Metal complexity

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July 16, 2009 –
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In this world, people feel they gain social status by proving their music is the most unique in some way: most technical, most authentic, most profound, most novel, most antisocial, most ironic, or something. I’m sure there are a billion more categories I’m missing.

With this in mind, it’s clear why metalheads clash with other groups: other groups are trying to raise their own status by downing metal, and they’ll say anything — they don’t care if it’s true — to make metal look bad.

Metalheads are often confused about how to retort. Here’s a start.

What makes metal complex is not the technicality of the playing, or the speed, or the number of notes. Quite honestly, in each of those categories Andres Segovia and Julian Bream have everyone beat. Progressive rock bands like Yes come next, and somewhere in there are jazz and mathcore. Metal and rock aren’t really competing on that level, although sometimes they reach it.

Metal is complex because of its through-composed, narrative, motif-driven style that originates in the riff-based nature of metal, and approximates the style used in classical and early music. Each piece is like a little story, or poem, that goes from a starting point to an ending point through a topography of adventures. It’s not like rock, which is cyclic, or jazz, which is a background harmony over which random jamming makes a sort of texture. It’s like classical, where form meets message and each piece is both unique, and develops according to a structured format.

The only things that are close are ambient bands like Tangerine Dream and Fripp/Eno.

Theoretically speaking, on the level of songwriting, at its best this style of writing is brainier than jazz, rock, blues, etc. — not necessarily as technical or more technical, but perhaps a more intelligent and intense mode of composition. It’s why classical is always going to be at the top of the list for “this requires a big brain to pull it off.” But, metal and other narrative styled composers are up there too.

It’s also a lot harder to write well in this style, which is just about proven by the fact that metal bands are either instant classics or vanish into the pit of time. There’s little middle ground. You’re either Morbid Angel, or some doofus flash in the pan that everyone thinks is neat for about six weeks, and then no one can remember the name a year later.

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  • mandrake

    rock music is not necessarly cyclic. poor rock music uses same cyclic structure over and over, but quality rock ( ex. soft machine, henry cow etc) is in no way repetitive and dull.

  • fdsa

    henry cow’s red sock album is technically, compositionally and viscerally magnificent. i think it matches or surpasses any of the metal greats as far as having to have a big brain to pull it off (or comprehend it) goes.