There are only 12 notes in contemporary music. Unless you’re into Middle Eastern, Asian or some other niche cultural music, almost the entirety of music you’ve heard was made with 12 notes (there are small exceptions when you bend notes, but bent notes are rarely used for the entirety of a song, so it doesn’t count). For non-musicians, this is pretty mind-blowing, because that seems like such a small number for all the songs we listen to. This is because all western music is based on classical musical theory that was established around the 18th century. Even metal abides by this, because most instruments are constructed in a way that only allows for the notes defined by this theory. But the truly dedicated avant-garde artists have obtained or even self-constructed specialized instruments that allow them to play music outside of these boundaries.

The word “microtonal” comes from the fact that you have access to tones that are smaller in interval than allowed by the 12-tone dogma. Common examples of this are either fretless guitars (no tone structure at all, every sound is possible) or 16-tone guitars (dividing the same range of sound into 16 tones instead of 12). Today we’re going to be taking a look at these. Beware: Since most people are inundated with music based on these 12 notes that we all know and love, it is likely that these songs might sound like absolute nonsense/noise, but remember that it’s just a matter of perspective. Different countries in the world can be more attuned to these sounds, and the point is that we need to appreciate the out-of-the-box thinking of bands that do this. Unfortunately there are very, very few metal bands who do this, because of lack of instruments, the extremely out-there sound and the increased difficulty in writing songs.

Probably the most popular band who write microtonal metal are M.A.N. Their ex-guitarist Rob Guz had self-constructed guitars with varying divisions of a scale. Here’s one of M.A.N.’s most well known songs, Logocide:

The slightly-out-of-tune sound that the guitars have is the result of  having the tones in between regular notes of a guitar. M.A.N. still have a tonal framework though, even though it is not 12 tones, so there’s still some boundary to the music.

[There’s something about Leo that just revs Noyan’s engine – Juular]

Time for some Blut Aus Nord, who are more well-known than M.A.N., but their usage of microtonal elements is often glanced over. On certain songs, Blut Aus Nord use a fretless guitar, which means that they can access any pitch given enough resolution with the construction of the instrument. Here’s an example:

Again, the odd quality of the sound comes from the fact that it doesn’t fit any note that our brain is accustomed to, which allows for Blut Aus Nord to create unique sounds that most other bands can’t. Considering they’re a black metal based band, their specific usage of the fretless guitar is geared towards making unsettling, disturbing sounds, and they definitely succeed.

Here’s a less known band that also uses a microtonal guitar (16 divisions to be precise) to great effect. They’re called Asteroidi Esadecafonici. AE are a psychedelic avant-garde metal band. The “detuned” sound of microtonality gives them the sense of disorientation that is sought by psychedelic music.

Finally, for something even more out there, there’s Gnaw Their Tongues. GTT are an avant-garde noise/drone project that use fretless guitars. I’ll just leave this here without any further comment, and let you immerse yourself in it and get as uncomfortable as you can.

-NT

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