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How Should Metal Bands Approach the Fundamentals of Rhythm?

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If you’ve been following my editorials on Gear Gods (about finger positions, posture, and more), you may have noticed that I place a premium value on rhythm, that fundamental ingredient in music that I believe is one of the most misunderstood, mis-applied aspects of heavy metal – old and new. So I thought I’d take this series to MetalSucks, to offer my thoughts on what exactly I mean by what makes “good” rhythm to the non-musicians/gear heads.

You may think it may go without saying, but I think it bears repeating: when metal musicians think about and practice rhythm, they lean towards things like speed, precision, and odd-time signatures. The roots of this movement are in the neo-classical, progressive rock of the 70’s, and they continue to this day with the fetishization of technique that bands like Animals as Leaders, Periphery, et. al possess. Speed is important in metal, for sure — but my concern is that young musicians, in relentless pursuit of musical acrobatics — completely overlook their fundamentals, to their own detriment!

I don’t mean to roast tech-metal guys alone — silly things like black metal bands arguing semantics about what a blast beat should be are just as distracting — but we can’t underestimate the impact that bands like Meshuggah and Gojira have had on modern metal music. Both are great bands who took as their mission to mine one core idea, to milk it and push it to its extreme. My feeling is their overall “mission” had a huge rippling effect on how people evaluate and decide what “well played” music is, and in turn is what so many metal bands fall prey to. I’m not talking about “experimenting” (bands like Gorguts, Portal, Mitochondrion, etc. belong in a different conversation), I’m talking about bands who only study how to play fast and precise, and how they are thus unable to escape the rhythmic box that they enclose themselves in.

One thing I always recommend to musicians of all instruments, genres, abilities, and interests in studying music deeper, is to listen closely to and learn Charlie Parker melodies. Even if you’re not inclined to learn about what’s going on harmonically, there is so much to learn rhythmically from what Bird did (from which you will often unconsciously begin to feel what is happening harmonically). Take for example a line I’ve been working on recently, a lesser-known blues, “Big Foot.” The blues is the simplest root of modern metal music: (usually) three chords, standard 4/4 time. How hard could it get?

Extremely, deceptively hard, and “Big Foot” is a prime example of this in both the line and the improvised solo. Bird was a master at moving around the 4/4 meter, but everything is fluid, snappy, full of life and feeling. The deeper I go owithstuff like this the less I am impressed by bands that are capable of counting out odd time signatures. There’s just so much you can do with compound time, too much for a lifetime, even!

One of the most influential musicians for me over the past few years is jazz pianist Barry Harris. The below clip from a symposium he gave at the Royal Conservatory in The Hauge (sometime between 1989 and 1998) goes in depth into some of these concepts. You’ll note that for Barry, it’s not totally clear where rhythm comes from during improvisation. What I love about his teaching method is how much it emphasizes singing, both of rhythms and melody. The more you practice scatting out rhythms, the more you will close the gap between what you are thinking and feeling and what you are playing.

Of course rhythm and melody aren’t completely separate categories, but what I find so interesting about musicians who are masters of rhythm is the way that they are able to use it to frame the musicality of their melody. Like Barry talks about in the above video, sometimes melody follows rhythm, and sometimes vice versa. Sometimes you just look at your instrument and figure out what you want to play by sight. But I’ve been coming around more and more to the idea that playing what you feel is all about being able to spontaneously sing (or in the case of rhythm, scat out) an idea, and that doesn’t come from understanding complex time signatures, superimposed meters, or precision in musical acrobatics.

Now, metal is a style of music founded on the opposite of spontaneous playing: it’s all about intricately composed and executed (usually complex) parts. But as I get older, I become more and more fascinated by the guys that are able to stretch these composed parts, making them at once more singable and spontaneous. Funnily enough, some of my favorites come from more hardcore-based backgrounds, a form of music even stricter than metal in a lot of ways. Billy Rymer (The Dillinger Escape Plan) and Ben Koller (Converge, Mutoid Man, All Pigs Must Die) are ahead of the pack for me in these respects.

These are drummers whose parts you can really sing, who write rhythms as catchy as their melodies. They’re also guys who don’t play ridiculous double-kick stuff (or go to it only sparingly), though they have the fast hand technique necessary for executing the harder parts of the music. What they’re great at is filling in the gaps — the cracks between the beats each riff emphasizes — and freshening up parts that are stringently locked in, as opposed to trying to stick to and accentuate one idea (e.g. Jason Newstead’s bass playing on …And Justice For All).

Subgenres like djent don’t often do this. The goal of that genre is to view music more linearly, and to arrange where the beat is felt along a constantly moving line. It’s straight, tense, and pattern-based. There is little room for the kind of “stretching” that guys like Koller, Rymer, Nick Yacyshyn, and Brann Dailor are able to exercise, and outside of exceptions like Mario Duplantier with Gojira’s linear-based music, nobody’s really tried. But the same principle applies to palm-muted open-E riffs in thrash, the d-beat in hardcore, and the blast beat in death metal.

One of the ways I think metal bands can escape their rhythmic boxes without studying things like jazz, classical, or tonal theory and rhythm, is to work harder on their compositions. Strangely, I think that grindcore — a subgenre most people consider as being ridiculously stringent — achieves this compositionally. The new Magrudergrind record, for instance, feels incredibly loose due to how the band arranged the music. It feels less like they are moving in a straight line, and more like they’re bouncing around each riff and break.

The kind of rhythmic freedom I’m talking about takes years to develop, and is definitely one of the hardest things about music, but it’s not impossible. And it can’t be achieved by cutting corners: bands have to do the legwork both as players and as listeners. You don’t even need to go to a fancy music school or study insanely convoluted theories about modes and time signatures to do this!

Ultimately that’s what people really mean when they talk about tone being “in the hands” (if ever there was a misunderstood aphorism, it’s that one). The phrase should really be “in your hands” because although anyone can learn how to substitute an Eb7 melodic minor scale over a D7 chord, nobody but you can articulate the musical ideas that you have in your head. Achieving fluid articulation of those ideas is to me the goal of music, because that’s how you have a conversation with an audience. Not by reiterating some cool scale or time pattern you learned in a book, but by saying something that you feel.

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