BLOTTED SCIENCE’S RON JARZOMBEK: THE TWELVE-TONE METALSUCKS INTERVIEW
Ron Jarzombek is a name that’s too seldom heard outside of progressive metal circles, despite his extensive metal legacy. Sure, a handful of people may be familiar with Blotted Science — the so-called “supergroup” of which he is a part — but by and large, even those who know Blotted Science are unfamiliar with the man himself.
Jarzombek began his musical work with the underrated-yet-incredibly-influential prog band Watchtower in the 80s, then delved into the realm of technical instrumental music with Spastic Ink in the 90s and 2000s. Blotted Science’s debut, The Machinations of Dementia, was released in 2007, and also featured Cannibal Corpse’s Alex Webster (who is still in the band) and Behold… The Arctopus’ Charlie Zeleny (who is not).
That band is now back after four years (with a new drummer, Obscura’s Hannes Grossman, to boot!) to release The Animation of Entomology, an EP centered around bugs and horror — so much that the songs were actually written to already-existing videos as kind of horror movie scores. You can see the video for the first one, “Cretaceous Chasm,” here; the second one, “Vermicular Asphixiation,” is here.
I Skyped with Ron last week to discuss the new EP and ended up learning a lot about Jarzombek’s musical history, Blotted Science, Jarzombek’s views on the current metal scene, and ESPN exercise videos.
How’s it going?
I’ve been listening to the new EP all week, and I just checked out that King Kong clip, which was pretty cool. So I just wanted to know how you personally thought the EP turned out.
Well, usually when I have a concept in mind, I try to figure out how I’m going to get there. We had this idea to do this bug thing quite a few years ago. When we had the first CD out, we had a little bit of a rehearsal several months after that about doing this thing with bugs, and we just wanted to have something that was kind of scary and creepy. We just went with this bug thing. It came out pretty good; musically, it’s what we wanted. We tried to capture the feel, the intensity of these swarming, frantic bugs, and I think that we achieved that.
Do you guys think you’ve progressed in terms of working as a group since Machinations?
Yeah. We have another drummer on this one, Hannes [Grossman] came on board. This material was a lot harder to put together, just because the tunes and the arrangement of the songs were a lot more complicated, and because they were scored to the flicks. Whereas the first CD, if you had a section that lasted fourteen or sixteen counts, you could say, “Oh, let’s play it twice” or something. The material on the EP doesn’t have sections, it has what we were calling “themes.” And themes sometimes lasted for three counts, then another theme would come up for seven counts, then it would go back to the first theme, but then it would be eleven counts of that same theme. So the whole thing got very stretched out with weird amounts of counts. So trying to make the songs sound like songs was pretty difficult because if the videos were there, that’s great, then people have something to refer to, but if not, then they could totally go off of the music, and what we’re trying to push is the music.
Yeah, I’ve been listening to it, and obviously it’s very complicated, but I actually didn’t know on first listen that the EP was meant to be listened to along with the clips. So they definitely sound like songs. [laughs]
Great! That’s what we are going for. We wanted them to be songs. The last one, especially, the four-parter [“A Sting Operation”], was very difficult. And to top it off, we worked everything out with this Twelve-Tone System that I have been writing for quite a few years and that got even more complicated, because certain themes were using certain notes and they would be scattered in various parts of the songs, and then other themes used different notes and the whole combination of everything just had to work together, and it did. It came out together just great.
Yeah, I’ve watched the video for Oscillation Cycles that describes The Twelve-Tone System, so I know enough about it to understand it…though I can’t play most of your stuff myself.
It’s just a matter of using all twelve notes that you’re given. Because if you play just any kind of scale, you’re going to have certain notes left out. I just kind of like to use all of the notes. It gives me different note combinations that I wouldn’t have come up with if I wasn’t using the system, and I’m kind of forced to use different sets of notes just because of which notes are remaining after I am using another certain type of scale. I will even purposefully chop things up, just so I put myself in a weird spot. And that will give me another tonality, because I’m used to working with a different note structure than what was more common to me, or what I’ve been used to working with.
So is everything on the EP written with Twelve-Tone?
Yes. This was done in a system that I’m calling “Twelves-Tones in Fragmented Rows,” where everything is put into a clock, and then all of the notes need to be used that are side by side or consecutive, and it basically is like you’re revolving the clock around. After this EP, the next thing that I have already started working with is an instructional guitar DVD, and I’m going to play all of the guitar parts and go in-depth — just like how I did the Oscillation Cycles video — and explain how all of the notes are being used. It’s going to have all of the notes being animated, so you can see clearly which tunes are using which notes. So “these notes are leftover after using these notes,” and just the whole combination of all of the tonalities and how they combine together to make up the tunes.
And Machinations wasn’t all Twelve-Tone?
No. Alex and I started writing with it, but then there were some tunes that we just came up with — half/whole tone is a pretty big favorite of ours. There were just some songs, namely “Activation Synthesis” theory. That was just so many conglomerations of all these different nightmares that we put together. It was a little bit beyond what we were doing at that time. I would say about seventy-five percent of that first CD was twelve-tone system.
Was the writing process different at all because everything was Twelve-Tone? What’s a normal writing process like for you or Blotted Science?
This was a little different, because I had to do all of the syncing with the videos. Then, I could tell Alex that we need a tune that consists of seven counts, and its going to appear later in this song in five counts. It was a matter of knowing how many counts you are given to construct tunes, and this was much more strict because on the other one we could just say make up a cool tune and it could last any number of counts. Whereas this was totally strict — it had to be seven-and-a-half counts, or it had to be five-and-a-half counts. It was harder to write that way.
Does each member write the music for his respective instrument?
I would say that I came up with most of the themes for this, but Hannes did a lot of stuff — you know how it is with any guitar programming and stuff. We come up with drum programming, and then you give it to the drummer, and then they spice it up. That’s how we did it with this. All three of us had Encore — the writing software. Hannes first started off with Guitar Pro, which is more of a tab-based thing. When he got Encore, it made things a lot easier, because I could send him an idea, and rather than him writing something in Guitar Pro and then me re-writing it in Encore, we could then go back and forth with the same files. So if he had an idea for something… like with track three on the EP, “Vermicular Asphyxiation.” The whole first part of that song originally didn’t have a drum beat. He just came up with some things and threw it in there, and it worked well, so we went with it. There were some songs where certain accents need to be hit, and he would need a certain drum or cymbal in certain spots, depending on the attack we wanted. You can tell from that first clip that you saw that there are so many cymbal hits that are right. There is some kind of an action thing going on. The whole EP was done that way.
Was working with Hannes different from working with Charlie?
Both of those guys are really great communicators. That’s the thing with this writing/recording online, you have to have great communication. Both Charlie and Hannes are great music leaders. I would just say that Hannes is more geared toward the whole death metal thing than Charlie is. Charlie is a fantastic drummer, but it just seemed like when we were working with him, that we had to tell him, “give us this kind of a thing that is a little bit heavier.” Whereas Hannes would already know what should have gone there, because this is closer to the music that he grew up with and he plays. Charlie covers pop and funk, all sorts of music. He is a NY session guy ,and he is fantastic. [But] Hannes knew much more what the songs needed. Charlie needed a bit more direction — its nothing against Charlie at all. Actually, it was kind of hard for me to tell him that we weren’t going to go with him for this next recording, because Charlie did nothing wrong on the first CD. He did a fantastic job with it, but this was more of Hannes’ direction than Charlie’s. It was just a lot easier to get what we wanted out of a drummer when we were working with Hannes.
It sounds like he was a very good fit for the band.
Yeah, that last track that was in four parts, there are all of these blast beats that are just scattered — Hannes can do that stuff at the drop of the hat. It’s just second nature, he does blast beats all of the time. He can work that in with the regular groove, and then all of the sudden on count two-and-a-half do a blast beat and get out of it on count five-and-a-half. He can just zoom in like that. I think for Charlie to do that kind of thing, it would be a little bit more of a task, rather than being just a second nature thing. Hannes does have some spots where he is doing some kind of groovy stuff, and he is a fantastic groove guy, too. He is not just one of those guys that is strictly a death metal guy. He does some killer high-hat stuff.
Oh yeah, I’ve listened to Watchtower and Spastic Ink for awhile now, though I first heard Blotted Science before either of those.
I don’t know if you know this, but before I met Alex, I had never played a note of a death metal tune in my life. Me and my brother Bobby, we didn’t grow up with death metal. We grew up with Judas Priest, UFO, Rush, Yes, stuff like that. When I first heard death metal, it was just a little bit too much for me to take in at one time. What made me realize that these guys have great players in death metal was when I saw a video of Alex in a Wretched Spawn video.
The “Frantic Disembowelment” video? The instrumental one?
Yeah! My jaw just dropped and I said, “Holy shit, there is some serious playing going on here.” I’m not a big fan of all of the Cookie Monster stuff, but I think in death metal, the musicianship and the playability of these guys is just ridiculous. But I have a hard time hearing melodies in death meta,l just because it’s so brutal and in-your-face. With Blotted Science, I try to mix what I grew up with and some of the death metal thrown in. Not too many blast beats going on. Just enough to where you get that feel of brutality. That’s how we did it on both CDs.
What do you think of the growth of technical metal as a whole? There have been a ton of really proficient death metal and progressive metal guitarists cropping up recently, and I’ve heard some mixed opinions.
Some of these bands, like our friends Animals as Leaders, are just beyond ridiculous. The guy, Tosin [Abasi], what he’s doing is totally killer. I don’t even know if its label is technical death metal or technical metal or whatever. But the direction those guys have is just fantastic, I love that stuff. You have Periphery, they’re mixing in some of that, you know,what’s that… alternative kind of sound?
It’s kind of like pop-punk a little bit.
Yeah, it’s weird how they mix all that stuff in. I’m trying to think of other bands that pop out at me. Meshuggah, they’ve been around for quite a while, but that’s totally different from what Animals is doing. Rush is my favorite band of all time.
The whole direction that prog metal went is pretty sad. It just got so watered down. All these bands came in with all these keyboards and they were calling themselves Dream Theater clones, and then everybody started calling them progressive or prog metal, to where when the real progressive bands came around, they had to invent this new technical metal genre. And I guess that’s fine, but it’s weird, having been in it with Watchtower and Dream Theater of course Fates Warning. When Control and Resistance came out, Images and Words — it’s like those were the CDs that defined progressive metal. Now, when I come out with any kind of music, I get kicked out of the genre that I was a pretty big part of. The whole thing kind of changed, and it got so watered down that what I’m doing now — of course Watchtower’s not going to have any blast beats or anything like that — but it’s just the whole prog metal thing I found myself getting away from. That’s what drew me towards death metal.
There’s also the fact that it’s 2011. There are so many bands out there in every genre that a lot of artists are getting pigeonholed into genre that they really don’t belng in. Blotted Science, for example, is clearly a technical, dynamic, progressive band, but as I’ve heard, and as I’m sure you’ve heard, people often call Blotted Science “just a shred band.”
That word, “shred,” I don’t like that word. I’ve been saying that for years. I think that with the whole guitar thing these days, people are so worried about playing fast that they’re losing track of music and composition, arrangement, and tonality. All of that kind of stuff. It’s like all of these people are trying to do this shred thing, and if you look at Blotted Science or Animals as Leaders, you look at the compositions going on there. There are going to be minutes going by where we’re not doing “shredding” or any of that stuff. It’s just music and playing, and that’s what I think music should be about. It’s not about “see how fast I can play.” I’m not one of these blues guys, “This is all you have to play — with feeling.” I just think music is getting lost in all this shredding stuff. Does that make sense?
I completely understand. I hear people say “Oh, Blotted Science. That’s the band with the ridiculously technical guitar work.” And, yeah, the guitar work IS nuts, but Blotted Science isn’t only about playing fast and complicated metal. Are they any other aspects of your playing you wish people would focus on rather than mere speed?
The whole composition element of everything. I think that’s a lot more important and that, I think, comes from growing up with Rush as my favorite band. They would have great playing on everything they did, but if you look at composition — for instance, “By-Tor And The Snow Dog.” You look at the piece of music, you don’t look at all the shredding stuff, that’s just part of the grand scheme of everything. The composition comes first; your playing gets worked into that. It’s not like the only thing there is your playing and fuck the song. Rush was always like that. Alex Lifeson is not Mr. Speed Demon, but he had a huge part in the composition that made up Rush. I don’t like to be called a shredder, because if you’re called a shredder, it means you’re neglecting all of the music writing. For instance, Arch/Matheos, my brother just played on that last CD. You take Jim [Matheos], he’s not Mr. Speed Demon. But if you look at the guy’s writing, he’s an incredible writer. All of the Fates Warning stuff and this latest Arch/Matheos stuff… I think just that’s what it’s about. The compositions themselves, and then your playing goes into that.
Well, it’s really unfortunate because — especially now that there are a lot more bands now trying to play “technical” metal — people avoid listening to so-called “technical metal,” because all they’ve heard are the new bands, and they think it’s nothing but shred.
Yeah, that’s going to happen. And it’s because of this overused word, “shred.” There’s all these people on YouTube, they’re playing all these solos over Staind songs. I mean, come on. There’s more to it than just running up and down the fret boardplaying over some 4/4 groove. I don’t know, the more I see more of those YouTube guys… what’s funny about those guys is that they’re fast as shit, and then there comes a part in the song that’s a simple rhythmic part with eighth notes or something, and they fall flat on their face. Because they never work with a metronome. They have no sense of timing. You put a quintuplet in front of them and they’ll say, “What the fuck is that?” Or if you give them a measure of 7/4 or something. I wish the shred thing would kind of go away a little bit, and more people would focus more on writing.
Actually, speaking of writing, what exactly motivated you guys to spend two years on the EP? Obviously you have the communication and distance aspect, and it’s very difficult syncing everything up with the movies, but still… two years is a long time for a four-song EP.
Alex and Hannes, they’re in ful- time bands. I guess you could say my full-time band, sad to say, is teaching. I can’t focus all of my time doing the Blotted Science thing. Again, what took some time away from me was trying to get this Watchtower thing going again. Another year-and-a-half of my life focusing on something that probably won’t happen. And with the vocalist thing… You know what, I’ve spent something like ten-thousand or fifteen-thousand hours working on this material. Are we every going to have anything to show for it? How much more time am I going to spend on it? I’m more into the music that Blotted Science is doing now than Watchtower. Watchtower was having all of these problems, mostly musical, but then the vocalist thing came up, too. I just realized I need to focus on doing the Blotted stuff, musically. Then we started doing all this syncing. All of the syncing took quite a while. I know Alex wanted to do some more songs that were just more metal songs, but I wanted to do the whole concept thing, which happened because of Rush. I’m not sure what’s going to happen with Blotted Science, but the next thing up for me is the guitar instructional DVDs. Alex is working on another Cannibal CD. I’m not sure what’s going to happen after all of that stuff, but if we did another CD, I don’t think it’s going to be some kind of scoring thing. But we’re going to have to come up with another cool concept. I don’t just want to have an audio CD because, quite honestly, with all the illegal downloading, if we’re not going to gig, there has to be something else that’s motivating me to put something else together. Maybe there’s another cool concept that’ll I’ll say, “Fuck yeah, let’s do this thing.”
This one’s horror and bug-based, but you’ve worked with Disney stuff before with things like “A Wild Hare” and “The Cereal Mouse.”
The Bambi one that we did, “A Wild Hare” — that’s where we took music that was from the dialogue, from the piece we just incorporated. This EP is more along the lines of “The Cereal Mouse,” to where it was just synced up to something. The music we write has nothing to do with the audio that’s on the flicks. It’s just a matter of syncing it up and chopping up counts so we can get these schemes scattered to where we want them in the piece. I’ve done another couple of songs with Spastic Ink. We did “A Morning With Squeakie,” those could have had flicks done to them, but that’s probably never going to happen. I really like working with Alex and Hannes — great communicators. We’re into the same kind of music. But I’m not sure what’s going to happen after I do these DVDs and Alex gets off the road with Cannibal. We’ll have to see if there are more concept things we’d like to explore, keeping along the lines of all this scientific kind of stuff.
What other media have influenced you?
Just working with patterns. I did a solo CD and I dealt with a lot of patterns. But a pattern isn’t too gory and scary. I don’t know how much that would fit into another Blotted Science CD. We’ll have to think about it. Alex wanted to do this thing, it was based on some violinist. This was way back before we did the Machinations concept. But, you know, there’s going to be more things to base songs around.
But you guys don’t have any current touring plans?
Yeah… I multi-track guitars all over the place, so we’d have to get another guitar player, and it’s a self-finance thing. Our drummer lives in Germany. How much stuff am I going to have to pay for, you know? When we had that rehearsal in Tampa, just to practice for two days, it cost me $600. Just for flights! We practiced out of Alex’s studio, where he works with Erik Rutan. It’s a lot to ask from a guy who’s self-financing a CD. It’s not like we have label support. Everything goes through me and basically my wallet. The whole road thing, it would be very intriguing for us. I have a lot of ideas, some live score ideas. We were thinking of getting Chris [Muenzner] from Obscure to play guitar parts. Any extra time I get from Alex especially is a bonus. From the start I knew he was Mr. Cannibal Corpse, and I can’t ask him to take any time away from Cannibal Corpse. And really, if we were going to do any gigging, we would have done it this past year, because they were off the road for seven or eight months. But they were writing during that time, so he couldn’t leave. He’s the chief songwriter in the band. You can’t tell those guys and their management and Metal Blade people, “Hey, I have this side project. I need to go write with this guy in San Antonio, could you all go do something else?” That’s not going to happen. He’s Mr. King Daddy Cannibal Corpse.
Maybe you can do a guest appearance or something when they’re touring in support of the new album.
We had talked about that and Alex is like, “Shit, I can’t remember all that stuff between Cannibal and Blotted.” When Charlie was in the band, and back then he was paying in a band called Behold…the Arctopus who were fucking amazing… He’s a young kid, he’s twenty-two or something, and he was like, “Yeah, I can remember all that stuff.” I could be exaggerating, but Hannes too — these are young kids, they’re just coming up. Me, as old as I am, I’m just trying to keep up with all these new guys; it’s fun doing it.
It’s easier to get into the scene at a younger age nowadays.
I don’t know about Animals as Leaders, but I think Tosin did the first Animals CD by himself, maybe with Misha [Mansoor] from Periphery. Then he found two guys that could tour and write with him. I thought it was so cool that it was produced by either the drummer or bass player and then the other guy had a major part in the production of the thing. It’s not like Tosin is running the whole thing. Now they’re a band. I think that’s so cool.
I think Tosin did everything on the first release, then Misha from Periphery mastered and mixed it, but now they have Navene Koperweis from Animosity and Javier Reyes, and they’re all working together.
Yeah, they’re a real band now. I just think that’s so cool.
Especially when they’re so successful playing music that’s as unique as theirs is.
They have their own thing going. Tosin is one of those riffing guitar players. You can just tell from what he writes. He even has pieces that are just a mellow kind of acoustic thing, just godly. You don’t call that shredding, that’s just some serious composition there. That band is just the epitome of where things are at right now. I’ve seen them twice, hung out with them for a bit. They have a great following. I’m sure their label is supporting them real well.
Out of curiosity, are you still using the guitars that you built for the Blotted stuff?
Yeah, back when we did the first CD I didn’t even have a seven string. I used two six strings. For this one I used a seven string; it’s one of my custom guitars and it worked out very nicely. For the first CD I didn’t have one. Matter of fact, when we did that rehearsal, to play these songs on Machinations I had to fire up a seven string pretty quick to play the rhythm stuff and the lead stuff. Since then I do a lot of writing on the seven. I’m more comfortable with a six still, to be quite honest, but for all this low death metal stuff you have to break out the seven. We tune to low A, just playing those low power chords and putting that one finger across the fret with that drop tuning, it’s neat. It works for Blotted Science.
I actually built a seven-string V in the same style last year. I feel more comfortable on a six-string though. And it sounds like shit anyways. I learned some of your stuff, actually — “Synaptic Plasticity,” “To Counter and Groove in E Minor,” and “Multi-Masking.”
[laughs] Do you know what “To Counter and Groove” was written for?
No, I don’t.
My sister used to those exercises on ESPN. They exercise on those little mats. And I wrote that groove, it was from a freaking exercise video and we somehow turned it into a Spastic Ink song. It’s funny when anyone says that song. I just think of my older sister doing her little exercising on her little mat.
Is that song tuned to 437 or something, by the way? I was playing it and just thought it sounded… wrong.
Wow, you’re a techy guy. That was one song where we recorded it on my four track, and the little pitch shifter thing in the middle to fine tune while we were recording the basic tracks. So when I came back to do the tracking, I remember Pete had to rerecord most of his bass parts because I had recorded my part and forgotten it had shifted two or three cents. That old Tascam. Man, I treated that thing like shit. It was my best friend for five or ten years, I used to take that thing apart, with wires everywhere. That little pitch control thing, it moved a bit on that song while we recorded basic tracks then started recording again, then put it back to where it was supposed to be and by then it was out of tune. Of course, this was before computers, so I’m not going to notice if something is 440hz or 437hz — it’s pretty good that you picked that up.
Ever since I had heard it I’ve liked it and thought it sounded off, but I always attributed it to poor sound quality.
Have you heard “This Love” by Pantera? That song has two different tunings.
Really? I know they messed around with weird tuning combinations.
I’m talking about this one part of the song; it’s not in tune. It’s a little off. When they recorded the song, I think they had some blank spots, and then went in later tuned a little bit different. I write that song out a lot for students, and it’s weird — there’s two parts that aren’t in tune with the rest of the song.
That’s pretty funny.
Another song that’s out of tune is “Xanadu” by Rush. The whole song, the low E is in between E and F. Check it out, it’s crazy. I don’t know if they purposely sped up the whole song, but it’s out of tune.
Haha, I’ll check that out. Before we go, I wanted to know what you listen to in your spare time; kind of a personal curiosity.
I don’t listen to a lot of guitar players; I don’t really listen to a lot of metal. I’m aware of Animals as Leaders quite a bit, but I listen to… one of my favorite artists is, believe it or not, KT Tunstall. She’s a great artist. I’d have to think about it. I used to listen a lot of Bugs Bunny cartoons and figure that stuff out. I just listen to stuff that I’m working on. If I’m working on something, I don’t have Sportscenter on, or ESPN, so I’m not really listening to other things. But I’m aware of what’s going on because I’ll have students bring in current recordings and stuff. That’s where I hear a lot of current bands. But a lot of the bands like Trivium or the widely known metal bands — I don’t listen to that stuff at all.
It’s kind of watered down.
It’s just so… you can tell who their influences are. When System of the Down were out, I kind of liked it; they were kind of wacky. I’d have to think about it a little more, but offhand I can’t think of anything else.