Lamb of God v. Chopin

I’m going to compare Lamb of God to Chopin. And you can’t stop me. Lamb of God are a metalcore band who describe their music as ‘unlistenable’, while Frederic Chopin was one of the greatest composers in history. But the riffs in Lamb of God’s ‘512’(2015) and Chopin’s ‘Revolutionary Etude’ (1831) produce the same affective response in the listener, and it’s worth investigating why.

These are the two passages we are talking about:

newer-512

The first is the main riff from ‘512’, the haunting and desolate song inspired by vocalist Randy Blythe’s time in a Czech prison. In 2012, Lamb of God were plunged into a nightmare of almost Kafkaesque surreality, when vocalist Randy Blythe was arrested on arrival in the Czech Republic, accused (wrongly) of the manslaughter of a fan who fell off stage eighteen months previously. This was a tragedy for metal as a whole, and could have fueled a whole new round of bad press for the genre, but Blythe and Lamb of God conducted themselves with immense dignity throughout the trial and its run-up, all of it documented in the film ‘As The Palaces Burn’. He was acquitted but spent an agonizing few months in prison, which inspired a number of the songs on their album ‘Sturm und Drang’.

512 begins with a dissonant opening chord which is immediately unsettling, followed by a high register opening riff which rings out, reminiscent of a siren. The song is moderately paced, slower than most Lamb of God songs, but the slower pace allows more focus on the emotion. And the double-time blast beats prevent the song from plodding.  The rhythm guitar plays an insistent pattern based on C sharp, adding in octaves when the main riff comes in, for maximum effect.

The riff in question is so beautiful it gets to stand out by itself without vocals first time around. As with many metal songs, the instrumental and vocal parts are on a par, neither dominating the other. The riff played extremely legato, the palm-muted verse chords only serving to highlight this legato, which evokes a storm and therefore inner turmoil. A simple set of notes in & minor continually and plaintively returning to the tonic- is unbearably beautiful and demands to be listened to over and over again.

 The mood of this music is only enhanced by the guilt-ridden lyrics, invoking Lady Macbeth as Blythe repeatedly screams ‘My hands are painted red’.

My immediate thought on hearing this riff for the first time was its similarity to Chopin’s Revolutionary Etude. The tortured Romantic composer and virtuoso Frederic Chopin wrote Etude opus 10 number 12, known as the ‘Revolutionary’, around 1831, inspired by the 1831 Russian attack on Warsaw during the November 1830-31 uprising. As an etude, it is supposed to be an exercise in technique, but it is still a fully developed concert piece and is one of Chopin’s most iconic works. It is anaphonic representation of a storm; an outpouring of emotion; instantly recognizable, it forms a core part of any professional pianist’s repertoire. It was probably the first piece of music I heard that really inspired me to work hard at the piano.

In C minor, a difficult and stormy key, the piece begins with crashing dissonant right hand chords, a similar portent to the opening sirens in 512. When the piece kicks in, although the melody is in the right hand, the melody is almost incidental to the furious torrent raging in the left hand. This is also reminiscent of metal- often the vocals take second place to the guitar riffs, the accompaniment being more important than the melody.

The left hand plays an unremitting sweep of semiquaver runs, constantly returning to the lower C, and repeated over and over again. The legato sweeping passages create the same impression of turmoil as those in 512, the relentless return to the tonic resolving tonically but not resolving emotionally. However 512 is somehow more claustrophobic- the Revolutionary has a larger pitch range, giving it more freedom to evoke a storm, whereas 512 has a very narrow pitch range, providing the claustrophobia of a cell.

Both 512 and Revolutionary use cross-rhythms which require extreme precision and co-ordination by the player. Revolutionary gives some respite from the tension of the storm with some quieter pensive passages- although it doesn’t last long. 512’s respite passage is the solo, which uses a wah wah pedal, but the remission is short as during the solo yet another riff comes in underneath, to continue the attack. The musical direction of Appassionato is entirely appropriate to both pieces.

The three final chords of the Revolutionary Etude are three of the most satisfying chords in the classical piano repertoire, a catharsis of pain, surprisingly ending in C major but with absolutely no hope implied by this major chord.

So there you have it. Mark Morton, LofG’s lead guitarist and composer, says of his writing process that he just plays the guitar until something comes up. He collects bits and pieces and melds them into songs. Like many popular musicians, he is unable to explain eloquently how his creative process works, further than ‘just trying to come up with cool stuff’. But Chopin was also just trying to come with cool stuff- is there really any better way to put it? Why should Chopin automatically be any more of a tortured genius than Morton or Blythe? Chopin wrote some of the most emotionally powerful, technically difficult piano music that will ever be written. He tapped into something profound and timeless. But Lamb of God, despite being marketed at teenage boys, have a sophistication in their sound that transcends teenage angst; they have tapped into a bleak and impossibly modern musical style all of their own.

There’s no such thing as high and low culture. Of course some heavy metal is rubbish, but some classical music is rubbish as well. There’s nothing more boring than listening to, say, most symphonies. Schoenberg is absolute drivel. But every piece of music should be judged on its own merits, and comparing across genres brings new insights. If we analyse every piece of music by asking: how does it make us feel, and why?, with the assumption that all music has equal potential aesthetic value, then our experience of music will be fundamentally enriched.

As a child I learnt the Revolutionary in a slapdash manner, throwing my lefthand up and down the piano and hoping for the best with the sustain pedal held down. As a teenager I went back and learnt the thing properly, spending painstaking hours slowly running up and down the left hand scale passages until they became second nature.

And I am now determined to nail 512 in the same way.

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Reflexive Anti-Reflexivity, or ‘It’s ok, I’m not really a racist/sexist/homophobe’

Metal’s fiercest critics have often been those who have completely misunderstood the playfulness and theatricality of its obsession with darkness; the human need to confront the forbidden. In the 1980s metal was beleaguered by Tipper Gore’s ‘Parental Advisory’ campaign, and court cases in which Black Sabbath and Judas Priest were accused of inciting fans to suicide. This sort of accusation reared its head even more prominently following the Columbine High School massacre in 1999, when it was falsely reported that the two student killers were Marilyn Manson fans, and that they were dressed in trenchcoats which were similar to the shock-rocker’s typical attire.

Metal’s flirtation with Satanism may be ridiculous but its tendency towards right-wing views is not. Metal’s real dark side lies in its misogyny, which is endemic to the culture. Meanwhile racism, homophobia and even Nazism exist on the fringes.

There is a burgeoning academic field of heavy metal studies, with some surprisingly good writing, although the discipline does suffer from the inherent bias of most heavy metal scholars being metal fans themselves. A number of scholars have tried to explain why metal tolerates unpleasant views, and some of their arguments are disappointingly apologist. For example one female writer explained how women fans at a Cannibal Corpse concert voiced their offence at the lyrics to ‘Fucked With A Knife’ by ‘not singing along with that one’. Pretty pathetic really.

 The sociologist Dr Keith Kahn-Harris, who wrote the excellent book ‘Extreme Metal’ and has some of the best and balanced writing on the subject, has coined a term he calls reflexive anti-reflexivity.

Reflexivity is a concept defined by eminent sociologist Anthony Giddens, referring to the way that humans continually monitor their own actions in order to shape their own personal narrative of their life.

Reflexive anti-reflexivity is the opposite; a sort of wilful ignoring of the facts, of the consequences of one’s actions, a conscious I know this is wrong, but because I’m doing it in full knowledge of the fact that it’s wrong, it makes it ok. It is actually quite a sophisticated concept, and provides a very convenient type of cynicism which allows people to embrace something despite its unpleasant aspects.

Of course, that doesn’t make any of it ok. Playing at sexism/racism/homophobia is just the same as actual sexism/racism/homophobia because it influences vulnerable young people. But it explains why a tacit acceptance of obnoxious beliefs and behaviour exists within metal. It explains why nutters like Varg Vikernes (aka Burzum), who murdered his bandmate, burned down several churches and sent a letter bomb to Israeli musicians, still continues to make music. It explains why people still listen to Pantera despite frontman Phil Anselmo making unmistakeable ‘white power’ gestures.

I realised that I was practising my own version of reflexive anti-reflexivity with my metal journey; I know this is absurd, juvenile, impractical and impossible, but since I am openly acknowledging these facts I can put them to one side and indulge myself.

This is a morally lazy but highly convenient way to live one’s life. And since someone has given it a fancy scholarly term, I am going to appropriate it, even if just for a while, to avoid acknowledging the ridiculousness of my behaviour.

Because I am playing at having a midlife crisis, I’m not really having one.

Grindcore: Yes You Can!

I have discovered grindcore. Grindcore is an amalgam of punk and death metal- very fast, with blast beats, heavily down-tuned guitars, and incomprehensible vocals which are mainly growls with a few shrieks. Grindcore is characterized by very short songs; indeed, Napalm Death hold the Guinness World Record for the shortest song ever, ‘You Suffer’, which comes in at 1.316 seconds long. Napalm Death, formed in the Midlands in 1981, are credited as the inventors of grindcore. It is questionable whether the whole thing started off as a joke- Digby Pearson, who founded their first record company Earache records, from his bedroom, admits that he started it as an experiment to see how far he could push ‘unlistenable noise’ on people. But Radio 1’s John Peel championed Napalm Death, and grindcore spread. Despite multiple line-up changes Napalm Death have survived for thirty-five years, released fifteen albums, and spawned countless imitators.

I went to see Napalm Death in concert. They are revered within the metal world for being one of the few bands to take an overtly political stance. They rail against racism, sexism and homophobia. Admittedly their exhortations to civic action tend towards the simplistic, but the sentiment is there. I couldn’t fault their enthusiasm- the vocalist worked himself into an apoplectic frenzy, while the guitarists convulsed along furiously. They sang about fifty songs. I found it very difficult to distinguish one from the next, and was struggling to get past the general wall of noise. There was a curious stillness in the crowd. I would later read Keith Kahn-Harris who wrote of the ‘stasis’ effect created when the music is so fast that the individual notes/beats cannot be distinguished.

Can you say anything meaningful about a song that lasts one second, has unintellible lyrics and muddy guitars? Well, yes, if we look beyond the confines of standard musical analysis.

The radical musicologist Philip Tagg asks us to see beyond the horizontal, the standard Schenkerian techniques of musical analysis, to avoid restricting ourselves to considering music based on its length. He writes about the extended present, about sonic moments, and extreme metal provides moments of shock, disorientation, and simple immersion in sound. The most effective moments in extreme metal are those of unexpected beauty- a delicate harmonic, a high-register passage in harmonized thirds; an unexpected change of tempo.  If whole books, theses, Phds, hundreds of thousands of words can be written about composer John Cage’s 4 minutes of silence, ‘4’33’, then we owe it to works that actually have a sound to consider them. There are countless modern classical works which sound no less of a terrible racket than anything by Pungent Stench.

Grindcore Playlist:

Napalm Death ‘Unchallenged Hate’

Pigdestroyer ‘Burning Palm’

Disgorge ‘Consume The Forsaken’

Sore Throat ‘Horrendous Cut Throat System’

Agoraphic Nosebleed ‘Agorapocalypse Now’

Brutal Truth ‘Dead Smart’

Cattle Decapitation ‘Manufactured Extinct’

Godflesh ‘Streetcleaner’

Anaal Nathrakh ‘Depravity Favours The Bold’

Brujeria ‘La Migra’

The 10 Heavy Metal Albums Every Schoolmum Should Know

 ‘Mummy can we have some of that Judith Priest again?’

‘Judith Priest sounds like a retired geography teacher. Judas Priest are one of the greatest metal bands of all time’

‘Whatever Mum. Actually can we have just have One Direction’

You may think that a battered Chrysler Grand Voyager- crammed with booster seats, empty crisp packets and Dora The Explorer DVDs, and with a lingering aroma of vomit- is the least metal vehicle imaginable. But you would be wrong, because my school runs are seriously Metal.

I spend about two hours in the car every day ferrying the kids to one thing and another, and although for half of that time I’m forced to listen to the Peppa Pig sing-along CD or some other tinny nightmare, my beloved Chrysler starts blasting distorted guitars the minute I can offload the children from it. Until my metal renaissance, the beep of the electronic key as I approached the car would trigger an involuntary inner sigh, the knowledge that I would have to waste another half-hour of my life sitting in traffic. But now I looked forward to these musical interludes as my favourite times of the day. Our went Radio 4’s Today programme, out went the audionovels and improving podcasts, and in came the heavy metal canon.

If you want to metal-up your school run, try these for starters:

Ozzy Osbourne ‘Blizzard of Ozz’ (1980)

The kids will love Crazy Train

 

Slayer ‘Reign In Blood’ (1986)

Nasty, vicious, required listening

 

Carcass ‘Heartwork’ (1993)

The birth of melodic death metal

 

Exodus ‘Blood In Blood Out’ (1985)

I love thrash, and you will too

 

Iron Maiden ‘Powerslave’ (1984)

Hard to pick a favourite Iron Maiden, but this has some of my favourites including Aces High, 2 Minutes to Midnight and Powerslave

 

Judas Priest ‘Painkiller’ (1990)

That’s Judas, not Judith, kids. A classic.

 

Metallica ‘Metallica’ (1991)

A controversial choice, as it’s their ‘soft’ album, but let’s just admit how good it is

 

Megadeth ‘Dystopia’ (2016)

Dave Mustaine’s 30-year revenge campaign against Metallica continues apace, and he hasn’t changed the formula

 

Meshuggah ‘The Violent Sleep of Reason’ (2016)

Who knew 23/8 was even a time signature? Challenge yourself with the Swedish mathcore innovators.

 

Rotting Christ ‘Rituals’ (2016)

Mystical Greek black metal. For dark days

 

 

Happy Listening!

Fermenting Innards

I was in danger of being branded ‘dad metal’, ‘bank manager metal’ or, god forbid, hard rock, and therefore not a real metalhead. Other than a few forays into slightly more hardcore bands such as Lamb of God and Machine Head, I was still in the realms of classic metal, with a bit of thrash thrown in for good measure. I was identifying with the good old 80s stalwarts- Megadeth, Iron Maiden, Judas Priest. And my favourite band, Metallica, had been accused of being ‘crossover, ‘sellout’. Not that there was anyone to judge me, but I wanted to be authentic.

So I began to investigate the more extreme forms of metal, setting foot into a strange new world to which I absolutely did not belong. Extreme metal incorporates a wide range of genres; on the more ‘conservative’ end of the scale there are the classic thrash bands, moving through various types of death metal towards grindcore, bizarre types including one called ‘porngrind’, towards sounds that can barely be called music. There is even a genre called ‘noisecore’. Extreme metal is a world where bands compete with each other to come up with the most offensive names, song titles and album cover art. A list of bandnames from a 2016 death metal festival included: Severe Torture, Visceral Disgorge, Putrid Pile, Horrendous, Skullshitter, Excruciating Terror, Squash Bowels, Gorgasm. I particularly liked Cough- simple, straight to the point.

Extreme metal vocals are screamed, growled, roared, snarled; they are distorted rather than clean, similarly to an electric guitar. These vocals may sound untrained and unpracticed, but many of the most successful extreme metal vocalists take their instrument very seriously, using vocal coaches and singing exercises before performances in the same way as opera singers.

While lyrics are indecipherable, their meaning plays an important role for bands that take themselves very seriously, and it is fully expected that fans will go to the album liner notes or the internet to find out what they are and analyse them.

Extreme vocals are pitchless, which makes them genderless- they could easily come from a man or a woman, which perhaps goes some way to explaining how women have managed to carve a niche for themselves in this area. Pitch is an essential building block of language, and therefore by being pitchless, extreme vocals are somehow pre-linguistic, primal, and therefore animal. The inhumanity of the sound serves to emphasise the devilish, hellish aspect of black and death metal.

The top-selling death metal band of all time is Cannibal Corpse, an infamous American death metal band from Buffalo, formed in 1988. They have a cult following, in large part due to their deeply offensive lyrics and imagery, which have seen them banned in many countries. Cannibal Corpse lyrics are truly disgusting. When I searched for their songs on a lyric website,  the first line I came across was ‘Let the anal gouging commence’. Ouch. It’s a shame because some of their lyrics are actually rather poetic. They claim that their songs are just horror stories, meant to be fun like scary movies, and servicing that very basic human need to confront the grotesque, the terrifying. But unfortunately the horrific violence directed specifically against women in their music is unforgiveable; no-one could reasonably claim that song titles such as ‘Fucked With A Knife’ and ‘Entrails Ripped From A Virgin’s Cunt’ are tongue-in-cheek or cartoonish. Where this profound hatred of women comes from is an interesting question. What is even more interesting is that they have female fans.

Subgenres become more and more obscure, to the point almost of self-parody. There’s even a genre called porngrind. On the plus side men seem to get sexually tortured as well; one of the better-known bands in the genre is called Cock and Ball Torture. There were clearly many bands whose entire purpose for existence was to shock.

At first I struggled to find aesthetic merit in lots of the music I was hearing. There comes a point when the rapidity of the riffs render them unintelligible, and certainly the lyrics are unintelligible. Is there a point at which high art tips over into meaninglessness? Or at which so-calld ‘low art’ ceases to be worthy even of consideration? Some of the musicians were clearly technically very proficient, but often their very intricate guitar playing was as unintelligible as the lyrics, and it was hard to distinguish between competing blurs of noise. Poor production is the plague of extreme metal, since recording and mixing such low register sounds and achieving clarity of parts is notoriously difficult. It requires highly-skilled sound engineers and expensive studio equipment which most extreme bands cannot afford. However there is also an element of self-sabotage in the poor sound quality of these bands’ recordings. Many of them don’t want to sound good. Sludge metal- the word itself implied a muddy, messy sound. Norwegian black metal is deliberately blurry, almost watery, with the aim of being vague and disorienting. I wondered at this self-defeat, particularly when so many of these bands contain highly skilled musicians.

But gradually I began to find beauty and pleasure in the more extreme fringes of metal. I know about formless noise; my house filled with children is a den of discord, and it’s not music. This was music.

I began to listen to ‘mathcore’. Mathcore is a version of metalcore characterized by highly complex rhythms, dissonance, and frequent time signature changes. It is perhaps the metal equivalent of modernist composer Schoenberg. To the untrained ear, Schoenberg sounds random and meaningless, but it was in fact mathematically decided. His twelve-tone composition technique was to ensure that each of the twelve tones within the chromatic scale were used as often as each other, with no emphasis on any one note.

Mathcore bands such as Meshuggah, Car Bomb, and Dillinger Escape Plan are similarly complex in their shifting meters and rhythms, their experimentation. They can also sound like random collections of notes. But the difference between Schoenberg and Meshuggah is that Meshuggah intend to create a moving musical experience, while Schoenberg did not have musicality at the forefront of his mind but rationality, and is therefore not enjoyable.  Swedish band Meshuggah insist that they don’t use complex time signatures, and in fact are just playing around with guitar riffs over a 4/4 beat, but this is the inarticulacy about their art that is a requirement for being truly metal. The truth is that Phds have been written about Meshuggah’s time signatures, which include such confusing rhythms as 23/8.

Mathcore was a challenge to listen to but the effort was worth it, and the achievement of simply managing to count their beats was satisfying. Incidentally, another band described as mathcore, Dillinger Escape Plan, are responsible for my second favourite Stupid Onstage Metal Incident of all time, when lead singer Greg Puciato defecated onstage at the Reading Festival, smearing some of it onto himself and hurling the rest into the crowd, to symbolize the ‘shit they were going to listen to’ at the rest of the festival. The sheer number of ways in which this managed to offend is impressive in itself. (My favourite, indeed everyone’s favourite onstage metal incident is of course the seminal moment when Ozzy Osbourne bit the head off a live bat).

I discovered Carcass, an extreme metal band from Liverpool, formed in 1985, disbanded in 1995 but reformed a few years ago, a familiar story in the resurgence of heavy metal. They have been categorised as grindcore (one of the pioneer bands, no less, with guitarist Bill Steer once a member of Napalm Death), splatter death metal, hardgore, and goregrind, as well as being credited with pioneering melodic death metal with their album Heartwork. Goregrind essentially means grindcore but with a focus on bodily functions, dismemberment, and general medical horror. Guitar work is highly complex but opaque, and growled vocals are further distorted and pitchshifted by the production, creating a ‘watery’, ethereal sound.

This may all sound absolutely horrendous, but Carcass clearly haven’t take themselves too seriously. To research their lyrics they go at medical textbooks with gusto, delighting in the somehow comedic listing of bizarre and gruesome medical conditions. Song titles include Crepitating Bowel Erosion, Reef of Putrefaction, Splattered Cavities. They are clearly vegetarians as many of their songs address the grisly aspects of abattoirs and animal slaughter, but in general they are interested in forensic pathology, and many of their songs are simple listings of the various ways in which human flesh can be desecrated. Vocalist Jeff Walker rasps out these lists in a caustic snarl, the detection of a slight Merseyside accent bringing a touch of humour. There is something poetic in the simple listing of words you didn’t even know existed, the wonder of the language.  They have some rather poetic imagery as well, for example the song The Granulating Dark Satanic Mills, which evokes William Blake’s nineteenth century vision of a northern industrial hell.

But if lyrically they don’t take themselves lyrically too seriously, musically they certainly do. Carcass riffs are spectacular and intricate, with incredibly fast guitar cadences and constantly surprising harmonies, twists and turns.

By keeping an open mind, I was beginning to like things that before I would have never considered. The human brain is designed to recoil from unfamiliar sounds, it’s evolutionary, the sound of the unknown is the sound of danger.

You have to work up to extreme metal, and once you’re there it’s very hard to go back. I had now joined the quest for ever heavier sounds that is the essence of metal.

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:

allthirds_0002

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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The Beauty of Power Chords

Anyone can knock out the main riff to Deep Purple’s ‘Smoke on the Water’; four sets of perfect fourths played on two strings only, it’s the caricature of the easiest riff in metal.

And yes-  power chords, the musical basis of metal, are easy to play. A power chord is a simplified chord; whereas standard chords would have a triad- three tones which when played together create a rich sound- power chords have only two tones, an interval of either a 5th (usually) or 4th. They often incorporate an octave as well.

powerchords1

They may be musically simple, but acoustically they are anything but. The power chord has a highly complex aural identity, and when you combine a power chord with distortion something very exciting happens, that gives metal its distinctive sound.

The explanation below will be obvious to seasoned metal musicians, but was a complete revelation to me when I started to play the guitar, and went a long way to explaining why heavy metal makes me tick.

Distortion is the other musical basis of metal. Distortion means to overload, to push beyond the norm, to manipulate out of shape, to put under strain. It implies something negative, unwanted. Distortion is the sonic effect created when amplifiers are played at too high volumes, and it was discovered by accident when the earliest amplifiers sustained minor damage or were played too loudly. The subsequent fuzzy or dirty sound was considered desirable by blues and rock musicians in the 1940s and 1950s and guitar distortion effects evolved from there. Distortion has a visceral effect on the human brain.  Distortion generates higher frequency energy by clipping the signal and therefore the waveform, emphasising the higher frequencies and giving the impression that things are closer than they really are, enhancing the idea of something looming, a perception of heaviness. Distortion implies effort, and since too much distortion can tip a sound over into the unpleasant, a distorted guitar is always on the edge, on the brink of collapse.

When two or more notes are played simultaneously through an overdriven amp, something very exciting happens, something called intermodulation distortion, whereby additional sounds are generated at the sums and differences of the frequencies of these notes’ harmonics. With a normal chord, the resulting sound is messy and indistinct, but with a power chord, the ratios between the frequencies of the root and the fifth are so simple that a coherent sound is created. The spectrum of sound is expanded in both directions, and crucially, a new fundamental frequency appears an octave lower than the root note, making the chord sound lower than it really is. This phenomenon is called resultant tones, and with feedback we can achieve not only resultant tones in many registers, but infinite sustain- the thick chord just keeps going.

This powerful musical effect has a strong physical reaction in the body; hitting the nervous system on so many levels, it’s why we hear heavy metal with our whole bodies, from the inside out.