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.
We’ve talked about dissonance quite a bit on Beyond the Veil: so why not keep at it? Today we focus on the minor second interval, a device that’s become more or less ubiquitous as far as breakdowns go, but for good reason.
To recap: intervals can be defined as the distances between two notes, such that each interval has a specific sound or feeling to it; certain intervals can make for very consonant sounds, while others much less so*. In the context of a chord, the intervallic relationships between the notes within it are what lead to its overall resultant character, but the two notes comprising a given interval can also be played together in order to emphasize its characteristic sound.
Such is often the case with the minor second interval: not that it sounds bad within a chord (for instance, it’s a key part of the minor add9 chord, immediately following the muted riff) but more so because it just sounds so incredibly shrill on its own terms that it can spice up some dissonant low end riffs with a shrill surprise in the higher register.
The thing about the minor second is that it involves simultaneously playing two notes that are immediately adjacent to each other in terms of pitch (i.e. a C and a C#). Since there is such little distance between the two notes, sequentially playing two notes a minor second apart would make for some highly forceful musical movement, while playing them at the same time basically has the notes sounding like they desperately need a resolving note to follow immediately after. This is also why solos sometimes include a shrill minor second moment, after which one of the offending notes within the interval is modulated into something more consonant. Turns out no matter how cool dissonance can be, our ears still quite like hearing musical resolution.
(*A far more detailed explanation of this, and the phenomenon of dissonant intervals in general, can be found in the piece on dissonance)
Of course, all good things begin with Swedish innovators Meshuggah. Third album Chaosphere is arguably the apex of the band’s ‘thrash’ era, as the band steamrolled further ahead with the sound initially developed on predecessor Destroy Erase Improve. As it turns out, “Corridor of Chameleons” may very well be the earliest instance of minor seconds in a breakdown.
As predictably as ever, our next stop is at the spastic, dissonant realm of The Dillinger Escape Plan. Then again, considering much of the BTV series has revolved around dissonance and the like, it’s really no surprise that they keep recurring in the examples section, since few other bands can claim to have quite the grasp of the concept that Dillinger do. As such, the intro of Option Paralysis‘ “Good Neighbor”, which anyone who’s seen Dillinger live might associate with some particularly intense pit mayhem, provides a solid example of just how discordant the minor second interval can make a riff, even without the use of low-tuned extended range guitars.
But, then again, who said there’s anything wrong with using extended range guitars for minor second-based breakdowns? Aside from the fact that no discussion of the minor second interval could be complete without mentioning The Tony Danza Tapdance Extravaganza (RIP), 8- and 9-string guitarist Josh Travis his proven himself a big fan of minor seconds in general throughout his career, to the point where his breakdowns are rendered instantly recognizable for it. That includes this one in the intro of “Rudy x3”, which begins somewhat muffled before more or less causing the universe to implode.
We end today’s journey with progressive death metal legends Opeth, who famously traversed all sorts of musical ground on 2001’s legendary Blackwater Park at a level previously unheard of. Of the many glorious ten-plus minute tracks featured on the album, “The Drapery Falls” has proven one of the biggest fan favourites, and continues to actively find itself featured on their setlists even a decade and a half later.
At 5:50, what is arguably one of the band’s coolest ever riffs kicks in, as guitarists Mikael Akerfeldt and Peter Lindgren proceed to arpeggiate out some really wonky sounding tritones (and in 5/8 time, no less). Things get especially wonky at 5:56, when Peter (presumably panned right) starts playing the exact same figure a minor second interval higher, somehow making the riff even more dissonant. They don’t make ’em like this anymore.
- Veil of Maya — “Entry Level Exit Wounds” (1:15)
- The Helix Nebula — “Crystal Plains” (around 1:45)
- Pyrrhon — “Cancer Mantra”
- Glass Cloud — “She Is Well and Nothing Can Be Ill” (feat. Josh Travis’ style of overdubbing a complex tapping figure with the same thing a minor second higher)