A thought on counterpoint: works with black metal, not so much with death metal


Counterpoint in music is two or more competing voices in the same general musical space. Counterpoint is not the simple parallel harmonies practiced by the likes of Iron Maiden and Judas Priest; these are essentially the same sequence of notes, or intervals, only shifted an octave or so above. Neither is counterpoint the agency of a lead phrase against the backdrop of a rhythmic progression; these are mere embellishments, not the fully-fledged, alive-and-breathing, independent composition that a counterpoint or polyphony is. Pregnant with musical and mathematical acumen, this device, most commonly heard in the fugues of Western classical music, simultaneously defleshes and enhances the overall nature of the composition.

A previous post had explored the possibilities of such a strategy in metal. To add to the thought, I believe that black metal is more liable to make successful use of counterpoint than death metal. Black metal – at least the kind that I value most, i.e. the second wave of Norwegian black metal – tends to work within a largely tonal framework, in which dissonance is used more often than not as a tool for enhancing flavor. Death metal, on the other hand, operates amid a world of floating keys and dissonance. For true counterpoint to work, the voices in contention have to offset one another, both dynamically and tonally: dynamic as in a sense of building up  or crescendo, and dying down; tonally as in obeying consonant, musical interrelationships.

Black metal, or melodically-aware metal in general, follows these rules far more closely than atonal death metal. Just contrast In The Nightside Eclipse or The Red In The Sky Is Ours with Onward To Golgotha; the possibilities open to the former far outstrip the death metal classic. Conventional death metal incorporating counterpoint is only liable to create a bleed-over effect of general incoherence; even unconventional, technically savvy death metal like Zealotry – who I should say present a tantalizing glimpse of what is possible while employing counterpoint in death metal – don’t escape labels of undirected showmanship. For two or more voices to indulge in dialogue, they require a starting point of discourse; it becomes that much harder to establish one in the absence of a binding musical context.

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