Monday, February 20, 2012

All the kids are Djenting!

For today's post, I have a critique on the musical style known as "Djent".  My initial goal with this blog was to consistently switch up between topics.  However, since music has been a big focus lately, I guess the first couple will be music related.  :)

Who Cares?
"Djent" is a heavy metal sub-genre that has recently become popular and has turned into a distinctive style, with a collection of bands that can be attached to it and a fan base specifically following it.  I have a tendency to try and resist the inertia inherent in heavy metal culture that rejects movements like this, often labeling them "trends".  It is important for the life of the culture to be open minded to what the kids are doing, because it keeps us vital.  Despite negative attitudes always present on forums like, it would be pretty lame if we all just imitate Carcass and Testament forever (not to say that's not a worthy goal).  Every trend in metal has had it's ups and downs; remember the "metalcore" of about 5-8 years ago?  Essentially, a large number of bands on the east coast of the United States came about with a style imitating swedish metal greats, while adding a classic east-coast hard-core influence.  As with all movements, there are a number of great bands that came out of that time (Lamb of God, Arsis, The Black Dahlia Murder), and of course a whole fleet of duds and lifeless imitators (Avenged Sevenfold, All that Remains and Terror being among the worst offenders).  All forms of popular music are full of misses however, and we should therefore give djent its chance to wow us.  The collection of LOG and Black Dahlia in my iTunes is justification enough for the metalcore movement by itself.

An Overview of Djent
Sonically, I would describe djent as having the following properties:

  • A very distinctive guitar sound, typically using 7 or 8 string guitars run through high-end, shredder-style gear.  Usually very tight, heavily compressed and noise-gated, and frequently using digital guitar amp tone (or at least what sounds like digital tone), ala Line 6, Johnson-Millenium, Amplitube etc.  
  • Staccato, palm muted riffs ala Meshuggah, intermixed with Satriani-ish guitar virtuoso solos.  
  • Proggy odd times and busy drumming, and some times Meshuggah-style polyrhythms.  
  • A mix of clean singing and traditional metal screaming.  
  • Intermixed ambient moments, using synths and other effects.  
  • A very polished sound.  Always recorded digitally and heavily processed.  Drums are frequently sampled, and are either step-programmed, triggered or sound-replaced.  
I will talk history as well as introduce what I think are some of the key bands of the scene below.  The real inventors of the genre are Periphery and Textures, although I do not recommend them as a listening starting point.  Instead, as I talk about below, if you are a big metal fan I recommend starting with Vildjharta, if not, TesseracT.

A Brief History of Djent
I think one of the interesting things about djent is that it is really the first major metal movement to have purely grown up on the internet.  It is thus not regional, like metalcore was to the east coast of the US.  Djent is global, and the key bands of the scene are scattered all over the world.  As mentioned previously, djent has a pretty obvious Meshuggah influence.  In fact, Mårten Hagström coined the term in an interview when he described their guitar sound as "it just goes like djent, djent, djent".  Also, many djent recordings use Toontrack's "Drumkit from Hell", which is actually samples of Tomas Haake from Meshuggah's drum kit.  However, I find it difficult to lump Meshuggah themselves into djent.  While Meshuggah's music is very abstract, djent seems to be much more straightforward and listenable to the average user.

While djent has now formed into a sizeable community (see, it started as a series of small bands posting just internet demos since the early 2000s.  The first I remember of djent is actually the postings my bandmates Matt and Jacob showed me on from a guy with screen name "Bulb".  Misha "Bulb" Mansoor from Bethesda, Maryland is founder of the band Periphery, and I believe is the real pioneer of the djent sound.  Another early pioneer is Textures from the Netherlands, as well as TesseracT from the UK a few years later.  Today, djent has flowered into a scene full of bands.  I will give a brief critique of each of these bands I mentioned, as well as Vildjharta from Sweden, which is my current favorite.

Instrumentals and Djent
As a quick tangent, there have also been a recent trend of instrumental bands, some of whom have some relation to djent (Animals as Leaders, Cloudkicker).  I think these bands are really kind of a different thing, and deserve their own post at a later date.


The early Periphery demos were awesome.  It's pretty clear that Bulb wanted to turn his stuff into a full band for some time.  Periphery went though a long period of lineup changes, and changes to the original music as a result.  As I heard the original version of "Walk", which had a different vocalist and much rawer tones, I find the current Periphery stuff to be a kind of stale imitation of the originals.

Periphery's stuff now is, well, typical djent.  Mix of clean vocals and not, heavy at points, wanky at points.  I still have high hopes for this band, and they are interesting and deserve the credit for pioneering a genre.  I just don't think they're all that interesting to listen to.

I think of Textures from the Netherlands in a similar light to Periphery.  They certainly deserve credit for being pioneers of a new sound.  However, their songs have always felt dry to me.  Their heavy is not that heavy, and their songs seem to lack depth.  Some of their music feels a bit too "twinkly" to me.  A common problem with djent bands is that the heavily cleaned up and processed sound loses some of the crushing nature that originally came from the Meshuggah influence.  Textures is interesting, but somewhat forgettable.

TesseracT from the UK is another band started by one guy (Acle Kahney) that has had demos kicking around for many years while he built a lineup.  Like Periphery, TesseracT's songs also lacked some oomph when they found their final lineup.  However, I find that TesseracT's music has kept it's interest in another way.  They have always been more ambient and more prog than some of their cousins.  One (their debut album) is a good start-to-finish journey, and is probably a good start for fans of bands like Tool and Rush.  They punctuate a sort of ambient journey with bits of heaviness.

Vildhjarta is a younger band from Sweden.  They are currently my favorite of the djent sound.  While still being pretty clearly djent, they bring in a certain obvious death metal influence, and really put the heavy back in the sound.  Their riffs are aggressive, their singers don't quite sound so teenage (even though they look like they're about 19).  I really like this band, and I have their debut album Måsstaden in regular rotation.  I recommend this to any metal head who is not sure about djent.  Just remember that it's NOT Meshuggah, and you'll like it.

In Conclusion
Give djent a fair shake.  I'm sure it will churn out tons of bands that suck, and some that we just decide we like for 15 minutes and then discard.  But metal should always evolve, and every generation should build their own classics.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Getting my gear on

I spent a significant amount of time this weekend changing up the drum kit for the new Burning of I album.  I had a significant number of things to say about the whole experience, so it feels like an excuse to start a blog and put down my thoughts, whether anyone cares or not.  Since I like to write and am pretty self-absorbed, I may make a habit of this.  :)

In general, I'm quite excited to put the new kit down on a record, as all my previous recordings were with my ol' trusty Pangdrum kit.  The new kit has seen quite a few shows, but I haven't got to really record with it yet.  In some test recordings, we found the new kit (which is a TAMA Starclassic birch/bubinga composite) to really come through well on tape, almost "pre-EQed".  The configuration you've seen me with at shows in the last year includes a 8, 10, 12, 16 and 18 inch toms and a 24 inch kick, all mounted on a Pearl rack with a diverse collection of cymbals (mostly Paiste), as shown in the video we did for T1000.  It's worked great for me during the year and a half of grinding on the Seattle scene we did hocking Nowhere is a Destination, but as we started doing test recordings with the new material, I've been having second thoughts.

Mega Tom Rolls
I've been playing drums now for almost 18 years, and have been steadily collecting gear for most of that time.  I've also been extremely fortunate to have a higher-than-average income level that has allowed me to spend most of my 20s splurging on gear like a idiot.  In addition, many of my drumming heros have always been hard-rock and metal monster-players of the 80s and 90s like Danny Carey, Vinny Paul, Dave Lombardo, Igor Cavalera, Gene Hoglan and more recently Neal Peart, Chris Pennie and Brann Dailor.  In that tradition, I have always sought after the big kit so I could do all those crazy fills I heard and have a richness of sound that went with that music (I never found something that sounds quite like that high-crack you hear in fills on Roots and Chaos A.D.  I think it's some variation on either an Octobon or a Timbale).

So, my kit has gotten big.  With 5 toms and 9 cymbals, there's a lot of stuff up there.  Granted, I got all that stuff with good intentions; I actually put the 10" tom to the left of the hi-hat, and came up with some interesting patterns and fills I used in the new material that let me move my hand all the way over there to challenge myself.  We've been very impressed with the sound of it in early recording tests as well.  The blasting, present tone produced by the bubinga shells does an excellent job of cutting though the Burning of I wall of guitars, and Matt is creating rough mixes that already sound better than Nowhere is a Destination's final mix with minimal effort.  Especially the 24" kick.  It's like driving a V8.  It has all the power and punch you'd expect out of a triggered sound, except it's real and doesn't have that stupid clicky machine sound (I could probably never pass an audition for Nile, Hate Eternal or the Black Dahlia Murder).

Information Overload
However, I've found an interesting thing out the few times I've played other people's kits the last few months; I seem to be better on them.  Just jamming around, I found I came up with more interesting patterns and combinations on kits with less stuff.  I think it goes along with a sort of life discovery that I've made lately, that our modern world with too much stuff going on at once is distracting.  The amount of options in front of me were actually limiting my ability to grove, and the creativity of my natural responses to the other guys' playing in Burning of I.  It seemed to me like I would benefit from rethinking my kit a little bit, and shrinking it down to a level I felt more comfortable with.

Build from Scratch
I decided I should start from the bottom up, so that I could reduce the kit to only what I felt was really important to Burning of I's music.  So, to start with, the bare essentials:
  • Kick
  • Snare
  • Hat 
  • Ride
It's hard to play any rock and roll-rooted music without those things, and they're really the core of everything I'm focused on.  OK then, time to add toms.  Well, in practice, 98% of my fills used no more than three toms.  I would guess over 60% don't use more than two.  And, I would say that over 90% of my fills used either the 12" or the 16".  So those seemed like the right starting point.  The 8" and 10" I do really like playing, but after a couple recorded practices I decided they don't necessarily go well with Burning of I's music.  This is especially true with the new stuff, which is a bit bigger and meaner than we've been in the past.  The problem is that I thought of the 8 and 10 as useful in kind of Rush-style / Cynic / event Djent-genre sort of proggy stuff.  The problem with that is that it not only doesn't match the intensity level of the rest of the music, but our recording tests showed that the little toms don't really cut through the Fisne-Weatherspoon guitar wall particularly well.  It's like I really need big drums (thus the success 24" kick) to create a sound that goes with what we're doing.  I almost stopped at the 12 and 16, but then decided that the 18, while sometimes out of the way, is great in sort of those Tomas-Haake/Gene Hoglan style "rumble" fills.  These are basically single-stroke hand-foot combinations across the toms, and are very effective in extreme metal.  So I decided to keep three toms:

  • 12" rack
  • 16" floor
  • 18" floor
So on to cymbals.  I started with two crashes, one on the left and the right.  After moving around the kit a bit, I decided I still needed the third one in the middle.  Having three crashes really just makes orchestrated fills easier if you have a crash right in front of you no matter which direction your body is facing.  And three is enough for me to cover all the positions comfortably.  Finally, I decided my effects cymbals (10" splash, 13" bell, 14" mini-china) fell in the same boat as the small toms.  However, I decided to keep the 18" china.  I don't use chinas exactly like extra crashes, as some people do, but I could have replaced everything I used it for with a crash.  It's pretty hard to deny the level of brutal you can get with a big china though.  Just listen to Tomas Haake on the opening riffs of Future Breed Machine by Meshuggah.  So I ended up with the following cymbals (in addition to the ride and hats at the core):

  • 18" Crash
  • 2 20" Crashes
  • 18" China

So I set it up and tried it.  It was a great improvement!  With a few things out of the way, I tightened up the positions of the instruments.  I adjusted to playing this way, and have already found my parts are more interesting and fit better with the music.

The Erector Set
Since I got rid of a bunch of instruments, it occurred to me that my big rack was overkill.  It also added additional visual clutter, which I believe was part of my problem; I've found I don't play all that well when  it's really dark.  After all these years, it surprises me how much of my playing is affected by visual queues.  Maybe it's bad technique, I don't really know.  But either way, I wanted to reduce my hardware, not only to reduce set up time and weight to carry to shows, but also because people have come up to me at shows and said how they felt I was "hidden" behind the drums.  I thought if I could lower some parts of the kit and get rid of the rack, and that would solve that problem.

I decided the ideal solution was to use the DW 9000 stands with dogbones.  My 16 and 18 inch toms were converted to free standing drums, and I figured I would be able to use those to hold up the rest of the entire kit (all three crashes, ride, china and 12" tom) on just two stands.  I spent this weekend setting it all up and using the opportunity to change heads, readjusting the kit, and putting some old gear on craigslist.  The end result is amazing!  I am astounded at the physics for how the dogbone system is able to adjust and still be quite solid, and I'm able to have huge drums floating in air with a minimal foot of hardware.  The drums feel great, and I'm really having fun playing them right now.

We also did a bit of playing with microphones, but that is really incomplete and I will talk about it in another post.  The following are a couple pictures of the new setup.  They're a bit dark, I guess I need a better camera.  :)