But we’re not done yet! Here are five more standout tracks from 2016.
Devin Townsend – Offer Your Light
One of the things I enjoy about Devin Townsend is his fearlessness. Few artists match his indifference to pleasing others while exhibiting such range in their songwriting. Unlike much of his work, however, it’s the sugary sweetness of Offer Your Light that’s likeliest to repel the metal faithful. The nursery rhyme-like repetitiveness and the K-pop overtones will definitely act like garlic and sunlight to the true kvlt. And in the hands of a lesser craftsman, this could have been awful. But Townsend’s signature galactic production and sparkling vocals make this three minute equally powerful and dessert-like.
Kreator – Gods Of Violence
One of the culprits in the marginalization of thrash over the years has been the genre’s leaders inability to evolve. At best, Metallica, Megadeth and Slayer have recorded some nice tracks here in there, but nothing you’d ever trade for their old material. But don’t tell Kreator, who quietly just released one of the best tracks in their 30 year history with Gods Of Violence, that the ability to write great metal fades with age. Gods Of Violence taps into the melodic hooks and catchiness that secretly powered Metallica without sacrificing any of Mille Petrozza’s trademark dirt.
Heaven Shall Burn – Passage Of The Crane
For our money, little metal was as good as In Flames three-album run from 1997 to 2000. Sadly outshined by Ozzfest nu-metal at the time, Jesper Stromblad’s and Bjorn Gelotte’s blend of folk, melody and death defined the Gothernburg sound. Passage Of The Crane, by Germany’s Heaven Shall Burn, does a first-rate job replicating this classic sound, replete with a Moonshield-like intro, ferocious Swedish riffing and dynamic interplay between vocals and guitars.
Machine Head – Is There Anybody Out There
When he’s on his game, as he is on Is There Anybody Out There, nobody manufactures metal quite as effectively as Robb Flynn. Is There Anybody Out There does not stray far from Machine Head’s proven formula – the production is slick, the harmonics are immaculate, and Flynn’s vocals carry the song in a way that makes you wonder why this band hasn’t had more mainstream success. Not only that, Flynn deserves credit for lyrics which unambiguously denounce racism in metal – something we’d like to see more bands do.
But there was so much good metal last year, we couldn’t keep our list to just five. Without further adieu, here’s what else turned our crank in 2016…
Nails – Savage Intolerance
Is it possible to make an angrier song than Savage Intolerance by Nails? If this song was any longer than a hair over two minutes, I feel like I’d need to attend court-ordered counseling. There’s no cartoonish metal tropes here. No tongue-in-cheek glorification of the macabre. No adulation of things that go bump in the night. Just pure 190-proof rage that’s best enjoyed when unleashing violence upon an inanimate object (or perhaps a willing participant).
ColdWorld – Void
If ambient, shoegaze and black metal can be used to describe music, there’s a pretty good chance it won’t be my jam. But somehow, Void by Germany’s one-man ColdWorld works. It’s melancholic, haunting, yet truly beautiful. If you need a powerful guitar riff, chorus hooks or “brootality” to get it up, this won’t be for you. That said, I can’t think of a better backing track for six minutes spent ruefully contemplating the afterlife.
Helix Nebula – God Is God?
Frankly a masterpiece. God Is God? by the Madrid-based Helix Nebula has everything you want out of an epic-metal track and more. God Is God? is somewhat unique in that the technicality is on the lighter side compared to a lot of progressive metal. But the (relative) simplicity of the tablature belies the complexity of the composition. There’s a lot going on here, and the skill needed to make all the disparate little elements work together is substantial.
Ghost – Square Hammer
Being born in 1979, I often wonder what it must have been like to be into metal when Master Of Puppets was released. I assume people knew it was great, but did they know it would be historically great? Continuing to fire up Ghost in my car is likely the closest I’ll get to replicating this feeling today. It’s been a long time since a band has had the three-album run of greatness that Ghost is currently on, and the late 2016 single Square Hammer took it to another level. Compositionally, Square Hammer is perfect, and the execution is equally flawless. Eventually this band will disappoint me, but for now, I’m just enjoying the ride. Watch the video and prepare to be insulted by YouTube’s suggestion that you might enjoy watching anything else.
Evergrey – In Orbit (featuring Floor Jansen)
Few tracks underscore the difference in European and American taste in metal like In Orbit by Evergrey. In Orbit, featuring the inimitable Floor Jansen in a supporting role, should absolutely be a mainstay on commercial radio. And in Europe it is – the album reached #29 on the Swedish charts. Unfortunately in America, it’s too metal to be truly hip, but not commercially crass enough to move any Jägermeister, thus relegating it to niche status. If nothing else, In Orbit is the perfect track to start drawing your significant other into metal – don’t worry, they’ll get into Carcass eventually.
When we were younger, people discovered music from fewer places. MTV. Radio. Magazines. Friends. Whatever you were listening to, chances are there were millions and millions of others listening to the same thing.
Not only that, it was much more expensive to record. Self-financing was hard, so most bands had to go through labels which were more likely to fund commercially viable music.
Today, there’s no limit to the number of places you can discover music. And because recording has become relatively cheap, there’s more music than ever to discover. But the number of hours in the day has held steady, and as a result, people are less likely than ever to have overlaps with others in their musical tastes.
Bottom line – it’s harder than it used to be to discover new music. But that doesn’t mean it’s not being produced – you just have to look for it.
While many of our fans are steeped in metal, we thought we’d share a few of our favorite tracks from 2016. In fact, we have so many, we’re going to make this a four-part series!
So without further adieu, and in no particular order…
Haken – Earthrise
Progressive metal’s answer to Stranger Things? Cynic with a predisposition for major keys? Whatever the label, Earthrise by UK’s Haken was the best track from one of the year’s most brilliant albums. Somehow blending Dream Theater with the soundtrack to 80s era NBC Saturday morning cartoons and pulling it off, Affinity is the polar opposite of a Black Label Society SMDF vest. Like most Haken tracks, Earthrise is not music that metal fans are likely to appreciate at first glance – only through repeated listens do the subtleties emerge.
Greenleaf – A Million Fireflies
When a band is called Greenleaf, you have a pretty good idea of what to expect both musically and facially. Unlike most Sabbath acolytes, however, A Million Fireflies offers more than generic detuned progressions at 72 BPM. A Million Fireflies delivers perhaps the year’s best pentatonic-based riffage, pairing perfectly with a Hellraiser-grade chorus hook. The perfect accompaniment to an evening of binging retro Italian horror like Suspiria or Lisa And The Devil.
Humanity’s Last Breath – Harm
Is it electronic? Is it djent? Is it hardcore? Is it death metal? Whatever it is, the track Harm from Buster Odeholm’s one-man project Humanity’s Last Breath is a severe blunt force that pummels without discrimination. Beneath the guttural vocals and sub-sonic Morse code lies as thoughtful and deliberate a composition as you’ll hear. Every buzz, whir and chunk has been methodically assembled into a deadly contraption that’s best avoided if you’re sitting in a traffic jam trying to stave off road rage.
Jorn – I Know There’s Something Going On
For some metal fans, no taste is as sweet as the willful disregard of commercial viability. Sometimes though, you just need to lighten the fuck up and let the power of gated-reverb snare drum take you to the boozy arena in your imagination. In other words, relax and listen to Jorn – the famed Norwegian vocalist who released an album of cover songs titled Heavy Rock Radio. I Know There’s Something Going On, the album’s featured track (originally done in 1982 by Abba’s Anni-Frid Lyngstad), is five minutes of Dio-caliber righteousness, fortified by perhaps the year’s best vocal performance.
Equilibrium – Prey
Your feelings about Dark Tranquility are likely to mirror your attitude towards Prey by Germany’s Equilibrium. Prey is a clean, polished piece of melodic death metal that veers closer to traditional, symphonic goth than the folk-inspired riffs of classic Gothenburg. A very strong take on a proven formula.
If you’ve been a part of the Minnesota metal scene, chances are you know Greg Chilton.
As lead vocalist for Twin Cities mainstays Necromis, Sublevel and Outside The Murder, Greg has been throwing it down on stage for longer than a lot of musicians have been alive.
Greg has also hosted over 100 episodes of the Ritual Madness Podcast, a program that has provided exposure to countless Minnesota musicians and artists.
On September 10th, Greg and his family were involved in a pretty severe car accident. Thankfully, nobody suffered life-threatening injuries. All the same, some bones were broken, a car was totaled and the bills are unforgiving.
Jordan Dwayne Swanson of Zerobudget Records family members Echoes Of The Fallen has stepped up to organize a benefit show for the Chilton Family, currently scheduled for November 19th at Opinion Brewing Company. Proceeds from the show (including money raised from a silent auction) will go to help the family get back on our feet.
Greg has lent considerable support to Cwn Annwn throughout our career. Greg offered us one of our first high-profile shows when we were very young – an opening slot on the Necromis “Burnscar” CD release at the Triple Rock (one of my favorite local CDs to this day). This was the first of many shows we would play with Greg, including when Necromis supported us for The Method Of Murder CD release at 7th Street Entry. Greg was also kind enough to have us as a guest on Episode 64 of the Ritual Madness Podcast.
What’s really fantastic about Greg is that we’re only one of probably a few hundred bands to have benefited from his support. I find myself consistently astonished by his selflessness and the generosity to he shows to anyone who works to make this state just a little louder.
Who will like it: Fans of Devin Townsend, Porcupine Tree, Pink Floyd. People who wished Toad The Wet Sprocket had a dark, brooding streak.
Who won’t like it: People who find Five Finger Death Punch to be too subtle. Fans of high-end frequencies in distorted guitar.
by Neil James
Of all the sins musicians can commit, I find “indulgence” among the most difficult to forgive.
And while there are many great things I can say about progressive metal, the genre tends to be a red-light district for yielding to selfish artistic desire.
Play the above YouTube video to hear an example of said indulgence. It isn’t enough that Timo Tolkki wants to write music that people regard as genius – he wants the listener to recognize him as a genius. One that can be held alongside Beethoven, Tolkien and Freddie Mercury.
At some point, somebody should have told him no. His bandmates. His engineers. His label. His conscience.
But one has to assume they did. And he blazed on ahead anyway.
And this happens all the time in progressive metal.
When writing or reviewing music, I have found that just a little bit of restraint goes a long way in maintaining quality. Bad Religion will let the ‘oozin aahs fly, but will never descend into being a barbershop quartet. Iron Maiden will spit forth the righteousness, but barring a few notable exceptions, they tend to stay clear of overt schlock. Dave Mustaine gives us glimpses of what he’s capable of artistically on songs like Sweating Bullets, but he never descends into the subterranean depths inhabited by Jeff Waters and Annihilator.
Poitiers France-based Klone is one of those rare progressive metal bands that not only practices restraint, it wields it as a blade, carving its unique surreal dreamscape. In a world where too many bands attempt to cut through the clutter by pushing the boundaries of ostentatiousness and being “extreme”, Klone is a refreshing change of pace. Its mission – to create sophisticated yet understated beauty – is highly noble, and one the band has proven more than capable of achieving.
Although they’ve shared the stage with bands as macabre as their French brethren Gojira, Klone rarely conforms to metal’s traditional conventions. The rate of clean guitar per minute on the band’s newest release, Here Comes The Sun, is well beyond acceptable limits for most Metal Injection commenters. The distortion used by guitarists Bernard Guillaume and Aldrick Guadagnino has more in common with a persistent head cold than the saccharine, processed tones dominating metal today. And if you’re looking for guttural screaming, keep on searching – vocalist Yann Ligner is far closer to Toad The Wet Sprocket than Joe Duplantier.
Klone’s metal credentials are ultimately defined by their ability to paint a dark, dichotomous sonic landscape. Here Come The Sun’s opening track, Immersion, is at once both somber and inspiring. Punishing clockwork strokes, a motif repeated throughout the album, punctuate an airy guitar that evokes rusty windchimes singing softly over a world that life has forgotten. The combination of Ligner’s gripping vocal phrases and the sedate chording of Guillaume and Guadagnino conjures shades of Devin Townsend while avoiding the sense of impenetrability the skulleted can sometimes known for.
Few tracks exemplify Klone’s ability to author the soundtrack to melancholy dreams as well as Nebulous. Like any expert progressive band, Klone discards the very notion of time signatures without calling attention to having done so. Only Ligner’s haunting vocals and the driftless chord progressions provide the listener any point of anchoring. The morose melody orients a ghostly ship as a it crosses the meridian that separates life from death, exquisitely contrasting the persistent distorted drone that rumbles underneath the chorus like hot magma trapped beneath a tranquil, serene forest.
Klone’s longevity and work ethic is a significant contributor to the group’s expertise. Here Comes The Sun is the band’s seventh release. The above album, Black Days, came out in 2011 and was the band’s fourth. You don’t just roll out of bed and write music with this level of intricacy and make it seem effortless. Klone’s music is a labor of love and a function of sweat – and it deserves more recognition than it’s received.
A natural byproduct of this experience is a refined palate and capacity for strong decision-making. In Klone, this manifests as the good sense to avoid a choral recitation of elements – the understanding that the restraint to leave words unspoken and notes unplayed is sometimes the strongest artistic statement that can be made.
Who will like it: Fans of Mastodon, Intronaut and The Mighty Boosh. People who like to color outside the lines, and then on the walls.
Who won’t like it: Fans of the human voice. People who like to label song sections as “verse” and “chorus.”
by Neil James
Imagine that you’re ambling through a sunny countryside. Your gait is slightly unsure, its certainty robbed by cheap whiskey and unmet expectations. Beyond defying your maker’s calling, your journey has no purpose. Eventually, after all sense of orientation has dissipated, you come across a stone obelisk bearing a desolate face. Its blank eyes become aglow as it prepares to transmit ages-old secrets through its piercing stare. As the connections between your neurons and muscles begin to break down, your body falls to its knees. At the same time, your consciousness swells, transcending location and time.
That exercise in psychotropic meditation reflects my best attempts to capture the surly, uncompromising imagery evoked by the above track – “Hammer Party” by Cymothoa.
The songwriting core of Cymothoa, guitarist Jef Ries and bassist Justin Boehne, have an extended history with Cwn Annwn. Ries’ and Boehne’s breakthrough project, Less Than Nothing, actually shared the stage with us at the 7th Street Entry for the Method Of Murder CD release show back in 2006. Upon the dissolution of Less Than Nothing, Ries and Boehne formed Lavinia, an act similar at its core but less beholden to the conventions of traditional songwriting. After losing their vocalist, Lavinia slowly transitioned into Cymothoa, a three-piece instrumental outfit whose artistic allegiances extend to no one beyond its members.
I once visited Justin and Jef in their practice space, and I remember the above graphic being scrawled on their whiteboard. While not exactly a controversial statement among those who’ve taken lessons or studied music theory, it stuck out in my mind. It surprises me how many bands will spend countless hours practicing sweep licks or dialing in their amp settings, but somehow fail to grasp the rhythmic subtleties that differentiate pedestrian from great acts.
And Cymothoa’s grasp of rhythmic subtleties extends far beyond differentiating triplets from dotted quarter notes. Throughout the band’s debut EP, Cymothoa displays a mastery of advanced metal concepts: seamless tempo changes, polyrhythmic looping and machine-tool caliber riffing precision.
Cymothoa’s command of metal riffage is highly evident on Snake Denim which blends the modern American thrash barrages of Lamb Of God with the disjointed mash of accents and staccato stabs made famous by Mastodon and other progressive acts. Just as impressively, the band smoothly transitions out of its complex compositions into tasty grooves, highlighted by a sophisticated, melodic chord progression that bears the scents of functional-addict era Stone Temple Pilots.
Sesame Street Fighter begins with a series of white noise waves lapping at the shore of an onslaught to come. A Kreator-esque “verse” composed of a flying flurry of power chords paints a landscape of aggression Randy Blythe himself would be proud to spit acid over. The song concludes with a thunderous earthquake of detuned insanity that threatens to rip the earth apart at its fault lines before descending into a Call Of Ktulu-esque fadeout.
One of the challenges an instrumental act faces is that you’re foregoing what is often a band’s most distinctive quality – its vocalist. But the mark of great instrumental, a mark that Cymothoa routinely hits, is that it’s not difficult to envision a variety of vocal stylings. Little effort is required to picture Brett Hinds or even Ozzy caterwauling over the chromatic 16th note slap fights and sneering atonal holds. A clean interlude that sounds like it was ripped from the notebook of a zombie redneck Billy Corgan provides a welcome respite before the song devolves into the chaos suggested by its chimerical title.
In a world of 140-character hot takes, Hollywood remakes and Bitstrips, the likelihood that the worlds of a sophisticated, progressive instrumental band and commercial success will ever collide is remote. But faced with the tradeoffs required to achieve the watered down mainstream success of Five Finger Death Punch and Bud Light, Cymothoa has thankfully opted for the path of self-fulfillment. Those of us with taste and an appreciation for craftsmanship look forward to many years of introducing the band as one of the Midwest’s best-kept secrets to others.
You just finished playing a show. Chatting up a friend at the bar, you ask how your band sounded.
The response you hear 99 times out of 100 – “you sounded great, bro!”
If post-show feedback was the truest, most objective standard of quality, we’d all be polishing our Rock and Roll Hall of Fame acceptance speeches.
Deep down, you know that you’re probably not as good as the “Great Show, Man” chorus suggests. But by how much? Is everybody just telling you what you want to hear?
The good news is that if you’ve got $35, now you can find out!
Audiokite is a web-based service designed to give you honest, objective reviews of your music. For $35, Audiokite gets 100 people to listen to a song that you upload for at least 40 seconds. These people then provide quality scores and feedback.
By getting 100 people to review your music instead of a blogger/reviewer whose critique may depend on how long its been since they last ate, you can get a more accurate of sense of how good your music is relative to others in your genre.
As a guy who does market research for a day job, one of the limitations of Audiokite is that 100 people is still smallish for a sample size. To feel totally confident about Audiokite scores, you really should have upwards of 400 people reviewing your music. Surveying just 100 people gets you in the ballpark of where your music sits, but if you were to repeat a 100-person Audiokite review for the same song multiple times, you would likely see some swing in the results in both directions.
In fairness, you can pay Audiokite more money to survey more people, but that’s going to cost quite a bit more than $35, defeating one of the principal advantages of the service.
To get around this limitation, we ran four tests, paying $140 to have four songs reviewed. We would expect to see some fluctuation from song-to-song, but by having 400 people review four tracks from the same CD, we could figure out approximately where our sound on a whole sits on the quality scale based on the range of results.
After a few days, we received our Audiokite reports. To say you get a lot of information is an understatement – for every song, you get a rating on a 10 point scale, written feedback, an analysis of commercial viability, licensing recommendations, listener sentiment, critique of individual elements and geographic segmentation.
Whew! That’s a lot of stuff.
If I swap my musician for my market research hat, I can comfortably say that not everything Audiokite gives you is useful. A good general rule for determining whether information is useful is whether or not knowing it causes you to act differently. Knowing that our music would be a much better fit for use in an action/adventure movie versus romance, for example, isn’t super helpful. Even if that wasn’t patently obvious to us, it isn’t as if one of our problems is that we’re wasting time trying to license our music in inappropriate places.
But acknowledging that some of what you get from Audiokite is fluff, there’s still plenty of really helpful intelligence to be gleaned.
All users who review your music are asked to rate it on a 1-10 scale. After getting our reports back, we found uur song The Accuser had been rated 7.5 out of 10. Stay Forever was rated 6.9 out of 10.
In a vacuum though, that’s hard to draw conclusions from. Some people will look at 6.9 or 7.5 out of 10 as a failure. Some will view it as success.
The more useful metric is where your music sits in relation to others. At 7.5 out of 10, The Accuser was rated in the 99th percentile of all music uploaded to Audiokite, meaning that for every 100 songs reviewed by the service, only one received a higher score.
Now that’s pretty good! We can feel alright about that.
In fact, of the four songs we uploaded, the lowest rated (Embodied Chaos) placed in the 75th percentile. Stay Forever and Seasons hit the 87th and 94th percentile respectively.
Knowing that all four of the tracks from Metamorphosis fell within the 75th to 99th percentile of submitted music, we can feel good about the decisions we made recording our latest album. Our choice to work with Eric Blomquist, Ian Combs and the team at RiverRock Studios – Minneapolis Recording Studio was an objectively good one. The extensive pre-production work we did was also time well spent. And we can also feel confident that our artistic decisions were sound as well.
It’s one thing to know where your music stands on a 10-point and percentile scale. It’s another thing to know what you should do differently. Is there something your band is really good at? What do you suck at?
One of the ways you can learn answers to these questions is by reading the written feedback that reviewers leave about your music.
Frustratingly, you’ll find that a lot of the feedback you receive is contradictory. Consider both of these reviews of Embodied Chaos:
That sort of stuff is irritating, but that’s not Audiokite’s fault. You could ask 100 people to review a classic Metallica song and probably run into similar contradictions.
What you need to keep an eye out for as you’re reading feedback is trends and recurring themes. Unsurprisingly, people don’t dig our band name.
And while there were plenty who loved that our singer is female, that ended up being a turn-off for others.
In each of these instances, people don’t like artistic choices we’ve made. That happens – you can’t please everybody. But at least we can feel more confident that if people don’t like us, it’s because they’re not on board with the parts of our band that aren’t going to change – not because we’re grossly deficient in some part of the craft. And besides, even if we were prone to overreacting to criticism, we can look back on where we fit in the percentiles of reviewed music – at the scores we got, we’re doing a lot more right than we are wrong.
Besides the aforementioned sample size issues, the more niche your music, the less useful Audiokite is likely to be. When prompted to select a category for our music, nothing seemed to fit better than “hard rock / metal.” Even that feels like a broader audience than we’re trying to appeal to, and we’re a lot more accessible than many other metal bands. If you’re a death metal band, Audiokite is not going to be very representative of the audience you’re trying to appeal to, and your scores will reflect that.
Another limitation of Audiokite is that you don’t get a great sense for how you compare against bands who are successful. Our music definitely over-performs relative to the base of competing independent music uploaded to Audiokite. But where does it sit against actual signed acts? Audiokite does provide a chart that shows how we rate compared to songs in the Billboard 100, but it would be nice to get a clearer idea of how far our art is from touring acts in our genre.
Is it worth it?
Is Audiokite perfect? No. The cost needed to obtain statistically significant sample sizes is a little prohibitive. The more niche or extreme your genre, the less useful the reviews will be. And the data tends to err on the side of being overwhelming and unhelpful.
But $35 to get 100 people to review your music and get a directional sense of where your music sits in the marketplace is a pretty good deal, and one that I would recommend most bands invest in. If you can learn just one thing that helps you improve your art and your craft, it’s pretty safe to say your money was likely well spent.
Check out the Audiokite reviews of Cwn Annwn music:
I’m 35 years old and am fortunate to say that I’m still barely acquainted with death.
In many ways, the greatest achievement of modern-day America is my generation’s unfamiliarity with the great beyond. I know nothing of cholera. Tuberculosis. Starvation. War. Death is an abstract concept known only to our grandparents and distant figures on the local evening news.
This freedom from capricious mortality, however, is not a birthright nor an entitlement. It is random privilege. A chance blessing. A gift we “earned” by the happenstance of being born into a nation of abundance and wealth.
It is only in those moments where we are deprived of our random privileges – when the possibility of doing without brushes against our existence – that we recognize the fleeting nature of our blessings.
These are the thoughts that pass through my mind when I reflect on Ian Dailey.
Ian, a friend to myself, Mike and Harry, passed away in a tragic accident two months ago, leaving behind a loving wife Sara (née Hasledalen) and young son Evan. His passing was sudden, unexpected, and by everyone’s account, undeserved.
Many of Ian’s interests naturally lent themselves to friendship with the members of Cwn Annwn. Ian loved metal music and possessed particularly good taste within the genre. Ian also had an affinity for two of our culture’s finest institutions: comic books and pinball. It takes very little effort to picture Ian, ponytail flowing against the back of his At The Gates t-shirt, setting another unattainable record on the Spiderman pinball machine at Station 4. I remember expressing admiration for one particular extended run, to which he responded by detailing his frustration that broken table mechanics prevented him from completing all possible in-game missions.
More importantly, you’d be searching for a long time before you found a person with unkind words for Ian. Ian was a very generous and thoughtful man. A reflection of his limitless compassion and caring, Ian worked hard to put himself through nursing school and served in what can be a thankless, unappreciated profession with arduous pride.
As often happens, when the insidious roots of adulthood crept into our lives, our encounters grew more infrequent. This distance, however, barely buffered our shock and sadness when we learned of Ian’s sudden passing. We can barely imagine the void his loss has created for Sara and young Evan, and to even attempt to do so with words feels trivializing.
The outpouring of support for the Dailey family has been enormous, and we in Cwn Annwn are very grateful that they possess such a strong support network to help them through this difficult time. In a world where we’re quick to casually unfriend one another on Facebook because of a difference of opinion or a flippant remark, it’s been truly amazing to witness the reflexive, unthinking selflessness that so many have displayed.
On Friday, June 5th, Cwn Annwn will be performing at a show commemorating Ian’s life and helping to raise funds for his wife and young son. Joining us will be two acts whose members were similarly close to the Dailey family, Cold Colours (featuring Brian Huebner and Jon Rayl) and The Grande Machine (featuring Glen Wadie). All proceeds from the evening will be donated to Sara and Evan to assist them in their time of need. We hope that everyone reading this is able to attend for what will certainly be a special and heartfelt evening.
Even if you can’t attend, however, we hope that each of you can take a moment to reflect on the blessings in your life. Maybe it’s your spouse. Your mother. Your bandmates. Your cat. Your eccentric Uncle Jack. Despite our daily grievances, when you take inventory of the love, camaraderie and caring that surrounds you, you can’t help but appreciate those whose presence truly matters else just a little bit more.
Metal guitar players, stop me if this sounds familiar.
It took a few weeks, maybe months, but you finally finished writing that song you’ve been working on.
Because you’re in a metal band, it’s loosely based on something badass, say the Battletech Universe.
The song, however, only exists in tablature format. Maybe it’s in a notebook. Maybe it’s in Power Tab or Guitar Pro.
That’s okay though. You made copies of the tablature and distributed them at band practice.
Once you start putting it together though, something doesn’t sound right.
You can’t figure it out. Everybody’s following what you wrote.
But your killer song about Mechwarrior pride isn’t even fit enough to extol the virtues of a Roomba.
You didn’t write your song with your drummer. That’s what happened.
I’ve been writing songs for about 18 years. And like most people who’ve been writing songs for that long, I generally prefer the material from the second half of my career to the first.
It’s not that I don’t like the songs I wrote in my late teens and early twenties. But it’s definitely underdeveloped compared to our output from The Alpha And The Omega and Metamorphosis.
For the first half of my career, my writing process was much closer to the one outlined above. Write in a notebook. Come up with clever Mechwarrior imagery. Dictate to the band. Call it a day.
The biggest problem with that approach is that it’s inconsistent. Sometimes, it all sort of gels together the way it’s supposed to. Other times, the song never feels quite right.
Slowly, however, I started to realize that the guitars didn’t have to carry the entire weight of a song. A great song wasn’t formed from a string of cool riffs but from the sum of the whole being more than the individual parts.
As I matured, I started bringing drums into the songwriting process earlier and earlier. Rather than trying to shoehorn percussion into an arbitrary arrangement, I tried to create sounds from combining drumbeats and riffs. From these sounds, these feels, I could control the dynamics better and didn’t having to wrack my brain trying to write the perfect complementary riff – a riff that often didn’t exist. And I was happier than the results.
At first, that required working really closely with Jake (our drummer) to test different beats and sculpt my riffs into the sounds I was trying to achieve. Eventually, I got to the point where I could draft my own beats and direct Jake in order to extract the exact sound I wanted.
That may a little abstract, so let me show you specifically what I mean:
Take a look at the above riff. It’s a semi-generic metal riff played on a 7-string guitar somewhere in neighborhood of 200 BPM.
The below player shows what this riff sounds like. This is how most guitar players who write such a riff will hear it in their heads.
Let’s say that your drummer is of Ulrichian descent. He’ll apply a standard albeit tempo-appropriate rock beat to this riff, giving you the foundations of a traditional thrash song.
Here’s where life gets a little interesting. If your drummer plays at half-tempo, you’ve got a completely different song. Something sludgier, doomier and arguably heavier.
You didn’t change a thing about your riff. It’s the exact same guitar line, but it’s a 100% completely different feel, and the listener will hear it as such.
Understanding this distinction, as obvious as it may seem, is the mark of a more polished songwriter. Your drummer, in and of him or herself, can drastically impact your song without the guitar player changing a note.
Here’s the exact same riff, but with a blast beat. Note how, without having altered the riff, we now have a death metal song.
Similarly, it’s easy to transform this riff into traditional metalcore. Just leave some vacuous space for mournful melodic vocals à la Howard Jones era Killswitch Engage. Follow it up with rhythmically precise double-kick that’s overplaying given the material. Presto – you’re now channeling Massachusetts-style metalcore.
Give your drummer even more discretion and you can gain access to the wonderful world of prog and create something that really warps the feel. In this example, a 3/4 beat has been superimposed over the 4/4 riff to create a polyrhythm with a small fill at the end that ties it up neatly for repeating.
In each of the above examples, the drum beat dictates the style of the music. But style is only the beginning of how drums can impact your songwriting!
In the below example, again, we have the exact same guitar riff. The drummer is playing a traditional thrash beat like before, but has offset the start by a few eighth notes after the riff has begun. By changing where the “one” downbeat and accents lie, a simple shift in the big picture, you end up with an entirely different sound.
Harnessing the ability of drums to shape your songs is really liberating. It gives you a tool for getting unstuck when you just can’t come up with a complementary guitar riff. It reduces the likelihood that a song will suffer from “every part sounds the same” monotony. Most importantly though, writing with your drummer gives you new angles for creative exploration that neither of you would be able to achieve in isolation.