Class is back in session, kids. You’ll have to excuse my lengthy absence; I was on a lengthy research sabbatical. I don’t know how often class will meet in the future, but, for now, we’ve got work to do.
Immolation, in its nigh-on thirty-year career has developed one of the most unique voices in death metal: sour, sullen and oppressively heavy. While other bands have pursued extremes in brutality or technical prowess, Immolation has striven, primarily, to sound very evil. To this end, the band has always exploited dissonance and never to greater effect than with the barely harnessed squalls of noise on 2000’s Close to a World Below. Immolation has retreated somewhat from such extremity with subsequent albums, but dissonance is still very much a key component of the band’s sound and 2017’s Atonement finds the band sounding as evil as ever.
For this lesson we will examine one of Immolation’s more subtle uses of dissonance with the intro/main theme of “A Glorious Epoch” from 2010’s Majesty and Decay. “A Glorious Epoch” begins in uncharacteristically mellow, but nonetheless ominous fashion. Guitarist/mastermind, Robert Vigna begins the track buy picking out an arpeggio with a tone that is not entirely clean, but much less distorted than is the band’s custom. An arpeggio, if we have not covered it before, is a technique wherein the notes of a chord are picked individually, in a pattern, to create a melody, as opposed to strumming, wherein all the notes are struck (almost) simultaneously. The arpeggio in question is based on the C-minor-add-9 chord. (Immolation tunes down two whole steps; transposed to standard tuning, the chord would be E-minor-add 9) Other examples of minor-add-9 chords in metal can be found in Metallica’s “Welcome Home (Sanitarium)” and Black Sabbath’s Planet Caravan.
Without diving too deep into music theory, the “add-9” designation means that a note has been added to the standard C-minor chord. Basic major and minor chords are composed of some combination of three notes: a root, which gives the chord its name, a third, which gives the chord its major or minor tonality, and a fifth, which gives the chord some tonally-neutral harmonic depth, sort of like the way a neutron adds mass to an atom without affecting its charge. The” add-9” , in this case is a D note, which creates a somewhat dissonant clash with the chords root note, C, giving the chord a more unsettled feeling than a standard minor chord. Because Mr. Vigna plays the chord as an arpeggio the dissonance is less jarring as the root note has decayed some by the time the D is struck. The cleaner tone employed also greatly reduces the audible dissonance. With a clean tone, dissonant intervals can give a chord more complexity and depth. Distortion, however, makes the clash of tones sound harsher and more unpleasant.
“A Glorious Epoch’s” intro is a simple two-measure riff. The first measure is a brooding five-note melody. The second measure is almost identical, featuring the same first four notes, but at the last moment Vigna plays an E-flat in place of the previous measure’s C, and then rapidly pulls off to D, then to C, quickly collapsing the tension the riff has built down to rubble.
The heavy riff that enters at 0:20 is a sort of stripped-down mutation of the intro, using the same group of notes, a similar melody, and the same pull-off sequence. A notable element of this riff is the artificial or “pinch” harmonic that Robert hits on the e-flat notes. Producing an artificial harmonic involves plucking a note and then immediately scraping the string with the flesh of the picking hand’s thumb. Doing this at certain specific points along the string will produce a note that is weaker, but much higher in pitch than if the string were plucked normally. Artificial harmonics become much more audible when played with a distorted tone, making them perfect for death metal. Artificial harmonics allows a guitarist to play much higher notes, some beyond the conventional range of the guitar, without changing the position of his/her fretting hand. Played on the thick sixth string, with Immolation’s low tuning and a little vibrato, the note Vigna hits doesn’t squeal so much as moan, like the last gasp of a dying horse. The effect is deeply unsettling, providing more evidence that Robert Vigna, in ways both subtle and harsh, is a master of sonic evil.
Being an Immolation song, “A Glorious Epoch”, of course, has many more magnificently evil riffs we could dissect, but this being our first lesson in a long while, we shouldn’t overdo it. Class dismissed for now.
Homework: Post your favorite Immolation riff in the comments.
Extra Credit: Learn to play “A Glorious Epoch”. No tablature is currently available, so you’ll have to learn it by ear. Good luck.