Orchestration In Heavy Music: All Hands | Protest The Hero


Clear the way PTH fans, the freight train of "All Hands" is coming in. This massive song, while a little reserved compared to the technical norm we know and love from Protest, couples tasteful melodic and chordal simplicity with an unrelenting rhythm section. Bridging together the pounding rhythms of the intro, the playfully energetic verses, and the anthemic chorus, are moments of rest and thematic variation based in the melody of the song's prelude "Harborside". This juxtaposition in timbre makes the hard hitting rhythms feel all the more impactful, and the quiet moments feel that much more fragile. It's a dynamic listen with plenty of orchestration to speak to, so let's dive right in.

Firstly, here's a little bit of context on the writing of the song from PTH guitarist, Luke Hoskin:

"All Hands was actually the first song we started writing for Palimpsest. The process began so long ago, I honestly don't think we knew we were writing for a full length record at the time.  This song was our way of easing ourselves back into the writing process, so we weren't too concerned about where the song ended up.  Whenever we start writing again after an extended break, we've learned it\'s a great time to try new things.  After taking a bunch of time away from writing music, you kind of forget who you are for a while - forget what people like about your band.  It seems to take a while for writing habits to show up again.  It was important for us to take advantage of that confusion, and just roll forward with what came out!  In the past, we have often scrapped our first attempt back to the drawing board, but for All Hands, we leaned into it.  

I'd like to think this easy-going attitude of writing the music for this song helped inspire Milen to get creative with the orchestra as well.  If nothing else, I knew the post-chorus melody (which the Harborside interlude is based on), would fall directly in Milen's wheelhouse.  I was delighted to hear him knock those sections out of the park!"

Now that we've heard some of the how and why regarding "All Hands", let's take a look at our first section. To start, we're going get into this odd and energetic first verse. Here's the section without additional orchestration:

The verse of "All Hands" is built on a particularly snappy riff that acts as both rhythm and lead in their respective positions. In its low register, this variation of the riff has a palm-muted articulation that provides the part with a solid foundation, while the lead takes on a light-hearted and charming energy. It's a peculiar part that warranted some peculiar orchestration.  As Protest are always up for pushing boundaries and trying new things, we decided it was time to give an under-utilized instrument a try, namely the always magical (but not commonly used in punk or metal), flute!

With descriptors such as "light-hearted & charming", the flute (doubled with piccolo, which is essentially a flute with a higher pitch) seemed like the perfect instrument to bring out the peculiarity of the part. The effect is subtle, but really highlights the whimsical characteristics of the verse.  

 The Chorus

The chorus of "All Hands" lead guitar revolves around a two-note melody played in octaves, followed by a few speedy scale runs that bridge each returning entry of the two-note octave motif. Let's listen to the chorus without orchestra and vocals. 

While these lead guitar flurries fill the gaps between each octave movement quite nicely, the focus of this part is the the two-note octave phrase. 

Now, let's listen to this section with added orchestration.

To bring those octaves out, they're backed by a full string section playing their own variation of the melody at an octave above. The guitars flurrying scales are alone up until the repeat, at which point they are reinforced by the 1st violins, and later by those rare woodwinds (flute and piccolo) that are perfect for quick scales and arpeggio patterns, as well as to help maintain some timbral consistency throughout the song.  

If the term "1st Violin" is unfamiliar: orchestral strings sections often have two violin sections named the "1st" and "2nd" violins. 1st violins functioning as primary melody players, and 2nd violins functioning as support. For a simple comparison, it's like having a lead guitar line played by 1st violins and its harmonies played by the 2nd violins. 

Also on the repeat, the strings bring their variation of the two-note melody up an octave to raise the pitch, or "roof" of the section, and consequentially make it feel much larger without adding any new pitches or accompaniment to the full ensemble. This chorus was already quite busy in musical movement, so the tactic of orchestration that was most suited for it was to bring out what was already written. In other words, like we've mentioned in previous articles, stay out of the way and highlight what's already there. 

Let's listen to the full mix without vocals:

If you've got a keen ear and notice a little bit of rhythmic muddiness going on within the orchestral performance in its doubling of guitars, you can rest assured that its done for a specific reason:

When programming orchestral instruments, quantizing performances to pinpoint grid accuracy often has the side effect of making things sound inhuman. In order to program a more believable performance, some margin of error does wonders. These instruments are meant to sound human. A large, live orchestral strings section can have upwards of sixty people on stage. Think of sixty people, divided into five instruments, each varying in size. 

Now add the brass, woodwinds, and percussion to the mix. 

And finally, imagine all of them playing in unison at fast tempos with gridline precision. It's practically impossible. Even the tightest orchestral performances will have some small inconsistencies to them.

At the end of the day, the nuances of orchestral programming should be left up to taste. But in the case of Palimpsest, the orchestration was performed with the goal of a human feel, and with that previously mentioned margin of error in mind. 


The Harborside Motif

The epic finale of the song has a familiar melody which some of you may have noticed from the first "post-chorus", or even further back with the preceding interlude of "Harborside".  

This melody has some magic to it, throughout the song it takes on different shapes and sizes and and embodies a vast emotional range, from small and sentimental to massive and awe inspiring. Taking a look at it's appearances, we hear it gradually transform from an intimate introduction into a grand finale:

1. Harborside introduces the melody as a solo piano part, eventually adding a solo violin over a string orchestra. 

2. It's second appearance in the first "post chorus" of "All Hands" sees it played as a lead guitar melody.  

3. And lastly, the melody appears in the final post chorus, once again as a guitar lead, featuring an accompaniment of strings & brass.

This contextual evolution gives the music new meaning with each variation, and allows it grow in impact with every repeat. It's never exactly the same twice, and establishes a climactic arc throughout the song. This melodic spark is used to begin the song and to move it along from its tame ignition to a grandiose finale.

In conclusion; orchestras are big, flutes are punk, and the clever use of a good motif is pretty metal. 

All Hands is a ripper.