Heavy music is often relegated to the dark corners of the listening populous, where Satan is said to live.
Yes, there was a string of murders and suicides by members of a Norwegian black metal band in the 1990s. That was brutal, but unrelated to the point.
Aside from the iconography, which was intended as a sarcastic middle finger — a marketing ploy — metal is not so easily defined as some would think.
Music is the universal language because it speaks to the spirit of man, not just to the mind.
Metal is a natural evolution of western tonal music, of the classics, of Bach and Beethoven. Since the early 1970s, when Black Sabbath introduced the world to a dumbfounding and timeless exploration of distortion with their first three albums, metal and the players and creators behind it have taken the genre in countless directions.
Subgenres have been built overnight, exploring the intersection between different styles of music that felt incomprehensible in their relationships until someone did it.
This is what Hotplate does.
Aaron Givens (guitar), Jacob Givens (bass), Patrick Hussey (drums) and Robert Metlon III (guitar), all in their early 30s and Savannah natives, have known each other since they were skateboarding punks and jam-band enthusiastic teenagers. They’ve played music in various bands together for just about as long, now closing in on two decades of friendship and music making.
Hotplate began with Hussey, Aaron Givens and Elgin Braden (bass) some seven years ago, when CUSSES was the coolest band in town and were starting to host shows at their illegal house venue, No Control.
In those days, Hussey said, it sounded like a mixture of Modest Mouse and The Replacements, a far cry from where the band has ended up these days, somewhere in the universe of The Melvins, Converge, Slint, Pelican, Russian Circles and Miles Davis' “Bitches Brew” phase. Hotplate had vocals as well, something they’ve done away with completely now.
Aaron Givens and Hussey came out of a jam-band background. They went to Phish concerts. Jacob Givens and Metlon did not, and would not, and it is that very intersection of seemingly unrelated music that laid a foundation for what Hotplate has eventually become.
Metlon joined early on at the behest of Braden, bringing a heavier sound to the band almost immediately. When Braden left for New York, Jacob Givens filled the bass-sized hole in the band and brought another important catalyst to the ever-evolving Hotplate aesthetic.
Jacob Givens tuned his bass low. Very low. A full two steps down from standard tuning. It takes two amplifiers to produce the low notes he’s playing. One won’t cut it. This low tuning, prevalent in the heavy metal world, forced the guitars to drop from standard tuning (the tuning used for 80 percent of music played on the instrument, historically).
Then things got all weird.
“I had always played in dropped D, then I was like f*** it, let’s go down,” Metlon said. So he went to a drop C tuning, which has been used by bands like Lamb of God, Chimaira, In Flames, System of A Down, Baroness and Red Fang.
“My friend was tuning this guitar I had into all different kinds of tunings,” Aaron Givens said. “He said, I can’t get this back into standard, I am so far gone, can you help me get this guitar back in tune? I strummed it and changed some tunings. Played a couple songs on it, came up with something. I said, I am going to keep this guitar in this tuning and tune you another guitar. No one gave it to me, I just made it.”
By creating his own tuning, something else happened — he split his six-string guitar into two three-string portions, where the bottom three strings, the low end, are essentially in a drop C tuning, and his high three strings are in an undefinable tuning comprised of accidental notes (sharps).
Paired with Metlon’s and Jacob Givens' drop C tunings, the guitars created their own unique sonic universe to toy around in. The music became automatically heavy due to the tunings. Add speed and you’ve got metal. But Hotplate isn’t all speed and sound. Hussey balances that out because he hates playing metal drums.
“I am pretty all over the place,” Hussey said. “The heavier stuff is harder for me to do. The free form jazz stuff comes more naturally.”
“Patrick refuses to play metal drums,” Jacob Givens said. “He refuses to do blast beats.”
“Yeah, no blast beats,” Hussey added.
The convergence of their influences, tunings and playing styles has been honed in a disciplined practice schedule for years. Hotplate rehearses and writes more than they play out. They gather three times a week and play through ideas, which are brought to the whole band by individuals.
Because they practice so much, they have piles of discarded ideas that are recycled for new songs. For instance, the newest track, which premieres exclusively on dosavannah.com, titled “1,000 Things I Touched Today,” is essentially all recycled riffs and ideas in a new format.
Over the years, as their "instrametal" — a phrase coined by Jacob Givens — came together, the need for a vocalist became unnecessary. The musical universe in which they play was interesting enough.
“You have to keep people’s attention in a different way, since no one is talking,” Metlon said. “I love vocal music, but I don’t think we need it.”
“Been working fine without it,” Hussey confirmed.
The riffs from the Givens brothers and Metlon bounce off each other, sometimes syncopated, sometimes in time. Hussey’s free form on the drums adds an ever shifting rhythmic foundation that at times fills the space and at other times fades behind the strings. It is down and dirty counterpoint with four unique voices. It’s a modern chamber orchestra. It’s the rules of tonal music, obliterated with distortion, filtered through simple and complex rhythmic structures.
Even if you’re not a fan of heavy music, Hotplate is appealing because it hearkens to the minutia of music that draws all listeners in; that undeniable syncing that happens between tone, rhythm and the spirit.
Also, their songs have hilarious titles. Here are some examples: “Power Wagon,” “Plans are Built on Thin Ice,” “Any Surface Can Be Your Deathbed, “You Could Be Dead With the Lights On,” “Trick Pony,” “Dead Beat Dad Rock,” “Wanna Watch Me Work Out.”
“I think it’s fun — you never know what you’re going to get,” Metlon said. “We have a three-minute song, a 10-minute, a seven-minute. There’s no formula. Each one is different. There is no recipe. It’s just whatever we feel like doing.”
Joshua Peacock is the arts and entertainment features writer for Do Savannah and Savannah Morning News. Empire of Sound has won multiple Georgia Press Association awards. Contact him at email@example.com.