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Is an intellectual understanding of music needed to write and perform music this complex?
Waterhouse: Well, a big form of communication with us is notated music—that’s how we usually get things across.
Harvey: Chris didn’t go to school for music, but even so he can still definitely communicate with us. Sometimes I just shout out the notes to him and he memorizes it.
Chris, do you read notation?
Corey: Yes, I do read notation. I’m not spectacular at sight-reading—it’s a constant work in progress. I have a pretty good understanding of the more in-depth parts of theory. I’ve kind of acquired it all just from playing with these guys—they’re all very talented and very knowledgeable with this stuff. I just try to play along and keep up with the madness.
What was the writing process for Level 2?
Harvey: Level 2 wasn’t written in the practice room as much as Lvl. 1 was. We’d record fragments and ideas, and then Evan [Sammons, drummer] would put together the song skeletons. He would program drums, and then we’d go over it again and refine the parts a little more. Then we’d record them again. Some things seem complex, but they’re actually simple ideas.
Waterhouse: It was a collaborative effort. We all have a strong understanding of music theory, and everybody would experiment and bring something different to the table. After we all agreed on something, we would then move forward. A big part of it was the 12-tone row that we developed and used throughout the entire album in different ways.
Corey: We also have a video game that is programmed to run with the album. Certain things that happen in the game are accented by what’s happening in the song. For example, on beat one, the skulls will drop, and on certain parts with solos it will go into another section where things are bright and things are falling upward.
Did you employ compositional techniques like retrograde and inversion with your 12-tone rows?
Harvey: We did more with retrograde and inversions in Lvl. 1. There’s a song on the new record called “Portal,” which actually uses a different 12-tone row. It starts out by repeating the first five notes of the row, and then it busts into the song and I play three different inversions of the 12-tone row.
The repetitive structures in songs like “Coded to Fail,” “Temp Files,” “The Linear,” and “The Prototype” are reminiscent of phrases you might hear in the music of minimalist composer Steve Reich.
Harvey: Yeah. For example, “Coded to Fail” is based on three notes: C, B, and F. It’s just variations of rhythms on those three notes, based around the time signatures 7/8, 7/8, 5/8, 5/8, 3/8, 3/8, 3/8, 3/8. The three notes are rhythmically varied throughout the song and grouped into riffs. For example, the first riff is kind of a standard metal riff based on those three notes, but it does throw in a little run from F Lydian, too. Most of the material is based on the notes C down to B down to F—the interval sequence being down a half-step, then down a diminished fifth.
Conventionally, 12-tone rows are atonal. But does your jazz background cause you to think harmonically about what chords the notes in your tone row could fit over? For example, the C, B, and F notes could function as the b7, 13, and b3rd of Dm13.
Harvey: We’re not really thinking about the key when we’re writing the tone rows.
But it sounds like there are also discernible pockets of tonality in your songs.
Harvey: Yeah, and the vocal melodies will happen more in the parts where there are chord progressions. In “Upload Complete,” after we do the 12-tone row, it goes into something that’s more melodic, with an Eb5 pedal against Gsus accents. And there are four other chords throughout that part. The chorus goes Amaj7#11, C#min, Dmaj, and F#min, so it’s tonal but it’s not all in one key.
Are those chords derived from the tone row?
Harvey: Not really. We transition into it in some shape or form by combining some of the material from the tone row and some of the material from the next riff.
Are the songs conceived in 4/4 with superimposed meters, or is it all different time signatures?
Waterhouse: It’s all different time signatures. But one of the big efforts with this album was for it to be as close to 4/4 as possible. So it would be, like, 15/16, but if you play it four times through you get that feel.
Tom and A.J., you guys seem to be coming from different schools of shred articulation—A.J.’s doing more alternate picking, and Tom’s playing more legato.
Harvey: Yeah, John Petrucci was definitely an influence. I mostly use alternate picking in our material—all the sixteenth-notes and sixteenth-note triplets are played that way.
Waterhouse: I’m definitely more of the legato guy, coming from my background listening to Allan Holdsworth and Brett Garsed [The Mike Varney Project, Derek Sherinian]—who’s my favorite. I’ve been really working on his hybrid picking technique and trying to incorporate it into the riffs. It’s more fluid and requires less movement.
How about when you guys play harmonized lines—do you articulate them the same way?
Harvey: A lot of the things we harmonize are more on the rhythmic side of things. On those, yeah, we’d be articulating the same way.