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.
One oft-cited aspect of progressive metal is its propensity for odd time signatures. When this is not forming the basis for cringeworthy and self-aggrandizing internet memes from select parts of the prog fanbase, it’s a well-celebrated aspect of the genre, and a fairly integral part of music that is holds musical innovation in high regard.
Of those odd time signatures, seven-eight time, or 7/8, is one of the most common examples to be found in progressive rock, and a mainstay of progressive metal in particular. A lot of its appeal is to be found in the odd number of beats it entails. This means that while something like 4/4 involves even numbers of beats within a given bar, the odd nature of 7/8 allows for some very interesting rhythmic combinations and groupings, both within an individual bar and several consecutive ones.
What’s meant by that last bit there? Well, in an individual bar, there’s several ways to think of 7 beats*, and several interesting permutations to group them in. For instance, when writing a riff, one could split 7 beats into three groups of 2, 2, and 3 respectively, or perhaps 3-2-2 instead. Alternatively, they could also be thought of as 4-3 or 3-3-1; while the possibilities aren’t quite endless, there’s certainly a lot of them.
(*For the music theory folks out there — yes, I’m aware that referring to it as 7 ‘beats’ implies 7/4 and not 7/8, but I find that referring to them as beats makes this easier to understand, semantics aside)
Similarly, these groupings could carry over across several bars. 7/8 might involve an odd number of beats, but those beats don’t exist in a vacuum. Having 4 consecutive bars of 7/8 adds up to 7 x 4 = 28 beats, which is an even number that can also be achieved by 7 consecutive bars of 4/4, potentially making for some very interesting rhythmic combinations. However, this is where the world of polymeter begins, and with it a truly endless number of rhythmic possibilities, so I won’t go on much further about it, given its immense scope. The take-home point, really, is that 7/8 is very cool, and can be used to do a lot of different, musically interesting things, which in turn makes it very well-suited to progressive metal.
But enough of the mental math — let’s get to talking about some great applications of 7/8!
One would be remiss to discuss 7/8 in progressive metal with no mention of progressive death metal outfit Opeth‘s “Deliverance”, given how easily recognizable it has become. Universally agreed upon to be one of Opeth’s finest tracks, the 14-minute song almost completely runs the gamut of the band’s groundbreaking early 2000’s sound, and has appropriately remained a live staple since.
While the band doesn’t strictly keep to 7/8 through the entire runtime, the intro riff alone is an excellent example of the time signature, using a 2-2-3 permutation (if this is still confusing, read aloud, fairly slowly at first but faster over time to match the song: 1 & 2 & 3 & a 1 & 2 & 3 & a) to explode outward over furious double bass drumming. The the first two groups of 2 alternate quickly between a dissonant chord (a tritone, to be specific) and a quick mute, while the third group in the bar has 2 mutes following the chord. The usage of 7/8 therefore gives the riff a certain lurching quality, and between the dissonance of the chord, the odd time signature, and the gradually intensifying overdubs, Opeth start the song off with a very palpable sense of tension. While the ensuing verses are in 4/4, the 7/8 makes a glorious return several times in the song, from the acoustic part at 1:10 to even the solo at 4:10. Consistency!
Prog metal stalwarts Between the Buried and Me are next up on our agenda, with the similarly well-known “Selkies: The Endless Obsession” from third album Alaska. Another universal fan favourite, even long after the band released several more well-received records, “Selkies” famously starts off with a quick 7/8 keyboard riff from vocalist/keyboardist Tommy Rogers before the guitars take over in a similar vein. Unlike with “Deliverance“, the main riff here is best thought of as a 4-3 permutation. Guitarists Paul Waggoner and Dustie Waring then play around with the same rhythmic figure in several different tonal contexts for a full minute, only momentarily dipping into other time signatures such as 5/8 and 6/8 for transitional purposes. While the riff doesn’t necessarily conjure a certain atmosphere or feeling, it’s just an awful lot of fun, and it’s not especially hard to pick up on the syncopation of it soon enough and proceed to groove out for a solid minute — at least before the song’s eventual quick transition verse and ensuing mosh-ready chaos.
Protest the Hero
The inimitable Canadian wizards that are Protest the Hero may not necessarily have an immediately recognizable 7/8 anthem as with our past two bands, but their discography is positively scattered with appearances of the time signature. While the fairly dark interludes of “Dunsel” (2-2-3, at least in the case of the rhythm guitar) and “No Stars Over Bethlehem“ (4-3) are solid choices in their own right, Protest also tend to use 7/8 in a fairly unique way — namely, they often follow up 2 consecutive bars of 7/8 (so a total of 14 notes) but with 2 notes tacked on at the end, giving a total of 16 notes. This actually means the figure in its entirety (7-7-2) can be divided into two bars of 4/4 (8-8). That’s a lot of numbers in a very short amount of time — my apologies! Perhaps a demonstration would make this easier to understand.
This tapping riff in “Goddess Bound” might be a little tricky to follow at first, but it’s one of the clearest examples of this nifty means of 7/8 usage. It also follows what appears to be a 2-2-3 permutation, but at every second bar, lead guitarist Luke Hoskin adds on a very quick extra two notes, which keeps his guitar line caught up with the straightforward 4/4 beat the rest of the band is working with. It’s a very clever way to use the 7/8 time signature and obtain the recognizable rhythmic quality of it, while also remaining within a 4/4 framework and therefore avoiding an outwardly complex appearance (and also making the other band members’ lives easier!).
Another solid example of this can be found in the outro to Hair Trigger, where the band follows up two bars of 7/8 with two extra notes added on to the end. The odd snare placement might make this a little trickier to follow, but the core principle remains the same.
Our discussion is rounded out with one of the most inventive uses of 7/8 I’ve heard in recent memory, courtesy of the Norwegian gift of a progressive metal band that is Leprous. While singer Einar Solberg’s voice makes the band’s work very memorable as is, they’re also known for their fairly frequent dabbling in odd rhythms, though nowhere is this more cleverly done than on “Foe” off of 2013’s Coal. “Foe” is a stark, highly minimal track, reliant as much on silence as actual instrumentation, yet maintaining a rhythmically consistent quality that drives the song forward throughout. This may be odd, but I like to think of it as a love letter to 7/8 itself.
Indeed, the band maintain a 7/8 figure throughout the song’s entire runtime, but each given bar is centred almost entirely on the 1st and 5th beat, which makes for — you guessed it — a 4-3 permutation. The ‘open-and-close’ sound to be found in each successive bar stems from chords sharply ringing out solely for the first 4 beats of the 7/8 measure, only to be quickly muted so that the last 3 beats are silent on the guitar/bass end. (This can be a little hard to count since it’s easy to get thrown off by the silence, so for those still confused, it may be easier to try counting along to the drum line at 2:05.) Of course, the song later fills up with overdubs and a snare drum line, but the core idea remains the same right up to the song’s climax — at which point everything gives way to Einar’s mournful singing accompanied by clean guitars, and even then is the 4-3 permutation with silence in the latter half maintained!
Of course, 7/8’s uses go far beyond being a useful device in progressive metal, but the genre is something it’s extremely well-suited to. I find I never really tire of hearing it in any piece of music it pops up in; indeed, the odd number of beats somehow retains a delightful sense of novelty, and also — for the budding musicians out there, who are ostensibly a large subset of prog fans — makes for an excellent songwriting tool once one warms up to the possibilities it brings.
But there’s no way I could have covered the best examples of it with just this article. What are some of your favourite 7/8 moments? Or, to rephrase, what music should I put in my ears to keep up my unending need to find more inventive uses of it?