The Joy of Thirds

To the British ear, primed for any hint of unsubtlety, melodic death metal is so spectacularly unfashionable that it takes your breath away the first time you hear it.

Melodic death metal dares to commit the faux pas against brutality that is using keyboards.  Synthesisers, with settings unchanged since 1987, play along blithely with heavily downtuned guitars and growled vocals.

It’s as if Satan entered into the Eurovision Song Contest, or Andrew Lloyd Webber attempted death metal. For this reason, melodic death metal is relatively unheard of in the UK- we can’t deal with the slight embarrassment- but is enormously successful in Scandinavia. Indeed, in Finland it was declared a national export by the Finnish Prime Minister in 2006 after a Finnish metal band, Lordi, did win the Eurovision Song Contest. I voted for Finland that night, immensely proud to be European as so many millions of us voted for a bunch of monsters with rubber masks and flame throwers. Finland is probably the most ‘metal’ country in the world; the Norse mythology, the six months of darkness, the extremely high level of music teaching in schools; all this has come together to make almost mainstream a type of music that in most countries is the most extreme form of musical transgression.

The word ‘melodic’ conjures up an image of beauty, and the beauty in melodic death metal comes primarily from the interval of the major or minor third. A third looks like this:


And if you’re not sure what it sounds like, think about the twin axe attack- Iron Maiden’s and Judas Priest’s palpable delight as they harmonise while pointing their guitars at the audience.

But Iron Maiden, geniuses as they are, did not invent the third. It’s been around since the middle ages, when ……

The third is the most beautiful interval in music, because it is the most stable. Unlike an octave, perfect fourth or perfect fifth, which are ambiguous and therefore somehow empty, the third has to be either major or minor, and therefore has a clearly defined effect on the emotions. A major third conveys lightness, joy, while a minor third sadness, darkness or pain. Thirds are even more beautiful in metal because of metal’s basis in the power chord which is neither major nor minor. And also because thirds tend to be played in higher registers, where they are clearer, giving a brighter more melodic tone.

Embrace the twin axe attack with:

Iron Maiden ‘The Trooper’. In fact just about any Iron Maiden song.

Judas Priest ‘The Hammer and the Anvil’

Carcass ‘Heartwork’

Exodus ‘Downfall’

Children of Bodom ‘Morrigan’

Amon Amarth ‘First Kill’


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