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.
While our last installment dealt with a more general concept, we’re going to be zeroing in on a fairly specific thing for today’s piece. However, it is likely no stranger to your ears: indeed, the harmonic minor scale has found itself featured so prominently in metal that it’s kind of strange not hearing it at any point in a given metal album.
But a quick recap is in order before we’re to go any further. Scales are ordered groups of notes, that can often bring about a unique sound or flavour when used together. These scales are more precisely defined by their intervals, which refers to the distances between individual notes. There is an incredible diversity of scales to be found out there, but that doesn’t mean that certain tried-and-true choices are any less enjoyable to hear over time.
We’ve covered the comparatively niche diminished scale on here in some depth, but today’s scale is very much the tried-and-true type. The magic of the harmonic minor scale is that of the seven notes that compose it, it shares six with the natural minor scale, which more or less everyone is all too familiar with. Nevertheless, if anyone’s looking for a reminder as to how that sounds in practice, Matteo Carcassi’s classic Study in A minor is one of my favourite pieces to always go back to:
But what happens when you alter one note — just one, single, innocent note — within the natural minor scale? (I realize this is a rather lengthy video, and for the purposes of today’s article, one doesn’t necessarily need to go past the 5 minute mark. Unless you’re the curious sort, which is reasonable enough. It’s also a pretty darn great video.)
So as that may have shown, it’s really the fact that a change in the tail end of the scale, namely the seventh interval, is what brings about a substantial change in sound. It seems to end a lot stronger than does the natural minor (which can be found at 1:06 above, for comparison purposes). This sharpening of the seventh into a leading tone, so named because it ‘leads’ right back into the root note, is what gives the harmonic minor scale its unique character.
Furthermore, the harmonic minor has often been likened to sounding rather ‘Arabian’ by some, perhaps owing to its similarity with scales frequently used in Middle Eastern music (where a scale is instead called a maqam). Either way, it has a rather unmistakable feel to it, and one that has seemed to prove rather enduring, from its uses in flamenco from over three decades ago to the metal of today.
And starting off this excursion into said ‘metal of today’ are progressive death metallers Black Crown Initiate, poised to follow their critically acclaimed debut EP and the ensuing full length with a second record rather ominously entitled Selves We Cannot Forgive. The aforementioned full length, 2014’s The Wreckage of Stars, brought with it some stellar tunes that were as well-written as they were utterly crushing. Frequently singled out as an album highlight was the no-holds-barred assault of “This Human Lie Manifest”, which notably uses a harmonic minor scale in its basest form to great effect on the main/chorus riff (0:25).
The main riff moves along a harmonic minor scale in the key of A, starting on the fifth and ascending before moving back down a tad. It’s quite the climactic moment to start off a song with, and the band do well in bringing it back across the course of the song without overdoing its usage. That’s not to say it’s the only example of harmonic minor here, though — the intro riff itself is almost entirely within the boundaries of the scale as well, but it might be a little harder to hear considering the heavy palm muting going on.
Although Gorguts is currently being hyped up for their super-long one-track release, it’s worth noting that another Gor- band did it first. Coming in at around half the length of Gorguts’ track, Transcendence is 15 minutes that sum up the worlds of Gorod, both old and new: released at a crucial time in their evolution as a band, in their transition from the groovy technicality of Process Of A New Decline (2009) and the more proggy, melodic (yet still mindbogglingly technical in nature) A Perfect Absolution, it shows an already phenomenal group of musicians demonstrating their flashy songwriting prowess in addition to their insane technical skill. Most importantly, it is a shining example of Gorod’s influences from well outside the metal realm, given their propensity to dip into funk and jazz at the drop of a hat.
Key to Transcendence‘s ability to maintain a sense of cohesion across the enormous amount of ground Gorod covers within is a twin-guitar harmonic minor-based motif, which kicks the song off in a brilliant swing groove. The band twist in and out of said motif throughout the 15-minute runtime, which is thoroughly interspersed with harmonic minor licks. Indeed, the very first verse at at 0:36 makes for another great example of the scale in action, emphasizing the sharpened seventh that gives the harmonic minor its notable quality.
Honestly, Colors needs no introduction. The album that took Between The Buried And Me from diamond-in-the-rough deathcore band to full-on progressive metalcore powerhouse in the eyes of the metal community was an instant classic; it’s retained that status to this day and probably gained in fame since then. Full of chunky, hard-hitting riffs that pulled from their -core background, juxtaposed to the typical cleaner, more calm vibes of progressive metal bands, the entire album still manages to feel cohesive and whole, with a liberal sprinkling of harmonic minor licks to be found in between. This here is “Informal Gluttony,” one of the release’s shorter tracks.
After a bit of an ominous intro, guitarists Dustie Waring and Paul Waggoner kick the song off with a twisting harmonic minor lick at 0:47, using the scale’s supposed Arabian quality to full effect in the ensuing harmonies. This briefly gives way to some low-end riffing before a monstrous tremolo-picked harmonic minor riff comes ripping out the woodwork at 1:51, over a chaotic blast beat section.
Although now The Faceless are known for their peculiar brand of genre-redefining progressive/technical death metal, they started out as an (admittedly still progressive and technical) deathcore band. Their debut album, Akeldama, pulls from elements of melodic death metal, metalcore, and progressive metal for a sound that’s still unlike anything else out there today. Throw in some of Michael Keene’s typical grand, sweeping (ha ha) style of lead guitar and soloing, and you have a winning combo that set the group up to take the world of metal by the throat. “Pestilence” best demonstrated exactly what sort of sound it is that made Akeldama such a uniquely focused and precise release.
I briefly alluded to this in a piece on solos from some time ago, but it bears mentioning once again: Keene has proven himself a fierce advocate for the harmonic minor scale, and has demonstrated a thorough grasp of it to boot. Unlike, say, Karl Sanders of Nile, Keene tends to emphasize harmonic minor usage slightly more within the context of solos instead of riffs. But “Pestilence” is where the twain intersect like nothing else, and 0:21 remains one of the most furious, blistering uses of the harmonic minor scale he’s ever put to tape. And then it’s immediately followed up by a ripping solo that also works the scale beautifully — truly the best of both worlds, eh?
That concludes today’s piece! Any other favourite harmonic minor moments you’d like to share? Do I deserve to get yelled at for not dedicating a subsection to Nile? (I probably do) Let me know below — otherwise, until next time!