Little Snakes, the third in our Palimpsest series, is full of compelling musical material to analyze and talk about. From the effectiveness of it’s rhythmic simplicity, it’s live string quartet, and extended orchestral techniques, there’s plenty for us to investigate.
Posted — November 3, 2020
As per usual, lets hear some opening words from Luke Hoskin himself:
"Little Snakes" was a song we composed in the home stretch of the Palimpsest writing sessions. It was the 10th of 12 songs we wrote for album consideration.From my personal experience writing for pth, there is a point in the writing process at which I start to feel comfortable / confident in both the amount of material we have, and more importantly, the quality of that material. It feels like a weight is lifted and you can start to think about some ideas you haven't explored yet, but still intend on exploring.
I think we were at that point when we sat down to compose this song. So much so, that I remember having a conversation about this song's breakdown (at 2:46) before we started writing the song itself: We wanted to tear a song down to almost nothing, and build it back into something huge. With that modest goal as a starting point, we set out building "Little Snakes" around that idea.
For me, so much of the writing of Palimpsest (on guitar at least) was about restraint. And this song was left with a lot of breathing room on purpose. We have the luxury of falling back on Rody's melodies later on, as he generally writes his parts after the music has been written.Trust me, the urge to write some annoyingly fast lead over the chorus of this song was strong at first, but I am glad we held back and let Rody do what he does so well.
The open space we left seems to have benefitted the orchestration as well - but I will let Milen ramble about that for an eternity below!
Two of the defining instrumental traits of a Protest the Hero chorus are the rhythmic complexity, and lightning fast lead guitar lines. Combined with Rody’s uncanny ability to write a catchy vocal hook amidst the storm, these traits make for an often dense musical arrangement that has become a big part of what we love about Protest.
With that said, the chorus of Little Snakes is quite a departure from the majority of the band’s catalogue. The chorus in question is built on a relatively simple dotted eighth note rhythm, via a triplet over 4/4 polyrhythmic feel. It’s simple, powerful, and gives Rody plenty of room to do whatever the heck he wants without much interference.
With all of this space for Rody to work with, the band managed to create one of the most powerful choruses on the record.
The initial orchestration around this chorus was as simple as adding staccato brass & string shots that pound along with the kick drum pattern.
Let’s hear the orchestra on it’s own:
And with the rest of the band:
With such a powerful and upfront vocal arrangement, this chorus was a great opportunity to try orchestrating along with the vocal melody. A lot of orchestral instrumentation is tailored to building out the instrumental ‘bed’ of a piece, while vocals are left to sit on top of the arrangement. In musical theatre however, this is not necessarily the case, and vocal melodies are often heard orchestrated and re-contextualized. Given Rody’s theatrical performances, the chorus of Little Snakes was a prime opportunity to attempt this technique, by having the brass support the hook of the chorus, along with some string doubling and harmonizing. All supporting the impactful line “Because the rights they have, we gave to them, and we can take ‘em away without giving a damn.”
The Menacing Post Chorus
The first post-chorus of ‘Little Snakes’ is a dark, haunting, and percussive moment of music. It’s got some syncopated palm mutes, chromatic movements in parallel fifths, musical phrasing revolving around the tritone, and lastly, Rody’s haunting character performance and ghostly falsetto. All traits of a haunting soundscape.
To support this section, cellos and double basses add weight to the palm muted guitar parts, along with the same low piano percussive doubling used in “The Canary.”
All of this in tandem effectively establishes a menacing and impactful atmosphere, however, there’s one more orchestration trick used. It’s an often overlooked favourite of mine, that you might not know about, but have certainly heard. Let's take a listen:
Hard to pinpoint what the sound is, right?
This is an ‘extended technique’ of the classical strings section known as “Col Legno” or “Col Legno Battuto” meaning “with the wood being hit” in Italian.
Col Legno is taking the bow of a stringed instrument, holding it with the wood facing downwards, and dropping the bow on the string to make a metallic ‘ping’ noise. If you have a large string section playing Col Legno at random, the effect is the symphony of spooky clamour you just heard.
Col Legno, as well as many other extended string techniques, are largely attributed to the music of polish composer Krzystztof Penderecki. Penderecki, who sadly passed away this year, was a huge name in contemporary music and was influential to many experimental composers both within and outside of ‘classical’ music.
Extended techniques (basically meaning weird ways to use an instrument) can create amazing textures, but are often forgotten or unknown outside of experimental music.
Lets hear the section in all of its spooky glory:
The String Quartet
The turning point of Little Snakes comes after its second chorus. The first piece of this arrangement comes in the pulsing bass playing a single quarter note on the root. Supporting it is a hi-hat driven drum part, which outlines our count in 3. It’s full of syncopation, duplets and rhythmic trickery. With the sonic room afforded by the sole use of bass and drums, it seemed like a great moment to allow the nuance of live string players to shine. The part was written for a string quartet (two violins, viola, and cello), with 4 distinct voices that compliment the underlying arrangement.
After a melodic introduction, the quartet retreats from 4 to 2 voices to clear the way for Rody’s reentry, as well as to give us some sonic room to build from. As the ringing guitar chords enter the arrangement, the quartet’s voicings open up and reinforce the guitar part accenting the kick drum.
With the introduction of the legato vocal melody on “It’s your vacation, your holiday”, the quartet adapts from its percussive staccato support to a more melodic approach. The 1st and 2nd Violins are playing a simple form of Rody’s melody with additional harmony, while the Viola and Cello contour the chord progression with some open voiced root chord movement.
By the time it was finished, Little Snakes had become a highlight for the orchestration of Palimpsest as a whole. From conscious simplicity, to overt experimentation, we challenged ourselves to use our orchestral palette to full effect on this song, and I believe that this was achieved to great effect.