Orchestration In Heavy Music: The Canary | Protest The Hero


The writing process for "Palimpsest" took longer than other PTH records. With no label to deliver a master, and no deadlines for upcoming tours or promo cycles, the band figured they should take their time and write what they wanted. If their last effort (Pacific Myth) was a project designed to limit their over-thinking of every detail, Palimpsest is surely the opposite. Each idea on this record had to fight for its place - and what better way to create additional discourse than adding an orchestra! From the very first song they wrote, the band had new instruments in mind for certain sections. Many sections on the record started with an idea for piano, strings or even brass. The band penned them in with virtual instruments - knowing that one day they would actually have to create them! Enter: Milen - a friend of the band, sure. But more importantly, someone they knew who could actually create these sounds! Milen is a composer and long time Sheet Happens consultant on all things orchestration, so hiring him on to help translate their ideas for Palimpsest, and to contribute his own, was really a no brainer for PTH. Just as easy was the decision to have him write up a series about the creation of Palimpsest's orchestral back bone. Take it away Milen!

Protest the Hero's long awaited new album "Palimpsest" has finally been announced, and with it the release of its first single, "The Canary". The song is packed with hooky pentatonic riffs, an anthemic chorus, and some major time signature gymnastics. All classic traits of Protest the Hero.  

"Guitarist Luke Hoskin expands:

We knew "The Canary" was going to be our first single for a very long time.  It was one of the first songs we wrote for the record musically and because of its early existence, it was one of the first that Rody wrote vocals / lyrics for as well.  We had plans to play it live so it was everyone's first priority when it came to wrapping up a song completely.  We got the chance to play it live on a short tour across Canada a couple years ago, and liked how it went over - so we prioritized it first in the studio.  It was also the first song we mixed and mastered, so it was the 'test run' for a lot of new personnel we brought on board for this record!  Of course, it's now the first song that you (the reader) will have heard too...

When we decided we wanted to add more orchestration to this record, starting with The Canary was another logical choice.  While the additional instrumentation you will hear on this song certainly isn't the most daring on "Palimpsest" - it was a very important stepping stone to what we feel we have achieved with this record.  It allowed us to discover that we didn't have to build every part of every song around our core instruments.  We could allow the guitars and even vocals to become the supporting cast when the orchestration called for it.  Most importantly for me, it opened the door to building sections which would become the "sum of their parts" rather than a focus on any given instrument.  The breakdown in The Canary is one of these sections - everyone doing their job, but not overdoing it."

While there's plenty to talk about in "The Canary's" extra instrumentation, we've selected a few notable moments to examine. These sections will illustrate the use of techniques mentioned previously in the OIHM column, including some new angles on doubling, and some further exploration into the use of narrative to dictate orchestration. Let's start by checking out the chorus.  

The Chorus: 

"The Canary" has what can be described as a musically "broad" chorus. Generally speaking, music that is considered "broad" is characterized by a slow to moderate tempo, a rhythmically drawn-out chord progression, and long melodic phrasing. These combined traits create a wide sense of musical depth and scope, and are often used in music to create a feeling of awe, majesty, and size. Let's break down the huge chorus of "The Canary" and how the orchestra supports it.  

First, let's hear the guitars which are laying down the foundation. 

This is a huge chord progression.  

At its core, the guitars hold a chord for roughly a bar at a time at this moderate tempo with an occasional syncopated "passing" chord to help travel from bar to bar. Now here's where the orchestration kicks in. If you listen carefully to the solo guitar track, you'll notice the upper-most voice implying it's own melody while it's lower pitches give us our fundamental chord movements. This melody ascends with heroic feeling, which helps create that sense of "heroism" that is often accomplished in "broad" music.

The additional orchestration of "The Canary" takes this heroic melody in the upper guitar voicing, brings it forward with the addition of a few soaring string layers, and finally, adds brass to the chorus's second repeat to provide some variation and climactic energy. 

This instrumentation helps to enhance the epic nature of the chorus, while blending nicely with the existing instrumentation. 

Next up, we're going to revisit one of this columns favourite subjects, doubling. Specifically using instruments for purposes outside their traditional roles. 

Piano as Percussion:

Piano is an instrument that is often used to bring some feeling of sentiment and beauty, and it's pretty darn capable in this role, we all know this. What it's surprisingly good at though, and largely unused for, is sounding strikingly violent. The piano, if you didn't know, is considered a percussion instrument in an orchestral setting.  I mean, it is a hammer striking strings after all. The piano's capability for achieving attack is incredible strong, most noticeably at the extremes of its highest and lowest range.  

If one bashes out a guitar riff on the lower range of the piano, it can produce a fantastic double to add an aspect of punch and grit to said riff. This is exactly what was done for The Canary's post-bridge section, named "Seed Bats" by the ever cheeky fellas in PTH.

For this dark, quiet, and murmuring song section we hear Todd Kowalski of Propaghandi playing the bass guitar in a kind of half-time groove in 7. This bass part ended up being doubled by the piano in the lowest possible octave to give it some additional punch and rumble. It's a simple trick, but not one heard often in metal. The piano doesn't always have to be pretty, in fact it can be pretty darn heavy if given the chance. 

Using Lyrics as Musical Direction

When laying down the additional orchestration for a song, lyrics can be hugely inspiring. If you're stuck with writers block or you're feeling unsure of the next creative step to take, the intended narrative of a song can often dictate the mood that needs to be represented by the instruments. A significant moment in the orchestration of "The Canary" came about using this technique:

If we listen to the previously mentioned "Seed Bats" section, vocalist Rody Walker's last words are a foreboding lyric alluding to the death of Amelia Earheart.

"Women must pay for everything. They do get more glory than men for comparable tasks, but they also get more notoriety when they crash." 

With that final word, "crash", a percussion instrument called the Tubular Bell rings and sustains in a moment of suspense before exploding into the energetic final riff the song. The Tubular Bell is an orchestral instrument that's often used to punctuate themes of death, doom, and inevitability. This creative decision wasn't based on any musical material, but entirely influenced by lyrical context.  

For all of you true Protest The Hero heads, it's worth noting that this is the second time a tubular bell has been used in Protest the Hero's catalogue. If you are familiar with the album Kezia, go back and listen to the song "The Divine Suicide of K". In its final moments, you can hear a tubular bell ringing out through the end of the song, achieving a similar atmosphere. This tubular bell not only functions as an emphasis for Rody's lyrics, but also as an allusion to Protest the Hero's previous material. Both "The Canary" and "The Divine Suicide of K". end with the lyrics speaking of the death of a woman, with both being accentuated by the use of this tubular "death bell".

While these are only a handful of the tricks used in "The Canary", if you listen with a keen ear you might notice some pizzicato strings, bright brass which is doubling guitar leads, soft sustained non-vibrato strings melodies, synth, and some more reinforcement of hidden upper guitar voices. "The Canary" is the just tip of the iceberg regarding the huge amount of orchestration material throughout Palimpsest. There will be plenty more to discuss with the release of the album, and we plan on it, but in the mean time, we hope these tricks have given you some insight and ideas for your next orchestration endeavour. Stay tuned for the next instalment of the Orchestration In Heavy Music - Palimpsest series!