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.
Once upon a time Pestilence were a very capable death/speed metal band that would attain great heights with the their magnum opus Consuming Impulse. Leaving behind the speed metal of Malleus Maleficarum for greater freedom in melody and structure, “Out of the body” is by far the most popular track on this album due to its catchy main riff, guitar acrobatics and absolute intensity.
Those are only the surface traits of what makes this song and the album a bonafide death metal classic.
Having recently dissected what comprises the riff structuring of the current incarnation of Gorguts in the Pleiades’ Dust review, I decided to revisit what I deem to be their most truly progressive material in The Erosion of Sanity to pinpoint what the band used to do successfully in comparison. The most bewildering track on it, “Condemned to Obscurity,” perplexed me when I had first heard it about twenty years ago and still has an esoteric nature to its structure and aesthetic today. But unlike current Gorguts which borrows from indie and noise rock techniques to create dissonance, Gorguts on this particular song managed to do so utilizing purely metal tropes in a way that was entirely unique for its time. In the following I will attempt to break down what comprises the very first riff of the song and detail what it meant for the band at the time and how it served as a window into what they eventually evolved into, for better or worse.
Dark, brooding, and long cloaked in obscurity, the harmonic minor scale is a compelling collective of notes that has historically been used as an accent to minor key compositions. For centuries only a handful of pieces had been written within its bounds as composers instead opted to weave in for a number of measures before an eventual progression into the natural minor scale. From there it appeared again in a few folk songs, took a strong spiritual presence in Islamic culture, and later became an integral part of horror movies when they progressed into the frightening mediums they became in the 1970s. But it wasn’t until the musicians of the early Swedish death metal scene discovered how to fully harness the scale’s potential that lengthy songs and even the majority of some albums began being composed within its bounds. A truly grotesque wedlock, the scale gave he who wielded it the power to craft the most sinister and foreboding compositions possible within the laws of music. It is for this reason one could attest that the minor harmonic scale has found a home in heavy metal that no other genre of music could provide. (more…)
The Death Metal Underground FAQ is an ancient yet valuable and reliable document full of information to help the less initiated grasp some of the simpler aspects of metal. It is also a wonderful attempt to actually explain the Hessian ideals, culture and music. The music section is particularly small and contains a fairly large amount of information and therefore it is time to open it up and go into the details of the points mentioned and what needs to be changed, for it is only through constant analysis of past work can we build upon them and progress.
Online music magazine Perfect Sound Forever (nice job stealing the 1980s advertising slogan for the then new CD format) recently posted a piece entitled “Metal For the New Millennium” by an idiotic hipster named Cam Netland who said that metal was a limited music genre as result of being a “as an offset of rock music”. Netland claims that metal became “more hardcore” as a result of the “radicalization” of other genres in this period citing staid examples such as Bad Brains (softened hardcore punk for idiotic affirmative action multi-culturalists) and Public Enemy (rap made into pop music with tough street gang lyrics to make suburban white jocks feel good about their short penises). He goes onto claim that metal is divided into many “micro-genres” and that the new millennium has seen the rise of many new ones such as what Neton terms Babymetal‘s grass-eater Japanese pop music, djent (random post-hardcore jazz fusion) Deafheaven‘s “blackgaze” (screamo pretending to be tough that is neither black metal nor shoegaze), and Vektor‘s random techno speed metal idiocy. Netland cites such turd non-metal albums as Mastodon – Leviathan (alternative rock), Converge – Jane Doe (post-hardcore math rock), and System of a Down – Toxicity (nu-“metal” which is in actuality of course rap rock).
The slow evolution of Western society (and in consequence of the whole world) into the post-modern paradigm arising inevitably from the purely mechanistic cosmovision of the Enlightment sciences, which in the best of cases allow for a Cartesian separation of the physical and the spiritual, pervade every corner touched by the status quo culture. This results in a relegating of anything which cannot be explained or described in purely mathematical terms to what is referred to as ‘subjective’. Anything that is experienced but cannot (yet) be explained is assumed to be subjective. There would be a certain justice to this if the phenomena that are still unaccounted for by science were squarely placed in a category under a truthful label by the establishment confessing: “We don’t know how to explain this in our terms, but that does not mean it is any less real or without possible objective basis.” What takes place is an arbitrary classification of these into morally-justified beliefs when they are in line with the status quo and into so-called subjective experiences when they are not.
The views held by society must be enforced in every discipline precisely because they are the result of dogma and not actual science (a word unfortunately hijacked by a corrupt establishment lead by weak minds elevated to positions of prestige and power by other weak minds). It follows that dogmatic belief cannot be challenged at any level since any divergence spells out potential intellectual catastrophes and conflicts that are not guaranteed to be won by the powers that be. As a result, not only does education suffer in the form of indoctrination but so do the supposed heroes of objective knowledge that the sciences are said to be comprised of turn into the priests of the temple to whatever the hive believes. It is only to be expected, then, that the humanities and the arts are the most easily and selectively suppressed, limited or made irrelevant, since the processes and phenomena studied by them are even further away from the grasp of mathematical explanations.
In the Western classical music tradition, the tenets of the Common Practice Period have been put into question for a very long time in progressively derisive waves. Very often, revolutionary thinkers that spearheaded such contrarian views had transcendent and elaborate reasons that motivated and justified their moving-beyond. But the hordes of followers understood only a portion of this, often inclined towards its most easily understood materialist explanation. In the case of Beethoven, followers of his defiance of what was expected of music were shielded from degeneration by the very fact that the then contemporary German culture was a very spiritual one, and its artists still acknowledged the magic behind music — occult properties and processes that can only be perceived but not fully explained. Contrastingly, in the age of Anton Webern, his decision based on artistic principle to move away from traditional harmony to work with a self-defined and logical set of rules that he would use without falling into an empty materialism was taken up as fashion — the next “big thing” in classical music development. This directly reflected the way Western society saw the world around it at the beginning of the 20th century: as its playground, where anything “I like” goes and the capricious human will is allowed to do whatever it wants because we are the nihilist masters of the natural world. Gone was the romantic respect of nature and its view of humans as part of it. We must ask ourselves what dissolved the old German mysticism? The simple answer is that they, too, had to change, even if slowly and reluctantly, in order to not be destroyed in a world dominated by French Enlightment and overarching Russian influences — both with primarily materialist tendencies.
Music theory is one such set of occult properties. Yet it is only occult (hidden but observable) because there is no theory developed for the relation between arranged sound frequencies and mental states, especially at increased levels of complexity. Contrary to what scientifically-ignorant artists think, this is neither impossible nor irrational, just difficult. Contrary to the beliefs of Blank Slate – indoctrinated scientists, the study of innate human nature can yield explanations as to why, as a species, certain tastes, visual and sound arrangements and textures have certain effects on the mind (itself rooted in chemical states of the brain). The reason why both groups tend to back away from such ideas is not rooted in reason, but in the fear of not being acknowledged for who they are, which for them translates into what they want, like or prefer to believe to feel validated. In other words, reality is shunned in order to give way to a truth built on the necessities of feable human egos. The ramifications are manifold and most are out of the scope of this article.
Out of the accusations levelled against Common Practice Period theory, one of the most common and often accepted is that it somehow limits the imagination of artists. Presumably, this is because its rules define a perimeter around permissible options in a finite-state machine, thereby prohibiting the random allocation of space and time to music tones selected purely out of gut feeling. And that precisely is one of the defining factors of the post-modern vision of art. At this point, it may seem like I am contradicting my previous statements regarding the possibility of harmony rules being developed and justified on the basis of human nature. If they are, then an artist following only his gut feeling should arrive to at least similar results. First, that these rules are based on human nature does not mean they are free of the constraints of their historical context, including not only cultural implications but also material possibilities for the construction of certain instruments with particular timbres. Second, the rules were developed through collective observations and philosophies over hundreds of years by many different people building on top and beside one another– in the same way that mathematics and modern science were gestated.
While older attitudes were nature-oriented, and tried to keep their understanding of human nature in line with what was then understood of the natural world, the Enlightment sees a rupture between them as a necessary effect of placing human beings over nature as overlords to do as they please with it– thereby setting them beyond judgement within it. It was an ideology-based decision, not a scientific one. As a result, there are those, especially among the post-modernist classical artists, that are not guided by a free search for musical perfection, but by contrarian and politically-charged statements that can only be described as the ultimate incarnation of a hipster’s dreamworld.
The comparison to mathematics is in dire need of further elaboration as it contains the potential to elucidate much about what musical theory is and what it is not. We may start by stating that they are both tools and means to an end. Admiring the organization and arrangement of a music passage on grounds of technique is akin to feeling a sense of wonder when shown a beautifully and clearly derived mathematical formula. But neither of them by themselves attest to the accuracy of the connection of these to reality itself. Both musical and mathematical theory are dependent on premises — they are both arguments developed from a set of assumptions which may reflect conditions and events in the real the world.
Common Practice Period theory arose from organizing tones in the spectrum of perfect consonance to most extreme dissonance as perceived by human beings. Not one human being arbitrarily writing up rules, but scores of audiences reacting to the works of many different composers through lifetimes. Each composer taking notes on the triumphs and blunders of those that came before them and adding their own ideas. It was a veritable scientific effort of occult nature. The fact that the notes were taken not from one society at one point but by the cumulative effort many through many generations also somewhat lends to the tradition a tendency towards the transcendental. Of course, this is completely dependent on a healthy balance between acknowledgement of tradition (whatever that tradition is for the artist) and a continuation of its ideals with a progressive intent.
To round off the metaphor of mathematics, we should stress that no development invalidates or properly subordinates older techniques to newer ones. This fallacy is so pervasive that it is common to hear people referring to the use of newer techniques in themselves as a sign of superior expression. This is related to the malady that is born from the cult of novelty. In truth, when it comes to mathematics, if one person solves a problem using simple algebra yet another fails using calculus, it is obvious that the simple use of a more sophisticated technique is not in itself superior. It may be true that in art and music we do not have the luxury of calling something right and wrong, but the comparison is done in parallel and not on the same plane as mathematics. This is the same as when Newton developed Calculus, he did not ditch arithmetic and algebra developed hundreds of years before he was born, but used them to build this tool that would allow him to develop theories concerning abstract models of the physical world.
Nobody is saying there is a right and wrong dichotomy in music. In fact, this is where it is necessary to part from the analogy. Music is much more comprehensive and complex than mathematics (which only has a cumulative complexity, not a multi-dimensional one). Mathematics is comparable to music theory, the tool, and not to music. Music is the resulting idea crystallized, probably through the use of music theory techniques, the same ways physics derive explanations of the universe by using different techniques from mathematics. By its occult nature, music’s domain being states of mind and evocation, what we do have in music is degrees of esoteric communication through sensory perception. It is a communication at many levels rather than only at the level of reason and goes beyond it and to our instincts and learned behaviors which as a total reflect a unique vision from a unique individual. “Personal taste” advocates need not get too excited as the variation can only be as wide as human minds allow — which scientific research shows is not as much as we like to think. Variation is wide with respect to how we see ourselves, but not that wide when we see the whole spectrum of possibilities. And as an occult discipline guessing at phenomena of the universe (and our mind in it) that we do not understand, music is more liable to wander off more than mathematics in its search for perfection.
Music as the manifestation of experience, as a gateway to purposely changing states of the mind in humans, is something that stands at odds with the idea of absolute music, for which music aesthetics themselves are the goal. This materialist vision based on the fact that current (this is a 19th century idea) scientific limitation of not yet having a mathematical model outside of aesthetics and certain organization cannot accept or encompass the higher-level processes of creation that reach for proportion, balance, direction and movement in an attempt to communicate. Ironically, it is rather this lack of tradition or significance that results in theory and rules being all there is that produces a much more limiting paradigm. The race of stretching aesthetics could only go so far and an artistic compound devoid of transcendental goals quickly gave up as they broke the boundaries of tonality, declaring music as we know it to be dead. Needless to say, this was as short-sighted as limiting literature to the number of “clever” arrangements of words — precisely the dead end of poetry without meaning, or poetry without form, all products of post-modernism. In any case, the disavowal of all meaning leads to music pursued as a sport, for the excitement that its physical acrobatics produce and not from what it communicates in and beyond its forms.
The other branch of a materialist appreciation of music surfaced more clearly in the freedom afforded by the post-modernist world to idiots to call themselves artists and plague us with moronic musical expressions supporting themes of self-pity communicated only through lyrics. Going further, many artists not only took this liberty but openly rejected any sort of tradition or knowledge as being only an obstacle for their expression. Again, ironically, their rejection of it resulted not in a revealing work transcending the ages, but an extremely simple product that even a child banging on the wall and singing with no thought or experience could produce.
This is not to say that you need theory to create good music. As was explained before, theory is only a tool based on cummulative observations over many lifetimes. We do fine geniuses and other people with an outstanding aptitude for music creation who will find ways to create solid music that is often technically rudimentary but complex in communication.
As with any mathematical techniques or grammar in language, theory augments and sharpens the natural talents of the person. But the catch here is that the artistic intent and vision of the artist is often as important as his natural aptitude towards creation. Whereas a Varg Vikernes consistently tries to find an ever-more ephemeral depuration of the essence of his music against the tides of trends in what is fashionable, a Luc Lemay gets lured in by what is chick, his talents wasted on kitsch. Granting a directed vision of music in a clear direction rather than with vague adjectives to justify fashionable aesthetics, the person with average talents can, with appropriate training and dedication, become a Franz Berwald, while the talented may reach the heights of Johannes Brahms.
The importance of following a transcendental route versus a materialist one are exemplified in two products of the 20th century. One followed the mechanistic descriptions of music to the point of absurdity and was hailed as a genius by the hipsters crowding the halls of academia. These were the many frauds of John Cage. Intellectually interesting experiments devoid of the basic dimensions of music: melody, rhythm and harmony. Contrasting the first comes a work that attempts to communicate a sense of wonder in nature without the vulgarity of dissoluting music proper for recordings of nature or other cheap tricks of post-modernism. This is the Fourth Symphony of the romantic Jean Sibelius, reviled by academic theorists and critics looking forward to the mechanistic augmentations of aesthetics and possible transformations rather than for the actual content of music. This was music for the music fan, not the ironic intellectual.
Niccolo Paganini: the name is well known among violinists. He belongs to the exclusive club of musicians known as virtuosos.
Sickly since his birth on October 27, 1782 in Genoa, Paganini’s virtuosity was astounding. He began playing the violin at age seven at the insistence of his father, Antonio Paganini. Antonio Paganini was a mediocre mandolin player who forced his son to practice long hours. At the age of thirteen, Niccolo was sent to study with a famous violin teacher named Alessandro Rolla. Rolla, upon hearing young Niccolo play, refused to take Niccolo as a student because he claimed he could teach Niccolo nothing.
Niccolo continued playing and performing in his native land, and soon received a reputation of being the best violinist in Italy. People began to speculate about Paganini’s great talent, and began to wonder about his gift. Paganini became known as a “Hexensohn” or witch’s brat (de Saussine, Paganini 113). Paganini’s demonic reputation became so widespread that his talent was often attributed to the belief that he had help from the devil.
Paganini began touring Europe when he was in his early forties. At the time, no one had ever seen or heard anyone, or anything, quite like Paganini. For a time, Paganini capitalized on this difference by encouraging the rumors of his supernatural abilities. It was common for him to arrive at a concert in a black coach drawn by black horses. Paganini himself would wear black. Schwarz states that Paganini would enter the stage late, like a non-terrestrial creature, and bow to the audience(Great Masters of the Violin 181). Paganini’s stage presence increased the rumors of his dark affiliations and the rumors soon became outrageous. One of the most popularized reports explained his extreme dexterity with one string. Schwarz explains that many believed Paganini had been imprisoned for a love affair with only his violin for company. One by one, the three upper strings broke, leaving only the G-string. Paganini soon learned to play on the G-string alone because of his imprisonment (Schwarz 176). Paganini tried to dispel these myths later in his career, but it was too late. Paganini became known as a “technical wizard” (Schwarz 179).
Paganini’s technique was outstanding and unusual, but it was his satanic bearing which caused great crowds to attend his concerts. Schwarz states that “It was more than technical wizardry that attracted the masses: there was a demonic quality as well as an enticing poetry in his playing” (Great Masters of the Violin 181). One instance of superb technique being mistaken for supernatural guidance was the “duel” between Lafont, a famous French violinist of the time, and Paganini. Lafont had volunteered to give a joint concert with Paganini; however, people gained the impression that the concert would be a contest. Paganini was the unofficial “winner” of the contest. Schwarz states that Paganini “won” by improvising during the concert by adding octaves, thirds, and sixths (Great Masters of the Violin 172-173). Paganini was always eager to showcase his technique. Sachs states that Paganini, at a concert in Paris in 1832, played his Sonata a movement perpetual at an amazing twelve notes per second (Virtuoso 33). Most people find it difficult to imagine twelve notes in one second. Paganini managed to play twelve notes in the same amount of time it takes for most musicians to read twelve notes. Paganini’s talent extended from the mere mechanics of technique to innovations in technique.
Paganini is the father of modern violin technique. One innovation Paganini began is the practice of memorization. Violinists before Paganini always used music during a concert. Paganini, on the other hand, would boldly walk onto the stage, shake back his long black hair, place his violin under his chin, and begin to play without the aid of music. Audiences were astounded. They marveled at the thought of one man memorizing an entire program of music. The current practice of memorization was attributed to Paganini’s supernatural abilities. Paganini’s innovations were recognized as early as 1829 by the German violinist Guhr. Schwarz summarizes Guhr’s theories on Paganini’s innovations into six categories:
scordatura, which is the mis-tuning of strings to enable the violinist to play in another key without shifting;
unorthodox bowing, such as bouncing the bow on the strings;
left-hand pizzicato, which allows a violinist to create the staccato sound without using the bow hand;
an extensive use of harmonics;
using the G-string for entire works;
bizarre fingerings (Great Masters of the Violin 196)
All of the techniques listed above were new and created sounds never heard before. These new sounds which Paganini created caused audiences to react favorably, even if they thought Paganini was possessed by the devil.
Paganini’s appearance completed the image of the satanic violinist. Paganini’s dark hair and pale face contrasted, giving him an ethereal aura. The loss of his teeth in 1828 gave his face a sunk-in appearance, which added to his ghost-like image. Few concert goers were left unmoved by a performance given by Paganini. Boerne, a German poet at the time, described his impression of a concert given by Paganini: “It was a heavenly and diabolical enthusiasm, I have never seen or heard its like in my life” (Schwarz 185). Paganini’s ability to entrance an audience can be attributed to his physical appearance and to his technique.
The myth surrounding Paganini lingered even after his death on May 27, 1840. Since Paganini had refused the final sacrament, he could not be buried. His remains were kept in a basement for five years until his family petitioned to have them buried. Many people speculated on his refusal of the sacrament. Some said he did not believe that he would die, while others said he was a non-believer (Sachs 32). The result of his refusal of the final sacrament once again raised the question of Paganini’s origin.
Paganini’s origin was not in Hell as the myth propagates. Paganini’s accomplishments were due to his diligence and hard work. Few realize the amount of practice required to perform effortlessly. Paganini had the gift to not only create beautiful music, but to create an entertaining performance. At the high point of his career, every concert Paganini gave was sold out. The sensation Paganini created in the 1830’s can be compared to the Beatles invasion in the early 1960’s. “Paganini Mania”, like “Beatle Mania”, caused a change in the music style of the time. However, Paganini can also be compared to Elvis Presley, who began to lose popularity during the last few years of his life. Paganini, at the time of his death, no longer created the image that he had earlier in his career. However, in spite of all the rumors, Paganini managed to originate a style of music which is still alive today.
A Selected Bibliography
Saussine, Renee de. Paganini. New York: Hutchenson & Co. (Publishers) Ltd., 1953.
Sachs, Harvey. Virtuoso. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1980.
Schwarz, Boris. Great Masters of the Violin. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1983.