Category Archives: Theory

Album that you need to hear: Pink Mountain – “Untitled”

Pink Mountain - "Untitled"
Pink Mountain – “Untitled”

Released April 28, 2009 Pink Mountain’s “Untitled” 2nd album represents an intriguing and, in my opinion, inviting blend of contemporary composition and improvisation techniques within the rock idiom. Despite its unique qualities the album remains woefully unknown and underrated, unappreciated and overall unlistened to since its release. To that end, when it was released only 500 copies of the vinyl were produced, and it remains available from Sick Room Records as of this writing.

I first learned of this album through Signal To Noise magazine, which is a phenomenal publication for any of those that may be interested in experimental and otherwise unknown music. That magazine has dubbed itself “The biannual journal of improvised, experimental and unusual music” and as far as I know it is the best of its kind. Though subscription service is currently suspended I truly hope that they begin publishing regularly again. Times are tough in the publishing industry, and I’m sure that publishing a magazine with such a specific target audience is even tougher.

It was in issue #55 for Fall 2009, to be specific, that I came to learn of the existence of Pink Mountain in a piece entitled “They’re Only in it for the Music.” Both that title as well as the subheading that states that they have “zero hope for mass appeal” summoning the specter of Frank Zappa. Though their music is a similar mix of art-rock there are many notable differences. For starters, where Zappa was influenced by and mimicked (to death) the compositional styles of Stravinsky and Varese, Pink Mountain are a bit more current with their influences. They work with contemporary, American influences; influences that don’t sound like they originate in the downtown scene of New York, but rather lie with the improv techniques of the West Coast, specifically the experimentalism and improvisatory techniques that come out of Mills College in Oakland. The album explores heavy use of noise and free form improv over layers of tight foundational work that cycles regularly in shifting tectonic plates of polymeter and minimalist repetition.

I remember playing this album for a friend that’s pretty into “out” jazz, and he remarked nearly immediately that he couldn’t handle it. He said that it was “a bit too far for me…I don’t know if I can get into this.” Perhaps it was the distortion, or the way that the album opens with near chaos that continues to build, that got him, or rather didn’t get him.

There are tracks that are more to one side of the experimental-rock rift and those that swing far to the other side. And, as expected, there are those moments that manage to bridge that gap.

“Foreign Rising” is a clever renaming of the James Tenney piece “For Anne (rising)” that makes use of a Shepard Tone, which is an aural illusion that sounds like a continual ascent that could potentially go on forever. Think of it like the sound equivalent of one of those barbershop poles where the stripe seems to continue to rise out of the bottom for as long as you look at it. Of course this is a re-imagining of the original electronic piece by Tenney that is a lot more stripped down than. Pink Mountain adds a bit of an accelerando, jazz drumming that grows continually more complex as the piece continues and some other ringing harmonics, and various other buzzing or otherwise distorted sounds (and vocals) over top.

Foreign Rising

“Fine Print” screeches and squeals over a rock-solid drumbeat with woodwinds that ties the end of the album to the beginning , making the cloud of atmospheric noise a contorting leitmotif of the work as a whole. The lyrics of “Fine Print” are concerned with the inner non-workings of the music industry, which are then combined with instrumentation and composition practices that eschew most of the principles of rock music writing. The breakdown in the song features the a ragged bass sound with drums that are locked into a constantly shifting 7/8 that is in some respects rock steady, while simultaneously it is anything but.

It’s a diatribe against the commercial music industry in every way possible. Basically, the entire album is, but it doesn’t make a point of addressing it overtly until this song. In a way it is like the band is saying, “yes, we are aware of the limited potential for recognition with this album, and this is how much we don’t care.” The song aligns them philosophically with Steve Albini’s famous tirade (that I reference every chance that I get).

Speaking more to the polyrhythmic structure that is present throughout most of the songs, “Howling Fantods” (an “Infinite Jest” reference no doubt. It matches nicely with the Pynchon nod in the title of their song “V.,” a creepy instrumental with what sounds like bowed cymbals (?) and tense, brittle harmonics. And their music matches that post-modern mindset, sudden shifts of texture, several layers of action, the re-working of concepts [re-packaging, if you will] and the steady, fluid mixture of high-art with low in that rock and jazz influences are thrown in a blender with well thought out contemporary classical compositional techniques [prepared piano, Shepard Tone, different levels of metric borrowing/time streams a la Elliott Carter, and the list goes on) marches dutifully into the prog realm with its additive rhythm that appends an increasing number of strong beats to the end of a 7/8 measure, stretching out the phrases before once again collapsing into a controlled chaos. The moments that don’t feature that persistent additive rhythm stretch time in their own way by at first dropping any sense of beat altogether, while hinting at the motive melodically, and later slowing time in a complex metric modulation.

Howling Fantods

The most obvious and aurally shocking element that Pink Mountain puts to work is the mind-warp pulse shifts of “Eternal Halflife” and its reprise “Eternal Shelflife” where a steady 4/4 meter with the usual (for rock tunes) strong accents on 2 and 4 starts off unsurprisingly with a clear texture of understated drums with a seemingly half-hearted guitar that sits on one chord, non-chalantly strumming eighth notes. After two measures, easily enough time  such that one’s mind settles into passive acceptance, the guitar shifts upwards while the drums subdivide each half-note into 5, giving the impression of a tempo increase, but that is only another illusion (they seem to be making a theme of aural illusions on this album what with the Shepard Tone that I have mentioned a few other times and now this jarring metric shift that feels like a tempo shift but it isn’t. I would classify this as maybe a form of different simultaneous tempo streams), as the snare drum continues to accent beats 2 and 4. The pattern is then repeated but with each bar divided into 3 this time, seemingly slowing the piece. It would be an understatement to say that this is simply an interesting phenomenon to experience. The first time that I heard it I came to the realization that I had never experienced anything like that in music before. And that is quite a rare circumstance indeed when you can actually experience something in music that you have never heard before.

Eternal Halflife

The main meter shifting section of “Eternal Halflife” where beats 2 and 4 are accented and the upper voice borrows from other meters. (notes are only to indicate rhythm. Quarter notes are kick drum and snare while eighth notes represent the hi-hat)

The band does play with tempo and rhythm across the entire album, so much so that there is no point of reference for what “normal” might mean. Even in moments where there isn’t anything particularly interesting (that’s, of course, a relative term) happening, say for example in certain parts of “Thee Red Lion.” The texture in that track is sparse for the most part, but the band takes the opportunity to really lean back in the bar. They are pushing that meter back and making those bars last as long as they can without changing the number of beats in a measure and also without changing the tempo. To my ear this element of their playing makes that track sound even heavier that it would be if it was played square.

Perhaps that is one of the reasons that I am so attracted to this album. One of the reasons that I continually go back to it. Funny tidbit: Sam Coomes, the singer here, is also in the (comparatively much more well known) band Quasi (another band that I have talked about ad nauseum on this blog) with Janet Weiss. Janet was the drummer for Sleater-Kinney, Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks, and now Wild Flag (in addition to Quasi). The point is that I have known of all of those bands, except for Quasi, which I only came to know after becoming very familiar with Pink Mountain. I tend to do things backward sometimes.

The mixture of stylistic approach on this album reaches far beyond the classification of rock or jazz or classical. It combines elements of all of those things in a fairly tight package. There isn’t one song that showcases a single one of those elements, as they are all mixed evenly throughout. As I have mentioned before on this blog, one of my goals in writing and in studying music is to show that the categories and the classifications that we heap onto music are, for the most part, meaningless. The intermingling of elements is an important part of the post-modern aesthetic, and is showcased on many albums of the past ten years. Pink Mountain’s “Untitled” is one such album that not only defies classification, but seemingly obliterates it.

Getting Post-Tonal with Shellac


According to The Onion A.V. Club Steve Albini has stated that a new Shellac album has been recorded and will (hopefully) be released soon. Apparently, according to Albini, there are more songs finished than will appear on the new album. Out of the 10 songs that are finished 8 or 9 will appear on the band’s yet to be named follow up to 2007’s “Excellent Italian Greyhound.”

This is good news for Shellac fans, while at the same time news that will probably be ignored by everyone else. What I mean is that there are two kinds of music fans out there: those that are fans of Shellac (rabid, obsessive, die-hard fans of the Slayer ilk [and to that end, I would love it if people started yelling “SHELAAAAAAAAAACCC!!!” at each other when spotted on the street wearing a Shellac shirt]) and those that hate Shellac. I don’t think that I have ever met someone that just “sort of” likes them. They really aren’t that kind of band.

And the band really couldn’t care less what you think. That is the way that they operate. I don’t know why I am bothering telling you this because if you have read this far then you already know. And reviews of Shellac albums are irrelevant to Shellac fans. So the best I can do is just say “hey, a new album is on its way” and that will be as good as saying that it is the best album released this side of the industrial revolution. I will say, however, that I never developed a taste for “Excellent Italian Greyhound.” In my opinion the two longer tracks “The End of Radio” and “Genuine Lulabelle” (clocking in at 8:27 and 9:17, respectively) really sort of ruin the pacing. I’m much more a fan of “At Action Park” and “Terraform,” not to mention their newest album at the time I was introduced to them, “1000 Hurts.”

Keep an eye out for the new album sometime in the fall, or perhaps the winter, or maybe early next year. Just remember this is the band that held off releasing “Terraform” for (I think) a few years because they were waiting for the artwork to be just right.

The new album will be coming out on the barely-operating-what-the-hell-happened-to-this-amazing-label Touch and Go. I know that I’m looking forward to hearing that Shellac guitar tone. That is what really hooked me on the band in the first place, well that and this chord that appears in “Wingwalker” from their 1993 Uranus 7″, which is interesting for a few reasons.

First of all the song is in D minor, which could probably be explained simply enough in that most likely the guitar and bass have their low E strings tuned down a whole-step. More interesting, however, is the arpeggiated chord that appears over tonic:

Winglwalker final

The pitches are E-flat, B-flat, C-flat, G-flat in a simple arpeggiation that cycles through in 4/4 over the predominating 3/4 meter in the bass and drums, resulting in a cycling of the downbeat E-flat from beat 1 in the 2nd measure to the upbeat to 2 in the following measure and the middle of beat 3 in the next measure before the entire pattern is shifted down a whole step. This could be notated in 4/4 and the same cycling would (of course) occur. The main thing to note is that the E-flat quarter note in the guitar moves against the bass line and the beginning of both patterns only line up every 4 measures.

Listen to “Wingwalker” below. The arpeggiation in question can be heard at :57 – 1:15


If the chord that is alluded under this arpeggiation is tonic (we assume so, as the bass focuses on D) while the repeated E-flat cycles through the guitar making it a different focal point (in addition to the off-kilter rhythmic element), then what is even going on here harmonically speaking? An E-flat minor triad (E-flat, G-flat, B-flat [a half-step above tonic, played over tonic?!]) with an added C-flat is truly curious in this context. Within the chord itself it is the C-flat that really gives the chord its flavor, playing against the B-flat of the triad creating a minor-2nd that rings out between the G and B strings. This is typically a chord used more by jazz players than by rock guitarists. I think that, considering Albini is the dude that cut notches in his metal pick when he was playing in Big Black so that he could get a purposefully abrasive sound, the added 6th (and consequent minor 2nd ringing that occurs) is used more to obtain an abrasive and dissonant sound than toward any voice-leading or contrapuntal concerns.

This chord, if re-spelled, sounds (well…is) the same as a major-major 7 chord (C-flat, E-flat, G-flat, B-flat). You can think of this sonority as a major triad and a minor triad embedded in each other. The major triad (C-flat, E-flat, G-flat) and the minor triad (E-flat, G-flat, B-flat) therefore have identical intervallic content, but serve two very different purposes. It’s a deep subject, and not one that I intend to get into here. Though I will add one last tidbit: Albini must have also found something interesting in this chord because he uses the exact same chord 14 years later on the track “Boycott” from “Excellent Italian Greyhound.” The one difference is that in “Boycott” the chord appears over a B-flat in the bass. This means that there is, one could say, another (or at least a different) layer of dissonance at work here as the bass support isn’t all that supportive. The B-flat is, remember, one of the pitches that creates that unstable (dissonant) interval of a minor 2nd. This, of course, is not to mention that “Boycott” is nearly atonal in its construction, but that is a discussion for another day.

Hear “Boycott” below, and listen for the chord when it appears at :14-:24


So back to the song “Wingwalker.” We would normally think that the bass would support the chords, or arpeggiations or melodies that appear above it. For instance, if the bass is playing a D, and the song is in D-minor then one might safely assume that the chord over top could feasibly be tonic (D, F, A) or maybe the sub-mediant (VI = B-flat, D, F), or the subdominant (iv = G, B-flat, D)…or some other chord with an actual D in it. Instead, what we get is a chord that not only doesn’t contain the pitch that is supporting it, but the chord has pitches that clash with that supporting D. For example the E-flat is a half-step away, and the B-flat and C-flat create a split third sounding a major-third and a minor-third away from the D (though the C-flat would technically be an augmented 2nd, but is enharmonically equivalent, for those keeping track).

I haven’t even mentioned yet that an E-flat chord of any kind is not diatonic to the key of D-minor. Even if we consider it as a C-flat Major 7 chord instead of an E-flat minor add 6, there is still no C-flat anything in the key of D-minor. No matter how you spell the chord, or how you configure it, or what you consider a non-chord tone, there is no way to make this chord work in the context of D-minor.

It’s not some strange minor Neapolitan in root position with an added 6. This is for a few reasons: first of all, that’s just too odd, that never happens, and the reason that it never happens is because how would that chord even function? And speaking of function, a Neapolitan (normally a major chord built on the lowered 2nd scale degree, for those you that may not know) usually moves to the dominant, at least eventually. This chord moves to some other non-diatonic chord. The guitar never makes it to the dominant.

It’s definitely not a chromatic mediant of some sort. In order for that to happen you’d have to enharmonically respell the chord, which, fine, you can do that, I mean we are trying to look at all the possibilities here. Maybe it’s not C-flat Major 7, that is a bit odd, maybe it’s a B Major 7 chord. But if it was a B Major 7 chord that would mean in the context of D-minor it would be a Major 7 chord built on the raised 6th scale degree (#VI). No. Again, how would that function and that’s just too odd.

Lastly, what if we considered it as a secondary function? I mean, would it be satisfying by any stretch of the imagination to consider this chord as a Dominant chord with a Major 7 in the key of e minor (VM7/ii)? Well, no, because that would mean that the 7th of the chord would be the raised 4th scale degree, which would be some sort of Lydian mode type alteration.

This is all too complicated, and the purpose of music theory is to come to an understanding of how the music functions within its own context. This song, or at least this section of this song is not adhering to a tonal structure. It might be simpler to put this into the context of post-tonal analysis.

Remember how I mentioned above that the chords, no matter how you spelled them (either minor triad with an added 6, or a major triad with a major 7th) that they had the same interval content because they were the same pitches just in a different order? Well in tonal music the spelling of chords, and the classifications make all the difference. It’s all about the function of the chord. An altered pitch has a tendency, in the tonal sphere, to do certain things, to fulfill certain expectations. This leads to all sorts of great things like musical expectations and the thwarting of those expectations.

But how do we look at things if we find that the music is not functioning within a tonal realm; if these voice-leading tendencies are not considered in the context of the music? In that case we consider the similarities of the structures that are present in the music. Just like triads and 7th chords are used in the tonal language to contrast each other, collections of pitches that are built in a similar manner are used to give shape and meaning to non-tonal pieces.

Take for example a major triad. It consists of a note, a note a major-third above it and a note a minor-third above that. Now take a minor triad. It consists of a note, a note a minor-third above it and a note a major-third about that. So these major and minor chords have the exact same interval content, but in the context of a tonal composition they function differently, and because of other musical considerations (that are also within the context of tonal music) they sound different despite being essentially the same.

So let’s look at the chord: E-flat, G-flat, B-flat, C-flat. I will cut out all of the very laborious, confusing (you’re probably confused enough as it is) and complicated post-tonal theory stuff and you’ll just have to take my word on some stuff. That chord and the chord that follows in the example above, the final 4 measures where the chord simply shifts down wholesale a full step…because all of the pitches are moved the same distance, nothing about the intervallic content of the sonority has changed. It’s the same as moving, say, an A-major triad down a step to get a G-major triad; same exact content, different pitches.

Now, if we take all the pitches, including the bass: D, E-flat, G-flat, B-flat, C-flat and then after the guitar moves down a whole step: D, D-flat, A-flat, A, F-flat…well, there are ways of measuring the intervallic content. Perhaps I will return to exactly how that is done in another post, I don’t need to go on for another 1,000 words here. But, those chords, despite not functioning in a tonal context, are actually found to be, how we say in the trade, “maximally related.” This means that those collections of pitches have a lot of things in common in an intervallic sense. Basically, many of the puzzle pieces that fit together to form one chord can be taken out and fit into the other chord.

I think that in later posts I not only want to come back to some more post-tonal analysis of rock tunes, but I also would like to specifically investigate the way that Shellac’s “Boycott” is put together.

Thanks for reading this far. I know that this is all very confusing for those that are uninitiated into the world of music theory, but stick with me. I’m going to do my best to bring you up to speed and take the scariness out of it as best I can.

Crash Course in Music Theory: Modulating to distantly related keys with Titus Andronicus

I’ve been wanting to do a post like this for a long time. I think that periodically it will be fun to actually write about music theory stuff, considering that is what I am going to school for. I’m going to try to cover stuff that I find in rock tunes that I think is interesting, things that I would teach to my class. I’ll try to do this as clearly as possible. The main purpose, for me, is to maybe take some of the mystery out of music theory and also to help people possibly develop a little bit more of a critical ear.

The first song that I am going to use is “Arms Against Atrophy” from the first Titus Andronicus album “The Airing of Grievances” from 2009. Here’s the song:

Arms Against Atrophy

Now, the first guitar we hear is playing two Cs an octave apart, and the 2nd guitar part comes in playing an A-flat major chord. So we can visualize it this way:


Screen shot 2013-08-24 at 11.11.53 PM


Based on the chord progression through the verse, an oscillation between A-flat major and F minor, we can say that this section of the song is pretty solidly in the key of A-flat major. Notice the key signature of 4 flats (B-flat, E-flat, A-flat and D-flat) and that neither an A-flat major chord or an F minor use any accidentals outside of that key signature, because both chords are diatonic, in other words – they belong to the key. The A-flat major chord is built on scale degree 1 while the F minor chord is built on scale degree 6, so in theory terms we would call these chords tonic and sub-mediant respectively. Basically the A-flat major chord is the most important, everything leads back to it.

Now, when I say that the chord is “built” on certain scale degrees what I mean is that the scale degree, of which there are 7, serves as the pitch that the rest of the notes in the chord are based on. Chords are formed by stacking thirds. For example the A-flat major chord would begin with A-flat and then a third above that (staying in the key) is C, and a diatonic third above that is E-flat.

A-flat major scale
A-flat major scale


Above we have the A-flat major scale. Scale degree 1 is A-flat, 2 is B-flat, 3 is C and so on all the way back up to A-flat. So if we stack thirds on top of each of these pitches we have something that looks like this:

Diatonic triads of A-flat major
Diatonic triads of A-flat major

From left to right we have tonic, supertonic, mediant, subdominant, dominant, submediant, and leading tone triads. The ones that we are going to focus on are the tonic and submediant. I won’t bother going into Roman Numeral analysis here to try to keep things simpler.

Looking at the diatonic triads we can see that the pitches in the A-flat major tonic triad are A-flat, C and E-flat; while the pitches in the submediant triad are F, A-flat and C. We can see that both of these chords have two pitches in common, the A-flat and the C.

Thinking back to that opening guitar line, the 1st guitar part that strums the C octaves in eighth notes. That C is a common pitch shared between both chords that appear in the verse, which allows the 1st guitar to keep those eighth notes constant throughout the verse. This is important to how the song is going to modulate.

When we say that a song modulates we are saying that the song is changing key. The most common modulation for a song that begins in a major key is to modulate to the dominant. One of the reasons that this is so common is because the keys are so close to each other, in a manner of speaking. The key signature for A-flat major, for example, is 4 flats, as we have seen above. The key signature for E-flat major (the dominant key) is 3 flats. The tonic chord of E-flat major can be taken directly from the key of A-flat major without changing anything, it remains E-flat, G, B-flat. We would say that these keys are closely related because they are next to each other on the circle of fifths. 

Without going completely off course here, the circle of fifths is the way that we think of key relations. Basically this means hopping from one dominant to the next. For example A-flat, E-flat, B-flat, F, C, G, D, A, E, B, F#, C#, G#/A-flat …that is the complete circle of fifths beginning on the key that we are looking at here for this song. The further away from your home key, the more distant the relationship between the keys and the more chromatic alterations are necessary to maneuver between the two.

A modulation to a distantly related key, i.e. more than 2 steps on the circle of fifths, can be accomplished a few different ways. Again, I’m not going to go too far into it, because things get complicated pretty quick. One of the ways that you can, however, is through the use of a common pitch that exists in both of the keys. “Arms Against Atrophy” modulates to the key of C major in the bridge (2:20). Thee’s that C again.

Let’s compare the two scales, A-flat major and C major:

A-flat major scale
A-flat major scale
C major scale
C major scale

Note that the C major scale is lacking flats (or sharps, for that matter) in the key signature. This is because it is 4 steps away on the circle of fifths. Tonic of C major, C, is the same pitch as the mediant of A-flat major. Remember how A-flat, C, E-flat and F, A-flat, C made up the two chords of the verse, A-flat major and F minor respectively, with that C common between the two? Well the bridge here moves to a C major tonic: C, E, G. We know that it is a modulation and not just using the mediant triad because of the chord progression that follows that establishes the pitch C as the focus, or tonal center. Think of it like the center of gravity that all the pitches are drawn to. The chord progression in the bridge moves from tonic to dominant to subdominant and back to tonic again. We say that this progression establishes the tonic because it basically (simplifying again here) moves toward the dominant and returns to what is now being called tonic.

We would say, then, that “Arms Against Atrophy” by Titus Andronicus modulates from A-flat major to the distantly related key of C major through the common pitch of C. You can even hear the shift that happens, listen to the very beginning of the song. Hear those opening Cs, and then hear how they fit into the chords that guitar 2 introduces. Now go to 2:15 and listen to those very same Cs and hear how guitar two comes in now.

As a quick conclusion, you may be asking, “well the song returns to the verse after the bridge so…how do we get back to A-flat major tonic? I don’t hear the C-octaves again.” Well, first off I would say that it is true. Hey, you can’t keep doing the same thing over and over, right? The final chord of the bridge is F-major, or the subdominant in the key of C major and is made from the pitches F, A and C. Notice that this is only one pitch away from the F minor chord (F, A-flat, C) that was 50% of the verse. The last line of the bridge “…and she’s got the nail clippers at my throat,” (3:04-3:07) is where we are preparing to move back to A-flat major. The F major chord is used underneath “…and she’s got the nail clippers at my” and then they drop the A of the F major chord down a half step to A-flat on the word “throat” to create an F minor chord. That pitch, A-flat, then rings (3:07-3:17) alone until the verse picks up again with an A-flat major chord and we are up and running again, establishing the original tonic again. To be more technical this is referred to as a chromatic mediant relationship.

I hope that you were able to follow along here and that I could help you to understand the way that this song works and how music can work in general. This is only one tiny subject of many so I expect that I’ll be doing more of this in the future. Thanks for reading.