Music as a System: The Evolution of Metal Drumming


Greetings and welcome back to Music as a System. In the last two editions of this feature, we’ve discussed how to apply lessons from systems external to the music business to improve or analyze issues within the world of metal. In this edition, I’m going to take a slightly different tack and explore the origins of certain elements within metal music and frame these in a similar vein to how science progresses.

In addition to education, I also have extensive experience in academic research in an applied science, namely traffic engineering and safety. I’ve investigated topics ranging from wildfire science to autonomous vehicles, and although I’m definitely not the best researcher my lab group has ever seen, I’d like to think that I at least understand how the scientific process is conducted. In his landmark work, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas S. Kuhn painstakingly traced the history and methodology of how science progresses. According to Kuhn, any field of science develops both through great leaps and small strides. Typically, one field of study is dominated by an individual paradigm or overarching set of principles (e.g. the geocentric model of astronomy). Individual scientists within that field toil and operate under the constraints of this paradigm, ceaselessly exploring the outer boundaries and niche elements of the field in the process of normal science, until one of two events transpire. Either the paradigm reaches its logical limit and must be supplanted by a new paradigm in order for progress to continue (e.g. the heliocentric model of astronomy), or a discovery made in the process of normal science utterly eradicates the tenets of the prevailing paradigm. In essence, all major leaps in scientific progression have unfolded in such a manor. This process even applies to more practical fields of science or technology, such as the current reign of the combustible gasoline engine in transportation.

So what does this have to do with metal? A good question, but it is my firm belief that music and art in general progress in much the same way. New genres are birthed as the logical limits of an old genre are reached. Music  progresses both by consistent bands making subtle strides while slowly incorporating and experimenting with slightly altered approaches and by radical new artists completely attempting the unknown. This to me then appears to be a pragmatic issue. Musicians bring their “pragmatic” conceptual understanding of music and filter it through a series of cultural, historical, and interest lenses in order to develop a foundational knowledge. In an epistemological fashion reminiscent of the conceptualistic pragmatism espoused by C. I. Lewis in Mind and the World Order, musicians then build upon this knowledge and introduce new empirical experience that allows them to advance their particular science, i.e. music.

Where this eventually leaves us, then, is with the idea that we must understand our beginnings in order to evolve to some unforeseen conclusion. Therefore, I’m going to spend the remainder of this piece talking about four elements of drumming that are foundational to metal and heavy music. I’ll detail where these elements originated and where they might be going. Before I get started on that, I’d like to thank my co-conspirator Guacamole Jim for fact-checking me on drumming, providing invaluable insights, and locating some great videos. His contributions to this piece are priceless.

The Amen Break

There are a number of different drum breaks that have become deeply entrenched in metal and heavy music. Pound for pound, the Amen Break is one of the most interesting simply because of its unique origin and spread. This drum break was originally part of the B-side song “Amen, Brother” by the Winstons but was picked up by the electronic music scene, specifically the jungle and drum & bass scenes, and printed onto a ton of disposable records. Somehow this simple drum break became ubiquitous throughout the hardcore electronic and rock scene, even filtering down into advertisement jingles. The way this simple break proliferated is fascinating, and you should definitely watch this video to learn more.

Where do we go from here? The Amen break has entrenched itself deep into heavy music culture, although it typically manifests more frequently in electronic-influenced acts, such as Nine Inch Nails, Rammstein, KMFDM, Sybreed, and Slipknot. Still, even more traditional bands like Terrorizer and Black Sabbath have used it. So how will drum breaks built on the foundation of electronic music evolve? Honestly, I think we’ll continue to see further incorporations of electronics into grind, and the drum beats are going to become more warped and distorted. Acts like The Berzerker that blend gabber techno rhythms and grind into a daunting wall of sound are a portent of how extreme music will evolve. We’ve already been given a peak of that future with the cybergrind insanity of Cloak of Altering. Stay tuned for more.

Double Bass

The ability to play double bass drum rhythms has become a mandatory requirement for extreme metal. Still, how many of you knew that the technique originated in the jazz world? Of those of you who knew, how many of you knew that the first functional double bass pedal was developed in 1909? Double bass drum use in music has definitely followed a clear pattern of progressing by paradigms. Its first introduction as a double bass drum kit came at the hands of a young jazz player in high school by the name of Louie Bellson. After it became incorporated in the jazz scene, the paradigm was pushed a little further by hard rock acts like Cream adopting it in the 60s and 70s. However, I would argue that the paradigm was reinvented by metal artists in the early 80s as a means for delivering punishing and speedy gallops. Think of “Fast as a Shark” and how brutal the drums must have sounded in 1982. The paradigm shift for metal is particularly evident in the advent of double-stroke bass drumming over single-stroke, opening the door for faster and more aggressive patterns of double-bass drumming.

Where do we go from here? I think widespread use of the double bass schematic to alternate rhythms with each foot may be the next logical frontier, and there are already artists exploring this format and pushing the art in that direction. Morgan Agren, Swedish drummer extraordinaire who lent his talents to Fredrik Thordendal’s Special Defects‘ album Sol Niger Within is one such artist pushing the envelope on how multiple pedals and bass drums can be used. I can’t wait to see clever and mind-blowing uses of double pedals and quadruple bass drum kits in the future.

Triggered Drums

As mentioned in the introduction, technology, and the science that drives it, is often responsible for changing the prevailing paradigms. This too is evident in metal, as already evidenced by our discussion on the Amen Break and how it drove drum break development in the electronically-influenced heavy music. A particular technological development that transformed drumming in metal is the advent of drum triggers. Some purists may scoff at the thought of using an electronic trigger to tune the sensitivity of your equipment, but the fact remains that drum triggers, particularly on bass drums, allows for the requisite speed that a demanding musical genre necessitates. Drum triggers allow musicians to push the envelope on speed and intensity.

Where do we go from here? Because drum triggers allow metal drummers to optimize the BPMs and blast at high velocity, less pressure can be placed on inhuman footwork. Perhaps this will allow more time for developing unique drum patterns. Drummers who can shift focus from extreme footwork may be able to channel their energy into more intricate and complicated fills and hand movements. These intricate hand movements, when synced with faster and faster kick rhythms, may ultimately lead to the next revolution in metal drumming. See the below video of Virgil Donati for an explicit example of how extreme drumming and precise hand motions can be intertwined for dizzying results.

Blast Beats

The blast beat, the preferred drumming technique of death and grind drummers, shares a jazz origin with the double bass setup.  Blast beats have become the ubiquitous weapon of choice for extreme metal drummers, and a grind or brutal death song would just sound odd without that wall of bass and snare barrage. Still, blast beats have been in practice in extreme metal since well before Napalm Death allegedly coined the term. How can they evolve?

Where do we go from here? Even more complicated drum techniques, such as the obscene gravity roll, have been melded into the standard blast beat attack. However, it’s difficult to imagine how blast beats can be made more extreme themselves. Drummers only have so many limbs and can only play so fast. Perhaps, mush as happens in the field of science, a change in the paradigm of the use of bass drums will open up a whole new field of practice for blasting. Perhaps a revolution in one sector of drumming in heavy music will cause a palpable ripple of mind-blowing innovation across the entire discipline. Only time will tell. While discussing this topic, Guacamole Jim indicated that he feels blast beats may simply be the precursor to an even more extreme form of metal drumming. It appears that bands are already drifting away from the wall of noise that prevailed through the use of blast beats in favor of a more rhythmic, backbeat oriented drive. Perhaps blasting will make a resurgence in a newer, even more hideous form.

So now comes the discussion? What do you think are prevailing paradigms in extreme music? Which bands have shaped those paradigms? Which bands are poised to usher in new paradigms, and how will they do it? Sound off below!

(Photo VIA)


  • L. von Bertalanffy. General System Theory: Foundations, Development, Applications. George Braziller, 1968.
  • T. S. Kuhn. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Third Edition. The University of Chicago Press, 1962.
  • C. I. Lewis. Mind and the World Order. Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1929.
  • E. Dayton. Clarence Irving Lewis (1983-1964). Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, undated. Accessed November 16, 2014.
  • Pmf. First Use of Amen Break in Metal. Rateyourmusic, June 22, 2012. Accessed November 17, 2014.
  • Wikipedia. Amen Break. Wikipedia, August 6, 2014. Accessed November 17, 2014.
  • Wikipedia. Bass Drum. Wikipedia, November 17, 2014. Accessed November 17, 2014.
  • Wikipedia. Blast Beat. Wikipedia, July 27, 2014. Accessed November 16, 2014.
  • Wikipedia. Trigger (drums). Wikipedia, October 6, 2014. Accessed November 17, 2014.
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