Where do solos fit into metal today? With the genre being as astonishingly diverse as it is — with regards to its rich history and evolution as well as the current state of things on its own terms — finding a simple answer to that question is no easy feat.
As far as progressive metal goes, there has certainly been a push towards more a lead oriented sound. Instrumental progressive metal in particular has some of its foundations in the works of 80s and 90s virtuosic shred metal heroes, who eventually found themselves out of fashion with the advent of nu metal and more aggressive forms of metal in general. That’s not to say solos disappeared entirely: on the heavier end of the spectrum, bands such as Slayer, and perhaps to a lesser extent Morbid Angel, both continued to eschew squeaky clean soloing in favour of furious, angry shredding, On the whole, however lead-oriented metal slowly found itself shoved by the wayside at first, only to have a dramatic resurgence with the advent of a more progressive sound.
That being said, modern soloing certainly doesn’t stop at progressive metal. The continued diversification of metal’s various subgenres has led to solos that serve all sorts of purposes within the context of a given song, from simply reiterating the core melody in a fairly climactic manner to essentially being the entire focus of the song from start to finish. From the chaotic and spastic to the most graceful — at least among those that particularly guitar-oriented metal has seen — here is a selection that highlights some of the various contexts in which modern metal guitar players have used the timeless guitar solo.
Our Oceans – “Tangled” – Our Oceans (2015)
Our discussion incidentally begins with a very recent release (at the time of writing). Our Oceans is a project born out of instrumental progressive metal outfit Exivious, but opts for a more dreamy rock sound carried forward by vocalist/guitarist Tymon Kruidenier’s gorgeous singing voice. “Tangled” is a melancholy little love song off their debut that gently progresses forward with some lovely clean channel guitar playing and fretless bass work. The solo (3:32) comes in after the post-chorus transition: a distorted, screeching guitar line that brilliantly reiterates the core vocal melody found in said chorus while taking some clever liberties with note placement here or there. In some ways, this is the most standard way to go at soloing, in that an important melody is reinforced in a novel and somewhat climactic manner while taking care not to be too self-indulgent or overlong. That being said, it’s worth remembering that being considered ‘standard’ is not necessarily a bad thing. Certain techniques are used enough to be considered standard fare for a reason: namely, that they work extremely well, and they do so time and time again.
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Blotted Science – “Bleeding in the Brain” – The Machinations of Dementia (2007)
Next up on the agenda, we take a massive leap off the deep end of rock music, landing square in the middle of the infamous subgenre that is technical death metal. Blotted Science is one of seven-string mastermind Ron Jarzombek’s many projects, and perhaps his most well known in the metal scene, despite the fact that he’s been contributing to the genre as early as the 80s with Watchtower. Unlike Watchtower, however, Blotted Science are a purely instrumental outfit, and their material puts Jarzombek’s absolutely maniacal guitar abilities on display like nothing has before. “Bleeding in the Brain”, mostly written by bassist Alex Webster of Cannibal Corpse fame, is a fairly spastic and technical song in itself; however, the minute-long solo that forms the midsection of the song is easily one of the album’s highlights. While the solo on “Tangled” created a climactic moment using an already-established melody, the solo (2:30) on “Bleeding in the Brain” creates a climactic moment through sheer technicality. Over the verse riff from earlier in the song, Jarzombek shreds in and out of diminished scales in bringing forth a whole new dimension to the riff that one could not have possibly seen coming otherwise. The chaos is sharp and calculated, concluding in furious sweep picking before a much less technical riff comes in to allow for some offloading of steam. While the song does have a second climax — albeit a riff-based one — leading right up to the outro, Jarzombek’s incredibly precise solo easily steals the show just by virtue of how impossibly intricate it is.
Animals as Leaders – “Cylindrical Sea” – Weightless (2011)
Tosin Abasi is a name that needs little introduction by this point in time — put simply, the man is quickly becoming a household name amongst guitarists. Such recognition does not come from naught: his lead playing with instrumental progressive outfit Animals as Leaders has spawned waves of adoring fans (and imitators), and he continues to innovate on the eight string guitar like none before him. “Cylindrical Sea”, off sophomore record Weightless, is a particularly excellent example of his lead sensibilities despite being a fairly nonstandard song as his music goes. While a lot of AAL’s work is inherently lead-based and filled to the brim with Abasi’s high-octane guitar heroics, “Cylindrical Sea” is a particularly quiet and ominous piece that gradually uses clever, subtle soloing to push the song’s ideas further. Rather than being part of a clearly defined ‘solo’ in a specific moment of the song, Abasi’s leads (starting at 1:00) initially trail Javier Reyes’ clean guitar backing as soon as the latter has established the song’s motifs with the listener. The solo gently builds off the underlying chord changes appropriately, adding layers upon layers to the song, and finally reiterating the key progression once more (1:33) before launching into monstrous sweep picking immediately after.
But that’s not the only piece of inventive soloing found in “Cylindrical Sea” — a whole-tone based solo (2:30) that comes in after the song has erupted into heaviness seems to harness the almost alien themes the band has established, and then it is the solo, not the backing, that lets the band effortlessly segue right back (3:10) into the original motif. It’s an excellent example of a guitar solo being used less to create a climactic moment in a song and more to actually lead the song forward, which in some ways makes it less the overall centrepiece of the song — as one would otherwise expect from a solo — and more an integral component of the arrangement to begin with from a songwriting perspective.
The Faceless – “Xenochrist” – Planetary Duality (2008)
Planetary Duality is a landmark record in tech death, and highly revered to this day for its incredible guitar work, precise balance between technicality and accessibility, and the fact that it’s about aliens. The record’s 32 minute runtime features no shortage of solos from lead guitarist Michael Keene, whose characteristic alien-sounding lead style owes itself to his liberal usage of harmonic minor scales and augmented triads, and nowhere is this better demonstrated than in the solo of “Xenochrist” (1:43). But what’s particularly notable about it is the second half (1:59), where the solo’s otherwise heavy backing instrumentation transitions into ominous arpeggiated chords, making for a perfect segue into an intensely atmospheric moment out of nowhere. Keene’s harmonic minor noodling immediately gives way for more sparse and open-sounding phrasing, ending in a quick whole tone flourish before the song more or less resumes again. Yet those few atmospheric seconds manage to arguably form the very centrepiece of Planetary Duality, capturing the very core of the sound that nearly the entire album seems to be built outward from, and giving the listener a quick peek into the musical ideas underneath to otherwise distortion-laden surface.
Fredrik Thordendal’s Special Defects – “Zeta 1 – Reticuli” – Sol Niger Within (1999)
Fredrik Thordendal is (rightfully) best known for his work with the legendary Meshuggah, to the extent where people often forget that the man released an odd little one off solo album in 1999 called Sol Niger Within. And what an album it was. A single 50-minute piece — which predates Catch 33, Meshuggah’s own single-track album — split into over half as many parts, the record is completely baffling on the surface, and doesn’t make that much more sense with repeated listens, either. One could go on about how bizarre it is, but we’re here to talk about solos, and hidden amongst Sol Niger Within‘s various oddities and free jazz moments is a modest little track entitled “Zeta 1 – Reticuli”. While the other solos we’ve discussed today have played specific roles within the context of the songs they’re in, “Zeta 1 – Reticuli” is nothing but an extended solo from start to finish — most likely improvised, but one can’t say for sure. Backed by the odd distorted power chord and a fairly chaotic percussion section courtesy of Morgan Ågren, Thordendal builds entire motifs out of thin air, plays around with them, and discards them for good in an instant — there is no repeated melody to latch on to, no particular ‘structure’ to the song, nothing. Even instrumental shred songs have some kind of pattern or recognizable melody to them, but “Zeta 1 – Reticuli” is closer to jazz and avant-garde metal than anything else when its individual parts are considered, while the solo essentially remains the focus of the entire song, in what is possibly the most extreme way to approach soloing from a songwriting structure perspective in the first place.
Now, it would be utterly false to pretend that these selections fully represent the diversity in the roles soloing can play in modern metal. Whether traditionally climactic, or subtle, or neither, they remain a unique way for guitar players to express themselves in ways other genres simply may not even allow for, while also being an integral component of several different subgenres of metal to begin with. Ultimately, metal’s relationship with the solo is certainly something that warrants further thought and discussion, and possibly from more than just the guitar enthusiasts amongst the genre’s fanbase. (Please consider this an open invitation to sound off about your favourite solos and what makes them special in the comments below!)
Lastly, here’s to all the brilliant lead guitarists out there who continue to strive towards innovating and creating something special and memorable with their talents.