The Transformative Song – A Theory for Making Better Rock Music Today.


“Plenty Filler, Not Much Killer.” That’s a common complaint people have about records these days – certainly one that I could make about plenty of albums I hear.

I can’t speak for other genres, but heavy metal bands, and extreme metal bands particularly, often have a lousy track record when it comes to making albums that sound like much more than ten examples of the same idea in a row.

I think there’s as much great music being made today as there was during rock’s so-called “golden age” – better, actually. It just bugs me that in order to experience a smorgasbord of great ideas and successful experimentation, you’re seemingly compelled to assemble a playlist of ten different bands rather than find one album of ten good songs.

Now you’re off my lawn I’ll try being more helpful.

What, exactly, makes a “good” song? The songwriting itself? The playing? The arrangement? All of those things?

Well, none of them hurt. But I’ve heard plenty of songs that were played and arranged capably, and composed within the laws that “professional” songwriters or composition majors would approve of – but which still weren’t compelling. What is the final number in the combination lock of a cut worth listening to?

It varies from genre to genre. But in rock especially, I’ve been for some time kicking around this theory:

The best song – is the transformative song.

When the theory first occurred to me, I used the term “progressive”, but I knew that would get confused with the progressive rock genre – if I went around telling people that the best type of song was the “progressive rock song” they’d all assume I meant something like “Stairway to Heaven”, and that I’d be dismissive of bands that don’t write 10-minute epics with three movements and as many tempo changes.

That is emphatically NOT what I mean. So I settled on “transformative” instead. Incidentally, “Stairway to Heaven” IS a transformative song, but not necessarily because it has an acoustic intro and an electric climax. There are many, many 3-minute, 2-chord, one-riff thrashers or pop numbers that are perfectly eligible for the mantle of the timelessly transformative song.

So what exactly do I mean by this term?

The transformative song is one where the listener and/or the performer (or both) has changed state (usually psychological) in the time that it took to listen to and/or perform that song.

It’s not as clunky a definition as it reads – you’ll get the hang of it shortly.

Take “Smells Like Teen Spirit” by Nirvana – a very well-known rock anthem that was a big hit and also happens, in my opinion, to be a transformative song. Why?

Let’s break it down in musicological terms. “…Teen Spirit” has one riff or melody line, sometimes played with distortion, sometimes without. It has a bassline that follows the root notes of the riff. It has one tempo throughout its 3.5 or so minutes. It has a vocal melody line. It features a guitar solo that mimics the vocal melody line. It has three verses, three choruses, and a bridge. It features consistent and unchanging instrumental arrangement throughout. It has a dynamic delivery which fluctuates, but only according to verse (quiet) and chorus (loud).

Simply put – on paper, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is about as basic as a rock song gets. Most beginners can master it.

What’s even more interesting, though, about our musicological summary here is what it suggests in theory: If you were writing out the notation, presumably you could just write the verse on one page, the chorus on another, and then Xerox each of them two more times, then write the lyrics in.

Another, better, way of putting it is to suggest that had “…Teen Spirit” been recorded in the Pro Tools era, they could’ve simply recorded one verse, one chorus, the bridge, and then copied and pasted the verse and chorus as needed – and you’d get practically the same performed composition that you would get from the actual, analogue-era recording…. right?

Wrong. Obviously.

Everybody reading this has heard “…Teen Spirit” probably more times than they care to, and all of us know why a cut-and-paste looping-type production job wouldn’t give us the same effect as heard on the 1991 version we know.

Because, as basic as it may be, Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is a song that does have an emotional range – especially in the vocals but also in the instrumental delivery. It’s a performance which goes from vaguely pissed off to very pissed off. That might not be much of an emotional range, but it’s a range nonetheless. Kurt Cobain’s vocals become progressively more ragged and dire. The guitar feedback of the loud parts seeps into the quiet parts more obtrusively. The drumming gets just a bit more tumultuous and catastrophic. The tempo slightly decreases at the end as though the players have exhausted themselves. Even the video shows the audience getting increasingly out of control each time the chorus kicks in.

And that, folks, is a transformative song.

Yes, granted, it helps that “…Teen Spirit” also had a catchy riff and a good guitar sound and a powerful use of dynamics. But all of that would have been of much less consequence if it didn’t have an emotional range too.

It’s interesting, because very often this is the sort of effect that doesn’t show up on a demo of the same tune. Many demos I’ve heard of famous metal songs are basic instrumental versions with no solos, no vocals, often no bass, and usually programmed percussion. All you’ve really got to go on when assessing their potential is the riffs and the basic feel.

But you won’t get the full story of the song’s potential until you start performing it, as a band, and seeing how it develops. Does it leave you exhausted? Frustrated? Fulfilled? Sad? Elated? Well, if it makes you feel differently to how you did when you started playing it, it’s transformative. And if that transformation can be conveyed to the listener somehow – if they’re left feeling exhausted or shocked or impressed or sad or whatever – then you’ve got a good song. It might not become a hit. It might not even become a sleeper classic. But it’s good. Trust me. You’ve written a banger. Or more accurately, you’ve invoked one.

Obviously this is all subjective and personal. I found “Crepitating Bowel Erosion,” the closing cut on Carcass’s Symphonies of Sickness, to be a transformative song. I’m pretty sure many other people don’t. I also find “Obscured,” by Celtic Frost, to be transformative and judging by its comments on YouTube I’m on safer ground there. What moves one person can leave another cold. Inasfar as there’s any science at all behind “successful” songwriting that draws fans like flies, I’m pretty sure it’s got a lot more to do with “happy” scales, or “danceable” beats, or “hummable” melodies, than it does with a yardstick as nebulous as what I’m proposing here.

BUT I know this: Heavy metal songs have a harder time becoming hits than songs from other rock genres – in the mass marketplace it’s just a less successful genre overall – and I do believe that a lower strike rate of truly transformative songs might have something to do with that.

Let me add some caveats before I continue: There are many things that modern heavy metal bands do, musically, that are obviously disqualifying them from mainstream success (should they aspire to it). Bands where the vocalist does anything much harsher than singing or rapping can basically forget about it. Production-wise, there’s a long tradition of backgrounding distorted guitars for anything that wants to be played on commercial FM radio; and any metal band worth their salt is gonna butt heads with their producer about that. The fact that metal bands don’t often restrict themselves to three-and-a-half minutes playing time is an obvious deal-breaker. And lastly, it’s long been established that there’s a limited tempo range that mass audiences seem to tolerate. Motorhead, and Offspring  of all people – are just about the only acts I can think of who ever hit the Top 40 with tempos north of about 150 bpm. I doubt anything south of about 90 bpm ever got much chart traction either; so doom metal bands are as much on the outs as grindcore.

But even allowing for all that, I still contend that modern heavy metal’s lack of transformative songs has a lot to do with its stubborn inability to interest a wider audience. That’s because a lot of metal bands – extreme ones, particularly – are churning out something notably different: what I’ll call demonstrative songs.

Faster. Heavier. Louder. Rawer. Darker. More distorted. More blasphemous. More difficult to play. More complexly composed. They’re the hallmarks you’ll recognize in any noteworthy extreme metal band’s output. They also lend themselves to the demonstrative song. I can listen to an entire Dying Fetus album without once feeling that I’ve been emotionally moved, and without suspecting that the band themselves would feel much differently by the end of it, other than satisfied at their ability to produce such a barrage of sick riffs, crazy time-changes and brutal blasting. But boy have I had all that demonstrated to me in the meantime.

The demonstrative song isn’t played to display psychological, emotional or even physical range. It’s played to demonstrate prowess – physical, instrumental, lyrical. Demonstrative songs aren’t about opening up to people. They’re about shutting people up. Performing demonstrative songs doesn’t win you friends. It makes you enemies – enemies of other bands who now realize they’ll have to come up with something even faster, more complex or edgier than you did; enemies of listeners who are wary of your genre in the first place and can be relied upon to relate to it even less when you gleefully up the ante.

Let me be clear: The demonstrative song has its place. There are classic extreme metal albums consisting of nothing but demonstrative songs which are a joy to listen to even decades after they were recorded and whatever they were demonstrating has been surpassed.

But I know a lot less people who have discovered those albums, or ever will, than the number I know who enjoy the work of, say, Alice in Chains – a band I’ve never been a fan of but who I must acknowledge have an uncanny knack of making people cry.

Bands – has your music ever done that to somebody? Have you ever done it to yourself when writing something – or later, when playing it? Because if so you’re onto something – even if it’s not the radio.

The transformative song, ladies and gentlemen. Have I changed your mind about this?

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