WHY DISCO DOESN’T SUCK: A Guide to EDM for Metalheads
“I’m supposed to hate this stuff….so why do I keep hearing things I like?”
If some sort of artistic holocaust wiped out all music besides heavy metal, I’d still have most of what I need. My CD collection would be largely spared. But I’ve learned through experience that EVERY genre of music has something to offer – even ones I can confidently say I’m not a fan of: jazz, reggae, hip hop, country and western, surf rock, pop punk, urban, or most fine music. Those all have a few artists – even just a few songs – that I enjoy. We all have our non-metal diversions, even if we have to rationalize them as guilty pleasures, or explaining that “It’s just a break from what I usually listen to.”
So far, so boring. But few of us – even music critics – seem to examine the building blocks of what we like. Many record reviews I’ve read are just comparing one metal record to another, often by the same artist. Why that critic, or you the fan, should be listening to a metal record at all, is just a given. If people didn’t like metal, they wouldn’t be reading a review in Kerrang!, right?
Consider this: You’ve read plenty of doom metal record reviews that compared aspects of the music on offer to Black Sabbath since that’s a likely reference point for the readership. Whereas Slayer or Darkthrone reviews don’t tend to feature comparisons of their art with Diamanda Galas or Tori Amos – even though we’ve known for years that there are many listeners who enjoy all four, and presumably get something similar out of them.
What got me pondering this is my receptiveness to a genre many metalheads seem not to enjoy: Electronic dance music. I’m ready to be corrected; if you personally love dance music AND metal then cut me down in the comment thread. But I think the stereotype of the ’70s hard rock fan with the “Disco Sucks” T-shirt is still prevalent enough today to justify me blogging about it.
First, some context: I don’t actually have more than a handful of dance music CDs in my collection. I can’t dance and I’ve never been to a rave. I don’t hang out with ravers or follow developments in that scene. My engagement with EDM amounts to little more than occasionally hearing a song I like, tracking it down on the Information Super-Highway, and bunging it on a mix-tape for the car.
And yet – force me to listen to a dance music radio station for an hour and I’ll be less irritated than having to sit through an hour of radio rock; even though conventional wisdom dictates that radio rock is closer to metal than dance music, however risible. Moreover, there are some EDM numbers that I never get tired of hearing, that resonate with me just as deeply as any classic metal song. I’ll share some here.
But what I really want to do is examine, in depth, exactly HOW it’s possible for a metalhead to like “disco” in a methodical way which might reveal something about your own tastes across any and all genres. If you’re partial to a side-order of bluegrass because “it’s a break from what I usually listen to”, maybe you’ll discover you like bluegrass because it’s not such a break at all.
Have you ever broken down what you like to hear and assessed it the way a student of composition, a musicologist or a record producer might? I have. I came up with nine criteria…
1) I usually prefer music with a prominent back-beat.
This one’s self-explanatory: Banging your head to Judas Priest’s “Painkiller” is easier than to Strauss’s “Blue Danube”, right? So in other words, I favour music where the percussion is driving the music and controlling the tempo rather than just accompanying, as in folk music, or “skittering around” like in polite jazz.
Obviously there are exceptions. Everybody’s heard some marvelous classical piece with no percussion, where the orchestra is oozing creamily around your head like a dream of the Arctic Sea melting – something like Alexandre Desplat’s soundtrack to the movie Birth:
So with that preference established, does electronic dance music have a “prominent back-beat?”
Well, it isn’t colloquialized as “doof” for nothing.
2) I prefer music which is composed, not improvised.
Music doesn’t have to be conventionally-structured to interest me, but the majority of my record collection features material presented in verses, choruses, bridges, breakdowns, intros, and codas. The structure can be one-riff simple or three-movement complex, but I definitely prefer something that sounds planned. Jammed out music, I find, tends to overstay the welcome afforded whatever idea the musicians cooked up. Plus, if I like an idea or phrase, I usually want to hear it again; improvisation doesn’t guarantee I will. My preference here also ties into my enthusiasm for music which progresses within the repetition of motifs, rather than wandering around a scale, as in blues. And the repetition of motifs (ie: riffs) is what separates heavy metal from its acid rock ancestor.
Again, there are exceptions. I quite enjoy Indian ragas for example. More to the point, I don’t expect a guitar shred solo to be planned right down to the finger-tap. But having a consistent riff or bass line underneath that is the usual convention, which I’ve gotten used to.
To an extent, even I’ll allow that great musicians have a get-out-of-jail-free card when it comes to jamming. Especially when they’re Terry Bozzio, Gordon Liddy Tony Levin and Steve Stevens (Billy Idol’s guitarist with the Nikki Sixx hairdo…who’da thunk the guy who played the “Top Gun Anthem” hid such versatility?!):
So does EDM feature composed songs?
Programming is just computer-age composition.
What’s interesting about electronica is that the production techniques are part of the composition: There are a lot of “sculpted” sound-effects used like phasing, panning, variable delay, pitch-shifting, gating, modulation, you name it. Drum sounds are switched or layered to create a sense of “stepping up a gear”, textures drift in and out of view, and hook-samples hang around to run a gauntlet of sonic mutation. The most compelling stuff is invariably the least human-sounding. And the oft-derided repetitiveness can have a hypnotic quality: The less there is to focus on, the more you find within it.
A deeper level of interest is added by the fact that EDM numbers are often remixed many times, decades after initial release. Such versions can be radically re-worked; really teasing out the compositional possibilities only hinted at within the constraints of a 4-minute pop song.
Take for example Ce Ce Peniston’s fairly innocuous 1991 hit “Finally”, which in the ‘00s resurfaced in a moodier, slightly more edgy version – taking a song I never liked and turning into something I did despite having basically the same hook:
3) I favour music – just barely – with a consistent tempo and time-signature.
This one’s a bit contentious: Obviously there’s plenty of notable metal out there with time-signature changes (Try “Black Sabbath” for a start), and you’ll find plenty in my collection; probably at least half of it. It can make for interesting listening. But honestly – as much as I enjoy Iron Maiden’s “Can I Play With Madness?” I’d probably enjoy it even more without the middle gear-shift. I also prefer Judas Priest’s ’80s records over their ’70s ones, when their song-writing became more streamlined. Unless the “feel” of a song is predicated upon unpredictability, surprise or cleverness, I sometimes think that the groove can be destroyed by drastic change of any sort, really. What tempo changes I do prefer tend to be ones that are mathematically divisible – like the many death metal songs that switch from a 200 bpm skank beat to a 400 bpm blast beat. There are plenty of reasons I can get bored with a song, but sticking to the same tempo throughout honestly isn’t one of them.
That said, as I write this, I’m reminded of Deicide’s awesome Legion album, which absolutely relies on tempo changes for its sense of demonic possession, or Dream Theater’s “Metropolis Part I” which is just a masterpiece by any measure. But put it this way – whatever the many merits of At The Gates’ With Fear I Kiss the Burning Darkness, I’m one of those boring posers who happens to think Slaughter of the Soul is the stronger record thanks to its compositional economy. So my music doesn’t have to have changes in tempo or time-signature, and if you attempt them, you better be able to execute them without sacrificing your groove.
For the exception, this time, let’s visit some mathcore mercenaries who barely know the meaning of “consistent time signature” (I dig the atonality and microtonality on this one too but that’s another story):
So does EDM have a consistent tempo/time-signature with a predictable flow?
For dancing, naturally.
And yet, even DJs can throw the odd curveball into a groove every now and then – though not always strictly dance music per se – as in the cut-up, glitchy feel of Aphex Twin’s “Equation”:
4a) I prefer music with narrow dynamic range…
By which I mean the music gives consistent energy, volume and timbral coloration, unlike a lot of jazz, world, and fine music.
4b) …and I usually prefer it loud.
Meaning I don’t prefer shy singers, light strummers or drums played with brushes.
Just to clarify: I’m not saying I prefer music which has been – in those phrases you’ll read all over the internet nowadays – “heavily compressed” or “brick-wall limited”. That refers to an audio production technique whereas I’m discussing performance. Hearing jazz, one of the things that always irks me is that the drums aren’t being hit hard enough constantly, or at least when I expect them to be; my imagination always wants more. Quiet sections in a song can often defuse momentum to my ears, and since I do a lot of listening in the car or in busy work environments, I like it when things I want to hear are heard easily. I favour music which is overstated.
Before examining the exceptions we should probably unpack this by distinguishing macro-dynamics and micro-dynamics. “Macro-dynamics” refers to a song’s volume over time or in different sections. An obvious example would be Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, which has choruses played louder than the verses, creating a sense of alternating impact.
“Micro-dynamics” refers to the volume variations of the performance note-by-note, such as a snare drum pattern which has lots of off-beat ghost notes or swing notes, like this:
I don’t have a problem with macro- or micro-dynamics. In rock they’re often the indicator of a great band over an average one. But there’s a limit to how much of either I want.
Micro-dynamics I actually wouldn’t mind hearing a bit more of in metal. It’s what people are getting at when they start complaining about “robotic, triggered drums” with no accented beats. Although I’ll maintain that Hate Eternal is the most relentlessly brutalizing live band I’ve ever watched, admittedly I can’t often get through their albums in one sitting. But that’s as much a result of the density of their music created by the tempo in conjunction with their lack of dynamics – micro and macro.
As for macro-dynamics themselves, Slint’s Spiderland album is an excellent example of a rock record that spends most of its duration below the red. But again – it’s not one that gets over the engine noise, so I leave it at home:
Is EDM loud or “overstated,” with narrow dynamics?
See “doof” characterization above.
Which is not to say that EDM can’t feature dynamics, especially of the micro-kind. Example: Drum and bass was a rave sub-genre that I really dug; being a drummer myself. I’ve often fancied that DnB occupied a similar place in EDM as what death metal did in our neck of the woods: It was borne of earlier sub-genres but seemed to be a quantum leap sideways in some respects; and, not withstanding some very obvious commercial appropriation at the time, from what I gather wasn’t universally accepted by ravers – just like death metal was considered “too much” by some metalheads I used to meet in the ’90s.
The one DNB artist I paid most attention to was the British DJ, Goldie. The Optical Remix of his 1998 single “Temper Temper” is an improvement on the slightly ham-fisted Britpop crossover that the original cut was, IMHO. Just imagine a band with a real drummer playing this – it wouldn’t be impossible. In fact, it didn’t take long before DnB’s signature rhythms and sounds started being explored by acoustic (and often necessarily rather skilled) drummers. Johnny Rabb made a particularly thorough study of the adaptive possibilities – his instructional book (Jungle/Drum and Bass For the Acoustic Drum Set) makes a revelatory read even for the curious non-drummer.
But I digress; back to “Temper Temper” – this is what I had in mind when I said I like some micro-dynamics in the rhythm section:
5) I prefer arrangements that exploit the full frequency range.
I’m sure most of you know what I mean here: Woofer, squawker and tweeter more-or-less in balance. Audio guru/author Bob Katz once stated that most ensemble music – be it a symphony orchestra or the Pet Shop Boys duo with their synths and drum machines – adheres to pretty much the same tonal balance regardless of instrumentation, but with a few variations by genre.
In other words, if you were viewing a spectrogram of music which displays all the frequencies used without hearing that music, you wouldn’t necessarily be able to distinguish an orchestra from a rock band. There are some variations: Reggae is like an orchestra but with more bass, punk rock is like an orchestra but with more treble. Heavy metal, in case you were wondering, isn’t one of the variations.
Needless to say, I don’t tend to favour music which deviates much from the “classical balance” if we can call it that; which perhaps explains why I first got into underground music by way of punk but quickly defected to metal. Also, you won’t find any solo flute records in my collection; because that instrument, alone, isn’t covering the full sonic rainbow. What solo instrumentation I can tolerate tends to feature the instruments that are pretty broadband in their own right: Guitar, drum-kit or piano/organ. Chances are you feel the same way; because there’s a lot more solo piano records in the marketplace than there are solo triangle records.
Is EDM arranged in an ensemble format with full-frequency range?
Yup. It might all be electronic or virtual instruments, but it certainly encompasses the sonic palette.
I could have used any number of examples here, but I knew what I wanted first: Groove Armada with “Easy” from Lovebox. Masterful orchestration courtesy of the bass, string arrangement and rich piano lines – very reminiscent of the disco that started it all. Sometimes I never want this song to end – think of this track as the ‘70s, and me as Disco Stu:
6) I like an equal emphasis on tone versus texture, but I’ll accept a bias in favour of texture.
This one’s interesting. All sounds are just combinations of sine waves at different frequencies, amplitudes, phases and periods – they’re the only existing ingredients which comprise every sound you ever heard. However, in music I tend to hear sounds as belonging to two distinct types, or a combination of the types: tone, or texture (the official term is probably “timbre” but I prefer “texture”). I’ll explain:
Tonal sounds, in combination or series, tend to be those which the listener describes by referring to emotional or psychological feeling – sad, hypnotic, scary, happy, triumphant, joyous, urgent, maudlin, etc. They’re also where most of the melodic aspect of the music resides, which is why we typically describe scales and chords – which are just combinations or sequences of tones and semitones – using those same terms.
Textural sounds tend to be those which are characterized by resorting to physical feeling, ie: hard, harsh, noisy, solid, brittle, grainy, warm, icy, and so on; or by analogizing with other non-musical sounds in daily life, such as: “That guitar sounds like a chainsaw”, “Those are thunderous drums”, etc. Usually this is where the rhythmic aspect of the music resides.
Most instruments have degrees of both tone and texture. The distorted electric guitar is perhaps the quintessential example of the 50-50 tonal/textural instrument. Others, like the flute, lean heavily to tone, while the castanet is all texture. Rack toms can be used to play rhythm (as usual in rock) or melody, and thus skew either way depending on how you tune them. Have a listen to the drummer from Finnish jazz group Trio Töykeät try his hand at covering Black Sabbath’s “Paranoid” using his toms to convey the melody – not something you often hear from actual metal drummers, but possibly the coolest thing I’ll post here!
As suggested by its name, heavy metal would be nothing without texture. Well, it’d be something, but not metal. Since the percussion in metal isn’t very tonal, you’d have to eliminate the drums completely. You’d also have to bypass the distortion pedals and take all the grit out of the vocals. Basically, if you “shaved all the edges off”, metal would sound like an early-generation synthesizer playing minor-scale runs with nearly pure tone. In fact, “The Dream is Always the Same” by Tangerine Dream is easy to picture as an instrumental speed metal song (of sorts) if you listen and imagine adding drums, plus envisioning the texture of several metal guitars handling the various melody lines. I like this song – but I’d probably enjoy it at least as much if a metal band covered it:
Now, for balance let’s have something exclusively textural – Merzbow’s “Woodpecker No.1”. I think you’ll get the idea!
Does EDM boast plenty of texture as well as tone?
Sure; especially in the less mainstream stuff. And plenty of variety in texture is featured, too. Again, there’s plenty of examples I could have picked; so it’s a bit of a cop-out to nominate an artist I’ve already cited – but I’ll revisit Goldie via another cut from his sophomore album because it effectively showcases an artist boasting mastery of both tone and texture. The album in question, Saturnzreturn, was an ambitious double-CD, and the opening track on the first disc was an hour-long piece in four movements which segued between ambient noise, orchestral fine music, nightmarishly textural jungle, and then back to orchestral again.
I don’t think he got the aesthetic balance quite right. The DnB makes up barely a third of the composition, and I gather many listeners find the orchestral sections cheesy and prolonged. But the idea is inspired, and the transitions between the various movements are, as I said, masterful – if you can get through it:
7) I prefer melodies that use minor – rather than major – intervals, keys and chords.
I’m betraying a lack of formal training in musical theory here; so jump in and correct my assumptions – but basically, in Western music as I understand it, “major” scales are those which suggest happiness, contentment, or celebration, whereas “minor” scales suggest sadness, tension, or anger. No prizes for guessing which side of the ledger most metal lands on: Plenty of Aeolian hurt, Phrygian pain and suchlike. For me, these provide timely foil to metal’s obligatory helpings of chromatic riffage, power chords, atonality and dissonance.
For example, the Aeolian mode’s compatibility with metal is well-demonstrated by Lacuna Coil covering REM’s “Losing My Religion” (which utilizes Aeolian). You mightn’t like either band, or the song (I certainly never enjoyed the original); but listening to it easily shows how Lacuna Coil could accomplish this “metalization” while barely having to alter the melody lines:
There aren’t many exceptions for me on this one. I like shit to be dark, evil, brooding, or at least having a lousy day. I can’t STAND Green Day. I don’t much get into stuff which is emotionally laid-back, relaxed, or celebratory, like zydeco, latin, or jazz (or at least the “soft jazz” that I’m always running afoul of), or which seems frivolous, like Mozart.
Can EDM be minor key and moody?
Well, some of it is – the stuff that I like.
For this one, let’s cite “The Price of Love” by New Order; seminal EDM forefathers. For a somewhat impersonal band who sometimes used to finish concerts by exiting the stage with the programmed arrangements playing on for 15 minutes afterward, New Order could make some genuinely emotive songs:
8) I like it when music employs counterpoint and pedal-point melody.
Counterpoint is where the treble line (or riff) and bass line diverge to create melodic variation. I find this really catchy and compelling. It doesn’t always happen in metal; usually the bass line is just following the riff – although that in itself can invoke a pleasing sense of cohesion and “purpose”. Ditto the two-guitar format that most modern metal is arranged in: They play identically when they’re laying down the law, and diverge when they’re attacking you from different flanks.
The aforementioned With Fear I Kiss the Burning Darkness is a whole album’s worth of the most explicit use of counterpoint melody between rhythm guitars I’ve ever heard in metal. The guitar lines are so divergent, if you listened to the record with just your left earbud in, and then started again with just your right, it’s almost like you’re hearing two different records:
Pedal-point melody is something else: Where the bass line holds the same note instead of following the treble (guitar) line. Depending on where it’s used in a song, pedal-point can be an effective way of expressing tension, anticipation, finality and other portentous stuff. A self-contained example of pedal-point would be the keyboard line of Van Halen’s “Jump”; but for a more typical version utilizing bass and guitar, look no further than Judas Priest, who couldn’t get enough of it in the ’70s and ’80s – as on “You’ve Got Another Thing Coming” (the pedal-point starts at 7 seconds in):
How much counter- and/or pedal-point melody is there in EDM?
There’s a lot of both.
I’ll nominate just one contrapuntal example which is ideal because it commences with a lone treble line, and is then accompanied by a bass line that provides the counterpoint exactly as I described above. For the verses, it then changes that bass line while maintaining the treble phrase – a simple yet very catchy song when I first heard it. (Of course, the fact I first encountered it in a strip joint over a typically bass-preponderant sound system certainly caught my attention. I could barely restrain myself from approaching the young lady afterwards and exclaiming “But it’s true! The music really did sound better with you!”)
9) I prefer equal or more emphasis on instruments, versus voice/lyrics.
I like the vocal to be treated as just another melodic or percussive instrument in the mix – rather than a distinct entity or personality on top, which is supposed to be conveying a “message” or something that transcends the music’s presentation.
Obviously it’s impossible to completely divorce the character and temperament of an artist from his/her vocal style; but I’m not terribly interested in (say) Frank Sinatra, Bob Dylan, rap, or country music – or anything where the lyrics are considered more important than the music (I rarely bother reading lyrics); or the music is relegated to backing the voice. This might also explain why I, along with many others, find a lot of shock rock such as the Butthole Surfers or G.G. Allin unconvincing on record. The live show might be remarkable, but the music is obviously secondary.
This might seem odd because heavy metal, as a rock sub-genre, has always been as much about a “cast of characters” – hence all the fan-bitching when a “pivotal” member leaves the “classic line-up”. But there’s the distinction: It’s a cast. Heavy metal’s approach to the vocals at the mixing stage is best typified by Motorhead’s maxim “Everything Louder Than Everything Else” – which is to say that the vocals are mixed loudly – but so are all the other instruments too, nullifying the sort of vocal dominance that you find in pop or the folk tradition.
Whoever your favourite metal bands are, can you honestly say it’s only the vocalists that sold you? I can’t. Put it this way: I like bands with vocalists; they’re interesting and emotive. But if I had to choose between instrumental music or a cappella, I’d definitely choose the former.
In EDM, are the vocals just another instrument, without hogging the limelight?
Invariably. Very often just another repeated sample, in fact. It’s fairly impersonal music compared to rock – there isn’t a lot of storytelling. For our last exception I can, however, immediately come up with an electronica track where the lyrics have everything to do with the appeal:
Any self-respecting Morbid Angel fan would be familiar with the Slovenian art collective Laibach – noteworthy for their highly entertaining, sternly Slavic re-interpretations of Western pop songs. I can’t imagine their take on Pink Floyd’s “Dogs of War” being half as emotive without the narrative element; it adds a gravitas to the lyrics the original lacked:
So there you have it! One closet EDM fan exposed.
In defining my preferences, I’ve really just been describing perhaps 95 percent of heavy metal – and probably at least 50 percent of rock – in a nutshell: Prominent back-beat; composed songs; consistent tempo with divisible time-signatures; loud with narrow dynamics, ensemble format with full frequency range; plenty of texture to complement the tones; minor-key; counter- and pedal-point melodies; and vocals that are just another instrument among the others. If you’re a metalhead too, then congratulations: your choices probably look similar to mine – at least, when you’re listening to metal.
It might all make my tastes seem pretty narrow, and they are; but it also hints strongly at what I might like if I bothered investigating other genres. As I’ve tried to show, that’s where dance music comes into the equation.
Put all this in a historical context and it’s hardly surprising that a metalhead my age might be comfortable with EDM: I was reared on “disco”, in the broadest sense of the term, as were most of you under 40. “Disco Sucks” metalheads of the ’70s are old enough to remember a time when heavy metal was the newborn descendant of acid-rock a’ la Cream or Led Zeppelin: jamming-derived, loud but still dynamic (ie: quiet sometimes), and organically-executed rather than electronically- or digitally-generated.
But change was afoot in the early ’70s with the emergence of multi-track recording, synthesizers and so on. Whereas rock at that time was still largely using the recording studio to capture a performance mnemonically (a band playing in real-time), disco was the first popular genre “born” in the studio rather than just paying a visit for the day: Disco took full advantage of the ability to build, generate and edit music from foundational beats and phrases.
I started paying attention to music in the ’80s and by that time, these disco production methods were dominating other styles of popular music too. You need only hear a ZZ-Top record from the ’70s and then listen to 1986’s Afterburner to hear the difference. In the digital age, that process hasn’t let up – equalizing recordings far beyond the bounds of their real-life timbral limits (eg: the good ol’ “typewriter” double-kick drum sound), sampling, quantizing, editing, filtering, over-dubbing, auto-tune and all the rest.
Congruently, the blues-rock origins of metal music so obvious in the ’70s have steadily dissipated. Live, heavy metal remains a form of rock’n’roll. On record, you know as well as me that in the majority of cases, heavy metal is a form of disco, albeit an undanceable one – purpose-built, formularized, and corrected. A sizeable amount of the metal you consume was brought to you that way.
If you don’t tick all the above boxes in the same way I do – eg: You sometimes like improvisation, or major key melodies, or subdued delivery, or you insist on reading the lyric sheet to enjoy the experience – then it demonstrates that your tastes are probably truly broader than mine. Unlike me, you’re perhaps a fan of Frank Zappa, or Kanye West.
In my case, the similarity between what I often like in dance music and what I often like in metal – and in ultimately anything else I listen to provided, apparently, it’s got enough of the same sonic qualities I prefer – reveals an uncomfortable question: Was my discovery of metal simply a process of exposing me to certain qualities in modern popular music but packaged in a manner that appeals to “angry white males” or something? Is Satan really just a marketing gimmick after all?
Getting into metal was never much about spiritual rebellion or social non-conformity for me, despite being teen-aged. I was intrigued by the music first and foremost; and my adolescence wasn’t that difficult. But getting into punk rock via skateboarding, which I did beforehand, certainly was about questioning authority; and at any rate there’s no denying that even twenty years later my enjoyment of metal still has a strong element of cultural belonging involved – I haven’t cut my hair yet, for one thing. Perhaps broadening your listening habits as you age is really just letting your guard down in terms of self-identity – if you’re predisposed towards general musical properties which coincidentally featured in whichever subculture you latched onto first. Back in high school I would have told you that techno sucked and worn the T-shirt. But who was I kidding?
Over to you – what’s your criteria of musical enjoyment? Are there commonalities in the musical qualities of your favourite, supposedly disparate, styles? Or are you one of those worldly paragons whose preferred styles really are all “a break from” each other?
Group photo of Rush via “Origins of fear/hatred of disco” on http://www.ilxor.com/ILX/ThreadSelectedControllerServlet?boardid=41&threadid=40065