The Transformative Song – A Theory for Making Better Rock Music Today.

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“Plenty Filler, Not Much Killer.” That’s a common complaint people have about records these days – certainly one that I could make about plenty of albums I hear.

I can’t speak for other genres, but heavy metal bands, and extreme metal bands particularly, often have a lousy track record when it comes to making albums that sound like much more than ten examples of the same idea in a row.

I think there’s as much great music being made today as there was during rock’s so-called “golden age” – better, actually. It just bugs me that in order to experience a smorgasbord of great ideas and successful experimentation, you’re seemingly compelled to assemble a playlist of ten different bands rather than find one album of ten good songs.

Now you’re off my lawn I’ll try being more helpful.

What, exactly, makes a “good” song? The songwriting itself? The playing? The arrangement? All of those things?

Well, none of them hurt. But I’ve heard plenty of songs that were played and arranged capably, and composed within the laws that “professional” songwriters or composition majors would approve of – but which still weren’t compelling. What is the final number in the combination lock of a cut worth listening to?

It varies from genre to genre. But in rock especially, I’ve been for some time kicking around this theory:

The best song – is the transformative song.

When the theory first occurred to me, I used the term “progressive”, but I knew that would get confused with the progressive rock genre – if I went around telling people that the best type of song was the “progressive rock song” they’d all assume I meant something like “Stairway to Heaven”, and that I’d be dismissive of bands that don’t write 10-minute epics with three movements and as many tempo changes.

That is emphatically NOT what I mean. So I settled on “transformative” instead. Incidentally, “Stairway to Heaven” IS a transformative song, but not necessarily because it has an acoustic intro and an electric climax. There are many, many 3-minute, 2-chord, one-riff thrashers or pop numbers that are perfectly eligible for the mantle of the timelessly transformative song.

So what exactly do I mean by this term?

The transformative song is one where the listener and/or the performer (or both) has changed state (usually psychological) in the time that it took to listen to and/or perform that song.

It’s not as clunky a definition as it reads – you’ll get the hang of it shortly.

Take “Smells Like Teen Spirit” by Nirvana – a very well-known rock anthem that was a big hit and also happens, in my opinion, to be a transformative song. Why?

Let’s break it down in musicological terms. “…Teen Spirit” has one riff or melody line, sometimes played with distortion, sometimes without. It has a bassline that follows the root notes of the riff. It has one tempo throughout its 3.5 or so minutes. It has a vocal melody line. It features a guitar solo that mimics the vocal melody line. It has three verses, three choruses, and a bridge. It features consistent and unchanging instrumental arrangement throughout. It has a dynamic delivery which fluctuates, but only according to verse (quiet) and chorus (loud).

Simply put – on paper, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is about as basic as a rock song gets. Most beginners can master it.

What’s even more interesting, though, about our musicological summary here is what it suggests in theory: If you were writing out the notation, presumably you could just write the verse on one page, the chorus on another, and then Xerox each of them two more times, then write the lyrics in.

Another, better, way of putting it is to suggest that had “…Teen Spirit” been recorded in the Pro Tools era, they could’ve simply recorded one verse, one chorus, the bridge, and then copied and pasted the verse and chorus as needed – and you’d get practically the same performed composition that you would get from the actual, analogue-era recording…. right?

Wrong. Obviously.

Everybody reading this has heard “…Teen Spirit” probably more times than they care to, and all of us know why a cut-and-paste looping-type production job wouldn’t give us the same effect as heard on the 1991 version we know.

Because, as basic as it may be, Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is a song that does have an emotional range – especially in the vocals but also in the instrumental delivery. It’s a performance which goes from vaguely pissed off to very pissed off. That might not be much of an emotional range, but it’s a range nonetheless. Kurt Cobain’s vocals become progressively more ragged and dire. The guitar feedback of the loud parts seeps into the quiet parts more obtrusively. The drumming gets just a bit more tumultuous and catastrophic. The tempo slightly decreases at the end as though the players have exhausted themselves. Even the video shows the audience getting increasingly out of control each time the chorus kicks in.

And that, folks, is a transformative song.

Yes, granted, it helps that “…Teen Spirit” also had a catchy riff and a good guitar sound and a powerful use of dynamics. But all of that would have been of much less consequence if it didn’t have an emotional range too.

It’s interesting, because very often this is the sort of effect that doesn’t show up on a demo of the same tune. Many demos I’ve heard of famous metal songs are basic instrumental versions with no solos, no vocals, often no bass, and usually programmed percussion. All you’ve really got to go on when assessing their potential is the riffs and the basic feel.

But you won’t get the full story of the song’s potential until you start performing it, as a band, and seeing how it develops. Does it leave you exhausted? Frustrated? Fulfilled? Sad? Elated? Well, if it makes you feel differently to how you did when you started playing it, it’s transformative. And if that transformation can be conveyed to the listener somehow – if they’re left feeling exhausted or shocked or impressed or sad or whatever – then you’ve got a good song. It might not become a hit. It might not even become a sleeper classic. But it’s good. Trust me. You’ve written a banger. Or more accurately, you’ve invoked one.

Obviously this is all subjective and personal. I found “Crepitating Bowel Erosion,” the closing cut on Carcass’s Symphonies of Sickness, to be a transformative song. I’m pretty sure many other people don’t. I also find “Obscured,” by Celtic Frost, to be transformative and judging by its comments on YouTube I’m on safer ground there. What moves one person can leave another cold. Inasfar as there’s any science at all behind “successful” songwriting that draws fans like flies, I’m pretty sure it’s got a lot more to do with “happy” scales, or “danceable” beats, or “hummable” melodies, than it does with a yardstick as nebulous as what I’m proposing here.

BUT I know this: Heavy metal songs have a harder time becoming hits than songs from other rock genres – in the mass marketplace it’s just a less successful genre overall – and I do believe that a lower strike rate of truly transformative songs might have something to do with that.

Let me add some caveats before I continue: There are many things that modern heavy metal bands do, musically, that are obviously disqualifying them from mainstream success (should they aspire to it). Bands where the vocalist does anything much harsher than singing or rapping can basically forget about it. Production-wise, there’s a long tradition of backgrounding distorted guitars for anything that wants to be played on commercial FM radio; and any metal band worth their salt is gonna butt heads with their producer about that. The fact that metal bands don’t often restrict themselves to three-and-a-half minutes playing time is an obvious deal-breaker. And lastly, it’s long been established that there’s a limited tempo range that mass audiences seem to tolerate. Motorhead, and Offspring  of all people – are just about the only acts I can think of who ever hit the Top 40 with tempos north of about 150 bpm. I doubt anything south of about 90 bpm ever got much chart traction either; so doom metal bands are as much on the outs as grindcore.

But even allowing for all that, I still contend that modern heavy metal’s lack of transformative songs has a lot to do with its stubborn inability to interest a wider audience. That’s because a lot of metal bands – extreme ones, particularly – are churning out something notably different: what I’ll call demonstrative songs.

Faster. Heavier. Louder. Rawer. Darker. More distorted. More blasphemous. More difficult to play. More complexly composed. They’re the hallmarks you’ll recognize in any noteworthy extreme metal band’s output. They also lend themselves to the demonstrative song. I can listen to an entire Dying Fetus album without once feeling that I’ve been emotionally moved, and without suspecting that the band themselves would feel much differently by the end of it, other than satisfied at their ability to produce such a barrage of sick riffs, crazy time-changes and brutal blasting. But boy have I had all that demonstrated to me in the meantime.

The demonstrative song isn’t played to display psychological, emotional or even physical range. It’s played to demonstrate prowess – physical, instrumental, lyrical. Demonstrative songs aren’t about opening up to people. They’re about shutting people up. Performing demonstrative songs doesn’t win you friends. It makes you enemies – enemies of other bands who now realize they’ll have to come up with something even faster, more complex or edgier than you did; enemies of listeners who are wary of your genre in the first place and can be relied upon to relate to it even less when you gleefully up the ante.

Let me be clear: The demonstrative song has its place. There are classic extreme metal albums consisting of nothing but demonstrative songs which are a joy to listen to even decades after they were recorded and whatever they were demonstrating has been surpassed.

But I know a lot less people who have discovered those albums, or ever will, than the number I know who enjoy the work of, say, Alice in Chains – a band I’ve never been a fan of but who I must acknowledge have an uncanny knack of making people cry.

Bands – has your music ever done that to somebody? Have you ever done it to yourself when writing something – or later, when playing it? Because if so you’re onto something – even if it’s not the radio.

The transformative song, ladies and gentlemen. Have I changed your mind about this?

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  • Bert Banana

    This is all wrong. The only things that can save Rock is blastbeats and D-Beat

  • FrankWhiteKingOfNY

    Hello.

    This article is a good article.

    Cheers

  • Dubby Fresh

    This is really interesting, Max. Thanks for it. I wonder if I might throw a wrinkle into your formula here: would a song that would be otherwise transformative be relegated to being demonstrative if its formula was repeated ten times on an album. I think of great albums like Master of Puppets, and while I think each of those songs is transformative, I wonder if a whole album of just Battery would make that song sound less special. I think a lot of extreme bands adhere too rigidly to genre preconceptions and just copy+paste songs that may otherwise be amazing over and over again, limiting the impact of each.

    • Max

      I think that is a really, really good point that I overlooked. Very often the “transformative” nature of a given track is something that happens at the “point of sale”, so to speak. It’s not that you have to be in the right place at the right time; it’ll have that effect on you whenever you first listen to it (or the first listen where you really pay attention). But it certainly involves a given person being susceptible to a given compositional and performative dynamic, and I don’t think it could be replicated ten times in a row with that same chemistry.

      I probably should have also included something about “transformative albums”, where you might get the same effect from an overall collection of songs rather than an individual track – where the effect only works with the whole album being listened to.

      • Squalus was this album for me this year, hands down.

        • Max

          The Great Fish, you mean? I’ll check it out!

          • Yeah, it’s probably AotY for me, every track is super memorable and obviously crafted with love and attention to detail.

      • Lord of Bork

        I was going to comment to the effect that a transformative album is also definitely a thing, although it necessarily will limit the commercial chances of a band that relies on a listener consuming the whole album at a time.

        • Max

          And that’s where I think a lot of metal bands limit their commercial appeal (again, assuming they’d even want commercial appeal). It is, after all, album-oriented rock (AOR) borne from an era (late ’60s – early ’70s) where making a musical statement via albums rather than singles was all the rage.

          There is absolutely nothing to suggest that listeners can’t be transformed (or patient enough to witness an artist’s transformation) over the space of 45 minutes rather than three-and-a-half. Fine music has been doing that for centuries.

          But as you say, it’s taking more of a gamble on consumer reception – and also, I guess, on the artist’s own talent at making 10 compelling songs in a row (or one long song with several movements, or whatever) rather than just a hit single.

  • Howard Dean

    I think you really hit on it, Max. It sounds overly simple, but it’s the damn truth. There are a lot of good bands, but the really great ones make you feel it. Those are the ones you remember. The rest can be enjoyable and are totally fine, but they’re not the ones that randomly pop into your head or move you to tears.

    This transformative factor is definitely a major contributing factor to overall quality and replay value, and now that I think about it, pretty much steers what I purchase and listen to nowadays.

    • Joaquin Stick

      The replay value is actually what helps me figure out what I determine to be transformative. I’ll add shit to my wishlist all the time that I really like on first listen, but then when I have some cash to spend I go listen to a bunch of them again and end up un-wishlisting. It takes me a second listen to really figure out what is demonstrative.

      • Howard Dean

        Yep. It took me years (and thousands of squandered dollars) to figure it out, but late last year I realized that I was buying a ton of music that I didn’t really want. I was picking it up because I had FOMO (I hate the term, but it fits) and thought I needed it, but then I’d listen once or twice and go back to spinning my favorites (which are basically all “transformative”).

        • Joaquin Stick

          Participating in list season is what did it to me. There are easily 100 albums I liked, but I’d be cool with only listing ~5 this year. Even going back to my old lists, I only really felt strongly about half of them.

          • Howard Dean

            Haha, totally. List season has got to be hugely lucrative for bands and labels. I did the same thing. I’d buy 7 random new black metal albums and then realize after the first listen that I would rather pull anything by Katharsis off my shelf. And on top of that, 9 days out of 10 I still prefer to listen to Alice in Chains or Mercyful Fate.

        • GrumpDumpus

          IT’S OKAY I HAVE FLAGELLATING OCULAR MEASLES ORIFICE TOO IT’S STILL POSSIBLE TO LIVE A NORMAL LIFE WITH LOTS OF MEDICATED CREAMS AND AN ELECTRIC BANDANA

      • I, too, prune my Bandcamp wishlist with a sad feeling of “I wish this stuck,” all the time. I struck off Corpse Garden because, although it blew me away at first, it never called for future listening.

    • Replayability pretty much stems from nuance for me…when there’s one special grunt/whisper/scream that is well placed and differs from all of the other vocals on an album (or song even), it sort of imbues the track with a special magic. A variation on a riff that appears and flickers out in an instant, or a splash of cymbals that never repeats. All of those subtle layers makes you want to absorb and learn the album. Those are the songs I find transformative.

      This was a great post, thanks for sharing!

  • GoatForest

    Well, Max, you’ve given me a lot to chew on. I’ll think on your words as I write new material. I’ve always tried to write songs that have dynamics on a musical level. We’ll see if I can do that on an emotional level.

  • CT-12

    Max, I don’t know if you’ve already heard this album, but this is the first one that came to mind that boggles me as to why it hasn’t gotten more attention. This album is incredible front to back, not a song I would take off here; and if I were to specifically pick a transformative song on display, it’d easily be “Bring Me the Rope” (which sadly somehow isn’t even on youtube). If I were Prosthetic Records and heard that song, I’d immediately not only make it the single/video, but fucking throw whatever money and exhaust every connection I had into getting that song on the radio. This is where rock and roll should be headed. https://takeoveranddestroy.bandcamp.com/album/take-over-and-destroy

    • Max

      I’ve so far only been able to access a 30-second clip of “Bring Me the Rope” on Deezer since the Bandcamp cut is no-preview. But from what I heard – yes, this song is probably transformative to me. I’ll check out the whole album properly in due course, CT!

  • Kyle Reese

    where da lists?

  • What a fine article!
    Many thanks you delightful toilet chaps, both the original piece and comments are properly thoughtful and informative and I enjoyed it very much! Though this be a toilet, I daresay this toilet is the most educational and pleasant place to be ’round the web!
    For my own pithy contribution, I was just pondering the other day on why bands seem so content to pigeonhole themselves into such a specific style for entire albums at a time (or careers even!). That is, as you say, an album seems to consist of variations on a single idea rather than a series of distinct ideas. Take Ulcerate’s Shrines of Paralysis as one example, and though I enjoyed it very much, I am not sure that I would notice if the songs had been in a different order. Though perhaps this is a byproduct of the physicality of the music, that bands will inevitably focus on and hone one motif?
    I also find your ‘transformative’ observation particularly interesting, as I had been pondering the very same issue only from the perspective of my own conceptual musical creations in progress, but I believe you have found a real golden nugget of wisdom there!

    To attempt to further elucidate the issue, I hypothesize that the song, or album, must have temporal dynamics to become transformative. That is, time signature changes or a dynamic mix in and of themselves aren’t enough to guarantee a transformation, but that some kind of dynamic emphasis must occur as the song moves forward in time. Your Nirvana example is excellent at pointing out the effects that very slight natural tempo changes have on the musical and emotional impact. I believe this observation is also consistent with bands inadvertently ‘flattening’ their own music by excessive reliance on strict and straightforward click tracks, which unfortunately have the effect of encouraging the removal of any such linear dynamics or rhythmic variation.
    As someone who spends a nearly equal amount of time poring over the bandcamp Best Jazz of the Month lists, I find the same issue exists there just as frequently; groups appear to prize a kind of conceptual novelty and precise execution of said novelty, rather than allowing the unhindered and slightly messier character of the music to unfold and transform organically. And much like metal, I believe all of my favorite albums this year were by smaller bands with limited reach but unlimited imagination.

    • Max

      “I believe this observation is also consistent with bands inadvertently ‘flattening’ their own music by excessive reliance on strict and straightforward click tracks, which unfortunately have the effect of encouraging the removal of any such linear dynamics or rhythmic variation.”

      I would love to wholeheartedly agree with you here (and a brilliant comment overall by the way; thankyou!). But I can’t help thinking of several songs in the “industrial genres” that I would certainly regard as transformative: “Just One Fix” by Ministry, “Kerosene” by Big Black, and “Streetcleaner” by Godflesh. All of these used drum machines and had no tempo variation. So in a sense, they were “quantized” performances in the same way that a band playing to a click track would be; more so perhaps.

      So what made them transformative in spite of this? To me, in the case of “Streetcleaner” particularly, there’s something about the relentless, monotonous bludgeoning that certainly transformed me when I listened to it. The vocals, like the percussion, aren’t particularly dynamic either. It probably helps that the guitar motifs are executed a bit more loosely; they are really the only thing that makes the song develop thematically at all. But develop it does, unquestionably.

      “Kerosene” is even more of a no-brainer: I challenge ANYBODY to hear that song and not pick up on a transformative element.

      So despite what I said in the article, it behoves me to point out that I don’t think dynamic or rhythmic nuances are NECESSARILY required to conjure a transformative song; though they can certainly help in the right context. It’s the darndest thing.

      • An excellent point, that truly is the darndest thing!
        I will continue to ponder this, because you are absolutely right, there are some very remarkable transformative songs with very rigid rhythmic progressions. To continue your observations, NIN have quite a few such songs, though their transformation is usually achieved through a progressive addition of layers throughout the song as well as the changing inflections of Mr. Reznor himself. I believe Al-Namrood use programmed drums as well, and their latest album captures my imagination in a very lively way in spite of it, so I am hard-pressed to stick exclusively to my original hypothesis! And of course the same applies to many powerful pop and hip hop songs, many of which will successfully deliver a cohesive musical experience without a single time change throughout the length of the tune.
        Then again, perhaps we are remiss in focusing solely on the drums with regards to timing. In cases of quantized drums, it is still possible for the vocals or other essential elements to ‘rush’ or ‘drag’ slightly and alternatively create or alleviate musical tension. And maybe it is that sense of tension and release which gives rise to the transformative power of the song? If that were the case, then the issue isn’t simply the rhythm section, but rather that a band flattens its potential for dynamics when every single musician plays as rigidly as (in)humanly possible at all times to a non-dynamic structure, in order to prioritize precision of execution over all else.

        • Ortolan Pot Pie

          Of all the rhythmic aspects in music, vocal cadence is what I would expect would have the strongest emotional effect as it is processed as both sound and communication. More so than the lyrical content, I think it’s the cadence and delivery that create that emotional shift, as would be the case in speech where angry tone conveys more emotion than angry words. That isn’t to say that instrumental songs can’t be transformative, its just that it takes much more work to achieve it.

          • Max

            “That isn’t to say that instrumental songs can’t be transformative, its just that it takes much more work to achieve it.”

            I’ll second that one, for sure. I can think of a few instrumental rock/metal songs I’ve heard that are transformative, but the one thing they all have in common is that they’re riddled with lead guitar throughout. The soloing is essentially standing in for vocals to give a similar effect as what you’ve eloquently described.

          • Quite true!
            Personally, I found that Hashshashin album to be one such fine example!

          • Another excellent point Mr. Pot Pie!
            As a percussionist I tend to focus on rhythmic aspects and toying with their delivery, but you are absolutely right, we human beings have spent millennia evolving our sense of hearing to be most sensitive in the vocal range of our own species.
            However, I would also make the assertion that most extreme metal bands are actually using their vocals as a rhythmic instrument, rather than a melodic, harmonic or tonal one of any sort.

  • terrific stuff Max! always enjoy your contributions.

  • This was an excellent read, Max. You’ve put into words something that I’ve always felt but never been able to formulate.

    Some thoughts:
    A) It appears to me that you have to go back to the 90s to see any correlation between transformative and successful (popular) songs. I just don’t see that correlation anymore.

    B) To your system one could add a third category: “transgressive” songs. There is music that explodes the casings of genre (or organization) altogether, without being palpably transformative, and while it’s easy enough to lump all that in with the demonstrative category, I think there may be a case for some (necessarily subjective) distinctions. Then again, having exploded, these songs are no longer really “rock”, so maybe I’m stretching?

    Anyway, thanks for giving my brain something to chew on.

    • Max

      Cheers, Richter.

      I can’t think of any songs off-hand that would fit into a “transgressive” category without already qualifying for “demonstrative” status, but it’s still a worthy third category. There’s probably plenty of others, too. For a fourth category, I’d nominate something like “functional” songs – those that have a specific cultural purpose like nursery rhymes, “Happy Birthday” or dances. Obviously the majority of dance music – either modern, ethnic or traditional – would fit into something like that.

      “Transgressive” songs, I think, would still be eligible as part of the “rock” genre if that’s where the artists who play them originate. After all, rock’s a genre that has “rules” like any other, but the philosophy, at least nominally, has always been that such rules are made to be broken. Sometimes they have been.

      I should stress also that transformative songs are not ONLY to be found in the rock genre; they can be found anywhere. I’ve heard a few EDM and hip-hop tracks that I think would qualify, and the roots genres (especially folk) would be overflowing with them.

      My point rather was that rock, as a small band-format music based around live performance (or even just studio impression of live performance) – and as a style of music with no tradition of formal training (unlike jazz) and a low bar of admission for budding artists – is particularly well-served by study of the transformative song, rather than the demonstrative or the functional. Especially since, as it has always existed on the periphery of commercialism and pop, it struggles with tensions of “authenticity” and so on.

      • Oh, I couldn’t agree more that rock (metal) would be well served by transformativism. (New word.) As for transgressivism . . . For instance, Toby Driver often refers to Kayo Dot as transgressive music. That is his aim, anyway. It’s arguable that much of Kayo Dot’s music is actually merely transformative–almost to a fault. But then you take an album like Coyote, which to my ears is utterly transgressive (which is not necessarily a good thing): It is not extreme enough to qualify as demonstratively extreme; meanwhile, it is transgressive in that it is, in a very real way, not to be enjoyed. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard this album (again, not recommended listening), but I’d be curious to see whether it sounds to you like something demonstrative.

        Basically, when I think of demonstrative songs (by your definition, with which I agree), I think of something rigid, something bound by convention–even if that convention is extremity itself. There seem to me to be some songs which, on the other hand, are not structured enough to achieve that delicate interplay or dynamic which leads to a transformative experience, and yet which are too formless, too esoteric, too protean to demonstrate anything.

  • Holy cow, Max. You displayed a superb reasoning on this aspect and you put explanations on my thoughts about the music I search about. Great job, man!

    • Max

      It’s nice to give back some of the food-for-thought you’ve been hitting me with, Link!

      • Ohh, man. You make me blush. I had to support you with this, so I shared in on my Twitter feed hoping it get more clicks. You deserve all the good diffusion and I hope we can get that yearly Max dose we all need!!!

        • Max

          Dude, you are truly a wonderful guy!