The song “Torn to Pieces” from the 1987 album Scream Bloody Gore by one of the progenitors of death metal, Death, has a simple verse-chorus structure that I’ve seen a lot in early death metal.1 In the version of the song that appears on the album, there are two verses for each chorus, and each of these three units in the cycle has its own riff:
0:00 Verse 1 (Riff A)
0:30 Verse 2 (Riff B)
1:01 Chorus (Riff C)
1:19 Verse 3 (Riff A)
1:50 Verse 4 (Riff B)
2:21 Chorus (Riff C)
2:39 Bridge (Riff D)
2:56 Guitar Solo (Riff D')
3:14 Chorus (Riff C)
[Timings from the album version of the song]
There’s a nice bridge section with a short guitar solo, followed by a reprise of the chorus before the song ends. Unfortunately, Riff D in the bridge section is not very clear on the recording from the album. Many early extreme metal bands recorded their demos and debut albums when the members were just teenagers, and sometimes even at home with amateur studio equipment. Death’s Scream Bloody Gore is no exception — it was recorded before lead singer and guitarist Chuck Schuldiner had reached his twentieth birthday. I don’t know if Schuldiner just had a bad day in the studio and didn’t notice, or couldn’t actually play the riff correctly before he ran out of recording time, but no matter how much I tried re-listening and slowing the bridge section down I just couldn’t figure out what notes were there.
We generally think of album recordings as the version of a song most faithful to the intent of the artist,2 but in cases like this there’s a problem. Should I try to make my transcription match the incoherent murkiness of this passage as it appears on the album, knowing that this might have been a bad take? Or should I try to second-guess what Schuldiner was intending to play?
Fortunately, there are lots of resources available online that I’ve found can sometimes help get past this kind of impasse. Unfortunately, you have to be careful with what you find. Below I describe my attempts to understand “Torn To Pieces,” both to illustrate the many ways in which a song can exist beyond an album recording, and to document my working practices as a metal scholar. What I found for this song represents a wide range of the types of resources I’ve used in the past to clarify difficult transcriptions, and in describing them I’ll give their pros and cons and give a few warnings for their use.
Tablature. There are tons of metal tablature websites, and sometimes when I look up a tab it reveals that I’m just not hearing something right, that I was missing a string in a guitar chord or something like that. Volunteer-made tabs on the internet are inconsistent and frequently contradict each other (like a lot of user-generated content), so I always try to corroborate anything I find with an actual recording, to see if the notes in the tab seem like a plausible explanation for what I hear. The two tabs I found of “Torn to Pieces” weren’t much help for figuring out Riff D — not only did they contradict each other, neither looks anything like what I can hear on the recording. I don’t want to publish links to bad tabs, but I included their versions of the riff as numbers 5 and 6 in the graphic towards the end of this post so that you can get an idea of how wrong internet tabs can be. To be perfectly honest, however, these are worse than most, and internet tabs are usually what I turn to first when I get stuck on a transcription.
Live Performances. Another strategy is to look for live recordings of the same song, and compare them to the album version. I found one video of Death playing this song live at a concert in 1987, the same year the album version was released (see the video above – Riff D starts at 1:13). While this is a very authentic source, it looks like home video footage that has spent some time on a VHS cassette, before being digitized and uploaded to youtube, so the audio quality is pretty bad. Sometimes it’s possible to figure out what’s being played by looking at the guitarist’s hands, but in this case it’s impossible to see because someone’s head is in the way most of the time. So this isn’t much help either.
Guitar Covers. I also found recordings of other guitarists playing this riff. The video above is a “guitar cover” from a youtube user. (Riff D starts at 2:39) For those who don’t know, many (usually non-professional) guitarists will make a “guitar cover” of an existing song by recording themselves playing along with it, and then post it to youtube to get feedback from others who play their instrument, to get more views for their channel, and maybe even to use as a demo to get an audition spot.3 This is also a great way to practice playing difficult parts at full speed without extensive rehearsal time with a band.4 Guitar cover videos are great for someone like me who is trying to learn or transcribe a song, because they usually are focused on the fingerboard and picking area, visually demonstrating mastery of the song. That said, for a transcriber or scholar these videos are no more dependable than online tabs, because they are just a guess at what is being played on the record by someone who may have no better source than the next guy. I’ve included this guitar player’s Riff D as version 2.
Cover Bands. Another cover I found is a live recording by Chuck Schuldiner’s former bandmates, playing under the title Death To All, from a 2012 concert in Orlando, Florida. (Riff D starts at 2:55 in the video above) The guitarist for this band plays a fairly simple sixteenth note riff I’ve transcribed as version 1. This seems like a pretty legitimate source, as each of these players knew Schuldiner closely and probably played this song live with him any number of times. Even though this is a live concert, the recording is clear and easy to hear. However, the riff they play is straight sixteenth notes, which is not a problem except for the fact that Schuldiner nails sixteenth notes at this tempo throughout the record. Why would he flub up a basic sixteenth note riff when he sounds so confident and in control in his much more difficult guitar solo on the same song? Also, from what I can make out of the 1987 live recording it really sounds like there is a high F# on the second beat, but the Death To All version does not go up this high until the last couple of notes. It seems possible, at least, that Schuldiner’s bandmates have either remembered the riff wrong, or simplified a riff that it seems even Schuldiner had trouble playing accurately.
Guess. Sometimes the most responsible thing to do is just make an educated guess.5 I’ve included two possibilities that seem feasible to my ear from hearing the studio recording and the live video. (Versions 3 and 4) As I mentioned before, it seems unlikely that Chuck Schuldiner would be unable to play a sixteenth note riff in a recording session, so both of these are slightly more complicated. In the end, though, it’s really anyone’s guess what the album version is supposed to sound like. It could be that Schuldiner wanted this riff to sound wrong and out of control, to make the music more chaotic and destructive. It could be that the simpler version played on the Death To All tour is what Schuldiner intended, but for some reason he didn’t get a good take in the studio. Since Schuldiner died of brain cancer in 2001, we may never know.
Is it fair to dictate one version of this riff as more authentic, given how little consensus there is on what the notes are? Instead, maybe none of those versions is quite “how the song goes.” Maybe the song itself is not a sequence of notes or fingerings, but a particular sound on tape, and each way of marking it on a staff is only one way of trying to make sense of a chaotic, unclear sound that is ultimately beyond the tidy logic of notation.
- Lots of other songs on this album have a similar verse-chorus structure. The demos by Swedish death metal trailblazers Nihilist (later Entombed) also use a lot of similar simple verse-chorus structures. There’s a popular myth that death metal is better than other rock music because it avoids verse-chorus structures, but it’s not entirely true. For lots of examples of this claim, see Natalie Purcell Death Metal Music: The Passion and Politics of a Subculture (2003), pp. 12-15 [↩]
- This is the central thesis of Theodore Gracyk’s excellent book Rhythm and Noise: An Aesthetics of Rock Music (1996). [↩]
- There are also “drum covers” of a lot of metal songs, but they aren’t very helpful for figuring out a guitar riff. [↩]
- This can be either because the guitarist does not have a band, or because their band is not good enough, or because their band is not interested in playing a particular style that the guitarist wants to learn. [↩]
- For the sake of everyone’s sanity, however, if you intend to publish or disseminate something with a section you had to make up, include a caveat explaining which parts you aren’t entirely sure of! [↩]