Heavy music explained — now with fewer words!

If I had to describe what makes music heavy in the briefest possible way, I would say it’s gotta have aggressiveness without too much emotion, and raw abrasiveness and power without posturing or hyperflexing. There’s a little more to it on the technical side, but the concepts I mentioned get you 85% of the way there.

When I think of emotionless aggression, sincere abrasiveness, and effortless power, I think of a great white shark as it attacks. That’s why the Deftones video for “My Own Summer” might be the greatest music video ever made for a heavy rock song.


A non-EDM-listener reacts to Mat Zo’s “Mad” EP

In Zen Buddhism there’s a concept called shoshin: beginner’s mind. The idea is that when you’re experiencing something for the first time, you perceive it in a unique way, often grasping insights and possibilities that vanish as you grow more accustomed. I’ve done a lot of listening to and writing about music (sometimes on this very blog), yet I have beginner’s ears for EDM, so I thought a review would be a fun and instructive exercise. First, some background on my sonic intake:

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What is the Faith No More song “The Last To Know” about?

I’ve had this song stuck inĀ  my head for the past few days, and thinking over the music and lyrics has got me wondering what this song actually means. I have a theory, which I’ll try and support while knowing the likeliest possibility is that the song isn’t about much of anything: Mike Patton says he chooses words more for their sound than their meaning, and Roddy Bottum described this song dismissively as “Pearl Jam on mushrooms.”

On the other hand, there are examples of other FNM songs that have stated meanings (e.g. “Midlife Crisis“), so it could be the case for “Last To Know” as well. So in the spirit of fun and because I’m sure nobody else will ever write anything like this…

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What makes metal not heavy?

I like heavy rock music but metal has never struck me as heavy. Metal fans are usually outraged or dumbfounded by this, so I’m attempting to articulate my reasoning.

  1. Halloween/B-slasher movie crap–in band names, album names, logos and artwork, song names, and lyrics–is just silly, and it seems like almost all metal bands use it profusely:
    1. Satanism, vampires, goth stuff, etc.
    2. Gore imagery
    3. Themes of sexual deviance
    4. Latin or pseudo-Latin
    5. Norse or pseudo-Norse
    6. Themes that are clearly trying to be edgy or highlight one’s edginess
    7. All the above seems designed to frighten people, but who is actually frightened by any of this? Old ladies? Simply the fact that it’s so obviously trying to be frightening makes it lame and ineffective.
  2. Metal vocals are usually impossible to take seriously:
    1. Cookie monster-style
    2. Pterodactyl-style
    3. Both of the above tend to amount to a grown man trying to do an impression of a typical Hollywood interpretation of what a demon sounds like, which means juvenile stupidity is built into these kinds of metal vocals at every level
    4. When metal vocals don’t use either cookie monster- or pterodactyl-style, they often use this kind of over-exerted hyper-masculine style that I find really fake and postured, like a guy who uses steroids to look tough but is actually weak and in poor health (and for whatever reason this style of metal vocals always sounds auto-tuned!)
  3. Metal drumming might be technically difficult, but the effect is typically boring:
    1. Hammering away 16th notes on the double bass pedal doesn’t add any oomph to the music, it just makes it sound like your car’s got a flat tire
    2. Sometimes when it’s fast it sounds like very precise punk drumming, which then sounds out of place because now I’m expecting “Screw the system” and instead getting “Screw dead nuns in the middle of a pentagram, domicilus matreamus basementus, with, like, lots of blood and guts and dead babies everywhere and stuff”
  4. Metal guitar riffs usually aren’t heavy. Sometimes it’s because…
    1. They sound like electrified baroque harpsichord music
    2. They stay in one key/tempo the whole time
    3. They only use the flat fifth, perfect fourth, minor third, and major second over and over again
    4. They sound like pinball machines
    5. They are too wall-of-sound or too complex to discern clearly
    6. They are too repetitive and become mind-numbing
    7. They lack dynamics or pauses
  5. Keyboards (ugh):
    1. A wash of “choir”, “strings”, or “synth” effects, makes music smoother and less heavy because it removes contrast. A song can be heavy if only a few parts of the song have keyboard in them, but the heavy parts will never have keyboard in them
    2. Using an actual harpsichord effect is just ridiculous

Heavy music hits you in the chest, knocks you back a bit. Metal mostly seems like an attempt to be spooky or abrasive, and usually not a successful one. The fact that it’s trying so hard makes it even more of a failure.

Now, I know someone is going to say “What about [this unusual sub-genre of metal I care about]? You’ve never heard of it, so you don’t even know what you’re talking about and therefore you shouldn’t be writing anything about metal! Metal is way more diverse than you’d realize, if you ever listened to anything other than, like, Metallica!”

Well, send me a representative example of that sub-genre and I’ll either show how it already maps to one or more of the bulleted items above, or I’ll add new bullets to accommodate it, or it’ll turn out that there actually is one heavy sub-genre of metal, which doesn’t affect my point about metal in general.

In fact, if anyone can find examples of metal you think is heavy and also avoids all the traps listed above, I’m interested in listening to it.

Why is A-natural a minor key?

In other words, why does the aeolian mode (i.e. the “first” mode, and basis of the standard major scale) begin with the third rather than the first letter of the alphabet when there are no sharps or flats? DuckDuckGo could probably tell me but I’d rather wonder out loud here.

My total guess is that when Western music was being codified, most songs were written in minor keys, and so at that time ionian–not aeolian–was considered the “first” mode.

Some of my music posts have received comments from people who seem rather informed, so maybe someone can fill me in.

“The earlier albums were better”

Today’s the first time I realized that I tend to prefer the earlier albums by musicians/bands, even when I’m introduced to those albums later. (There are a few exceptions.) This is a remarkable pattern and seems to be pretty common among people who listen to music.

Is this pattern explained by something in people’s ears, or by something in the career arcs of musicians?

Can rock be unfixed?

Driving into work yesterday I tuned to the rock station and heard some new releases in which grown men sang about their hurt feelings. It sounded like someone was trying to do rock versions of Backstreet Boys songs, only somehow this was even wussier. Rock music is supposed to have balls if nothing else. How did it get to this state?

White Inferiorism in music education

There’s a common belief that white people’s music (i.e. classical music) is boring because the beat is always on the 1 and the 3, while black people’s music is exciting because the beat is always on the 2 and the 4. I grew up hearing this belief recited in music classes in elementary and high school, and again in black studies classes in college. But it’s a total lie.

Classical music is so expansive and diverse, you can not only find emphasis on all parts of a 4/4 measure, but plenty of works that don’t conform to 4/4 at all, even going back to the Baroque period. So far as I can tell this music has always had an experimental side, with gifted composers pushing boundaries and imagining new rhythms. We need look no further than the most famous composer of all time, Beethoven, for ample demonstrations of this.

Black people’s music is also expansive, and once you look outside 20th century popular music it’s easy to find examples where the beat is on the 1 and the 3. For example, the Senegalese Rhos rhythm (in sabar drumming) isn’t in 4/4 at all, and features passages where the emphasis is continually on the 1, and other passages where the emphasis is all over the place, for instance on the double-dotted quarter (!). The balax that follows the rhythm (a balax is a repeated rhythm of 1 or 2 measures over which dancers and other drummers may perform solos) is in 4/4, with emphasis on…you guessed it, the 1 and the 3.

What about other brown people? East-, South-, and Southeast-Asian styles of music are even more varied than classical or African music, with time signatures and emphasized beats that boggle the Western ear, but also with many songs or long passages that conform to 4/4, with emphasis on the 1st and 3rd beats. American Indian music is well-known for its 4/4 time signatures with emphasis on the 1 and 3. Middle-Eastern music often breaks down the same way.

What about other styles of white music? Italian and Greek, Klezmer and country, heavy metal and folk–all feature plentiful examples of counts that emphasize the 2 and the 4. Somebody should alert the black studies professors and elementary school music teachers so they can stop cryptically spreading what are essentially white-inferiorist messages to young people who don’t know any better.

The universal human knack for creating music is amazing in its intricacy and variation. This doesn’t stop being true for one group of people just because they have white skin.