Car Bomb “Lights Out”

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Editor’s Note: This post is guest written by Calder Hannan, who just finished his Bachelor’s degree in Music Theory at the University of Virginia and will be starting studies for a PhD in Fall 2018.

One of the most exciting relatively new metal bands for me has been Car Bomb, especially with their latest album Meta, because their rhythmic technique sounds completely new. While it took me a while to figure out exactly what was happening, it’s easy to hear that their uniqueness has to do with the fact that their music plays extensively with tempo in a way that the bands they are influenced by rarely, if ever, do. The music of Meshuggah, for example, makes extensive use of unusual groupings and polymeter, as explored in other Metal In Theory posts and in several academic papers, but rarely does Meshuggah’s rhythmic difficulty extend into the realm of tempo ambiguity or change.1

Car Bomb’s music rarely seems to go for more than a few seconds, much less an entire song, without forcing the listener to question tempo. This, in addition to their use of asymmetrical and unusual groupings and polymeter,2 makes their rhythmic style very disorienting indeed. One song section that can act as a prime example of a major aspect of their rhythmic style is the opening to “Lights Out,” from the 2016 album Meta. This first section, from 0:00–0:42 sounds like a series of disorienting tempo changes in quick succession. Tempo, which can be a complicated concept (especially in this example), can be thought of in this example as the rate at which you would tap your foot (or bang your head).

I’ve mapped out the first section in the below table with the rate at which it feels natural to tap my foot (in beats per minute), which is the same as the rate at which we hear cymbal hits, labelled as the approximate tempo of each section. However, each of these rates conforms to a whole number of eighth notes—the number of eighth notes between cymbal hits is included as well.

Table of tempo changes in "Lights Out" by Car Bomb

Table of tempo changes in “Lights Out” by Car Bomb

The fact that each new tempo is in fact made up of an integer multiple of eighth notes is the key to the rhythmic excitement and disorientation of this passage. Because the length of these eighth notes does not change, the change in cymbal hit rate does not quite feel arbitrary—it is still disorienting, but does not feel completely disconnected.

In other words, it is possible to hear the whole section at the same tempo (probably dotted quarter notes at 144 bpm), because the basic pulse rate does not change (it is possible to count the same fast eighth note pulse through all of the sections). It is even likely that the band must hear it this way, in order to stay tight live. However, this is by no means an easy conclusion to reach, as becomes apparent when listening to the section. The aural illusion of almost chaotic change hinges on the cymbals; because they are normally such an important marker of tempo in the genre (especially in the music of Meshuggah), their fast-shifting accents in “Lights Out” lead to the strong perception of tempo change.

The section is a sort of arithmetic game, as the cymbals hit after one less eighth note in each subsection. While it is not easy to hear that this exactly is happening, it is clear that the beat seems to be speeding up, which paints the song’s lyrical motif of being “straight on course,” of inevitability—the riff, which is presented in shorter form in several other sections of the song, seems to collapse inexorably toward the faster beat. This example also paints the album title, Meta: the use of cymbals in a non-conventional way (to mark a changing tempo, illusory or not) comments on and exploits genre conventions to create an especially disorienting experience for listeners already familiar with the genre.3

I would further argue that this is an example of rhythmic disorientation leading to heaviness. I think that rhythmic disorientation is a fairly intuitive concept for fans of this type of music—it has to do with how hard it is to learn to feel a given passage. It also has links to a concept developed by Brad Osborn, who wrote a scholarly article about the difficulty involved in math rock grooves. Basically, he argues that these grooves are more difficult when they force you to change how you tap your foot (or bang your head) throughout the course of a song. This certainly happens in “Lights Out” (and pretty much all of Car Bomb’s music)—you can never quite settle into a comfortable groove, because the tempo seems to be constantly changing. While this is not the only way in which music can be rhythmically difficult, or even the only way that “Lights Out” is disorienting, it gets at the feature of Car Bomb’s music that sets them apart.

I’ve written about the link between rhythmic disorientation and heaviness at length in other places, but will summarize the main ideas here. Rhythmic difficulty makes it harder to metaphorically wrap one’s head around a song, enacting a metaphorical size that is at the heart of musical representations of heaviness. It also gives the band power, because they demonstrate the ability to control and work with unwieldy, difficult music, and power is another key aspect of heaviness. Finally, they position themselves as a serious band by innovating, specifically in the way that they reinterpret genre conventions to suit their needs, and seriousness is another expressive quality closely linked to heaviness. While there are of course many other aspects of the band’s sound that contribute to heaviness outside of use of rhythm (palm muted riffs, downtuned extended range guitars, compressed production style, etc), the rhythmic difficulty displayed in their music sets them apart. In his review of Meta on the blog No Clean Singing, Todd Manning concludes that “they come across as so much heavier than anyone else.” While this is only one example, it at least begins to support my argument. Car Bomb’s use of rhythm is innovative and complicated, but it would seem that it is motivated by a fairly common goal in metal music, namely the pursuit heaviness. I have no problem with saying categorically that they succeed in this respect; in this case, with great rhythmic difficulty comes great heaviness.

 

Sources.

Capuzzo, Guy. 2014. “A Cyclic Approach to Rhythm and Meter in the Music of Meshuggah.” American Musicological Society / Society for Music Theory Joint Meeting 2014. Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Lucas, Olivia. 2016. “Loudness, Rhythm, and Environment: Analytical Issues in Extreme Metal Music.” PhD Dissertation. Cambridge, Massachusets: Harvard University.

McCandless, Greg. 2013. “Metal as a Gradual Process: Additive Rhythmic Structures in the Music of Dream Theater.” Music Theory Online, 19(2).

Osborn, Brad. 2010. “Beats That Commute: Algebriac and Kinesthetic Models for Math-Rock Grooves.” GAMUT 3(1): 43-68.

Pieslak, Jonathan. 2007. “Re-Casting Metal: Rhythm and Meter in the Music of Meshuggah.” Music Theory Spectrum 29(2): 219-245.

Smialek, Eric T. 2008. “Rethinking Metal Aesthetics: Complexity, Authenticity, and Audience in Meshuggah’s I and CatchThirtythr33.” Master’s Thesis. Montreal, Quebec: McGill Unviersity.

Yeston, Maury. 1974. The Stratification of Musical Rhythm. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press.

  1. There are a few exceptions, but none in which tempo can truly be said to change–see the middle section of Meshuggah’s “Nebulous” for example. []
  2. To read about asymmetrical groupings in other metal, see this previous Metal In Theory post about Meshuggah’s song “obZen.” []
  3. For those interested in the more theoretical aspects of this, it is an example that points to the equivalency of meter and tempo at certain rates—it is almost equally reasonable to hear these cymbal hits as a moderate tempo or fast measures. Yeston’s characterization of rhythm as consisting of several layers in his book The Stratification of Musical Rhythm suggests this equivalency as well, as tempo and meter are simply two among many traditional ways of grouping a much faster steady stream of pulses. []

Metallica and the Case of the Missing 32nd Note

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One of the most-read posts on my blog is this one about the microtiming in Metallica’s masterpiece “Master of Puppets.” Every few months I run across new discussions on different forums or subreddits where someone drops a link to that post. But the most exposure that piece has gotten by far has been very recent, from an excellent video made by one Jake Lizzio who runs Signals Music Studio in a suburb near Chicago. He gives an insightful discussion of the rhythm timings I describe and a great explanation of the stakes of the issue, and I’m amazed and honored that my post inspired him to put that together. Definitely check out some of his other videos if you have a chance! As of today, this video below has over 300,000 views, way more people than I ever could have imagined would be interested in the minute timing details of Metallica’s riffs. (And certainly a bigger audience than I will ever get in an academic music theory journal.)

By far the coolest thing about seeing my research get shared, though, has been reading the discussion it generates. Apparently the idea of microtiming analysis struck a nerve among lots of internet commenters. Many of the posters are hashing out the same stakes about the validity and purpose of music notation that ethnomusicologists and music theorists have been writing stuffy 50-page-long journal articles about for decades. But of course, net denizens get to the point faster (when they don’t go off topic) and are a LOT more colorful. Continue reading

Wayne’s World and World Record Headbanging

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Dear Readers, I’ve recently started writing for the International Society of Metal Music Studies blog. Some of my pieces will now be hosted there, but every time I write for them I will also post the lede paragraph of each article here. Please visit the ISMMS site to view this whole post, and while you’re there read through a few posts by their other excellent writers!

On the fourth day of July, one thousand people in Aurora, Illinois gathered to headbang together in a public park in an attempt to be recognized by the Guinness book of world records. Why July Fourth? This date is celebrated as Independence Day in the US, in commemoration of the vote by a congress of colonial governments in 1776 to declare themselves United States independent from the Kingdom of Great Britain. Many municipalities sponsor parades, fireworks displays, and other free public events to display national and civic pride. As a large suburb in the shadow of Chicago, Auroradoes not get much attention outside of local news, but they do have one claim to international fame: Aurora is the setting of the internationally-popular Wayne’s World franchise, whose main characters Wayne and Garth are a pair of goofy heavy metal geeks.

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Form and Narrative in Metallica’s “The Call of Ktulu”

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I spent an afternoon recently making charts and transcriptions of songs from Metallica’s early albums, looking at how musical details of their songs reflect the topics of the lyrics. I was fascinated by their epic instrumental “The Call of Ktulu,” which stretches out a captivating atmosphere of foreboding for almost nine minutes, making it one of Metallica’s longest tracks. The form of this song, which I’ll describe later as a kind of gargantuan, distended version of the protoypial verse-chorus form with bridge that is used in most metal music, is unique among Metallica’s earlier repertoire. Unlike most instrumentals on earlier metal albums, which are sort of transitional acoustic guitar or synthesizer bits that don’t feel quite like whole compositions (like Black Sabbath’s “Orchid” or Venom’s “Mayhem With Mercy”), “The Call of Ktulu” is a full-length track and stands on its own in comparison to the rest of the tracks on the album.

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Chorus Without Words: Iron Maiden “Remember Tomorrow”

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A sarcastic urban dictionary entry defines the chorus as “The part of a song you actually remember,” and there’s more to that joke than just the humor value. In most popular music, the chorus can easily be identified because it is uses the same lyrics each time we hear it, and it frequently uses the title of the song. Most definitions of chorus mention the repetition of text or appearance of the song title; for example, in his massive two-volume study of the Beatles’ music, Walter Everett says that “The chorus, which gets its name from a usual thickening of texture from the addition of backing vocals, is always a discrete section that nearly always prolongs the tonic and carries an unvaried poetic text” (Everett 1999, p. 19). The repetition of lyrics in the chorus sets off that section from the verse, which usually has different lyrics each time it is heard. “the verse is to be understood as a unit that prolongs the tonic….The musical structure of the verse nearly always recurs at least once with a different set of lyrics” (Everett 1999, p. 15). Because we hear the chorus sung the same way over and over, it becomes the most memorable part of the song

But in Iron Maiden’s “Remember Tomorrow,” this definition doesn’t work. There is a part of the song with repeating text: the stanza that begins at 0:21 is repeated almost exactly at 3:55. But it’s not that memorable or something you’d normally sing along with, and the same music occurs at 1:28 with different lyrics. That would mean that this song has a chorus and a single verse, followed by a long bridge, then a second chorus, which would be a really odd song form. It makes a lot more sense to view each of the sections with lyrics (which all have the same music) as verses, with the first and last verse having the same lyrics. Then does this song even have a chorus? Continue reading

Interrogating the Origin Myth of Celtic Frost

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Dear Readers, I’ve recently started writing for the International Society of Metal Music Studies blog. Some of my pieces will now be hosted there, but every time I write for them I will also post the lede paragraph of each article here. Please visit the ISMMS site to view this whole post, and while you’re there read through a few posts by their other excellent writers!

The history of Celtic Frost begins with the band Hellhammer. Hellhammer was founded as a trio in 1981 and released a couple of demos and an album before the members decided to end the Hellhammer project and reform under the name “Celtic Frost.” The band has promoted the idea that their work as Hellhammer was amateurish and earned such a bad reputation that they had to change their name to get people to take their music seriously. While I’m sure there is some truth to this story, the fact is that not *everyone* hated Hellhammer. One of the early German fanzines I’ve been reading recently actually gives a glowing positive review of Hellhammer’s first release! But it doesn’t entirely contradict the story Celtic Frost tells, just adds some fascinating nuance.

 

Apocalyptic Raids cover art

Hellhammer’s Apocalyptic Raids EP (1984)

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Turnarounds and Tonality in Ozzy Osbourne’s “Crazy Train”

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This article is about a technique in metal song composition that hasn’t received it’s fair share of attention, the turnaround. “Turnaround” is a term used more broadly than just metal, and it comes from blues music, where it describes a figure at the end of a twelve- or sixteen-bar blues that leads into the next verse or cycle of the blues form. Its use in metal is a bit more specific, and has to do with defining key. My goal is to explain a neat ambiguity of tonality in a turnaround used in Ozzy Osbourne’s song “Crazy Train” (and by “ambiguity I mean two conflicting possibilities, not vagueness). But to understand what’s happening in “Crazy Train,” you’ll need to know how turnarounds are used in riff-based metal songwriting.

Most metal music, and a lot of hard rock as well, is based on the repetition of a distinctive rhythmic/melodic unit called a “riff.” Riffs are often either repeated exactly, or varied slightly in a few ways. One example of exact repetition is the verse of “Crazy Train” by Ozzy Osbourne, which repeats the same guitar riff several times in a row without changing it.

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Ghost BC “Cirice”

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Dear Readers, I’ve recently started writing for the International Society of Metal Music Studies blog. Some of my pieces will now be hosted there, but every time I write for them I will also post the lede paragraph of each article here and link to the full version on their site. Please visit the ISMMS site to view this whole post, and while you’re there read through a few posts by their other excellent writers!

If you don’t know the Swedish band Ghost yet (used to be spelled “Ghost BC” in the US for legal reasons), you might not be paying much attention to metal industry news. They are a rapidly rising star in the metal cosmos: their latest album hit the top of the charts in Sweden and charted no. 8 in the United States (these days, breaking into the top 10 is a rare feat for a non-American metal band), and the band even won the Grammy for Best Metal Performance for their song “Cirice” this past year. They have attracted some controversy for their costume gimmick: their lead singer “Papa Emeritus” dresses as a sort of dark, Satanic “anti-pope,” while the rest of the band call themselves “nameless ghouls” and wear identical masks with dark overtones. The band members seem to have a tongue-in-cheek attitude about their Satanic image as an inversion of traditional Christian symbols (literally inverted in the case of the cross that forms a part of the band’s logo). But this Satanic symbolism is only the most superficial layer of a deep practice of inverting values that can be seen throughout the band’s work, not just in their visual imagery, but also in their lyrics, timbre, and even in the formal properties of their treatment of verse material during the guitar solo. Each of these dimensions undermines established associations of evil with dissonance, discord, and ugly harshness in metal music.

…. Continue reading this article at the International Society for Metal Music Studies blog.