Death Metal Underground

Instrumental metal: an idea whose time has come

by Brett Stevens
December 28, 2013 –

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When Burzum released Hvis Lyset Tar Oss in 1994, underground metal was forever split. This album featured longer songs where concept was closely intertwined with song structure, and riff shape defined by mood. It both made undone past paradigms and raised the bar.

After that point, black metal and death metal deflated. The initial rise of ideas created in reaction to outrage at a dying civilization was gone, and nothing else propelled the genre forward, so it fell into self-imitation based on outward traits. Further, few bands could handle the raised bar, so it was “explained away” in social circles and the music tended toward the more primitive, not less.

Thus is the problem with raising the bar. Once you have done it, people either rise to the challenge and forge ahead in the new language, or have to hide the fact that they’re here for the gravy train which means they want to make the same dumbass music they would make in rock, pop, punk or blues, but use some distortion and call it “black metal.” That leads to high margins: the product is cheap to make because it’s a well-known type, but it has a higher markup due to novelty.

However, unless you’re deaf, you’ve noticed that the output of underground metal has seriously flagged in quality since the mid-1990s. Not so in quantity, of course, where we have more bands than ever before who have better production, are better instrumentalists, and generally more savvy at the music industry. Unfortunately the music they produce is not as good as what a few lonely intelligent outcasts did in the early 1990s.

This leads us back to a question of metal’s growth. Do we keep up with the raised bar? Style is not substance, but the two are related. Without enough substance, style never evolves; without the right style, substance often gets lost. Artists tend to visualize the two at the same time as part of the same articulation of an idea that they are communicating through mood, or the sensation of perceiving something and wanting to engage with it. In theory, metal could continue with what it has, using the same styles but writing new music, and many bands have succeeded in that. But keeping up with the raised bar has some advantages.

First, instrumental metal would be difficult and this would draw a line between metal and the pop, rock, blues and rap and place us closer to ambient and classical in the respect scale. Take for example this quote from educator Liam Malloy:

“In the past, heavy metal has not been taken seriously and is seen as lacking academic credibility when compared with other genres such as jazz and classical music. But that’s just a cultural construction.”

Second, this change would get rid of the vocal problem in metal. We know what death/black metal vocals are, but the shock has worn off as they’ve been appropriated by other genres. They are not extreme anymore, and overused by those who like them because a plausible imitation is easy to pull off. On the other hand, shouting vocals (Pantera) are annoying, most male singing sounds like drunk guys brawling, and the high pitched “operatic” vocals divide an audience. No vocals, no worries.

Third, this would make it easier to tell real metal bands from the weekenders. Real bands can put together long pieces that make sense, where the weekends just want the appearance thereof. Contrast real progressive rock like Yes to the somewhat paltry substitute in Opeth. Opeth have nailed the aesthetic, but not the underlying musical depth or density. When you hear the two together, it’s clear they are from different genres.

Fourth, instrumental metal would enable greater riffiness in metal. Already there’s a storm of protest when “riff salad” songs emerge, even if the riff makes sense. Much of death metal was an end run around using constant verse-chorus vocals, thus liberating guitars to create more interplay between riffs. Without vocals to keep bringing the song back to repetition, riffs could have greater leeway and repetition would exist not out of standard song form, but to emphasize parts of the song that need repeating for the sake of atmosphere.

Many people out there want metal to go instrumental. While it loses the masculine and terrifying aspect of the vocals, it encourages a competition among metal bands to not only preserve that but make it more extreme among their instrumentals. And if anything, that’s closer to the spirit of metal itself.

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14 comments

  • basto

    Perhaps instrumental metal hasn’t caught on because bands and fans alike have relegated the instrumental to the status of novelty/filler/”Look, Ma, we can play!” track. Also, perhaps many people reflexively recoil when they hear the word “instrumental”, thinking it only means super-tech-masturbatory shredding.

    “Orion” is one of the most—if not THE most—important instrumental compositions for bands to study if they want to explore deeply moving narrative/emotional journey. At the very least it should be a/the starting point, just as the Declaration of Independence should be a starting point for a US history student. I have to stop myself from waxing poetic about “Orion” because it has such a powerful effect on me and its emotional/spiritual significance to me is stronger as I age and spiritually mature.

    This post has made me reflect on an observation that’s been on my mind for years, but that I had never verbalized or written before, which is this: True metal art is so powerful that, even if its creators mutated into a rock band (Metallica), you can disassociate the music from the creator and, more importantly, disconnect your emotional experience from the banal considerations of your ego and what it thinks about the human messengers who (in most cases) unwittingly connected you to divinity.

  • Dionysus

    Though there is value in this analysis and the proposition in the article, I think it over-emphasizes (albeit tacitly) metal’s relationship to classical music. This relationship exists and is important, of course, but we cannot forget the other tradition metal is related to in spirit and form: folk music particularly of the European/bardic variant. The epic narratives of bands like Candlemass, Bathory, Iron Maiden and Skyforger are clearly aligned with the bardic romances from which folk music is derived. Losing vocals would harm this aspect of metal severely. Exploiting the folk connection in conjuction with metal’s more “classical” traits (which would naturally necessitate vocals) is another potential avenue.

    I guess the point of my post is to say, yes, this is an option,but it has a cost, and the imaginative mind can find many others. I for one wouldn’t want all good metal in the future to be wholly instrumental.

  • neidan

    Some amusing knee-jerk type reactions to this article indeed. What baffles me is what causes this reaction. Considering that metal is a wasteland with maybe a handful of actual great releases over a 5-10 year period, what have you actually got to lose? The point is to be the absolute best, that’s what drove the innovators of the earlier scenes. Questioning instrumentation is just to help you weak faggots think outside of the box. Triumphant Hails!

  • EDS

    Perhaps it comes down to the knowledge of when to apply vocals and when not to. I have always wondered why bands don’t just embrace writing long songs with elaborate theme development and theme interplay. Creating a song within a song and only applying vocals if need be. If while rehearsing the music it seems as though for almost 7 minutes straight in a particular song, vocals are not needed, well then the artist is free to not write lyrics for that section/sections. Albums would be just a few songs, but these songs would have very strong songwriting and theme development creating a song within a song effect. Vocals would be sparse and relegated to a role of enhancing riffs or sections reminding us of where we used to be in the past (shorter songs with plenty of “extreme” vocals).

    1. Jim Nelson

      Good idea, I’ve said this before as well. Sparse use of vocals can result in an overall more thrilling effect of vocals. Some of the best parts of Burzum let the music go on and on and on with no vocals whatsoever. It always seemed to prompt zoning out to the music and it was almost kind of like traveling between two different worlds then when the vocals would kick back in.

  • neidan

    Exactly what I was thinking EDS! If they exist or don’t exist they should be indivisible from any other element of instrumentation. Vocals that sound like riffs and riffs that appear to speak (I would happily give all you stupid assholes a practical example only I suck at playing guitar lol).

    1. ReflectiveDepths

      An interesting example from the vocals-saturated, opposite end of the spectrum may be Mercyful Fate (esp. ‘Melissa’ and ‘Don’t Break the Oath’) where the wailing vocals of King Diamond and the guitar leads both occupy the same sonic space of hitting the higher notes and therefore seem to mimic each other, fulfilling complementary roles.

      This duality in Mercyful Fates makes it easy for us to hear how in their music, instrumentation (vocals included) becomes subordinate to the song/album itself. When the narrative of a song demands that these higher notes should be hit in fast, complex, Baroque-inspired patterns, the vocals give way to intricate guitar solos, probably because the technical demands of the vocalist to sing in this style while enunciating the lyrics clearly would be an audible impossibility. The solos are then not tacked on sound-bytes that demonstrate virtuosity or simply fulfil a convention, but an extension of King Diamond’s vocal performance at key intervals.

      This also shows that his over-the-top vocal style is not just camp showboating but integral to the composition of the song in both a thematic (demonic) and instrumentational sense.

  • Pantskidder

    I’d like to see more narrative Conjunto, Mariachi, Ranchera, Mexican cumbia and Norteño!

    Manowar Mariachi!

    True Mariachi it is, or no Mariachi at all!

    Pinches and putos leave the Home Depot!

  • Dave Metric

    I completely disagree with this article. The problem with metal today is precisely BECAUSE it is getting too instrumental. There are no clean singers anymore who frighten you with over the top lyrics. Now you just have a bunch of vocalists exploiting mere techniques; expressing nothing at all. They are just another instrument. The reason is clear, most people are cowardly. It takes more balls to sing cleanly “evil” lyrics than it does to grunt or growl them. Of course, we do need to mix style with substance. The problem is it is become far too common for style to completely negate the substance

    More Celtic Frost and less Burzum.