articles, music

Parallel Rhythms: What Hymns and Metal Have In Common

Or, How To Be A Better Band

Musicians in a good band do more than simply play the same chord progressions at the same tempo. Bands that set themselves apart also pay attention to the rhythms that connect the notes with the tempo. When different instruments share a confident, matching rhythm, the power of the music is released stronger and farther than any of the individual pieces could reach on their own. While this idea of parallel rhythms can be found in old hymns and undoubtedly in classical music and farther back, I first truly noticed it in my introduction to modern metalcore band As I Lay Dying.

Metal consists of the drummer hitting a lot of constant double-bass while the guitars either wail a lot of solos or chug a lot of power chords. On “Nothing Left,” the first full track of As I Lay Dying’s An Ocean Between Us, we hear an opening teaser that quickly dissolves into this rapid-fire attack like a barrage of bullets from a machine gun (around 0:10-0:40).


It’s powerful enough as far as metal goes, but As I Lay Dying knows how to squeeze the most out of their style. The instruments pause as Tim Lambesis comes in with the screaming vocals, and the instruments come back with a decidedly different rhythm:

du-du-du-du-DU!………DU.. DU… du-du-du-du-DU!………DU…DU…..du-du-du-du….

The selection of covered beats seems arbitrary, but the drum’s double-bass hits and the guitars’ chugs all hit the same arbitrary beats at the same time. The guitars only chug when the drummer pounds, and they all come up for air at the same and go back under at the same time. Adding to the dynamic, the solo guitar comes in and contrasts with the first rhythm, wailing its riffs in the tiny interludes between the arbitrary pounding. One dancer performing a beautiful, complicated dance is awesome. Two dancers performing the exact same thing in unison is even more than twice as awesome. And then if a third dancer comes and weaves a complementing dance around the other two…… Oh. My. Goodness.

If you go back to the introduction of the song, you hear the same combination of unison and tradeoff. The song starts with a DUN DUN! – two heavy hits coming from both the guitarist and the drummer – which is followed by a solitary rhythmic riff from a guitar that carries to the next DUN DUN! About 4 seconds in the guitars and drums go under for a couple measures of the du-du-du-du barrage before coming back up again for another round of DUN DUN! – solitary guitar riff – DUN DUN! The drummer banging two beats by himself or the guitarist strumming twice by himself wouldn’t be nearly as powerful as the two occurring in unison. And their unison wouldn’t be nearly as interesting without the guitar line bridging the gap between them.

(If you still think metal is just a loud, banging collection of noises, you’re not paying attention.)

And that’s just the beginning of As I Lay Dying’s use of parallel rhythms. Harmony guitar riffs are nothing new to anyone familiar with metal music, but it’s just another weapon in this band’s powerful arsenal. About 1:14 into “Nothing Left,” we hear a brief guitar riff. The second time through, a second guitar joins the same riff for a harmony. (And while this unison is going on, do you hear the same pound-and-chug unison I discussed earlier going on in the background? There are even more dancers on the stage now…)

Parallel rhythms don’t have to be confined to instruments, either. Later in the disc on “I Never Wanted” (at about 0:42), screamer Lambesis and singing bassist Josh Gilbert carry the same lyrical phrases. Lambesis’s screaming adds force to Josh’s singing, which in turn adds a calming presence to Lambesis’s screaming. It’s just another example of the band combining their craft through the use of parallel rhythms to create a sound that is more than merely the sum of their individual parts put together.

Instruments can also work together in a less complex way to create a powerful driving sound – everybody just hits every beat together. Heavier bands seem particular good at this, whether it’s As I Lay Dying towards the end of “I Never Wanted” (3:16), The Chariot on “Giveth” (2:21), or Underoath on “Casting Such A Thin Shadow,” (2:55) these bands are just incredible at generating that driving sound that carries a surprising power for its simple structure. (Notice also the unison of the broken rhythm on the guitars and Gillespie’s tom hits at 3:12 of the Underoath example… and the unison of the screaming and guitars and drums on the Chariot example right before the driving part, during the “This…. is everything…. they all wanted…..”)

Once I noticed some of these heavier bands using this technique of parallel rhythms, I began to notice it in all of the other music I listen to… it’s how mewithoutYou creates their driving build-ups and it’s how MuteMath explores their frantic rhythms. And of course, parallel rhythms are nothing new. Every single song in all of the old hymnbooks use it. The piano or organ plays notes right along with the singers; in fact, the piano notes are literally only covering every part of every vocal melody and harmony. Yet a pianist playing the same notes on an extra instrument adds a layer of affirmation to the unison of voices already in motion.

Any struggling band can apply these concepts to their creative output. Even your Sunday morning worship set can sound more together if the keyboardist hits chords in a pattern based off the drummer’s beat or the guitarist’s strumming pattern. It is the power of collaboration and cooperation. It is the power of unison and unity – the dynamics of combinations and contrasts, of complexity and simplicity. It is a beautiful dance with roles for an unlimited number of beautiful dancers, whether it’s performed by an organ and a old church choir or by our modern metal heavyweights. The rhythm of heaven is not something to be played alone. No, it is something we must play together.