In our previous installments of Beyond the Veil, we’ve covered some fairly technical ground — well, mostly because a lot of our focus has remained in and around the realm of tech death. Then again, in being some of the most intricate metal there is, tech death is a solid subgenre to explore music theory with. And that we very much have: from the inner workings of diminished scales to elucidating how fretless basslines weave their magic, we’ve got several pieces under our collective belt that I’m very proud of, in terms of both their scope and hopefully accessible tone (it’s harder to do than it looks!).
That being said, today’s topic is best introduced with a warning: it’s a little out there, and might prove to be a bit much for some, and maybe even those with a bit of familiarity with theory. Namely, we’re going to be talking about the most technical aspect of tech death — single-note breakdowns.
I understand that that’s a very complex thing to wrap one’s head around off the bat, so let’s deconstruct it a bit, as we tend to do with Beyond the Veil. Single note refers to the fact that these notes are, in fact, not yet in relationships, and while they’ve certainly dated here and there, nothing has really clicked for them. Breakdowns, on the other hand, transcend space and time, and are beyond explaining using plain English. But ever since Metallica invented them, they’ve been a staple of tech death, with their mind-boggling use of time signatures constantly confusing concert-goers in the pit.
One of the more clever uses of breakdowns is to be found in tech death stalwarts Sunn O)))’s “Aghartha”. With their heavy slam influence leading to them downtuning their guitars to drop A, Sunn O))) truly embraced their rhythmically challenging side on the 2008 track, with the song’s incessant breakdowns making for a very effective testimonial with regards to their syncopation skills. Don’t be fooled by the blast beats — one doesn’t need to have Tomas Haake behind the kit to make for some incredibly complex rhythm work, and sometimes snare walloping at 280 bpm is really all you need.
(I realize this song might be intimidating at first, given that the word “Aghartha” sounds like “Agatha” mixed with “girth” and neither of those words are especially pleasant to say out loud. But it’s really not too bad once you listen through all 18 minutes of it! Just keep saying the word ‘girth’ out loud, and ignore any knocks on your door throughout the process.)
5:35 is particularly interesting, as the band transition their guitar lines mid-breakdown to make for a riff so complex it begins to approximate sounding like the hypothetical child of an anthropomorphic human voice and a collection of farts pitch shifted two octaves down. Such complexity is only achievable by a tech death band with the caliber of Sunn O))). But even then, the band know when to kick back on the technicality a tad, hiding away the hypothetical voice-fart child in a cupboard under the stairs and letting the intricate gravity fart breakdown take over at 12:40. The gravity fart breakdown oscillates in and out of sounding like a swarm of bees, except bees don’t actually make that kind of sound, stupid. It’s like you just hear something vaguely ‘buzz’ like and immediately associate it with them. Didn’t you know the bees are dying? Yeah, I bet you feel like a goddamn jerk now. But hopefully you’re a jerk who’s more breakdown-literate than was the case just a few minutes ago!
Behemoth are the gods of dark metalcore. Dark metalcore is a subgenre that is often misunderstood, as it’s not to be confused with regular metalcore. It might be a bit fringe for the purposes of this article, but hey, sometimes we like to bring you the freshest takes. Coming from the dark wintery depths of Norway, Behemoth offer a unique, heavier take on the metalcore sound. They still dress like posers as their roots are in metalcore, but there is something clearly very honest about their sound. While their music is easy to play by metalcore standards, they’re renowned for their breakdowns. Check this out.
Opening right out of the gate with a powerful breakdown, 2002’s “Conquer All” is one of the first breakdowns ever made. In this breakdown, they play the breakdown in a more technical way than usual. First, they play an octave chord, but that’s irrelevant. Then comes the meat, as they hit the open string with the first note of the breakdown. Then they hit it again, and they just keep going. After hitting the open string like butter hits cats, they play some irrelevant notes – that’s like the majority of the song. What’s really important is all that noise is setting up for the dankest breakdown of the northern reaches. You ready?
When the beat drops into a two-step at 3:17, that’s when we’re talking. Featuring gang vocals and the guitarists playing at the top of their game, they change the game by playing those open notes right there. This is pure dark metalcore. The gang vocals, backed by the relentless chugging. There’s some drumming nonsense in the background but the two-step is what carries it. This is why Behemoth are known as the dark lords of dark metalcore, and it’s a well-earned label.
And here we go. The first metalcore breakdown ever recorded. One can’t do an article on metalcore breakdowns without the prehistoric pioneers of dad-metalcore, Metallica. While their music didn’t heavily lean on breakdowns like modern metalcore (which is basically all breakdowns), they had some earth-shaking breakdowns that forever redefined the way guitarists play their instruments. Of course I’m talking about the now-famous dad-metalcore classic, “One”.
Everyone knows the famous breakdown at 4:35. Even my dad knows about it, which is impressive considering this song was on the charts when he was too young to remember. But that’s a testament to the timelessness of this masterpiece. Featuring edgy lyrics that were ahead of their time, this song could be an anthem for millenials with ear gauges almost as big as their student debt from their social studies degrees that earned them a job at Starbucks.
But we all know lyrics are irrelevant in metal, especially when the vocals are as cookie cutter monster as these. The real meat here, and the reason we feature songs in this article series is the guitar work. Now, since these guys were ahead of their time and used to be a prog metal band before they turned dadcore, this breakdown is really fucking long. This is the really impressive thing about the breakdown, as it takes the endurance of a monster to be able to hit those open notes with such ferocity over and over. See, they employ this weird wrist technique called “picking”, which helps them sustain their strength over time as they play the intricate notes of the breakdown. There are some unnecessary non-open notes in there, but that’s because these guys were quite old-fashioned and tuned their guitars to standard tuning and not drop-D, which is what most technical players do nowadays. If they had tuned to drop-D, they’d be able to play this breakdown with all open notes, but hey, some of those quirky old-fashioned ideas are what makes dad metal endearing like our dads themselves.
The real deal here is the drummer. Metallica are a band known for the prowess of their drummer, and Mike Portnoy doesn’t disappoint here either. The secret technique to making breakdowns is hitting the kick drum at the same time as a guitar chug, and this is a technique he pioneered. That’s what makes the breakdown notes hit so hard. Before this, people used to play kick drums very sparingly, and Portnoy’s lead work is what set the bar so high for metal breakdowns.
Well, there you have it guys. I hope you enjoyed this look into the deep, complex topic of breakdowns. It was quite a daunting article to write, and I almost lost all hope writing this, and my mom got scared. She said ’You’re movin’ with your auntie and uncle in Bel Air’. I begged and pleaded with her day after day, but she packed my suite case and send me on my way. She gave me a kiss and then she gave me my ticket. I put my walkman on and said, ‘I might as well kick it’. First class, yo this is bad, drinking orange juice out of a champagne glass. Is this what the people of Bel-Air living like? Hmmmmm this might be alright. But wait I hear they’re prissy, wine all that. Is Bel-Air the type of place they send this cool cat? I don’t think so, I’ll see when I get there. I hope they’re prepared for the prince of Bel-Air. Well, the plane landed and when I came out, there was a dude who looked like a cop standing there with my name out. I ain’t trying to get arrested, I just got here. I sprang with the quickness like lightning, disappeared. I whistled for a cab and when it came near, the license plate said ‘FRESH’ and it had dice in the mirror. If anything I can say this cab is rare, but I thought ‘Now forget it’ – ‘Yo homes to Bel Air’. I pulled up to the house about 7 or 8, and I yelled to the cabbie ‘Yo homes smell ya later’. I looked at my kingdom, I was finally there to settle my throne as the Prince of Bel Air.
AH & NT