Backpatches & Elbowpatches #10: Music Theory in Metal Studies
As I noted in my inaugural Backpatches & Elbowpatches column, one of the first major publications in what would become Metal Studies was Robert Walser’s Running with the Devil: Power Gender, and Madness in Heavy Metal Music(1993). At the time, perhaps the most radical aspect of this book was that Walser employed a significant amount of musical analysis with a level of detail that was at the time almost strictly reserved for classical music. It’s pretty great; I still assign the chapter on Eddie van Halen and “Eruption.” As one of the New Musicology cohort of the early 1990s, Walser also brought in concepts from cultural studies and gender studies to bear on the topic.
However, this musicologically rigorous mode of metal scholarship was not immediately followed up on. Glenn Pillsbury’s excellent book Damage Incorporated: Metallica and the Production of Musical Identity arrived more than a decade later in 2006. Walser himself has never really been involved with Metal Studies, and according to his faculty bio at Case Western he is now researching music production tech and neuroscience. He’s also apparently been a regular expert witness for plaintiffs in copyright infringement cases, in which he and other music scholars leverage the general public’s lack of musical acumen to argue, for example, that two R&B songs being in the key of B-flat major is a ““suspicious coincidence.” Good thing there are still eleven other major keys available so the rest of us can keep writing music without worrying about getting sued. On the other hand, in 2017 Walser and his partner Susan McClary (also a musicologist of note) endowed an American Council of Learned Societies fellowship in Music Studies with a gift of $1.6 million, which has me thinking that I should look into these expert witness gigs. Anybody know anyone at the 9th Circuit?
(Worth noting that in the aftermath of the “Blurred Lines” case, nearly any act with a Top-40 hit can now expect opportunistic lawsuits by nobodies or older artists claiming that generic stylistic attributes or basic musical gestures entitle them to co-writer credits and a cut of the publishing.)
But I digress.
All this to say that in an alternate timeline the Metal Studies field might have formed with more of a grounding in musicology, but as it is the field came together with much more of a tendency towards cultural studies and sociology. From my vantage point in musicology, it sometimes gave the impression that we were mostly talking “around” the musical aspects of metal, focusing on metal discourse, fan behavior, politics, and so forth while ignoring the reason all that stuff exists. Yet the interdisciplinary nature of the field also means that in some cases the characteristics of the music itself truly might not matter - musical analysis probably doesn’t add much to a metal-related study in sociological network theory or a similar quantitative field. Indeed, the fact that music is involved at all, as opposed to some other activity, might actually be somewhat tangential to the thesis. It’s likely inevitable that individual disciplines within an interdisciplinary field are going to wind up talking past each other, but hopefully it all winds up just being one big metal-academic smörgåsbord with a little something for everybody.
That said, this month I’m going to highlight some recent metal scholarship in musicology and music theory. Time to look at some little black dots.
Several scholars have analysed the way in which metal bands approach rhythm, a musical aspect that is a crucial stylistic marker in metal and other styles of popular music. Rhythm has a history of being overlooked in musical analysis (at least in the Schenkerian mode and most college music theory courses, which privileges harmonic structure), and metal has been a fruitful genre for exploring rhythmic structures and mechanics. As we might expect, Meshuggah’s music in particular gives music theorists a lot to work with. Olivia Lucas’ article “So Complete in Beautiful Deformity: Unexpected Beginnings and Rotated Riffs in Meshuggah’s obZen” and Jonathan Pieslak’s “Re-casting Metal: Rhythm and Meter in the Music of Meshuggah” both go into depth on the ways that Meshuggah plays with our sense of rhythm and time, especially their tendency towards non-repeating and polymetric riffs that still adhere to a large-scale 4/4 “hypermeter.” Calder Hanna’s article in Metal Music Studies on Meshuggah and Dillinger Escape Plan likewise focuses on how rhythmic complexity creates its own unique kind of “heaviness” that’s defined as much by its difficulty as by its sonic qualities. Does music theory djent? Yes it does. Along these lines, Jose Garza has taken this type of rhythmic analysis and applied it to how metal musicians address timekeeping and “feel” across other genres.
In terms of harmony and song structure, I would highlight a recent article by Stephen Hudson in which he articulates various normative song structures in metal, particularly the use of “compound AABA” form - a popular song form in which the A sections each contain a verse-chorus pairing. Song’s like Yes’s “Roundabout” and Metallica’s “Master of Puppets” are good examples of the form. It is worth noting that while it’s typical for metal fans and critics to disparage any sort of “formulaic” element within music, these sorts of conventions are the things that give shape and distinction to musical genres at all levels. A lot of the pleasure we get from music, art, literature, and theatre is derived from such predictability. In a similar vein, Mei-Ra St.-Laurent analyses metal songcraft as a narrative structure, in which complex musical forms act as a storytelling device that conveys tales of alienation and distress. In terms of harmonic analyses, Esa Lilja’s work on classic heavy metal harmony and Jan-Peter Herbst’s articles on guitar distortion highlight not only the distinctive kinds of chords and harmonic progressions that have come to define metal styles, but also explore how high-gain distortion affects our perceptions of harmony and “heaviness.” And finally, Mei-Ra St-Laurent and Eric Smialek consider how these sorts of musical complexities (and discussions of them) are deployed as a form of prestige, legitimating metal by aligning it with the ideals of modernist classical music. While we all love the idea of metal as an “outcast” genre of music, it’s slightly sobering to realize that our value judgments about metal and other rock music styles often echo generations of widely-accepted class-based elitism. But I suppose snobbery also has its pleasures, and in some ways music analysis is just one more way to keep things kv1+.
Ross Hagen is a musicologist at Utah Valley University and is the author of A Blaze in the Northern Sky from the 33.3 series. Fun. Core. Mosh. Trends.
Graphic used under creative commons.
Toxophilus, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons