The blast beat is more or less ubiquitous in metal today. Few other musical techniques have remained so unchanging in almost all forms of extreme music, be it death metal, black metal, avant-garde, or what-have-you — indeed, blast beats remain unfailingly present, and most often in their now-universally accepted form with hardly any alterations.
Now, drum lines provide a rhythmic foundation for the rest of a given song to be built on, and more often than not a lot of their own appeal is in the grooves to be found in between. Indeed, bands such as Meshuggah and the never-ending waves of imitators they’ve inspired focus more on groove itself rather than harmonic quality, and have found great critical success in doing so. The odd thing about blast beats, however, is that should one closely examine their anatomy, it turns out that there is very little opportunity for groove inherent in their structure. So why have they endured so well in extreme metal the way they have?
(Before we begin — yes, there are certainly other kinds of highly related techniques, such as gravity blasts and hammer blasts, but the now-standard ‘blast beat’ is the focus of today’s article.)
At their core, blast beats consist of a rapid alternating pattern between the kick drum and snare, usually accentuated with the ride cymbal or hi-hat. Since the kick drum and snare have to follow such a strict pattern, the only opportunity for groove lies in said ride cymbal/hi-hat accentuation, which is a far cry from the massive, bass-heavy grooves of Meshuggah and the like. So what is it about blast beats that gives them their almost timeless appeal? Why do they work so well in so many different contexts?
My personal answer would be the sense of flight that they bring. When used appropriately, blast beats can bring a feeling of ascension to a riff, pushing it ever forward and upward at breakneck speeds that no other style of drumming could possibly achieve. This applies across several genres. Be it slam/brutal death metal, with Wormed‘s “Xenoverse Discharger” ending their sophomore record Exodromos on a massive note that, well, effectively launches the listener into space — or progressive metal, wherein Native Construct‘s “The Spark of the Archon” brings the titular Archon into the clouds with a wonderfully exuberant blast beat section, it seems blast beats are an extremely effective way to convey the rush that comes with flight and ascension.
But blast beats also lend themselves extremely well to more chaotic and spastic music when used in bursts, accentuating already chaotic arrangements with their lightning-fast nature. Cryptopsy‘s “Detritus (The One They Kept)” from their excellent 2015 release The Book of Suffering: Tome I is a prime example of this, wherein (at around 1:40) legendary drummer Flo Mounier furiously alternates between blast beats and double bass runs underneath a more technical riff.
On the other end of the chaotic spectrum, mathcore wizards The Dillinger Escape Plan have also been very apt at this since their very inception.
While these two have (in my eyes, at least) thus far proven to be some of the biggest reasons why blast beats have remained so ever-present — given how widely applicable both of them are — there’s certainly much more to them, from their genre-specific uses, such as in black metal, to the purely aggressive and visceral imagery they can bring to life. On The Red Chord‘s Clients, for instance, vocalist Guy Kozowyk’s eerie descriptions of some of the people he met while working at a convenience store next to a hospital are brought to life by the incredible chaos the rest of the band conjure underneath, pushed forward throughout by furious blasts courtesy of then-drummer Brad Fickeisen.
Lastly, it bears mentioning that blast beats don’t always have a purpose above and beyond being ridiculously heavy. They’re pretty good at that.
Ultimately, blast beats look like they’re on the path to remaining a widely-accepted staple of extreme metal in general, and I can’t see anyone complaining. The adrenaline rush they can bring to a listener is unmatched, and despite their rather straightforward structure, their uses (and potential uses) are almost unquantifiable.
But I’ve said enough — what are some of your favourite blast beat moments/uses in metal and beyond?