Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Trends: heavy rock is relevant to contemporary pop music

As discussed in the last post, the limited possibilities of musical instruments ensure overlap between musical genres. What is somewhat unexpected is the way in which some things particular to heavy rock have made their way into contemporary pop music.

Drop-tuning is the technique of tuning a guitar to a lower pitch for a heavier sound, which may include lowering the 6th string one whole step, which makes power chords playable with one finger, which makes riffing easier. Examples include Green Day's "Brain Stew" and System of a Down's "Aerials." One early example is Neil Young's "Cinnamon Girl," played in Drop-D tuning. This tuning is not uncommon in folk and classical guitar, but hard rock made really made something out of the one-finger power chord. Almost every Rage Against the Machine song is in Drop-D.

Here's an example where you wouldn't expect classicly heavy guitar:

I suspect that the trend towards lower pitches in music is being aided by the popularity of the two most common ways of listening to music: in loud clubs and bars where large sound systems can faithfully reproduce low pitches, and earbud headphones, which don't have to move as much air to deliver bass tones. As for country music becoming indistinguishable from hard rock, I think country had to drop tunings to compete with the hit-you-in-the-chest thump of rock and hiphop.

Stylistically, I present a comparison between Marilyn Manson's "The Beautiful People" and Katy Perry's "I Kissed A Girl."

Both tracks feature a swinging triplet drum beat at similar tempi. The main guitar riffs in each are sparse and punchy, and where the guitar is very reserved or even absent (the verses of each song), the vocals are buoyed by a synthesizer drone and a buzzing bass guitar, which is a pretty uncommon sound for basses (the only other example of that that I can think of offhand would be music by Muse).
To my ear, these tracks are very similar.

Incidentally, here's an excerpt from a Guitar Player magazine interview with the guitarists behind Movin' Out, the Broadway show based on the music of Billy Joel:

Although Byrnes and DelGaudio faithfully recreate signature lines from Joel’s recordings, there was still ample space for embellishment within the show’s rigid framework. “I use dropped-D tuning (D, A, D, G, B, E, low to high) to beef-up certain things,” say DelGaudio. “Suffice to say our ‘Angry Young Man’ is a bit more pissed-off than the original.” He notes that the most dramatic rearrangement sprang from an unlikely source: “Twyla wanted a nastier feel for ‘We Didn’t Start the Fire.’ We played her Marilyn Manson’s ‘The Beautiful People’ and she said, ‘That’s what I want!’ So the song’s I-V-VIm-IV progression mutated into power chords over heavy tom-tom triplets.”

The result, with inexplicable video from Cats:

Seems everyone wants the Manson vibe.

Trends: classic rock guitar

Heavy rock is bleeding into other genres. This is the easiest way to dispatch notions that heavy metal is weird, strange, or different. There is an aesthetic and culture related to heavy rock that is comparatively uncommon, but the music attaches to the trends, not the other way around. Broken down, the distinct sounds and techniques of heavy rock music are very common.

On the one hand, this is inevitable because everyone is to an extent using the same equipment.
Consider Black Sabbath's recording of "War Pigs" here, a fundamental heavy metal track. Tony Iommi's guitar solo around 3:28 is very similar to the sound from Paul Kossof's guitar on this recording Free's "Mr. Big," with the solo at 2:33.

Free isn't typically thought of as heavy rock, but even if they are, they aren't the progenitors of heavy metal that Black Sabbath are. But notice how similar the solos are. The guitar tones nearly identical: Gibson guitars with humbucking pickups through Marshall amplifiers. The contents of both solos feature stock blues licks and familiarity with the minor pentatonic scale, but you can also hear both players experimenting with the complexity of the natural minor scale by adding the 2nd interval, which is indicative of guitar players of this time forging a new musical identity beyond the blues (you can hear early recordings of Peter Frampton with Humble Pie trying to sound sophisticated by playing anything but blues licks. He nailed it later). These natural minor licks tend to be a little more hesitant, probably because the players are relishing the novel sound, and because once they hit that note, they may not know where to go next.

Or at least that's what happened to me when I first learned about the Dorian scale.

An Introduction by Steve-O

Hey there. My name is Steve-O or Steve or "hey you" or whatever you'd like to call me. I'll reiterate what my good buddy Jackson pointed out and say that this is not a fan page, but an exploration.

The first time I tried getting into this whole music thing I was about 12. I went on a field trip and everyone around me had a cd player. I was so confused. What were they listening to? How did they hear about music? Being 12 years old and feeling left out, I immediately decided I needed a cd player. The only problem was, as my parents so astutely pointed out, that I didn't own any cds. One day soon after my mother took me to Best Buy. I stood there in disbelief. I had been there countless times and it hadn't even dawned on my that there is a MASSIVE cd section there and I had NO IDEA where to start. We stood in the entrance for a few minutes before leaving. I just didn't have any direction, no idea what I liked. A second trip with my Dad had me flirting with a John Hiatt CD, but yielded a Tangerine Dream and not much more insight into what I liked. I bought a few CDs over the next couple years, more Tangerine Dream, the Shrek soundtrack, Barenaked Ladies. I was still just buying what I heard on the radio, not really putting much thought into it and if I'm honest, not really listening to the music.

I really didn't start listening to music until I was 17. That is not-so-coincidentally the exact time I started playing guitar. The only music I was really familiar with was the few CDs I owned, 90's radio country my mom would play and the classic rock station my dad was always blaring. So because of that classic rock radio I must have been a bit familiar with a some Zeppelin, Sabbath, Deep Purple, etc.

From the first week of playing guitar my musical world began expanding rapidly. Jackson lead me through those first few formative years. I was getting into The Allman Brothers, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and even some Rage Against the Machine.

Then I went to college and instead of just one musical shepherd I found a thousand. I was going in as many different directions getting into indie rock, electronic/dance, country, rap, deeper into the blues, and just about every genre and sub genre you could name. Except, that is, heavy metal and most hard rock.

Even after a quick foray into rap, heavy metal still made me uncomfortable. Just the aesthetic of the whole thing. The droning, unintelligible vocal, the abrasive shrieking guitar tones, and the satanic lyrics. At least that's the stereotype. I realized after Jackson presented me this challenge, that I had written off the entire genre based on bits and pieces of random songs and rumor and hearsay about the rest. That's unlike me, so I've decided to finally give the genre a fair chance. So begins our exploration...

Thursday, September 30, 2010

An introduction from Jackson

Welcome to the first installment of Some Heavy Questions. This is a two-author blog dedicated to the objective exploration of heavy metal and hard rock music. This is not a fan page.

I first became interested in music in middle school in the early 2000s. Like many of my peers, my first inclinations were towards heavy rock music, which was simultaneously rebellious and accessible. At this time, anyone with a radio had access to the nu-metal trend and the growing "New Wave of American Heavy Metal," fostered by the media attention attributed to bands like Korn and Slipknot. Additionally, "Classic Rock" continued as a popular post-1980s radio staple, ensuring the continued availability to tracks by Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, and their inheritors/descendants Motley Crue, Ozzy Osbourne, etc.

My friends' parents passed on the appreciation of heavy rock they fostered in high school and college in the 1970s-80s. Through my friends, I therefore had access to contemporary hard rock, and older tracks by the likes of Van Halen and Metallica. At home, my father, who has been the primary source of my musical input, was drumming frequently for a band disposed to Kinks covers and other rock music, which revived a hard rock interest that he made efforts to share with me as my interest in music grew. By that route, I came to know Led Zeppelin, The Kinks, and Deep Purple, who would for years be my favorite act.

Since that time, I've passed from playing the drums to taking up the guitar, and gradually lost interest in hard rock music, which I came to equate with adolescence. But it continues to dominate rock musician culture, and every time I turn away from it, the next big thing in guitar happens to be a hard rock act, and my curiosity is piqued again.

My friend Steven (Steve-o to innumerable people), co-author of this blog, is a fellow guitarist, and possesses the broadest musical interests of anyone I've ever met. He loves most everything I love in music, as well as stuff I wouldn't go near. So one day, I charged him with the task of figuring out heavy metal. This blog is the answer to that task.

What shall follow is an exploratory analysis of hard rock and heavy metal music in all styles, from Neil Young to Necrophagist, seeking to locate the contributions and innovations of the genre while providing stylistic criticism.

This is an exploration of heavy metal for the academically curious.

Thank you for reading.

I also author a blog dedicated to the analysis of horror films at
and co-author an ongoing discussion on topics of philosophy with my best friend, fellow law student, and former philosophy undergraduate, Dan, at