Pieces which are built with a steady pulse and a steady meter normally make use of that grid without disrupting or confusing it. Pulse and regular bars serve as base to other components which move into the foreground and become the dominating part of listening (lyrics, rhythmical details, motivic development). In this article, the examples presented do exactly that. At selected moments, however, they undermine the comfortable regularity of the meter by delaying a first beat. Very simple, but with very rich and sometimes surprising results.
I made use of the Pool Tool to define the common denominator of the examples I analysed.
Pool Phenomenon: What is expected to appear on beat 1 of a bar appears delayed, max. one beat later.
The Raconteurs, Broken Boy Soldier
In order to establish a transparent and clear metrical feeling, it helps to put a strong emphasis on every beat. Only if steady bars with steady beats are established, a delayed first beat will stand out and appear as a surprise.
In the beggining (0:08-0:22) of The Raconteurs’ Broken Boy Soldier, all the instruments involved do their best to emphasise every single beat. The bass guitar repeats the simplest of all motivs every beat, together with the bass drum. The bell of the ride cymbal and guitar play a rhythmycal shape which is reapeated every two beats. The chromatically falling pitches in the guitar or the sole generators of the next larger cell, each of which lasts 2 bars of 4/4. Repetitive rhythm, monotonous harmony, in short: perfect conditions for an intentionally belated cue.
Which is what happens at 0:22. The participants omit the heavy first beat of the bar and enter on the first triplet right after it, kicking out a lively rhytmical shape in unison over 8 beats . The snare drum is the sole instrument to break the unison, but it fulfils a very specific task: It imitates the upbeat. An upbeat which would normally (without the delay) start two triplets before the main first beat at 0:22. Just imagine where you would put the beginning of a bar in “du-gu-dumm” and you will know what I mean. The fact that it is the snare drum helps in addition, as in marches it announces each main beat.
Now, with the delay by one triplet, the snare drum upbeat starts only one triplet before the first beat, appears on the first beat and is then followed by the unisono rhythm of the other instruments. (The “-gu-” is now on the first beat). Like a real upbeat, it triggers something heavy, just a bit too late. The moment you put down your foot marching, you are already in the middle of the beat, stumbling.
The phenonemon of the delayed first beat appears throughout the whole piece, irregularly alternated with the sedating, regular verse. Irregularly, because otherwise the listener would know when to expect the delay. And that would ruin the surprise.
The Mars Volta, Drunkship of Lanterns
Now with the second excerpt it gets a little more complex in terms of the build up towards the delayed first beat. Not only because it takes more time for it to finally appear at 1:52, but because the band did a great job creating mini-climaxes all in the right places before it.
The basis for the build-up is, as in the first example, a regular, repetitive body of the rhythm section bass, guitar and drums, with the maracas marking the single beats. The build-up consists of two parts, the second of which is the repetition of the first part.
Part one (0:12-0:56) holds two mini-climaxes, which release their tension on the first beat of the bar which follows. One is in the exact middle (0:34) and one is in the end (0:56) of this first part. The latter mini-climax concludes in the second part of the build-up:
As this is a repetition of the first part, there are also two mini-climaxes, and they appear where you would expect them (1:17 and 1:39). At 1:39, where a return to sedation and regularity (another repetition of the whole part) is expected, a mini-loop of only the last 12 seconds is inserted, and it concludes in a maximum climax at 1:52.
It takes almost two minutes reach it, and at the exact spot where all forces are gathered, the listener gets – nothing. A full eigth note of silence, where a storm is supposed to wreak havoc.
Half a beat later, the whole weight of all instruments in unison hammers down. Eight times, and eight times off beat. In many aspects, very similar to Broken Boy Soldier, but amid the duration of the well crafted build-up, it is possible to repeat the same shape eight times without any danger of shifting the perceived first beat towards the off beat.
The first beat at 1:52 is completely empty. The first repetition (1:54) already starts with the click of the hi-hat closing (again at 1:55, 1:57). It is very quiet, almost muted, but it bears all the weight of the other instruments which it is followed by. Repetition 5-8 (1:58-2:05) of the hammer are linked by the snare drum, just like Broken Boy Soldier. With the same idea that normally, you would expect a snare drum shape like this to play the upbeat. Here, as there, it is on each bar’s first beat and provides us with some wonderful off-beat pleasure.
Ludwig van Beethoven, 3. Symphony, first movement
The last excerpt is quite similar to Drunkship of Lanterns, as it also contains a well-crafted build-up towards the rhythmical climax. The listener is first tranquilised with some cozy, repeating 3/4 bar material in the celli (the “theme”). The first beat is always the one emphasised, and that during almost every bar. Middle strings repeating light eigth notes subtly provide a regular pulse.
At this point it is worth looking back at another detail of Drunkship of Lanterns. In order to create a build-up which not only ends in surprise, but in extended off-beat pleasure, it is recommended to leave some seeds of confusion in selected spots. You want the ears to sharpen for what is about to happen.
Mars Volta, at several spots in their build-up, bring a slightly confusing dotted eighth note shape into focus. It starts two times on the beat (0:34, 0:36), and then, congested and repeated (7x, 0:37-0:43). It is there right from the start of the whole piece, but gains more and more importance while going through it. (There is a great article written by Johan Svensson on that phenomenon)
Beethoven did the same thing in the first movement of his 3rd symphony, as right after the “theme”, the listener gets a good earful of metrical confusion (0:28-0:45). It is a taste of what is about to happen later.
But right after the first confusion (as in Drunkship of Lanterns) , at 0:45 first I am lead back to calming steady meter, with again, the theme. What then follows is a gradual development towards off-beat material, without serisously threatening the 3/4 meter and its primary beat. This is done with two rhythmical tricks, which are both contained in 0:28-0:45 (sample above). The first is to have a quarter break on the first beat (0:30, 0:35). The second is to play repeated half notes, starting after that quarter brake (0:31, 0:34). This is similar to the confusing dotted eighth notes in Drunkship of Lanterns.
And the similarity of the two goes even further. At 2:31 a section with the same characteristics as just a bit before (0:28-0:45, last sample) starts.
It is like a repetition, playing the same confusing game, but exceeding its original in length, and concluding in maximum repeated off-beat pleasure at 2:39. This, obviously, happens at the exact spot where I would expect a saving, recognisable first beat. Now I am caught wrong-footed again, and I have to sit out six loud, dominant, half note blows until I got my bars back together at 2:43.
What I find amazing about the climaxes of all three examples: the point of the biggest metrical confusion, where whole beats are left completely empty, there is maximum rhythmical clarity. While the beginning of the bar is nowhere to be heard, the instruments are melted in loud, homorhythmic unity. No counterpoint, no different voices to be found, just one too heavy mass on an unstable beat.