At face value, any form of extreme metal is a monolith. Fast tempos, abrasive chord structure consisting of sharp fours and power chords, down-tuned guitars, aggressive vocals, blast beats, double bass drums. These components create the backbone of bands such as Cannibal Corpse, Suffocation, and Napalm Death, all of which have made decade-long careers out of these six components. However with the increasing popularity of metal there are a variety of bands that put their own interesting spin on these components. With influences in jazz, classical, and country, bands have been able to find moderate to great success using these techniques in their art.
Boston-based technical death/thrash metal band Revocation underscores their arrangements with a multitude of jazz-based techniques. Frontman and lead guitarist, Dave Davidson, a Berklee College of Music graduate often uses dissonant, colorful chord progressions that back solos using the bebop scale and melodic minor. One of the best examples of this is during the song “Communion,” from the 2016 album “Great is our Sin” where the opening riff uses a chromatically descending melody note in the progression Em, F7(b9), Bbmaj7, Am. Davidson explains in an interview with Guitar World Magazine that “Jazz voicings are a great way to spice up your playing.” Davidson’s writing also contains jazz chords to highlight heavy riffs as seen in the song “Dismantle the Dictator” from the 2009 album “Existence is Futile.” The main riff of the song employs dissonant patterns in syncopated hits in order to strengthen the audible force of the hits. Davidson also uses unique scales to add interesting flavors in his playing. Davidson frequents the whole-tone scale to give his playing an “other-worldly” feeling as well as the dorian scale to give tension to his playing. A similar example to this can be heard in the solo for “Profanum Vulgus” where Davidson outlines the chord progression, then adds tension notes for the chords such as turning a Cm7 to a Cm7(#11).
Bands have been doing this sort of genre integration for many years now for example, the band Opeth has been employing techniques used by classical composers ever since their first album “Orchid” was released in 1995. Very long, multi-faceted songs lasting well over the usual three minute long songs of rock and metal music convey feelings of extremely polarized emotion, jumping spastically from intense black metal-inspired passages to movements of calming baroque-esque guitar passages. The prime example of this is from the twenty-minute epic “Black Rose Immortal” from the 1996 album “Morningrise.” Opeth’s motif of drastically changing song structure remains mostly consistent throughout their career, however as Opeth matured as a band, they began to leave their traditional swedish black metal roots in order to pursue a heavier, fuller death metal sound. As Opeth began to pursue this sound, the drastic changes within one track were more subtle as the changes varied more from song to song, creating albums that flowed like one continuous piece made up of many movements. Most notably this is seen in the 1999 album “Still Life,” specifically when the album makes a complete heel-turn from the soothing clean guitar song “Benighted” to the intense, death metal opening of “Moonlapse Vertigo.” This style of songwriting, common to classical music has become the backbone of Opeth’s music. Even as Opeth’s sound moves away from metal altogether, and more towards jazz fusion/prog rock they still remain consistent with these heel-turns. For example, in 2016’s Sorceress, the titular song jumps from a fusion-esque organ solo to a driving rock song similar to that of early Black Sabbath or King Crimson. So as Opeth leaves their old sound, they still hold fast to their old songwriting style.
Coming to a band that even from their early days added an interesting spin on an arguably worn-out genre, North Carolina-based death metal band Between the Buried and Me has always added melodic technicality to their playing while managing to not be a shredfest similar to the likes of Necrophagist or Atheist. As BTBAM’s discography progressed however, their technique began to flourish in different ways adding country-inspired passages and licks. The main example of this at the end of their thirteen-minute epic “Ants of the Sky” when the metal sound deteriorates into a full-blown hoedown complete with yelling and drinking. The electric guitars fade to reveal a Chet Atkins-style lead and a straightforward acoustic rhythm. BTBAM’s country roots don’t end there, they have a menagerie of colorful country/blues-inspired riffs. The most notable of which come from “Desert of Song” between the spacey intro and the overdriven solo to the atmospheric outro, BTBAM showcases their range of inspirations.
Finally, the most popular of these bands mentioned is the Atlanta-Based quartet Mastodon. These Progressive Metal giants have an incredible seven album career that has made them into superstars. Combining elements of literature and a vast collection of different musical styles, Mastodon made themselves into metal royalty. The most obvious of these influences is the country style of guitarist Brent Hinds which shows itself across Mastodon’s discography, notably in the break in the middle of the song “Megalodon” from 2004’s Leviathan the distorted riff sounds like it comes from a completely different song written by the likes of John Mayer or a similar artist. This inspiration goes deeper, however as Hinds’ playing style is rooted in a country fashion with a great amount of hybrid picking and open strings.
As formulaic as metal can seem or be, there will always be bands to push the boundaries and innovate their own styles of metal in order to find commercial or artistic success. Bands finding their own sound in metal can be extremely difficult but using other genres for inspiration can breathe new life into metal and move it in a unique and interesting direction.