Don’t Fear the Bass Guitar

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There is something enjoyable when an instrument that had always been wrongly employed rears its head. Earphones embedded into your eardrums, the simple groove, head bobbing, and then SNAP! Wha- what is that? That sounds like a guitar but it’s slower, a little deeper. It plays with the drums and the guitars, what is that? That is the bass guitar. Perhaps the most wrongfully sidelined instrument in the modern band, when properly employed the bass guitar is a nimble and ferocious instrument capable of cementing a track. The bass line is a nail at the ready and the instrument is the hammer poised and itching to take a strike.

            Groove is a hard idea to quantify, but I see it as essential to music. It is the nebulous quality that tacks songs onto the inside of your head and into the deep insides of your brain. Have you ever wondered why parts of songs get stuck into your head? It’s the groove. It’s the quantity that you feel in music, the part that makes you bob your head, tap your foot, shimmy, headbang, or delicately sway your arms along to a song. Groove is perhaps the product of the entire band playing, the single idea, or the “song” taken as a whole that is felt and reflected upon. It is the synthesis of all the myriad parts into a “song”.

Bass is the groove, riding the ups and downs, and when it casually strolls into an unmistakable moment, a space, when it is solely and completely heard it gives a song new life. In modern music this scantly happens. Bass is often relegated to a simple role of playing the root note of any progression, barred from experimentation, and often used in a risk averse way. In other words they suck the life out of the instrument. This piece attempts to highlight some instances of bass guitar being used in inventive and highly effective ways. While I will mainly stick with genres of western music: metal, punk, or rock, the instrument remains in high use in a myriad of genres and the idea still applies to those respective genres. Risk is the source of invention, innovation, and success; risk and the bass guitar are not mutually exclusive.

I would place the symbolic and spiritual death of the bass guitar in popular metal and punk firmly onto one album: …And Justice for All.  Metallica’s fourth album is famous for its flat bass-less tone that would inspire hundreds of copycats to scoop their mids and relegate the bass to a null presence in the mix. More than likely a final mixing accident rather than an intentional slight to then bassist Jason Newsted, the album is critically revered for the musical execution of the songwriting while simultaneously reviled for its utterly sterile sound. It’s lifeless without the bass.

The clearest way to see this is to compare two versions of the album, one being the album that was released in 1988 with the original mix, and the other recent attempts at amplifying the bass in the mix. To say the results are dramatic is an understatement. Heightening the bass completely redefines the feel of the album from a prog rock infused metal album that is commendably graceful yet utterly lacking in weight, into a band that feels whole and an album that is more akin to an anvil than a feather. The bass highlights the pummeling nature of Lars’s simplistic drums and introduces so much more raw power into every beat. It just feels heavier, more aggressive, and instantly makes the head a’knocking.

An example of the bass used to near perfection is with Hamilton, Ontario band Single Mothers. Playing a blend of hardcore and crust punk they utilize a lurching musicality that sounds like every member is always playing catch up to each other. The sound is out of control and that quality comes first and foremost from Evan Redsky’s bass guitar. His tone is incredible and can be seen in their single “Christian Girls”. Wooly, thick and moving at a million miles an hour you can’t help but feel like you’re super glued to .50 caliber bullet heading straight for a wall when it first explodes in your ears. When the rest of the band finally comes in they are sprinting after the bass like it’s the golden snitch. You feel the bass in your bones, in the fibers of your muscles and in the core of everything that makes your head bob. This is a song to go crazy to.

A succinct counterpoint is Dominic “Forest” LaPointe from Montreal technical death metal band Beyond Creation. Where other bands often utilize the bass in a purely rhythmic fashion alongside the drums Dominic does something different. With a distinct tone he easily swings back and forth from a rhythm and lead position with ease. Often his playing seems to be orchestrated completely seperately own sinuously moving between the two technical guitar players with his clear bass tone slicing through the mix along its own path. There is something profoundly fun in hearing a bass solo of any kind, that is likely because the instrument so often maligned and forgotten, but LaPointe uses numerous techniques such as tapping, slapping, sweeping, and tremolo picking to make his solos captivating. It’s risky to play a bass solo in modern music. Guitar solos are all the rage. The bass player is usually the butt of the jokes. But, LaPointe’s playing is a metaphorical middle finger. His playing brings groove and lead into one. The band is locked in a musical and above all technical synergy that is aurally captivating. Just watch the man play and be in awe:

Perhaps the teleological endpoint of this argument was already met in Death From Above 1979. As a bass and drums duo they remain unmatched. They basically invented dance punk. Just think about that genre for a second. Dance music and punk blended together? Where could that possibly come from? The bass, that’s where. They released one album in 2004 and then moved on. They don’t need to release another one; You’re A Woman I’m A Machine is a singular example of perfection. Jesse F. Keeler’s riffs are simple and punk inspired, but so catchy, so rhythmic, so groovy, that alongside the synths and dumb simple drumming it just becomes dance music like Jesus turned water into wine. Having seen that bass live and in action it’s something all together different. Your foot starts tapping and then your whole body starts vibrating with the stop-start pedal riffs that drone and pound into your skull as half the crowd breaks into a smile and starts grinding while the other half erupts into a pit. It’s all in that bass. It’s all in the bass.

The bass guitar is something special that creeps up on you. When you’ve spent hours listening to a song only then do you pick out the special quality of it. Sometimes you never notice it. Metallica practically made it extinct, but it lives on. Continuously imbuing songs with groove and sticking the entire band together in a rhythmically sweet morsel. The bass guitar can also be a risky instrument. It can be all a band needs. When innovation and risk occurs and the bass guitar brings some of that fringe, maligned, and forgotten element into the center of the mix the song becomes unbridled with energy. And feeling a song in your body like a needle of testosterone to your heart, or just along the back of your neck, is what music is all about.

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