Washington Think Tank with W.: Meaning Through Repetition
My thanks to Lacertilian for tackling the last edition of Think Tank. I’ve been on a bit of a Sabbatical from this column, focusing my efforts instead on other site features, but I can only allow this field to go fallow for so long. The harvester has returned, ripe with another question for your mental gourds.
“This is boring and repetitive!” It’s a common complaint many of us, myself included, have lobbed at albums we dislike. When albums feature very repetitive or similar songs, we often label the artists with a veritable Scarlet Letter in the music industry: lack of creativity. Some bands have built careers on songs that all sound very similar Just pick up any given Amon Amarth or Bolt Thrower (both of whom are bands I like, by the way) album to see what I mean. If that formula is followed too closely, though, it can seem as though the artists are completely devoid of ideas. However, I recently chanced upon some reading material and a particular album that have left me reconsidering the merit behind monotony.
Today’s Question: Is repetition in music okay?
Before we reach today’s exhibit, a calibration of our terminology is in order. When I say repetition, I’m not referring to a sometimes repeated section of music in a song or album. Riffs themselves may be considered repetitious, but these notes are used to drive a song, and the cyclical nature is necessary to support the structure. Nor am I referring to bands who repeat certain musical motifs. Dream Theater have made good use of chiasmus in their music, beginning and ending their albums on similar notes in order to tie the concept together in a ring. Last, repetitive choruses are excluded from this discussion due to the intent behind having a repeated vocal segment to hook listeners.
No, the sort of repetition I have in sight is one in which an album rarely, if ever, deviates from a prescribed formula. When artists take repetition to the extreme so that every single track follows the exact same pattern, the results are significantly different than if even a little variation was employed. Iron Scorn, the latest album from Legion of Andromeda, is the perfect example of this phenomenon. Nearly every single track follows the exact same rhythmic pattern: a few double bass strokes followed by an anvil-esque strike on the cymbal. Only a couple songs differ, and those merely feature the same rhythm played at half speed. This drum line acts as the backbone for the entire record, one from which the blood-encrusted drop-tuned riffs and cancerous vocals extend like char-black ribs. It’s a strange experience, hearing multiple permutations of one idea.
However, after talking with multiple readers, including Matt Pike’s Sweaty Left Nipple, Stockhausen, Tyree, and Roshin (who originally brought the album to my attention before Crucial Blast re-released it), I’ve found myself entranced by the record. The drum pattern acts as a sort of mantra or chant, and therein lies its potency; the repetition draws you into a sort of trance where you perceive each song as a single potentiality deriving from the source, like Borges’ Garden of Forking Paths, so to speak. Each track then becomes a separate timeline, anchored to the central spoke but unique in its own slight derivation.
I thought of a maze of mazes, of a sinuous, ever growing maze which would take in both past and future and would somehow involve the stars. – Jorge Luis Borges
Then again, it’s entirely possible that this album is dull and that I’m finding artistic merit where there is none. But that’s for you to discuss! So what do you think? Is this type of repetition interesting, or is this band as bereft of ideas as those I would likely criticize? Is there power in strict repetition? Sound off in the comments below.
P.S. Do you have an idea for Think Tank? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org! I’d love to collaborate.
Don’t know what the Washington Think Tank is? This is a periodic column where your former President poses a pressing question and allows the top minds at the Toilet ov Hell to investigate his query.