NOT MUSIC: Sludge Titan Potmos Hetoimos Premieres New Song, Goes In-Depth on Songwriting Process

The Music

The Words

Since Heavy Blog Is Heavy labeled Potmos Hetoimos “Sludge Titans”, I can’t help but keep using this awesome moniker that well describes the vast catalogue and wild ambition of the project. Today, I’m glad to bring you the stream of a new song: “IV, B: Perseus, Pyrrhic”, and a thorough behind-the-sheets presentation of the music theory and artistry underlying Vox Medusae, by Matt Matheson himself.

In the following part, Matt describes the unusual scales that make up the album; a sort of leitmotiv recalling the grand operas where each character has its own distinct voice. On top of that, you will be able to see actual examples from riffs and themes on the album in the form of notation and tablatures. Before diving in, let me remind you that Vox Medusae comes out on September 12 via our own label Not Music, and that you can pre-order the very cool looking matte digipak on our bandcamp page or Potmos Hetoimos’ one.

So, without further ado, I’ll let Matt drag you into the know.

Background: On Heptatonic Scales and Modes

Most popular songs are written in either a major key or a minor key. In fact, these are generally the only two scales which are accepted as “keys”; if a song happens to be entirely in Mixolydian, it tends to get labeled as being in a “mode” of its home (major) “key” rather than Mixolydian being the key itself. Dave and I have each had our turn obsessing over the breadth and depth of scales and modes; my own deep dive led me to this characterization of the modes derived from thirteen unique scales. (How to read: up is sharper, down is flatter, connecting lines show which note is being altered; orange = 2, yellow = 3, green = 4, cyan = 5, blue = 6, pink = 7. For example, locate Major along the upper-right side. Up the blue line means sharpen the 6, and you arrive at Ionian ♯6; down the cyan line means flatten the 5, and you arrive at Ionian ♭5.) The unique scales included in that image cover all heptatonic scales with no harmonic (three-semitone) intervals (these are Major, Melodic Minor, and Neapolitan Major) or one harmonic interval (ten, which I won’t name here); sorry, Double Harmonic and Persian fans! While there are some exotic-yet-familiar scales shown, like Phrygian Dominant and Ukrainian Minor, I dare say more than a few of those 91 scales have never had a song written using them as the primary mode.

As I began to write Vox Medusae, I decided to musically characterize each of the nine lyrical voices with its own unusual scale from the deepest depths of this exploration. My rule was that no scale would be a mode of Major, that no scale would be a mode of any other scale on the album, and that I would strictly adhere to the notes in each scale during its part so that there would be no ambiguity regarding the set of notes being utilized. (I did end up wavering on a couple of passages, but for the most part I stuck with it!)

Here are the nine scales I settled on using, which voice they represent, and an example musical part demonstrating the use of the scale. All but one of these illustrations were created in Powertab, so I had no control over how the notes appeared on the staff; hence, unusual notes like C♭ and F𝄪 will not appear as such. All tablature is 7-string in standard tuning (BEADGBE).

Medusa: Harmonic Locrian

Seventh mode of Ionian ♯6

Vox Medusae opens up in this scale, which quickly became one of my favorite to improvise in. Locrian is familiar enough to metalheads with its characteristic ♭2 and tritone, but then you can mix in a splash of Harmonic Minor with that unexpected, cheeky ♮7. This also creates a tone cluster around the root, which can be played with teasingly. A great example of this can be heard in the first Medusa section of “V: Braid of Ouroboros”, where I dance around the root (while keeping the bass note constant) before a dissonant A♯-G-F-D descent.

Addict: Superlocrian ♮6

Seventh mode of Melodic Augmented (or fourth mode of Hungarian Major)

Another cousin of Locrian, this scale flattens the 4 (hence “Super”) then balances that by raising the 6, giving shades of Dorian character. Don’t let the natural 6 fool you, this can be a disgusting and dark tone palette. Listen to this example riff from the album opener “I: Idyll Anathema”, where I use a few sliding triads to cover all the notes in a disorienting order.

Lust: Lydian Diminished

Fourth mode of Harmonic Major

A somewhat brighter starting point, Lydian gets itself desecrated by the flattening of the third, which introduces a full diminished cycle (1-♭3-♯4-6) that can lead into all sorts of nasty places. Fitting, then, that this corrupted brightness reflects the corrupted emotion of perverse lust, accompanying visceral and discomfiting lines like “I lick the honey flung from your teeth”. Lust kicks off “V: Braid of Ouroboros” with some relatively tame seventh chords before embracing the harmonic-minor-like darkness of the root-7-♭3 axis.

Shame: Hungarian Augmented

B—C𝄪—D♯—E♯—F𝄪—G♯—A (or, C♭—D—E♭—F—G—A♭—B𝄫)
Sixth mode of Harmonic Major ♭5

An augmented second, no perfect fifth, and a cluster triad in the ♯5-6-♭7 allow this scale to do anything except resolve nicely. And as you can see, when you situate it with B (or C♭?) as the root, there’s no way to spell it without either a double sharp (𝄪) or a double flat (𝄫) somewhere. As such, this scale always feels out of place, suitable for a voice that feels quite uncomfortable in its own skin. The augmented second can masquerade as a minor third, permitting a quasi-resolution in the general minor tonality, and similarly the augmented fifth (which can be played in-scale as a power chord) mimics the minor sixth. A great illustration that combines melody and chords comes later in “IV, B: Perseus, Pyrrhic”, where I juxtapose “both thirds” (the C𝄪 and D♯), then hammer a pair of chords that would normally be identified as a ♭VI5 and ♭vo7, but are actually a ♯V5 and ♯iv6. (Of course, functional harmony’s really out the window in a key like this, and I didn’t write these parts with function in mind.)

Rage: Ultralydian

Fifth mode of Ionian ♭5

Can a scale be too Lydian? This absurd set of notes arises from sharpening every available pitch in the major scale (the 7, of course, cannot be sharpened), but when played as such you learn that it’s really almost lying to you. If you ignore the natural 7 for a moment and look at what’s left, you realize that what you’re really left with does not sound like E-F𝄪-G𝄪-A♯-B♯-C𝄪, but rather E-G-A-B♭-C-D, a hexatonic scale that leans far more Locrian than Lydian. Knowing that, the music that utilizes this scale often sounds dark and minor in a more standard way that obfuscates the truly unusual scale being used. Rage’s riffs often embrace this rather than reject it, as in the clean, Opeth-esque midsection of “IV, A: Perseus, Pristine” (for which I will show the guitar tab even though the melody ended up being performed, in slightly reduced form, on bass in the final version). The first chord, F𝄪-A♯-C𝄪, is indistinguishable from G-B♭-D. The only giveaway that this key is not E Locrian with an absent 2 is in the fourth measure, where I make sure to plug the D♯ into those chords.

Witness: Subphrygian Dominant

Fourth mode of Neapolitan Major ♭5

I didn’t have to invent a lot of terminology in my scale-naming excursion, but this was one that felt natural. “Super” as a prefix for Locrian or Phrygian means that the 4 has been flattened; the opposite of that, “Sub”, should then mean the 4 has been sharpened. So here we end up with the familiar Phrygian Dominant scale with an infusion of Lydian flavor, a fun scale to sing in and perfect for the clean vocals that dot “I: Idyll Anathema”. Here’s part of that first section with the vocal melody tabbed out as well. Note the full diminished cycle in the third and seventh measures—I definitely had to do a few takes to get those vocal intonations right!

Killer: Ultralocrian Diminished

Seventh mode of Neapolitan Minor

In extreme contrast to Ultralydian, Ultralocrian Diminished flattens everything, and then keeps going, flattening the seventh again (turning Superlocrian into Ultralocrian) and diminishing the third. Eight flats below major, this is the darkest scale used on Vox Medusae, reserved for the most vicious voice: the emotionless, uninhibited husk of brutality that coldly assassinates true beauty. Adding to its filthiness are a pair of tritones, A-E♭ and C♭-F, which can play off each other. Much like Ultralydian, though, this scale has a hard time maintaining its identity; the C♭, being at the top of that root tone cluster, tends to feel like home, implying Lydian ♯6. Sometimes I made use of this, but for the most part I steered toward that deep A, even downtuning to drop A for a couple of Killer’s riffs (including 2:18 of “IV, B: Perseus, Pyrrhic”). But instead of highlighting one of those, I want to showcase the solo saxophone part performed incredibly by my friend Daniel Wallace at the beginning of that song. I had originally scored this to be performed in two back-and-forth pieces, panned left and right, because I thought the hectic notes, in an unusual key, in \(\frac{(6+7+6+8)}{8}\) time would be too much for even a skilled sax player to handle. I was wrong. Dan stared at it for a moment, fiddled around with his instrument, then said “Ok, I got it” and promptly crushed the whole line in one take. (I kept the panning in the mix, though, but realize that what you’re hearing is one recorded sax line, not two.)

Prophet: Major Locrian

Fifth mode of Neapolitan Major

Major and minor held in tension, with minor ever-so-slightly prevailing, flattening the fifth along with its 6 and 7. A perfect scale for the prophet, who offers hope and despair in equal measure, laid at the feet of the protagonist—indeed, of us all—allowing us to make the choice. In multiple places on the album, the prophet “argues” with the voice of shame, speaking hopeful truth but getting rejected by self-centered guilt, as the hearer chooses to wallow in misery rather than accept the grace of a way out. The Major Locrian scale gets its main feature in “III: The Silicon Mirror”, where I take advantage of two sliding chord shapes: root-M3-octave, which I shift from B-D♯-B to C♯-F-C♯ to D♯-G-D♯, and later root-M3-♭7, which shifts down from B-D♯-A to A-C♯-G to G-B-F.

Conqueror: Lydian Dominant

Fourth mode of Melodic Minor

Maybe the most traditional of the modes on Vox Medusae, Lydian Dominant is essentially a game of “Rock, Paper, Scissors” between Lydian and Mixolydian where both chose Rock. I hesitate to stretch that analogy into a joke about how most riffs in this scale have a very classic rock ‘n’ roll feel, but it would make sense considering how the Conqueror’s lone appearance in “IV, A: Perseus, Pristine” plays out. This song kicks off the second side of the album with a bright solo guitar ripping off a triumphant, battle-ready lick that stands apart from anything else on Vox Medusae.

-Matt Matheson

Final Words

There’s a lot of thought that went into the concept behind Vox Medusae, and you can expect to gain further insights from it a bit later down the road as well. For now, head over to Bandcamp to listen to two songs from the album and place your pre-order for the limited edition physical release of the first in Not Music‘s catalogue. Hope you enjoyed!

The Links

Not Music on Bandcamp
Potmos Hetoimos on Bandcamp

Not Music on Facebook
Potmos Hetoimos on Facebook

5 comments on NOT MUSIC: Sludge Titan Potmos Hetoimos Premieres New Song, Goes In-Depth on Songwriting Process

  1. […] vocal effects (cleans, screams, growls) and, for music theory fans, a different non-traditional scale. As a consequence, you not only have a cool concept on paper, but also a unique, far-reaching […]

  2. […] In addition to the hyperlinks above, you can peruse the Potmos Hetoimos discography at the following link. Matt also writes for the music blog, Can This Even Be Called Music?. For folks interested in the music theory component of Vox Medusae, Matt wrote an incredibly in-depth piece about each individual scale, which you can read here. […]

  3. […] PS: If you’re interested in how the scale works for each character, this piece is a great read:….Recommended tracks: ALL OF ITRecommended for fans of: Good music (?????????????????)Final verdict: […]

  4. […] PS: If you’re interested in how the scale works for each character, this piece is a great read:…. […]