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.
After some mention of it in our last installment on how diminished scales form an integral part of tech death, we’re back with another installment of Beyond the Veil, this time with a headfirst dive into the inner workings of dissonance! Dissonance is something that’s existed in comparatively mild amounts in most forms of heavy music since the latter’s inception, but the advent of mathcore and avant-garde metal, coupled with the ongoing evolution of tech death and prog metal, has led to dissonance becoming a much more commonly used musical device.
Before we can go any further with this, we should probably get to defining some important terms relating to our topic first and foremost, as has become custom with Beyond the Veil. Fortunately, there isn’t a lot of them — today’s discussion builds primarily off the dichotomy between consonance and dissonance, and while we’re obviously going to be talking about dissonance for the bulk of today’s article, it can be hard to define and talk about without elucidating what the former is first.
Consonance is best explained as groups of two or more notes that ‘work’ together on their own, such that they don’t necessarily require further musical resolution in order to still sound harmonious. Consonant pairs of notes still may evoke a sensation of sorts depending on whether they have a major or minor quality to them, but they’re generally considered to be pleasant-sounding all across the board.
Dissonance, in turn, involves groups of notes that have a sense of tension to them, almost as if they’re asking for a consonant note to be played so as to resolve that. Pairs of notes that are considered dissonant aren’t necessarily overflowing with a strong sense of being off or needing resolution, but they certainly sound less pleasant than consonants, and hearing a consonant sound after a dissonant one can often lead to a sensation of relieving tension all the same.
Some quick examples below, just so we know what we’re working with:
But what qualifies certain pairs of notes as either consonant or dissonant? So far we’ve only got fairly subjective definitions to work off of, and ‘pleasant-sounding’ is not a very precise description at all. Well, to understand how this works, we have to take a quick dip into the world of… uh, physics. Wave physics, to be specific. Please don’t run away just yet — I’ll try to keep this quick and painless!
Now if we recall from the last Beyond the Veil installment, the distance between two given notes is called an interval, and differently sized intervals often have different colours or feelings to them (‘happy’, ‘sad’, etc.). But if we are to more precisely described individual notes themselves, they can be simply defined as sound waves, with different notes having different specific frequencies.
Frequency is measured in Hertz, or Hz, which essentially means ‘number of cycles per second’. For instance, playing the highest string on a guitar in standard tuning yields a sound wave of frequency of 329 Hz, which means that the sound waves yielded by the string oscillate, and hit our ears, a number of 329 times per second. The lowest string of a six stringed guitar, by comparison, rings out with a frequency of just 82 Hz. Different frequencies basically define different notes, and our ears are fairly adept at picking up said differences, which is more or less how we perceive music.
So, with this in mind, how do consonance and dissonance happen? Well, consonance occurs when two notes played at the same time have wave frequencies that mathematically form certain desirable ratios, thus leading to ‘good’ resultant frequencies. On the other hand, dissonant intervals happen when we have less desirable ratios to our two frequencies, since the two wave patterns mesh together less well as a consequence. Yes, music is literally all math the more you think about it. It’s kind of messed up.
(A more in-depth discussion, featuring visualizations of waves and actual numerical examples, can be found in this excellent article. In the interest of not getting bogged down by details, I don’t want this piece to go any further into specifics, but if you’re interested in reading more on how music works from a sound wave physics perspective, I would definitely give that linked article a look.)
That’s all the physics and math for today — I promise! With that, we can get right back into the comparatively more comfortable world of blast beats and harsh vocals.
Given the discussion we just had, it therefore seems to follow that musicians (well, if we’re talking about metal music, primarily guitarists) looking for a more dissonant sound simply modify their note choices to amplify the more dissonant intervals, and that’s that. While this may be true in a lot of cases, it’s certainly not the be-all end-all. Selectively combining dissonant intervals with more consonant ones can take a bit more work to pull off well, but it provides musicians with a means of building tension and release as they see fit (as jazz musicians have been doing for ages, mind you). This can add a whole other powerful dimension to music past the ‘happy’ or ‘sad’ feelings evoked by certain intervals over others. For instance, hanging on to a dissonant interval without resolving it with consonance immediately afterwards can build a very palpable sense of tension and even dread, regardless of what chord progression might be going on otherwise.
Anyways — now that we’ve gotten the lowdown on how the principles of dissonance, let’s talk about the many different and fairly inventive ways different bands have applied them!
The Dillinger Escape Plan
Today’s excursion into dissonance begins, perhaps predictably, with the inimitable Dillinger Escape Plan. Ben Weinman and co. have been making chaotic, impenetrably dissonant metal since their very inception, and continue to do so almost two decades later with no signs of slowing down. That being said, we’re going to stick to an example from their earlier days for now — namely, the now-classic monster of a tune that is “43% Burnt” from debut full-length Calculating Infinity.
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“Burnt” begins with a massively dissonant chord in a killer riff that has since become one of Dillinger’s signature song intros for good reason. Of course, the rest of the song (as well as a significant portion of their discography from there on out) is also completely unrelenting in its abrasive, dissonant quality, but the intro of “Burnt” is a particularly excellent example of the major seventh interval — a key tool in making dissonant sounds.
Aside from being used almost overwhelmingly as part of jazz chords — another huge topic altogether, and one perhaps worth tackling another time — the major seventh interval is just one single note away from being an octave, which is quite literally the most consonant interval there is, and so it has exceedingly high amounts of tension associated with it. For all intents and purposes, this should mean that its tension can be resolved fairly easily. However, instead of doing just that, Weinman moves the interval one note further in the opposite direction from consonance at 0:15, which not only maintains the tension inherent in the first few seconds, but actually heightens it. Of course, this is but one example of dissonance in the work of a band that thrives off it, but it’s easily one of the most memorable.
Meshuggah are renowned more for their command of rhythm and groove over their note choices per se, given how atonal their music tends to be in the first place, but that’s not to say the Swedish giants haven’t explicitly dabbled in using dissonant intervals over their double-decade career. A particularly fun example of this can be found in opening track “Stengah” from 2002’s groove-fest Nothing:
(This is a sensitive topic for some, so I’ll start with a disclaimer: one can argue to hell and back about the superiority of the original release of Nothing over the re-recorded and re-mastered version, but I would like to clarify that I only chose the latter here for demonstrative purposes, since the guitars are a little easier to discern here than otherwise. For the record though, I can’t pick a favourite between the two for a number of reasons. There’s my personal non-answer to that debate)
In this example, guitarists Fredrik Thordendal and Marten Hagstrom are essentially playing the same low-tuned riff, which should be all well and good on the surface. However, they happen to be playing the riff out of phase by two notes, such that Hagstrom (presumably panned right) begins playing it with a two-note headstart. This might seem a little difficult to discern at first amongst all the dissonance, but it’s actually fairly easy to figure it out — simply take out your right earphone, leaving the left one in, and play back the riff right at the 3:00 mark. Sounds clearer now, right? After a few seconds of that, skipping back to 3:00 and doing the same with the right earphone reveals the same riff being played, except that it’s been frameshifted a bit.
What’s going on here? After a few listens, it becomes apparent that every second note is much less dissonant than the odd-numbered ones. The first, third, fifth, and so on sound a lot stranger and more tense. It turns out that Thordendal and Hagstrom are alternating between playing notes that are a tritone apart from one another on those dissonant odd-numbered beats. I discussed how tritones work in some depth last time, but the long and short of it is that tritones are supposed to be the darkest, most menacing interval, given that they’re one single note away from the fifth — the fifth being the most consonant interval aside from the octave, similar to how major sevenths related to the octave in the Dillinger example above.
Next up are Canadian tech death legends Gorguts, who were arguably one of the earliest adopters of dissonance in tech death. Their long-awaited return with 2013’s Colored Sands following a decade’s hiatus easily lived up to their status as a highly forward-thinking band, synthesizing the overwhelming dissonance of their earlier death metal works with a more refined and modern progressive sound. Colored Sands is a perfect example of selectively combining dissonance with consonance for the purposes of building and releasing tension in a highly calculated manner, and opening track “Le Toit du Monde” particularly excels at that, bordering on being hauntingly beautiful in its expert display of songwriting.
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While I’ve been naming off what intervals were being used in previous songs so far and trying to elucidate what makes a certain riff sound a certain way, I cannot in good conscience say I can accurately explain is going on at more or less any point in the song. It’s immensely chaotic while also being atmospheric when it needs to be, and aside from the fact that I cannot work it out by ear for the life of me, I have not found any tablature for the song either.
That being said, the principles of tension and release have hardly been more apparent than in “Monde”. Particular highlights include 3:04, where the song slows down for guitarist Luc Lemay to play a single note repeatedly over several bars (panned left). Eventually, second guitarist Kevin Hufnagel chimes in with a harmonic at a somewhat dissonant interval, and the tension continues to build for a few moments before the song explodes back outwards with a veritable avalanche of a riff. A second example can be found in the climax at 4:12, with an angular riff making its way out of the chaos, twisting in and out of dissonant intervals all the while.
The Tony Danza Tapdance Extravaganza
Last up on today’s agenda are the sorely missed Tony Danza Tapdance Extravaganza, helmed for most of their heyday by guitarist Josh Travis before their eventual dissolution in 2012. Even then, Danza III remains one of the heaviest and most punishing albums that have been put out in a long while, and it’s not like Travis’ new band Glass Cloud are too shabby either, given how inventive his approach to extended range guitars remains.
This one segment from “I Am Sammy Jankis” that goes inconceivably hard — even by the album’s standards — makes some clever use of minor third runs in the higher register (I talked about those in the previous Beyond the Veil as well, and I realize I’ve linked it around five times already, but here it is yet again). There’s a twist though — as with the Meshuggah example above, the guitar track panned left plays the same figure as that panned right, but this time a minor second interval higher. This is harder to catch just by taking out one earphone and listening with the other, but it’s still very obvious that listening to just one guitar track makes for a much less dissonant sound than the two combined.
Minor seconds function similarly to the aforementioned major sevenths in that they’re also very close to the highly consonant octave. They can even be thought of as the inverse of major sevenths, given the way the math adds up, though I won’t go too far into that. The important thing is that they’re absurdly dissonant, which Travis uses to great effect in this case. And let’s not get started on what they sound like when played together in the higher register…
Thus ends a doozy of an article! Dissonance (along with consonance, of course) is something I’ve wanted to tackle since Beyond the Veil was conceptualized — however, I figured it was going to be a much longer piece, and so I chose to talk about other things for the first two installments. In any event, I hope that this was informative and not too difficult to follow, despite the dabbling in physics (!).
That being said, these are just four examples from my own limited tastes out of a massive, massive variety of metal that makes abundant use of dissonant intervals, in subgenres varying from deathcore to post-metal alike. With that in mind, what are some other great examples you know of that I completely missed?
Alternatively, are there any other things you’d like to see potentially covered in a future installment of this series? Let me know and I will happily get to blabbing about them as soon as possible.
Until next time!