In my last post, I drew a line between Indian classical music through Miles to Misha Mansoor. Yeah, I’m still trying to decide if that was a good idea considering the response. Well, I knew it was a narrow rabbit hole I was going down. I’m gonna go tighter in some crazy idea that it will become even more universal. I threatened to talk about drummers and by God, that’s what I’m gonna do.
Drums are a very primitive, cellular-level thing. Because of the initial rhythm-based nature, they were used for communication in early times, for synchronization still (think marching) and truly social interaction (dancing). Hand drumming has evolved to complex drum kits that use all limbs, hardware, sticks, mallets, electronics and computers. The truly remarkable technology is not in hardware but in the evolution of human software. The ability for a human to use 4 limbs, both in sync or independently, with an interactive layer in realtime is pushing beyond imagined possibility 20 years ago. The technical aspect of creating the physical coordination and power has to be connected to the mental processing of the math involved as well as the intangible “musical” element in the interaction with other performers. The use of memory (the drum parts), interaction (listening, reacting) and execution (movement and coordination) can be more than just “keepin’ a beat”.
I have been so fortunate to see some amazing drummers over the years (Art Blakey, Tony Williams, Buddy Rich, Elvin Jones,Louie Bellson, Oliver Jackson, Billy Cobham, Jack DeJohnette, David Garibaldi, Terry Bozzio, Ricky Wellman, Carlos Vega, Rikki Bates, Swapan Chaudhuri, Alla Rakha, Zakir Hussain ) and work for a few (Vinnie Colaiuta, Steve Gadd, Bruce Carter, Steve Smith, Peter Donald, Peter Erskine,Pat Wilson, Dennis Chambers, Alan White, Ricky Lawson). They have all added to my education in some way. My father Val, who plays tabla and congas, was the starting point of all my musical education, especially from a drum point-of-view. The early exposure to Indian classical music showed me that some of the most advanced musicians could get the most complicated polyrhythms out of two drums, ten fingers and two palms. I found out the complexity of learning written parts, the freedom and challenge of improvisation and the underused tool of silence, where restraint was the greatest gift a drummer could give to a song.
Drummers have been the brunt of jokes probably for as long as logs have been hollowed out or skins stretched; yet some of the world’s greatest musicians also turn out to be good drummers. Michael Brecker, Chick Corea, Stevie Wonder, Jan Hammer… they all could play and usually insisted on having great drummers in their bands. To me it added to the way they composed and arranged their songs, the rhythms natural and weaved deep. Check out how a guitarist/pianist like Ralph Towner or Mike Keneally brings a unique voice to their other instrument. The jokes often tell of how the band is comprised of “4 musicians..and a drummer”; this is not always true.
Heavy music created some interesting challenges for the percussive; the tempos and aggression that came with the music require certain shifts in order to play. The physicality of drumming can be obvious; just watch Animal on the Muppets. It’s often like a long distance race combined with a mixed martial arts match that lasts a few hours. Drummers have to build extreme endurance into their ability for heavy music. When a band is coming up, they can get used to playing a 30 or 40 minute opening set, their energy expended in one furious burst. When they shift to headlining I’ve seen whole bands totally flatten out after the 50 minute mark and poop out before the hour.
Faster is often done by playing lighter; will the music lose its force and energy? The speed also will cause drummers to simplify parts just out of economy or ability. What else will suffer from the nature of the music? Many subtleties are lost; sometimes the simpler pats make it easier for the rest of the band to play and for the audience to listen. There is always someone stronger, faster and hungrier coming up behind you. What will this next generation of drummers be able to do?
Throughout my working career I have been on the lookout for the up and comers, not only because of my enjoyment of their playing but to see where drumming is going. I started out as a drummer and something happened to me in my early 20′s that stopped me from pursuing that dream I began at 13. I always referred to it as a dosing of a flame, a part of me that no longer burned. I didn’t have the natural gifts or the discipline needed to get to the next level. I heard something in my head that my hands and feet couldn’t do. I decided to watch closely as others tried and to help them get there if I could.
Working with Vinnie early in my career was like space exploration; there seemed to be no bounds to his ability or imagination. There are people who you work with that you learn their go-to licks, their fall backs; I never ever in 2 years got to that point. Bruce Carter’s groove was a force of nature that in another setting away from Kenny G may have been more appreciated. Steve Gadd revolutionized the modern drum kit and I was able to see him on and off over 20 years finesse, groove and play his way through every song put in front of him. So many of the next generation seemed like younger versions with a little more horsepower and little else; who would step up?
Seeing someone like Mike Mangini with Steve Vai was a clue. Toss Panos and Joe Travers came from the Zappa school, fiery and chops to burn. Abe Laboriel Jr. brought power and an open lope to both fusion and pop. Dennis Leeflang from the Netherlands makes great records with Bumblefoot. Björn Fryklund from the Swedish band Freak Kitchen, blends metal and fusion well.
Heavy drummers like Tomas Haake (Meshuggah) and Gene Hoglan (Devin Townsend, Dark Angel, Death, Dethklok, Strapping Young Lad,Testament , Fear Factory)showed up on my radar in the mid-90′s and I was like “Is this possible?” Where heavy extended into programming and samples, I was really never quite sure what was real, until I saw it with my own eyes. Even Terry Bozzio, in the last phase of Missing Persons, programmed “Rhyme and Reason” rather than going through the expense of recording the drums live. I had no question he could play his parts; it seemed like simple economics to me, not cheating.
The past few years touring with a few new support acts every few weeks I have seen some really good drummers who I wasn’t clued in on, either because I didn’t like the general style or sound of their band or just was never exposed to them before. Chris Adler from Lamb of God and Mario Duplantier with Gojira come to mind immediately. Igor Cavalera, from Sepultura originally and now with the Calavera Conspiracy,was finding ways to blend metal and Brazilian drumming into heavy music.
A few weeks ago I was exposed to Navene Koperweis, currently with Animals As Leaders and Matt Halpern with Periphery. This was a leap, like Gene and Tomas, just beyond what I expected. I came to find out that Misha Mansoor (remember him?) started out as a drummer and programmed the drums for both the initial Periphery tracks and the Animals As Leaders album, both of which he produced. Programming drums can be tricky, despite what people might think.
The programmer has to think drumistically, which, as a semi-made up word means to be done in a drum-like way. You can have all the crazy ideas you want but it tends to sound better if it is arranged the way a drummer might (or could) play it. I mentioned guitarist/pianists earlier; have you ever heard a synthetic guitar part that just doesn’t jibe? It’s usually because a keyboard player has voiced it in a keyboard way. If you voice it as a guitar player would, it sounds more natural. A great example of that is Dave Grusin playing the classical guitar parts on a synth for songs from “The Milagro Beanfield War“. Grusin’s voicings are in chord shapes a guitarist would play. When Pepe Romero played the parts in the movie soundtrack, it’s as the composer wrote them, despite being a pianist.
The same goes for drums, even if they are not chordal. There are voices limb to limb and register to register. Perhaps the bass drum parts are locked with the bass guitar part. The cymbals accent the hits the rhythm guitar part. The hi hat drives the groove and the snare dances between pulse and the accents. It this is totally ignored the parts can sound like machines that the band happen to be playing along with, not a part of the composition or the band. Nit picky muso stuff? Maybe, but even the average listener can hear something’s off.
The music from both of these albums are rather complex and for a drummer, physically challenging. To learn music like this it would help to read music (if it was ever written out; a drummer who can transcribe the parts either traditionally or in his own way would be better off) or to have the ability to learn by ear. The fact that Misha on a level thinks and programs like a drummer make the feat a lot more natural.
Periphery has vocals and lyrics imposed over the dense wave of each song. They have a talented singer who both can both bellow and croon over a song. Misha released a version of their debut release as an instrumental as well, removing the vocal tracks and remixing it (I’m just guessing here, but it sure seems that way). I prefer this version as my attraction to the music is the craft and production of guitars, drums and atmospherics. I go back and forth between the albums but listen to the vocal free one much more. Animals As Leaders is an instrumental band, a trio with 2 guitars and drums. Thanks to YouTube, you can see a few examples of how these young musicians are accomplishing this music live.
(Thanks to sickdrummer.com for posting these…)
I have spent a long time working in the live music business and rarely get excited by “baby” bands or the unknown support act. Honestly, taking the time to focus on them within a work day can distract me from my duties, which can be bad. This stuff has just cut through that professional filter and sent me into Fan-Land. Sure, I get a chance to sneak away and stand behind Gene Hoglan or Dave Lombardo until my remaining hair is on fire but those treats are few and far between.
These two young drummers have jumped out immediately not only for their abilities but because of the music they are performing. It’s not typical shredophilia or Scream-o rock; it contains elements of its lineage and pushes the line forward a ways. Navene is also a guitar player as his project Fleshwrought shows. Matt from Periphery repeats that “groove” is really important to him. Both men play on small kits with big results; Navene’s kit is a 4 piece while Matt plays a 3 piece (kick, snare, floor).The focus on double kick is not only a genre thing but the act of locking with the complex rhythms with traditional voicings. There is not much room for anything else!
All that said, here’s a pair of guys who are going to be the influencers of the next “next” generation along with the others I mentioned. They make their place in the music exciting, cool and different from previous players. They deserve a listen. Besides, it’s more than likely that an old fart like me is telling kids old news and there are others already who are coming up behind that I’m too lame to have heard of yet.
UPDATE: I could have spent another month writing this, as I knew I was gonna leave some people out who deserved to be mentioned. Yes Mom, you’re one of them, though Russ Kunkel didn’t shred much in those days. First would be Charlie Benante, who I just met with the Big 4 shows we’ve done and Mike Portnoy , who I finally met in Indio. They need to be mentioned in this article with their direct influence on Thrash and Progressive. Richie Hayward, Charley Drayton, Simon Phillips, Bill Bruford and even ex-drummer Phil Collins should be included. Check back in another week and I bet you see some more names!!!