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Studio B • Friday afternoon, 3:30–5:00

Interpreting Metal Music

Brad Osborn (University of Kansas), Chair

Eric Smialek (McGill University) 

Becoming the Beast: Musical Expression in the Extreme Metal Voice

Olivia Lucas (Victoria University of Wellington) 

“So Complete in Beautiful Deformity”: Unexpected Beginnings and Rotated Riffs in the Music of Meshuggah

Abstracts

Becoming the Beast: Musical Expression in the Extreme Metal Voice

Eric Smialek (McGill University)

Thus far, scholarship on extreme-metal music has focused almost entirely on sociological issues raised by the music’s transgressive ethos, lyrics, and subculture. Indeed, the often explicitly violent or Satanic images of extreme metal appear to invite this emphasis. But to seem powerful and convincing to fans, extreme metal must also communicate transgression musically. As Michelle Phillipov has argued, a tendency to favour political concerns within popular-music studies risks ignoring questions of musical pleasure (Phillipov 2012). To demonstrate an analytical approach, I have chosen the extreme-metal voice as a topic that has proved difficult for popular-music scholars to discuss in detail. Using spectrograms, I will argue that the acoustical properties of vowel formants serve a primary expressive role in enhancing the uncanny timbral qualities of extreme-metal vocals.

I begin from a performer’s perspective, addressing the physiological mechanisms involved in the production of extreme-metal screams as well as their acoustical characteristics. I then detail two separate contexts where vocalists have sacrificed the intelligibility of their lyrics by expressively altering their vowels: 1) a recorded improvisation from a volunteer vocalist and 2) an excerpt from “The Vowel Song” (2008) by the band Zimmers Hole. Finally, I present the results of a corpus study on 48 wordless screams that shows quantifiable differences in how vocalists in different metal subgenres approach vowels. By revealing expressive vocal nuances that have passed unnoticed in popular-music scholarship, I hope to show how investigating questions about musical sound can provide unique and broadly applicable insights into extreme metal’s appeal.

“So Complete in Beautiful Deformity”: Unexpected Beginnings and Rotated Riffs in the Music of Meshuggah

Olivia Lucas (Victoria University of Wellington)

The music of the Swedish death metal band Meshuggah is known for combining a rigid 4/4-based song structure with looping riffs in a variety of meters. Some riffs, however, further complicate this structure by seeming to begin in media res. In this paper, focusing on two songs from the 2008 album obZen, I examine this previously overlooked compositional technique in which rhythmic patterns can only be heard to cohere retrospectively and with repetition.

In my analyses, I move between conventional transcriptions and spectrograms, with an eye (and ear) toward questioning what each can tell us about musical events. In studying Meshuggah’s music, spectrograms open up a revealing perspective on rhythmic structures, particularly with regard to visualizing event onsets, groupings and repetition of groupings. Using spectrograms in this way focuses on readily apparent clusters and gaps of visual material that indicate rhythmic patterns—groupings that often align with the aural experience of the music.

This study demonstrates the importance of grouping structure for understanding Meshuggah’s polyrhythmic style. In the context of a musical style that pits riffs against the 4/4-based structure, riffs that emerge as if in the middle of some much longer process destabilize this relationship. With song lyrics often centered on the desire for radical freedom or enlightenment, and musical patterns that ritualize the suppression of elements that break the “order” of 4/4, I suggest that Meshuggah’s use of repetition and variation explores ideas of freedom and rigid control, liveliness and predictability.