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Song Structure in Metal

Song Structure in Metal
December 15, 2011, 06:00:57 PM
(I wrote this this morning.  It's ok, goes a bit off the mark into my own semi-philosophical ramblings, but I think I get the point across.  I'll post [or link to] the review of Pure Holocaust if anyone's interested.)

Metal, when it comes down to it, is not about distorted guitars, fast tempos, aggressive vocals, or Satanic/Evil lyrics and imagery.  It’s not even about awesome riffs, cool solos, or the brilliant harmonic sensibilities introduced in the late ’70s/early ’80s.  These things, in conjunction with each other, might make something which sounds like it could be Metal, but I am going to point out something very obvious which I’m not sure many people have thought about to any great degree: these same ingredients make up the best of NWOBHM, Extreme Metal, and fucking metalcore.  Think about that for a minute: the metalcore of the 2000s has exactly the same basic ingredients as all good metal.  That’s how it sells - it sounds like Maiden, Slayer, Cannibal Corpse, and, for some odd reason, Orchid, all in the same song.  There’s something for everyone, there - harmonised guitar solos, an impressively wide range of vocal styles and pitch, all sorts of tempo changes, cool beats, slamming whatever they’re calleds (breakdowns?), and so on, and this is why teeny boppers hop on the bandwagon and buy these bands’ retarded output.

What’s missing, then?  What seperates the shit from the good?  The answer, as I’m sure you’ve already guessed by the title of this post, is the structure.  Metalcore has no discernible structure when it extends beyond verse/chorus rock (which is extremely rare), but a great deal of NWOBHM, Death/Black Metal, and even grindcore has very well thought out and reasonable song structures.  Rather than the ingredients themselves, it is the way in which they are combined which makes Metal great.  As I mentioned in the Pure Holocaust “review”, the journey/return song structure is pretty common in Black Metal, and, actually, in a lot of other forms of Metal - listen to Altars of Madness, Don’t Break the Oath, or Deicide’s debut, and see if you can pick out how many times this kind of structure crops up.  A possible reason for its prominent inclusion in Metal is that, as a basic song structure, it accurately mirrors vast portions of the lives we live: we start something, we follow through with it, and when we finish it, we look back at the entire process which has led to the point at which we now stand.  A change has occurred, but that change brings with it the memories of its origin(s).  However, we can say more than this: by extracting the human from the equation, we see that reality, progressing through points along the axis of “time”, is a succession of cumulative orientations and events, which must, by the laws of Nature/Physics, be based on every single orientation/event which preceded them.  How like human memory is this very basic principle?  Things happen, and the fact that they have happened remains throughout time, and actively affects (some would say it effects) the futures which arise.

I would say, with only a slight hesitation, that, as sentient beings, we are inherently aware of such orders in our Universe, if perhaps not all consciously aware.  Thus, when something in our lives mimicks and sheds light on these processes, that object/event appeals to an innate sense in us; we acknowledge embedded, microcosmic versions of the patterns in reality which extend around and above ourselves, and, potentially, learn more about our reality through such experiences.  Whether this is conscious or subconscious is neither here nor there, for the resultant enjoyment is evident (for, perhaps, it is the Joy of the human to learn and experience).

Metalcore gives us nothing but a random string of slightly interesting items to observe.  Once we’ve examined them, we say “alright”, and put them away again.  The best of Metal stays with us forever.  I would say that it actively alters our perceptions of the world around us (and, perhaps, the world “behind” us [consciousness et al, I’ll get onto that at some point if I haven’t already]).  Like a “life experience” (going bungee jumping, being entangled in a hostage situation, coming close to death but surviving), this music informs us about our realities, our lives, and our selves, and, as such, it is indispensible.

Re: Song Structure in Metal
December 15, 2011, 06:49:51 PM
An insightful post. At least in some metal (e.g. Dawn of Possession era Immolation), structure is only apparent when the narrative returns to the familiar. It could be verse/chorus, but it's verse chorus in a way that's realized, as opposed to expected. This has parallels with the natural world, but it is a parallel of emotion, of sensing similarity and underlying union. I have no hesitation in agreeing with your philosophical viewpoint, but with one exception for the sake of caution: Accept that you yourself may be a pattern seeking animal, one to whom this becomes apparent whether it is present or not (I don't believe this, my views mirror what you have written).

How does a verse/chorus structure used by a band like say, Infester, differ from the verse/chorus of a metalcore band? Can I summarize what you are stating as; when structure reflects the truth, realization occurs? A metaphysical (transcendant) definition of art, how apt.

Edit: I believe I should expand on the parallel I mentioned. We do not have the ability to dissociate ourselves from our existence, though we are able to perceive of this possibility. Nothing is apparent until it occurs, yet there is What Came Before to draw from; History itself can be restated as the "recallable experience of humanity". In a song like the one mentioned, realization occurs because the familiar is in the context of what has intervened in between. It is however, an entirely perceptual, emotional "Eureka!". Romantic thinking gave this feeling a great deal of weight and importance, hence metal carried on some of the essence of this movement.

Edit: Link to the review!

Re: Song Structure in Metal
December 18, 2011, 12:29:59 AM
I think stucture depends on there being the appropriate building blocks i.e. you need good riffs to begin with that build into that structure. Great post.

Re: Song Structure in Metal
December 18, 2011, 01:39:37 AM
(I wrote this this morning.  It's ok, goes a bit off the mark into my own semi-philosophical ramblings, but I think I get the point across.  I'll post [or link to] the review of Pure Holocaust if anyone's interested.)

Metal, when it comes down to it, is not about distorted guitars, fast tempos, aggressive vocals, or Satanic/Evil lyrics and imagery.  It’s not even about awesome riffs, cool solos, or the brilliant harmonic sensibilities introduced in the late ’70s/early ’80s.  These things, in conjunction with each other, might make something which sounds like it could be Metal, but I am going to point out something very obvious which I’m not sure many people have thought about to any great degree: these same ingredients make up the best of NWOBHM, Extreme Metal, and fucking metalcore.  Think about that for a minute: the metalcore of the 2000s has exactly the same basic ingredients as all good metal.  That’s how it sells - it sounds like Maiden, Slayer, Cannibal Corpse, and, for some odd reason, Orchid, all in the same song.  There’s something for everyone, there - harmonised guitar solos, an impressively wide range of vocal styles and pitch, all sorts of tempo changes, cool beats, slamming whatever they’re calleds (breakdowns?), and so on, and this is why teeny boppers hop on the bandwagon and buy these bands’ retarded output.

What’s missing, then?  What seperates the shit from the good?  The answer, as I’m sure you’ve already guessed by the title of this post, is the structure.  Metalcore has no discernible structure when it extends beyond verse/chorus rock (which is extremely rare), but a great deal of NWOBHM, Death/Black Metal, and even grindcore has very well thought out and reasonable song structures.  Rather than the ingredients themselves, it is the way in which they are combined which makes Metal great.  As I mentioned in the Pure Holocaust “review”, the journey/return song structure is pretty common in Black Metal, and, actually, in a lot of other forms of Metal - listen to Altars of Madness, Don’t Break the Oath, or Deicide’s debut, and see if you can pick out how many times this kind of structure crops up.  A possible reason for its prominent inclusion in Metal is that, as a basic song structure, it accurately mirrors vast portions of the lives we live: we start something, we follow through with it, and when we finish it, we look back at the entire process which has led to the point at which we now stand.  A change has occurred, but that change brings with it the memories of its origin(s).  However, we can say more than this: by extracting the human from the equation, we see that reality, progressing through points along the axis of “time”, is a succession of cumulative orientations and events, which must, by the laws of Nature/Physics, be based on every single orientation/event which preceded them.  How like human memory is this very basic principle?  Things happen, and the fact that they have happened remains throughout time, and actively affects (some would say it effects) the futures which arise.

This sounds sensible to me. Metal is most unique, and perhaps most "metal" when it addresses these more complex narrative structures. In fact, it's really the only significant thing that sets it apart from other popular musics (but it is very significant).

Metalcore gives us nothing but a random string of slightly interesting items to observe.  Once we’ve examined them, we say “alright”, and put them away again.  The best of Metal stays with us forever.  I would say that it actively alters our perceptions of the world around us (and, perhaps, the world “behind” us [consciousness et al, I’ll get onto that at some point if I haven’t already]).  Like a “life experience” (going bungee jumping, being entangled in a hostage situation, coming close to death but surviving), this music informs us about our realities, our lives, and our selves, and, as such, it is indispensible.

Here's where I think you go wrong. Metalcore is not random at all. Verse-Chorus song structure may be more obviously recursive than sonata form, but that doesn't make it random. In fact, given its near monopoly on popular music songs, I would argue that it's the rigid logicality and predictability of this form that gives its mass appeal. I can hear the first 30 seconds of most pop or metalcore songs, and then tell you, with varying degrees of total accuracy, the events that will occur over the next two and a half minutes. I think it's this predictability, partly, that makes this music so disgusting to discerning minds.

Further, you mentioned earlier on that recapitulation seems to be an idea inherent to good metal, but I'd like to point out that even popular Verse Chorus song structures contain some form of recapitulation, in the return of the "chorus", often transposed up a half step. In principle, this isn't that different from Beethoven, but simplified to the extreme. I don't even think the structures used in popular music (and there are not more than 10) are that uninteresting inherently, but rather that their composers are simply not as skilled in applying these principles of formal design in interesting ways.

Finally, a word on the word "random". I was once challenged by a jazz musician on the topic of metal, and why I devoted so much time to practicing and perfecting my technique and knowledge of the repertoire because after all, as he put it, " Isn't metal just playing fast in random half steps and tritones?".

To this I responded: "Well, isn't jazz just a bunch of random noodling over ii-V-I progressions?".

What appears as randomness to the uninitiated is rigid structure to the learned, and what appears as monotonous placidity to the layman is exciting subtlety to the connoisseur. People outside of a musical sub-genre are often incapable of seeing past the surface aesthetic to the deeper structure. I'm sure metalcore listeners can tell the difference between As I Lay Dying and All That Remains, but I can't.

To this I hear the marketplace crowd responding, bleating like sheep with swollen spleens: "you shouldn't have to be initiated to understand great music!!!". And to this I say: appreciation of a music's subtleties by an intellectual elite does not good music make!

You see, there's something deeper beyond the elements that only specialists can hear and pick apart, meaning that there's some substance common to all good compositions, regardless of style or social setting. Once this is understood, you can listen to Autechre, but throw away shit like Skrillex; you can indulge in Suffocation, but ignore Dying Fetus; you can love Mozart, but scorn Salieri.

Good composition transcends style and its peculiarities. There's good (and bad) drum-and-bass, percussive death metal, classical, and potentially (even though I hate the stuff) metalcore.

Update: I found some metalcore I like! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lDEI-Bb9PBQ&

Re: Song Structure in Metal
December 23, 2011, 06:19:52 AM
Isn't it just phrasal composition? I.e. passages evolved. I.e. if B comes after A, B will be almost the same as A but slighlt modified (step up/down, slightly different end to the phrase, etc). Whereas with bad metal, B will not resemble A at all (cannibal corpse, deathgrind, etc).

I know it's not quite as simple as that, because new 'bits' come in (i.e. a verse after a chorus, or a break).

Re: Song Structure in Metal
December 23, 2011, 03:14:56 PM
Isn't it just phrasal composition? I.e. passages evolved. I.e. if B comes after A, B will be almost the same as A but slighlt modified (step up/down, slightly different end to the phrase, etc). Whereas with bad metal, B will not resemble A at all (cannibal corpse, deathgrind, etc).

I know it's not quite as simple as that, because new 'bits' come in (i.e. a verse after a chorus, or a break).

There's plenty of good, or at least ANUS approved metal that doesn't use this technique. Gorguts and Darkthrone both come to mind.

"Phrasal", "Phrasal composition", "phrasal narrative" etc. are all pointless terms that don't mean anything to anyone outside of this website. As far as I can tell by the extremely vague "definitions" offered by its members, it's describing variation technique, which was used and codified by western art music hundreds of years before the first metal ever appeared. Check out Beethoven's 4th symphony, particularly mvt. 2:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qZ7nsE7w3k8

Same idea. If we're going to claim common ground with classical music, the least we can do is not insult the intelligences of the listeners of both genres, metal and classical, by using the correct terminology for things we didn't invent. It also shows laziness on our part when we're not willing to understand the music on a technical level with which we claim a lineage. Good luck getting metal into the history books using terms like "phrasal composition", when all it is is variation technique.

Re: Song Structure in Metal
December 28, 2011, 03:37:34 AM
Hey, so where's this review of Pure Holocaust?

Re: Song Structure in Metal
January 03, 2012, 04:57:40 AM
Further, you mentioned earlier on that recapitulation seems to be an idea inherent to good metal, but I'd like to point out that even popular Verse Chorus song structures contain some form of recapitulation, in the return of the "chorus", often transposed up a half step. In principle, this isn't that different from Beethoven, but simplified to the extreme. I don't even think the structures used in popular music (and there are not more than 10) are that uninteresting inherently, but rather that their composers are simply not as skilled in applying these principles of formal design in interesting ways.

You see, there's something deeper beyond the elements that only specialists can hear and pick apart, meaning that there's some substance common to all good compositions, regardless of style or social setting. Once this is understood, you can listen to Autechre, but throw away shit like Skrillex; you can indulge in Suffocation, but ignore Dying Fetus; you can love Mozart, but scorn Salieri.

So if its not the narative, 'recursive', thing, then what is it?

A side note, Autechre are great! I do prefer Ochre (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RevNfMsPvwE&feature=related) or some Boards of Canada (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_fAGC9ODl2Y) in the IDM sub-genre though.

Re: Song Structure in Metal
January 04, 2012, 04:19:01 PM
Isn't it just phrasal composition?

Phrasal composition to my mind is a way of describing the metal riff, which is based on phrase and not repetition of a dominant rhythm. Metal riffs move for the sake of making a unique shape or appearance, therein being their emotional content, unlike rock riffs which move only to re-emphasize the catchy rhythm of the vocals. Contrast the Rolling Stones or Beatles to Massacra for the clearest vision of this.