Ryan van Eerde
Decapitated: Kill the Cult, Track Teardown
Anyone who knows me knows I like a good bit of Death Metal, and if you didn't you do now. I enjoy both listening to Death Metal and playing/composing Death Metal songs and I hope that in the future I will be able to work with other Death Metal musicians. The purpose of this track teardown is to analyse production techniques in the song Kill the Cult by Decapitated as to provide me with a better understanding of how I can produce Death Metal music (any form of extreme metal music really) and achieve a more killer sound.
Decapitated are a Polish Death Metal band formed in 1996 with their playing style being more groove focused than a lot of other Death Metal bands that go for the more full bore and technical approach. Not to say that the band isn't extreme and technical they just don't go as hard as some others and they develop their songs in a more structured way (Death Metal can be all over the place sometimes with you not knowing what part of the song is being played at that moment).
The song follows a relatively simple song structure with multiple repeating parts and guitar riffs.
The intro in blue has an 8 bar progression that is repeated 4 times with the 4th being cut short by 2 bars leading into the first verse, because of the repetition here the guitar riff really stays in your head and marks itself as one of them main riffs in the song. The 2 verses in red are exactly the same to each other musically just with different lyrical content, they both go for 16 bars which are made up of 2 repeating 8 bar sections creating a nice an easy guitar riff progression to follow. The first 2 choruses in green are exactly the same musically as the intro but they go for a 16 bar progression with chorus 2 having a 4 bar lead in to the break down section. Chorus 3 repeats this 16 bar progression twice with the 2nd progression being extended to 18 bars leading into the outro, last 4 and 6 bars of each are different musically compared to the first 2 choruses.
The break down section in yellow also goes for 16 bars and is made up of repeating 2 bar guitar riffs that don't change throughout creating a very consistent and rhythmic groove. The 2 solo guitar sections in purple both go for 16 bars with the second having a 2 bar rest before the chorus kicks in again, the backing guitars in this section follow almost the same groove as the break down making the transition between the sections feel smoother. The outro has 3 sections for a total of 32 bars, the first 16 bars follow a 2 bar guitar riff progression which is changed adapted slightly for the next 8 bars. The last 8 bars follow the same notes as the rest of the outro but the groove is changed to create a stronger finish.
All of the sections in the song are 16 bars long or are repeated to produce 32 bars, with the exception of a couple of bars here and there leading into the different sections. This structure gives the song a sense of uniformity and makes it easier to follow along to by each section predominately being the same length. Also the main riff of the song which is played in the intro and choruses make up for 96 bars of the 216 bar song which really shows how much the band wanted to hammer the riff into the listeners head. It also shows you can have a riff that repeats for a good majority of the song and it can still sound killer without it getting stale, providing the riff sounds killer to start of with. Having a song structure that doesn't change that much has the potential to become boring quickly which is maybe why some Death Metal bands go for the more chaotic structure, but if think the composition and groove of this song really helps to make it interesting without being to hectic.
Tempo, Meter, Key
From what I can work out the song is based around the B Phrygian mode with a flattened 4th, which coincidentally is the same scale choice that I used for my project 1 song except I was in F# and not B. I also assume that the guitarist picked this scale for the same reason I did which is it's great for playing dark and heavy sounding metal riffs, see one off my previous blogs When Metal Gets Heavy for a more in depth explanation of why its great for metal. The reason why it's in B as well is because the guitarist uses a 7 string guitar which comes standard with the top string tuned to B and because a lot of metal songs (including this one) excessively use muted open strings having the Key be the same as the tuning makes composing in Key much easier.
Check out this short parody video below where a guitarist only plays muted open strings to help understand what I'm getting at and even though this guy is using a 6 string guitar he has it tuned to B, the same as the song.
With this guy playing just ONE note it still sounds really metal which shows how important muted open strings is to the genre. Side note, the reason why this video is a parody is because there are a lot of metal bands out in the world who basically only play binary, zeros and ones, but I digress.
The Meter is consistently 4/4 throughout the song making all the bar lengths nice and even and easy to follow, nothing thrown in there to trip up the listener. It's very inline with the Song Structure as well, having even sections of 16 and 32 bars in 4/4 keeps the feel and groove of the song constant and each section not going on for longer or shorter than necessary. I believe this simple Meter and Structure really helps to make the listener bang their head along to the groove by not being overly complicated, and any song that makes me want to bang my head is a plus in my book.
The tempo of this song is a little bit odd though because it changes multiple times throughout but only by a couple of beats each time. The majority of the song goes between 188 and 190bpm with the occasional 184 and 186. I believe these changes in tempo might me used to slightly change the groove and flow between the different sections, it would be interesting to hear what the song sounds like with a fixed tempo and if the changes actually make much of a difference. The tempo itself isn't extremely fast for a Death Metal song with a lot of them being played over 240bpm (some Technical Death Metal is played between 280 and 300bpm) this again is because the band really wants to focus on those groove elements which could potentially be lost at higher tempos.
Instrumentation & Production Elements
You have the standard Metal/Rock Instrumentation in this song, Guitars, Bass, Drums and Vocals. In Death Metal you don't usually find a different line up than this due to the fact that it is an extreme genre were all the instruments are wanting to be loud doesn't leave any space sonically for anything more. Conversely it needs each of those instruments to fully fill out the sound, all of them must come together to smack the listener in the face with a fistful of metal (metal pun) but leave them wanting more.
The rhythm guitars are dual tracked meaning there are 2 separate tracks which are panned left and right, this helps to fill out the out whilst still sounding tight. Sometimes in metal the guitars will be quad tracked (2 guitar tracks per side) which makes the sound even fuller and heavier but it can also start to get a little muddy with less definition between the notes. As the song is more groove based you want to be able to clearly hear the notes and rhythmic patterns that make up its feel rather than having a thick wall of sound with no definition. In saying that though the guitar tone that is create sounds really thick and full without it needing to be quad tracked, this really shows that the band and producer spent some time dialling in a killer sound that fills and cuts through the mix. Using a high and low pass filter in Pro Tools I worked out that the main energy and sound of the guitars is between 330Hz and 7kHz with the bass guitar covering most of the sound under 300Hz.
Another thing the bass guitar doesn't much mid presence and absolutely no high frequencies, I think this is done so it doesn't detract from the sound of the guitars which are the main focus of the song. The bass is literally only there to fill out the low end frequencies to make the rhythm guitars sound bigger and fatter without them sounding muddy and unfocused. With the guitars having this mid range predominant sound makes them cut through the mix as this frequency range is the easiest heard by humans and when you remove the highs and lows the guitars still have a very strong presence due to this. After analysing the guitar tone it really highlights how the mid range frequencies add to the overall colour of the sound and that you really need to spend the time working on it if you want to produce a great sounding product.
I was surprised with the bass sound because most of the time in metal you will hear some string sound at least or even a bit of distorted honky mid range notes but nothing like that in this song. You can't hear any defined bass guitar notes what so ever, it perfectly follows the guitars just to add the low end in the song. Below is a video of another Death Metal band where you can very easily and discernibly hear the individual bass guitar notes to provide a contrasting example of a different mixing technique. The song is called Omnipresent Perception by Beyond Creation.
Now I like the sound of both of these songs but what I think this shows is that different mixing approaches can be used to better the song and fit its feel and sound a lot better. With the song in the video above because it's more technical and has a greater emphasis on the bass being an individual instrument that's separate from the rhythm guitars it needs to have its own space in the mix. If the Decapitated song had this bass sound it would definitely take up too much space in the mix meaning the guitars wouldn't be able to be as big as they are, which is an approach to mixing guitar and bass together that I hadn't thought of before.
The guitars are mostly the loudest thing in the mix except in the verses where they have less presence and play a simpler rhythmic pattern. There is also a basic lead guitar part playing low in the mix acting almost like a pedal note that changes every 2 bars according to the notes played in the rhythm guitars. The guitar solo sections themselves have the rhythm guitars higher in the mix than what you would normally expect. Usually the lead guitars would be a lot higher in the mix than the rhythms to make them stand out more but because the rhythm guitars are playing a riff with a lot of rests it doesn't take up much space and sound all of the time which allows all the guitar parts to be louder making the solo sections sound massive. The lead guitars are also panned dead centre helping to separate them from the hard left and right panned rhythm guitars also making the short rests in the rhythm guitars more prominent.
The vocals are another interesting thing in the track because most of the time they are not heard in the centre of the mix. In the verses it sounds like there are at least 2 vocal track per side which are panned out relatively wide but then goes into a single vocal track in the centre for 2 bars at the end leading into the chorus. I can only think that this has been done to produce the same effect as quad tracked guitars, that is to make the vocals sound wider and fuller but also maybe a little less defined so that when you hear the last 2 bars the difference is more noticeable. Its just a cool production aspect that I haven't particularly come across before, not that I have really properly analysed a lot of song that I listen to, just think of all the little nuances I could be missing. In the choruses the vocals start off being panned wide but only 1 track per side now which keeps the same feel as the verse but provides more clarity as well. Where the choruses differ though is that the panned vocal only go for 4 bars then the centre vocals come in for the next 4 bars, this is a good technique that really just helps keep the song moving and sounding interesting and shows how a good bit of automation can shape its feel and sound. Another thing about the songs structure is that only half of the song has vocals (102 bars out of 216) with the rest being dominated by guitars (not that I would expect anything less from a Death Metal song) and again highlighting the importance the band has on the guitars (which is how it should be).
Lastly the drums, they are not particularly that complicated or technical and mainly serve the purpose of helping to drive the song along but not interfering with the rhythm of the guitars. The snare and high hats are the most prominent aspects of the drums in the mix with the hats almost constantly being hit on every beat in the song with the exception of a few other cymbal hits here and there. The constant high hat pattern acts almost like a metronome providing the listener something to help follow the beat and tempo of the song and because of this it is mixed as one of the loudest drum elements. The snare cuts through the mix well without being really loud like most Death Metal songs, its there but its not being smashed into your face, it accents the rhythm guitars without messing with their groove.
The most surprising thing about the drums and the whole mix in general is the level of the kick drums which are significantly lower than what I would typically find in a Death Metal song. If you listen back to the Beyond Creation song in the video above you can clearly hear that the kick drum has a tight clicky sound and is really dominant in the mix which is more in line with metal norms. I can only think that this is done because again this song is all about the guitars and the groove they create and having them loud and standing out in the mix means other instruments have to be quieter, even if that goes against typical metal mixing protocols.
There is minimal use of effects on this track which is typical for Death Metal as everything usually wants to stand out as much as possible and sound as clear as possible meaning a lot FX such as reverb and delay will hinder these goals. I think I hear a little bit of reverb on the cymbals and snare but not much, the rhythm guitars sound relatively dry but the lead guitars do have some reverb and delay to make them sound smoother and silkier and a bit of wah as well. I find it hard to hear if the vocals have some form of reverb on them (I know that mostly always vocals have some reverb or FX) and if they do its done in a very subtle way.
The main musical element in the track is the guitars (surprising I know) with everything else in the song just accommodating them which is not surprising seeing as the guitarist is the main song writer and driving force in the band. An aspect that I have touched on already is the guitar riff played in the intro and choruses which are the same minus a couple of bars every so often take up a good majority of the song, which is an interesting musical decision to make so much focus of the song around one riff. This really is a testament to the guitarists riffing (composing) abilities making one riff so good and groovy that it can be played throughout the song without getting tedious, in fact I would be disappointed if the riff wasn't played as much as it is.
I think that the success of this track comes down to the overall tone of the guitars coupled with its groove based rhythmic patterns that are very infectious and musically compelling. If the guitar tone wasn't as full sounding as it is the whole feel of the song could be different because it might not hit you in the same way and translate the feel that the composer wants to create as well. Most of the sections follow the same groove throughout the song with the riffs sticking to the same Key making the whole thing sound very cohesive, the composer could have made the song more technical but that would have made it sound disjointed and not flow as well as it does.
The simple lead guitar bits in the verses and break down as well as the changing in vocal panning helps to break up the potential monotony of the guitars because even I realise that being constantly pounded by guitars can become tiresome if there aren't other elements moving in the mix. Again though the composer has done this musically so that when the main riff (intro/choruses) are played the impact is even greater without it being the same intensity all the way through.
The vocals themselves are your typical rough distorted sound growls that really fit in well with the feel of the song, personally I don't think the song would have the same impact and aggression with clean vocals. Another aspect of this style of vocals is that they are monotonal and by having them like this they don't produce a counter melody to the guitars which could interfere with their sound, and because they have no discernible pitch they can't be out of Key (relatively speaking). This fact also means the vocalist can focus more on making his voice sound aggressive and less on pitching perfectly in Key.
All up this is a very well put together song that has some different production techniques than I would normally expect in Death Metal, but this shows me that you don't always need to stick to what is typical of the genre do whats right for the song. An amazing set of riffs, a killer guitar tone, a simple song structure, aggressive vocals, and a driving drum beat is all you need to make a successful Death Metal song. The biggest thing that I'll take away from this is that I need to spend a lot more time trying to get a great guitar sound in my own productions, and to get an overall massive sound you don't need every instrument to be super high in the mix as long as there is an instrument sounds good enough to carry the track.