The Art of the Epic – Guy Rimay-Muranyi
What makes an ‘epic’ song? Guy Rimay-Muranyi examines ten songs that make the grade.
Homer’s ‘Odyssey’ is, objectively, an ‘epic’ poem. In fact, there is an ‘epic’ for almost every medium, apart from music. Whether it be in the instrumentation, lyrics, or the sheer crushing power of the wall of sound created, the following ten songs and artists go some way to discovering what lies behind an ‘epic’ song.
‘Staying Alive’ by Cursive (From The Ugly Organ) Around 2001 something very special happened to Cursive. ‘Burst And Bloom’ marked their first release since cellist Gretta Cohen joined their ranks, and the album that followed constituted one of the most bitter and cerebral records ever to come out of the United States, let alone the small but prolific city of Omaha, Nebraska. ‘Staying Alive’ drips with the earnest longings of front-man Tim Kasher to survive and progress after the ordeal that is The Ugly Organ, and the song slowly builds from his whispered entrance until he is literally screaming over the wall of sound that erupts from the five musicians. The luscious backdrop of strings created by Cohen drifts over the clashing and wailing guitars, and the drums continue ‘kicking and screaming’ for a considerable amount of time until they fade into distortion, washed out by the voices of a choir lamenting that ‘the worst is over’. The song consolidates the turmoil that has spanned the record, even revisiting the vocal patterns of ‘A Gentleman Caller’, and perfectly demonstrates the masterful way in which Cursive deal in dynamics, and as the song nears the ten minute mark the ambient tones of guitars and far off strings calmly bring the album to a close, with shredded nerves and hairs on the backs of necks firmly raised.
‘Man The Ramparts’ by Botch (From We Are The Romans) If you’ve ever wondered what the absolute pinnacle of a genre sounds like, a band so perfectly aware of their style and ability and capability to completely reform a style that many would claim to know, look no further than Botch’s We Are The Romans. The indisputable behemoths of Mathcore, Botch took what could be done in the confines of Metal music and created some of the most crushing and technical sounds ever recorded. We’re talking about a band who took ‘O Fortuna’ and made it into one of the most frightening, heavy three minutes and nineteen seconds you are ever likely to hear. ‘Man The Ramparts’ sees Botch tackle a ten minute plus ‘epic’, and succeed by drawn out, devastating riffs and only five lines of lyrics. The song also contains a three minute choral element which sounds like a hundred monks in the world’s dingiest cathedral, haunting the listener with the simple refrain ‘we are the Romans’. Countless bands have tried to recapture Botch’s style since their split, and some have succeeded, such as The Bled’s debut Pass The Flask, especially on tracks such as ‘Porcelain Hearts And Hammers For Teeth’, which could have a whole article in its own right on the subject of ‘epic’, but Botch will always be the first, and the undoubted best.
‘As The Storm Unfolds’ by Devil Sold His Soul (From A Fragile Hope) Graduating seamlessly from the Botch ‘School Of Bone Crushing Epic Metal’, Devil Sold His Soul represent the brightest hopes on the UK metal scene right now. Hitting like a jackhammer straight off the mark, ‘As The Storm Unfolds’ takes possibly the most simple riff in existence and creates a truly atmospheric experience, with the help a vocalist whose scream transcends the world of the banshee and enters a whole new world of haunting. The use of keyboards and synths in a brilliantly subtle way adds a dark aura to the whole proceedings, and Ed Gibbs’ voice is thankfully as suited to singing as it is screaming, so the song never falters, a true feat of genius as the tempo creates the illusion of a song drawn out over days, rather than its actual six minute runtime.
‘Let’s Not Shit Ourselves (To Love And To Be Loved)’ by Bright Eyes (From Lifted, Or, The Story Is In The Soil, Keep Your Ear To The Ground). Such an album title indicates slight delusions of grandeur, and thankfully Conor Oberst, under usual moniker Bright Eyes, delivers wholeheartedly. Yet another song just over the ten minute mark, this alt. country epic starts with a ‘goddamn timpani roll’ and bristles along as Oberst attacks everything from national news stations to the rigid frame of school grades that build a ‘retaining of wall of memory’, which obviously comes into good use here with a song consisting of over 550 words. Oberst set up a ‘drum corps’ for the album rather than using a traditional drum kit, and the song includes wind sections, slide guitars, glockenspiels and horns, building a huge spectrum of sound that remains one of the most passionate and impressive songs in his extensive back catalogue.
‘Thunder Road’ by Bruce Springsteen (from Born To Run) When Bruce Springsteen first set foot in the UK with his E Street Band back in 1975, he opened his show at the Hammersmith Odeon with a version of Born To Run’s opener that consisted solely of himself, his harmonica and a beautiful piano accompaniment, with an understated glockenspiel twinkling in the background. A song called ‘Thunder Road’ could never really be anything other than an expansive epic, and it delivers relentlessly on record, constantly gaining momentum as slowly more and more guitars, horns and percussion are layered on, until a simple drum fill signifies its glorious final minute where everything comes together in a truly uplifting coda. The fact that Springsteen had the confidence to strip it right back and still pull of a staggering performance marks ‘Thunder Road’ as a truly epic piece from an undeniable legend.
‘The Rise And Fall’ by Million Dead (From A Song To Ruin) ‘The Rise And Fall’ is not really fourteen minutes long, it is in fact a two and half minute punk slash post hardcore song that combines intricate guitars and a fast paced vocal delivery, and a healthy dose of drummer Ben Dawson’s screaming to bolster up the track even further. The song fires on all cylinders towards an ascending guitar part that sounds like it won’t stop until it’s pushed through the atmosphere, Frank Turner’s vocals becoming more and more passionate and enraged. And then, suddenly, the song collapses into eleven minutes of a Converge style, reverb laden riff as Turner, dripping with self-awareness, croons ‘Thus immersed in barbarous longing’ , his voice eventually swallowed by the layers of shredding that persist until the album’s close.
‘Indoor Swimming At The Space Station’ by Eluvium (From Copia) Matthew Cooper, better known as Eluvium, blends live, sampled and synthetic instruments to turn a simple, repetitive piano refrain into what is ultimately a grandiose and ethereal piece of ambient music. Instruments drift in and out of the spotlight as the piece grows and swells over the course of the ten minutes, and it is a testament to Cooper’s ability that, as is true for most of his work, something so simple can be moulded into something breathtakingly colossal in scope.
‘3peat’ by Lil Wayne (From Tha Carter III) Epic is a term not very often attached to the world of hip-hop. Public Enemy made songs that were densely filled with samples and beats and hugely verbose thanks to Chuck D; Dälek, through the use of grimy, distortion filled beats create almost the opposite in their ambient style of drawn out hip-hop. But ‘epic’ is still a term that largely defies mainstream hip-hop, a feat that Lil Wayne ably overcomes on the opening track of Tha Carter III. A reworking of ‘I’m Me’ off the earlier EP The Leak, the Maestro-produced track works by layering strings over a beat that Wayne drops some of his most aggressive and boastful verses over, with not so much delusions but objective statements of grandeur serving to consolidate a solid gold track.
‘Life Is A Pigsty’ by Morrissey (From Ringleader Of The Tormentors) The Smiths, although being the pinnacle of British pop and/or rock music, were better known for intricate yet jangly guitar work, miserable yet uplifting lyrics, and a solid drum and bass combination than for being purveyors of the epic pop song. On no less than his eighth solo album, Morrissey proverbial nails the melancholic epic, a song that begins with percussion leaking through the sound of rain outside and switches halfway through to timpani drums and gong crashes as strings and synths sweep through the foreground. ‘Life is a pigsty, and if you don’t know this, then what do you know’ laments Morrissey as Boz Boorers guitars cut through the mix, strangely hopeful over the torrential downpour that continues in the background.
‘Radio Protector’ by 65daysofstatic (From One Time For All Time) Post-rock is a genre that by definition should settle comfortably in a discussion on epic music – it basically consists of using instruments from genres outside of rock, namely classical instruments, and using them to push the boundaries, resulting in the often fifteen minute plus pieces by titans such as Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Mogwai and Explosions In The Sky, alongside newcomers such as Yndi Halda. 65daysofstatic, on the other hand, take the notion of post-rock and force it through glitchy electronic samples, staggering drumming and guitars and pianos that intertwine and deflect off each other with staggering ease. ‘Radio Protector’ show 65dos at their epic best, a fast-paced piano-driven six minutes that shows how effects laden ambient guitars can work seamlessly with insanely technical drumming and the odd spattering of electronic beats. Epic, in some cases, just doesn’t go far enough to describe the musical feats scaled by artists today.