Checking for a Pulse

Hook– a catchy musical phrase which forms the basis of a popular song.

Most often when discussing the term “hook” in music it is to a catchy melodic part you remember. It might be a favorite song or those tapeworm-like parasites that won’t leave you under threat of death. As I continue to explore the genre of progressive metal/dent/ambidjent, the concept of a rhythmic hook is forefront.

Two reasons for this; as a drummer, rhythmic hooks have been how I identify my favorite parts and players. The other is that the technical, detuned, heavy style of the genre depends on drones and simple octave patterns that lock rhythmically with the drums. Why is it so simple? Mainly because it sounds so heavy; but the style depends on a locked groove that communicates to the listener on a primitive level.

Groove– a pronounced, enjoyable rhythm.
Drums have been used for communication,worship,celebration, meditation and warfare. The open groove will cause a group to move in unison, clap, cheer. It’s a heartbeat, a dance step , a call to arms. Even in these times of touchscreens and Twitter, the drum beat effects even the most stoic among us. What does this have to do with this rather small segment of the music making and listening public?

Almost all music is based on repetition. In rhythm, melody, lyric and form, you can recognize a part after it repeats a few times. Those catchy summer sing-a-longs would not be without it. A groove is extremely important in certain kinds of music, like funk and dance. Heavier music like metal, over its history, not so much. Yet a player like John Bonham of Led Zeppelin or John Stanier of Helmet groove like crazy. How can a genre both have or have not a groove? To me it is a matter of intent and syncopation on behalf of the drummer and the rest of the band. Head banging is a kind of groove but a real groove is deeper, pelvic, snake necking, sexual. For a form of music based on riffs, a groove should be a no brainier.

Scientifically: pulse (signal processing), a rapid and transient change from a baseline
In physiology, a pulse is the throbbing of arteries as an effect of heartbeat
In physics, a pulse (physics) is a single and abrupt emission of particles or radiation
In music. a pulse (music) is a rhythmic succession of sounds

Jazz and progressive music can lack pulse and groove but also include it, if that’s the intent. These are words musicians love to argue about, like “swing” and “groove”. In interviews Matt Halpern of Periphery discusses groove and pulse almost preliminarily , as he appears to have studied those who have come before very thoroughly. He also has another project called Bandhappy, an online education site that has student musicians able to study with their musical heroes. In this day of diversifying income for musicians, heres a way to augment their living even while on the road. I would have eaten this up as a youngster and in fact might pursue it as an old fart, as these guys came to play…

Ok, wandered off into a PSA…

This kind of music is busy and heavy, with necessary ebbs and flows along the way. The rhythmic busyness almost demands harmonic simplicity, as there has to be some form of space as relief and release for the rhythmic intensity. The drums and guitars lock into a pattern, propelling the sound forward, octaves leaps synced with the kick drums, the movement in the feet, the pulse in the chest, the complexity not in harmonic movement but rhythmic. Being a progressive form, this is the starting point. It comes in many favors from the gloss of Periphery to the grit of the more growly bands.

The influence of Meshuggah is pretty strong in many bands, which can be a good thing. The focus on rhythmic complexity does not eliminate harmonic risk, as the 7 and 8 string guitars detuned offer this palette of notes that certainly exist now, menacing, microtonal bending and the wonderful tendency of the low strings to strike sharp before they settle into pitch. This is a different complexity, driven by the instruments nature, the delight for the player as intense for the listener. Chugging against the low open string, the one key center strangely reminding me of African vocal groups who only perform in one key.

As polyrhythmic and odd time as this music can be, some of these drummers really make the effort for the pulse to play through. There are those that no matter how complex the pattern is approach it as 4/4, making the pulse job one with the accents a close second. As much as I am describing this music in traditional terms there is a different kind of composition here, born of the nature of the instrument. As David Byrne stated in an amazing TED talk, the change in venues changed the music written. I suggest that for some, the 7 & 8 string guitar and computer recording & amp modeling technology has effected the way the music has evolved. Now as these acts move from the bedroom to practice rooms to clubs to arenas, it’s going to change even more.

There are moments of traditional song form and counterpoint but this style draws the writer back to that open string again and again, leaping and poking between the drums, a linear attack that pushes forward. As with most heavy music, the need for release brings quieter pulse free sections and this is one of the places where the ambient properties shine through. Projects like Cloudkicker and Chimp Spanner create atmospheres that are rather cinematic. In fact much of the visual elements for these bands are futuristic, off world graphics and the melding of computer filters and clearly non-acoustic percussive elements make me feel that part of the Blade Runner future is already here. With due respect, I have to point to David Torn and his deconstructive computer mayhem of his guitar years ago with Splattercell.

There is a vocal blast and release nature in this as well, the screams giving way to “clean” vocals. The problem with some of these bands is they end up sounding like Linkin Park. As I have stated in earlier posts, I am content with the instrumental tracks when a band is doing something interesting musically. Thanks to recording technology and Internet distribution, a band can offer a vocal free version of their album much easier than ever before. The genesis of these bands from instrumental demos on forums to finished album tracks is often followed by fans, a relatively new phenomenon for the end user. As these bands get signed/ distributed for the first time, the listener has already heard the raw riffs and now gets to see the final product, for better or worse,

I lean toward the more ambient offerings, either instrumental or the ones who howl less.

Last week I was truly fortunate to see Tesseract and Animals as Leaders, who are in heavy rotation on my iPod. They clearly can play their instruments and the intricate parts of their albums were clear and concise, maybe too much so. These are performances, the effort put into execution. I look forward to seeing one of these bands improvise a bit, as AAL hinted at.

Recently I began to really appreciate Uneven Structure, a French band who isn’t afraid to slow tempos and sing in a normal register. Yeah, I know, I’m behind the curve. They are seen as being part of a Djent “Big 4” by some. I feel that, along with Tesseract, they stand apart vocally with better range and dynamics. The groove is there and melodically the ideas are more fleshed out than other bands. Another band, Monuments, (who are also from Milton Keynes like Tesseract) released an instrumental version of a song from their not yet released album Gnosis which shows the layering of groove, harmony and advancing composition quite clearly.

Add to that the release this week of Vildhjarta’s first… This is a strong scene.

I have been fortunate to work with some pretty serious people over the years who are groove-by-trade types and the idea of heavy music that swings or grooves first has found its time. The rule rather than the exception; I can deal with that. Heres to another generation of players, not poseurs.