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From Hell's Heart

"From Hell's Heart..." is an editorial column written by the team. Every other month or so we pick a metal-related topic and share our thoughts, feelings and ideas on it.

Check out past editorials

Songwriting Ability vs. Playing Ability (October 2001)

Songwriting ability vs. Playing Ability
By EvilG

A long standing "debate" has been with regards to a musicians talent compared to their ability to craft great songs. Both are of course important ingredients, but in the long run having the ability to write good songs overshadows playing ability. When the two go hand in hand it just makes it even better!

The idea of how good of a technical player someone is will be often used by fans to prove how good of a band that player is in. What happens when you have, for example, a great soloist who has below average songs? In my opinion, an example of this comes from a player who crosses the metal / rock / progressive boundary. That guitarist is Joe Satriani. Sure he has some good "songs" like "Satch Boogie" or "Crushing Day" but for the most part the only parts of his songs that are interesting are the leads. Take a listen to the song "Big Bad Moon"...horrible re-trodden 70's rock riffing but with godlike lead guitars. Same goes for "Summer Song" - great leads but so simple and mindless backing music that it's hard to listen to!! Not all soloists suffer from this problem, many do when they let the song take a back seat to the solo. Yngwie Malmsteen is one who is not guilty of this problem. Songs like "I Am A Viking", "Riot In The Dungeons", "Liar" are just a few examples of SONGS with jaw dropping lead playing.

Also related to this is when a musician is so talented or just so experimental that their idea of a good song presents more then a challenging listen to the point where it's over most listeners heads. Steve Vai has been guilty of this with a number of his songs. He is one of the worlds best guitarists but I am not a big fan of his music because it is so out there. Of course, some people listen to this stuff more then others to the point where the "out there" stuff becomes normal.

Looking to the other side of the spectrum, we have bands with players who might not be the greatest in terms of being amazing at lead guitar or having a vocalist with a 5 octave range etc. What can make a band like this great are two things - chemistry and song writing ability. Chemistry is something that is not quantifiable. It's something that just exists and magically occurs with the right mix of players. The ability to write a good song is also not quantifiable like how fast some one can play or how many notes they can squeeze out. This ability is also open to personal taste while talent / playing ability is by in large something that even a non-fan of an artist can hear if they are not tone deaf or an idiot. For the category of players who are not virtuoso's, a band that I like that comes to mind is Motley Crue. Sure they are competent when it comes to playing ability, but when it comes to writing songs they are masters. They know what hard rock is about, they know what their fans want and the have almost consistently delivered. The same goes for HammerFall who are again good players but it's their songs which make them the great band that they are! It's when a band can deliver the goods technically and from a song writing stance that I become a true fan of that band. For my tastes this combination is fully delivered by bands like: Rhapsody, Death, Stratovarius, Yngwie Malmsteen, etc.

Music is not a game of how many scales you know, chords you play, notes you hit, drum beats per minute to can slam, etc. These are but tools available to a song writer. Sure, more tools means there is a better chance of constructing a masterpiece. But if the tool box is full yet the artist's creative side is non-existent what is the point? I once attended a drum clinic of renown drummer Jonathan Mover. He started his finale solo with a full monster kit. As his work out continued, a stage hand would remove pieces of his drum kit until he was left with a basic kick drum, snare and hi-hats. What he was playing was STILL awesome and complex. That drove home that it's not ALWAYS what a musician has at his disposal in terms of equipment that determines how good it is.

Songwriting ability VS playing ability
By Waspman

I honestly believe that song writing is a more important element when it comes to great bands than playing ability. With song writing it's either a good song, or it's not. There's no real grey area (yes, I'm conveniently ignoring personal taste for this discussion). No one is going to mistake the guys in Grave Digger for being Berkeley graduates, but dammit if they don't write some great tunes (of war)! The same principle applies to a ton of fantastic bands, for example Overkill and Venom. Great song writing is the backbone of a great band. On the other hand, playing ability can only take you so far. How many so-called progressive metal bands out there are filled with brilliant musicians, but have the song writing abilities of a tone deaf donkey? It doesn't matter how much of a virtuoso you are if you can't compose worth a damn.

Of course, the truly great bands strike a balance between the two and have a mixture of both playing ability and song writing talent. The list of bands that have both contain some of the greatest names in metal lore: Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, Black Sabbath, all the way through less traditional bands like Immolation, Zero Hour, and Symphony X. The facts speak for themselves: all of these bands had (have) great songs, but also had the musicians capable of taking those songs to another level. Again, though, I'm sure that there are a lot of people who will swear that playing ability outweighs song writing talent in importance, but the fact is that many of the superior bands in metal have the perfect mixture of songs and virtuosity.

Songwriting or Playing Talent?
By Michael De Los Muertos

This is an easy topic for me to answer for a change. If given a choice between a metal band with technical playing/musicianship talent, and another band with so-so musicianship but excellent songwriting skills, I'll choose the songwriters any day of the week.

One need only peruse my past reviews, particularly of death metal bands, to prove that this has been my view for quite some time. It's undeniably true that the very best metal bands combine both skills into a coherent and unified whole. But what often separates truly noteworthy bands from the seething masses of "up-and-coming" acts in the demo stage is a songwriting skill, or lack thereof. Playing your instruments brilliantly is an admirable skill, no doubt about it. But it's for naught unless you can focus that skill into something that makes an emotional and intellectual impact on the listener. That focus is the whole point of songwriting.

Let's face it. How many "math metal" bands are there out there? You see it time and time again - a garage full of sweaty guys who are all guitar (or drum) virtuosos, who play every note flawlessly and whose riffs and song structures are as perfectly constructed as any masterpiece of modern engineering - but you listen to their album and it does nothing for you. Then you listen to another album by another band of guys (or girls) who aren't such great musicians, but who really grab you on an emotional level. What's the difference? Songwriting, pure and simple. It's a talent. Mozart had it probably better than any other human being in the history of mankind. He could sense notes - which note had to come after which note, which structure had to be arranged just so - and because he followed the "destiny" inherent in the notes he wrote, he achieved inspiring and instantly energizing pieces of music, time after time. Some brilliant musicians in some metal bands have this same talent. Not to the extent Mozart did, but they have it. I'd postulate that, in the power metal world, Tobias Sammet and Hansi Kursch have it. Black metal: Isahn has it. Death metal: Trey Azagthoth, without a doubt. While it's probably true that Edguy, Blind Guardian, Emperor or Morbid Angel would not be who they are today without excellent musicianship, there's at least a chance they could have squeaked by, if they still had the same amount of power in the songwriting end of things.

Let's take an example: HammerFall. No one has ever claimed that the musicians in HammerFall are particularly outstanding. As a guitarist, Oskar isn't that noteworthy. Magnus Rosen can play his bass competently, but he's no Joey DiMaio; and reviewers (including this one) make endless light of the patently obvious deficiency in the vocals of Joacim Cains. Yet HammerFall is a great band and they have something special, and it's wholly attributable to the fact that they're excellent songwriters. "Heeding The Call," "Legacy of Kings" and "Glory To The Brave" are beautiful, powerful, uplifting songs, but their brilliance was infused at the writing stage, because it sure as hell isn't the way the songs are played that makes them special. HammerFall is probably the best demonstration of why songwriting works, and why musicianship can't carry things alone.

Perhaps I'm biased, given my profession, but I believe writing is the key to almost any creative enterprise. Any good movie, any smash-hit play, and any great metal song are all triumphant because they have creative power behind them at the writing stage, before the manner of execution even enters the picture. They say that in warfare, every battle is won or lost before it's even fought. Such is true with metal music. A song is either written well or it isn't. If it is, chances are much greater that it will be a success. If it isn't, all the guitar acrobatics in the world can't save it. Metal comes from the mind, and the act of writing is setting thoughts to paper. Metal songs must therefore be written before they're played. I wouldn't have it any other way.

Songwriting ability VS playing ability
By El Cid

It has, through the years, become very evident to me that in order to like a band it has to posses 2 big qualities, an ability to play and the creativity to write music that sounds good.

I would say it is pretty useless to write the most intricate piece of music you've ever seen if it won't sound right and also if the music is fun to listen to but too simplistic it'll end up boring me in a while. So the big answer is to combine both of them.

When we talk about songwriting ability it doesn't necessarily mean the lyrics have to be along the lines of Ronsard or Shakespeare but the song structure must make the music "work". Perfect examples of this are Dark Tranquillity and Blind Guardian, they both write very complex music and it works perfectly because it's very well arranged, everything falls into place during their songs to a point where you don't care anymore how many notes they're playing as long as they keep playing. The lyrical content is also very important for it's not the same to hear a tale of almost philosophical nature than to hear a tale about what you had for breakfast the morning you wrote that song.
In all I'd say there has to be a communion in order for any band to be appealing to me, so I'd say there shouldn't be song writing VS song playing but song writing AND song playing.

Writing vs. playing ability (or talent)
By Pete

Motley Crue are one of my favorite bands, always have been, always will be, a big influence. Okay, Vince Neil may not be the best vocalist in the world, but collectively as a unit, Motley Crue have the songs, the melodies, the attitude, everything you could want in a band. Definitely one of the top entertainers in music. Kiss is another example. Great songs, great image and stageshow. But Gene isn't a technical bass player, neither Ace Frehley; still, they are one of the biggest influences of our generation. Then there's the other side of the coin. Steve Vai, one of the most innovative guitarists in the world today, could'nt even save the weak songs on David Lee Roth's "Skyscraper". Geezer Butler of Black Sabbath, a great bass player in his own right, yet his solo cd's weren't nowhere as strong as any Sabbath material he's ever written. Unfortunately, song writing vs. playing ability (or talent) don't always go hand in hand.

Song writing vs. playing ability

What better way to start my editorial debut than with some thoughts on the classic debate, song writing vs. technical ability. The ability to process and enjoy music is a function of the brain. (duh.) The more an individual listens to complex, well written metal, the greater appreciation one may have for the talent required to create this art.

The ability to appreciate advanced, compositions is also affected by time and experience as a listener. When I first heard Slayer way back in '83, (Maiden and Ozzy were king) I wondered "What the hell is this noise?!" Today, Slayer is in my easy listening category to be enjoyed while I munch my breakfast cereal, reading the morning paper. Over the years of hearing faster and more complex bands evolve in the metal world, Slayer, to many experienced, older listeners may seem somewhat tame. Not bad, just not on the (b)leeding edge of metal anymore.

The brain has an uncanny ability to process and digest musical information but there is a limit to the ability to comprehend speed and distortion of music into individual notes and patterns. Hence the very limited appeal of complex jazz-fusion and ambient noise-core styles of metal. Consequently, melody and harmony in the sense of traditional song writing become very important to overall enjoyment.

These elements of song writing are critical to the enjoyment of a song. AC/DC, Twisted Sister and countless others have built a career on simplistic songs and song-writing. The hooks, harmony, rhythm and melody all create a recognizable pattern that can be easily absorbed, and sung along to in the shower. This is not necessarily a bad thing but again like pure technical ability, 3 chords and 4/4 time can be very limiting to the song writing experience. Hence the short-lived careers of 99% of "pop" bands. Overly simplistic music for simplistic people.

It has long been my position that metal is the music that best pushes the extreme boundaries of technical ability AND song-writing. Witness the global success of Yngwie J. Malmsteen for the last 20 years. Many studies have been done that suggest that the musical form most closely linked to metal is classical music. Pure virtuosity and unbridled talent mixed with advanced compositional skills can wrap a timeless song around your cortex permanently. We see many elements of classical music in metal.

Each individual has an ability to enjoy both ends of a musical spectrum. I enjoy some freaky Relapse bands (that are recently being dubbed "mathcore") and I can sit and enjoy an old Krokus CD! Not better or worse... just different. The two do not need to be mutually exclusive but often they are. I am not a musician so I tend to be impressed with flashy displays of virtuosity...jealousy mostly!

Together technical ability AND songwriting is where I find the majority of the bands I enjoy reside, from the classics, Maiden and King Diamond, to a whole pile of guitar heroes, to the array of neo-classical, epic-symphonic speed-metal bands (love those hyphens!) flooding out of Italy, Greece, Spain and Portugal.

Back in '92 I read an interview with Michael Angelo (formerly of Nitro) where he suggested that he personally would rather have the ability to play incredibly fast and complex and not have to do that in a song, rather than not have the ability to play fast. I agree! It is all about having the weapons in your song writing arsenal to give you the widest range of ability to write the best song possible. Metallic, bombastic virtuosity and classic melodies, pushing the limits make for the truest metal of all.

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