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[2019-10-23] Mastadon - In Theory - THUMB

In Theory: 'Oblivion' by Mastodon

10/23/2019 09:00 AM

By Greg Barr

"Oblivion," the nearly 6-minute epic song from progressive metal band Mastodon's fourth studio album, Crack the Skye, is as sophisticated as it is heavy. One thing that makes this song so interesting is that nearly every section is in a different meter (accent/beat pattern). This makes the song incredibly engaging with constantly changing grooves (or "feels") that keep both listeners and players on their toes. Following these meter changes can be difficult, especially since the transitions are so smoothly executed - so smoothly, in fact, that a casual listener might not notice them at all.

The glue that holds all of these different feels together is metric modulation. Metric modulation occurs when the subdivisions that make up beats are grouped together in different ways to create different meters without changing the speed of the underlying pulse.

In rock, metal, and most other styles of popular music, when someone says they like the "feel" of a particular song, a big part of what they are referring to is the song's meter. Meter in this case is simply a repeating pattern of accented and unaccented beats.

So, how do we find the meter of a particular song? The drums often offer us a clue -- specifically, the kick (the big bass drum in a standard kit, played with a foot pedal) and the snare (the high, tight, snappy sounding drum). In rock music, the most common pattern is to have the kick on beats 1 and 3 and the snare on beats 2 and 4, with the spaces between often filled in with a high-hat. The resulting accent pattern or meter is:

ONE and TWO and THREE and FOUR and

We call this 4/4 time.

Brent Hinds of Mastodon, playing live in 2015.

"Oblivion" begins with a slow, lumbering instrumental intro in 4/4 time. This builds in energy until it reaches the beginning of the verse, which comes with a hard tempo change. At this point the meter becomes a brisk 3/4.

ONE and two and three and ONE and two and three and

Listen for the kick on the first beat ONE and the snare on the second beat ONE. You may also notice beat three of each bar is accented as well, especially in the guitar riff. This pattern continues up to the beginning of the prechorus, where something very interesting happens. Each bar is exactly the same length, but rather than dividing that time into three long beats, it's divided into SIX short beats. For comparison, let's overlay the previous accent pattern onto this one:

ONE and two and three and ONE and two and three and

ONE two three FOUR five six ONE two three FOUR five six

This is 6/8 time, which is an example of a compound meter. Notice the snare is now on the fourth beat, accompanied by a guttural roar and what sounds like a tambourine. This combination of sounds makes for a crushing backbeat, or an accented beat that falls exactly halfway through an accent pattern.

The chorus introduces yet another accent pattern. Still keeping the counting pulse consistent with the last section, we hear the following:

ONE two three four FIVE six seven eight ONE two three four FIVE six seven eight


ONE e and a TWO e and a THREE e and a FOUR e and a

Strip away the "e" and the "a" and again we recognize the familiar 4/4 pattern that began this song. But throughout all these changes, the subdivisions have remained at the same speed - it's just the way they're grouped together and counted that changes, and that's what metric modulation is all about.

Check out this 2009 performance of "Oblivion" and see how the band applies metric modulation live!

Greg Barr joined the Rocksmith team as a notetracker and composer in 2012. Greg received a BA in music from UC Santa Cruz, studying jazz and classical guitar, as well as composition. He is currently an independent guitar teacher and singer-songwriter, and the owner of Pinebox Studios in California.

"Nova Rock 2015-Mastodon-Troy Sanders, Brent Hinds" and "Nova Rock 2015-Mastodon-Brent Hinds" by Alfred Nitsch is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 AT

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