Author: Bloodshot Grub
Title: Riff Theory #1 – Thantifaxath
Song: The Bright White Nothing at the End of the Tunnel
Album: Sacred White Noise
(Ed: A new feature we’re trialing, most likely paired with tues/thurs reviews. Feedback welcome!)
Listening to metal and playing music have always gone together in my life. It wasn’t long after I first heard Dream Theater’s Images and Words that I decided I wanted to be a drummer, and that was the beginning of a lifetime of musical study that resulted in, among other things, me becoming a huge music theory nerd. So here’s a place for me to pay tribute to and nerd out about metal’s great riffs, past and present. Welcome to Riff Theory.
Our first subject is “The Bright White Nothing at the End of the Tunnel,” the opening track to last year’s Sacred White Noise, by Thantifaxath. I selected Thantifaxath because their angular, chromatic approach to riffs and melodies is unique and immediately identifiable and I wanted to understand more about what makes their approach musically effective. And also apparently because I wanted to make my life as difficult as possible, because these riffs were not easy to transcribe. I can’t guarantee that these are 100% accurate, but I’m confident that they’re close enough for me to be able to understand, for the most part, what Thantifaxath is up to.
This is the melody that opens the song (once that unnerving, dissonant sample is out of the way) and it’s interesting for a number of reasons. It’s extremely disjunct (lots of wide leaps), angular (lots of abrupt changes in direction), has an extremely wide range (two octaves plus a minor sixth), and is very chromatic, containing 11 out of the 12 notes, lacking only A♮. But despite all of that, it has some interesting architectural features that I think give it a sense of being structured and designed rather than chaotic and random. Firstly, the first notes of each of the first three measures outline a G major chord, and then the final measure starts on a C and ascends in three groups of fourths. Fourths create a strong upward pull, as do the minor seconds that separate the three two-note groupings from each other. Normally a C followed by an F would establish F as a tonal center, but in this case we’ve got C falling twice on strong beats, once preceded by its leading tone (B), and the melodic line seems to pull the listener upward from one C to the next rather than landing on F.
The result is that the entire phrase creates a very abstract outline of progression from G major to C, a V-I progression, which is the foundational harmonic structure of almost all Western concert music and folk music composed up to the 20th century. Reinforcing this is the bass line, which pedals on B through the first four repetitions of the riff after the drums come in. B is the leading tone of C and creates a strong pull towards that note, but the bass guitarist holds the note even through the implied C chord of each repetition in order to keep the tension, until, at the end of the fourth repetition, it resolves by landing on C alongside the guitar.
Second interesting structural thing, for the first three measures, the third note in each three-note grouping forms a line that descends chromatically, jumps up to G, and then ascends chromatically. Because those notes are so much higher than the notes that surround them, they stand out, almost creating their own melody, which contrasts the overall melody by being extremely conjuct (few or no wide leaps), and with few changes in direction and an extremely narrow range (a perfect fourth). This creates what is known as a compound melody, multiple melodies existing within a single line.
The next riff in the song is considerably more simple, and also much less angular, though still fairly disjunct. After the chromatic weirdness of the last riff, they open the next one with a much more harmonically rudimentary E power chord, arpeggiated in a way that echoes the last measure of the prior riff. There’s still some degree of chromaticism, with both a D♯ and D♮, and the mid-register tremolos make this a riff that is much more typical of black metal.
And for our third and final riff…
This riff, which closes out the song, lands at 4:58. This is played at half the tempo of the prior riffs, and it gets back to the angular weirdness from the opening riff, which is only hinted at in a few of the songs other riffs (though the dissonance remains throughout). There are definitely connections between this riff and the first one. The overall contour is similar, with large leaps down usually followed by steps or small leaps up, contributing to a melodic similarity that is clearly audible but that I haven’t been able to tie to any other theoretical elements. Adding to the strangeness are several dissonant chords that the guitarist sometimes bends up into a unison (not easy to notate), and a peculiar rhythmic effect: in the second and third measures, the chords are held over to the downbeat of the next measure, and as the drums are not providing any clear downbeats, the meter becomes ambiguous. The above notation reflects the way it sounds to me, but I could just as easily have notated it as follows:
The thing that strikes me about all these riffs is how cohesive they are. All of them, share similar melodic and rhythmic ideas, so they all sound like variations on the basic idea presented at the beginning of the song. The riffs around the middle of the song stray from these ideas, creating variety, but it’s the riffs described above that tie the song together. I believe that that creates a sort of structural foundation over which the melodic and rhythmic weirdness can play out, so that everything that unfolds sounds intentional rather than random.
Hope you’ve enjoyed the first installment of Riff Theory! Please drop a comment to let us know what you think, or if you have any other comments about the music, or maybe even some analysis of your own.
- Bloodshot Grub
Check out the album, Sacred White Noise, here: http://darkdescentrecords.bandcamp.com/album/sacred-white-noise