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The Hellhammer Beat

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Most metal songwriting amounts to playing with musical Legos. It’s about assembling parts: this technique goes here, that type of riff goes there. Repeat as necessary and you have a song. Most musicians borrow their parts from others. Only a handful create their own.

So it follows that we associate certain techniques with specific bands and musicians. Take drum beats. Discharge’s d-beat spawned an entire genre. So too did Meshuggah’s four-against-whatever polyrhythms. Mike Smith of Suffocation has his “Suffo blast.”

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Hellhammer – “Massacra”

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Listen to Jörg “Denial Fiend” Neubart’s drumming on “Massacra.” Hellhammer’s members were listening to a lot of Motörhead and Discharge at the time. Neubart is shooting for a punk rock lope. But, like everything else about Hellhammer, Neubart’s playing is primitive, uncultivated. The kick and snare just alternate beneath eighth-note cymbal strokes with very little syncopation:

C | x x x x x x x x
S | – x – x – x – x
K | x – x – x – x –

This is the Hellhammer beat. It’s not very fast, by modern standards. On Apocalyptic Raids, it maxes out around 180 BPM. It is devoid of any rock’n’roll swing; its motion is all up and down, like a polka beat. I imagine Neubart playing it with his limbs locked out stiff. It’s that awkward-sounding. Still, it conveys an irrepressible energy. Neubart’s tempo slides all over the place when he plays it. Tom Warrior and Martin Ain cling to him for dear life during each transition, and, somehow, they hold the song together.

But they didn’t hold Hellhammer together. The band broke up, and their signature beat fell by the wayside. Later, extreme metal bands—including Celtic Frost, which didn’t include Neubart—found more sophisticated ways to hit the afterburners. Thrash tempos. Blastbeats. Single-handed rolls. Drum machines. Warrior and Ain themselves were ashamed of Hellhammer’s atavism for a time. “It almost killed our dreams,” Tom said.

When we look back at Hellhammer’s legacy from 2011, this artist’s remorse seems almost laughable. Atavism is in vogue. Today’s metal scene has resurrected the Hellhammer beat, and its shambling force animates many a modern mosh pit. Here are some recent cuts that involve the Hellhammer beat:

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Coffins – “Buried Death”

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Coffinworm – “Spitting In Infinity’s Asshole”

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Gallhammer – “Killed By the Queen”

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Where else has this beat shown up? And what are some other instantly recognizable beats or rhythmic devices? Iron Maiden’s famous gallop is one. Who’s got others?

— Doug Moore

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