Standard time

If you've taken any sort of music lessons, you know that music comes in all sorts of time signatures. When I was in school band, we played everything: 2/4, 3/4, 4/4, 5/4, 7/4, 6/8, 9/8. Well, that's not everything, but it's a lot.

Popular music tends to stick to standard (4/4) time. Yes, Dave Brubeck popularized 5/4 time, and it lives on in jazz and some prog bands. But other than Radiohead, very few rock bands use it. Country music has an affinity for 3/4 time, as "two-step" is simply Texan for "waltz." And Iron Maiden remains famous for its many songs that utilize 6/8. Mostly, though, rock and roll is standard.

There are ways to dress up 4/4. Early rock and roll tended to emphasize the first and third beats. The Beatles aped rock pioneers like Fats Domino and Chuck Berry by throwing a backbeat (emphasis on the second and fourth beats) into their early ravers.

Knife the Symphony/Swear Jar
split LP

And then there's syncopation, where an unusual hiccup in the beat produces interesting results. This often results in a sound that is exciting when heard the first time, though pretty tedious when repeated over and over. Think of the wanky white-boy funk backbeat that all sorts of "modern rock" bands used in the late 80s and 90s (the Spin Doctors' "Two Princes" is the best/worst example of this). That dreadful beat is the reason all Blues Traveler songs sound alike. I hate this beat on constructive grounds, because its repeated starting and stopping kills any positive momentum within a song. But that beat sure was popular in its many varied forms.

My favorite use of syncopation is a backbeat with no fourth beat. This results in the familiar ba-BA-ba, ba-BA-ba (often with a fill of some sort in the fourth measure of the vamp) that pretty much drove the Touch and Go sound of the late 80s and early 90s. Even before that, Black Flag and other hardcore bands dabbled in and refined the basics of the beat. The Jesus Lizard is probably the most famous adherent to this device, but plenty of other T&G bands (June of 44, Shipping News, etc.) dipped deeply into the well. Over in D.C., Ian MacKaye built the Fugazi legend around variants of this beat.

It's easy to understand why this beat became so popular (within the very insular world of hardcore/noise rock) so fast. Unlike the herky-jerky alt. rock backbeat, dropping the fourth beat immediately draws the listener into the rhythm. We fill in that missing beat when we listen, and we become part of the engine of the song. This is audience participation at its finest.

I'm sure plenty of folks have had enough of this device, but I still love it. This driving beat is a perfect engine for slashing guitar riffs and shouted vocals. In short, it is integral to the sound of agitation and aggression.

Rock and roll, distilled to its purest form.

Knife the Symphony shares my predilection. The band has three songs on its split EP with Swear Jar, songs that are wondrous expressions of anger, rage and torment. Is this stuff nice? No. Will it play on any sort of commercial radio station? No. Is it flat-out fucking awesome? You betcha.

This is the entirety of the band's "About" page on their website: "Knife the Symphony owes a debt to SST, Dischord and Touch and Go." Yep. Terse, to the point and unquestionably true.

So, yeah, if you're 40-something and you still get out your vinyl and turn your stereo up to 11 (your stereo still has knobs, of course), Knife the Symphony will overload your pleasure center in about two seconds flat. The throb on these songs is incredible. The noise is immense. The high is unbearable.

As for the other band on this split, Swear Jar is nice in an incoherent, no wave-y sorta way. These songs have no center, but they are raucous. This is music for sweaty teenagers and rabid raccoons, two sets of beings who very much need music that caters to their whims. But I got over teenagerdom a couple decades ago, and I'm not a procyonidont. Even so, I like the Swear Jar stuff quite a bit. But I prefer Knife the Symphony.

By and large, rock music has moved on from the propulsive 4/4 practiced by Knife the Symphony. But every once in a while, I like to be reminded just how good rock and roll can be. Call it nostalgia, if you like. I prefer to think of it as aggression therapy, a sensory overload that soothes my troubled mind.

Jon Worley

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