The break of metal songwriting

Broken metal chain on black background

Darkness Eternal‘s 2001 album, Satanchrist, liberally employed the kind of breaks that Immolation patented on many of their classic album closers, albeit without the latter’s knowledge of placement. This record, though a little muddled in the way it arranges diverse riff sets, still poses interesting questions around the concept of the break in a metal song. Different from the hardcore breakdown that came to be so embraced by the perishable metal styles of the last fifteen years, the traditional metal “break” is far from an end in itself. It preserves continuity and usually carries some melodic heft and groove to boot. It makes judicious use of repetition to insinuate itself into the listener’s consciousness but perhaps most pertinent to the metal break’s relevance is the position it occupies in the song’s layout.

I find it more useful to think of the metal break as a sort of tunnel that connects two relatively different musical ideas, allowing the skillful band to explore subtly varying textures without causing complete rupture. The good bands use breaks to bring the concept of tension into focus, using them as either respite or as a sustaining mechanism. Obviously there can be no release from or preservation of tension without adequate knowledge of what has gone before and what, if anything, is to follow. Metal breaks then become points of entry and egress, indispensable parts of the song’s greater map, and so much more than a headbanging curiosity.

How all of this is achieved is a matter of the song’s intent, not to mention some individualistic flair on the part of the songwriter. A different drum beat, usually in regular time, sets the template and the guitars take over accordingly. Immolation‘s album closers relied on short, repeating, angular melodies in the minor scale – sometimes achieved simply by bending successive notes up half a step or more – that contrasted well against the otherwise jagged nature of their music while simultaneously enhancing the dark themes inherent in it. Other percussively-active death metal bands, Immolation not excluded on occasion, inject groove into their breaks, using these sections as well-executed but blatant detours. This second variety of break elicits a more involuntary response in the listener, one that he can’t see much sense in on analysis but is worth treasuring all the same for its sonic and spirit-affirming qualities.

Think the famous “Die!” chorus on Metallica‘s Creeping Death. Traditional heavy metal bands use the break as the bridge of popular songwriting, but the intention remains the same. Creeping Death, in fact, is a great example of what the metal break should always be; a tentative severing from the main body of the song yet carrying some vestige of that original organism. The possibilities are wide-ranging and in the hands of good bands bring the powers of the imagination into play.

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