The art of fugue and how much can metal borrow from classical music


That metal is stagnant today bears little repeating. That it needs an infusion of fresh ideas to stay relevant is undeniable, but what form should these new ideas take? Younger metal bands are split at a literal fork in this road at present: to adhere to an old sound in the hope of being authentic, or to pull in influences from musical genres entirely incompatible with metal.

The first of these two detours is admirable in its sincerity but more often than not makes the jaded listener wonder about the futility of it all and simply return to his treasured originals for succor. The second choice, however, sets up a fundamental clash in styles that is hard to reconcile even for the most intrepid of traditionalists (an intrepid traditionalist might seem like a paradox but I like to think that even the most musically conservative of us would like an expansion of scope in metal, for it to break out of its present mediocrity, providing its core ideals are undisturbed).

Having said that, I also do believe that if innovations are to be made then they have to be at the level of composition and not merely in the way of cosmetic facelifts. For it is composition and not surface traits that persist across time as a document of just how seriously the musician takes himself and his art, and whether there are intrinsically positive qualities to be discovered in his music. Composition is the fossil record of the musician’s mind and soul, and should always have the place of eminence in serious listeners’ hearts.

There will always be a niche for the spiritedly primitive in metal, this is without doubt, but the point of this post is not to cast aspersion on the legitimacy of that niche, but rather to act as an exercise in thought on whether metal can reach back into the past and draw not only figurative but also literal inspiration from classical music. It is often said that the more extreme strains of metal, black metal in particular, draw inspiration from the Western classical tradition. Admittedly, these explorations have been only tentative when compared to the great works of yesteryear, more so on the level of identification with a higher ideal and only the vaguest of nods to classical music’s “progressive” attributes in terms of composition.

The device that is especially fascinating due to its architectural complexity and ultimate perfection when done well is the fugue. A fugue is a style of composition where multiple voices, consonant or dissonant, combine in gradual elaboration of a common theme or motif over the span of a work. A constant dialogue occurs between these voices, each of which exists in a different pitch; one higher, the other lower, a third straddling the middle ground perhaps, each contributing their own muscle and fiber to a mutual and simultaneous interrogation, at times embarking on a tenuously individual path, only to be intermittently, and eventually, reined back into orbit to touch base with that same elemental theme.

There are regimented techniques to the fugue, consolidated over time, but the essence of this implement is the dialogue as broadly described above. Metal, on the other hand, (and it is prudent to exclude the more rock-flavored styles of metal here) has traditionally adopted more of a narrative stance on song-writing. Bands like At The Gates, Burzum, Summoning, and Graveland, may have experimented with the most rudimentary aspects of writing contrapuntal melodies, to great effect even within their chosen sphere, but the greater effect is of a non-lateral, though not necessarily linear, progression. Can metal embrace this paradigm shift in thought, that of substituting a narrative with a dialogue or perhaps a hybrid of the two; and if it did, would it have anything to gain by it or would it sacrifice the razor-edged vitality that separates it from other contemporary genres?

Even the sensitive uninitiated to the world of Western classical music can appreciate in some inexpressible manner the other-worldly, mathematical intricacy of Bach’s Art Of Fugue or The Well-Tempered Clavier. Not without reason has this music been likened to the outflowing of the divine will itself; by the same token, it has often been considered impersonal, but I like to think of it as man aspiring to a divinity in himself, and in that lies its true greatness. Metal may have different ideologies at a granular level, but the absolute aim has to be the same: to realize the best within oneself, because doing so is in fact paying highest homage to the one true reality, be it the divine found in or outside of nature.

Once we come back from lofty abstractions, however, we are confronted with earthly practicalities and genre realities. Can metal fugues be done in death metal or black metal or even in ambitious traditional heavy metal, without compromising the directness inherent to the genre? Do we risk getting lost in a jumble of technical acrobatics and lose sight of what makes metal so potent? Do present-day metal musicians even have the requisite skill and inclination to pursue such ends?

There is something (something?) to be said for the visceral aspects of metal and they exist in no small measure due to the genre’s songwriting credos. Tampering with them for the sake of innovation poses no small risk to its integrity as a distinct genre unto itself, especially when practiced by less adroit hands. Metal’s narrative aspect means that songs flow like a river, calm or in spasm; introducing the very idea of a dialogue through multiple voices means a rupture in this traditional fabric. Does it remain metal once this happens, and will musicians and fans be accepting of this scenario?

I don’t believe, however, that this is justification enough to rule out the use of fugue-like strategies in metal songs. The style of playing metal should never change; techniques have been in place for a long time for a reason and it would be inadvisable to break ways with them. Nor do I advocate a complete rejection of narration for a fugal dialogue; songs should retain their journey-like characteristics, but with significant allocation made for cross-talk between multiple voicings, ideally only two, considering extreme metal’s harsh and distorted nature. Also, there are precedents for this without doubt, but more extreme metal could do with albums based around common musical themes, enhanced and periodically revisited by songs, whilst still retaining the song’s identity.

Today’s technology offers unprecedented avenues for incorporating such practices into the metal repertoire. What may have required an almost preternatural, manifolded mental awareness three hundred years ago can possibly be achieved today with only a willingness to experiment meaningfully, and sufficient musical nous. The feasibility of such things is better left to more educated minds to discuss but if ever such a record came out, it would usher in a new revolution for the metal genre.

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3 Responses to The art of fugue and how much can metal borrow from classical music

  1. hi arc tow says:

    I actually think fugal form and metal are generally incompatible – both on the basic harmonic level (e.g. power chords and parallel harmonies – on which metal relies so often for their characteristic texture – are anathema to the strict harmonic rules fugues rely on to create a sense of independence in voices) and in terms of the different narrative objectives of the two – metal really is more like a classical or romantic symphony in that regard, in that development comes more at a macro, story-like level rather than in details.

    That said, Bach was able to incorporate fugal parts into his more dramatic works (the passions) as was Beethoven (symphony 9): the key is to take contrapuntal ideas and use them in a bigger context.

    • You expressed my misgivings far more succinctly w.r.t. fugal use in metal and metal being more like a classical symphony, but I agree with you there as well as in the need for a greater, more holistic context. Thematic unity is the key, so is retaining metal’s natural vitality while experimenting at the level of composition.

  2. Pingback: A thought on counterpoint: works with black metal, not so much with death metal | Old Disgruntled Bastard

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