Riffology 102 – Forensic Clinicism / The Sanguine Article

I hope you all enjoyed your extended winter break, but now class is back in session. In today’s lesson, we will examine a riff from the Carcass composition “Forensic Clinicism/The Sanguine Article”, which is featured on the album Necroticism: Descanting the Insalubrious. At 7:17, “Forensic Clinicism/The Sanguine Article” is one of the longest songs in the Carcass catalog, and as such, it is practically hemorrhaging great riffs — enough to fill several lessons, in fact. Today, however, we will focus on the intro riff which runs from 0:05 to 0:15 on the video below.

The riff begins with a simple three note figure which is modulated down one half step (one fret) and repeated, followed by a quick trill (rapidly repeated hammer-on and pull-off) and then some palm-muted galloping on the open sixth string. The second time through, the three note figures and trill are repeated, but the band modulates up one half step on the gallop, shifting the tonal center of the riff on each repetition, rendering a slight push-pull effect.

The riff itself is not one of Carcass’s most twisted, but it is quite fast at about 190 beats per minute, giving it a very thrashy feel. In fact, the riff would not sound too out of place on a late-eighties Kreator record, except for one thing: It is tuned down to the depths of Hell. In contrast to “Balls to the Wall” from our last lesson, which was tuned slightly higher than standard tuning, “Forensic Clinicism / The Sanguine Article” is tuned way below standard tuning. Throughout its career, Carcass tuned its guitars down a perfect fourth, or two-and-a-half steps below standard pitch.This brings the guitars into the baritone range and produces a much deeper, darker and heavier sound than standard-tuned guitars.

Since we have had a lengthy break, let us augment our lesson with a little history on tuning down in metal:

The practice of tuning down is quite commonplace in metal today, particular in death and doom, but that was not at all the case when Carcass released Reek of Putrefaction in 1988. The practice was not unheard of, but it was certainly rare, and never before taken to such extremes.

The roots of down-tuning, as do so many things in metal, go back to Black Sabbath. Starting with several tracks on the Master of Reality album in 1971, Black Sabbath began to frequently tune down one-and-a-half steps. However, tuning down did not really catch on with the metal bands that immediately followed Sabbath. The path that Judas Priest blazed, one that many NWOBHM metal bands would follow, was one of up-tempo, high-energy metal that was better suited to higher keys, particularly in light of the banshee wails of the likes of Rob Halford and Bruce Dickinson. Of the NWOBHM bands, Venom was the exception, tuning down one-and-a-half steps (give or take) in the Sabbath fashion.

The vast majority of early thrash was also played in standard tuning, though Slayer began tuning down one half step with 1985’s Hell Awaits. Doom, however, was one genre that took to down-tuning right out of the gate. Notable practitioners included Witchfinder General (two whole steps), Trouble (one whole step), and Saint Vitus (one half step).

In the mid to late eighties, as death metal was beginning to evolve out of thrash, bands such as Sepultura (Bestial Devastation, 1985) Kreator (Pleasure to Kill, 1986) and Death (Scream Bloody Gore, 1987) began experimenting with detuning, though to hear Max Cavalera tell it, Bestial Devastation’s ultra-low tuning was something of an accident. Carcass, however, set the bar at a new low with Reek of Putrefaction, inspiring many soon to be legendary acts (Entombed, Grave, Unleashed, and Immolation, to name a few) in the burgeoning death metal scene to employ heavy down-tuning of two to two-and-a-half steps or more. By the early nineties, tuning down to some degree was practically obligatory in death metal. Genre stalwarts Morbid Angel and Deicide favored half-step drops, Obituary and Asphyx tuned down a whole step, and Autopsy and Dismember tuned down two whole steps. Carcass’s baritone-range tuning continued to grow in popularity both in and out of death metal via the works of high profile bands like Type O Negative, At the Gates, Hypocrisy and Crowbar. Less extreme down-tuning likewise continued to proliferate through mainstream metal acts including Pantera, Sepultura (who had abandoned the practice for several years)Biohazard and eventually even Metallica. Today the trend of extreme down-tuning continues with bands such as Nile and Meshuggah using tunings of three-and-a-half steps or more below standard.

Now that our history lesson is complete, let us get back to Carcass and our featured riff. The riff as performed in the intro to “Forensic Clinicism” is a good riff, but it is only played twice through, for a total of ten seconds. Calling so fleeting a riff “great” is a bit of a stretch, but this little gem is not gone forever after the intro. Oh, no, it returns, bigger, better…and slower. From the midst of a trudging breakdown, at 5:06 our riff emerges anew, signaling, I expect, the beginning of “The Sanguine Article”. While the riff uses the exact same notes in the exact same key as the intro, this time around, Carcass shaves about fifty beats per minute off the tempo bringing, it down to a more modest 140 bpm. Additionally, drummer Ken Owen starts out playing in half time, making the riff feel even slower than it is. At this much slower pace, the full weight of Carcass’ ultra-low tuning is brought to bear, and the riff that was once frantic and stinging, becomes a creeping, bludgeoning horror, bristling with malice. Nor are we so easily rid of the riff this time around; the riff repeats for nearly a full minute and forms the backing for some sublime soloing by Bill Steer.

Playing a riff at two different tempos is not the most intricate compositional technique, but sometimes it is the simplest ideas that are the most effective. Furthermore, I think we can conclude that if a riff sounds good fast, and it also sounds good slow, then it is indeed a great riff.

 

HOMEWORK:

In the lashes, post one metal band not listed above that tunes down two-and-a-half steps or lower.

Required listening:

Carcass – Necroticism: Descanting the Insalubrious

Extra Credit:

Learn to play “Forensic Clinicism / The Sanguine Article”

Posted by Jeremy Morse

Riffs or GTFO.

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