What makes Incantation unique

[Incantation have come to be the preeminent death metal band to be borrowed from, but how much do the new adherents really have in common with the legends? Condemner guitarist P.B. contributes this analysis on the subject]

I suppose that I have to start this by admitting confusion on how Blaspherian made it into the list of “bands that sound like Incantation” — to my ears they’re not even close.  Maybe it’s because my introduction to them was with “Allegiance to the Will of Damnation”, but the combination of percussive palm-muted riffs (seriously, just listen to that first riff on “Allegiance…”!), Chris Reifert-influenced drumming, and even the solid-state distortion source (Wes Weaver favors a Boss Metal Zone as his distortion source, instead of using a boost or overdrive in front of a tube amp) makes them sound absolutely nothing like Incantation to my ears.  Honestly, I wouldn’t say they “sound like” anyone; maybe Baphomet comes closest?  They’ve very much got their own voice while sounding immediately familiar, which is, of course, a part of why they’re so loved.

As far as other bands go… well, to talk about that, we have to first go into what separates Incantation from their contemporaries.  Incantation was certainly not the only band of their time to focus on using a stream of tremolo picked melody to create riffs — Necrovore did it with aplomb on “Divus De Mortuus”, and we see it in many European death metal bands of the era (just listen to the first riff of “Drowned”!).  They’re also far from the only death metal band of the era to incorporate slower sections in their songs.  What is different, however, is their use of dynamics to create “meta-rhytmic” grooves and the more chromatic approach to the tremolo picked riffs that also features a speed-metal influenced tendency to jump huge intervals between consecutive notes — frequently over an octave.

No matter how revolutionary a band is, it has influences, and, Germany aside, speed metal was much more of a “thing” in the United States than it was in Europe; traditional heavy metal and D-beat punk were much more of “things” in Europe than they were in the United States.  Heavy metal and D-beat punk both take a traditional “stringed instrument” view of melody, where you mostly move up or down the notes of the chosen scale in order, occasionally jumping a bit to add interest.  That first riff of “Drowned” is instructive again; it starts on the second immediately moves down to the root, but its motion is mostly “upwards to the next note”, and it never jumps beyond the next note up or down in the major diminished* scale (*note that while this is technically strictly within the diminished scale, since it stays below the perfect fifth, it would be easy to interpret this riff as being in natural minor with a tritone added for color).  Meanwhile, speed metal took an approach to melody more akin to the approach of a keyboard instrument; use the open E string as a pedal point, and play the rest of the melody on the A and D strings, frequently in the next octave up.  Incantation took their cues from this approach, but opened it up even more, not always simply relying on the open string acting as a pedal point to create the possibility for large jumps, but by using either dextrous string-skips or by using pinch harmonics to negate the need to make a big move on the fretboard.

The way Incantation used dynamics to create grooves on top of their rhythms is another example of their speed metal influence, and one that’s easier to explain by feel rather than through raw analysis, so have a few drinks to loosen up, crank “Golgotha” at ear-damaging volumes (or, better still, play it on guitar if you know how), and notice how that first slow riff, the one before the “So as said/thy feeble savior/is to return” chorus makes you want to move — it’s not quite in direct relation to the beat.  The legato playing techniques they intersperse into the slow riffs — those trills and slides — naturally have a lower volume than actually picking a note, and the volume jumps and decays create a secondary rhythm overlaid on the main beat which creates a kind of slithering groove.  Contrast that with the first riff of “The Rack” or “Pilgrimage From Darkness”.  You’ll find that the latter avoids having such grooves, and the effect is entirely different.  Incantation’s slow parts are subversive and slithery; the slow parts of most European death metal bands of the era were simultaneously majestic and crushing.  

Again, one listen to Cruciamentum, Hellvetron, or Maveth will make it clear which school most modern “Incantation-like” bands are more like.

As mentioned before, every band has influences, and builds (or doesn’t, as may be the case for the hordes of derivative bands out there…) upon what previous bands have done.  When a band becomes as iconic as Incantation, what they did that was different from what came before is going to be what they’re known for, regardless of whether that’s an incomplete picture.  In the United States, at least, Incantation marks the point where death metal finalized its break from speed metal’s rhythmic sense, and, as such, the elements that are taken from speed metal are going to go somewhat ignored in the band’s legacy.  It’s telling that the band in this style that you label as playing closest to the Incantation mold — Father Befouled — is the one that claims “Altars of Madness” (which is, of course, very speed metal influenced) as a primary influence.  A new band that’s influenced by Incantation is going to come at some point in history where Incantation’s break from the palm-muted percussive aesthetics has already been made, and as such, they’re not likely to share the same speed metal influences underpinning Incantation. Furthermore, a new band in this style is coming from a world where black metal is widely known.  The importance of this cannot be understated; many of Incantation’s contributions to metal’s lexicon are very close to the contributions of Mayhem, Immortal, and Emperor.  Necros Christos (who, despite being unbelievably boring, are the band that kicked off the revival of this style) were originally more associated with the black metal scene than the death metal scene.  Many of the bands that currently play this style have a guitar tone more akin to the slicing treble of “De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas” than the bassy rush of “Onward to Golgotha”; this isn’t a coincidence, but rather a clear statement of influence and intent.  Speaking for my own works, what you hear on “Omens of Perdition” is a black metal guitarist who cut his teeth on early Mayhem, Darkthrone (including “Soulside Journey”), and Emperor and had a revelation about the potential of the more violent side of American death metal after seeing Imprecation live for the first time in 2009.  I highly doubt that I’m alone in this — reunification of death and black metal has been one of the most common themes in twenty-first century metal, seen in bands ranging from Averse Sefira to Vorum (well, at least until they totally lost the plot on that last EP…), and the resurgence of the un-muted tremolo picked death metal is another expression of this, a merging of death metal’s physical violence to black metal’s spiritual side, in an attempt to create a more complete expression and vision.

This entry was posted in Death Metal and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to What makes Incantation unique

  1. I agree with the Blaspherian bit. Did I say that? Awfully lazy of me if so, I’ll admit. On the other hand, I find Cruciamentum to have more in common with Demigod than Incantation or indeed either Maveth or Hellvetron.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s