The above video is a transcription of Frederick Thordendal’s two incredible solos on “Marrow,” from Meshuggah’s seventh studio album, Koloss (2012). As I was learning this behemoth masterpiece, I realized that these two contrasting solos are filled with a wealth of incredibly deep harmonic, melodic, and rhythmic information. So, I undertook the following analysis project to educate myself, and I hope some of you readers will be inspired to utilize some of Thordendal’s ingenius ideas in your own musical endeavors.
I have transcribed and performed a couple of my favorite guitar solos on EWI over the years, mostly for something fun and constructive to do while I was on the road. Check out these solos by Guthrie Govan & Buckethead:
While I make a living playing the saxophone and various other woodwind instruments, I dabble on the guitar. For a while in my teens, I actually prioritized guitar over the saxophone; I studied classical guitar very seriously, and was in a progressive rock band called Lorna Sue that made one album, 2007’s Fishwim.
Having a guitar background has heavily influenced my approach to music. I have a very “grid-oriented” approach to patterns, developed from years of reading TABS in books like The Guitar Grimoire. Because of my youthful reliance on tablature, I still think on the guitar in numbers, and often have to pause to figure out what note I’m playing on, say, the 10th fret of the B string. This limitation has yielded interesting compositional results. I write original music on the guitar more often than on the piano, because I find that my fingers lead me to results that I would never have dreamt of theoretically.
Recently, the guitar has also been affecting my approach to technique and improvisation on the saxophone. Patterns that are well-worn and obvious on the guitar happen to feel very foreign on the saxophone. This forces me to push beyond my comfort-zone, re-program my fingers’ muscle memory, and consider different approaches to chord/scale relationships. I think that no matter what instrument you play, or what genre of music you love, there is a lot to be gained by studying the great heavy metal guitarists.
Rhythmic Analysis: Aperiodic Crystals
“..the physiscist Erwin Schrodinger predicted, on purely theoretical grounds, that genetic information would have to be stored in “aperiodic crystals”, in his influential book What is Life? In fact, books themselves are aperiodic crystals contained inside neat geometrical forms. These examples suggest that, where an aperiodic crystal is found “packaged” inside a very regular geometric structure, there may lurk an inner message.”
As I began transcribing these solos, I quickly realized that I would need to first wrap my head around the rhythm-guitar part. The rhythms seem to be composed of patterns of long and short values (a quarter-note and an eighth-note, respectively). This system of creating complex rhythms calls to mind a wide swath of associations, from the work of 20th-century French composer Olivier Messiaen to Steve Coleman’s life-long rhythmic explorations. I am especially reminded of the book “Rítmica” by José Eduardo Gramani. I’d highly recommend tracking down this book, a Brazilian method of learning rhythms spacially using various fun and tricky additive exercises which consist of long and short durations. If this highly insufficient explanation of Gramani’s book peaked your interest, I’d recommend contacting NYC-based, Brazilian percussion master Rogerio Boccato, who introduced me to the book years ago, for a deeper explanation.
This brings me to the above quote, from Douglas Hofstadter’s “Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid,” which I am currently working my way through. In that quote, he suggests that humans look for patterns whenever we see an “aperiodic crystal”- essentially, something resembling a meaningful pattern. For example, when one sees text in a foreign language, although it is impossible to intrepet, one understands that there is meaning within its array of symbols and spaces. I have been looking for the key to the rhythmic patterns in “Marrow” for days, and I am not certain that there necessarily is one.
At first, I transcribed every long and short value on single continuous lines. Then, listening for where the musicians added stress, I assigned barlines. Check out my notes:
This method resulted in incredibly complex notation
that my gut was telling me couldn’t be right. There’s no way all the members of Meshuggah subdivide in such an arcane fashion every night during their performances!
After consulting every interview I could find, I stumbled across this helpful bit from Thordendal:
“Actually, we rarely play riffs in odd meters. I understand why people hear odd meters in our songs, because we group our notes in different ways. But just about all of them are 4/4.” (Guitar World, 2011)
Ahah! So, I copy-pasted the solo into 4/4 measures, and, well, damn. It fit perfectly. In 4/4, each solo ends exactly on beat 1 of a measure and both solos last exactly 16 bars, which can be separated neatly into 4 bar phrases. What Meshuggah managed to do is to elegantly obscure the most tried-and-true periodic form, while maintaining a sense of groove. Basically, like Hostadter suggests, I felt that there must be some pattern amidst such complexity, even though I was completely unable to understand it. In that way, listening to Meshuggah is exactly like looking at text in a foreign language. Although it means nothing to the reader, she will feel confident in the knowledge that meaning is there.
Let’s take a look at the rhythmic puzzle underpinning “Marrow.” It seems to me that each measure is an independent puzzle-piece which can be scrambled and reassigned within the structure at the composers’ will. For example, m. 1 & 2 of Solo 1 are exactly the same as the first two measures of Solo 2 (m. 18-19).
But check out measures 3 & 4 of Solo 1: they begin with 4 quarter notes followed by a highly syncopated jumble. At the same point in Solo 2 (m. 20-21), we have a syncopated jumble followed by a measure of 4 quarter notes: the same information in reverse order!
The rhythmic underpinning of Solo 1 is much more simple than it sounds on first listen. It consists of four phrases that are each four measures long. The first four bars are repeated literally in measures 5-8. Then, just like a puzzle, each measure is recombined in an interesting way. The (long, short, long, long, short) pattern in measure 10 is repeated in measure 13, while the (short, long, long, short, long) pattern in measure 14 is repeated in measure 16. See if you can make sense of all of the rhythmic puzzle pieces!
Harmonic Analysis: Formal Mechanics
“Marrow” (and 99% of heavy metal music), while being quite rhythmically complex, is built from rather simple harmonic content. In fact, Thordendal’s two solos come exclusively from the diminished scale. The interest lies in the shapes that he uses within the diminished scale, and the rhythmic groupings of those shapes.
The diminished scale is pleasantly symmetrical. Its pattern is a whole step, followed by a half step, followed by a whole step… half step, whole step, half step, etc. This symmetry makes the diminished scale particularly vulnerable to the abuse of thoughtless mechanical patterns by jazz improvisers. You see, any melodic idea within the diminished scale can be transposed by minor thirds to work within a given chord.
Thordendal had the good fortune of not going to jazz school, so his use of the diminished scale is quite unique. In Solo 1, he begins with a simple four-note cell (E, F, Ab, Bb) which he patiently explores in almost every possible permutation for 10 beats with scientific precision. On beat 3 of measure 3, he begins a process that will obtain throughout the remainder of the solo. He adds two new pitches to his four-note-cell (Cb & Db). Thordendal’s choice to change his melodic materials at that moment seems hardly accidental. In the preceding measures, we have heard two repetitions of the rhythm “long, long, long, short.” Here, on what the listener expects to be the third repetition, the rhythm is changed slightly with two “long” note values interjected into the overall pattern. Thus, the rhythm becomes “long, long, long, long, long, short.” Thordendal, whether conciously or not, chose a rather elegant moment to add new pitch material to his sequence, and he will follow this strategy throughout Solo 1.
Over the course of the next 10 beats, we again hear two repetitions of the “long, long, long, short” rhythmic pattern, and Thordendal again limits his melodic material to the now six-note cell of E, F, Ab, Bb, Cb, and Db. Again, at the very moment when the rhythmic pattern is stultified- this time by an added “long” value at the end (“long, long, long, short, long”)- he adds the new pitches E and A. At this point, the note sequences become significantly more complex by way of octave displacement. For the duration of measures 14-16, Thordendal explores diverse iterations of his 8-note cell (E, F, G, Ab, Bb, Cb, Db, D)- the COMPLETE diminished scale.
Let’s review the exquisite elegance of the form that Solo 1 has taken thus far. He divided 32 beats into essentially thirds. In the first 10 beats, he limits himself two four pitches. In the second group of 10 beats, he adds two new pitches. In the final third of these 8 measures, he adds two more pitches which complete the composite pitch-group we know as the diminished scale. Utterly brilliant!
On the downbeat of measure 9, the half-way point of this 16-bar solo, the listener feels a very abrupt, albeit subtle, change. A new formal process is now taking place- that of a constant registral ascent. The highest pitch of the preceding 8 measures had been Ab5. Now, the tessitura begins to climb, starting with Bb5 in measure 9, followed by Cb6 in measure 10, Db6 in measure 12, D6 in measure 14, and culminating at the last note, E6.
Solo 2 contrasts very vividly with the preceding solo in that it features lots of space. Because guitarists don’t use their lungs to play, they often forget to leave space in their solos. Heavy metal guitarists are especially guilty of this shortcoming. I recommend listening to and transcribing horn players in order to understand how the use of space in your solos creates rhythmic interest, while simultaneously improving the lyricism of your ideas. Thordendal is a known fan of jazz music, so I don’t find it coincindental that he frequently uses lots of rests in his solos.
Solo 2 also contrasts with Solo 1 in pitch content. It again contains only the pitches of the diminished scale; however, this time the scale is transposed up a half-step, consisting of the pitches (D, Eb, F, Gb, Ab, A, B, C). The rhythm guitar part is also much more complex and less pattern oriented during Solo 2, so it was a very musical decision to have the lead guitar part be a little less complex.
Thordendal’s solo initially features more resting than playing. After the first five 16th-notes, he rests for seven 16ths. He then repeats the same five-note shape, followed by nine 16ths of space. Slowly but surely, those wide-open spaces become shorter and shorter. In the fifth measure of Solo 2, after adding his first new pitch, B, there are only three 16ths-worth of rests. In measure 25, the eighth bar of Solo 2, he uses rests to create a super-groovy polyrhythm- dotted eighths superimposed over 4 solo quarter notes:
By measure 26, Thordendal is back to playing a constant stream of 16th notes. As Solo 2 leads into its climactic finish, he breaks this non-stop pulsing chain of 16ths by introducing quintuplets in the penultimate bar. This subtle increase in velocity creates a very exciting transition into the next verse.
Now, after reading such a detailed analysis, many devil’s advocates will cry certainly cry, “You are reading too much into this! Thordendal is an improviser! There’s no way he intended to execute such subtle ideas!” Music theory nay-sayers have repeated this refrain since the advent of the theoretical study of music, and probably will forever. However, I would argue that it truly doesn’t matter what Thordendal intended. Whenever you are moved by a piece of music, it would behoove you to find out exactly what is happening under the hood. I will certainly be exploring ideas garnered from this transcription project in my own work going forward, and I hope some of you out there in the internet world will be inspired to do the same! In fact, Meshuggah has been written about and analyzed quite a lot in music academia (I wonder how the members of the band feel about that!). The fact of the matter is, these Swedish gentlemen have been creating exceedingly complex, grooving, gutteral, unique music for decades now. I can’t wait to hear what they come up with next.