Atonality, serialism, and death metal


Atonality in music is the lack of adherence to a tonal center for the duration of a piece or section. Tonal music functions within the framework of a specific key and the modes that are derived from it. Atonal music is an attempt at breaking away from this framework and making the relationship between notes far more liminal, transitory, and low-level. The seven notes of the diatonic scale hold a special, physical consonance to the human ear and mind when sounded against each other in fixed configurations; atonal philosophy, however, considers all twelve pitches or notes of the chromatic scale as equally legitimate, and revels in the interplay between them. In doing so, it upends the listener’s expectations of being grounded in a readily recognizable environment, surprising him with fresh challenges at every turn.

Atonality in music is closely linked to theories of serialism that began circulating in early twentieth century Europe. Serialism is atonality taken to its logical extreme, its most renowned exponent being Arnold Schoenberg and his equally illustrious school of disciples. Serialism is a musical-mathematical premise based on the principle of the twelve notes of the chromatic scale. These notes, in a starting arrangement of the composer’s choosing, together comprise what is called the tone-row. The main thrust of serialism in music is to circulate through the twelve notes of the chromatic scale, and to not repeat any one of them before the entire series has been completed. Different mathematical operations like retrograde, inversion, and retrograde-inversion are applied to the original tone-row to come up with additional tone-rows. Essentially, these mathematical operations serve to subtly change the configuration of the original scale, therefore adding more color and variety to the music in which they are employed.

Josef Matthias Hauer, an Austrian composer and music theorist from the era, was one of the first to elaborate on such matters. According to Hauer, music achieves its true multi-dimensional fulfillment on the mental-spiritual plane. A composer conceptualizes music in his head, and then translates it to the best of his abilities on to an instrument. However, like the Platonic forms (the circle, for example) which have no real existence outside the mind, this transfer of music from the composer’s mind to the material realm is at best an approximation. The onus then falls on the listener to “reassemble” this crude, material musical form back into something accurately resembling what the composer may have initially visualized. The degree to which the listener succeeds in doing so is related directly to how his perception interacts with his innate intuition, further to which lie his talents of absorption and assimilation.

In Hauer’s opinion, all music consists of two chief components, rhythm and melody. The two as pertaining to music can be imagined in terms of a continuum, where rhythm occupies one end and melody the other. All music would then naturally fall somewhere along this sliding-scale, depending on the predominance of one or the other component. Hauer says that the element of rhythm represents the material aspect of music, while melody denotes the spiritual and thus holds the more noble position in this two-fold dynamic. Any two notes sounded in succession by default are imbued with an element of rhythm, for the duration between the notes, however protracted or attenuated, by default lends them a temporal character.

Hauer was an early proponent of twelve-tone serialism, and in its defense executes what, to me, seems like a circuitous leap of faith. Hauer says that tonality by definition subordinates all other notes to one overriding pitch, or key, and therefore establishes the rhythmic component of his rhythm-melody bifurcation as the predominant element. Twelve-tone serialism, on the other hand, by circulating over all twelve pitches without bias creates a musical environment which is overwhelmingly melodic and therefore spiritual. Atonality, to Hauer, then, triumphs over tonality as a purer, more undiluted expression of music.

To me, atonal passages in music register greater impact when they are grounded in a sea of tonality. Perhaps a third element to be added to Hauer’s rhythm-melody scale is contrast. Contrast is of the utmost importance as a navigational aid for the listener. What creates contrast is, paradoxically enough, a sense of verisimilitude. One needs to be acquainted with familiarity to appreciate the little changes in color when that familiarity is abruptly rooted out; without that familiarity, there is no exhilaration at encountering something alien, nor is there any longing to return to home pastures.

Death metal presents a fascinating example of atonality in metal. Death metal subscribes to a tangentially-related take on atonality. While death metal has no explicit, theoretical dogma about it, it also shows no favor to tonality or the role of chord progressions of popular music. Death metal works on the level of the riff, so it is natural for the style to have certain ideas repeating through the course of a song. But the composition of the riff itself, as can be heard clearly in the case of bands like Deeds Of Flesh, Immolation, Averse Sefira, and Crimson Massacre, involves the use of a sort of abridged tone-row, where the riff cycles through a series of notes from the chromatic scale without discrimination.

Come to think of it, “without discrimination” is the wrong choice of words. Good death metal cares greatly about riff closure, expressed through a tonal concept of a return to the riff’s tonic or root. One is almost tempted to say that death metal creates tonality out of atonality, and this wouldn’t be an entirely inaccurate way of surmising the genre’s spectrum-skewing musical philosophy. Innovation occurs at the micro level and in terms of arrangement, however the bridge between the two is repetitive. This concept of the refrain, so long as it communicates something tangible, is of far greater importance to death metal, in fact, to all metal, than any ascetic denial through obsession with note choices.

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6 Responses to Atonality, serialism, and death metal

  1. P.B. says:

    I don’t know that it’s accurate to say that death metal, at least when it’s at its best, is really all that concerned about always resolving to the tonic.

    For one thing, it’s really more common to resolve downwards to the second or third, just for reasons of melodic continuity; ending a riff on the tonic is awkward, since most riffs also start there, so when you reach the point where the riff “loops”, you just sit tremolo picking that note for a long time, unless you do the At the Gates thing where you skip playing the tonic at the start on subsequent repetitions of the riff.

    But, a lot of the better bands in the genre that are further away from the modern stultifying predictable riff shapes throw that out the window a lot. Grab your guitar, and play the first riff of “Golgotha”; the last note doesn’t really resolve to either the first note in the riff or the tonic. It’s a major seventh up from the first note of the riff, but the move back to the first note is *down*, not up. And it’s a minor 6th up from the root, which is even stranger. Or, for another example, look at “Maze of Torment”, which has a tendency to resolve upwards to minor thirds and seconds (the first riff resolves downwards to the second, but most of the others don’t). Perhaps the most striking example that comes to mind instantly is the second riff of “Cromlech”, which resolves to the tritone!

    This modern tendency to always have the end of a riff moving down smoothly just a half-step or a minor third away from the tonic is part of why so much modern death metal ends up sounding so sterile and castrated. You just nod along automatically; the riffs are all too convenient, and there’s nothing jagged or imbalanced in the riff shapes, which defeats the purpose of the entire genre and what it tried to express.

    • That is very insightful, thanks. I must have been hearing something specific while writing that, hence the reference, but the more progressive and ambitious the genre gets, the less it is bogged down with “closure”. Hopefully the main point to take away from this post is death metal’s blending of musical philosophies, to the extent where it becomes impossible to pigeonhole it as classical, modernist, or post-modernist.

  2. Shiva says:

    what is your opinion switzerland’s coroner and do you think they make for a good example in this context? and from what I’m reading atonality and dissonance tread the same lines of the incongruous.

    • Coroner still work within the framework of scales and modes, with the occasional atonal phrase thrown in. It’s just that there is so much noodling going on under the umbrella of those modal forms that it becomes a little hard to identify them.

      Your question leads me to believe that there are loose and strict forms of atonality/tonality. Some bands, like Slayer on Hell Awaits, adhere to it more strictly than say Coroner.

      Atonality in my opinion is a larger, song-wide concern, whereas dissonance seems like a subset of atonality, or an embellishment that can be broken out as and when a band chooses.

      • Shiva says:

        thanks for the answer. insightful post as ever, odb. what is your opinions on the Deathspell Omega trilogy? i think its an utter artistic triumph in the style in question. would love to see an analysis on Si Monumentum.. or Paralectus. a lot of bands that also helped pave the way for atonality in metal like Ved Buens Ende and Discordance Axis seem to be forgotten amidst the various trends plaguing the metal underground and otherwise.

  3. Pingback: Death Metal Battle Royale Round 2: Demigod’s Slumber of Sullen Eyes vs The Chasm’s Deathcult for Eternity: The Triumph | Old Disgruntled Bastard

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