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Old 08-27-2015, 07:19 AM   #1
ingames
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Death Metal Composition

What are some death metal songs that actually develop musical ideas fully and aren't random riffs thrown together one after the other?

Started writing some death metal lately. Though the freedom to create anything and everything is enticing, it's a lot easier to be lulled to the trap of throwing one musical idea after the other with no coherence.

What are the best examples of good structure and musical development in death metal?
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Old 08-27-2015, 10:12 PM   #2
Born Headless
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I'm just echoing the thoughts of others but:

At the Gates - The Red in the Sky is Ours
Morbid Angel - Altars of Madness
Gorguts - Obscura

^ All good starting points methinks. Or were you looking for something less obvious? Oh and not to hijack your thread but...

What do you guys think defines a song with "good" structure/composition? I mean smooth transitions are an obvious goal (unless you're consciously pursuing that jarring sensation for affect). Then there is building and releasing of tension to create suspense or relief. But what is the overall goal, or goals rather? I guess it could be a myriad of things but what makes one way "good" is what I'm asking?

I'm obviously no music analyst. I just go by what sounds good to me and how it makes me feel and will continue to use this method. I'm just curious as to why various songs sound good/bad to me and why certain structures work better. I know there's no rules in music but it seems like there are at the same time.

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Old 08-27-2015, 11:36 PM   #3
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Hi ingames. I know that you asked for examples and not a discussion, so I apologize for transgressing the purpose of this thread. It is my intention to provide examples, and I will try to add them below when I have time to do so. For the time being, I hope that you find the following write-up, in which I address your main points, to be thought-provoking or discussion-catalyzing. That is, if you so choose to read it. I applaud you for caring about musical structure in an age in which most people ignore structure, their sights instead focused on immediate satisfaction. Thanks for starting this thread; I hope that it proves a productive one.

-----

One of my favorite aspects of death metal is the use of narrative structure (used by underground bands frequently at the song level and less frequently at the album level) instead of circular / verse-chorus / pop structure. Narrative structure can be purely linear / through-composed, in which there is no large-scale repetition, or it can be somewhere between linear and circular in a so-called "riff salad" style. The defining characteristic of this type of structure is that ideas relate to one another such that there is a flow from one to the next, a flow that can take the listener on a journey. When the beginning of this journey is not equal to the end, then there is a sense of distance traveled, of experience gained, and in some circumstances, the listener might learn something as a result. This acquisition of knowledge by the listener is a communication, and therein lies the power of this style of composition: Truths about the world can be communicated in abstract form through story-telling in music. Or so I believe.

I agree with you that one of the pitfalls that can occur in this style of composition is a randomness that results in incoherence. This can be avoided by composing with a schematic in mind that is dictated by a purpose such that riffs are chosen to fit the story, not the other way around. I have seen this technique referred to as composition from the inside out.

Regarding development of ideas, death metal can give the impression that ideas are generally not developed because riffs often come and go in a short period of time, abandoned soon after they are introduced. The sudden and frequent changes in riffs can come across as choppy or rough, especially to the unaccustomed listener. However, sometimes the phrases within the riffs are manipulated and carried over to other riffs in subtle ways, such that a new riff shows an imprint of the previous one. This is one way in which composition can allow the listener to perceive motion, change, and unity in the music. I do concede that a good portion of riffs in death metal music are not interlinked in this way, but I think that in this style of music the development of ideas is usually not achieved through the riff itself, nor through the development of the riff, but rather through the development of the song that utilizes a number of riffs that are related in different ways. That is to say that in death metal composition, the focus is not on the current moment but on the structure at large. This reflects the lyrics, which deal not with personal feelings and whims but the harsh truths of reality that are constant and ubiquitous.

One argument against the above assertion is as follows: The focus of death metal is on the moment because one of the primary joys of listening to death metal music is the riffs. My rebuttal to this is twofold. First, context provides a significant portion of the power of a riff. A riff carries potential, but without context, the riff loses much of its meaning. To me, the ecstasy that accompanies hearing certain riffs at certain times is an affirmation or identification that the riff appears in an appropriate or an excellent context. Second, even though the focus of the music is on the big picture, the listener still experiences the music in the moment. This does not signify that the focus is on the moment.

-----

Sentenced "Capture of Fire" from North from Here (1993)
Much like the archetypal novel, this song has a clear exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and conclusion. Composition here is basically linear, with the exception of a return of the main theme in the falling action. However, the riff is harmonized in a new way between the two guitars in the third and fourth repetitions, indicating that a change has occurred. This change is confirmed and elucidated by the conclusion that follows. I think that this song is structurally superior to the rest on the album, most of which have the same problem as the works of Death. The issue is that even though Sentenced had a gift on this album for smoothly weaving large numbers of riffs together without sounding random, their potential was ruined because they only wrote half-songs. The songs follow logically to a conclusion, and then repeat in a more concise form instead of going anywhere after that apex. This is one problem with circular composition in the application of death metal: The riffs start to lead somewhere, but the possibility of a complete journey is destroyed by large-scale repetition. All of the above said, I am not sure whether this song communicates anything important. Adherence to certain structures in music does not guarantee a path to revealing any secrets.

Here are some case studies on death metal composition by other writers:
Immolation "Father, You're Not a Father"
Infester "Chamber of Reunion"
Morbid Angel "Chapel of Ghouls"
Suffocation "Pierced from Within"

Last edited by P1ayingW1thF1re : 08-28-2015 at 08:31 PM.
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Old 08-28-2015, 10:36 AM   #4
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Quote:
Originally Posted by P1ayingW1thF1re
Hi ingames. I know that you asked for examples and not a discussion, so I apologize for transgressing the purpose of this thread. It is my intention to provide examples, and I will try to add them below when I have time to do so. For the time being, I hope that you find the following write-up, in which I address your main points, to be thought-provoking or discussion-catalyzing. That is, if you so choose to read it. I applaud you for caring about musical structure in an age in which most people ignore structure, their sights instead focused on immediate satisfaction.

One of my favorite aspects of death metal is the use of narrative structure (used by underground bands frequently at the song level and less frequently at the album level) instead of circular / verse-chorus / pop structure. Narrative structure can be purely linear / riff salad / through-composed, in which there is no large-scale repetition, or it can be somewhere between linear and circular. The defining characteristic of this type of structure is that ideas relate to one another such that there is a flow from one to the next, a flow that can take the listener on a journey. When the beginning of this journey is not equal to the end, then there is a sense of distance traveled, of experience gained, and in some circumstances, the listener might learn something as a result. This acquisition of knowledge by the listener is a communication, and therein lies the power of this style of composition: Truths about the world can be communicated in abstract form through story-telling in music. Or so I believe.

I agree with you that one of the pitfalls that can occur in this style of composition is a randomness that results in incoherence. This can be avoided by composing with a schematic in mind that is dictated by a purpose such that riffs are chosen to fit the story, not the other way around. I have seen this technique referred to as composition from the inside out.

Regarding development of ideas, death metal can give the impression that ideas are generally not developed because riffs often come and go in a short period of time, abandoned soon after they are introduced. The sudden and frequent changes in riffs can come across as choppy or rough, especially to the unaccustomed listener. However, sometimes the phrases within the riffs are manipulated and carried over to other riffs in subtle ways, such that a new riff shows an imprint of the previous one. This is one way in which composition can allow the listener to perceive motion, change, and unity in the music. I do concede that a good portion of riffs in death metal music are not interlinked in this way, but I think that in this style of music the development of ideas is usually not achieved through the riff itself, nor through the development of the riff, but rather through the development of the song that utilizes a number of riffs that are related in different ways. That is to say that in death metal composition, the focus is not on the current moment but on the structure at large. This reflects the lyrics, which deal not with personal feelings and whims but the harsh truths of reality that are constant and ubiquitous.

One argument against the above assertion is as follows: The focus of death metal is on the moment because one of the primary joys of listening to death metal music is the riffs. My rebuttal to this is twofold. First, context provides a significant portion of the power of a riff. A riff carries potential, but without context, the riff loses much of its meaning. To me, the ecstasy that accompanies hearing certain riffs at certain times is a subconscious affirmation or identification that the riff appears in an appropriate or an excellent context. Second, even though the focus of the music is on the big picture, the listener still experiences the music in the moment. This does not signify that the focus is on the moment.

Thanks for starting this thread; I hope that it proves a productive one.

-----

Sentenced "Capture of Fire" from North from Here (1993)
Much like the archetypal novel, this song has a clear exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and conclusion. Composition here is basically linear, with the exception of a return of the main theme in the falling action. However, the riff is harmonized in a new way between the two guitars in the third and fourth repetitions, indicating that a change has occurred. This change is confirmed and elucidated by the conclusion that follows. I think that this song is structurally superior to the rest on the album, most of which have the same problem as the works of Death. The issue is that even though Sentenced had a gift on this album for smoothly weaving large numbers of riffs together without sounding random, their potential was ruined because they only wrote half-songs. The songs follow logically to a conclusion, and then repeat in a more concise form instead of going anywhere after that apex. This is one problem with circular composition in the application of death metal: The riffs start to lead somewhere, but the possibility of a complete journey is destroyed by large-scale repetition. All of the above said, I am not sure whether this song communicates anything important. Adherence to certain structures in music does not guarantee a path to revealing any secrets.

Here are some case studies on death metal composition by other writers:
Immolation "Father, You're Not a Father"
Infester "Chamber of Reunion"
Morbid Angel "Chapel of Ghouls"
Suffocation "Pierced from Within"


Been here a lot of time, but never have I encountered such an informative reply.

Cheers mate! Got a lot of reading to do from those links.
These forums are really slow though. Thought more people would be interested in death metal composition.
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Old 08-28-2015, 11:40 AM   #5
P1ayingW1thF1re
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You are very welcome. I hope that you find the information helpful.

Born Headless is definitely on the mark with At the Gates The Red in the Sky is Ours and Gorguts Obscura. I have little grasp on these albums, but they have been the subject of much discussion by others. Here is a recent essay on the former...not to overload you with reading material, haha.

Born Headless: You pose an important question. I am ruminating on it, and I hope to post a response in the future.

Last edited by P1ayingW1thF1re : 08-28-2015 at 11:46 AM.
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Old 08-28-2015, 05:29 PM   #6
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Necrophobic "The Nocturnal Silence" from The Nocturnal Silence (1993)
A dark and haunting melody broods quietly, like a full moon veiled behind the clouds. Suddenly the clouds part and the moonbeams of that ghastly sphere saturate the atmosphere with evil. Several permutations crystallize this initial idea from its ethereal nature into a more solid form that is represented by the lower register in which the melody is played, the regular drum beats, and the increased tempo. The final form of the exposition is played with open power chords, just like the verse riff, a similarity that establishes cohesion and smoothes the transition between these two parts of the song.

The setting is now fully established, so the telling of the story begins. A verse plays, followed by a refrain and another verse. After the second verse, a break occurs, followed by a riff that can be seen as development or rising action. The lyrics also show that the plot is progressing, for "Ancient lords of dreadful evil / Enter through the seven gates." The refrain appears again, sandwiched between two occurrences of the development riff, which I find interesting. The vocals during the second refrain are intense, whereas there are no vocals in the first refrain, a difference that might be significant.

The tempo then decreases for a sort of transition riff that features keyboards that heighten the eeriness through tone and timbre. This transition leads to a melody that is an alteration of that of the exposition. Cohesion here is accomplished on the micro-scale through continued use of the synthesizer and on the macro-scale through the return of the first theme, albeit in a slightly modified form. The melody ushers in a guitar solo over the same chord progression, dark but consonant, that perhaps shows the "evil gods" mentioned in the lyrics in full manifestation in the material world, their terrible powers apparent. The song ends with a recapitulation of the refrain with vocals, representing a return after the departure that occurred earlier in the song. However, a change has clearly occurred, for again we "Fear the nocturnal silence / The return of the forces of evil." This night of darkness has left a lasting impression on the witness.

The section of "The Nocturnal Silence" discussed in the previous paragraph uses a common technique of slowing down and "opening up" the music to reveal a scene that in this case is the climax of the piece. Contrast this with the faster and "narrower" verse and development riffs that reflect progress toward that climax. Granted, things are taking place during all parts of the song, but these differences mirror the various parts of the journey (travel corresponds to higher speed and narrower focus, and arrival to lower speed and broader focus).

Another aspect of this piece that is worth mentioning is that there is very little falling action. The section following the solo does feel a bit brief, but the piece is complete as is and that is what is important. With respect to this I would like to digress and discuss Sentenced North from Here, which I criticized in my previous post because most of the songs on that album simply repeat in a condensed form after reaching a climax. I do not necessarily have a problem with a lack of falling action if the song is complete upon reaching a climax. "The Nocturnal Silence" is an example of this, and Intestine Baalism "Corporal Celebration" is another. I think that "Wings" would be a great song if Sentenced cut the piece at 3:25 and maybe concluded it with some sort of falling action. I do not think that it is a great song, though, because very smooth linear form suddenly takes a jolting turn toward repetition that serves no purpose and is therefore a waste of time. My view on "Fields of Blood, Harvester of Hate" is similar. The break in that song is very powerful the first time around, and therefore I expect a conclusion that does justice to the rest of the song. If Sentenced cut the track at 4:55 and added one riff afterwards, I think that it would probably be complete, but the same problem plagues this piece as well. Some development riffs and the break repeat for no reason that I can see; these sections bear no power the second time that they appear because they have no context. For the above reasons, the compositional style that Sentenced employed on most of North from Here is very frustrating for me. I will say explicitly that I do not have a problem with repetition in and of itself. My opinion of "The Nocturnal Silence" is evidence of this. Repetition can have very positive compositional effects, but I do not think that Sentenced used repetition in a positive way on their second album.

In summary, I think that "The Nocturnal Silence" is an example of cohesive and coherent narrative structure in death metal that accomplishes the following: 1. Develops an initial idea to set the stage and smoothly transport the listener to another world, 2. Advances the song through a series of riffs that are meaningful through internal patterns that complement their context, 3. Pairs lyrics well with music, and 4. Evokes clear imagery to tell a story.

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Old Yesterday, 10:03 AM   #7
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Originally Posted by Born Headless
What do you guys think defines a song with "good" structure/composition? I mean smooth transitions are an obvious goal (unless you're consciously pursuing that jarring sensation for affect). Then there is building and releasing of tension to create suspense or relief. But what is the overall goal, or goals rather? I guess it could be a myriad of things but what makes one way "good" is what I'm asking?

As I mentioned above, I think that your question is an important one, and I have had disorganized thoughts about this topic swirling around in my head for a while, so I typed a lengthy response to sort out all of those thoughts. I hope that I answer your question and that you find the information below to be helpful. If you have any questions or comments, then please post them. Discussion is important.

-----

There are two extremes of musical composition: composition from the inside out, and composition from the outside in. Composition from the inside out is creating music with the intention of accomplishing a specific goal or purpose, that is, transmitting something to the listener. All aspects of the music are subservient to that goal, meaning that choices are made in order to most effectively arrive at the goal. Composition from the outside in is creating music with the intention of sounding a certain way; any goal or transmission that is accomplished is more or less accidental, though of course the artist hears the piece during creation and might steer it in one direction or another. Stated differently, in the former extreme the focus is on function with subservient form, and in the latter extreme the focus is on form at the cost of directed function. There is, however, a spectrum of composition that exists between the two poles.

In the following paragraphs I speak mostly of composition from the inside out because I think that the possibility of transmission is the greatest power of music, and this method of composition is the most reliable one for activating that power.

The goal of musical composition is transmission. Good composition is that which clearly and effectively communicates the message that the artist wants to send to the listener, or produces the effect that the artist wants to have on the listener. The message or effect can be a feeling, emotion, or mood; a mental state; an image or scene; a story or journey; an idea; a truth about life or reality; a combination of the above; or something else. Whether the transmission is noble or ignoble, important or unimportant, helpful or hurtful to the listener is another matter (see the penultimate paragraph below).

My personal observations suggest that sonic patterns tend to produce similar effects in most people, meaning that an artist can create music knowing that other people will have a similar listening experience to his own. One possible thought process in composition, then, proceeds as follows:
1. The goal or the transmission - the starting point in composition and the ending point for the listener - what the artist wants to bestow upon the listener
2. The effects - what the listener feels and thinks as a result of hearing the sonic patterns - combined, these accomplish the goal
3. The sonic patterns - what the listener hears, related in space and in time - combined, these produce the effects
4. The techniques - the choices that the artist makes, from instrumentation to note choice to organization of sections - combined, these produce the sonic patterns

The above being said, everyone has a different brain, which means that for different listeners there is some variation going from 3 --> 2 and there is a threshold for going from 2 --> 1. Thus, not everyone is necessarily capable of receiving the transmission that the artist wants to send through music. This is especially the case when the transmission expresses an idea, which is more subtle than a physical effect or a feeling (though I concede that in music, ideas are often, if not always, transmitted through a series of feelings).

A simple example of composition from the inside out is a lullaby. The goal of a lullaby is to lull a child to sleep, and a good lullaby is one that does so effectively. Many lullabies share compositional characteristics because those characteristics help to accomplish the goal. The goal, in this case, is accomplished through the following effects: soothing the mind, instilling a sense of comfort, creating a trance-like state that is conducive to sleep, and transporting the listener to the dream world. What compositional techniques and choices produce patterns that have these effects? Slow tempo, a simple, consonant melody, lyrics that evoke pleasant images, lyrics that refer to sleep, lyrics that include diminutives that refer to the child, simple circular structures (e.g. a single melody that repeats and cycles through different lyrical stanzas), the timbre of the human voice with possible accompaniment of other soft / quiet instrumentation, etc.

Concerning the building and releasing of tension, I think that this feature is not always necessary in music. I see it as an effect that can be achieved through different patterns (and therefore techniques). Contraction and relaxation are employed regularly in death metal, and in heavy metal in general, but in other types of music this might not serve the purpose of the piece. Think of the example of the lullaby above. The goal of the piece is basically relaxation, so tension does not serve a lullaby well. There might exist slight tension on the micro-scale as the melody approaches resolution before repeating, or there might be some contraction-relaxation in the lyrics, but the amplitude of the tension is small.

Regarding smooth transitions, I agree that this is beneficial to the composition in the majority of cases. However, I think that a more general term for this aspect of musical construction is cohesion. Cohesion is the glue that holds the sections of a piece together within individual sections, between sections, and on the level of the entire piece. Cohesion can be created through a variety of methods. Even sudden changes can be cohesive, so I would argue that a truly jarring transition, that is, a cohesionless transition, is detrimental to the composition for two reasons: 1. It can jolt, remove, or otherwise keep the listener from the "zone" in which the listener is "inside" and not "outside" of the music, and 2. It can destroy the coherence of the music. A piece of music is coherent when the message is clear (even if no one has the capacity to understand it - see above). That is, it is internally logical, although the logic does not necessarily conform to reality (see below). Usually, if not always, cohesion must be present in order for the piece to have coherence. Coherence is important for all musical works, especially those that have ambitious aspirations.

I think that coherence in music is a positive goal, because music is a tool for transmission and expression. If the message is capable of being clearly understood, and if the listener understands / receives the message, then the listener can decide whether the idea that is expressed does or does not conform to reality (that is, whether it is true or false), and therefore, whether reinforcing the idea upon himself through repeated listening will be salutary or detrimental. In other words, listening to music can lead to both learning and self-improvement.
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Old Yesterday, 09:04 PM   #8
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hey nick get yo ass on skype mayne help with tabs! ahaha. But sweet posts I got a lot of reading to do, that essay was pretty awesome
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