Decimation: Atonality in Death Metal

Never has there been a word in metal as misunderstood as atonal, allowing all kinds of ridiculous claims since most individuals confuse atonality with dissonance and chromatism.

There are two ways to define atonality, one being the complete lack of tonal character and being reduced to noise like some of Kerry King’s solos or the works of Merzbow. The other definition that interests us here is the complete lack of functional harmony. In simpler terms that implies not having the root note that commands a certain melody. Without a root note, the notes in an atonal melody are not connected by scales, modes or chords.

Richard Wagner understood the power of atonality in his masterpiece Tristan und Isolde. With a lack of conventional melody and an unfamiliar sequence of notes used sparingly and with perfect ornamentation the emotional resonance increased exponentially. By playing minimalist atonal and contrasting melodies that would end on a non atonal note, Wagner squeezed a lifetime of emotions between the main protagonists in ten short minutes. As our minds search for that note that allows to comprehend the melody, leaving us disoriented and without anything holding us down, the melodies accumulate tension and can return to tonality in practically any way possible. Classical composers returned to the comfort of major chords yet bands like Beherit would end their phrases on angular and dissonant notes not allowing any respite.

Metal is free harmony as all voice work towards a singular vision and all else is secondary to the riff. Since atonality is devoid of harmony by its very nature both go hand in hand. When multiple voices do vary in melody and rhythm they are still going forward and collaborating to reach the same objective. Multiple atonal voices can even further disorient the listener by playing melodies that reference different emotions representing a more nuanced approach to communication in songcraft. Immolation used this immensely on “Here in After” as Bob Vigna would play different parts panned differently to accompany the simultaneous feelings of nothingness and joy in separation from religion.

Trey Azaghthoth revolutionized the KK Downing screaming solo that Slayer displayed so well through the use of atonality, random bursts of tremolo histrionics were supplemented with carefully selected tapping patterns and fast precise picking all within realm of atonality, emulating the chaos theory by hiding a very thorough design through what feels like random notes flying in every direction. Tonality maintains order through strict adherence harmony and never overflowing with chromatic notes. None of these rules apply to atonalitymeaning that the creation of riffs and songs must come from an other kind of order. Demilich and early Mayhem developed their own bizarre systems that were consistent with themselves and their musical language making them unique and instantly recognizable. There is a lot of freedom in the structure of atonal music that complements the death metal style of riff mazes.

Most death metal bands endlessly mix atonality with chromaticism to create that dark brooding and powerful sound so definitive of the genre. An intensive analysis must be done on a case by case basis as there are far too many styles to cite and important variations in the role of atonality to even scratch the surface of what needs to be said. Demigod expertly intertwine the harmonic minor scale with atonal riffs bouncing from one to another easily yet Suffocation used atonality to add strength to the breakdowns and keep a transfer of momentum going. Atonality is a key to a door that has barely been opened and that has so much more to say, train your ears to recognize and understand it because the day a metal band with an understanding of what makes metal great and a willingness to completely embrace atonality will reach great heights.

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22 thoughts on “Decimation: Atonality in Death Metal”

  1. Shantavious Rosenberg-O'Malley says:

    You Les gay

    1. Nicholas Vahdias says:


      1. Shantavious Rosenberg-O'Malley AKA ______ AKA _____ (maybe I'll be doxxed if I keep this up!!!) says:

        I’m gay for you Nick. You write better than I ever did.

        1. Shantavious Rosenberg-O'Malley says:

          I’m actually a former editor and I wanna suck your dick Nick

          1. Nicholas Vahdias says:

            None of that behaviour is tolerated here in DMU, begone you scoundrel!!!

  2. Old old fan says:

    I remember Brett rallying against the presence of Christian metal back in the 90s.

    Oh how things change. This past mass shooting and the insanity of the liberal media constructing scape goats.

    We have reached the times when Christian metal lyrics seems the saner voice among the chaos ruins.

    Check it out. This is from heavy metal band Jacob’s Dream – Scape goats:

    Let’s blame the music world
    Or maybe the gun makers
    Entrusted with your children’s lives
    Let them know
    That there are no scape goats
    Teach them well
    To know wrong from right

    awesome song:

  3. Hagel says:

    Atonality is garbage and most death metal bands do not use it. Most death metal bands use chromaticism and modulation, but they always have a tonal centre, and are thus not atonal.

    Atonal =/= lacking functional harmony, given any of its definitions, which include not having a perceptible pitch (a perceptible tone, hence the name), and not having a tonal centre. Being atonal requires lacking functional harmony, but lacking functional harmony does not require being atonal.
    Metal always has a tonal centre or two, no matter how many times the centre(s) move during the music. If you claim otherwise, then show me the evidence. Tonal centres naturally emerge, as they are a part of human nature. Even when writing in 12 tone serialism, a system designed by a Jew to annihilate tonality, they can emerge when there is melodic ostinato (a riff) that happens to imply a destination and a beginning and an end. For example:
    Even when attempting to avoid tonal centres, they can emerge. Metal doesn’t even try to. It embraces tonal centres by embracing clearly defined, self contained, repeating melodies, which naturally cause the first tone in the sequence to become the tonal centre.

    I said that atonality is garbage. Why?
    Atonality is garbage because motion is meaningless when it is not relative to some landmark. It is wandering aimlessly in a flat, endless, featureless desert. Every place looks the same.
    Metal does not reject functional harmony in favour of free atonality. It rejects it in favour of melody. Melody, not harmony, is what drives the music. Melody with relation to a central, prime, tone (or two, a fifth or fourth apart).
    These melodies can be heptatonically scalar / modal, or they can be chromatic, but in either case, there are tonal centres.

    1. Nicholas Vahdias says:

      1. I already made the reference to the lack of perceptible pitch.
      2. look at any riff in Drawing down the moon
      3. Metal is melody driven but the attraction to atonality stems from the lack of functional harmony
      4. learn to read

      1. Hagel says:

        One minute into Drawing Down The Moon, we get this:

        Are you going to tell me that the tonal centre isn’t E?

        I’ve given this site too many chances. It’s been wrong too many times.

        1. Nicholas Vahdias says:

          The riff is comprised of 2 notes in equal amount either one could be the tonal center but more logically none of those notes are

          1. Jerry Hauppa says:

            In my experience with this record all of the tonics in each riff are obviously established, maybe you are deriving “atonality” out of equal amounts of note value? The relationships with the first note of each phrase make themselves really clear, I’m not really hearing any atonality there.

            People often confuse “atonal” with discordant, which you can’t really say about the record either.

            1. Nicholas Vahdias says:

              I am deriving atonality from the lack of different intervals. Meaning that for a piece to be atonal each note needs to be at a fixed interval from the others which is something that Beherit does frequently with chromatics and minor thirds

              1. Hagel says:

                I was a bit uncivilized to you. I still think that metal has tonal centres, they just shift a lot. Every riff can have its own one, or two, but they’re always there. I still think that I’m right and that you are wrong. But you’re not a fool. I’m not getting out of here because of you, you’re just arguing (reasonably well) for a position I don’t hold.
                You are better than the garbage that came before you. You are making great again.

                But my part here still done. My articles were edited to include grammar and spelling errors, and now my comments have started to be edited too, to include sub high school level humour.
                Good luck to you, sir.

                1. Hagel says:

                  I can almost justify calling it atonal, since the pitch centres are so shallowly rooted, can so easily change, and can be simultaneously plural.
                  But I don’t agree with any of those justifications, because motion in a barren land with no landmarks is meaningless, and ends up sounding like Schoenberg.
                  No matter how close you get to 0, the difference between 0 and any value above 0 is enormous. Metal still has pitch centres.

                  1. Nicholas Vahdias says:

                    I really like that way of seeing things through a mathematical lense, and you are starting to convince me but at the end of the day the band probably themselves don’t know what they did and don’t care as the result produced is incredible. Metal unlike other forms comes directly from the heart and not the mind

                2. averse to autism says:

                  Don’t be a conciliatory pussy.

                  Is this even you, or did the editors doctor this feeble comment under your name?

                  If so, then they are extremely autistic.

    2. averse to autism says:

      >say something authoritatively even tho you are a 20 y/o virgin with no expertise in anything xept redtube
      >have someone with actual expertise come along and correct you
      >get pissy as tho getting the keys to this blog makes you an ubermenched suddenly and attempt to show you were right to begin with
      >drive away people with actual expertise

      Rinse and repeat.

      1. averse to autism says:

        This is, of course, directed at Nicholas Vahdiautism

        1. Nicholas Vahdias says:

          I am not getting pissy, I gave the guy a chance to discuss his point of view and all he does is bitch and leave.
          Stop crying and act like an actual Hessian

          1. averse to autism says:

            Act like ‘Hessian’! With slave morality (loathing the higher person)!

  4. Dirk says:

    “Let’s blame the music world
    Or maybe the gun makers
    Entrusted with your children’s lives
    Let them know
    That there are no scape goats
    Teach them well
    To know wrong from right”

    = Bullshit, when you know the deep state is involved.

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