The rhythm in metal songs is emphatic, with deliberate stresses. Weinstein observes that the wide array of sonic effects available to metal drummers enables the "rhythmic pattern to take on a complexity within its elemental drive and insistency." In many heavy metal songs, the main groove is characterized by short, two-note or three-note rhythmic figures—generally made up of 8th or 16th notes. These rhythmic figures are usually performed with a staccato attack created by using a palm-muted technique on the rhythm guitar.
Brief, abrupt, and detached rhythmic cells are joined into rhythmic phrases with a distinctive, often jerky texture. These phrases are used to create rhythmic accompaniment and melodic figures called riffs, which help to establish thematic hooks. Heavy metal songs also use longer rhythmic figures such as whole note- or dotted quarter note-length chords in slow-tempo power ballads. The tempos in early heavy metal music tended to be "slow, even ponderous." By the late 1970s, however, metal bands were employing a wide variety of tempos. In the 2000s decade, metal tempos range from slow ballad tempos (quarter note = 60 beats per minute) to extremely fast blast beat tempos (quarter note = 350 beats per minute).
One of the signatures of the genre is the guitar power chord. In technical terms, the power chord is relatively simple: it involves just one main interval, generally the perfect fifth, though an octave may be added as a doubling of the root. Although the perfect fifth interval is the most common basis for the power chord, power chords are also based on different intervals such as the minor third, major third, perfect fourth, diminished fifth, or minor sixth. Most power chords are also played with a consistent finger arrangement that can be slid easily up and down the fretboard.
TYPICAL HARMONIC STRUCTURES
Heavy metal is usually based on riffs created with three main harmonic traits: modal scale progressions, tritone and chromatic progressions, and the use of pedal points. Traditional heavy metal tends to employ modal scales, in particular the Aeolian and Phrygian modes. Harmonically speaking, this means the genre typically incorporates modal chord progressions such as the Aeolian progressions I-VI-VII, I-VII-(VI), or I-VI-IV-VII and Phrygian progressions implying the relation between I and ♭II (I-♭II-I, I-♭II-III, or I-♭II-VII for example).
Tense-sounding chromatic or tritone relationships are used in a number of metal chord progressions. The tritone, an interval spanning three whole tones—such as C and F#—was a forbidden dissonance in medieval ecclesiastical singing, which led monks to call it diabolus in musica—"the devil in music." Because of that original symbolic association, it came to be heard in Western cultural convention as "evil". Heavy metal has made extensive use of the tritone in guitar solos and riffs, such as in the beginning of "Black Sabbath".
Heavy metal songs often make extensive use of pedal point as a harmonic basis. A pedal point is a sustained tone, typically in the bass range, during which at least one foreign (i.e., dissonant) harmony is sounded in the other parts.
RELATIONSHIP WITH CLASSICAL MUSIC
Robert Walser argues that, alongside blues and R&B, the "assemblage of disparate musical styles known...as 'classical music'" has been a major influence on heavy metal since the genre's earliest days. He claims that metal's "most influential musicians have been guitar players who have also studied classical music. Their appropriation and adaptation of classical models sparked the development of a new kind of guitar virtuosity [and] changes in the harmonic and melodic language of heavy metal." In an article written for Grove Music Online, Walser states that the "1980s brought on ...the widespread adaptation of chord progressions and virtuosic practices from 18th-century European models, especially Bach, Wilhelm Richard Wagner and Vivaldi, by influential guitarists such as Eddie Van Halen, Randy Rhoads and Yngwie Malmsteen". Kurt Bachmann of Believer has stated that "If done correctly, metal and classical fit quite well together. Classical and metal are probably the two genres that have the most in common when it comes to feel, texture, creativity."
Although a number of metal musicians cite classical composers as inspiration, classical and metal are rooted in different cultural traditions and practices—classical in the art music tradition, metal in the popular music tradition. As musicologists Nicolas Cook and Nicola Dibben note, "Analyses of popular music also sometimes reveal the influence of 'art traditions.' An example is Walser’s linkage of heavy metal music with the ideologies and even some of the performance practices of nineteenth-century Romanticism. However, it would be clearly wrong to claim that traditions such as blues, rock, heavy metal, rap or dance music derive primarily from 'art music.'"
Black Sabbath and the many metal bands they inspired have concentrated lyrically "on dark and depressing subject matter to an extent hitherto unprecedented in any form of pop music," according to scholars David Hatch and Stephen Millward. They take as an example Sabbath's second album Paranoid (1970), which "included songs dealing with personal trauma—'Paranoid' and 'Fairies Wear Boots' (which described the unsavoury side effects of drug-taking) —as well as those confronting wider issues, such as the self-explanatory 'War Pigs' and 'Hand of Doom'." Nuclear annihilation was addressed in later metal songs such as Black Sabbath's "Electric Funeral", Iron Maiden's "2 Minutes to Midnight", Ozzy Osbourne's "Killer of Giants", Megadeth's "Rust In Peace... Polaris", and Metallica's "Fight Fire With Fire". Death is a predominant theme in heavy metal, routinely featuring in the lyrics of bands as otherwise widely different as Slayer and W.A.S.P. The more extreme forms of death metal and grindcore tend to have aggressive and gory lyrics.
Deriving from the genre's roots in blues music, sex is another important topic—a thread running from Led Zeppelin's suggestive lyrics to the more explicit references of glam and nu metal bands. Romantic tragedy is a standard theme of gothic and doom metal, as well as of nu metal, where teenage angst is another central topic. Heavy metal songs often feature outlandish, fantasy-inspired lyrics, lending them an escapist quality. Iron Maiden's songs, for instance, were frequently inspired by mythology, fiction, and poetry, such as Iron Maiden's "Rime of the Ancient Mariner", based on the Samuel Taylor Coleridge poem.
Led Zeppelin lyrics often reference Lord of the Rings as well as other mythology and folklore, such as in the songs "The Battle of Evermore", "Immigrant Song", "Ramble On", "No Quarter", and "Achilles Last Stand". Other examples include Black Sabbath's "The Wizard", Megadeth's "The Conjuring" and "Five Magics", and Judas Priest's "Dreamer Deceiver". Since the 1980s, with the rise of thrash metal and songs such as Metallica's "...And Justice for All" and Megadeth's "Peace Sells", more metal lyrics have included sociopolitical commentary. Genres such as melodic death metal, progressive metal, and black metal often explore philosophical themes.
The thematic content of heavy metal has long been a target of criticism. According to Jon Pareles, "Heavy metal's main subject matter is simple and virtually universal. With grunts, moans and subliterary lyrics, it celebrates...a party without limits.... [T]he bulk of the music is stylized and formulaic." Music critics have often deemed metal lyrics juvenile and banal, and others have objected to what they see as advocacy of misogyny and the occult.
During the 1980s, the Parents Music Resource Center petitioned the U.S. Congress to regulate the popular music industry due to what the group asserted were objectionable lyrics, particularly those in heavy metal songs. In 1990, Judas Priest was sued in American court by the parents of two young men who had shot themselves five years earlier, allegedly after hearing the subliminal statement "do it" in a Priest song. While the case attracted a great deal of media attention, it was ultimately dismissed. In some predominantly Muslim countries, heavy metal has been officially denounced as a threat to traditional values. In countries such as Morocco, Egypt, Lebanon, and Malaysia, there have been incidents of heavy metal musicians and fans being arrested and incarcerated.
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