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.
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.
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.
- 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. [↩]
- To read about asymmetrical groupings in other metal, see this previous Metal In Theory post about Meshuggah’s song “obZen.” [↩]
- 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. [↩]