The Brooklyn Zone: jazz and other music, insights for your problems, Brooklyn NYC New York and international culture & art


Aspects of Good Hardcore/Metal
(some points apply to Ska)

Minimalism Myth

  Certainly, too many groups are more minimalist than not.  Though this term is applied readily by some to hardcore, I have liked good hardcore in large part because their bands do more with their instruments than do bands of various other types of music.  I can't take very repetitive music.  The hardcore and ska I'm talking about stay generally away from that.  I treasure some of this music because it demonstrates and gets quality from changes and progression within a song.  The one or two bands I like that are more minimalist are sometimes so rich in expression that it's clear that "they do a lot with a little".  To be fair, sometimes it's more an issue of subtlety than it is one of working with a little.


Unusual Vocal Style

  There have been plenty of music genres in which singing is done in a distorted and/or unintelligible fashion.  The throat singing of Siberia and other regions is a good example of this.  It should never be an issue of degree of unorthodoxy, just one of quality of musical expression.Still, many non-fans feel a repellent quality in hardcore's often severly distorted, even harsh, vocal styles.  The same goes for the frequent unintelligibility of its lyrics.  I remember my feeling a real bit of that in the beginning.  It can really be hard for many to see any quality in this music.

  The fact is that I discovered a hard-to-believe richness of expression in a few vocalists.  Plenty of genres do songs on broken hearts and other misfortunes.  Hardcore approaches songs of these and other types with gut-level manners of expression that make it singular.  There are very moving expressions of angst, emotional agony, outrage against injustice and other feelings, which capture to remarkable degrees the true possible breadth and shape of such feelings at a person's core.  This is done in ways that are very difficult to find in other genres.


Use of Upbeat

  It's absolutely one of the most powerful aspects characterizing all these genres.  Use of the upbeat--including syncopation--is nothing new, and it's been seen in jazz, classical and international music.  In popular music genres, particularly in rock, its use can really be viewed as very light when you're used to its bold use in hardcore, metal and ska.  You really get the impression that at some time, some punk rocker or hardcore pioneer simply went contrary and began treating the upbeat in the way that too many more mainstream bands were mindlessly and slavishly treating the downbeat.  This revolutionized rock.  It provides an unusual rhythmic power, and has come to have for some a narcotic-like effect.  Enough people must have felt this, for this sort of treatment of the upbeat has spread very much since its rock beginning.

  This rock beginning is not likely a purely invented one.  Rock probably in part got this from where ska got it, Jamaican music (ska of course originally was Jamaican).  There are documented connections between Jamaican musicians like Marley and punk rockers, the latter which in part established the origin of hardcore.

  Good hardcore, metal and ska bands use the upbeat powerfully, and create rhythmic feelings that listeners of more mainstream rock and pop music would find to be new and different.  To some, these rhythms can have particular potency, and to others they can be repellant and unmusical, both because these rhythms often go exactly contrary to the fairly strict emphasis of the downbeat that most of us are raised on.  The way instruments fill in empty upbeat rhythmic spaces while others hold up the downbeat is very enjoyable, and the effect on the general feel of a song is incredible.

  One interesting aspect of this is how it makes various hardcore songs sound a little like western music (cowboy or "hoe-down" music).  It is funny and facinating how some songs can have a very hard flavor, with different elements contributing to high intensity, yet in a background sort of way have a definite "hoe-down" feeling.

  Better bands don't just stay on some beat emphasizing the upbeat; they vary, and sometimes shift between emphasizing the upbeat and downbeat.  This is one of the most powerful and artistic aspects of these genres, one that gives distinctiveness to them.



  This is a cornerstone concept in my case for more appreciation of this music.  I consider groove the aspect of music that causes one to feel compelled to focus on and follow the details and changes of its rhythms. At higher levels, it's the aspect that also causes one to feel manipulated by the rhythms and other interactions. There are rock bands with energy, electronics, even popularity, but little or no groove.  To people who enjoy it, groove is a very powerful thing.  Many may associate it with soul, funk, disco and other types, but one of the great things about rock is that it evolved its own type of groove.

  Many rock bands do not tap much into the rich potential of rock's sense of groove, despite the fact that they try to convey strength and come off like they "know how to rock".  Good hardcore, metal and ska bands often dip deeply into the well of groove potential.  I am very groove-oriented.  I simply had the experience of finding over years that more of the groove (and effective strength) that I knew existed or could exist in rock was found in hardcore/metal.  Ska has unique types of groove, which I won't compare much with rock's.  Good ska is also often heavy with groove.


Growth Factor

  This is the degree to which your liking a song increases over repeated listenings.  This applies, of course, to every type of music.  With hardcore/metal, this factor takes on greater than average importance for several reasons.  The groove the song creates may be creative and unusual, even to the point of being pretty alien, yet be musically interesting or exciting, and be played well and tightly.  In this case it's often an issue of seeing where they're coming from, feelingwise, groovewise.

  Another reason involves vocals.  You can go through stages, firstly when you hear a song and hear the vocals but probably don't understand most of them.  You can hear how the vocal sounds interact with instrumentation, and how he or she expresses emotion with them.  Reading the lyrics takes you to another stage.  Learning what it is they're singing in their wild way, and learning the story behind the song can be very enjoyable.

  Good hardcore, metal and ska has interplay between instruments that sometimes is not fully absorbed in first listenings amid the intensity.  This might sound like a flaw, but it's really a thing of people's being able to take only so much in.



  Rock, even mainstream rock, has moved throughout its life toward more expression of strength of feeling, strength of passion and of conviction.  The move toward more strength in vocal style and content was accompanied by the move in instrumental terms.  This has been the will of the people, not the result of some construct. Of course, only some people like hardness in rock.  There are many pop, classic, corporate and other mainstream type rock bands that address the desire for hardness in rock, and this goes back to at least the '80s.  However, the degree to which this is true has increased steadily since then.  Top commercial bands have included more and more of the characteristics of hardcore bands.  Of course, they only go but so far.

  In the '80s, underground and other bands showed how intense and mind-blowing rock could be.  Their music was already beyond just expressing strength of feeling and conviction in regard to some issue.  Then, also, by its own nature it expressed raw, abstract power.  International love for powerful unbridled music became quite clear.  The numbers increased greatly of followers of this music and of music inspired by it that was variably less intense.  The music industry knew they had to reckon with this if they were going to really profit, so as a result we've heard more and more elements of hardcore and metal in commercially promoted music.  However, I've never heard a commercially backed song with most of the elements and overall effective power of good hardcore. It seems evident that the music industry feels it's not in their interest to back real hardcore.  Not only do hardcore lyrics sometimes directly speak out against the flaws and injustice in society, including in particular U.S.  society, but the music also sometimes overall expresses a massive amount of discontentment.  These things give people nonmusical reasons to oppose this music.

  So, only underground will you get the real thing, a thing of quality (though you may have to do some looking).  The difference is vast.  If you do enjoy some hardness or power in your rock, then it is in your interest to see what artists have really done in hard rock.  I don't worry about categories; you shouldn't either.  And again, we're talking about expressions of feeling and strength made in ways you just don't get in other genres, ways that really hit the spot for some.  It's something that makes these genres special, singular.


Lyrical Content

  Boy, this one is a mixed bag.  One of the things that most impressed me about the first hardcore band I went nuts about was that they were close to the only band I knew (certainly the only band of that general time in rock that I heard so far) that were saying things with lyrics that to me were essential to say, and long overdue. These were certain topics about society, injustice and human nature.  I actually at the time was blown away by this. Since then I have seen more bands with artistic and meaningful lyrics.

  The lyrics I mean are down-to-earth ones about life, whether it's one's own life or our societal life.  Sometimes they are about how someone is wrongly hurt by something or someone else, not about advocating hurting or victimizing someone else.  They can be delivered with disturbing power and intensity, yet be about the singer's love, sensitivity and vulnerability.  Indeed, the severely unusual vocal styles have their great unique value in relating things like the agony and angst felt when someone for whom you have very powerful feelings does you very wrong.  It's an old theme, yes, but one not expressed the way these guys do.

  There is the massive flip side.  With bands in general, particularly metal bands, there are many songs about death, hell, the devil, rotting bodies and the crypt.  There are songs displaying a perverse sense of nationalism.  One hears of racist music.  I don't go along with any music advocating, to my knowledge, hate or harm of people.  I'm not into the devil or any other figures from any religion.  However, if there's no advocation of hate or harm that I can find, I can be pretty open-minded.  The instrumentation of some groups is so awesome that I don't care that I may not know what they're saying or that they're saying some stuff about fire, wrath, hell, death and such.  I ain't cool with singing about causing people's deaths, but when topics like death and hell are treated very abstractly or vaguely, I say "what the hell" if the music's good.  Some aspects of some lyrics of this sort can be enjoyable to the open-minded.