Two-Faced Snare Drum

Starting from Johan’s article Alternative pulses in pulse-based music I tried to get a simple comparison on the Workbench. Two excerpts from two pieces in straight 4/4 bars. Both of them bear an alternative pulse inside them. The alternative pulse is strong, though not strong enough to destroy the steady meter over longer sections.

I discovered two songs where this phenomenon appears. In both of them, the band plays in one pulse, while the snare drum represents the other beat. However, in one of them the snare drum is responsible for the regular 4/4 feel (New Millenium Cyanide Christ), while in the other one the snare creates the slightly subordinate alternative 3/4 feel (Call it a Ritual). That is very confusing and all the more mesmerizing.

Applying the Opposites Tool:

The comparison focusses on the snare drum of two audio excerpts. In both examples, it bears the alternative pulse which goes against the rest of the band.

  1. Meshuggah, New Millennium Cyanide Christ, 0:25-0:50

In this excerpt from Meshuggah’s piece from their album Chaosphere the snare drum regularly marks the third beat of each bar of 4/4. This regularity is what I would expect from a snare drum in these circumstances. The rest of the band (including bass drum) repeats a short fast shape every 3 beats, which produces a strong alternative beat. At the end of a phrase, the alternative beat is cut short and starts again. (0:31, 0:37, 0:44, 0:50)

(I recommend listening to the excerpts a couple of times to get an overview)

  1. Wolf Parade, Call it a Ritual, 0:00-0:38

The circumstances here are the same: One part of the band serves a 4/8 beat while the other part opposes it with a short 3 beat shape. But the snare drum is now part of the opposite layer than in New Millenium Cyanide Christ. It marks each third beat of an alternative pulse, which produces a second layer in 3/8. This second layer confuses the regularity of the 4/8 beat. The regular beat is layed out by the piano and the bass.

The hierarchy between the two pulses is not made clear until listening to longer parts of the piece. There it emerges that the piano’s 4/8 bars give guidance to cues into other parts, which makes them decisive in terms of meter. Listening only to small excerpts, the impression is that the alternative pulse produced by the snare drum is equal, if not stronger than the regular pulse.

The general confusion listening to both pieces is due to the fact that the snare drum switches roles between two layers where you would really expect it to be in only one of them. Which is the regular 4/4 of Meshuggah’s.

But as a strong alternative pulse generates an environment of metrical confusion, the two-faced snare drum can switch sides and serve the opposition. Which is what Wolf Parade decided to have it do. Sneaky.



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