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Editorial: Yeah, You Need A Bassist

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A month or two ago, I caught 1349 at The Roxy, and they fucking slayed as always. But something I noticed about their performance this time around was how vital Seidemann, their bassist, is (he’s the one who dresses like the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come). They played “Exorcism” off of 2014’s Massive Cauldron of Chaos, where there’s a section in which everything but the bass cuts out (at about the 4:25 mark), and when Seidemann played alone I could hear how much of the band’s sound was his bass. Without it, Archaon’s guitars would sound hollow and abrasive, and the band wouldn’t have their complete tank-treads-over-skulls tone.

If 1349 needs a bassist, your band needs a bassist. You may think metal is all guitar attack, and the bass parts may end up being almost inaudible in your album mix, but if you don’t have a bassist I’d argue that you’re missing out on some of the possibilities available to your music. Not only that, but I’d claim you’re kind of lame. When I see a band without a bassist, I immediately think less of them, even if they make great music. Maybe that’s irrational, but it’s true. Bands without bassists are incomplete bands. It’s really hard to stand up and shout when you’re missing the fucking floor.

Let me get in front of something: I don’t know shit about gear. I’ve never played a guitar of any sort in my life, much less used a pedal to make one sound cool. And I’m aware that plenty of people who know more about the technicality of making metal deem bassists either unnecessary or inherently untalented (what up, Jeff Walker). I’ve also heard every bassist wisecrack from Glenn Fricker to Metalocalypse, so I know there’s this perception that bassists do little other than clutter the stage and studio. But all of that kind of misses the point. Bass guitar can be awesome if used correctly, and the lack of it feels pretentious.

On the former, bass guitar parts are really cool if correctly implemented. The problem seems to be that people assume what you’re talking about is funk bass. Not everyone needs to be Flea. That solo moment adds a lot of texture to 1349’s “Exorcism”, but part of that is because it sounds like Seidemann’s plucking strings made from monster truck tires. Fuck, have you ever heard Lemmy’s bass sound? A bass guitar can add a roar to your music that distorted lead guitar can lack, especially when it’s been compressed or distorted to shit.

On the latter, not having a bassist seems like a pompous statement. You know what your lack of bass says to me? That your lead guitarist can be a real pain in the ass. The people I hear shitting on bass players the most are guitar players, who in my experience are always tied with the lead singer for Most Infuriating Member Of A Band (Vinnie Paul always used to talk about ‘LSD’, lead singer’s disease, but I bet it helped that his guitarist was his brother). Guitarists hate sharing the spotlight; plenty of the guitar players I know would probably also question the importance of vocals, drums, and keys as well. But come on, Slayer have a bassist, for fuck’s sake. Origin have a bassist. You could tell me those bands would sound the same if I removed the bass, but the fact that they have one tells me they’re playing with a full deck. If you don’t, it makes me think your lead guitar player sneers a lot.

Some metalheads just need a band member they can hate, and since the singer and the guitarist bring the drama and insanity, and the drummer keeps everything moving, that role falls on the bassist. Look at the bassist over there, all not playing guitar solos or fills! What a jerk, right? But plenty of times, that listener just assigns the bass sound, which is often present, to the guitarist. That epic blast they’re hearing is at least 15% bass sound, they just don’t know it. Usually, when a metal fan I know hate on bassists, I get the feeling they’re expressing something else (similar to when they hate on women in metal). Yeah, bassists are worthless shmucks who need to graduate to six strings? How’s that new job going, man? Are you and Sheila still fighting?

Maybe part of the problem people have with bassists it that, because it’s technically easier to master than the guitar, few people dedicate themselves to bass. As such, we come away with this idea of bassists as incompetent and untalented, and bass as unnecessary. But as a vocalist—of course I was the vocalist, gear-ignorant and loud-mouthed as I am—I always saw bass as vital and cool, this weird instinctive backbone that didn’t get too mired in the wizardry and bravado of guitar.

And hey, that backbone role also isn’t very glamorous. I don’t think of the bassist as the dude in the band who gets laid a ton, and the prospect of getting laid was at least part of the reason a lot of us got into rock and roll. They either have a tendency to be reliable and stoic or complete mental cases who would rather party than practice (I’m sure there are examples proving these concepts wrong, but it’s all about perception). Then again, there’s a sort of charm to that. When every member of the band sees themselves as an alchemist turning leaden notes into rock gold, the whole operation feels ridiculous. The bedrock, meanwhile, is a solid reminder that there are fliers to hang, beers to drink, and amps to carry. And carrying a bass amp sucks pretty hard.

It’s interesting to see how many bands that used to play without a bassist have changed their ways. Pig Destroyer didn’t have a bassist until 2013. Absu always had a guitarist subbing in on bass until 2008. Both of these bands made great albums before they had bass players, but have been only getting better with age. Meanwhile, Deströyer 666 are still bassistless, and I love that band—but my gut instinct is to say, Get a bassist, and I wonder what they would sound like with a bass sound included. There’s bottom, and depth, and darkness to the bass, the smoldering ember that supports the raging flame.

So, get a bassist. Be picky about who you choose, and find someone with talent and passion. Throw a bass drop or two into a song. Tweak the bass sound to make it crush rather than bop along. Integrate it into the music with some care. Have fun with it. Because there are musical possibilities that a guitar just isn’t the right tool for. And more importantly, that full band dynamic feels good in music, and on a more basic level it looks and feels good to the fan. You may think bass and bassists are lame, but the only thing lamer is your presumptuous ass for thinking you don’t need a complete rhythm section.

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