Four String Thunder: Bass and the Power it Holds

Death tab scan

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Even after years of steady acclaim and the death of an iconic front man, Death is one of those bands who have remained staunchly underground. But whenever I do read or hear about them, they are always discussed in reverential tones, and their role in the creation of death metal is cited as second to none. Although this approach mystifies me, even more so than the usual good–music–gets–ignored scenario, it did allow me to approach them with completely fresh ears (the freshest, I tell you).  When I first heard Flesh and the Power it Holds on an Invisible Oranges post about fitness and music, I had a stop and stare moment. Besides the technical and melodic guitar riffs, the interlude, comprised of shifting, ascending and descending arpeggios on a bass, was a type of bass playing I’d not heard in ten years of playing and studying the instrument.

So I learnt the song, marvelling at and frustrated by its intricacies, and when I got around to getting my hands on a Death album, any Death album (which was The Sound of Perseverance), I was heartened to hear a whole album of excellent bass lines. For most of the other bass guitarists I intend to write about, I’ve heard at least two albums, and in some cases over five or six, and have had years to let the flavour of their playing sit and mature, on my palette, like fine Buckfast. Having only heard one album, and that only six weeks ago, I suppose Death’s inclusion here could be considered premature. But the effect was immediate; the die was cast; the bass had spoken.

The bass guitarist (of whom Death had a couple over the years) on this record is Scott Clendenin, who plays each of the nine songs in D Standard tuning (except for the closing cover of Judas Priest’s Painkiller, which is in D# Standard), and as far as I have been able to research (again, a real dearth of info on the guy; he seems to be a man of few words), always on a five string with a plectrum. This tuning is interesting in itself; Drop D and Drop C# are far more prevalent alternative tunings, as they change finger patterns on the fretboard. D Standard doesn’t make this change, the emphasis being placed on a more drastic alteration of the instrument’s sonic qualities, producing a deeper, heftier sound than the normal EADG tuning. Although it may well have been the case that Clendenin was tuning simply to match the guitars, it still has the effect of creating a very different feel when playing along.

As is to be expected on a death (well, naturally) metal album, there are plenty of charging riffs full of semi and demi–quavers. When it does get a bit bodacious, such as in Story to Tell at 5.14, with two very fast and complex guitars, the bass often locks in with these riffs and/or double bass drum(s) with unison lines tighter than a bear trap; easier said than done at such furious speeds. Clendenin is always clever in knowing when to simplify, and when to be elaborate, demonstrating a perfect mixture of the two approaches in the intro of Flesh and the Power it Holds.

There are also moments where the bass also shifts about, a completely separate layer from the guitars and vocals, such as in Scavenger of Human Sorrow at 0.50, where the bass plays around the G minor scale under the guitars, which harmonise by a 4th. The many moments of lead bass, such as Spirit Crusher at 2.01, are all completely unanticipated. I don’t know whether Clendenin wrote his bass lines or had any part in the song–writing process, but if he did he had a great ability for making successful left turns.

And whether soloing or in times of heaviness, the bass is always distinguishable, with a punchy and simultaneously bright and deep tone. In the more spacious sections, root note semibreves and minims are utilised, letting the guitars and vocals get to work, such as in A Moment of Clarity at 2.57 or throughout the second half of Voice of the Soul. Listening to the 1998 demos on the second disc (of the 2011 remaster of the album released by Relapse), the three tracks without bass (Spirit Crusher, Flesh and the Power it Holds and Voice of the Soul) serve to emphasise the necessity of the bass in uniting, and freeing, the drums and guitars. Furthermore, listening to the demo versions, it is interesting to hear the lines Steve DiGiorgio wrote for the 1997 and 1998 versions of Story to Tell, respectively at 3.20 and 3.25, where he solos using the Arabic–sounding harmonic minor scale. Even within such complex songs, he heard a different way to play.

Death’s ability to change pace, akin to a juggernaut dropping down eight gears, such as the first two minutes of Spirit Crusher (especially at 1.08 and 5.05), is made possible by the athletic rhythm section (completed by drummer Richard Christy). With the drums often reverting to light percussion in these instances, Clendenin is a skilful bassist to keep it all going, particularly at moments like 5.24 into To Forgive is to Suffer, where the bass mimics the very fast and tapped guitar line, or the recurring feature of moving from chugging semiquavers or triplets into fluid ascensions and descensions (new word) of minor arpeggios. The time signature(s) are often complex and change between bars, cycling through 3/4, 5/4, 7/4 and and two bars of 5/4 several times 5.22 into Flesh and the Power it Holds. Likewise, the intro of Scavenger of Human Sorrow switches between 9/8 every two bars for a single bar of 6/8.

Whilst researching Death and Clendenin for this piece, I came across a video on YouTube entitled ‘Top Ten Death Metal Bassists’.  I usually avoid these sort of things, because the chance of me discovering, enjoying or benefitting from them is smaller than a hippie’s sock collection. As expected, the bands I felt compelled to make a note of (Sadus and Origin) I had already heard of and about. The other eight artists were very fast, very technical, and, although in some respects impressive, unmemorable. I can’t recall any of their riffs, beats or melodies as I write this. It’s always disappointing to hear the indistinct mess that death metal so often seems to result in (to be fair, this  is not unique to death metal), but I suppose this is why Death is revered; their songs grabs you by the heart. The bass does not do this by itself, but neither does it just help the guitar in doing so. It, too, has a story to tell.