The Top 25 Modern Metal Drummers

#1: SCOTT HULL (AGORAPHOBIC NOSEBLEED)

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“In a world where I never existed / No friends, no family, no ANb
My cargo sold for next to nothing / To the Japanese / That years later
Was rumored to have had programmed the world’s first blast beat”
-Agoraphobic Nosebleed, “Timelord Two (Paradoxical Reaction)”

Over a third of the bands represented on last year’s list of  of The Top 25 Modern Metal Guitarists also showed up on this Top 25 Modern Metal Drummers list. Only one musician appeared on both lists, though, and that is Scott Hull. Nobody with functioning ear canals would argue with Hull’s riff-writing for Pig Destroyer and Agoraphobic Nosebleed. Shit, his guitarwork is so intensely rhythmic that it could have qualified for our Best Drummers list by itself. But I’m going to throw down the gauntlet and say that Hull’s drum programming in Agoraphobic Nosebleed is as creative as anything done by the other “proper” drummers on this list, and probably more important.

First, some background. The drums on ANb’s earliest splits and 7-inches are clearly fake. Even so, Hull’s programming on tracks like “Dc5” and “Panic Gasp” (both available on the 136-track Bestial Machinery compilation) are densely packed with a degree of rhythmic variety that you’d hope an actual drummer would bring to this kind of music. As Hull tells us via e-mail from his Visceral Sound studio in Bethesda, Maryland, “We never really wanted to be known as a ‘drum machine’ band. We started out using a drum machine just because 1) it was easier 2) we didn’t have a drummer and 3) we didn’t want to spend endless time rehearsing songs again and again. We just wanted to create a song, commit it to ‘tape,’ then move on, never playing that song again.”

After ANb’s 2002 epic Frozen Corpse Stuffed with Dope, Hull ditched the drum machine and started MIDI sequencing in Cubase, using Toontrack’s multi-sampled drum packs. While the ludicrous speeds of “Living Lolita Blowjob” or “Children Blown to Bits by the Busload” from the 100-song mini CD Altered States of America were definitely not reproducible by human limbs, you could hear an increasing realism in the sound of Hull’s ride cymbals and tom drums. Fast forward a few years to ANb’s atypically slow, shifty Domestic Powerviolence split with Apartment 213, and Hull’s programming has become virtually indistinguishable from the real thing.

“I’m kind of a stickler for realistic sounding drums; snares, toms, etc.,” Hull explains. “These new drum sets have 127 velocity layers, and across each layer you have many, many redundant sampled hits so that, at a given velocity layer, you don’t get the same hit twice…really, all I have to do is listen to what real drummers do, and translate that into articulations and patterns in the MIDI sequencer. It’s just about caring enough to spend the time required to put in the detail. It does take a lot of time!”

There’s nothing romantic about the notion of Scott Hull sitting in his office chair at four AM, chugging 5-Hour Energy shots as he manually sequences every single note of an Agoraphobic Nosebleed drum track. But if you don’t consider this man some kind of a mad genius after you hear his infamous programmed drum solo at the 1:41 mark on Agorapocalypse’s “Question of Integrity,” you just aren’t listening properly.

That solo would count as perfectly good grandstanding if Vinnie Colaiuta were playing it. The fact that Hull meticulously crafted forty-five seconds of what sounds like spontaneity is more than “perfectly good” – it’s a total mindfuck. In fact, it calls into question a lot of what we hold most dear about music. What is a great musician but a deeply curious musical spirit who has the technique to manifest whatever he hears inside his head? And isn’t Scott Hull precisely that, even though he didn’t touch a single snare, cymbal or kick drum in the creation of Agoraphobic Nosebleed’s entire oeuvre?

Of course, there are plenty of terrific drum programmers in metal. Hull points to Joe Preston of Thrones, Shaun LaCanne’s one-man-and-an-iPod death metal band Putrid Pile, and O.G. drum machine grind band Wadge as inspirations. Genghis Tron have done some awfully creative stuff without a real drummer, and then there’s Meshuggah, who tracked drums on Catch Thirtythree and the rejiggered version of Nothing with the same Drumkit from Hell software used on Agorapocalypse. For verisimilitude, variety and straight audacity, though, nobody beats Hull at the drum programming game.

And don’t take my word for it! Pig Destroyer’s new drummer Adam Jarvis tells us, “When I first heard the new Pig Destroyer tracks ,I was mostly impressed by the flow and precision of Scott’s drum programming. I thought I was going to have to reprogram certain things, but after hearing what he laid down it’s pretty much the final product.” Jarvis also claims that Hull has a violent, alcoholic pet octopus in his control room that programs all of Scott’s drums for him, so we got a second opinion from our #11 honoree Dave Witte, who practiced with Pig Destroyer for a while. Witte says, “Scott Hull can program realistic sounding drums and drum patterns better than anyone I know or have heard, especially in the metal world. No one can touch him. His challenging ideas are of the utmost in quality and meticulous attention to detail. I’ve seen him doing it, each hit by hit, dynamics, hesitations, everything. He makes you believe it’s a real drum… He claims he has me in mind when he maps things out. I tell him he’s crazy.”

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Metal fans tend to overvalue musicians who approximate machinery. The faster, cleaner and more precise they are, the more impressive. I call shenanigans on that idea. Not only does it lead to some pretty antiseptic metal, it’s also a completely antiquated idea. Humans have sought to perfect themselves since they were aware of themselves. It’s not a problem unique to the modern era.

What is most definitely peculiar to modern times is the way that our machinery is increasingly approximating us. We can see it in the rapid adoption of voice recognition software and combat drones, Siri and the RealDoll. Many futurists theorize that the singularity — the moment when technology surpasses human intelligence and yields the development of true artificial intelligence — is on its way this century. Consider Scott Hull’s programming to be the musical embodiment of that very now dynamic. His virtual drums sound more human than many human drummers. One day, they might develop expressive potential of their own. What would a poor death metal drummer without infinite endurance do to compete with such an ideal machine?

Hull assures us that “At this time, my drums have not become self-aware, and are not in danger of taking over in a Skynet-like robot coup.” Still, he’s quick to extol the many virtues of using software instead of an actual drummer: “It always sits and waits patiently to rock whenever I’m ready. It never gets tired. It never calls in hungover or sick from eating a blooming onion that fucked it up the night before. It’s never drunk. And, it never forgets a song.”

Agoraphobic Nosebleed’s two releases from 2011 suggest that Scott Hull’s drum programming is in its second golden age. Songs like “Ungrateful” from ANb’s split with Despise You or “With a Sniff and a Wink” from their A Joyful Noise flexi-disc aren’t just good drum machine grind songs — they’re great grind songs, period, that happen to be made with great sounding virtual drums. If Hull’s foregone some of the experimental oddity of his more synthetic-sounding earlier material, he’s now making music that you can actually love, not just be happily bewildered by.

As for the drum software’s next move? “It’s been kicking ass for the Pig Destroyer demos for the new CD,” Hull reveals, “so once the new one gets done, I will fall right into working on a new ANb CD. I’d really like to have a new CD for both bands done this year.” A thought worth salivating over. But even if it doesn’t happen, we’ve still got Agoraphobic Nosebleed’s four-hundred-odd song back catalog – backed by the digital percussive fury of the #1 drummer in modern metal – to tide us over while we wait.

The infamous drum solo from Agorapocalypse:

Another realistic track from a recent split with Despise You:

From Frozen Corpse Stuffed with Dope:

All of these tracks and more are available for free streaming on ANb’s Bandcamp site.

-SR

THE REST OF THE LIST:

#2: Mario Duplantier (Gojira)
#3: Danny Walker (Intronaut, Exhumed, Jesu, etc)
#4: Brann Dailor (Mastodon)

#5: Tomas Haake (Meshuggah)
#6: Gene Hoglan
#7: Danny Carey (Tool)
#8: Proscriptor McGovern (Absu)
#9: Chris Adler (Lamb of God)
#10: Sean Reinert (Cynic)
#11: Dave Witte
#12: Navene Koperweis (Animals as Leaders, Animosity, Fleshwrought)
#13: Dirk Verbeuren (Soilwork, Scarve)
#14: Kevin Talley
#15: Morgan Rose (Sevendust)
#16: Stef Broks (Textures)
#17: Blake Richardson (Between the Buried and Me)

#18: Aesop Dekker (Agalloch, Ludicra, Worm Ouroboros)
#19: Shannon Lucas (The Black Dahlia Murder)
#20: Ben Koller (Converge, All Pigs Must Die, United Nations, Acid Tiger)
#21: Dave Lombardo (Slayer, Fantômas, Grip Inc., Philm)
#22: Paul Bostaph
#23: Phil Dubois-Coyne (Revocation)
#24: Jade Simonetto (Hate Eternal)
#25: Mike Portnoy (Adrenaline Mob)

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