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.
And we’re back! After our last, completely and utterly serious entry, we’re going to shift gears a tiny bit and talk about a certain core aspect of music — and naturally, an aspect of metal riffs — that plays a much bigger role in the genres we love than some of us might know about.
I’ve alluded to octaves before in previous installments, and given that they’re an extremely fundamental part of music, I imagine anyone reading this has some familiarity with the term. But let’s run through what they are quickly either way. We might recall intervals, which are names for the relationships between any given two notes as measured by the distances between them, such that each given interval has a unique sound or flavour to it. Intervallic relationships between notes, in turn, determine the resultant feeling that a certain musical phrase gives us.
While intervals can be considered consonant or dissonant depending on how ‘well’ the notes go together, the octave is indisputably the most consonant interval of them all — namely, since two notes an octave apart are essentially the same note at different pitches.
Just to illustrate this a but further, if it’s still confusing: one might recall how there are seven natural notes (the white keys on a piano) labelled ABCDEFG. Therefore, an octave happens when one moves on to the eighth natural note in that sequence, wherein the pattern repeats. Say we start at A: playing each note from A to G would constitute having moved across all 7 natural notes, and then the next in sequence happens to be an A again — this time with a higher pitch — since there’s no H note* and the pattern simply repeats instead.
Now, octaves may seem to be awfully basic and not all that interesting past the initial observation that they’re ‘the same note’. And that would be an understandable conclusion to come away from this with: there’s really no interesting interplay between notes an octave apart that evokes a certain ‘happy’ or ‘sad’ or even ‘overwhelmingly, horribly dissonant’ feeling. They go really well together, sure, but there isn’t much to them past that.
So what’s so special or useful about these? Why did I start this off by claiming that they’re a very important part of music and metal in particular? This time around, it might be easier to jump right into the examples for the purposes of explaining the different uses of octaves, and so we’re going to do just that!
(*Unless you’re German! Apparently, the B note is referred to as H in Germany. There are some pretty detailed explanations to be found here as to why, but they’re flying over my head at present.)
Our journey begins with a fairly recent release at the time of writing. Indeed, Entheos‘s brilliant debut record The Infinite Nothing was released just a few weeks ago (at the current time of writing), and has not left my rotation since. A powerful slab of aggressive yet intricate and experimental death metal, it has very much propelled the band’s promising career forward since its release.
Amongst the many riffs crammed into every corner of the record is a lead melody found in the latter half of standout track “An Ever-Expanding Human”, wherein the song slows down for a moment for a funky moment before being gradually pulled forward into the next verse by said melody.
After the bass groove comes in, a nifty, syncopated lead fill starts up at around 3:10, and then repeats once. But then at 3:28, the same melody sounds somewhat different, in that it feels fuller sounding but otherwise the same in terms of the actual notes being played. This here illustrates the simplest usage of octaves in riffs — they can be used to double up a riff or melody and make it sound more prominent within the context of an arrangement, without actually having to introduce new notes. This therefore circumvents the problem of additional notes adding possibly unwanted flavours to the melody being played, while still making for a different sound than playing individual notes would allow.
Few bands can claim to have consistently been proponents of octave riffs in metal quite like Sweden’s Opeth. From their earlier days, where they used octaves to build expansive-sounding counterpoint (musical phrases with different parts played in conjunction with each other, such as in tech death) riffs, to their later albums, where octaves were used more in an overdubbing fashion, usage of the interval has remained a constant in their sound.
1998 classic My Arms, Your Hearse, ironically the first where they broke away from the extremely counterpoint-heavy sound found on their preceding two albums, features one of the best-known incidences of octaves used in a counterpoint fashion. This here is fan favourite “Demon of the Fall”:
Goodness, what a riff. On paper, it’s rather simple — the left guitar track plays octaves in an ascending fashion, as can be more clearly heard should one take out their right earphone (and vice versa for the other track) while the other is a little less linear in its progression.
But the crux of the matter is that the overall resultant riff, by which I mean the combination of the two, consists of no more than two individual notes conflicting with each other in a certain way at any given point in time. The interplay between said notes is easy to hear and discern, which certainly would not have been the case (or at least to the same extent) had one or both of the guitars been playing chords instead. However, the fact that said notes are being played in an octave fashion still lends a much fuller sound to both tracks, and makes the overall riff sound much more full and lush than it would with just single notes being played out.
But that’s not to say all octave riffs have to be based in some kind of counterpoint melody. Take Ghost Reveries‘ “The Grand Conjuration”, for instance:
The main riff/motif of the song, repeated ad nauseam across its ten minute runtime, is based entirely in octaves. Once again, the melody itself is actually rather simple should one actually try to break it down, but the usage of octaves makes the individual notes sound ‘larger’ in a sense.
Next up, we hop over to fellow Swedes Arch Enemy, who have attracted their fair share of praise and controversy over the years. Some argue that the band makes solid, punchy melodeath with incredible lead work on top, while others accuse them of not really changing up their sound too much over several consecutive albums. Whatever the case may be, there’s no denying that the original guitar-slinging duo of brothers Michael and Christopher Amott put some particularly impressive lead work on tape for the albums they worked on together.
2005’s Doomsday Machine is undeniably a standout record in the band’s discography, containing some of their finest twin-guitar moments, in addition to giving us “Nemesis”, one of their now-signature tracks. But one oft-overlooked song on the album is the brilliant instrumental “Hybrids of Steel”, an incredibly fun track featuring the Amotts’ shared lead-playing sensibilities like few before it.
This nifty lead part in 7/8 starts off in a fairly standard fashion, but then the lead track oscillates in and out playing the same part an octave higher. This therefore seems to add another layer of complexity to what’s going on in the arrangement, but the fact remains that those are — you guessed it — the very same notes.
It turns out octaves aren’t just restricted to riffs: rather, they can be used in lead parts as well, in order to either ramp up the apparent complexity or simply keep things a little interesting.
As anyone familiar with his work may have been expecting by now, our discussion is rounded out by the one and only Devin Townsend. While the man is legendary for many reasons past the intricacies of his music, octave-based riffs have more or less remained his M.O. when it comes to writing heavier sounding guitar parts, and somehow around two decades later he’s managed to keep them sounding fresh and new.
One important thing to note about Devin as a guitar player is his interesting choice of tuning. Rather than working with some variant of standard guitar tuning, as all the bands listed above do, Devin almost exclusively uses Open C tuning (and Open B later in his career), the inner workings of which are actually highly integral to the way he puts together riffs.
The thing about Open C is that it is a tuning that specifically makes octaves supremely easy to play, in that the strings are tuned in a very repetitive fashion — GCGCGCE on a 7 string, to be precise. Since several pairs of strings are actually tuned to the same note octaves apart (I count 3 G’s and 3 C’s) visualizing and playing octaves on the fretboard is an absolute breeze.
(Fun fact and shameless self-plug: I actually wrote a — heavily typo-laden — article on how to work with Open C on Ultimate Guitar a number of years back, and Devin himself posted it on Twitter! How about that. Also posting it here for anyone who may be somewhat guitar-literate, since Open C is one of my personal favourites and I highly recommend messing around with it.)
Devin frequently uses Open C to full effect with massive riffs that often combine low end chugging with octaves, using the tuning’s unique structure to layer octaves upon octaves to contribute to his signature wall of sound effect. A particularly good example of this would be “Stand”, off of his incredible 2011 record Deconstruction:
Now if one were to take this riff on its own, it doesn’t seem particularly complicated, with Devin playing nothing more than low, open string chugs occasionally alternating with octaves. It’s interesting enough that different octaves alone are used to build the riff, since there are no thirds (majors, minors) or any other intervals to be found within them — but then that actually leaves a ton of room for everything else. And there is indeed a lot of things within the criterion of ‘everything else’, including Devin’s vocals, a choir, an orchestral backing, and the characteristic bellowing of Opeth’s Mikael Åkerfeldt in the background. Thus, an octave-based riff is used as a sort of skeleton here, while the rest of the arrangement ends up being Devin’s means of filling in the song with different musical colours.
Another great example would be “Supercrush!” from Addicted:
As massive as that sounds, it turns out that the absolutely majestic main riff of the song is in fact very simple. Without necessarily going into the specifics of what’s going on here, the ‘lead’ melody simply consists of single notes, played in a somewhat syncopated rhythm, that are made to sound massive through the usage of octaves and layering.
And that’s all for today! Given that octaves are such a massively important part of music, both in terms of their usage and their historical importance, it seems odd to limit today’s discussion to just four examples — but hopefully they were sufficient in getting some of the different ways octaves can be used across.
Any other super neat riffs out there featuring octaves that I might have missed? Or completely different uses of octaves in riffs, even? Let me know below!