Beyond the Veil: Carved in the Swing, or How Swing Rhythms Work

Welcome back to Beyond the Veil! After last week’s detour into a bit of vocal theory (where I shamefully forgot to mention the heavily melismatic vocal stylings of Agent Fresco…) we’re back to what is perhaps more familiar territory with this column, albeit focusing a little more on the rhythmic side of things.

We’re all familiar with the basest idea of a musical rhythm — the idea of an ordered sequence of notes, or beats, which is used as a skeleton to build the rest of a song on top of. More often than not, the rhythmic dimension of a given piece of music involves beats that are equally spaced together in terms of the amount of time between them. And that’s all well and good: it’s easy to pick up and digest, and our brains are good at identifying and remembering such patterns.

Some bands go a little further with that, using odd time signatures in their music as a means of keeping things interesting or perhaps even expanding their sonic palette altogether. Yet some other bands go the extra mile, sticking with simpler time signatures but actually varying the amount of time between beats within a given bar. This irregular placement of beats can emphasize some over others in a way that a regularly spaced out sequence could not, and add an interesting rhythmic flavour to an otherwise ordinary phrase.

The swing style of rhythm is a particularly popular example of this. Explaining how that works however, necessitates a quick detour. Now should one think of a regular 4/4 rhythm as ‘1 & 2 & 3 & 4’, the &’s are called off-beats, while the remaining notes are referred to as on-beats. And the nomenclature makes sense: the on-beats are usually what’s emphasized when one counts that out, while the off-beats fill the moments in between.

In swing rhythms, the position of the off-beats are altered, such that they are actually squeezed in a little closer to the following on-beats, while said on-beats stay in the same place. This causes a bit of a lilt, seemingly emphasizing each on-beat a little harder. If this is still a little hard to visualize, here’s a quick and easy example — check your own pulse! Heartbeats follow a ‘da-duh da-duh’ rhythm that’s not evenly spaced out, and can be thought of as approximating swing time a bit. (If yours is in fact evenly spaced out, please seek medical attention immediately.)

Heartbeats aside, this hilariously excellent video might be a much clearer example.

Before we launch into today’s musical examples, I’d like to make note of the difference between swing time and shuffle time. The two are sometimes used interchangeably, but the general consensus seems to be that shuffle time is actually a specific way of positioning beats that still falls within the umbrella of swing time.

While swing time involves pushing forward off-beats a small amount (which itself can vary in order to result in a ‘harder’ swing, but that’s a topic for another day) shuffle time involves the off-beat pushed back enough that one can in fact fit two ‘off-beats’ between given on-beats. The extra middle note results in there being three beats where there would usually be two (an on-beat and an off-beat). Or as this fantastic answer succinctly puts it: bippity boppity bippity boppity. We’re not going to be talking much about shuffle time today, and so I leave you with this example before we move on.

 

BTV-Swing-Sub-FirstFragment

We begin our examples today with a relatively recent release, and one that is an early contender for tech death album of the year. Quebec five-piece First Fragment‘s Dasein is a monolithic slab of hyper-intricate tech death from a region that has consistently been putting out some of the best tech death in existence.

At 1:46, the band takes a break from the relentless tech death riffage for a harmonized riff that follows a swing rhythm throughout. The swing is very noticeable here, with Troy Fullerton’s drumming keeping the heavily pushed back off-beats in line using the bass pedal.

BTV-Symbiosis-Subbanner-Gorod

Our next stop is in fact one we’ve visited before, but which was far too well suited to this topic to not mention. Gorod‘s “Transcendence” is a 15-minute masterpiece that stays true to the band’s eclectic influences in repeatedly using swing time through most of the song’s duration.

The swing on this is perhaps less clear than on “Le Serment de Tsion” and therefore a little harder to pick up, but is still present across the entire intro riff leading into the verse and beyond. It’s perhaps easiest to hear around 1:38 when the distorted riffs kick in, with guitarists Mat Pascal and Arnaud Pontacq picking the on-beats noticeably harder.

BTV-Swing-Sub-Devin

We round out our discussion with Devin Townsend‘s seminal solo record Infinity, which calls itself home to many of his most well-known classics. Of these, the delightfully silly “Bad Devil” is easily a highlight, simultaneously synthesizing elements of Broadway musicals (?) with Devin’s signature wall-of-sound, and somehow including a piano solo that sounds like it could have been played in some dingy saloon somewhere in the Wild West.

As soon as the snare drum comes in at around 0:09, a slight lilt in the off-beats is immediately detectable, after which the riff starting at 0:27 only solidifies it. Now said riff is mostly a fairly ordinary minor scale riff, for all intents and purposes, but the swing adds a fun rhythmic feel to the song that Devin capitalizes on in order to incorporate all the other wacky stuff going on in the song.

Further listening:
Psykup – Love is Dead
Protest the Hero – The Reign of Unending Terror (2:50)
Novallo – Betty Phage Goes to Bronxton

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Caffeine, tech death, and computational biology.






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