Thoughts on Composition

Metal music inherited the album concept from pop music. Originally, records could only hold about 3-5 minutes of sound on each side. In the 1940s new techniques allowed each side of a record to hold around 20 minutes of music on each side. Because of these limitations, the ‘single’ became the standard composition in popular music. As LPs became more prominent, the single, played over the radio, was used as the marketing device to sell albums: a couple of catchy singles swimming in a thin grey soup of filler material. Because it is only marginally more difficult and expensive to record and produce a whole album, there are much higher profit margins on LPs than on singles. That a pop album was not a consciously constructed artistic whole is borne by the fact that pop ‘greatest hits’ albums are easy to listen to, straightforward affairs. Consider a greatest hits album from a metal artist… at best it is off-putting and at worst it is a flaccid, confusing affair because all the songs have been removed from their appropriate context.

Metal, from its infancy, took the idea of the album to its logical conclusion. The album was molded into its least corrosive form by focusing on interlocking content throughout. But it seems that metal composition might be impeached by taking a format that was developed solely to maximize commercial profit. Considering the recent dying state of solid media (CD, records, tapes) it seems that metal music has a tremendous opportunity to re-think and re-tool its composition process.

With the advent of digital media, there is no minimum or maximum length that is more or less required with solid forms of media. With platforms such as bandcamp, you can often pay (or charge)as little or as much as seems reasonable. This allows bands to create pieces and compositions that are exactly as long or short as is needed for the expression of the idea. Despite this new-found freedom, it seems most bands, to the detriment of metal, are sticking by the exhausted format of the old pop album. Instead of the focusing on the superficial aspect of time length – ‘we have 40 minutes of songs, so it is an album,’ or, ‘dang, we only have 18 minutes of songs, so its an EP,’ metal musicians should focus on concrete forms when constructing organized pieces of music.

The great composers of the classical and especially romantic periods took the rigid, precise forms developed during the baroque period and used them as a launching pad for unrivaled creativity and genius. Short pieces like etudes were used for demonstrating novel or difficult techniques – imagine how much more palatable Yngvie Malmsteen or Eddie van Halen would be had they been able to release nice, short, wanky guitar solos instead of having to embed them in horrible albums of gemstone encrusted shit. More formal and rigorous are concertos in three parts. Concertos give the lead instrument and the backing instruments the form needed to rigorously explore very few or vary many musical themes by moving them through different keys and ‘bouncing’ the themes back and forth between the voice of the lead instrument and the backing instruments. Perhaps Emperor’s “Welkin” album would have been less terrible (but still pompous as hell) had they explored the few good musical ideas more thoroughly in concerto form with their excellent technical interplay between keys, bass, and guitar in the lead. A suite was a piece of music that gave the composer 12 different ‘dance’ styles to choose from and musical ideas were explored by contrasting the different meters and tempos of each style chosen. Mathcore might have more solid ground to start from if it had a more limited range of time signatures to choose from and any number of more groove-oriented metal bands might like to take some notes on suites and diversify their rhythmic oeuvre. Symphonies were at first three movements alternating between fast and slow tempos, but later added a fourth movement. Beethoven broke the format and added a fifth movement for his magisterial 6th Symphony. Symphonies were the crowning jewel of classical music and therefore only when a band has some seriously good material would they want to attempt a symphony. Imagine if Varg… wait, “Det Som Engang Var” was a black metal symphony. Sure, it had grossly simplified sonata/rondo and scherzo forms, but the greatest metal album ever created seems to be clearly, if unconsciously, modeled on the great music of the past. That which once was shows us the path on which we have traveled, and points us in the direction of the future.

Obviously this is but a small sampling of classical and romantic styles, but the point is this: if metal wants to have a rebirth, it must cleanse itself of that which is not fit for purpose. A collection of songs designed to fill x-amount of minutes is not only no longer commercially viable, it is no longer artistically viable. Unless metal music wishes to drown in a sea of playlists and streaming radio, the idea of what is and what is not a metal composition must be confronted.

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24 thoughts on “Thoughts on Composition”

  1. Eternal Turd says:

    So Det Som Engang Var is the greatest metal album of all time? Interesting, not sure if I’ve seen anyone here stray from the “Hvis…” album being Burzum’s peak. I can see where “Hvis” is a more concentrated effort but it’s also because it’s more sparse, in song number and ideas. I’ve always preferred Det Som myself, though “Inn I Slottet Fra Droemmen ” is Burzum’s master-stroke IMO.

    1. Marc Defranco says:

      Always considered it a toss up between those two albums. I think Hvis is the more cohesive album from beginning to end with Tomhet showing just how creative Varg could be with minimal instrumentation. Det Som has more varaition to me and more of an amateur feel requiring Varg to be more creative to make up for this. I could just be bullshitting though

      1. Charles Stuart says:

        My mistake. Hvis Lyset is what I was referring to in the article despite the incorrect name.

  2. ShackledxSheckles says:

    Huh? An average symphony is what half an hour? The cited Beethoven is 45 min. Any metal band could have chosen to fill or not fill physical formats with one or two long songs. Most didn’t and don’t. How many write successful songs that break 10 minutes? I couldn’t imagine 30 minutes of sustained autistic chromaticism for the sake of lulliby narrative composition.

    1. Stinky Fart Lover says:

      “How many write successful songs that break 10 minutes?”

      Opeth! :D

      1. NWN War Metal Tranny Rapist says:

        Opeth is faggot shemale music! All their fans are faggots!

    2. No Life 'Till Death says:

      It has to be considered that most metal is meant to be played live and I doubt they have the ability to play seamlessly for long durations. Bands fail to fill even 3 minutes with engagin ideas as is.

  3. dead butt dreaming says:

    Whoa it’s almost like the medium of art determines the outcome of the product but essentialism is for fags so I guess it’s better to just meander through fantasies and never bother to explain anything

    Btw the CD format was limited to 74 minutes because that’s how long it took to play beethoven’s 9th and it was agreed upon that nothing longer than that was listenable in one sitting. Yet we have bands putting out 35-45 minute albums all the time, what’s up with that? At least exploit the boundaries of your medium or go home

    1. Charles Stuart says:

      There are also a lot of bands that DO try to fill up every last minute of the CD format… and it usually ends up terrible. 20 minutes of good music and 60 minutes of horrible boredom and frustration.

      1. Rainer Weikusat says:

        Could you perhaps provide some examples?

        The usual album length (I’m familiar with) is 30 – 45 minutes. Some are in the 50 – 60 + x minutes range but these are rare and that’s usually because of long tracks. The only ‘packed’ CDs I know of are promo and other samplers.

  4. Rainer Weikusat says:

    The idea of ‘an album’ as a longer set of thematically and/or musically related tracks emerged in rock towards the end of the 1960s. Some lesser known examples,
    (side B, starts around 19:30)

    and reached an ignominous climax with AoR/ prog rock in the early-to-mid 1970s.

  5. Det Som Engang Var and In the Nightside Eclipse are certainly the most ambitious black metal albums but best up for debate by the Gods.

    1. Charles Stuart says:

      I meant to write “Hvis Lyset tar oss” not “Det som…” My mistake. I blame Varg (and Trump/Bush/Reagan/Nixon/Eisenhower) for having an album title be the same as a song title. Clearly they are the assholes here, not me.

      On a less serious note, I find it curious that metal bands (like Emperor for example) have inordinately deep understanding of classical musical theory, but are seemingly rather haphazard in their album construction. I would posit that Gorgoroth’s “Antichrist” album has a ‘symphonic-ish’ structure to it with ‘Possessed by Satan’ serving as a modern take on the original baroque ‘scherzo’ form.

      1. Rainer Weikusat says:

        On a less serious note, I find it curious that metal bands (like Emperor for example) have inordinately deep understanding of classical musical theory, but are seemingly rather haphazard in their album construction.

        Did it ever occur to you that there could be an instance of “confirmation bias” here? By the time In the Nightside Eclipse was recorded, the band members were all still below 20 (19 and 18) and you simply don’t have »a deep understanding of classical musical theory« at this age for want of time studying it (unless music education in Norwegian schools is much more comprehensive than in German ones).

        A more realistic assumption would be that some (but probably not all) band members were somewhat capable of reading sheet music and all had a year long exposure to so-called ‘classical music’ while at school (and probably developed a more or less profound dislike of it). Combine this with making first steps in a fairly new musical style and you’ll end up with people more or less subconsciously imitating something they happen to be familiar with, with someone with a thorough understanding of ‘classical music theory’ being able to find and name that, and with these inadvertent (mock) classcisms wearing off over time as the style consolidates and memories fade.

        Fast forward two decades and you end up in a situation where the (sufficiently old) (US) classic fan prefers labelling black metal as ‘hardcore’ of sorts, meaning “this noisy, primitve music I don’t like and don’t want to be bothered with”, while everybody else wonders what the heck he’s talking about (this is arguably nothing but a conjecture but one I consider more probable than the mysterious classical musical geniuses mysteriously retrograding to …).

        There’s by no means a consensus that ‘classic European orchestra music’ (from the “sponsored by noblemen to show off their wealth” age) is actually superior to any other kind of music. That’s just something people who are fond of it like to believe.

        1. Charles Stuart says:

          Have you ever considered how goddamn annoying your half-knowledge is? The scales and modes they play, the harmonies they use, and the modulations between keys show that they have a very good understanding of music theory. Listen to interviews – a lot of metal musicians are quite proficient in classical chord theory. You think they are music illiterates because you yourself are a music illiterate.

          You are full of shit, man. Every old classical fan I’ve known has been quite impressed with the classical chord theory knowledge of metal bands. I have several acquaintences who were composers themselves or orchestra teachers and when they were shown ‘fake books’ of metal music, they were quite impressed by the understanding and usage of classical chord theory. They may not like the music, but they can appreciate its understanding of theory.

          Young people can AND DO have a superb understanding of classical chord theory – for fucks sake, Mozart was composing symphonies while under the age of 10. Music is very, very similar to mathematics, and there will be quite a few musical prodigies who pick up and understand chord theory quite readily, just like kids who just ‘get’ math.

          1. Rainer Weikusat says:

            Have you ever considered how goddamn annoying your half-knowledge is?

            I didn’t write anything about ‘classical musical theory’ itself. Did you notice that before ranting on, Encyclopedia Musica?

            I have a good, working idea what composes secondary school level music education, however. And that’s very basic in this respect. I also happen to know exactly one guy who’d qualify as ‘musical prodigy’ in the sense you mean that. And guess what? He didn’t start playing in metal band at 14 or so as he was much more interested in learning and playing church organs.

            1. Charles Stuart says:

              No, you didn’t say much of anything, just like you always. But you seem insistent that metal musicians have no knowledge of music theory beyond some shit they learned in some mythical music class.

              Nobody is learning music theory (or anything) in school. Your Germanic is showing – you seem to fail to understand that you can do stuff and learn stuff without permission of the All Powerful State… you know, because you are interested in it. People who are passionate about something, like music, voraciously learn on their own. When I was actually in the metal scene, everyone had at least a solid knowledge of classical chord theory that they learned mostly on their own. I know, I was there – the school districts I was in didn’t teach shit about music. Maj/min, relative maj/min, circle of fifths, some understanding of modes, at least basic harmony – all this stuff was known to metal musicians. More than a few had an excellent grasp of classical chord theory. Despite their striving to learn, on their own, the music theory, none seemed to inquire whatsoever into composition.

              And its not just people I knew; pick up any of those stupid guitar magazines and read interviews with metal musicians – they know their theory.

              1. Rainer Weikusat says:

                No, you didn’t say much of anything, just like you always.

                [followed by more blathering of this kind]

                It’s obviously pointless to discuss any topic beyond “who shouts the loudest” in this way.

                1. Rainer Weikusat says:

                  JFTR: (this should really be nobody’s business) I’m working as software developer mostly on Linux/UNIX (nowadays only Linux) network programming, mostly on IKE/IPsec and custom servers/ clients for custom protocols built in top of TCP or UDP (so far). Despite my “Germanic fail[ure] to understand that you can do stuff and learn stuff without permission of the All Powerful State”, I’m entirely self-taught in this field (oops).

                  NB: I don’t do web sites. And I also don’t fix Windows printer problems.

                  1. Charles Stuart says:

                    What is your fucking point? What point do you ever make?

                    “Did it ever occur to you that there could be an instance of “confirmation bias” here? By the time In the Nightside Eclipse was recorded, the band members were all still below 20 (19 and 18) and you simply don’t have »a deep understanding of classical musical theory« at this age for want of time studying it (unless music education in Norwegian schools is much more comprehensive than in German ones).”

                    This has been answered and rebutted.

                    The rest of what you say is (by your own admission) empty conjecture based upon the previously refuted initial condition.

                    So what is your goddamn point other than to admit you are a eunuch programmer? If you don’t want to engage in vigourous debate, maybe you should stay the fuck off of a metal site.

                    1. Jerry Hauppa says:

                      I’m enjoying the verbal fisticuffs here don’t get me wrong, but I’m going to interject some things regarding my own perspective, relevant or not. I’ve written a ton of music, and a lot of it is pretty complex but I will admit I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing beyond the ear I’ve developed as a music fan and what type of note choice appeals to me to express what each song I write calls for. I have a very limited amount of knowledge in terms of the right terminology but I more or less stumble upon what works, and since as you said music is mathematics, I’m simply concluding a formula that is already in place. I’ve had music professors analyze what I do and been told it was essentially fully fleshed our classical music despite not knowing theory in an educated sense. So I guess from where I’m coming from, unless a musician says they are schooled, I don’t know that they are and wouldn’t say so, but it is equally ignorant to assume anything recorded is an accident born out of zero schooling.

                    2. Charles Stuart says:

                      Mr. Hauppa – I get where you are coming from. My thoughts are that if metal musicians had put more effort into learning at least some fundamentals of composition, there would likely be more sustained greatness in musical output. Think of it this way: you sail randomly around the ocean long enough you will strike land, but knowing the stars and having a sexton will get you to land much quicker and more reliably.

                      I know I’ve read an interview with Isahn where he talks about having read all sorts of music theory – i.e. scales and modes and such. And generally there are more or less a fair amount of good pieces in his solo material and Emperor albums after ITNE because he has enough knowledge to generally make a good riff, but his knowledge stops at the intermediate stage of music writing and thus the end results are haphazard. That is the central problem within metal in general – lots of good riffs, very few good songs and albums.

  6. canadaspaceman says:

    I also adhere to the right

  7. Rainer's poopy shit balls says:

    blah blah blah blah

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