The Forgotten Role of Drums in Metal


Fenriz as the archetypal metal drummer is perhaps a puzzle to most, perhaps considering his status to be a mere by-produt of Darkthrone becoming an icon. The status of most worthy personalities of metal tends to be double sided in that way. There is the respect for what came before, usually a blind fanhood of what is not understood and is only explainable in terms of some kind of historical relevance and then there is the underground ackowledgement of the musical talents of the artist in question that stand the test of time. The difference in perception arises from the fact that these artists’ greatest merit lies in subtletly. The Subtlety of where to use a specific technique, however rudimentary, so that the music is better enhanced, completed or open to being built on (say the drums got written before everything else).

In drumming in particular, the lack of appreciation for proper arrangement has been greater than in the vocal or guitar departments, perhaps because the only antecedents in this type of percussion come from rock and jazz. In rock, the drums are merely a time keeper and groove-adder. In Jazz, it is typical that they serve that function plus, like all the other instruments, allow the musician to keep masturbating on the instrument with little thought to how this adds to the music as concept and not self-referential indulgence. But in all fairness, there is an old school of jazz in which the music is kept together more neatly and in which the drums play a much more constructive role.

In metal, the drums are not only a support instrument but should blend in into a whole. In fact, ideally, the guitars should be doing this too. The point is so subtle and hard to grasp that even the musicians that acknowledge it have a very hard time translating it into practice. As with all great things coming from a simple concept, it is easier said than done. The most prudent drummers and bands limit the percussion to a function (that in metal is more prominent and important than in rock) rather than the spotlight, and this is at least a first step.

It was the increasing distance between all rock-like perspective in music that made metal approach a more purified and important integration of drums into its frameworks. Works such as Hvis Lyst Tar Oss or Transilvanian Hunger are inconceivable without percussion. That is not to say that the rest of the elements are not good, but they are incomplete without percussion. And so are their corresponding drum patterns without them. Metal had to go back to an extreme minimalism, stripping down every layer to realize the importance of every little element. This Burzum album belongs to end of black metal as an era, but I will place it here even if it appears counter-chronological.

After an initial dive into this primitivism driven (Celtic Frost, Bathory) by gut instinct of the most authentic kind, death metal proper developed and quickly escalated in its use of technical arrangements that went overboard in the sense that they were unnecessary for the point of the music itself, though not necessarily bad. Technicality was set besides essence and communication in importance. The formal music tendencies that are so prominent in classical music started to surface in metal.

A great overlooked exception to this rule was the work of Adrian Erlandsson within the framework of arrangements and indications of Alf Svensson for At the Gates The Red in the Sky is Ours. The fact that these integral arrangements are unmatched in death metal to this very day is a testament to how little understood they are. The fact that the drumming here twists, bends, propulses, stops, counterpoints in a great variety of different drum patterns that while theoretically rudimentary are often technically demanding, especially when performed as  a whole, indicate that a sense of continuity in expression must be kept by the drummer through changes of tempo, time signature and character. What makes this superior to other progressive-oriented albums is that for all this variety, the style of expression is tightly restricted. The reduced repertoire of guitar and drum techniques to the minimal from which it builds its complexity in a language of its own endows it with this distinct personality. Without the guidance of the architect Svensson, though, this band completely floundered in mediocrity soon after his departure.

Today, few bands grasp the importance of the integrated drums let alone being actually capable of translating the concept to a concrete plan and then puting it into practice. As far as I have seen, with very particular exceptions, the most sober drumming comes from the modern tradition that has branched from (old, the only real) black metal. First of all, it may come to those learning it by virtue of studying the past, this makes the grasping of a concept much easier. This does not include the nu-black or post-black camps which represent a departure, regression and deconstruction of metal, a reflection of decadence.

It is rather in the work of Abyssum’s Akherra that we see the role of drums as an essential part of the music. For this, the rest of the instruments must accomodate the drums, not only run on top of it. The naive layering of instruments most bands are used to is precisely what makes them amateurs in this. In proper metal, the drums are inside, not under the music. This is part of what the metaphor “drumming in counterpoint” reflects. Drum patterns that are relatively independent in the sense that they aren’t just there as a support, but come into contact at every moment with the music, bending, yielding and transforming along with the rest of the music.

Such attention to detail goes far beyond just playing slower or faster, stronger or softer when the rest of the music does so. It is not only a matter of intensity or speed in correspondence. The drums must live in symbiosis with the guitars, and not like a running pair of athletes besides each other. Silences and types of drum patterns specifically tailored to different sections are exemplified in Abyssum’s “The Illusion of Pan” in which we see important  decisions taken about the smallest details such as ride strikes in the rhythm of a particular keyboard melody speed, the variations between soft blast beats and other less forward-moving patterns as great inflections and indicators of the song’s pictorial journey that are not as clearly reflected in the rest of the music alone.

This entry is not about judging this or that band over another. The point is the study of drums for the future of metal. The recognition of the evolution in the use of drums throughout the genre. Surprisingly, Black Sabbath Master of Reality shows the kind of thinking that would go into Celtic Frost To Mega Therion in terms of the reduction and powerful use of elements into highly-personalized expressions. In this Black Sabbath showed how far ahead of their times they were. It took metal more than a decade to catch up to them. These musical transpirations in their music were refined through the black metal tradition going through death metal. The best we can hope for is bands today piecing out elements in this way, and being able to identifying what great drumming consists of in metal. But this must start out from the vision of metal as a proper music, as highly-integrated elements which conspire within an indissolubly dependent complex set of relations.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

22 thoughts on “The Forgotten Role of Drums in Metal”

  1. Daniel says:

    How can you not post Fenriz on drum sound acting out the sound of acoustic drums and how much of modern metal from the late 80s on is studio trickery? The point about how drums naturally “cut into” fat guitars is very good too.

  2. OliveFox says:

    Another great article, I love being challenged with things I had previously never considered.

    I was just listening to Darkthrone earlier today and put on “The Red in the Sky…” after reading this and was surprised by how much my NOT noticing the drums actually played a factor in my enjoyment of the records. It fit so perfectly in both cases that the need to comment on them was mute. I suppose that is a comment on any great work of art, if you casually notice any one element without looking for it specifically, than it is more than likely not useful to the total effect. Perhaps that is oversimplifying a complicated issue in terms of composition and performance, but it seems to make a certain amount of sense considering the metal albums that can always be referred to as truly complete masterpieces.

    1. Daniel says:

      Another great metal drummer in this style is Fred Estby.

      1. OliveFox says:

        Ah, of course! Dark Recollections and at least, I don’t know, one and a half Dismember albums are perfect examples of how a death metal drummer can provide lift and energy to the music without being an intrusive showboat.

        He co-wrote a lot of Recollections didn’t he? Or was it Everflowing Stream? I could be mixing him up with someone else I guess, but I thought at least some Dismember songs were co-written by their drummer.

        1. Daniel says:

          He wrote most of the rhythm riffs for Carnage and Dismember which were then arranged by the entire band. The primary songwriter so to speak and you can tell as the band ended when the then material he was writing turned out to be more Judas Priest.

          The first 2.5 albums are essential (counting Pieces as half). Indecent & Obscene is super thrashy and Sepultura influenced but has the best drumming and coolest tom fills (3:44 into Sorrowfilled for example) as Richard Christy has repeatedly pointed out. After that the only thing worth more a cursory listen is The God that Never Was which has an all acoustic kit.

  3. freudian says:

    The Red in the Sky is Ours had whole songs with riffs just written by the other guitarist (Kingdom Gone, Windows) and the arrangements for all the tracks were done by the band collectively.

    1. curious to know where you got that info. It flies against the assertions of that “other guitarist” (Anders said the album was almost completely written by Alf)

      1. freudian says:

        Liner notes.

        1. freudian says:

          I should also add their creativity died around the same time. With fear… was an incomplete album and then all those guys became obsessed with sounding “cute”. Oxiplegatz avoids the disasters of other post-At the Gates bands but only on the tracks that closely resemble what Alf was doing anyway.

          1. With Fear… has some great ideas that are an evolution of what the previous album was. But they failed to be completely realized. You should check out and concentrate on tracks 3,4,5. They are the most advanced work by At the Gates. But it is less obvious than, say, Gardens of Grief, which also boasts a nicer tone. Distracts people from real writing merit.

        2. might be that he had more ideas for that, or the main thematic ideas and all that. The writing still seems consistent with the rest of the album, and Anders himself says that the “crazier” ideas are Alfs, and they are certainly not there after. Contrast Kingdom Gone to the 2014 album.

          1. freudian says:

            I own With Fear… only because of tracks 3,4, and 5 (incidentally their “catchiest” from this period, and track 5 is all Alf’s creation with a Sioux tribe poem used for lyrics). I never had a problem with any of their productions. The liner notes specify who wrote the music and lyrics for each track (Alf has credits for lyrics on 2 songs on The Red, the rest were credited to Lindberg). Just trying to clear up the facts.

            According to the documentary, Alf would take his riff tapes and reverse the reels to come up with counterpoints or new riffs. Anders, inspired by Alf and conforming to his view on music, used that technique for riffs he wrote and out came Kingdom Gone. This was during a time when the band was collectively getting inspiration from the then new music of Immolation and Atheist. The interview answer with “Alf came up with strange ideas” seems to stem from the “Dark Angel rules, get a Saint Vitus tattoo, drink beer and bang your head” rebirth the whole band collectively underwent.

            Contrasting The Red… to everything the musicians involved would release just a couple years down the road says it all. At the Gates said themselves they were going to begin writing “simpler rock based songs” regarding Terminal Spirit Disease in that documentary. You can blame his exit, but even Alf couldn’t decide between the classic style and wanting to be “cute” on the Oxiplegatz releases.

            1. I agree with the above. I listen only to the EP and first album from At the Gates.

              It is interesting to note the evolution from Grotesque, and then… a return to that style, but made upbeat and catchy instead of sounding like a slow detuned acid rock/Venom hybrid.

              1. Daniel says:

                The Incantation EP is excellent and much closer to the compositional style on The Red in the Sky is Ours than the creatively bankrupt later At the Gates. I’ve actually been spinning that more than The Red in the Sky is Ours over that last couple of years as Kristian Wåhlin and Alf Svensson was such a ridiculously good guitar lineup. Liers in Wait was a very strong band too.

                Even the simpler Grotesque thrash basher songs pound the crap out of cheesefest “GO” At the Gates. Blood Runs From the Altar!

            2. Lyrics and music are different thnigs. Just repeating what Anders said. A lot of credit in the liner notes can be generous so that it seems more of a band effort, just saying. The second album was more of a collaborative effort with more Bojrler in there.

              On a separate note:
              Where did you get these nice editions with all those liner notes!
              I only have crappy Peaceville remasters (they fucked it up) with one-page cover art and no real booklets…

              PS. I got the comments by Anders on Alf and The Red in the Sky is Ours from Choosing Death: The Improbable History of Death Metal and Grindcore, if I remember correctly…

              1. Daniel says:

                The remasters kill the dynamics of the music. You have to get the originals CDs or perfect FLAC rips but the best quality rips don’t usually come with full archival scans. The Russians have access to commercial scanners but don’t give a fuck about drive settings and gaps.

              2. freudian says:

                It’s differentiated by who wrote the music and who wrote the lyrics under each song in the booklet. As for where I get these “nice” versions from… I have a regular Peaceville records jewel case with fold-out booklet. I think maybe the band is deliberately trying to paint this era as “immature” to not go over the head of any Slaughter of the Soul fans (could drain finances if people awaken to metalcore’s inherent stupidity). It is true though that without Alf’s guidance this band would not get any place in the “death metal hall of classics”.

                Now, I haven’t read that book but I’m wary of anything the author does considering his work with Decibel magazine. There was an issue based solely around The Red… album and they all seem to be stuck on selling Slaughter of the Soul as the distillation of At the Gates “core” and being their “true” album and the band seems to agree/play along. This is the guy who would give glowing reviews to At War with Reality and Surgical Steel despite pushing his knowledge of “shit like early Immolation”. His Death Leprosy tribute attire as well as hyping of shoegazer bands and Converge suggests a fraud pushing an agenda (I remember seeing a top 100 black metal albums list with Deathspell Omega, Craft, and Ulver in it).

  4. Delicious Penis Sucked says:

    Speed metal drumming is the least complex of all metal subgenres. Every other subgenre has something going for them in the drum area. Grindcore has super fast blast beats that around 1986 was the heaviest and most extreme style in rock music. Heavy metal and power metal has complex fills and rhythm sections, death and black metal are obviously intricate and are an integral part of the overall structure. But speed metal drumming is simplistic and lazy.

    1. Daniel says:

      Do not equate an entire genre with Lars. Poland and Menza did good work in Megadeth. Even drunk Chris Witchhunter had some cool fills in Sodom. Dave Lombardo was one of the best ever.

  5. The Barbarian says:

    I’ve always been in awe of the dynamism of Graveland’s drumming, whether it’s programmed or not (I’m not actually sure). In Darken’s post-90s releases, the drums are the star of the show for me. Constantly in flux and tumbling around the rushing-river flow of the songs, then going militant war-dance to drive home the climax of the song. They’re not minimalistic and I don’t think they’d count as blending in if they warrant so much of my attention, but I think they’re worth some attention nonetheless.

    1. I also think Graveland´s drumming arrangement is great!

  6. OBG says:

    Summoning’s “Oath Bound” has excellent, very detailed percussion. The arrangements on all of their prior albums are painfully simplistic. But the band greatly improved their percussion arrangement skills for “Oath Bound.”

Comments are closed.

Classic reviews: