Tag Archives: time signatures

Kashmir – Led Zeppelin

Led Zeppelin were formed out of Jimmy Page’s desire to create a supergroup, a behemoth, a world-conquering monster that could cast all opposition aside, and everything they did thereafter was done while conscious of the fact that they were Led Fucking Zeppelin, Destroyer of Worlds.

So Kashmir, then, is the self-consciously epic centrepiece of their most self-consciously epic record, Physical Graffiti, a double album from 1975, roughly the halfway point of their 11-year career.

Eight minutes is not an eternity, even by the standards of rock music, but it’s long enough for a band to develop quite a head of steam, and Kashmir does depend for its effect partly on accumulated momentum. Yet it’s far from being a mere musical bulldozer; Zeppelin always swung far too much to rely on power only.

The song’s principle motor is the relationship between Bonham’s simple drum pattern in 4/4 and Page’s exotic guitar riff in 3/8. Bonham maintains a common-time pattern, with a ‘heartbeat’ semiquaver bass drum (albeit one that begins on the one, rather than the semiquaver before the one), while Page’s guitar climbs from A to D and then after four bars (if you’re following the guitar riff) or three (if you’re counting with Bonham) the pattern repeats itself. The tension between the two parts – the constant rising and falling of the guitar, chord changes and emphases falling in different places in each bar – leaves the listener just a little unsure of where they are.

But then we come to John Paul Jones: Led Zeppelin’s secret weapon. In the band’s more ambitious pieces, Jones’s role was to provide the colour. As the band only very rarely used name session musicians (Boogie with Stu was a notable exception: “Stu” is Rolling Stones pianist Ian Stewart), Jones’s resourcefulness was often tested. In the case of Kashmir, he wrote string parts for both orchestral players and Mellotron, which he played himself. The Mellotron strings are audible in the bridges (“All I see turns to sand”, etc.) over the F and G chords – they’re the bits that sound most Arabian (geography not being the band’s strong point, or perhaps they didn’t know what Himalayan music sounded like). Live, Jones combined both parts on his Mellotron, played a bass line on the organ pedals and ditched his bass guitar early. He was the band’s most musicianly member: a former choirboy (rumours persist that at the height of Zep’s success he considered quitting the band to become choirmaster at Winchester) who can play about 17 instruments, and who played with a discipline and solidity that underpinned the rawer, sloppier virtuosity of Page and Bonham. He’s always there in the background, doing something vital but unshowy.

But what everyone remembers about Kashmir, ultimately, is the power of Page’s DADGAD-tuned riff and Bonham’s drums. They are what make the song one of Zeppelin’s crowning achievements, of which Page, Plant and Jones are all justly proud.

P&P
Jimmy Page and Robert Plant, both pulling what I like to think of as “the Led Zeppelin face”

Advertisements

Holiday harmonies, part 3: Them Bones – Alice in Chains

Yes, I am serious.

Alice in Chains are heavy rock’s foremost vocal harmony group.The harmonies sung by Layne Staley and Jerry Cantrell are as fundamental to AiC’s sound as the harmonies sung by the Beach Boys were to theirs.

Cantrell’s songwriting accomplishments are far vaster than is widely acknowledged. Of his generation and in his locale, only Kurt Cobain was a more inventive melodist. The difference is that while part of Cobain’s genius was to have his melodies acknowledge and emphasise the key notes from the non-tonic chords he often used in his idiosyncratic progressions, Cantrell wrote expansive melodies with prominent vocal harmony lines over heavily chromatic riffs where the harmonic sands are constantly shifting under the listener’s feet and it’s never entirely clear what key we’re supposed to be in.

How do you write a song like Them Bones? How do you decide what notes to sing? How do you then decide where to harmonise? Them Bones is unsettling from the start. It begins suddenly and violently in 7/8 time, with pummeling drop-tuned guitars and Layne Staley howling in pain. His cries only get more desperate and anguished as the song goes on.

The verse is dominated by Staley and Cantrell’s ear-jangling harmonies. They sing wide-open fifths (Staley an A, Cantrell a D on top*), but over a riff constantly cycling upwards in semi-tones, the D5 that the singers hold feels very unsettled. The whole thing song is unsettled, almost unbearably tense, only partly relieved by a chorus (once again sung in close harmony) that temporarily finds the song in 4/4 time and, relatively, stable harmonic ground.

Cantrell and Staley repeat this trick throughout Dirt, the band’s masterpiece. Think of the “She won’t let me high” section of Rain When I Die, or the verses of Would? – Cantrell seemed to have access to a store of creepy minor scales only he knew about, making an Alice in Chains song instantly recognisable, for all the claims made at the time about their dubious grunge cred. The re-formed version of the group, with Comes with the Fall singer William DuVall replacing the deceased Staley and Cantrell’s voice now the dominant element of the vocal blend, still pull this trick off. Note the single Check My Brain, from 2009’s Black Gives Way to Blue, which sounds like nothing so much as Black Sabbath’s Tony Iommi sitting in with Fleetwood Mac.

That’s the thing with AiC: vocal harmonies are seldom a foregrounded element in darker, heavier rock music, being more associable with pop metal à la Def Leppard and their ilk. Nobody else has quite done what these guys do, and I don’t think they’ve ever got due recognition for that uniqueness.

* I’ve discussed the song in the key as written and notated in most music books. The band are tuned down half a step, though, so while they play in D, it sounds in C# minor.

Everybody Wants to Rule the World – Tears for Fears

No artist has control over how their music is received, and any work that catches on big will attract an audience that’s probably a good deal wider than its author intended or envisaged, and will likely include a whole swathe of people the author doesn’t really relate to all that strongly.

For proof, let’s look at Tears for Fears, at once one of pop’s most serious-minded, interior-looking groups and a shorthand for lol big 80z muzik. While I’ve known Everybody Wants to Rule the World since I was a child (and have liked the band since becoming consciously aware of who they were when Sowing the Seeds of Love came out), my response to it has changed a little over time, and I’m aware that how I take it, and what I get from it, is not the same as what someone else might.

A few years ago I watched an old mid-1990s Adam Curtis TV series called Pandora’s Box. The League of Gentlemen, an episode that dealt with economics and the dangers inherent in treating it as a science, began with some footage of (presumably real) city workers in a karaoke bar, bellowing out the chorus of Everybody Wants to Rule the World, lagers in hand. OK, so the characterisation of all city boys as beered- and/or coked-up louts entirely deaf to the subtext and irony of what they were singing was heavy handed, but it made Curtis’s point forcefully enough (and I assume from the general tenor of his lyrics that Roland Orzabal and Curtis would find a reasonable amount of political common ground). And now, of course, I can’t help but see those two beery karaoke singers whenever I hear the song. Thanks for that, Adam.

That’s the thing. Everybody Wants to Rule the World is a song so big, and so universal, that it can encompass many meanings, can mean almost anything to anyone, in fact. It can be a go-on-my-son nod of encouragement to the lairy and megalomaniacal, or a sigh of acceptance that, yes, this is how people are, and it’s confusing as hell, but we aren’t alone. It can be travestied by Lorde in her bewildering goth remake for a Hunger Games sequel, placed at the end of a mid-1980s Val Kilmer sci-fi comedy (Real Genius) about super-smart college kids destroying their tutor’s house through the ingenious use of popcorn, or simply used as an all-purpose 1980s signifier in Peter’s Friends.

The song isn’t just interesting at a textual level though. If I were a music teacher, and I almost entirely lack the theoretical knowledge to ever be one (as this next section is likely to prove), I’d pull it out to explain to students how common time and triple metre can be laid on top of each other.

The sheet music for Everybody stipulates 12/8 time at brisk 112 beats per minute. Yet what’s going on here is more subtle than that – it doesn’t really have the 1-2-3-1-2-3, 1-2-3-1-2-3 feel that 12/8 time would imply, at least not in the drums. The hi-hat part plays a shuffle (first and last beats of the triplets only), with the second beat of each triplet merely ghosted. The opening guitar riff is determinedly in triplets, but the melody of the chorus is square on-the-beat crotchets (replace the lyrics “most of freedom and of pleasure, nothing ever lasts for ever” with “one two three four, one two three four, one two three four, one two three four” to see what I mean). So there’s really three feels present at the same time, with the 4/4 shuffle coming out as the dominant feel (for me, at least – others will feel and play it differently, and if anyone versed in these things can explain it better, please do leave a comment) because the vocal melody insists on those four strong beats.

It’s a masterly piece of writing, a great arrangement and one of the finest moments of a group not short of great songs.

Curt Smith and Roland Orzabal of Tears For Fears

Not a shuffle feel in sight:

No More Amsterdam – Steve Vai featuring Aimee Mann

Unless you’re a fan of instrumental rock guitar music, Steve Vai is likely to be an unfamiliar name. In the 1980s, a school of intensely technical metal guitarists working in what we could call the post-Van Halen style, who came to be known as shred guitarists or shredders, colonised the pages of guitar magazines, defining the parameters of what was thought of as rock guitar, a situation that endured until the early 1990s. When we talk about shred guitar, we’re talking heavy distortion, fast tremolo picking, hammer-ons and pull-offs, sweep picking, dive bombs with the whammy bar, an exaggerated vibrato technique and 2-handed tapping. Essentially, lots and lots of notes.

Vai was one of the titans of this school of playing. While Vai’s one-time teacher Joe Satriani was given to a notable degree of lyricism in his playing, and Yngwie Malmsteen was identifiable from the pseudo-classical motifs in his work (and his absolute lack of humour about himself), Vai was the weird one. Vai’s the guy who created his own Xavian scale by dividing the twelve tones of the European tempered scale into 16 on a synthesiser and having a custom guitar made to allow him to play his new intervals. Vai’s the one whose career takes in work with Frank Zappa, Public Image Ltd and, uh, Whitesnake.

If I’m honest, Vai is someone whose work I was passingly familiar with (one of my best friends in high school was a fan), but who I had put in the “Not for Me” box. There’s a lot of people in my Not for Me box, but nothing in this life is hard and fast: one-time residents of my own Not for Me box include Steely Dan and Neil Young.

Aimee Mann is very much For Me. Singer-songwriter, thoughtful lyricist, undemonstrative, almost conversational singer, big Beatles fan – this is stuff I get on board with. But for someone who’s often been accused of essentially making the same album over and again, Mann’s career is musically pretty wide-ranging, taking in the fractured post-punk of the Young Snakes and the MTV-friendly synth pop of Til Tuesday as well as her solo albums which are more musically diverse than is often assumed – 1995’s I’m With Stupid carried a discernible Britpop influence; 2005’s The Forgotten Arm is a 1970s-style southern rock record; Lost in Space, from 2002, plays with static, white noise and time-domain effects throughout its running time to suggest unknowable blackness and unimaginable distances.

What I’m getting towards is that Mann is an underrated musical force, as opposed to merely (merely!) a songwriter. She was at Berklee College of Music at the same time as Vai, initially as a voice major, before switching to bass and starting from scratch. Til Tuesday’s arrangements often leaned heavily on Mann’s bass playing, from the slap-and-pop riff of Love in a Vacuum to the subtly reggae-influence off-beat feel of What about Love (try singing and playing bass. Now try singing on the beat while playing bass on the offbeat). Listen to 50 Years After the Fair on Whatever where she has the unenviable task of hanging out on bass on while Jim Keltner plays drums; unenviable because, if it hadn’t grooved, only one person could have been responsible. It grooves. I imagine I’m not the only long-time fan who regrets the absence of Mann’s own bass playing on her more recent records.

So when Vai took the advice of his wife (an old college friend of Mann’s) and asked Mann to work with him on a piece he’d been writing, it wasn’t at all the unlikely partnership that it might have seemed on the surface. On No More Amsterdam (as the finished song was called), their approaches meshed beautifully.

The chief pleasure of No More Amsterdam is the contrast between the winding, slowly unfolding verse melody, with its time-signature changes and tricky syncopation, and the short phrases of the chorus that Vai and Mann sing in harmony, which keep climbing in pitch even as they repeat in phrasing. The two singers trade verses (and later on lines within verses), adding a layer of complexity to the narrative – are the “I” and “you” referred to throughout the song stable? In the verses, Vai seems to get all the “I” pronouns and Mann the “you”, suggesting that his character is the protagonist, with Mann an observer, but the song permits other interpretations – it’s a typically clever piece of writing from Mann, the intricacy of Vai’s music pulling something out of her that’s unlike anything she’s done on her own records.

It’s a lovely song, and it’s got me wishing that Vai did this kind of thing more regularly. I can’t think of anything else in my record collection that is comparable musically, and I’m not sure there is a singer-songwriter who has the instrumental chops and inclination to play on this turf. So Vai and Mann had better make it a full album next time.

vai
Vai & Mann