An Elegy for Battery: The Year the Beat Died

An Elegy for Battery: The Year the Beat Died

Hippocrates mused, “Life is short, art is eternal.” The passing of four uncommonly-gifted drummers – Neil Peart, Sean Reinert, Reed Mullin, and Bill Rieflin, all amidst the doleful wilderness of this plague year – has brought life’s brevity into sharp relief. And, so, here it is that we find ourselves, wandering through absence, driven inside, the soldiers of withdrawal, pining for what now seem like halcyon days, no matter the distortion of memory. For many of us, our lives in December scarcely resemble those we were living only nine months ago. Friends, family members, and heroes have been lost, relationships strained and broken, industries paralyzed, the comforts of routine displaced or scored out altogether. It seemed to happen so suddenly, and our inability to anticipate its scale, its pervasiveness, its transformative power has left us not only stunned, but mulling over new and strange anxieties. But if we can remember back through the distress, we can see that the clouds began to gather well in advance of the flood.

On Friday, January 10th, it was announced that Rush drummer, Neil Peart, had passed away after a prolonged battle with cancer. For the drum community – and, indeed, the prog, rock, and metal communities – Peart’s passing came as a mighty blow. I speak, I think, for most drummers: Neil Peart was a once-in-a-lifetime presence, that rare artist possessed both of ability and popular appeal. Most outside of drumming and underground music circles would be hard pressed to recognize names of drum masters like Narada Michael Walden or Sean Rickman, but everyone knows Neil Peart. How many thousands of young drummers have listened for the first time, mouths agape, at the rapturous acrobatics of “Cygnus X-1, Pt. II,” and how many seasoned players have, with equal awe, meditated on the elegance and sensitivity of “Distant Early Warning”? Peart’s passing set a grim tone for the year but his would be far from our only loss. Over the following weeks and months, the reaper of 2020 would come to claim the lives of so many talents (Harold Budd, Tony Allen, Martin Birch, Jimmy Cobb, Simon Coxe, Andy Gill, Gordon Haskell, Bob Kulick, Ennio Morricone, Gary Peacock, Genesis P-Orridge, Florian Schneider, Keith Tippet, McCoy Tyner, Lee Kerslake, Eddie Van Halen, and Pete Way, among many others).

But instead of acquiescing to the cruelties of this year, rather we should celebrate the gift of art and those artists whose work will continue to inspire musicians and listeners. We cannot, of course, pay proper tribute to every musician we have lost in 2020, so this brief essay will focus on select career highlights of the four extraordinary drummers mentioned above And though these musicians can be said, and justifiably so, to move in similar rock- and metal-based orbits, their work represents the accumulation of decades of percussive and musical knowledge. Jazz, fusion, Fourth World rhythms, and the percussion of 20th century art music can be found to filigree the output of these players, sometimes obviously, very often cleverly and obliquely. Despite loose professional associations, these drummers converge along musical axis points. The respective approaches of Reinert, Mullin, and Rieflin all display advanced technique and thinking and manifest variously as metronomic, fusionoid, earthy, and scorching. And there, at the center of things, sits Professor Peart, statesman and nonpareil unifier, who ties together these divergent tendencies.

  1. Neil Peart – “Natural Science” (Rush – Permanent Waves, 1980)

By 1980, Rush had begun to evolve beyond the widescreen progressive rock of its previous three albums, not only paring down scale but taking cues from the punch and economy of new wave and punk. Ever mindful of zeitgeist, Rush carved out a career at once singular and obedient to the currents of popular culture. On 1980’s Permanent Waves, sleek compositions such as “Entre Nous” and the gorgeous “Different Strings” mingled the complexities of the band’s more hirsute long-form pieces with the wit and compositional terseness of the art-leaning pop music of the emerging decade. And nowhere on the record is that friction explored with greater intensity than on the album’s final piece, “Natural Science.” At 9:20, it is the album’s longest song by a 2 minute margin, but its proportions offer a framework for one of Peart’s final tours de force (though the band’s next album, their masterpiece, 1981’s Moving Pictures, features some of Peart’s most stunning pyrotechnics).    

As the full band commences, Peart snaps into one of his most aerodynamic grooves, a steely, lean rhythm set beneath melodies that mirror the gloomy monochrome of the album’s cover. Portended only by the vortical swirl of Geddy Lee’s Moog, Peart shifts into overdrive with an equally stealth, but far more desperate, 7/8 rhythm that propels the band through a sci-fi metal wormhole. The overall effect anticipates the deep-space thrash of Voivod’s Dimension Hatross by a decade very nearly and completes a DNA sequence that runs from Van Der Graaf Generator’s “Man-Erg” to Mayhem’s “Completion of Science in Agony.” Peart molests the boundaries of the passage with hi-hat ambushes and his inescapable right hand, until a whiplash drum break directs the listener into the song’s next phase. Here, Peart and Lee’s spacious synth chords support Lifeson’s solo, which concludes with a heart-tugging melody (4:30). When the song’s main chord progression is reprised, Peart distorts its initial form by recasting it as a hemiola, a polymetric eyewink to remind us who is piloting this ship.

Afterwards, the song switches gears yet again, this time the band making a strategic gesture that mirrors the artful foreshadowing of “Vital Signs,” the final track on Moving Pictures. Only the opposite. Whereas “Vital Signs” nods toward The Police and The Fixx and points to a futuristic, anti-essentialist soundworld, the back half of “Natural Science” reprises the comparably looser trio approach that characterized 2112. And here, Peart digs into swinging passages that recall the wide-open spaces of “The Trees,” from Hemispheres, and he summons his inner Ginger Baker during Alex Lifeson’s second solo passage, which jettisons rhythm guitar altogether and sinks its teeth into a muscular, power trio jam. It is the last time, until perhaps Counterparts, that we will hear Peart play with such abandon.

 In an interview with Classic Rock, Lifeson had this to say about Permanent Waves: “There had been a shift from the last vestiges of the rock scene of the early 70s to the punk movement. And by 1979, when we started working on Permanent Waves, I think we were more aware of what was happening in music. We were not so much in our own little world.”[1] Permanent Waves has been characterized as a transitional album and, in light of Lifeson’s remarks, this may be justified. But the equivocal identity and unsure generic footing that define most transitional albums are nowhere to be found on Permanent Waves. Taken either as a whole or piecemeal, this is a confident and accomplished album from a band approaching the crest of its career. So instead of struggling through transition, “Natural Science” instead pulls the listener in competing directions, offering a glimpse of a high-tech future and bidding farewell to a free-spirited past. And with Peart at the helm, it is possible to travel along any course.

  • Sean Reinert – “See Through Dreams” (Death – Human, 1991)

Few records remap a genre’s borders so radically as to territorialize previously unclaimed regions. Death’s 1991 watershed, Human, is precisely such a record. Though built using the genre’s core devices – detuned, tremolo-picked guitars, guttural vocals, double-bass drumming, often delivered at pitiless velocities[2] – principal member, Chuck Shuldiner, imported a cast of highly-skilled instrumentalists to bring to life his innovative vision. Steve DiGiorgio, bassist of San Francisco hyperthrash trio, Sadus, came to the table with well-established credentials and a quiver of subtle techniques unable to be introduced into Sadus’ blitzkrieg offense. Likewise, Cynic’s Paul Masvidal, who in 1990 had toured with Death in support of their previous album, Spiritual Healing, contributed a lead style that owed more to Allan Holdsworth’s cosmic legato than to the chromatic discharge of, say, Trey Azagthoth. But it was Masvidal’s Cynic bandmate, Sean Reinert, who, over the course of 33 high-pressure minutes, would singlehandedly revise the vocabular dimensions of metal drumming.

One could make a defensible argument for the inclusion of any number of Reinert’s performances, especially those captured by Scott Burns for Cynic’s 1993 landmark, Focus. But his breathless performance on Human evidences the brain-fevers of a young Robespierre as he decodes and rebuilds the cryptic language of heavy metal. “See Through Dreams,” the album’s sixth track, begins with a squall of kick drums and fills, the precision of which mocks the machine-over-man antisepsis of current studio practices. After a brief pause at the :20 mark, the band slips into halftime, as Reinert’s feline syncopations conceal what would otherwise be a clearly stated meter[3]. The slippery feel to this passage recalls the linear funk of Steve Gadd and David Garibaldi –linear drumming is a drum kit playing style in which no drum, cymbal, or other drum component hits simultaneously– but transformed under the force of Reinert’s four-limbed alchemy. This section also highlights Reinert’s exceptional ear, which allows him to hear the dimensions of a riff that would go unnoticed by many other drummers. His technique aside, it is perhaps Reinert’s way of thinking about music that gives this performance its novel power.

Reinert underpins the chorus with a broadside of kick drums, overlaying them will fills that seem to float in a space above bar line. One could find many examples of superimposed kick/fill patterns in metal – Trym Torson’s spiteful pounding on Emperor’s Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk comes to mind – but no drummer had, up to this point, at least, attempted the combination with such finesse and ease. Following a particularly memorable solo from Schuldiner, the band once again applies the brakes and Reinert works through another linear pattern, deploying a hi-hat figure that sends the riff into a vertigo warp. Attempts to focus on traditionally foregrounded elements like vocals and guitars are subverted by the compulsion of Reinert’s drum work. Even as the song begins to fade, slowly enveloped by Schuldiner’s echoing roar, Reinert continues to ply his wares, running a stuttered kick drum pattern underneath the massive, loping riff that closes out the song. Human concludes with two more songs (including the groundbreaking instrumental, “Cosmic Sea”), but by the end of “See Through Dreams,” one gets the sense of having just toured not only the history of metal drumming but also being given a glimpse of the possibilities of its future. In the glare of 2020, musicians willing to soldier forward can find rest and inspiration in Reinert’s legacy, which leaves behind a reservoir of ideas yet to be exhausted.

  • Reed Mullin – “Mine Are the Eyes of God” (Corrosion of Conformity – Blind, 1991)

North Carolina’s Corrosion of Conformity came to life as a member of the American hardcore groundswell of the early- and mid-1980s. Their blistering 1984 debut, Eye for an Eye, dedicates its energies to concise bursts of anger that sit comfortably next to contemporary works by MDC, Die Kreuzen, and Poison Idea. But even at this budding juncture, the brawn of early Black Sabbath and SST doom-punks, Saint Vitus, could be heard filtering up through the floorboards. By the time of 1985’s crossover missive, Animosity, that influence had begun to reveal itself more conspicuously. Songs like “Positive Outlook” and the title track feature heaving breaks and riffs that compare with the edible thickness of Philadelphia-based, ‘70s proto-metal trio, Bang. The band’s next release, the 1987 EP, Technocracy, continued to drive home this dual allegiance to searing speed and low-slung heft, dealing out both in equal shares over the course of a modest but severe 13 minutes.

After a schism that resulted in the departure of bassist Mike Dean and the introduction of vocalist Karl Agell, guitarist Pepper Keenan, and bassist Phil Swisher, Corrosion of Conformity returned in 1991 with its third full-length album, Blind. In the intervening years, the band had divested itself of its hardcore trappings and doubled down on the doomy, Sabbath influence that haunted its earlier recordings. In particular, Blind owes a special debt to one of Sabbath’s most accomplished acolytes, Chicago’s Trouble, whose self-titled major label debut, produced by Rick Rubin and issued on his label just one year earlier, seems to have left an indelible impression on CoC’s new music. With John Custer at the helm, Blind announces itself confidently: clean lines, sharp harmonies, structural parsimony, and a thrilling, head-turning performance by drummer, Reed Mullin. Earlier recordings had confirmed that Mullin could hold his own amidst CoC’s tempests of rage, but none could have anticipated the driver-seat role that the drummer would play on Blind.

Situated in the middle of an album that, itself, unfolds as a sequence of peaks, “Mine Are the Eyes of God” follows up its brief introduction with a cooking-off of high-powered munitions: scooped-out thrash-tone guitars that slice like hot scythes, bone-dry, cannon fire battery, and an oddly-enwombed low end that throbs among and stalks the lower regions of the mix. Amidst the clamor, Mullin at once plies order and instigates rhythmic chaos. The drummer begins his wager at the :41 mark, at which point he shoves a ¾ square peg straight through guitarists’ unsuspecting 4/4 circle. The mania of his playing threatens to overwhelm the urgency already conjured by Keenan and Woody Weatherman’s twelve strings, as Mullin’s 32nd note hi-hat locomotion and stammering snare stabs very nearly loose themselves from the song’s rhythmic tracks. As the band moves into the verse, anchored by a terse, brutally precise riff, Mullin continues his agitations. Here, he careens around the verse’s strobing guitars, using obstinate over-the-bar-line figures to drive the rhythm in unexpected directions. In this sense, it could be said that Mullin’s approach here prioritizes melody over rhythm. His drum fills sing almost contrapuntally against the other members’ contributions, encouraging a dialog between the instruments, the kind of reciprocity that is at odds with received notions of rock music and its often-abided edict of unanimous forward motion. Likewise, Mullin refuses to be cowed by the song’s chorus, instead meeting it head on in a frenzy of Thor’s Hammer ride work and combative triplets. His point having been made rather thoroughly, Mullin offers both his beleaguered bandmates and the listener a passage of relief at the 2:20 mark, when the entire band settles into a perspirant, libidinous swing that foreshadows the deep Southern grooves of 1994’s Deliverance. But on “Mine Are the Eyes of God,” Mullin plays as if pounding his own epitaph into stone.

  • Bill Rieflin – “Telepathy” (Swans – The Great Annihilator, 1995)

Multi-instrumentalist Bill Rieflin’s peripatetic career led him across geographies far and wide, from industrial to rock, pop, prog, improvised music, and beyond. Though best known for his highly disciplined approach to the drums, Rieflin contributed keyboards, guitar, programming, and percussion to scores of albums by Ministry, Robyn Hitchcock, Pigface, Hector Zazou, R.E.M., KMFDM, and King Crimson, among others. In the latter group, Rieflin enjoyed membership in a fraternity of drummers that also included Pat Mastelotto and Gavin Harrison. His playing in this ensemble demonstrated not only his technical skill – required of any drummer tasked with navigating Harrison’s rigorously choreographed scores – but also his sense of musical democracy. Live performances of this lineup, documented on the Live at Orpheum, Live in Toronto, and Radical Action to Unseat the Hold of Monkey Mind recordings, confirm Rieflin’s generosity as a supporting player. Tellingly situated in the center of the 3-drummer frontline, Rieflin thoughtfully governs the ensemble and anchors the ecstatic (Mastelotto) and virtuosic (Harrison) flights of his fellow drummers.

Rieflin came to prominence as a member of Al Jourgenson’s Ministry and is perhaps still best known for his work in that band and other, associated industrial rock/metal outfits. These groups provided an ideal vehicle for Rieflin’s drumming voice: metronomic, focused, supportive. As well, Rieflin demonstrated in these contexts an uncommon skill for accompaniment alongside electronics and programmed beats. The drummer’s unyielding execution, in fact, often makes it difficult to distinguish between the human and robotic elements at play. Take, for instance, Rieflin’s performance on Ministry’s “Breathe,” on which he played and programmed drums. The distinction between the two can scarcely be made. But however appropriate were these bands to his personality, Rieflin found his most sympathetic partner in the roving, Michael Gira-led Swans.

In a 2011 interview with Ann Powers, Rieflin remarked that, “Michael Gira gives me my ideal job: he plays me music and asks, “What does it need?” which I sometimes interpret as, “What would you like to do?” and then I get to do it.”[4] It speaks to the humility of Rieflin’s thinking and musicianship that he would accept this invitation by turning in such selfless performances. Rieflin began his relationship with Swans in 1993 and, in total, played on 6 of its albums. He played a particularly active role on 1995’s The Great Annihilator, the penultimate album of the band’s mk1 phase. “Telepathy,” found on the back half of the album, offers an ideal illustration of Rieflin’s approach to the expansive music of Swans’ mature period. The song makes use of some of the musician’s many talents, here as drummer, percussionist, and programmer. Underneath a droning, undulating wordless vocal, Rieflin sets a delicate march, the tone of which is more funereal than martial. Soon, the pattern, dusted with ghost notes and the distant echoes of a woodblock, accompanies a particularly visceral Gira lyric:

I saw you through the window masturbating to the violence
And the blood and the bodies floated through the blue sun.
And the green earth turns to flesh in your hand
And the ether was born in the lungs of an ancient man

The pattern continues with perfect insistence until, at the 3:43 mark, Rieflin leads the ensemble through a double-time passage built on a variation of the original march. The change is perhaps less radical than it seems, but the strict minimalism of the song’s first several minutes heightens the comparable urgency of this passage. The song comes to a climax around 5:30, as Rieflin ceases his merciless hammering, leaving behind only the diaphanous guitar chords that are draped over the entire section. Just as the song seems finally to settle, it erupts, briefly, in a chorus of screams, a kernel of torment that annuls any potential for redemption. The drumming on “Telepathy” illustrates Rieflin’s loyalty to his assignment, even if it leads him into the abyss.


It seems glib to attempt a pithy summarization of this year’s wreckage. We will continue to shoulder our losses, as we must, and we will likely do so with the specters of impermanence and uncertainty looming about. But in the face of this ugly mutability, we must, perhaps more than ever, cling to the things that prop us up, nourish us, remind us that some things really are durable and timeless. We thank Messrs. Peart, Reinert, Mullin, and Rieflin for giving all these things and more.

Hunter Ginn, Savannah, GA, December 2020

P.P.S. As I write this, we have just learned of the passing of one of our most beloved musicians, Sean Malone, best known for his work with Cynic and his own group, Gordian Knot. We are heartbroken and staggered. Our deepest condolences to Sean’s family and friends. Rest easy now, Sean, and thank you for making this world a more beautiful place

[1] Winding, Philip. “Rush: How We Reinvented Ourselves and Made Permanent Waves.” Classic Rock. 13 May 2000.

[2] It should be noted that Chuck Schuldiner can claim, at least in part, authorial credit for these very devices

[3] It is recommended that interested listeners refer to Relapse Records’ 2011 deluxe reissue of Human, which features isolated and revealing takes by Reinert and DiGiorgio.

[4] Powers, Ann. “Talking Shop with Bill Rieflin, Journeyman Musician.” NPR, The Record. 29 September 2011.