lessons

Drum Parts: Dave McClain's "I Am Hell"

Dave McClain

Band: Machine Head
Album: Unto The Locust
Song: “I Am Hell”

It all started when Machine Head frontman Robb Flynn started listening to classical music. And thinking about female serial killer arsonists. Put those two unlikely bedfellows together with the relentless thrash metal power that the band has been honing since 1992, and you’ve got “I Am Hell,” the huge opening track from new offering Unto The Locust.

Drummer Dave McClain was only too happy to find himself in the drum-friendly surroundings of Green Day’s Jingle Town Studios to record the group’s arresting seventh album. “We really took a long time miking everything up – concentrating on overheads and keeping everything as natural as we could,” says the good-natured McClain. “If you listen close to Unto The Locust you’re going to hear that some of my hits are not right, because I’m playing a million miles an hour. It’s not perfect, and that’s what I like about this record.”

Or is it? For lovers of massive everything – arrangements, rhythms, and meaning – listening to “I Am Hell” is a perfect way to pass eight-and-a-half minutes. The song starts with a purely choral, Gregorian-chant-style intro that’s as beautiful as it is suspenseful. At :59, McClain and a slowly churning guitar part break the spell. “It feels like a slow death march to me,” he says of his methodically patient first section. “I’m straight-sticking on floor toms, and then it starts to build up.”

From 1:13—2:00, McClain gradually adds multiple levels to the foundation, stacking on snare hits and shorts double bass bursts as Flynn’s ominous vocals take us deeper into the song’s dark story. “I’ve been playing for 34 years now, and I feel like it’s only relatively recently that I’ve become more of a songwriter,” says McClain. “I’ve learned a lot from Robb as far as songwriting goes, and seeing the big picture. When that first verse kicks in, there’s not a lot going on, but it just sounds crushing.”

Right at the 2:00 mark, McClain plays out a spacious crash/China/splash cymbal roll as the first verse segues to the song’s next level. “I think doing a cymbal roll like that, especially at the end of a heavy part, is so atmospheric,” he says. “There’s all these different dynamics that create space and this really cool atmosphere. It makes an epic ending, and you kind of know something’s about to happen there.”

Yes, indeed. At 2:07, your ears are surprised with a classic “1-2-3-4” hat count that launches drummer and band into a ballistic space. “That count off is punk rock to me,” says McClain. “The count offs are the thing that usually gets edited out, but to me that’s part of punk or hardcore drumming: ’Here we go! We’re going into this fast thing!’ It’s part of the song to me.”

After a set of unison moves with the band, McClain heads into an extremely fast double kick beat for a bridge that requires a clear head as much as it does quick feet. “I think it’s like 230 or 235 bpm,” he says, “but for me its one of the easiest things to play. At this tempo your feet are almost going like a hummingbird, and it’s all a matter of controlling that. At that tempo, I’m more concentrating on keeping my snare heavy: Your mind kind of takes you to your feet, but to me just having that snare there is the actual beat of it, so I’m more focused on keeping that heavy. I worry about hitting the snare hard, and I’m just hoping that the feet keep moving.”

Under the verse and chorus that comes next, McClain unwinds a punishing “basic thrash beat” that adds intricate cymbal accents around 3:07. “I call it ’chopping steak,’” he says. “Instead of just hitting on the down beat with my hi-hat, I’ll hit it on the upbeat as well. When the vocals come in, I’m accenting on my crash cymbals along with the kick beat. A lot of times I just play to what the vocals are doing. Our singer/guitar player Robb is the dude I zero in on – we don’t do the drum-and-bass-player type of thing.”

If the fast, furious fill at 4:24 catches your ear, you have something in common with McClain’s man Flynn. “Robb is a closet drummer, and sometimes the easiest things I do just sound amazing to him. When I played it he said, ’What was that?’ and I said, ’It’s twos and twos and twos, and two fours.’ It’s pretty easy stuff – two on the snare, two on the kick, two on the toms, and a roll on the cymbals, but it just sounds so chaotic. Sometimes you just want to impress the drummers out there, but you forget that the things that are easiest to do sound the coolest. That’s one of the things I’m learning, too: It’s not always the most technical thing that hits people over the head.”

As the song unfolds, that masterful thrash beat returns, and a reprise of the patient march leads up to a surprising classical guitar interlude at 6:26, the setup for a super-heavy final chapter that begins at 6:59 (for which we ran out of space in the mag. But we think you can take it from here. –Eds). Here, McClain is in construction once again, building up to goliath double bass and tom bombshells that explode around the foundation, somehow creating intensity without adding mass. “Its super slow, half notes on the cymbal, the kick is just driving the guitar rhythm, and I always love ending a pattern like that with a tom,” he says. “It sounds so brutal, and doing it half time on the cymbals just adds to it. It’s just so heavy to me: It makes you want to do stupid drum faces and break cymbals.”

Fittingly, around 7:48, a slow fadeout awaits to end this advanced band’s mega jam. “You must be the fourth person that’s asked about the fadeout,” McClain laughs. “People are saying to us, ’Dude, I miss long fadeouts!’ That’s the way to end an epic song: with a long, ’70s fadeout.”

Next page: Full transcription and audio track of “I Am Hell”

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