Metallica and the limitations of classical theory

Here’s a video – admittedly one with a sense of humour – that analyses a Metallica song and claims it has a bar of 21/32.

Being a nerd, I wrote an analysis of this song for my university dissertation which was all about genre distinctions in heavy metal.

Even then I was a little uncomfortable with the idea of using classical notation to transcribe this kind of music simply because heavy metal musicians don’t use it. It’s the wrong language, though before recording technology became so readily available maybe it was the only option.

This guy, nice as he seems, mistakes skill at the music for being able to think about it from a western classical perspective. Being able to think ‘let’s make this bar 21/32’ is not in any way more advanced than thinking ‘let’s make this bit go ‘ba dum dum’ ‘.

A rhythmic grid is one way of feeling music, but it’s not a rule, just an option. Western classical methods are definitely fine, and very useful tools that I use myself, but they are not the only way to think of music and I find myself mildly annoyed at musicians who only see through this lens. In fact it’s one of the reasons I don’t regret not being a music teacher anymore – all the qualifications saw things via that lens even when they were pretending not to be about classical music.

So, yeah, music theory. Raaaw.


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Beyond Astronomy’s Reach by Emmett Elvin #Iamanerdymuso

How best to conceive of the structure of a piece with no verse or chorus? It depends on the piece but in the case of Beyond Astronomy’s Reach by Emmett Elvin, I would suggest you imagine this:

There are two ostinatos. One is in 7/4 and centred around a descending F minor patern, the other is in D and in 6/4. The first is an anticipatory shade of light blue, the uneven rhythm making us feel unsettled. The second is a menacing angry red storm of building tension.

Two colours: 7/4 blue and 6/4 red. This piece moves between those two colours, using deft and insightful instrumental choices to pick out the textures and gestures within the broader swathes of colour.

We start with a drum beat in seven, with the rhythmic drive coming more from the cymbals, jazz fashion, than it does from kick and snare.

A loop of piano and wind gives us that descending F minor pattern,  building up over a F note drone the crescendos deliciously into the first rendition of our 6/4 ostinato. And it it is a thing of beauty. Honking brass and wind stab out the bass line while everything else builds up a layer of chords that reach a massive crescendo before giving way again to light blue 7/4 again.

Here the ostinato is joined by some lovely melodic F minor stuff before we get a second verse of the 6/4 ostinato. This time the main rhythmic material is provided by the acoustic guitar with the same chords building up around it. The drums take a short break, as do the stabbing bass instruments from the last time we heard this melody. The drumming here is ace.

Bass comes back in and we get a lovely electric guitar solo over the same backing. The guitar solo gives way to an equally good piano melody as the backing loops again towards the final tight, stabbed ending.

There are lots of pieces based around ostinatos. Beyond Astronomy’s Reach felt ever so slightly reminiscent of Mars of Holst’s The Planets, not because they share any material but because they both contain a rhythmic ostinato around which massive, menacing chords are built.

Bloody Marvels is a bloody marvellous album and this piece is ace.

Making Tea is Freedom by Jon Hunt – #Iamanerdymuso

At the command of my Evil Record Label Boss, I have written about a 4th Bad Elephant track:

Now this is interesting. A 20 minute song cycle that uses the harmonic and lyrical stylings of your English songwriters like a Paul Weller and Ray Davies.

Hunt’s website describes his work as ‘Quintessentially English’, and there’s plenty in the music to back this up. He handily has a list of his favourite albums on his site which includes (amongst many eclectic things) The Who, Paul Weller, Oasis, The Beatles and Supergrass, all of whose influence can be heard here. The track even starts with a quote from Michael Caine in Alfie and references tea, road-works, fags and fog all sung in a London accent. It tells us a tale of urban romance, love loss, freedom and ‘bus stops in the rain’. Can you get more English than that?

Harmonically the track also chimes with that English style of songwriting. In particular the opening section, Alfie and the closing Windswept both make use of chord progressions in the Mixolydian mode. Alfie has an ascending pattern of arpeggios based around A7, and Windswept has chords based around D, Am C. That bluesy seventh chord as home and movement from the major tonic to flat 7 chord is right out of the Who, Beatlesy playbook and the sliding open string chords are exactly what you’d expect from someone who lists Nick Drake’s Pink Moon as a favourite album.

This is really interesting because prog tends to eschew blues harmony. Not all of it granted, but plenty of the early prog stuff was trying to be European and avoid blues-rock based stuff, whereas those English singer-songwriters and rock bands never denied the influence. So there are plenty of ingredients in Making Tea… that just aren’t prog at all.

So why’s it on a prog(ish) record label?

Well, a. because it’s good and Bad Elephant is as much an exercise in art as it is in commerce (at least that’s their excuse for not making any money) and b. because it’s 20 minutes long. What could be more prog?

How do you make a song work over 20 minutes?

There’s more than one way to skin that over-large moggy. Hunt has chosen to approach it by tying together a medley, or song cycle. So Making Tea is Freedom is split into 6 sections, two of them instrumental and all of them capable of standing on their own. Aside from a recapitulation of material from Alfie at the start of Windswept each song uses new ideas to further the musical journey.

How do you keep things interesting?

Key changes, instrumentation and paying close attention to energy levels, that’s how. Jon takes care to have energy build over time, so that while we start off with just guitar and vocal, by about ten minutes in drums and bass have joined in and things are getting genuinely rocky.

The first rocky climax gives way to the instrumental, synthy calm of ‘Me’ before acoustic guitars take us back to drums and electric guitars in the mid-paced denouement.


This is good, refreshing, different.


I’ve written about 4 Bad Elephant tracks now, and they’re all different. There is one similarity that I think is common to many proggish songs, and perhaps distinguishes prog structures from pop songs. All of them have, towards the end, had noisey up-tempo passages, followed by calm that moves to a final, mid paced ‘singalong’ melodic coda.

All of them have been pretty modal in harmony too, which is what you’d expect, and all have involved changes in key and/or time signature and generally a bigger artistic pallette than you’d expect from non-proggish musicians.

All in all, lots of fun. I wonder what’s next?

Home Sweet Home by We Are Kin #Iamanerdymuso

The Evil Label Boss has commanded, and so i obey. Here’s my third nerdy musician write up for a Bad Elephant track.

Home Sweet Home by We Are Kin is a very nice song, shockingly short for something on a ‘prog’ label as it clocks in at the frankly silly time of 3 minutes twenty seven seconds.

Thematically, I don’t think it’s a million miles away from the 13 minute prog monster that I started this blog series with, The Willows by the Gift. Both of them have at their heart a yearning for home, simplicity and freedom, and both seem to associate a major key sweetness with that feeling.

Mike Morton was singing about laying down underneath the willows, whereas here Hannah Cotterill is singing about images of home, villages, community, cities hard at work.

This is your 3 minute song form so of course it doesn’t have the extended instrumental contrasts the Willows had. Nevertheless there’s a nice contrast here. And whereas in a pop song you might expect the main vocal pay off to happen early and often, here you still have to wait to hear it. This is a song you listen to all the way through, not a ten-seconds-is-enough flash in the pan pop song.

So what’s going on?

Verse 1

We start with the main chord sequence in D Mixolydian, Under some arpeggios a bassline moves from D to B to C then F# to G and back to D. It’s in 4/4 but the progression lasts 3 bars with lots of the movement off the beat. What’s the effect of that? It makes us feel pleasantly off-kilter, and slightly dreamy. Throughout this song the modal harmony and the fact that the bass is often melodic and not just playing root notes means we often get a feeling that the harmony isn’t quite resolved, adding to the dreamy quality. There are light keys in this first verse, guitar arpeggios and drums.

Verse 2 and 3

A couple of straighter bars of E minor and C and then we get verse 2, adding bass and piano marking out the same bassline. E minor and C again and then we get an instrumental refrain that’s a little bit more rocky and in D minor, giving us a bit of harmonic contrast. Verse 3 repeats material from verse 2 but with a some vocal harmonies and few little extra textural gestures.

Home Sweet Home!

We then get the D minor refrain which gives way to trebley chugging guitar and some vocal ‘ah’s and some nice piano melodic lines. The bass joins in with a section that builds up in 3/4 under the line ‘seek and you shall find, the key to free your mind’ before we repeat the opening chords, much louder and with the drums spelling out the chord changes rather than playing a beat for the pay-off line of ‘home sweet home, home sweet home’.

I really like the mood here, and its interesting that so far in all three of these songs the instrumentalists aren’t going for the virtuoso look-at-me solos. What’s up with all the understatement and tasteful accompaniments guys? I thought Bad Elephant was a prog label!

Trojan Horse – Scuttle #iamanerdymuso

My Evil Label Boss suggested Scuttle by noisey prog-rock bastards Trojan Horse for my next nerdy muso write up. Who am I to disobey? I’ve seen Trojan Horse live twice, and they’re bloody good so they are.

What’s similar between The Willows and Scuttle? They’re both a kind of rock, they both sound like a band rather than soloists with backing, neither stick to the pop song formula and unsurprisingly there are elements of your 70s prog rock in places, though I think less so in the ‘orse.

What are the differences? One is the choice of timbres. Even though the instrumentation is basically the same, The Gift present their sounds in a pretty clean way. Every instrument can be heard distinctly. Trojan Horse sound like a band driving the metres into the red. Loud and distorted, echoey and gooey and rich. The studio isn’t just there to record, it’s there to help create the sound.

The other difference is harmonic. The chord choices in The Willows were out of the popular song play book and movement of fourths and fifths was common. The changes in key were likewise, G and C being the tonic notes. Scuttle is a whole different kettle of ball games in this regard. After the intro section in D minor it’s mostly in B minor. The chord choices tend to be a third apart, and the bass isn’t always playing root notes. What’s more there’s lots of use of that lovely sharp fourth in the lead-in to both iterations of the A section. At the end of the intro you get it in the D diminished chord, at the end of the B section we get movement between F# and F.

What effect does that have? It’s less certain. As you’d expect from a song called ‘scuttle’ a lot of this is uneasy. It’s introspective, close, insects-in-your-speakers stuff, not sing-along soaring choruses like the Gift deliver.

The other difference is simply the amount of rock. Trojan Horse are a more raucous affair than The Gift.

Here’s the low down:

Section: Intro
Key: D minor with diminished bits
What’s going on? Intro chords from the guitar lead to noise with a d diminished flavour. This is all about the bass riff, as much of the song is.

Section: A
Key: B minor ish but there’s a modal quality to it and the F# sometimes feels like the tonic.
What’s going on?: It’s still all about the bass! A simple three note bass riff takes us around the notes of a B minor triad with a dead simple but catchy vocal. keys melody. Some arpeggios join in, before it all gives way to a big riff that’s all chromatic but centred on movement from E to C# – another movement of a third, incidentally.

Section: B
Key: E Minor
What’s going on? This bit’s got more than a hint of dub reggae about it. It’s all psychedelic echo effects, twisty, mucked about drums and again a great bass riff. We then get some harmonised vox and a beat to go with the bass riffing. Once again the guitars and keys are marking out little melodies and little bits of gestural material, and then everyone joins in for a riff centred on B. Before breaking into a great F# Minor/Fminor riff that reminds me a little of The Specials (I am completely ignorant of dub, reggae and similar so I assume there’s more that could be said about that here by someone more knowledgeable that me). A tiny hint of the intro gives way to the next sections.

Section: A*
What’s going on?: Here we recapitulate the material from section A, in a louder, more busy form. As with the Gift, vocals give way to similar melody from the guitar and a big (though not quite sing-along) ending, before everything goes massive with the repeat of that chromatic E based riff.

The Gift – The willows #Iamanerdymuso

So as I’m working with Bad Elephant, I thought I’d amuse myself by having a proper listen to some of their artist’s work with my ‘nerdy muso’ hat on. #iamanerdymuso

The Willows – The Gift.

The Willows is the opening track from The Gift’s Land of Shadows‘. Its progressive rock that clearly owes a debt to the 70s stuff – I can hear echoes of Genesis and early Marillion here – but it’s also dramatic in an almost musical theatre fashion. In fact I found myself thinking about the opening track from David Bowie’s Spiders from Mars album 5 years. Both tracks give us a smorgasbord of lyrical images and an apocalyptic the-modern-world-is-dying attitude. Both make disapproving reference to (at the time) modern technologies, whether irons or TVs or youtube. Both songs also make use of rock music elements – drum beats, electric guitars and so on – without being straight up rock tracks. They’re both about drama, theatre, story telling with rock music as a means to that end.

I wouldn’t want to push that comparison too far however. The Willows is a progressive rock track and has a little more to it than the Bowie track.


The opening section is all about Mike Morton’s baritone. The keyboards and guitars mark out some chords in G major with tasteful understatement, the drums join in to mark out the ‘marching band’, but everything here is about the vocal. Scenes of myth and fairytale gone wrong – Rapunzel letting her virtue down, Magdalene with blood on her gown – are contrasted with scenes of modern life. We’ve lost out way, ‘weatherbound in our dormitory towns’ and Mr Morton lets us know in the most melodic fashion over descending G major chords.

And the chord choices are worth mentioning here, because they spell out the simplicity that the lyrics yearn for. There are actual IV V I transitions here, almost pastoral cadences the belie the despair of this opening elegy. Throughout the track the choice of key is clearly not random, instead following the narrative through the elegy to the darker middle section and the final major key redemption of the ending refrain.

Feast of Fools

A flurry of electronics and distortion leads to a lovely descending G minor riff over a G pedal note and then we’re off. The Feast of Fools gives us Sinewy guitars, synths and driving bass over a proper rock beat showing exactly what the rest of the band can do. Which is rock.

Except, they do it in a way a straight rock band wouldn’t. The band stops for gestural moments like a short guitar passage that breaks up the beat. They change frequently from full to half time and give us extended passages from guitar and synth. It’s a middle section that gives us drama and impressive solo work, but never the abandon or showiness that you’d expect from a hard rock or metal band.

A build up under a spoken word section leads to the most strat-ahead rocky section at the end of the feast. Here were also find some of the best vocal moments of the track, mocking us for putting ‘your heartache on youtube’ as we’re damned for our modern conceits. Here it’s Icarus staring at the moon in his navel and Lazarus tempting us back to the comforting cold at the climax.

‘Let us go then’

A calmer passage then takes us through some arpeggios to a recap of the mood from the opening section. Now we’re in C and spoken words from a child take us finally to the innocence and simplicity that the lyrics have been yearning for. A sing-along refrain that deserves a concert hall full of people joining in leads to a melodic guitar solo. In this final section Morton’s hoping to lie amongst the willows, natural imagery replacing the trappings of modern life he clearly disdains.

The emptiness of modernity contrasted with a more natural, purer life is a theme that’s turned up in fiction plenty of times, but here we have it in musical form. The lyrics tell us the story, but unlike that Bowie track, there’s redemption rather than a five year wait for the end. And unlike the Bowie track, we’ve been on a harmonic journey. We started in G, then moved to Gminor then finally ended in C major. Do you get a more simple key than C? It’s like the whole track is an extended cadence, bringing us back home to the willows to ‘wait for miracles again’.

So that’s what I thought listening to The Willows. I rather like it.

Right, what shall I listen to next?