OR: Everything I ever needed to know I learned from reading comics
In Season 2 of Broadchurch, Jocelyn Knight (wonderfully portrayed by Charlotte Rampling) says something to the effect of “Compartments. It’s how we survive in this world.” I’ll spare you any analysis of the character or the series, but if you’re into tightly-plotted, well acted British crime dramas, I highly recommend Broadchurch.
One thing I talk about often during interviews is the process of writing for several different bands and projects and if the the process is different for each. And I could basically quote Solicitor Knight verbatim – it is all about compartmentalization. As far as arranging the riffs and ideas, the process is very similar for all my stuff. If you read my earlier blogs about song-construction analysis / technique (which I’m far more qualified to gas on about than British crime TV), I truly believe that a good song is a good song, regardless of genre. If I’m writing an Exhumed song, I’m looking for a good hook, and a solid verse / chorus / verse / chorus / bridge concept. Same for Pounder, and Gruesome is only slightly different. But in terms of the riffs and ideas themselves… There is little to no overlap between any of the projects, especially as Gruesome moves forward in our homage in the Death catalog into the Human era and beyond for our next records. I can usually tell immediately where something my hands pry out of the fretboard is headed.
As being in multiple active bands is somewhat of an anomaly and being the primary songwriter in multiple active bands across multiple sub-genres is even more of an anomaly, I’m often asked where my ability to create this kind of mental “sorting system” came from, and like so much of the framework of my thinking, it was formed in my childhood as a result of my obsession with superhero comics. Don’t worry, I’m not setting you up for a 5,000 word essay about the Scarlet Witch’s love-life or which incarnation of the Justice League is my personal favorite. There is a point here. As a kid I loved Marvel comics like the Avengers, Alpha Flight, and of course, the X-Men and Spider-Man, as well as DC books like the Marv Wolfman / George Perez era of the New Teen Titans and the Paul Levitz / Keith Giffen era of the Legion of Super-Heroes. When John Byrne, my favorite Marvel artist at age 10, moved to DC to revamp Superman, my allowance money followed, just as it did when Frank Miller left Marvel’s Daredevil to work on The Dark Knight Returns and Batman: Year One for DC. Despite having sincere fandom for properties developed by the House of Ideas (Stan Lee’s ever-so-modest name for the Marvel bullpen of the 1960s) and their Distinguished Competition (Stan’s name for DC – get it?) I was acutely aware from a very early age that the characters existed in distinct, separate universes. The only time those universes collided were when I got my Secret Wars and Super Powers action figures out to engage in a battle royale – then all bets were off and I got to explore the burning questions of the 1980s elementary school set, like which Dinobots could beat Wolverine and if Superman could defeat Skeletor. But I digress. The point is, I learned – directly from being a comic book fan – at a very early age to take the ideas that populated my imagination and sort them into different, discreet internal worlds, and to sort my comic collection by publisher, the physical manifestation of that mental sorting process. Now that geek culture (or as I call it “nerd shit”) has taken over mainstream pop-culture, I can FINALLY use these terms to explain myself to people and have many of them actually know what the fuck I’m talking about.
I imagine each band as existing within its own distinct universe, possessing specific immutable laws and boundaries which define the work I do in creating material for them. As I’ve always stated, I prefer to create within some kind of boundaries, as it gives structure to the project. Without any boundaries or rules, music can come out sounding really unfocused and arbitrary, which I find annoying to listen to (Mr. Bungle drives me up the fucking wall). I love R&B, Powerviolence, Synthwave, 1960s James Bond soundtrack, Delta Blues, AOR and Crust Punk, but mixing them together in one project would be a stylistic clusterfuck of epic proportions. Here’s a quick outline of how I sort things out (compart)mentally for my bands. (See what I did there?)
Exhumed tunes to B and our lyrics have remained stubbornly fixated on the same gory, morbid imagery and aesthetic since the beginning of the band. The defining sonic element of Exhumed is that it’s primarily kinetic. There aren’t many down-tempo, introspective moments in our discography (though Death Revenge inserted some) because the attack is the core element of the sound. Even mid-paced tunes like “The Shape of Deaths to Come” or “Night Work” stay away from dragging the beat or being “doomy.” Tonally, we focus on diminished intervals, chromatic, descending riffs, and what I call “The Death Metal notes” B, C, D and E flat (or, on the 6th string, open-string, first-fret, third-fret, fourth-fret – the Scream Bloody Gore opening riff note combo). We also use a fair amount of traditional metal melodies for the solos, to provide a bit of contrast (although not-so-much on the new record).
Dekapitator shared much of that kinetic energy, but we tuned to E, my vocal technique was totally different, and we focused on recreating the thrash template that was woefully uncool when we started the band in earnest in ’97. There’s the tried and true E, G, A, B flat combo (“the Metallica riff”) and lots of more chromatic stuff in the early Kreator vein, with pull-offs and “wheedlies” a la Exodus and Destruction. On the second album, we also included little moments that directly referenced bands like Slayer and Rigor Mortis and the leads got a little more aggressive, as more melody crept into the riffing.
Pounder uses mostly melodic riff ideas rooted in traditional minor scales, and additionally uses some pentatonic, blues based progressions so that whatever we’re doing still feels rooted in “rock” rather than “power metal,” which sometimes gets so melodic that it feels sugary to my ears. Plus my admittedly-limited vocal skills are more suited to gritty hard rock than to soaring melodies, so it makes sense to retain that feel as much as possible. There are ocasionally Phrygian and Harmonic Minor patterns in there for contrast as well, but those darker-sounding palettes aren’t the main focus. We also use more ascending riffs and progressions, as the music is more upbeat than my other bands. The “Stagefright” chord progression of ascending up the minor scale to build tension is one of my favorites to employ here. We tune to D, which helps me hit some of the pitches in the vocal melodies with less strain, although I have a bad habit of simply writing higher-pitched melodies that are still at the upper limits of my range, which is something I’m really trying to work on going forward.
Gruesome of course, emulates Chuck’s riffing sensibilities to the best of my abilities. We tune to D, and try to capture similar sonic approaches with each record to various Death albums. Chuck added new elements to his arsenal each record, with Scream… being firmly rooted in Phrygian progressions, as well as pioneering the aforementioned “Death Metal notes,” and many variations of the “Halloween riff” (Tonic, Fifth and Minor Sixth). There were some primitive stabs at traditional minor licks and riffs in the intro for Denial of Life and the verse of Evil Dead, but they were fairly unsophisticated. Leprosy didn’t bring a ton of tonal changes, but it did see a lot of modulation (playing the same riff or progression in different keys) and began a long tradition of Chuck arpeggiating power chords and creating riffs out of tapping sequences. Of course, the execution and production were leaps and bounds ahead of Scream… as well. By Spiritual Healing we can hear some traditionally melodic stuff infiltrating the formula as well as an affinity for shamelessly flashy sections peppered throughout the more traditional Death Metal stuff. Chuck also incorporated more tri-tones on this record, which would become even more prominent on Human. There was also a noticeable reduction in tempos on Spiritual…, and a real focus on articulating the 16th note tremelo picking integral to Chuck’s (and Death Metal’s) style. It should go without saying that the addition of James Murphy elevated the musicality of the solos immensely and set the standard for Death Metal lead guitar at the time. Human brought the same level of ambition to the rhythm section, with Sean Reinert’s drumming in particular being a paradigm-shatterer. Chuck’s riffing continued to evolve with the inclusion of “add9” chords and expanded use of tri-tones, as well as some non-traditional time signatures, but Human is truly where he fully grew into his riffing style. The next two albums continue in a similar vein, with Individual Thought Patterns focusing more on riffs played in a higher register and utilizing rhythm hooks, and Symbolic simplified a lot of the riffs and incorporated more traditional metal melodies and hooks, giving it a more confident and streamlined feel. I don’t really count Sound of Perserverance as a Death record, as it was written as a Control Denied album, so I’m not going to mention it here.
The point of all this is to expand on the concept of compartmentalizing the writing process by creating and following a loose set of guidelines for each project to ensure that I’m not just making Exhumed records under multiple monikers. My goal has always been to justify each project’s existence as it’s own independent thing. I’m not hoping that Exhumed fans buy Pounder records just because I’m in the band if they’re not into traditional metal (although that’s flattering and nice if they do). I want Pounder to exist as a completely independent entity and the last thing I want anyone thinking when they put on Uncivilized is “that really sounds like the guy from Exhumed.”
As far as my ambition to create multiple standalone projects with “lives” of their own, of course part of it is ego-driven. I hear something and think “Fuck, I can do better than that” and I’m willing to at least try and put myself out there and see what happens. The bigger part of it however, comes from sheer love for music in general, and metal in particular.
Relating things back to comics, my personal hero is Jack Kirby. I could burn through 10,000 words about why I admire him, but I’ll summarize his greatest hits here for you. Kirby is best known for co-creating of pretty much every classic Marvel character of the 1960s that’s not Spider-Man or Doctor Strange. If you’ve seen Thor: Ragnarok you know what a Jack Kirby Marvel comic looks like. He also pioneered romance comics in the 50s, did monster books in the late 50s and early 60s, co-created Captain America in the 40s, and did war and western comics in the 40s and 50s. In the 70s he expanded the DC universe and gave it its most compelling villain, Darkseid (Thanos was Marvel’s Darkseid knockoff), all while trying new “magazine-size” formats of comics about gangs of the 20s and supernatural phenomena, while incorporating photo collages into his work. He also worked in animation, defining much of the visual look of Thundarr the Barbarian (the most metal Saturday morning cartoon ever) and created tons of lesser-known properties for comics and animation, including an incredibly bizarre comics adaptation of 2001: A Space Odyssey.
My point is, the guy was prolific as fuck and he did good work across multiple genres that has stood the test of time. I think to myself: if Kirby can do romance books and create the Eternals, I can play grinding Death Metal in Exhumed and power ballads in Pounder. I’ll never measure up to his accomplishments, but I can try my best to embrace the spirit of his work and his work ethic. Even as an industry veteran in his fifties, Kirby continued to push himself and the comic book medium to do more, explore more and be better. I try to emulate that drive in my own work, and I guess I’m an “underground metal veteran” at this point. I’m trying my best to be like Jack – indefatigable, fearless, generous, and always exploring. It’s great to look back on my previous accomplishments, but new vistas ahead are far more interesting.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got some riffs to write.