Welcome to “Beyond the Veil“! In this feature, its name (partially) taken from the Gods of Eden track, we’re going to delve into some theoretical aspect of the music we love in an effort to elucidate the behind-the-scenes workings at play, but in a largely jargon-free manner intended to be accessible to those who don’t necessarily have a music theory background.
Hot off the heels of Eden and Noyan’s discussion last week about what’s tech death and what isn’t, we’re back with the second installment of Beyond the Veil! We tackled the fun rhythmic applications of 7/8 in progressive metal last week, but this time round we’re going to be looking at a much more fundamental aspect of today’s subgenre of choice — namely, how the diminished scale is an incredibly important part of tech death.
Tech death itself likely needs little introduction for most of us, but let’s recap either way. The subgenre is a death metal offshoot that arose in the early 90s which, much unlike its parent genre, heavily draws from outside influences such as jazz and classical music; indeed, its feet are firmly planted in technical virtuosity as much as they are in your standard blast beats and death growls. Pioneered by bands such as Nocturnus and Cynic, it has since evolved into its own rather populated subgenre with an ever-growing number of subdivisions, and continues to enjoy widespread popularity amongst metal fans despite its seemingly niche appeal.
One could go on for ages about the many interesting musical devices that tech death brings to the fold given the diverse influences it draws on, but a fundamental aspect of the genre — and one that belies its death metal roots — is its reliance on diminished scales for riff structuring and solos, the latter of which is especially important. In a genre that usually emphasizes solos (which I’ve come to affectionately call ‘widdly’, hence our title) above all else, the diminished sound is a fairly crucial part of the general tech death aesthetic.
But what are diminished scales? Scales, even? In their simplest form, scales can be thought of as groups of notes, often with a characteristic feeling or colour to them. The specific feelings they evoke in a listener aside, these scales can be defined a little more precisely by their intervals, a term which refers to the distances between individual notes in said scales. Most of us likely remember major (“happy”) and minor (“sad”) scales from our recorder-based elementary school music classes, but those, while very fundamental and important to know, barely scratch the surface of the kind of diversity that’s out there.
Now the diminished scale, also sometimes called the octatonic scale, is an eight-note grouping that prominently features many occurrences of minor third intervals and, more importantly, diminished fifth intervals. The diminished fifth interval is also known as the tritone*, which has a characteristically heavy and dissonant sound. That’s a bunch of new terms — let’s unpack this last sentence a bit before we go any further. The minor third interval, which has a characteristic ‘sad’ sound, is achieved when you have notes that are 3 semitones apart. If we’re to double that up and have two minor thirds end to end, such that the notes on either side are 6 semitones apart from one another, then we have a tritone, which itself has a rather storied history but is mostly notable for being somewhat eerie and potentially downright ugly-sounding. Given what we know about tech death and death metal in general, few sounds could be more fitting.
(*A voice tells me that tritones, and dissonance in general, might be covered in a future installment of Beyond the Veil. This voice is also mumbling some nonsense about 1920s bank robber John Dillinger escaping from someplace. And something about gore and guts together. Gore-guts? What does that even mean?)
Now, remember how there were 12 semitones in an octave? Well, those 12 notes can divide up into 4 groupings of 3 (minor thirds!) pretty evenly, and it turns out that that’s another reason diminished scales are used so often. By that, I’m referring to the fact that these even groupings make for very symmetrical patterns on the guitar fretboard, and so playing with virtuosic accuracy at absurd speeds — as tech death often warrants — is made much easier for the guitarists themselves, since they can afford to commit a small handful of patterns to muscle memory and then use them all across the fretboard. To illustrate this point a bit more, here’s a look at the subset of the diminished scale that’s often used in this manner:
Looks fairly consistent, eh? There’s a clear ‘ascending’ pattern, even past the hiccup on the highest strings. Well, the symmetry doesn’t stop there — while the repeated pattern cuts off here in the interest of image clarity, this pattern actually repeats across the entire fretboard. This means that furious low-end riffs and lightning-fast solos in the upper register alike can essentially be based on the exact same note grouping and still sound completely consistent. It’s so simple that it’s almost a cop-out, really, albeit one that has maintained its sonic bite throughout the years.
Now that we’ve got the lowdown on what diminished scales are, let’s get to their actual applications in the realm of tech death!
The first stop on today’s journey is in the realm of Canadian tech death kings and “stay tech” progenitors Archspire, a band that has positively enraptured the scene with merely two albums over the past half a decade. While everyone at the band is unbelievably proficient at what they do, the twin 7 and 8 string guitar attack of Dean Lamb and Tobi Morelli is particularly mind-blowing, and — in staying true to the tech death legends they draw influence from — the duo make heavy use of diminished scales in their music. Now even if their polished and masterful sophomore album The Lucid Collective may have been the record that drove them to tech death stardom, debut All Shall Align certainly has its moments. Of the album’s 7 tracks, live staple “Rapid Elemental Dissolve” in particular features Lamb demonstrating his diminished chops like nothing else before it.
Notice the patterns being played, and how the exact same shape is shifted up 3 semitones (a minor third, if we recall) to the same effect. A second diminished tapping lick can be found at 3:02, wherein the same shape is transposed once again with no loss whatsoever in sonic consistency. This allows for extremely rapid leads with a very characteristic sound to be played with comparative ease. In addition, pay attention to the right-panned guitar track (played by Morelli) at 3:07, when Lamb plays the same lick higher up the fretboard — it matches the left-panned guitar line perfectly, and as it turns out, it’s actually the exact same diminished shape played 3 semitones down.
Diminished licks aside, how’s about a full blown diminished solo? Blotted Science, a three-piece instrumental project fronted by massively underrated* guitarist (and godfather of tech death) Ron Jarzombek, has got us covered there. On “Synaptic Plasticity” off of their debut The Machinations of Dementia, Jarzombek breaks up an onslaught of rhythmically tricky riffs with a solo that starts with some intense diminished scale usage.
The solo starts on the low end, making its way up an easily recognizable diminished scale, before the very same lick is repeated a minor third higher. Jarzombek then immediately jumps to a much higher register, playing a quick diminished figure that he then repeats a minor third down and again further down. Once again, despite the blistering speed, no note sounds out of place, given that it’s the same 4 notes 3 semitones apart from one another that are being played over and over across the fretboard.
(*I have plugged Blotted Science in a previous article, but only because they deserve so much more attention than they continue to get. If you’re into tech death at all, this album deserves your time. I mean it)
Today’s article concludes with the infamous Necrophagist, a band so infamous that it seems one can no longer bring them up without making mention of their infamy. Or is that just me? Either way, the story remains that tech death legend and man of mystery Muhammed Suiçmez famously recorded the band’s debut Onset of Putrefaction all by himself, and the death metal world slowly but gradually began to take notice of the man’s superhuman guitar talent. The attention was well deserved; even if Necrophagist have been MIA for the past twelve years now, Suiçmez’s seamless fusion of tech death guitar playing with neo-classical elements made a huge mark on the subgenre that continues to influence bands today.
Onset‘s first track, “Foul Body Autopsy” is a quick two minute romp that wasted absolutely no time in getting its point across and then calling it a day. But it is also a study in diminished scales, in that aside from the first few seconds and the main solo, the song is based entirely on the diminished sound:
For a device so simple, it seems that diminished scales somehow retain their quality beautifully in making for such a crucial part of tech death. Then again, its simplicity is almost a big part of its beauty in the first place, given how comparatively easy it makes crafting very fast guitar lines simply by using the same shapes over and over. Between tech death fans and the guitarists themselves, it’s a win-win situation all around.
Then again, tech death has become a fairly vast subgenre by this point in time, and there have been countless excellent and inventive examples of diminished scale usage since Suiçmez decided to get a little overexcited with it all the way back in 1999 — hell, maybe even examples well before Necrophagist came together. What are some of your favourites?