendencies. Albums such as Altars of Madness and Far Away From the Sun have expanded rock’s traditional strophic structures through the use of expansive melodies and conflicting themes, creating instrumental sections of great intensity, which modify the meaning and intention of the strophic recurrences. Greater variety in the stricter tenets of instrumentation and mood has been justified within the framework of a modified structural thought-process, for example in the Burzum albums Det som engang var and Hvis lyset tar oss. There are countless other examples of individual structural voices developed by bands in order to best fit their particular path or concept, from the intensely concentrated minimalism of Beherit and Skepticism to the outwardly chaotic narrative intricacy of Demilich and early At The Gates.

However, this was underground metal at its youthful best, when it was still discovering what it was and what it could do, and many of its greatest achievements were at least partially the product of amateurish accident. Metal is no longer a young musical style, and perhaps in order to age gracefully bands will need to sacrifice some spontaneity and be more strict about inwardly articulating their goals, the structure that will best fit these goals and the compositional process that will get them there.

Underground metal is a genre with entirely unique thematic concerns, which prizes the ability to create works of musical individuality that are still ultimately works of underground metal. Developmental variation is the perfect technique for this situation, as it allows content to organically generate form, which would not only allow for individual songs and albums to craft an individual perspective without resorting to surface gimmicks, but also lead to a deeper level of thematic coherence. In a style whose fans expect recordings to hold up on repeated listens, not for weeks or months but for years, the increased layered complexity of musical relationships created by this technique would heighten, not obscure, the expressive power of a particular song or album.

It is not enough for underground metal to simply lift structural arrangements from sources more sophisticated than rock and pop music, such as European classical music. Though this could work individual songs or albums planned around the idea, as it did for Fanisk on their debut Die and Become, it is not a suitable long-term direction. This is because at the end of the day, the practice is not too distant from the simple lifting of vocabulary from other sources, a practice whose short-lived capacity to produce quality content the underground has already witnessed.

However, there is a lot to be learned from the music of the Common Practice Period. There is a tendency to view classical forms as being set in stone, but this could not be further from the truth. The image of Beethoven stressing over whether or not theme B of his sonata form modulated to the bloody dominant or not is silly enough to dispel the notion. The truth is that these structures developed organically throughout the lives of many composers, growing around the type of thematic material and harmonic conventions of their time and style, until they became intuitively standardized elements of musical grammar. It is only much later, once their development had been completed, that theorists could attempt codifications.

Attempting to imitate such a process of could prove fruitful for underground metal bands. The idea would be for bands to create their own structural grammar, not by adhering to a new set of rules, or worse, an old one belonging to a different tradition, but by developing a new, more sophisticated intuition. It is this author’s belief that the technique of developmental variation could be extremely helpful towards this development. It will of course always be important to have a good idea first; no technique will write good music for you.

In the interest of getting all of this across to the reader’s musical instincts, as opposed to getting it across merely to his or her understanding, where it is useless, we will now undertake a case study of how this technique worked for the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius in his early tone poem, En saga. Sibelius faced a dilemma similar to that of the young Hessian today, standing in the shadow of a beautiful but intimidating tradition. By molding the structure of his piece around his material, through the technique of developmental variation, Sibelius managed to find a powerful individual voice for his piece, without resorting to gimmicks, or leaving the tradition he loved behind.

En saga: a case study in developmental variation

En saga is an orchestral tone poem, meaning that it is an entirely instrumental piece meant to describe or depict something outside of itself. The piece’s title translates simply to ‘a saga,’ and throughout his life Sibelius never specified whether it was based on any particular one. This clever bit of ambiguous programming presents Sibelius with a very malleable structural mold that nevertheless presents a general framework within which to work.

Sibelius builds nearly 20 minutes of music around four simple themes. All but the last of these has a length of four measures or less, and all of them keep the melodic action centered around a perfect fourth or fifth, emphasizing stepwise motion. The reader may have already noticed that this description could fit many metal riffs like a glove, and this proximity of thematic character to underground metal is one of the reasons why this piece is particularly relevant to our interests.





The relationship between themes I and III is evident: they have the same range and an identical ending, being distinguished from each other by slight rhythmic variation and harmonic context. Though theme II might initially seem out of place, its ‘justification’ comes with the introduction of theme IV, a majestic melody that combines rhythmic and melodic elements from themes II and I-III. It also emphasizes the motivic element that unites all four of them; the repeated insistence on the starting pitch. This characteristic in particular is the one that betrays the tight relationship between the themes, allowing us to comfortably refer to them as variations on the same idea. The imaginative reader will begin to see how the relationships and conflicts between these four simple themes begin to lay out sketches of a large-scale work, or, in other words, how developmental variation suggests not only material, but also structure.

The piece starts off with a short introduction that leads into the uncomfortable minor seconds of the first theme (0:17), establishing the tension that drives the whole work. The theme is then pitted against wave-like arpeggio figures in increasingly tense juxtapositions, which seem to be leading towards an explosive climax, but then simmer away into an uncomfortable silence. The way this opening minute mirrors the structure of the entire piece, like an eerie premonition, is an indicator of the piece’s impressive unity, and a perfect example of the way relationships between related themes can be the basis for entire compositions, an idea we will return to later.

I said that I admired its (the symphony) style and severity of form, and the profound logic that created an inner connection between all of the motives. — Sibelius, conversation with Gustav Mahler, Helsinki, 1907.

This silence is broken by the sudden introduction of theme II (1:08) by the bassoons, in a tonal center very distant from that with which the piece began. However, the reappearance of the insisting note motive makes its appearance seem like a natural response in a conversation. After the statement, the conflict of the piece is laid out for the listener and the piece unravels with absolute naturality. Theme II passes around the orchestra, competing with increasingly dissonant response passages until its motives flower into a wonderful heroic melody in the double basses. This initiates a dialogue in the string section that spells out the conflict between the two main theme groups with great clarity.

Sibelius then goes on to present themes III (in the violas at 4:09) and IV (in the strings at 5:07) in a similar way, declaiming them lyrically throughout the orchestra and pitting them against transitional passages, often arpeggiated. The seeming culmination to which the piece comes after the presentation of triumphant theme IV is suddenly interrupted by a short bridge passage (5:44), tellingly outlining a fifth, which leads into a section centered around permutations of theme III and a flowing legato response idea that begins to overpower the theme itself. Theme IV’s conquest remains unattained.

Then, suddenly, the momentum collapses and we are led into the second part of the piece. This second section consists of a series of crescendos, in which particular themes seem poised to triumph and reveal themselves as ‘the’ theme. Yet, time and again these crescendos collapse in on themselves, eerily, almost unnervingly. Until, at the very last of these peaks, a response figure once again takes over the climax. Yet the fanfare quickly dissipates, and the piece ends with an extremely quiet and nearly uncomfortable uncertainty.

This second section appears to be what the themes themselves initially suggested, thanks to their close “variation” relationship: a conflict in which one of them emerged triumphant. In order to get a more intuitive sense for the depth of this relationship and its importance, notice how after a few listens of the piece the themes will be stuck in your head almost interchangeably, to the point where it is sometimes hard to tell which one you’re humming to yourself. This is the sort of conflict that arises naturally when material is created through developmental variation, and it is what makes it such an effective technique for the composition for styles that thrive on dramatic tension.

Now, Sibelius’ choice to make none of the themes triumph and to end the piece the way he does is not something intrinsically suggested by the themes. As a matter of fact, if we are allowed a guess, this was probably the narrative idea that Sibelius started out with. However, once he had his material, he had a pretty good outline for a conflict, as themes I-III and theme II clearly converge and culminate on theme IV. However, as previously noted, the first triumphant statement of theme IV is quickly negated by the aforementioned bridge passage, a dissonant entry of the theme and then the shifting of focus back to theme III.

The series of increasingly chaotic and dramatic anti-climaxes that constitute the second portion of the piece are the ones that outline the thematic conflict proper, along with the ultimate failure of any of the themes to impose themselves, even as they alternate and hybridize. However, in order for this section to make any sense, especially given the piece’s light programmatic tinge, the opening section in which the themes are presented becomes absolutely necessary. In order to establish the tension that rules the piece and give it coherence, the strange introductory section dominated by theme I becomes necessary.

This introduction mirrors the development of the whole piece, with its agonizing rising and falling motions, which eventually dissipate into a tense silence. Sibelius found his large-scale structure through his themes, and then constructed every other sub-section around the same general curve. This creates an immersive fractal effect, potent evidence of Sibelius’ developing genius despite the orchestration failings and occasionally meandering quality of the still young composer. A dramatic idea and four simple, closely related, themes allowed Sibelius to reach heights of structural ambition that, though not yet fully realized, would become the germ for his future masterpieces.

Closing words

I am by no means suggesting, of course, that is ‘the’ path metal must follow in the future. This is a suggestion, and idea, and more so than it hopes to be accepted, or even fully understood, it hopes to ignite some spark of creativity. Metal does not necessarily need developmental variation in order to escape it relative stagnation, but it does need to look at itself more seriously and its surroundings more seriously, and ask itself musical questions in a more articulate manner. Hopefully this article will be of some help to that end.


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Roots of Evil: The Origins of Metal

With the fiftieth anniversary of metal music around the corner, forthcoming years will witness an increase of publications dealing with the history, legacy and defining characteristics of the genre. This could finally resolve the lack of consensus that still exists regarding the definition and origins of heavy metal.



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Metal Festers Eternal

Right now, above the metal underground there is what was coined, I believe originally by Pogrom from Arghoslent, the “Funderground”. The funderground consists of independent labels, sometimes mainstream distributed, releasing thousands of albums each year full of rehashed material or rebranded three-chord hardcore with different superficial aesthetics to fuel a bar show audience’s drunken moshing or make hipsters feel smart for liking an indie rock release with a dirty production. One can see this divide in most of the popular “underground” web forums such as those of Nuclear War Now! and Full Moon Productions. The most popular “underground” “metal” releases of each year are all older metal rehashed into pop-rock structures or rebranded hardcore. This divide is similar to what is felt in mainstream Western culture with the leftist “elites”‘ constant Marxist virtue signaling and branding freethinkers with various epithets for refusing to chant the praises of socialism mandated by the vanguard party.



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Sadistic Metal Reviews: Catch of the Day



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Goatcraft – Yersinia Pestis (2016)

goatcraft - yersinia pestis

Article by Lance Viggiano.

Arpeggiated minor chord melancholy culled from or composed during belligerent improvisational tirades given body by a sluggish left hand approximating power chords to provide the work a lattice to the traditions of metal. Yersinia Pestis abstains from its predecessor’s thematic coherence – an accident of writing what were essentially cover songs of a famous painter – to make marked but mishandled improvements in its individual presentations through tuneful reprisals of established Goatcraft trademarks. The dependence upon staccato and arpeggio retain the artist’s characteristic stiffness in execution which blemishes through its brutishness.



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The Difficulties of Folk Metal: Part II


Article by Johan P.

This text is a continuation of the previously published article, The Difficulties of Folk Metal. As stated in Part I, the threefold aim of this multi-part article is, in rough terms, to: 1. Give a short introduction to the subject, 2. Point out some of the difficulties connected with integrating folk music into metal and finally, 3. Provide alternative methods of integration. Part II will be dedicated to the second part of this quest.

Naturally, there are limits regarding the scope of my endeavor – the most obvious demarcation being that the article primarily focuses on Swedish folk music. In my view, the critique of folk metal is an ongoing project, and this article should not be seen as an exhaustive treatment of the subject at hand.

So, if someone else out there finds the subject interesting, you are more than welcome to make contributions. It could be in the form of additional material (metal or folk related) and complementary ideas to enhance the project. For example, the depth and applicability of the arguments presented below would surely benefit if the scope could be expanded to include other forms of traditional music.



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How to write better metal music – Recontextualization

Rachmaninoff playing a Steinway grand piano

Too many of the bands I review are (apparently) uninterested in their songwriting beyond a basic level, and too many of those that actually are interested approach improving it from exclusively an academic position – the idea that applying enough ideas from theory will make for interesting content. DMU’s orthodox positions are firstly that being able to work from some sort of message/concept is a potent motivator, and secondly that greater emphasis is needed on structural development. These are both useful things to keep in mind, but properly implementing them requires a great deal of effort and possibly some rearrangement of your internal mental hardware. While there is no substitute for hard work, there is one particularly useful technique I’d like to share that helps with the latter.

The concept is fairly basic – take a work of music, transcribe it, and adapt it for different instrumentation, but executing it effectively takes some proficiency. For the best results, you need to use instruments that require radically different performance technique than the originals, or at least something that imposes major restrictions on your sonic palette. The canonical example around here is either a kazoo or a piano, depending on how serious an article discussing the subject is. As someone who relies heavily on software to create and ‘perform’ music, I would tend to recommend restrictive, simulationist sequencing software like Famitracker (which emulates the limited sound hardware of the Nintendo Entertainment System). Ultimately, the exercise has been done enough by other people that de-emphasizing the specific choice of instrument makes sense.

Ideally, the very act of rearranging a composition will provide some insights into its structure. Transcribing the composition requires some understanding of what an instrument can and can’t do, and possibly a strong ear if good notation or transcription is lacking. Furthermore, the limitations of the new instruments may force one aspect of the songwriting into the limelight, revealing its strengths and weaknesses. One caveat is that the derivative you end up making will probably incorporate your own biases as a performer and composer, but even that might help you to understand your own strengths and weaknesses in that regard. I personally should know, since I often end up taking my own compositions and rearranging them as I gain access to new tools I want to take advantage of. In the process, I often end up making structural changes that hopefully strengthen the new versions, and I also learn ways to make future works better.

In short, rearranging is a useful technique to learn some aspects of composition, although it’s no panacea, especially since there are limits to how much original thought you add while still calling it a rearrangement. Given an opportunity to hone your composition skills, though, you should seriously consider giving it a shot, especially if you’re in a band that likes to play covers.


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Causality in music

Domino cascade (Image by aussiegall on Wikimedia Commons)
Guest post by William Pilgrim

Causality is the interplay between cause and effect. Infinite regress, or reduction till singularity, is of little practical use to our daily affairs, but when you pause to think about it, everything you do today has its roots in what you did yesterday. Today and yesterday might seem like two altogether discrete entities when considered in this fashion, but cause and effect work against the backdrop of time, and as such entail an infinite number of degrees or gradations between each other. Introduce a sufficiently large number of minute increments between the succession of two events, and this line of regression can be stretched all the way back to the point of our birth, and based on modern prenatal research, even beyond. This is the same principle that Buddhist philosophy talks about, the same premise on which Isaac Asimov’s Hari Seldon created his discipline of psychohistory in the Foundation books, and the same concept on which current market trends and data are analyzed.

There shouldn’t be complaints of determinism leveled against this line of thinking, simply a greater accountability for our actions, in both conscious and unconscious states. And, in any case, life cannot be lived with any kind of energy while constantly tracing our footsteps into the distant past; we can learn from our past but the power to affect change in our present and, more importantly, in our future rests entirely with us. How then does causality influence music? In the post on old and new extreme metal, I briefly mentioned how an idea arises in the mind and has to be persisted with for the entirety of a song for it to be logically, and emotionally, coherent. The following is a comment I made on the same post on DMU:

“A point I would’ve liked to touch on in this post is that in the case of most good extreme metal songs, you can trace a way back to the overall theme of the song from whichever point in its trajectory you may currently be occupying. David Rosales had a post on something related to this under the heading Developmental Variation, and it goes beyond simply staying in the same key, following chords, etc. “Vetteneter” is a good example of this, despite the significant change towards the end; so is Gorgoroth’s “Måneskyggens slave”. The cause needs to inhere in the effect, tenuous though it may seem, for a song to be coherent.”

The property of inherence means for a certain quality to be endemic or inherent in a substance. By the same token, it can also be taken to mean that this quality is permanent in the substance, and that the substance ceases to remain what it was once it loses this self-same quality. Often, effects bears little to no outward resemblance to the causes that led to them, but by the very nature of causality, all causes are germane in proceeding effects.

Music presents a peculiar example of causality in action. Songs have themes; the good ones do anyway. Every moment in a song exists in a chain with every other moment in the song, sharing an intimate bond with its neighbours. Good songs ensure that these bonds remain embedded in the listener’s consciousness, whether he realizes it then or not, and however strained their “valency” might initially appear. Simple rock music and rock-derived metal have it easier in this respect than architecturally intricate and harmonically ambivalent genres like death metal and black metal where songs are generally built on floating relationships between notes and modes.

Nevertheless, the point made above regarding a song’s trajectory holds, and that is this: the essence of a song has to suffuse its entire body, as impermeable as the body itself may seem. We can refer to this aspect of songwriting as logical dialogue and internal coherence between parts and of the parts themselves; the idea behind the song, wherever it may come from, needs to inhere throughout the length of the song, and maintain a trail of crumbs back to a relative first cause, as disparate as the effects that follow in its wake may seem.

The three songs below are from distinctly different extreme metal genres but they illustrate this point well. They use different techniques to realize these ideas but what initially appears as a jarring, irreconcilable severance from the core of the song is eventually subsumed into the greater idea. Subsumed, in fact, is the wrong word to use in this context, because the change, by everything that has been written above, would have had to naturally subsist in the initial idea.

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Reaching for a Red Sky


I. A brief introduction

In 1992, At the Gates released their first full-length album after an earth-shaking demo of unprecedented refinement in composition. The full-length, titled The Red in the Sky is Ours, was to become not only the band’s magnum opus but also the greatest achievement of Scandinavian death metal then and since then. Hidden under distinct layers of complexity, ideas at different levels flourish, diverge and converge in ways that are not always easy to follow, throwing the less-than-adamant and less perceptive listener off at every turn and twist of the way. This is not a spurious claim but an observation based on deep acquaintance with the composition of the music in this album as it stands in contrast with the groove-banality of most Swedeath, including favorites of the populace like Entombed Left Hand Path.

According to Anders Björler, this early output was almost entirely arranged by the much aged (about 6 years older than the rest of the band members) founding member Alf Svensson, who painstakingly controlled the process even in the vocal department. To be fair, this debut album is definitely the result of the best talents of all the participating musicians directed in a very concentrated direction by a mastermind. In fact, a distinct At the Gates’ “sound” in this era comes from Tompa’s unique style and the exchange between the quirkiness of Svensson’s style and the melodic clarity and repose of Björler’s, without failing to mention the flexible, stellar and extremely appropriate tailor-made drum arrangements of Erlandsson. Among the often-commented and curious ways Svensson had of getting ideas for At the Gates’ music was playing folk music tapes backwards. The whispers, screeches and screams  of the vocals were also carefully gauged by this guy who even pitched certain passages — a very uncommon practice in death metal.

Given the strange appearance and convoluted (almost perverted) character of the music that confirm the topic of insanity and inner journeys discussed in the lyrics, it has been overlooked in the same way that even the great genius of J.S. Bach may be deemed “no more than a composer with a penchant for writing minor-key melodies” by the blind and the ignorant. This complexity extends from technique to progressive structures all the way to motif and idea.

Lyrically, The Red in the Sky is Ours is very poetic, describing scenes and mixing these visions with colored allusions and evocation of feelings, creating a land between the image and the emotion where the two come together and mix, blend and crystallize into one or the other at a different points. This mystic poetry is not only present in the words of the album but is reflected and paralleled in the music. The concept here is strongly integrated and reinforced at several levels that remain elusive enough to create a sense of mystery yet concrete enough to be identified without a shadow of doubt.

The mention of the use of a violin in the album is in order but should not be overemphasized as gimmick-oriented audiences have often highlighted it as if it were the defining or most interesting thing going on here. The violin is appropriately used and adds a very eerie aura through its intensified fretless access to microtones which make the semitone emphasis  and augmented intervals sound even more off than they sound on the distorted electric guitar. One can still detect an amateur performance at some level on the instrument, but it is not that notes were missed or that wrong notes were played, and more of a lack of finesse in performance.

II. Apparent influences

At the Gates was formed out of the ashes of Grotesque, a melodic-motif-based, riff-salad-propelled progressive death metal band. The creative and savage impulse of the younger band remains in At the Gates, but filtered through a matured and controlled thought process under the guiding hand of a visionary metal composer. In my opinion, the single greatest metal influence on the band were the Americans from Atheist, whose shadow looms over the fully-formed style of At the Gates in The Red in the Sky is Ours.

Atheist’s trademark is found in its jazz-inspired rhythmic playfulness, ever throwing the audience off balance through ploys in the music that never allow one to feel too at home, always carrying the imagination forth in river rapids that form part of a distinctive greater whole that flows in one direction. As good metal, it is composed and not improvised (though improvisation definitely always plays a role in any composition process, to one degree or another). The stability-instability interplay from section to section follows the Gang‘s and Satz‘s  described by A.B. Marx conceptually and through examples of Beethoven piano sonatas.

What At the Gates The Red in the Sky is Ours took from Atheist was an informed fearlessness in the face of convention that did not destroy the music for the sake of innovation but introduced all sorts of pauses, tempo and time signature changes as well as other creative rhythmic gestures within a homogeneous framework that maintained a clear language that conspired to a strong concept rather than indulging any of the musicians. But the younger band took this further and deeper than veterans even in their masterpiece Unquestionable Presence, creating much more powerful and meaningful gestures by making them varied yet subservient to a layered concept.


III. Creating a language

Usually, one relates a band with a style. This style implies the use of not only certain instrumentation but also musical tropes that the audience can expect. A good reason for a band to adopt a particular style (rather than going rogue and define parameters completely on their own) is intelligibility. Unfortunately, more often than not this is not the reason why bands do this, but rather because they are not gifted in music creation and thus only choose a style as a suit to wear and not as what it actually is: a language to speak.

When it comes to this band’s early works, the first step in understanding just what exactly this style they chose is requires an acknowledging of the fact that At the Gates created a dialect of their own from the firm bases of contemporary underground metal at the time. This consisted in abandoning as much as possible stylistic tendencies in structure or composition and reducing their relation to death metal to rudimentary technique aspects such as blast beats,  d-beats and other variations basic percussion patterns  when it came to the drums, and “tremolo” picking for melodies, power chords (and absolutely no use of any other kind of chord in a single guitar), hammer-on’s and simple, non-tremolo picking mostly for syncopated passages.

It is not claimed here that all this was precisely calculated by the band, and it is acknowledged that in all possibility, it was the result of the unconscious result of musically talented minds searching for self-expression. The following section illustrates approaches in applications of typical then-contemporary death and black metal techniques in the framework of distinct songwriting procedures in The Red in the Sky is Ours.

IV. Tainting the sky with red

  • Motif forms. Motif forms in developmental variation as described by Arnold Schoenberg in his Fundamentals of Musical Composition is a series of melodic patterns evolve from executing transformation functions on a primordial one. As little as two distinctive notes from this first melodic pattern can be highlighted and played upon as the central motif, while the rest is twisted, expanded, contracted, flipped, omitted or changed in any other way in progressively differentiating ways. This is not to be confused with a theme, which is a distinctive melodic pattern that is kept intact in the relative relation between its notes and which in the most extreme cases is played slower or faster, or in a different register.  Motif forms allow for a wider range of manipulation that nonetheless preserves a link to a central idea that can be sometimes difficult to see at first, leading relations between sections to sound less than obvious. In the case of The Red in the Sky is Ours, this has resulted in accusations of riff-salad looseness, but these allegations do not hold up in light of the evidence. However, it is true that a degree of intelligibility is sacrificed when flexibility is increased, and these two are one of the so many extreme poles in between which musics attempt to find a certain balance or inclination for their expression.
  • Harmonic coloring. After the selection and limitation to a rudimentary “alphabet”, the reducing of building materials to a homogeneous mixture, At the Gates proceeds to define the next layer: their vocabulary. What happens next are the decisions that shape the character and coloring of the music in terms of the relations between the instruments in terms of texture and harmony. Harmony here does not only refer to the horizontal relation of notes at any one point in time, but of the sequence of harmonic implications within or between riffs. In the strictly horizontal aspect, when the two guitars play melody lines, they often play the same, leaving “harmonization” as an afterthought until after the riff has been properly introduced and the listener is very well-acquainted with it. Rather than a way to easily beef-up the music as in Sentenced North from Here, At the Gates makes a much more elegant and measured use of it as if it were a punctuation mark. This is mostly done in fifths, sometimes in octaves and a very few times in minor third intervals. A very few passages make use of short counterpointed melodies of the most basic sort, but inserted in crucial points to a very powerful effect. The use of each of these not as a feature but as part of a set of calculated flourishes is another thing that makes At the Gates rise above most bands. Needless to say, the rhythm-and-lead modality is used by At the Gates very, very little and usually takes the form of something more akin to melody and counter-melody. The second aspect can be noticed in different applications. One of them is playing a melodic pattern in one register and then playing it exactly as it is exactly one semitone above its original instantiation. The band uses this simple technique to expand several riffs throughout their debut and is in line with the music’s apparent penchant for focusing on the semitone as a motif, giving the music a very uncomfortable lingering feeling most of the time as the minor second interval is a very dissonant one only a little step away from perfect resolution. This, in turn, is liberated by the addition of more stable (so-called “melodic” — correct term: consonant) passages that are in turn intensified and elevated by being placed amongst the ever-present hanging melodic, semi-tone dissonance.

  • Percussion. As has been said before, the drums in metal should be more than the strict representation of tempo, but they should not run amok in self-indulgent expressions of virtuosity or “feeling” either. In the band’s debut album, Adrian Erlandsson achieves perfection in balance between creativity and functionality in a very technically-oriented style. Like many of the early classics, this technically intense music can go undetected because of two reasons this writer can think of in this moment. The most easily pointed out is the fact that the basic expressions are rudimentary metal techniques which in themselves do not present a challenge to accomplished drummers. But looks can be deceiving as the difficulty lies in the smoothness between patterns, in addition to the right emphasis within and between them in relation to the rest of the music. This is basically metal drumming taken to classical heights and taking technical cues from the only available precedent: old jazz drumming. A very good example is the way the drums complement (rather than mirror) the speed of the notes and intensity of the guitar patterns. Sometimes these two come together and accents are focused, sometimes the drums will reduce intensity and calm down to a very basic pattern in order to give space and highlight to a particularly melodic-consonant guitar melody interplay and yet sometimes it will blast away as the guitars play moderately midpaced and slow notes. These never feel forced or out of place when seen from the point of view of being an expression inside a larger scheme, but may seem a little “weird” when taken out of context. Unfortunately for the appreciation of this album, most listeners cannot go beyond the moment and the riff or the cool drum pattern. The beauty of truly advanced drum arrangement (as opposed to virtuosic display alone) is completely lost on most of the audience.

  • Silences and pauses.  A subtle but decisive element that elevates the composition in The Red in the Sky is Ours to a place actually besides classical music (as opposed to the many metal albums that are superficially likened to classical music based on this or that pattern in the music) is the use of silences for articulation — yet another device used by Atheist that At the Gates took to a whole other level. Silences throughout the album work mainly as expectation creators, creating an effect of falling through empty space, and as buffers between two different motific areas. It is also worth pointing out that silences do not only occur in total muting of all the instruments. Sometimes the little trick Atheist likes of letting the bass run over a little drum pattern alone only to have the guitars come after it is used. But also, one guitar alone over drums, or only drums, or alternations of all of them (as occurs in the closing passage of “City of Screaming Statues”).

  • Orchestration. The bas-reliefs created in The Red in the Sky is Ours thus run at multiple levels, from these plays of harmony, to motif relations, to textural adjustments in between the instruments in which the percussion plays no small role.  An analysis of the flow of the music from one section to another reveals a painstaking amount of planning and consideration regarding these elements. The album amounts to an extremely expressive and variable set of statements and arguments from a single voice (embodied by the aforementioned homogeneous-ness from adherence to rudimentary techniques and particular harmonic-melodic inclinations). When it comes to orchestration, the decisions of how and when to let the guitars use this or that picking technique, when to make them play the same or in harmony, when to let the drums lead, when to make the drums fade into the background seem to obey a song-wide plan, and not one in which only the shock or pleasing nature of any one passage is considered. So, it is not which techniques or approaches At the Gates used in their debut, but how and to what ends they did. This music speaks out as if it had sentient and emotional capacity of its own beyond the words or the execution of any single instrument that produces it.

“The term orchestration in its specific sense refers to the way instruments are used to portray any musical aspect such as melody or harmony.”

— Orchestration Wiki

V. Long-range planning

Now comes one of the most exciting and accomplished aspects of The Red in the Sky is Ours: its composition on the scale of whole pieces, rather than in a collection of disparaged cool-sounding passages. Without any assumption of a voluntary or conscious reference by the band to master composers, this writer feels the need to illustrate the outstanding crystallization of advanced thought processes in composition by making a connection between this great metal work to certain general procedures of Ludwig van Beethoven, Anton Bruckner and Antonio Vivaldi.

Structurally, the affinity to Beethoven’s method comes first as it refers to the encompassing of motifs and their tying-together by entanglement. The late German master would develop a first main motif, sometimes introducing a contrasting idea that may be mistaken as simple gimmicks for effect here and there. Now, he would not allow these to remain simple dead ends. These initial and apparently random passages that salted the presentation of a first motif would become the seeds for other areas of development, thereby revealing them as hints and vistas of what lay ahead. Like At the Gates, Beethoven sometimes introduced new ideas in a contrasting and almost transition-less manner, and then proceeded to slowly integrating them by interpolating them and already-established motifs, even using them together while always looking ahead in the development.  Beethoven’s late quartets display everything one can look forward to in At the Gates The Red in the Sky is Ours in more advanced arrangements.

The reference to Anton Bruckner may not be as pervading and far-reaching as Beethoven’s, but it is still a key aspect of the character of At the Gates’ debut. This is a specific way of reusing and sometimes transforming a motif which works on a different dimension than the developmental variation. This is the attention to the color of a same idea, perhaps a theme or simply a motif in different contexts as it shines through different harmonies and textures. Brett Stevens has aptly described this as prismatic technique, alluding to the effect a crystal has over light going through it and exiting from different angles.

Last comes the most general and slightly elusive comparison to Antonio Vivaldi’s music. The relation of any metal music which has separate guitar lines can be likened to a lot of Vivaldi’s music for two violins, as this revolves around two lines. The best melodic death metal uses this concept to its full potential. Also, the clarity and rhythmic straightforwardness and affirmative character of this pure, Italian baroque music is a template and reflection of good and simple progressive underground melodic metal such as the album under discussion. In the case of this metal masterpiece, I want to especially call attention to an section-expanding procedure in which a pattern is repeated while elements surrounding it add to its texture in increasing waves or in slide-shift manner that quickly takes one idea and juxtaposes it to a second as the second one takes precedence towards the end of the whole section. (Typical in At the Gates’ music -> G1: A A A’ A’  BBB’B’ B’B’, G2: AAAA  A’BB’B’ B’harB’har)

Last of all, there is a high-level characteristic that gives this music a very organic feeling, that is how the number of repetitions adjust to the needs of the music, often avoiding sounding too squared, too even. Instead of a lot of the typical “repeat four times”  formula we find in metal we find a lot of different combinations that nonetheless favor the even-ness traditional to the genre. What is achieved here is an element that lends unpredictability but does not detract from the music, a small tool used when music needs a little push from un-evenness: odd number of repetitions. This becomes especially powerful when combined with the riff-motif sliding technique just mentioned. A perfect exampled can be distinguished in the middle climax/breaking point of “City of Screaming Statues”.

While most would agree that most death and black metal need to be analyzed with a modal mindset, approaching The Red in the Sky is Ours with this more simple-minded preconception would be doing the masterpiece a great disservice. The powerful way in which harmony, implied or explicitly presented, is used here was unprecedented in its time and has largely remained unparalleled since in the death metal world. Yet it is not this or that aspect what makes it astounding, but the convergence of all the elements and the stacked up layers of refined aspects from playing technique to mind-numbing attention to composition technique in its vertical and horizontal dimensions and in its short and long ranges.

Crafting a unique album in the full sense of the expression, At the Gates gave us an example of how thinking that everything has already been done is just a scapegoat for people who were not meant to be creating artists in the first place. The Red in the Sky is Ours does not introduce new playing techniques or strange avant-garde-isms in strange influences that change the character of the music, but for those with the eyes to see it, they rose above the masses in producing a profound work of art that will remain immortal so long as its objective qualities, at least, are understood. This is an album that stands besides Burzum Det Som Engang Var and Cóndor Duin in showing us how excellent, original and forward-looking music can be created without resorting ignorant attempts at directly redefining paradigms or favoring nonsensical experimentation that results in garbage. Instead, what we have here is sure-footed creativity based on tradition that is carefully gauged through both technical knowledge in its Apollonian manifestation and its inner Dionysian sense to a both logical but unpredictable result.


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Abyssion – Luonnon harmonia ja vihreä liekki (2015)


Abyssion is an industrial metal band hailing from Finland, a land that typically has been cradle to some of the most pensive underground metal. Abyssion plays music in that same spirit while remaining pretty accessible, making transparent music that can be absorbed on first listen by any experienced listener.  There more of the indie and the Oi! than the traditional black metal in this music.

While some may feel the temptation to describe this in relation to Burzum based on the music’s most superficial traits and on passing and distracted observations, Abyssion’s Luonnon harmonia ja vihreä liekki has a lot more in common with Darkthrone’s early black metal albums. The difference with either is still clear to anyone intimately acquainted with Burzum or Darkthrone. Burzum’s developmental variations have no parallel in Abyssion’s music, which works with straight-up repetition and synth distraction. Even in contrast with Darkthrone’s dense riffing, Abyssion appears more sparse as it is a more blatant attempt at creating atmosphere.

Here in lies the trap: the artist is not trying to create music but the effect of the music. When music becomes about the effect, an imbalance is created through which the music is no longer solid, nor is the effect lasting, since it is self-referential and insincere. Still, Abyssion’s offering is consistent in style and faithful to a spirit. Recommended as a gateway band for fans of Muse into the spirit of underground metal.

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