Thursday, February 25, 2010

On metal drumming, why the Rev was so good, and mucho respect for Mike Portnoy

I never got around to writing about The Rev, Avenged Sevenfold's late drummer, so I'll do that now. First off, RIP Jimmy "The Rev," and  to his family/friends, you have my deepest sympathy. He was a great drummer/dude and he will be missed.

Learning of The Rev's death made me rethink why I was such a big fan of his work. This is my best attempt to phrase it and share it with you:

I listen to a lot of metal. Probably more than you or anyone you know. And metal drumming is boring. It just is! This fact was confirmed when my friend Alex (who plays the drums) and I were jamming and constantly found ourselves playing improvised funk music instead of the songs I had written. He told me - its not that he dislikes metal, it's just that metal drumming is not fun to play or interesting to listen to. My response to this was "then don't play metal drums... knock yourself out... go wild." And he did... and it was awesome. We played the same songs but instead of being in "metal" drumming mode he just did whatever he wanted.

I say this because most metal drummers nowadays seem to have this rule book stuck in their heads:

Ye Olde Metal Drumming Rules

1) Your hi-hat is required to be locked half way between open and closed. You are never allowed to use the hi-hat pedal.
2) You must have at least enough toms that you have to stand up to reach some of them.
3) For fills, hit every tom you have from the smallest to the largest in that order as quickly as you can. The more times you can do this during a fill, the more awesome it is.
4) Your bass drum(s) (let's be serious, bass drums) must make that plastic clicky sound when you hit them so that we can notice just how fast you're playing them.
5) The minimum double bass requirement is 75%, any less and you fall back down into the "rock" category.

Any really really good drummer can follow these rules and play "excellently." But double bass drums at 200bpm with snare on 3/4 for 7 minutes is punishment, not music. What made the Rev so good is that on top of all of his skill, he had a complete disregard for what he was supposed to do as metal drummer.

Listen to "Scream" by Avenged Sevenfold. The opening/verse guitar riff isn't incredibly original - you immediately begin to realize the impact that interesting drum work makes. Notice how he lays off the drums a bit during the "You know I make you wanna scream" pre-chorus. Good drumming is as much about what you play as it is about when you play it. Finding an appropriate drum beat for every section of the song is key. The chorus is great. It's pretty standard bass + snare until you realize that during the "Scream till there's silence.." part he's playing both the ride AND the hi-hat. How does he do this? Hi-hat foot pedal! Rule number 1 broken. Also on the transition from pre-chorus to chorus he plays a fill not on the toms but on the snare and RIDE cymbal. Woah.... rule 3 broken.

If you listen to "Almost Easy" (which The Rev actually wrote himself) he plays a pretty ridiculous drum fill during the main riff involving not 1, but 2 ride cymbals and NO toms (pay attention to the video and you can see it). Also, notice the bell on the verse - not very common but in this case it works very well.

My final example of how awesome The Rev was, and why more drummers should aspire to be like him is at approximately 1:34 of "Critical Acclaim." Listen to the way he uses every part of his drum kit in a very controlled and gradual manner, from the slow/steady drum roll to the double bass drums. Not that impressive, you might think. And while I'm sure a few people could play that, here's the catch: he's the one singing that part! See, what made The Rev so good is that he was a musician first and a drummer second. Most drummers out there just want to bang the shit out of their kit without any regard to song structure, organization, or appropriateness. He treated the drums like any other instrument, for which you carefully compose parts and make them fit with all the other instruments.

Also, Mike Portnoy is an awesome dude. Best known for his work with Dream Theatre, Mike is one of the best drummers on the planet, and was The Rev's all time favorite drummer. When The Rev passed, the members of A7X reached out to Mike to record the drum parts that The Rev had written for their new album. Here's a quote directly from MP:

"Even under normal circumstances, I would've been happy to help the guys out in any way I could as I think Avenged Sevenfold are a great band...but under these incredibly sad and tragic circumstances, I must say I am truly honored to have been asked to play with them" "...I am treating my participation on this album with the utmost respect for Jimmy's memory and am remaining as true as possible to the drum parts that he wrote for the songs and the record he wanted to make. I want their fans to realize that I'm not trying to step into or fill The Rev's shoes...I'm just merely lacing em up for him! -MP"

Not only that, but he's gotten an A7X deathbat tattoo in solidarity with the other band members. That's effing hardcore. Chapeau, Mike Portnoy.

However, my one criticism of Mike: his drum kit is a BLATANT example of rule 2...

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