Dan Brophy


Sonic Identities:  Distortion and Death


“Orchestral horrors I vehemently conduct

My corpus concertos cordial

Disinterred… and detuned

With six feet below

In harmony with the deceased

My inspiration…your disintegration

For my latest masterpiece

My scope creeps your flesh…

Notes seep from sinewy frets…”[1]

Extreme musics – being musics that push the sonic and aesthetic boundaries of the listener such as brutal/black and death metal; noise music; and the avant-garde – are fascinating for their dependency upon the often improper and destructive use of their mediums (instruments or apparatuses), creating a violent and dense sonic space. The ‘distortion’ of these mediums is developed through techniques created specifically for the genre and/or the creation of new instruments which transgress, repel, and mutate societal norms of music and sound. It is this unique use and construction of their mediums that serve as abstract codes, manifesting themselves through physical and communicative symbols and signs, which feed back into themselves, mutating with each iteration.

In this paper, I will demonstrate how the musical techniques of extreme metal (death/black/grind/etc.) have been appropriated (primarily from common practice concert music, military band music, blues, jazz, and rock n’ roll), filtered through a process similar to distortion, and expelled as a new sonic identity. At the end of this paper, I will compare the use of the term distortion to the defintions productionluxury, and the miraculous as they are found in George Bataille’s writings on political economy in the three volumes titled The Accursed Share written between 1946 and 1949. I will not be able to perform an exhaustive list of these techniques as that would take us beyond the scope of this paper. Instead, I will focus on the following few techniques which I believe to be a fair representation of the genre:  false chord vocals;  speed/tremolo guitar picking;  and the blast beat technique.

The symbols of the mass culture that are appropriated by subcultures or scenes are intercepted and transformed in new and unique ways in a manner that can be compared to the process known as distortion. The word distortion, when used in the context of an audio signal, refers to the modification or augmentation of the wave-form of a signal through an outside party, which in most fields/disciplines is considered unwanted. In the genre of heavy metal however, distortion is widely known as the preferred sound of the guitar, often being referred to as fuzzy, chainsaw-like, chunky, or saturated (which are used as positive descriptions of sound). Beginning as early as the mid 1950’s, distortion was utilized in rock n’ roll guitar solos as an effect to create a ‘warm,’ or ‘fuzzy,’ and/or ‘rich’ tone[2]. Today, this sound is used throughout entire discographies of bands within different genres, most notably in metal subgenres. Guitar players now buy and modify equipment specifically to find their signature sounding distortion in order to compliment their aesthetic.

The process of distorting an audio signal is accomplished in three parts: the interception of an original signal or sound source;  the overdrive or overamplification of said source and;  compression of the overdriven signal. The first step is self explanatory, where the original signal for example could be a guitar. The second step is to overdrive the intercepted signal to the point of ‘clipping’, which creates additional high amplitude odd harmonics overtones[3]. These overtones that were not originally present, create a clash of harmonics that are inherently dissonant. The third step, is a compression of the overdriven signal to a narrow band-width, removing any sudden spikes in volume or unwanted sounds that may appear with clipping.

This is of course reminiscent of Jacques Attali’s definition of ‘noise’ in which “despite the death it contains, noise carries order with itself; it carries new information.”[4] Distortion, in much the same way, not only intercepts and disturbs a signal, but in addition to intercepting, reshapes it into a new form – it is the death that carries new information. Although this new form is distorted, in extreme music genres, this does not equate with a lesser, or lower form in the same sense as noise music or punk rock, as posited by Paul Hegarty in his book Noise/Music A History.[5] This new form creates new and different standards, no longer requiring authentication from older forms from which they originated. The new symbols are then able to form their own reflexive behaviors, feeding back into themselves. This new form then becomes static, creating a new authenticity, until portions of it break away from expectant behaviors and augment themselves with new outside appropriated sources, forming newer sub-genres. An interesting example of the death caused by distortion is the false-chord vocal style championed by most extreme metal vocalists. In the next section, I look at how the normative vocal technique has been appropriated and distorted by extreme metal vocalists in order to create a whole new style of vocalization. I will be comparing the classical vocal style known as Bel Canto (beautiful sound) as made famous by 18th and 19th century opera vocalists and the false chord vocal technique as is practiced by extreme metal vocalists.

Vocal Technique

In all styles of music specific techniques are used to achieve what is deemed within that culture as a preferred sound. In classical or common practice western art music technique (especially in opera bel canto style), much stress is put upon the vocalist to achieve a ‘perfect’ tone that rests in between light and dark sound. The sound of Bel Canto – meaning beautiful singing[6] – is achieved through a combination of practical exercises and education to aid the vocalist in better understanding the physical, mental and spiritual techniques necessary to embody the preferred aesthetic of this style. As part of my research for this paper, I asked my good friend Caitlin Treibel, a musicologist/soprano, to help explain the techniques used for bel canto style (opera) which I will elaborate on in the next section.

Breathing itself becomes one of the most important and difficult of the skills to master in this style. First, the vocalist must learn to control the movement of the diaphragm, an involuntary muscle that lies between the lungs and guts. Because of the involuntary nature of the diaphragm, the vocalist must compensate by controlling the intercostal (which surround the rib-cage) and abdominal muscles, which together pull on the floating ribs, forcing air in and out of the lungs.

The mouth acts as a valve. Its shape, coupled with the placement of the tongue, helps to shape the sound and amplify it. By physically manipulating the body in this manner, the vocalist creates as much space and aerodynamic outward motion as possible (tongue loose and away from throat), helping to create a more ‘pure’ and directed sound.

The larynx, also known as the ‘voice box,’ is the part of the body that actually creates the sound. It sits on top of the trachea and below the root of the tongue. It is part of the respiratory system that allows air to be passed “from the pharynx to the trachea on its way to the lungs and again returning to the exterior.” The actual production of the sound is initiated by the movement of small muscles inside of the trachea that manipulate the ‘true’ vocal chords within the trachea[7][8]

Extreme metal vocals were first practiced in early black metal bands such as Bathory, Celtic Frost and Venom, with its beginning sounding more as snarling and grumbling mixed with some screaming. The extreme metal vocal sound has now been solidified through practice and critique, aided by new techniques to achieve specific sounds. One of these techniques that I would like to speak to is named ‘false-chord vocals,’ a distortion of the proper or normative style of vocalization, created to help save vocalists from doing permanent damage to their throats.

Using the intercostal and abdominal muscles in the same manner as bel-canto technique, the lungs are filled with air, then slowly expelled. The difference between normative vocalizations and false chords is that instead of producing a ‘tone’ or pitch, the vocalist expels a ‘sigh,’ being much quieter than a pitched tone. By denying the use of pitch, the false-chord vocals are enacted. The sound is then amplified through the vibration of the false chords and distorted through a purposeful vibration of the sinuses that results in a sound that could be referred to as growling[9][10]. The pitch is manipulated through the shape of the mouth and the placement within different parts of the body such as the chest, throat, nose and head (much like bel-canto). The beauty of this technique is that it utilizes a complex pitch, much like a percussion cymbal, completely negating any ability to sing catchy or soaring melodic lines and allowing for much more chromaticism or complete lack of a tonal centre in the supporting music without the worry of being  ‘out-of-key.’

The extreme metal vocalist then has taken the original technique of sound production and distorted it by altering the sound producing mechanisms, and completely negating pitch, created a new sonic identity. The instrumental section of the band has also developed specific techniques for a more aggressive sound that symbolizes extreme metal. In the following section, I will l discuss how the electric guitar has been modified through techniques in order to achieve a more extreme sonic result through the lens of distortion.

Guitar Technique

The guitar, seen as a symbol of rock n’ roll and freedom, has survived multiple changes over the centuries. From its ancestors the ude and lute, mandolin, banjo, acoustic, and nylon string guitar, it has been constantly transformed on the basis of necessity and style. When the guitar entered the psychedelic and progressive rock genres, eventually making its way into the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, a new set of techniques emerged. Of these techniques, one of the more salient that I would like to speak to is speed or tremolo picking.

In much classical music, tremolo is used as a texture, creating a bed of sound, a ‘storminess’ or a ‘floating quality’ that can either heighten or soften the mood (depending on the composer’s intentions). An example of this can be heard in Hector Berlioz’s fifth movement, Dream of a Witch’s Sabbath from the work “Symphonie Fantastique in which the eerie and anxious mood has been heightened through the tremolo technique, yet dynamically is kept fairly soft in order to create a bed of sound. In his famous treatise on orchestration, Berlioz describes tremolo as having the ability to create “something of a stormy, violent character in the fortissimo on the middle of the first or second string. It becomes, on the contrary, serial, [and] angelic, when employed in several parts and pianissimo, on the high notes of the first string.”[11]

In extreme metal, the tremolo technique has been appropriated by rote and sonically amplified by hand pressure and distortion pedals to serve the aggressive nature of the music. While the tremolo in metal is aggressive, it also enables the player to retain the ability to play longer melodies without the loss of momentum. This technique may be found in much of the extreme metal sub-genres, but most salient in black metal where long, criss-crossing and contrapuntal melodies are used quite often. Many bands write almost entire albums using this technique such as the North American Black Metal band Judas Iscariot’s “To Embrace the Corpses Bleeding.”

Also found in the extreme metal genres, are individual ways of achieving the technique through the employment of different parts of the body. For example, when watching the guitar player Paul Ryan from the band Origin, one can notice the utilization of three different muscle groups in order to avoid fatigue:  the entire arm, the wrist, and the fingers (between the forefinger and the thumb). In classical technique, a uniform technique (usually with as little movement as possible) is taught to all students in an attempt to create a perfect sound, and in doing so producing a homophony.

The homogenous leaning of techniques has thus been effectively removed, amplified through individuality, and distorted to create a new sonic symbol. Very similar to tremolo, is the use of doubles in percussion and the drum kit. In the following section, I discuss the distortion of the technique known as ‘doubles,’ and how extreme metal drum kit players have intercepted and distorted this technique in order to satisfy a specific sound.

Drum Kit Technique

One of the most important contributors of sound in extreme metal styles is the drum kit. The drum kit, like the voice and guitar, originated from former styles of music such as military marching bands, blues, jazz, rock, and psychadelic bands, and through distortion has taken on new symbolic and sonic meaning.

Unique to the technique of percussion is the use of doubles. Doubles allow for twice the amount of percussive shots in a single stroke through controlled reflexivity. By allowing the drum stick to bounce twice in a single stroke, the percussionist is then enabled to play at nearly double the speed as is normally heard. Gene Kruppa, and other drummers from the big-band and swing era learned this technique from the military snare drum performer and educator Sanford A. Moeller, who published his internationally used snare drum technique book titled  “The Art of Snare Drumming” in 1925[12]. In military band music, the doubles are often used for quick fills, sounding like an equivalent to the string or guitar tremolo.

Although some garage, psycadellic and early metal bands touched upon this technique, it was not until the extreme metal came about, most noticeably with Pete “commando” Sandoval from Morbid Angel, that it became integrated permanently and wide-spread throughout the community. In the same manner as tremolo picking for the guitar, extreme metal styles utilize these doubles for a new style of drum-beat called the ‘blast-beat’, as in blasting off, or as it is known in grindcore music – ‘grinding.’ The blast beat is essentially a back-beat taken from rock n’ roll and punk music, doubled in speed, which almost completely distorts the pulse. Doubling, originally used in earlier metal styles for short bursts of speed with either the hands or the feet, is now used in every limb of the percussionist, to create a nearly blurred, pulseless sound. Like the guitar tremolo, when used in the kick-drums, allows the music to retain a consistent hum, or wash of sound that fills in a large part of the lower frequency range, creating a looming dark texture. The use of doubles in the kick drum also allows the drummer to ride the kick drums in the same manner as a rock or jazz drummer would use the hi-hats or ride cymbal, freeing the hands to embellish and improvise while retaining the wash of sound in the bass frequency.

The technique of doubles, being appropriated and re-interpreted, has created a new set of techniques for the drum-kit that has evolved over the past 20 years to a state of technical perfection. The doubles, now a staple in the extreme metal drum style, is well known amongst both fans and practitioners, and has helped to develop the double kick and the blast-beat, which are now sonic symbols with the genre.


This distortion of musical techniques and instruments analyzed in this paper can easily be compared to George Bataille’s defintions of Production/Luxury/Miraculous as found in the first volume of his series The Accursed Share. Through these volumes, I have a found not only a source to aid me in my discussion of distortion as a process that results in a death, but that such a violent process necessitates the creation of new spectacular life (in the same sense as Hebdige’s spectacular subcultures).

Production and Luxury – the consumption of energy

As we saw, in the appropriation of techniques from other musics, they are often augmented with either external objects (such as the use of the ‘false chords’, distortion pedals, and augmentations to the drum kit such as the double kick pedal), or an augmentation of the technique used to perform on the instruments which results in an excess of energy.  This excess, like life, must be discarded in order to make room for new growth as “neither growth or reproduction would be possible if plants and animals did not normally dispose of excess.”[13] This discarding or squandering is forced to takes place as “real pressure…puts unequal organisms in competition with one another” and “the unevenness of pressure in living matter continually makes available to growth the place left vacant to death.”[14] (Bataille pg 33)

For myself, this resonates with the creation of new musical technologies – such as Les Paul’s prototyping of guitar pick-ups which in turn allowed for the creation of the electric guitar[15]. These sonic identifiers found in extreme music techniques, are modified according to specific cultural terms and allow for new sonic possibilities – taking what they need/want and throwing away the rest. The distortions of techniques are intersubjective, purposely distorting cultural norms to create a personalized sound, forming new boundaries that help define who, what and why they are, through a relational negation of what they are not and they cannot be. The death of the older forms, brought on through competition to occupy space, makes room for the new forms to grow. Due to the violence inherent in the act of distortion, the new forms become exaggerated and spectacular.

The Miraculous – the unknowing

When bands or artists within these extreme musics are involved in this filtration process that I have labeled as distortion, it is often what George Batailles names as the miraculous, also described in his other writings as a state of unknowing. This ‘miraculous event’, takes place when a new form is excreted without conscious knowledge of past cultural appropriations for an authentic new form of music. New techniques that reflect new sub-genres of art, subconsciously take symbols that they have appropriated and filter them through personal preference and intersubjectivity, creating a new sonic badge or symbol. These techniques are not taught in an academy or place of higher education, but by rote, by listening and imitating. In this sense, “[c]onsciousness of the moment is … not sovereign, except in the unknowing. Only by cancelling, or at least neutralizing, every operation of knowledge within ourselves are we in the moment.”[16] To be within the moment of unknowledge, is not unlike “the burst of laughter or tears that stop thought.”[17]

And so it is not that the knowledge accumulated by the subculture is sovereign, but in that moment of creation, where all other knowledge is subconscious, allowing for the moment such as the burst of tears or laughter, where true unknowledge is used to filter the creative activity, allowing for a truly original expulsion of previously appropriated material. In this sense, a true re-creation through the process of death may only take place within this uncontrolled moment of the present, when we let go of our past memories and projected future, living solely in the moment, when the distortion of materials is a truly honest creative moment that allows us to formulate new art and artistic practices.


Attali, Jacques. Bruits:  Essai Sur L’economie Politique de la Musique. France:      Presses Universitaires de France, 1977. Pg. 33

Bataille, Georges. “Consumption” taken from Volume 1 of The Accursed Share.             Translated by Robert Hurley. (New York: Zone Books, 1991), pg. 25–6.

Bataille, Georges. “The History of Eroticism”, taken from Volume II of The Accursed    Share. Translated by Robert Hurley. (New York:  Zone Books, reprinted in   1995.

Berlioz, Hector. A Treatise on Modern Instrumentation and Orchestration. Translated by Mary Cowden Clark, edited by Joseph Bennett. (London and New York:  Novello, Ewer and Co.) 1882.

Carcass. “Carneous Cacoffany” from the album Necroticism:  Descanting the       Insalubrious. Earache, Relativity Records. Recorded and Released 1991.

Case, Alexander U. Sound FX: Unlocking the Creative Potential of Recording Studio         Effects. Taylor and Francis Publishing Group, 2007. pg 96.

Cross, Melissa. http://www.melissacross.com/press_detail.php?pressID=13. Last       accessed June 28th, 2012.

Hegarty, Paul.  Noise/Music:  A History. New York:  The Continuum International       Publishing Group Inc, 2007.

Miller-Keane Encyclopedia and Dictionary of Medicine, Nursing, and Allied Health,   Seventh Edition, an imprint of Elsevier, Inc. 2003.

Moeller, Sanford A. The Moeller Book (1954). Ludwig Music Publishing. Last   accessed February 17th, 2009.

Rubenstein, Ben. “How to Properly Stress Your Vocal Chords with Screaming.” In      Wikihow (blog)Last accessed on January 21st, 2012.             http://www.wikihow.com/Properly-Stress-Your-Vocal-Chords-With-   Screaming

Rubin, Dave. Inside the Blues, 1942 to 1982. Hal Leonard Publishers, 2007. p. 61.

Stark, James. Bel Canto: A History of Vocal Pedagogy. University of Toronto Press.        2003.

Voices from the Smithsonian Associates. Les Paul, Musician and Inventor. Archived at www.archive.org. Last accessed July 20th, 2012.

[1] Carcass, “Carneous Cacoffany” from the album Necroticism:  Descanting the Insalubrious, Earache, Relativity Records. Recorded and Released 1991.

[2] Dave Rubin, Inside the Blues, 1942 to 1982, Hal Leonard, 2007, pg. 61.

[3] Alexander U Case, Sound FX: Unlocking the Creative Potential of Recording Studio Effects, Taylor and Francis Publishing Group, 2007 pg 96.

[4] Jacques Attali, Bruits:  Essai Sur L’economie Politique de la Musique, France:  Presses Universitaires de France, 1977, Pg. 33

[5] Paul Hegarty,  Noise/Music:  A History. New York:  The Continuum International Publishing Group Inc, 2007.

[6] James Stark, Bel Canto: A History of Vocal Pedagogy, University of Toronto Press, 2003.

[7] Miller-Keane Encyclopedia and Dictionary of Medicine, Nursing, and Allied Health,             Seventh Edition, an imprint of Elsevier, Inc. 2003.

[8] ibid

[9] Rubenstein, Ben. “How to Properly Stress Your Vocal Chords with Screaming.” In Wikihow (blog)Last accessed on January 21st, 2012. http://www.wikihow.com/Properly-Stress-Your-Vocal-Chords-With-   Screaming

[10] Melissa Cross, http://www.melissacross.com/press_detail.php?pressID=13. Last accessed June 28th, 2012.

[11] Hector Berlioz, A Treatise on Modern Instrumentation and Orchestration, translated by Mary Cowden Clark, edited by Joseph Bennett, (London and New York:  Novello, Ewer and Co.) 1882.

[12] Moeller, Sanford A. The Moeller Book (1954). Ludwig Music Publishing. Last accessed February 17th, 2009.

[13] Georges Bataille, “Consumption” taken from Volume 1 of The Accursed Share, Translated by Robert Hurley, (New York: Zone Books, 1991), pg. 25–6.

[14] Bataille, Consumption, pg 33.

[15] Voices from the Smithsonian Associates. Les Paul, Musician and Inventor. Archived at www.archive.org. Last accessed July 20th, 2012

[16] Georges Bataille, “The History of Eroticism”, taken from Volume II of The Accursed Share, translated by Robert Hurley, New York NY, reprinted in 1995, Pg 203.

[17] Ibid