Extremity in music: What makes something sound heavy?

By: Charlie Boone

In 1965, 17-year-old Tony Iommi was working at a sheet metal factory when a large press dismembered the tips of two of his fingers, leaving him unable to play guitar without homemade plastic prosthetics and lower gauge, detuned strings to suppress the pain. These accommodations gave his playing a deep, metallic strength that ended up inadvertently changing music and culture forever when he formed what is widely considered the first metal band, Black Sabbath, in 1968.

This innovation that focused on darker themes, lower tunings, and fuzzy distortion presented a new challenge for young musicians, pushing the boundaries of music and honing in on extremes to create visceral new sounds. Heaviness, extremity, brutality, are all subjective terms, representing different things to each listener, but I’ve narrowed it down to three factors: Speed, subject matter, and dynamics.

In terms of speed, the obvious logical conclusion is grindcore. Popularized in the 90s and derived from both the death metal and hardcore scenes respectively, grindcore’s sole focus is speed and aggression in short bursts. In fact, the shortest song ever recorded is actually a grindcore song called “You Suffer” by one of the staple bands in the original British scene, Napalm Death. Grindcore is inherently rough around the edges and typically features more raw, unpolished production. For some people, this adds to the aggression and brutality of the sound while others prefer a more tight and refined style of extreme noise terror in that of technical death metal. As implied in the name, the focus here is pure technicality and skill, so, still blisteringly fast but not typically as raw or pissed-off.

What is often sacrificed for speed in technical death metal is dynamics. If an entire four-minute track is all at the same face-melting tempo, it gets tiring to listen to and the visceral feeling of the speed wears off. To put it simply, if everything is fast, nothing is; and the same thing goes for volume. Juxtaposition of soft and hard sounds increases the sense of dynamics and makes the heavy parts of the song hit that much harder.

A subgenre that better understands this juxtaposition while staying mind-bendingly heavy is brutal death metal. First achieved by Suffocation with their 1991 album, ‘Effigy of the Forgotten’, brutal death metal combines raw production reminiscent of grindcore, with the technicality and speed of death metal, and an added element of groove and bounce.

There are also bands that take speed to the exact opposite extreme and play as slow as humanly possible. Early sludge metal bands like Grief and Melvins played with this idea, but no sound truly embodies the feeling of being crushed by a gigantic boulder like funeral doom metal. The slow, hypnotic melodies of this style were directly inspired by funeral dirges, adding another layer of heaviness through the exploration of themes like grief, depression, and solitude. In a style saturated with gore and demons, extra weight is carried when the horrors being described are true. Good examples of this style are Bell Witch, Ahab, and Mournful Congregation.

Further listening: If you are interested in looking further into the world of extreme music, here are four modern records that I think embody each of the factors of heaviness mentioned earlier.

Nails – ‘You Will Never Be One of Us’ (2016)

Ridiculously brutal grindcore that makes use of the iconic HM2 chainsaw guitar sound present in classic Swedish death metal.

Whitechapel – ‘The Valley’ (2019)

Emotionally dense and progressive deathcore, overall fantastic and dynamic record. The only record on the list to feature clean vocals as well as growls/screams.

Cerebral Incubation – ‘Gonorrhea Nodule Mastication’; (2012)

Quintessential slam/brutal death. A solid midpoint between raw and polished production with the classic high-tuned pingy snare and guttural vocals.

Archspire – ‘Bleed the Future’ (2021)

Some of the most extreme and balanced technical death metal out there. Every member of this band is inhumanly talented; insanely polished and tight performances.

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