Demilich, the quasi-legendary Finnish quartet, was perhaps the first really weird death metal band. The group’s only album, Nespithe, was a murky boondoggle of mind-bending riffs, ridiculous burping vocals and absurd song titles. To some Nespithe is a singular masterpiece, to others it is a sloppy mess, but to one and all, it is odd as all Hell.
Like many, I’ve long been intrigued by Demilich’s unique style of death metal. I’ve wondered if there was a method to the band’s madness. Did they make a pact with the Ancient Ones for access to notes not meant for mortal ears, or did the band just naturally develop one of the most bizarre styles in all of death metal? For years I’ve longed to crack Demilich’s code, if there was one, but my ability to learn music by ear is modest at best, and Nespithe’s god-awful production, and the band’s less than lock-tight performance served only to compound my difficulties in plucking some order from Nespithe’s seeming-chaos.
Thankfully, however, some dear souls with better ears than mine have managed to produce some quality Demilich tablature. And so finally, Demilich’s eldritch secrets have been revealed. Let us explore those secrets through an examination of the concisely titled track “The Sixteenth Six-Tooth Son of Fourteen Four-Regional Dimensions (Still Unnamed)”.
We’ll start with the simpler components of Demilich’s unique style. The guitars on “The Sixteenth Six-Tooth Son of Fourteen Four-Regional Dimensions (Still Unnamed)” are tuned down three-and-a-half steps below standard, which in the years before the seven-string guitar boom, was an unusually low tuning, even for death metal. That tuning is a step-and-a-half lower than the likes of Incantation and Immolation tuned, and a whole step lower than even Carcass and Grave reached. This ultra-low tuning definitely adds a murky, other-worldliness to the track. Another unusual aspect of Demilich’s approach is the vast majority of the band’s riffs are comprised of single notes. “The Sixteenth Six-Tooth Son of Fourteen Four-Regional Dimensions (Still Unnamed)” features a few power chords in the intro, but beyond that the song is virtually devoid of any sort of harmony. Finally, to make all this weirdness a little more frantic, the tempos for most of this track are over 180 beats per minute.
Now, let’s get to the really weird stuff: The second riff in the song, which begins around 00:21, is in 7/8 time. What that means is that there are seven beats per measure and with an eighth note counting as one beat. Most metal, and in fact most popular western music, is written in 4/4 time (four beats per measure, with a quarter note equaling one beat). 4/4 time is so ubiquitous that you’re practically programmed to expect musical patterns to span some multiple of four beats. Consequently, a riff like our example, with its odd number of beats, sounds very unsettling, and leaves you constantly feeling like there is a missing beat somewhere. While a fair portion of the other riffs in “The Sixteenth Six-tooth Son…” are in 4/4 time, the band does get pretty kooky later in the track, particularly the riff that emerges around 2:10 which features alternating bars of 7/8 and 9/8 time. Good luck finding the beat on that one.
On to the real nitty gritty, the notes themselves, those odd, confounding notes. The melody of our example riff is composed of wide intervals. Intervals in music, as we’ve covered before, are the distance between notes, as they relate to the major scale. In a standard seven-note scale, sequential notes are separated by either a whole or a half step. Of course, notes in a melody don’t always follow in scalar sequence; a certain amount of jumping around is necessary to make actual music, as opposed to merely running up and down scales. Demilich however takes this jumping around to great lengths in both this riff and its music as a whole. The closest adjacent notes in our riff example are a step-and a half apart, and the furthest are a full octave apart (12 half steps). The entire riff spans over two and a half octaves in the space of just one measure. In fact, there are only two notes in the whole of “The Sixteenth Six-tooth Son…” that could be said to follow in sequence in any standard seven-note scale you could think of. With the notes spread so far apart it is more difficult for the mind to make associations between them, so that even though the notes in this particular riff fall pretty close to the key of A-major, the melody still sounds chaotic and disjointed.
While it is gratifying to finally have an understanding of the basic elements of Demilich’s singular sound, I still wonder how the band arrived at this sound and how or why they chose the notes that they did. I have a theory about the latter, however: I’ve noticed through studying the notation for “The Sixteenth Six-Tooth Son of Fourteen Four-Regional Dimensions (Still Unnamed)” that Demilich uses very unconventional fretboard patterns, full of string skipping, long stretches and seemingly random weaving from note to note. From this I’ve developed the theory that Demilich composes its riffs from shapes rather than sounds. The band purposely employs the most unusual fretboard geometry it can think of, and the most unusual riffs in death metal are the result. It’s a crazy theory, but I’ll admit that writing this lesson has probably driven me a little mad. Don’t be surprised if the next Riffology features AC/DC instead.
Homework: In the comments, post your favorite odd-ball death metal album.
Extra credit: Learn to play “The Sixteenth Six-Tooth Son of Fourteen Four-Regional Dimensions (Still Unnamed)”.