Unplugged: Extreme Metal’s Acoustic Soft Spot

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  • Acoustic guitar. On hearing those two words, what springs to mind? Most likely your answer is, like mine, a variation on one guy/girl, his/her guitar, and an atrocious ‘Wonderwall’ cover. I certainly never expected to hear it on a death metal album like Allegaeon’s Fragments of Form and Function, or Considered Dead by Gorguts. It doesn’t sound particularly incongruous with symphonic-metal bands like Epica or Nightwish; their genre-defying sister band Within Temptation has even done a live acoustic album. Folk metal artists like Eluveitie use more traditional instruments such as flutes, pipes, and beyond, leading much more naturally to the inclusion of an acoustic instrumental. Power metal stalwarts Blind Guardian gave us the two-part fan-favourite ‘Bard’s Song’, and prog-death superstars Opeth gave us a whole album with Damnation. But what attracts extreme metal musicians to the acoustic guitar? Could it be that it serves as a natural musical counterpoint to the heavily distorted guitars, so as to balance the album’s sound? Could it be a case of wanting to explore other means of musical expression in the interests of growing as an artist? Or could it simply be that sometimes, it all gets a bit much and the artists fancy a break from screaming guitars and screeching vocals? I believe it’s a combination of all three, and more.

    However, some clarification of the word’s usage in this article is needed before delving into the world of the acoustic. Firstly, this article contains a lot of speculation, primarily because I cannot interview every single band ever. Even in the interviews I have undertaken, asking bands why they do certain things does not always result in definitive answers beyond “it sounded good at the time”: bringing an album together is as often an organic process as it is pre-planned, which will lead to unexpected places. Equally, a lot of bands are made up of people who live quite far apart, so the song writing process can sometimes be a case of everyone bringing together things they’ve been working on and bringing those separate pieces of music into an album. Secondly, the idea of an “acoustic instrumental” or “acoustic interlude” will cover songs using clean guitars, acoustic guitars, and other acoustic instruments, covering the subgenres of thrash, death, black, and extreme metal.

    So, is the acoustic interlude a means of giving the listeners’ ears a break? Of course it is. Guitarist Greg Burgess of Allegaeon said as much when I interviewed him on the subject: “It’s good to give the ear a break – that’s a good reason we do it.” The sounds of extreme metal can be overwhelming to even their most die-hard fans, so breaks of this kind are welcomed.

    However, it is rarely so simple as a band being concerned for their listeners’ aural wellbeing. So, what other reasons are there for bands to include an acoustic instrumental in an album? On a more technical note, an acoustic interlude can slow the pace and balance the heaviness of the album’s sound. Much like the interval in a play, a well-placed interlude can give the listener time to digest the A-sides in anticipation of the B-sides. Crimson Massacre’s ‘The Hyperborean’s Epitaph’ serves as perfect example of this. It is long enough for listeners to take a break from the aggression of the opening four songs and, as it approaches its end, acts as a menacing segue into the last four. To give another example, ‘Resonance’, from Insomnium’s second album Since the Day It All Came Down, with its slower pace and acoustic focus, is a chance for the listener to meditate on the album’s lyrical themes of sorrow. Furthermore, as mentioned above, an acoustic instrumental also balances the sound of an album, stopping it from being an onslaught of metal that simply overwhelms the listener and may put some off from sitting through an entire album. However, according to Burgess, a good instrumental can ensure that an album sounds heavier and even more extreme than it would without it: “When you do have acoustic stuff in your extreme metal, I think it also makes things heavier. When you have that break it’s going to have more effect when things come back in, it’s going to hit harder.” In the same way as a painter may use white to make black stand out more, a band that uses the acoustic guitar as a contrasting sound ensures the heavier guitars sound nastier and heavier, just the way we like it.

    Technical reasons aside, the acoustic instrumental is also another means of musical expression. The acoustic guitar is one of the world’s most popular musical instruments, so it is fair to assume that plenty of metal musicians would want to use it in their compositions. Burgess himself has a degree in Classical Guitar Performance, and so Allegaeon’s acoustic tracks are a product of that: “these are skills that I have and they help me with the heavy end.” That his classical guitar skills help with the heavy end is clear when one listens to the kind of classical guitar music he lists as influential and compares it to his playing in Allegaeon. Taking from Burgess’ admiration of Agustin Barrios Mangore, one can hear the influence of works like ‘La Catedral: Allegro Solemne’ on Burgess’ playing with Allegaeon, both heavy and classical. But a degree in classical guitar is not necessary to play music on it. Other metal musicians may simply be using it to explore means of musical expression beyond the heavily distorted guitars of extreme metal. Burgess confirms this: “[Metal musicians] love metal, I love it, but I listen to and play a lot more than just that.” On the subject of influence, it is worth pointing out that the acoustic instrumental has existed in metal since its early days. To choose from many examples, Randy Rhoads wrote ‘Dee’ for Blizzard of Ozz, released in 1980; Annihilator’s debut album Alice in Hell, released in 1989, contained what Burgess described as the “ungodly” ‘Crystal Ann’; King Diamond gave us ‘Insanity’ on The Eye in 1990; and in 1993, Dissection released The Somberlain with its famous acoustic interludes. According to an interview with Max Norman in 1982, Rhoads wrote ‘Dee’ on acoustic guitar for his mother, and wanted to include it on the album.[1] Given the success of Blizzard of Ozz, it is quite likely that countless musicians who followed on and were influenced by Rhoads will have wanted to do their own acoustic guitar solo. This then became a trend, and has continued into today’s extreme metal records.

    Randy Rhoads. Credit to planks2010 on Photobucket.

    Randy Rhoads. Credit to planks2010 on Photobucket.

    The acoustic instrumental can also be used to evoke a certain atmosphere in extreme metal albums. Mortifera, a French black metal band, use an acoustic guitar on ‘Epilogue d’une existence de Cryssthal’ to deepen the sense of isolation and despair which pervades the album; if ever a guitar could gently weep, it does so here. Returning to the example of Insomnium’s ‘Resonance’, the album’s only entirely acoustic song chimes well with the use of other instruments, such as the piano, violin, and classical guitar played in ‘Bereavement’, to deepen the album’s general atmosphere of pain and grief. Lastly, Black Crown Initiate, an up-and-coming prog-death band from Pennsylvania, use clean guitars to “sonically embody the starry night sky; quiet, sparse, and full of mystery” on ‘The Wreckage of Stars’ from the album of the same name, according to guitarist and vocalist Andy Thomas.

    Bands with a particular mythological, cultural, or historical theme, such as Melechesh, or Necros Christos, will also use traditional instruments in this regard. Melechesh use instruments such the saz, an instrument dating from the time of the Assyrian Empire, from which they draw their primary lyrical inspiration to both evoke a Middle Eastern atmosphere and to explore the musical culture of the Middle East.[2] Necros Christos use the church organ on Doom of the Occult to create a mock-religious Black Mass-style atmosphere, which forms the backdrop to the album’s lyrical subversion of Abrahamic religion.

    Acoustic instruments can also be used to explore cultural heritage. Melechesh use traditional instruments such as the saz, the bindir, and the bouzouki on their critically acclaimed The Epigenesis. However, the use of such instruments goes further than simply creating an atmosphere. Their appearance on the two instrumentals, ‘When Halos of Candles Collide’ and ‘A Greater Chain of Being’, are as much nods to the Assyrian folk music that has existed in the region since the time of the Assyrian Empire as they are musical transports to that era.[3] Blackened melodeath metallers Chthonic famously use the erhu[4], along with the shamisen[5], and a type of flute played by Taiwanese aborigines known as pgaki flutes, in order to better bring forth their “appreciation for the mythology, legends and historical stories in Taiwanese culture”.[6]

    Another, arguably greater, factor in the appearance of the acoustic instrumental is the organic process of song, and indeed, album, composition itself: sometimes a riff or a solo that appears as a band brings the songs of an album together will simply sound better on an acoustic guitar than on an electric one, or in some cases on a piano or other instruments. Played beautifully on the piano by keyboardist Fátima Jerónimo, ‘Allusion’, from Disaffected’s first full-length album Vast, might have worked just as well on acoustic guitar, but would have sounded completely out of place on an electric guitar. Played on the piano, however, it fits in better with the keyboard-led sound of the album as a whole. The interlude between ‘Iconic Images’ and ‘Twelve’ on Allegaeon’s Formshifter, entitled ‘Vals for the Legions’ on this video, would have sounded overdone played on an electric guitar, and rather awkward played on a piano, which does not allow for the dexterity required by Spanish guitar music. It is, instead, the acoustic guitar which allows the Spanish-style waltz to really shine through in contrast to the fearsome tech-death of the rest of the album. Black Crown Initiate took advantage of the fact that their producer for Wreckage of the Stars plays the cello, and used it on the intro to ‘Linear’, the final song of the album. Andy Thomas states that while an acoustic intro had been planned for this song, the inclusion of the cello was “very last minute, as we found out that one of our producers (Grant “El Rampo” Macfarland) played.” This also goes some way to support the notion of acoustic instrumentals sometimes being the result of the process of bringing an album together: although Black Crown Initiate had planned an acoustic opening to ‘Linear’, the fact that it was ultimately played on the cello was a happy accident. On a related note, ‘Linear’ is, according to Thomas, an example of “acoustics being used for texture behind electrics.” It is arguable that, just as a folk-metal band might have a flute solo after layering the other songs with flute music, bands like Black Crown Initiate might have an acoustic solo after layering their songs with acoustic instruments.

    Ultimately, however, the decision as to why the acoustic instrumental is included is always going to involve some speculation. Without interviewing every band to have created one, we can never determine what their reasons were for making them and putting them on the album. Some bands may do it to demonstrate the technical skills of their guitarists and/or pianists or other members who play traditionally acoustic instruments. Other bands will set out to make an acoustic track to better create an album’s atmosphere or to demonstrate their musical skills on other instruments, or even to explore their cultural heritage. We will never know every reason, but exploring a few of them has certainly opened my ears to new bands, and given me a deeper appreciation of extreme metal.

    Footnotes:
    1. Interview with Max Norman about Randy Rhoads
    2. Atlas Of Plucked Instruments – scroll down for the entry relating to the saz.
    3. Syriac Music
    4. Erhu – Chinese violin or fiddle
    5. God Of Shamisen, a band including the instrument.
    6. Chthonic put spin on Taiwan’s past – Taipei Times

  • Greg Burgess acoustic

    Hi Greg, thanks for taking the time to do this interview. As I mentioned before, I’m conducting research for a piece on the acoustic guitar’s role in extreme metal. So you’ve got yourselves, bands like Death, Gorguts, and so on. You all play extreme metal, but you also include acoustic guitar in amongst the heavy metal. Is it a counterweight to the metal, is it “hey let’s give the listeners’ ears a break?” or is there something deeper behind it?

    Greg: A combination of all those. It’s good to give the ear a break, and that’s a good reason why we do it. ‘Crystal Ann‘ on the first Annihilator record. When I heard that as a kid, that blew my mind. That was ungodly! When you do have acoustic stuff in your extreme metal, I think it also makes things heavier. When you have that break it’s going to have more effect when things come back in, it’s going to hit harder. For myself that’s what my degree’s in, so I definitely want to use those skills.

    What did you study?

    Greg: Classical guitar performance degree.

    You put it in because you’ve studied it and you want to express what you’ve learned in your degree.

    Greg: Yeah, these are skills that I have and they help me with the heavy end. In general, all these bands that you mentioned, you have to realise, we’re musicians. We love metal, I love it, but I listen to and play a lot more than just that.

    What do you listen to outside of metal?

    Greg: Andy McKee, a lot of the Candy Rat artists that are out there, lots of jazz guys. I’m a classical guitar player, I listen to lots of classical music as well.

    Who would you name as your favourite classical composer?

    Greg: It changes by day. Bach is by far a giant in my world, Beethoven. And there’s modern guys, Roland Diennes from France is amazing. Agustin Barrios from South America.

    So that’s your reasoning. Are there any other reasons you can think of that musicians may have?

    Greg: It’s also historically prevalent. With Ozzy you had Randy Rhoads, some of the early Sepultura records had some acoustic stuff. If you have an antiquated sense of metal history, you know that that was very much a thing back in the early days of the genre. Not so much any more, it’s not so common as it once was.

    There is a big list on Encyclopaedia Metallum, a lot of the bands featured there were writing in the 90s and early 00s and the early 80s like King Diamond.

    Greg: Overkill had an awesome one on W.F.O.

    So are there any kind of specific influences in your acoustic playing? Would you say Bach has influenced it, or the stuff you learned from your degree?

    Greg: Every record we do there’s a classical guitar solo piece. All of them are waltzes, they’re all very much in the style of South American classical music.

    Is there a reason that it’s Spanish guitar in particular?

    Greg: No, it’s just what comes out. Just on guitar, it lends itself very much to a Spanish kind of flavour.

    A lot of the acoustic guitar performances in metal records I’ve heard have had Spanish flavours. A lot of people say they had flamenco-style playing. Is there a reason that all your solos are waltzes, or is that how it happened?

    Greg: The first one was just how it happened, and then people loved it so much that I just kept doing it, and it made sense to do three of them. And now I’m going to go off and explore other dance forms, or whatever it happens to be that comes out. Three of them. They’ll get their little package and then we’ll move on – explore other dance forms.

    Do you have a specific favourite acoustic interlude?

    Greg: That one on the W.F.O. record ‘R.I.P. (Undone)‘. That one always stuck with me. Randy Rhoads’ ‘Dee’ on Blizzard of Ozz. That was a huge one in my life. Sepultura’s record, the one before Beneath the Remains.

    A lot of people put ‘Into the Forest’ by Blind Guardian up as a huge one. Are Blind Guardian a band that you particularly listen to?

    Greg: I love Blind Guardian. I have every record, I really got into A Night at the Opera. I did it all at one time.

    I like A Night At The Opera too. Glad to hear you say you like it as well!

    Greg: I was going to say: I was in Edmonton, Canada, years ago and I bought it, and it said “most influential band since Iron Maiden.” That’s quite an accolade! That’s just what the sticker said on the CD, so I bought it, and it was really sweet.

    Thank you very much for your time, and for the interesting answers!

    Greg: Definitely a piece of metal history that should be talked about.

  • Andy Thomas live

    Photo credit: Dave Maltais

    Hi Andy, thanks very much for your time. As I mentioned before, I’m conducting research for a piece on the acoustic guitar’s role in extreme metal. So you’ve got yourselves, bands like Death, Gorguts, and so on. You all play extreme metal, but you also include acoustic guitar in amongst the heavy metal. What do you think is the reason that bands as extreme as yourselves put these interludes in?

    Andy: One of our primary musical goals is to make dynamic music that reflects life. Life isn’t always fast, slow, loud, or quiet. It is all of those things, and an acoustic guitar is a wonderful tool to make music sound small. It also has a very pure sound. I’ve always loved the sound of someone’s fingers moving on an acoustic, ever since I was a child. At the same time, acoustics are great for mixing in during heavy parts for added texture. Opeth and Mastodon are great at this.

    Could you explain the evolution process behind the Eastern-sounding intro on ‘Great Mistake’?

    Andy: Rik [Stelzpflug], our other guitarist, wrote the intro and main theme to that song. It reminds me of something from Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut. It is based around the Phrygian Dominant scale, which has a very exotic sound. In the studio, we doubled the intro with my Martin D-15, and it sounds killer.

    What inspired the more mournful atmosphere on ‘The Wreckage of Stars’? Was there a reason why the lyrics come in later in the song after the blend of acoustic and electric guitar riffs?

    Andy: Our bassist, Nick [Shaw], composed that song in entirety. He has a knack for writing tragic sounding music. While there are no acoustics on that song, there are a great deal of clean guitars. We wanted that track to sonically embody the starry night sky; quiet, sparse, and full of mystery. The lyrics are sparse as well. We wanted to let the music brood and build, and as a lyricist, I always try to say more with less. The words are very personal to me.

    A lot of guitar-focused acoustic instrumentals have a Spanish flavour to them. What do you think the reason is for this, and is there a reason you gave ‘Purge’ a Spanish-style intro?

    Andy: It is interesting that you hear that. “Purge” is based around a Lydian chord (CMaj9#11) along with some unorthodox chord harmonization. The Lydian scale doesn’t strike me as particularly Spanish, but music is relative, so what you hear is your own! That being said, we love Phrygian and Phrygian Dominant type stuff, so the Spanish flair is totally present.

    What about the the inclusion of violins and acoustic guitar in the intro to ‘Linear’, was this perhaps a ‘calm before the final storm’ approach?

    Andy: The inclusion of cello in that song was very last minute, as we found out that one of our producers (Grant “El Rampo” Macfarland) played. It made sense because we did have the acoustic intro planned. That song is another example of acoustics being used for texture behind electrics. I want to do more of that in the future.

    Do you think there is any merit in the idea that a lot of acoustic instrumentals come about through the organic process of composition? Some bands may compose riffs on an acoustic guitar, intending to translate them to electric guitars, and then decide at the last minute to leave them as acoustic, for example. Is this something that’s happened with Black Crown Initiate?

    Andy: I personally never write on acoustic but, again, always keep dynamics in mind. Certain parts lend themselves to being played on acoustic, and the music always reveals that. Songs fight to get what they need!

    Lastly, do you have any favourite acoustic instrumentals you’d like to share?

    Andy: I love acoustic music. Some great examples would be Friday Night In San Francisco featuring John Mclaughlin, Paco De Lucia, and Al Dimeola. ‘Aerial Boundaries‘ by Michael Hedges, Five Leaves Left by Nick Drake, and anything by Opeth or Mastodon, if you want to hear great textural acoustics!

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