Recently I read a couple of very interesting blog posts by Pim van de Werken (guitarist in Silence is Sexy and Eins, Zwei Orchestra) in which he analyses indiehits and tries to point out why these song are so successful. He does this by making explicit the structure of a song and exposing its uniqueness and ‘hidden truths’.
What I’ve learned so far from his series is that surprise and predictability, statistics and hooks are key elements. See also this cool post: “All Linkin Park songs look the same”. So being a good student, I tried my hand at a strange but classic metal song:
‘Black No. 1‘ (video edit) by Type O Negative
As you can see this is no ordinary song structure. This might be because it is a video edit (the original song is 11:15). So how did they manage to make it sound not to unfamiliar for listeners?
Details: (timecodes from the Youtube video above)
0:06 Descending harp tones, whereafter Peter Steele starts before the amazing bass guitar riff enters. Notice the theatrical sharp articulation of Steele (especially on K’s and R’s). Later we find out why.
0:24 ´Subtle´ horror movie noises creep in now and then.
0:31 Hammond organ begins playing horror movie chords. Drums kick in slightly harder.
0:50 As Pim explained: The public does not liked to be surprised too much. So here the guitar noises indicate that the electric guitars will join the party shortly. After the guitars enter, they will play along with the bass guitar, palm muted. Then Steele sings: “She’s got a date at midnight. With Nosferatu.” Ah. That explains a lot about the pronunciation that Steele uses here. As you all know, Nosferatu is another name for Count Dracula. He’s from Transylvania, and he talks with a heavy accent. And he continues: “Oh baby, Lilly Munster. Ain’t got nothing on you.” The Munsters were a 1960’s monster-themed sitcom.
1:36 Pre-chorus kicks in. The pace is slightly higher than the intro riff, and Steele shouts instead of the horror-like crooning before. Notice the video-montage gets more up-tempo as well. But the bass- and guitar lines are still basically the same as in the intro.
1:55 Chorus. Literally. What’s strange is that the bass line still hasn’t changed. Theory says the chorus should be different from the rest, to keep the tension/release thing going. Type O Negative here use a different approach. Tension is created by the tongue-in-cheek horror theme throughout the song together with the loud/quiet contrasts. And the release is given by the more up-tempo parts like the pre-chorus.
2:15 And it’s quiet again. What is that? Answer: Harpsichord. Instrument that embodies the connotation classical, baroque. And the first time the chords are totally different. The video shows a full-blown vampiric scene, together with the strange lyrics “Loving you was like loving the dead”, it fits perfectly within the established horror theme.
2:32 High-hat with brushes on the beat, what’s going to happen? Guitar noises build up…
2:36 Release: Bridge with heavy palm muting. It sounds a bit like the chorus, only with different chords. So this functions very well in the quiet/loud structure of the song.
3:06 Here the songs gives in to its own kitsch-ness. The intro bass line hook returns, and the tempo is guided not by drums but by the sound of snapping fingers. And when the iconic Adams Family tune (which also incorporated finger snapping, by the way) is played on the harpsichord, noone can deny the tongue-in-cheek humour of the song.
3:24 And the chorus comes back, which is repeated several times, with the drums varying a bit to keep it interesting.
But what makes this unconventional kitsch song a classic?
First I would like to argue that, however strong the song might be, the video was one of the things that made this song really stand out. Remember, it’s from 1993. We still watched television, and stayed up late to watch the heavy metal shows on music networks. The strong theatrical setting, Peter Steele’s characteristic visage and the strong black/white aesthetics (borrowed from Danzig‘s Mother (1988) video?) of it all really served the atmosphere of the song. One of the things that has become iconic for the band is of course the fact that Steele plays a cello like a guitar. Classical (vampire) meets popular (heavy metal). And don’t forget the green ‘evil’ eyes.
The tongue-in-cheek horror theme is also very powerful. It’s a little scary, but also funny. Just like popular horror movies. And don’t forget that Bauhaus became godfather of an entire scene with a song that was also very tongue-in-cheek. In fact, I think both songs are somewhat similar in structure.
And when it comes to the song itself I think it is the juxtaposition of the classical vs. the modern, the quiet vs. the loud, the horror vs. the humor, and on top of that all the seriously cool bass line (the hook) with the striking vocal performance of Steele. Do not forget that the hook is played almost throughout the song, only the bridge parts have a different bass line. This all together creates enough tension between predictability and surprise to keep a lot of people interested. This was after all the first Roadrunner record that reached a platinum status in the US.
Most theory links in this post are from the mentioned posts by Pim van de Werken.