Note: This is part of a series commemorating the 25-year anniversary of the band Meshuggah by exploring the roots and legacy of Meshuggah’s style of progressive metal rhythm.
The groove metal band Pantera may not seem like an obvious choice for a series of posts about Meshuggah and progressive metal. Pantera began their career in 1981 as a power metal band that performed in spandex and had huge hairdos. In 1987, Pantera switched out their lead singer and started developing a new visual brand and playing style.1 “Diamond” Darrell switched his nickname to “Dimebag,” and the band ditched the leather and the hairspray in favor of t-shirts and jeans. Musically, the new lead singer Phil Anselmo began using a rough, more growled delivery style instead of a power metal falsetto, and the band’s music began to take a few cues from thrash metal bands like Metallica.
But the most influential and innovative part of Pantera’s new playing style was their approach to rhythm in their riffs. They borrowed from the aggressive, percussive approach to playing the guitar that you can hear on some of Metallica’s heaviest songs, with lots of bottom-heavy palm-muted guitar accents and a few string bends. Sometimes, like on the song “Heresy,” they actually sound a bit like Metallica. But on quite a few songs, Pantera uses riffs with syncopated, off-beat rhythms that groove much more than anything Metallica ever wrote. When I say that Pantera is groovy, however, I don’t mean that they are anything less than heavy — in fact, even though Pantera strays farther from the beat than most thrash metal bands, their heavier songs are more visceral than Metallica. (That’s my opinion, maybe not yours — let me know if you agree in the comments!)
Nothing on Cowboys From Hell has more off-beat rhythm or visceral power than the song “Primal Concrete Sledge.” Much of the song consists of what is essentially a 4:3 polyrhythm, in which the drummer Vinnie Paul plays constant sixteenth notes on his kick-pedal bass drum and off-beat eighth notes on the hi hat, and the guitars play a pattern with two palm-muted sixteenth notes that sort of blur together into a single, heavy thud. The components of this rhythm are really not all that radical — all sorts of metal songs (and plenty of other groovy music) use strings of dotted eighth notes against a quarter note pulse, which is essentially the same rhythmic structure as this riff.
In most groove music this kind of rhythmic dissonance is used sparingly, just for a quick drum fill, or as a brief off-beat emphasis in a vocal line, or part of a short riff that quickly resolves this tension.2 The next most extensive use I’ve found of the 4:3 polyrhythm in metal is a riff from Opeth’s “The Grand Conjuration” that uses two complete cycles of 4:3 — in the image below, one cycle is formed by four of the dotted-eighth guitar notes, which are equal to the length of three quarter notes. I call this a cycle because the first note of the riff is on the quarter note beat, and the subsequent notes are off the beat until the fifth note, which coincides with a quarter note beat once again.
In “Primal Concrete Sledge,” this 4:3 polyrhythm is maintained for huge, long sections of the song, stubbornly hammering out its own percussive tempo and refusing to conform to the drum beat beneath it. The middle of these sections are almost like an optical illusion, where suddenly you aren’t sure which one is the real tempo of the song, the hi hat notes or the guitars, and for a moment you seesaw back and forth on which one is the foreground and which is the background. This open rhythmic ambiguity makes listening difficult, and in my hearing it adds an impression of chaos without sacrificing any visceral rhythmic intensity — it’s still a great song to headbang to. Just like Meshuggah’s music, “Primal Concrete Sledge” achieves this effect within something like a consistent 4/4 beat; every section in “Primal Concrete Sledge” has a length that is a multiple of 16 quarter notes.
The most physically intense moment in “Primal Concrete Sledge” is the end of each chorus, where Anselmo shouts the title of the song along with a jarring guitar rhythm, followed by a brief second of shocked silence before the maddening engine of Pantera’s rhythm section starts up again. While the dotted eighth note rhythms strain against the 4/4 beat throughout the whole song, Pantera always manages to keep their rhythmic structures neatly constrained by lengths of four quarter notes. Even the long sections of cycling 4:3 are adjusted to end on time after 16 or 32 quarter notes. This end to the chorus is one of few exceptions where the groove is interrupted: in my transcription below, the part after the barline adds up to six and a half quarter note beats. To me, the last eighth note feels like a downbeat, even though if you extrapolate out the quarter note pulse from earlier in the excerpt, it should lie on an off beat. Somehow the rhythm under the words “Primal Concrete Sledge” completely breaks apart whatever pulse the music has had up to this point, and establishes instead that pulse’s exact opposite. Like the sledge in the song’s title, the end of the chorus is just about the heaviest thing ever, and if you are headbanging along, this rhythm bludgeons you into still submission until the next part of the song starts.
In other words, rhythmic trickery similar to Meshuggah’s is not strictly confined to Progressive Metal, Math Metal, or Djent. Pantera, Metallica, and quite a number of other bands during the late 80s and early 90s recorded some astonishing experiments in rhythm, even in songs with mainstream appeal, tracks nobody would label “experimental metal.” As Progressive as it might seem to create confusing polyrhythmic illusions and riffs that derail a stable meter, these musical properties do not always come with artistic pretensions. Instead of stemming from self-conscious experimentalism, some of metal’s most radical rhythmic effects are made by incredible musicians simply playing the heaviest riffs they can think of — not counting out new metrical formulas, but playing rhythms that feel powerful and make you want to move.3
"Primal Concrete Sledge"
Pantera - Cowboys From Hell (1990)
0.00 One palm-muted guitar note
Drums establish basic drum pattern transcribed above.
0.06 A ||: rhythm in sixteenth notes: xx_xx_xx_xx_xx_ etc. :|| for 16 quarter notes
0.20 A x1 with no vocals
x1 with Verse 1 vocals (spoken-sung)
0.34 B Chorus, ending with a halt after the words "time for primal concrete sledge"
0.42 A x1 no vocals
x1 with Verse 2 vocals
0.56 B with Chorus vocals, ending with a halt as before
1.04 C x2 Bridge
Riff has a virtuosic, guitar-solo-like quality
Sparse drum pattern with very wide backbeat
1.19 D x1 introducing riff with building drums
x2 with a normal drum pattern
1.41 Long descending guitar fill with loose rhythm, building drums fade in partway through
1.47 Halting rhythm from end of Chorus repeats several times
1.50 A x1
1.58 B Chorus x2 First time begins the phrase "primal concrete sledge," but does not finish it, repeating the whole Chorus instead. Second time ends with the halting rhythm as before.
- This parallels a general shift across many heavy metal genres away from the flamboyance and theatrics of 70s stadium rock and glam metal, towards a cultivated every-day look and dirtier sound. A notable recent book that tells the whole story is Ian Christe’s 2004 Sound of the Beast: The Complete Headbanging History of Heavy Metal, although his claim that Pantera “fused metal and rap in a more fluid manner than Anthrax” (p. 229) is misleading at the very least, given that vocalist Anselmo demonstrates disdain and near-complete ignorance of rap and hip-hop in many interviews. [↩]
- Mark Butler discusses the 4:3 polyrhythm in Electronic Dance Music in Chapter 4 of his book Unlocking The Groove (2006). One example he mentions that has a rhythm very similar to the Opeth riff I discuss here is Reese & Santonio’s “How To Play Our Music.” [↩]
- Meshuggah is firmly in the playing-by-feel category, regardless of how experimental their music might seem. In an interview for PyroMusic.net, Mårten Hagström addresses those who think of their music as “math metal”: “I could see where it’s coming from, it’s pretty obvious what it’s alluding to but it kind of suggests that what we do is a calculated effort to try and try think music, rather than feel music. And that’s very far from the truth. I mean, the effect it has on people may be that of a mathematical equation (laughs), but where it comes from on a writing standpoint it’s more like funk music, you know, we’re trying to create a groove but from a different point of view than your usual metal song.” [↩]