Saturday, March 24, 2012

Expose Your Pose

When I was a teenager reading Metal Hammer GR, there was a little column whose name I can't remember where an interviewer would play ten songs for a metal musician that was featured on the issue, and the musician would strive to recognize the songs, or at least the bands. It was always an entertaining read and I do remember some famous flops by highly visible metal artists that you'd guess have never heard of metal music before. I remember also that one of the Cavalera brothers from Sepultura did sterlingly on his try.

So, I'm bringing that back. But in a whole new, horrible twist, I'm not even going to ask actual metal musicians to tell me if they recognize this or that. After all, it really is besides the point if a metal musician is also a well-read metal affictionado. For all I care, they could have never listened to anything else than two Iron Maiden songs, if their own music is great, that's fine with me. Actually, I think too much slavish devotion to 'the history of metal' and its various sacred cows might lead to unambitious metal-making, but that's besides the scope of this little experiment.

No, I'm going to ask metal bloggers. I'm not even going to select the music beforehand. They'll be hitting 'shuffle' in their grand collection of mp3s and not looking at the media player's display. I bet most people that write on the web, especially for niche metal genres won't be able to tell their Generic Death Metal #4 from their Generic Death Metal #8, but we'll see.

The rules are as follows for those that are brave:

0. Put all your media in there and shuffle. If it's on your hard drives, you have to put it there. If someone only has say, ten records on their hard drive, this does not preclude them, in fact it is a very prudent choice and they should be applauded for their skillful play.

1. No Cheating in your reports. You're only cheating yourselves with further self-delusion. Write it like it is, if you don't know what the hell is going on in your hard drive, then that's what's going on. Chalk it up to terrible debris of modernity, chalk it up to middle-lower-class upbringing urging you to collect everything you once listened to like a little pack rat. Say whatever, just don't lie about knowing what you didn't.

2. If you want to go easy on yourself, informed guesses (artist name is enough) count as positive entries. In fact, guessing what something is by elements of it being familiar to you whereas the song itself isn't, is a whole different metalhead game tradition, so you shouldn't feel too bad if you can spot a Glenn Benton in some Vital Remains or whatever. You know a few things about the things you're pretending to know a lot about, at least.

3. Recognizing the artist and the album is enough to consider that a solid plus one on your final score. Further bragging about personnel on the record, date of release or other trivia is optional and will not change the score (but feel free).

4. If you didn't know at least Artist - Record (and *especially* if you guessed wrong), you have two after-play choices. Either listen to the record attentively three times in a row and keep it, or delete it outright. Be brave! Listening to music is not supposed to be fun!

So, no more delaying the inevitable. Let all poses be exposed. I will be the first to go.

1. If you feel like playing a more difficult variation by a degree of separation, middle click here to start the link in a secondary tab and try not to look at the name of the tab while you figure it out. Read below when you get it or if you've given up. If you do better than me with my own music library, I'll bend my knee in your general direction.

Starts with a wash of reverberating distortion... no idea so far. More noise. Am I listening to some leftover industrial hidden somewhere on my hard drive? Oh, the trills of 'Night on Bare Mountain' come in, this is Mekong Delta covering Modest Mussorgsky's masterpiece, off of their own masterpiece "Dances of Death (and Other Walking Shadows)". The cover is fair and I can't complain as it served as an introduction to the composer for me. Mekong Delta would go on to cover a lot of Mussorgsky, some well, some less so but that's a whole different story. Full recognition. An auspicious start to my experiment!

2. Middle click, listen, take your guess then read below.

Hmm... I'd say America. Obvious Iron Maiden heritage. The singer doesn't sound American, though. "Hell is for Heroes"? Probable song title? This is some obvious US Metal staple that I should be really embarrassed for not - oh, "Reach for the Stars" is the obvious song title, nice corona on the chorus. Is this Cloven Hoof? If so, shame on me for not realizing straight away. This can't be off of "A Sultan's Ransom" at least, I know that record inside out. *Checks* Yes, this is Cloven Hoof, off of Dominator. "Reach for the sky". I should really listen to that record properly. But this song isn't very good. I'll make the hard choice afterwards.


Oh no, dreaded post-metal, it all sounds alike! At least this is an easy one for me because I simply don't have a lot of post-metal on my archive. Obviously Isis. Off of Celestial. Is this "Collapse and Crush"? If not, it should be. *checks* Buh, Swarm Reigns Down. At least I got the correct record. Man, Isis sounded really different here as opposed to "Oceanic". The no distortion middle part here is really dry and kind of awkwardly played, they would go on to perfect that aspect of their sound later on. There's even some half-a-tone secondary voice in the bass range in here that's awfully off harmony, I guess they thought that was forward thinking at the time. Welcome to ten years of only dissonant post-metal riffing after this, thanks Isis!


No idea. This sounds so completely singular (in terms of bad production), it should be impossible to not remember it though. So I simply have not listened to it enough. If this is US Power metal again I swear, I'll delete it. Waiting for the chorus to see if any of my neurons decide to weakly flicker.

This singer is not a good singer. This post-chorus boogie is awful. I think I'm desecrating some US Metal holy cow here. *Checks* Blackkout - Electric Soldiers. Well, it's US power metal alright. I think this Blackkout has ties to the infinitely more interesting "The Last Things" and which is why I even downloaded this. I think I've listened it to it once. I will review the rest of the record thrice and if the songwriting is as uninspiring as this and the singing as awkward throughout, I am deleting. Here's my first mark of shame on this playlist.


Easy one. Took me two seconds. God, how I hate the voice of Haskell. The main riff of the song and how it alternates with the acoustic guitar parts is very interesting, though. Easily one of the better songs off of the gigantic irritation of a record that is "Lizard". King Crimson would never again scratch that particular faux neo-classical/jazz sore.

6. (not on youtube)

Took me until the vocals came in. Cirith Ungol, off of third third record "One Foot In Hell". At first I thought "Join the Legion" (which is the opener for their fourth and last "Paradise Lost") but it's not it. It's a testament to how generic the '80s period of Cirith Ungol sounds that one song could be on a different record and it'd fit right in. Whereas there's no possibility of mistaking any song off of their first two records as anything else at all. Still, mr. Baker is unmistakable, his voice is that of a terrible beast, one of the best there have ever been. The theme of too much US Metal continues.


Thousands of years before the dawn of history, huh? Fates Warning - 'Damnation', off of their original release, "Night on Brocken". Unmistakable perfection. Also US Metal, but at least, some of *the* best US Metal. People into Jazz should have some Fates Warning on their collection. People into horrorcore should. Everyone. I headbanged.

(An interesting aside, the verse melody that Mr. Arch is employing here has been 'lifted' by Tom Phillips of While Heaven Wept, I'm pretty certain.)


Oh no! Low end! Please don't let this be death metal!... *sigh*, that it is. At least it's moving very slow so I might eventually realize which doom/death band I'm listening to. Oh no, it picked up. The vocalist is positively guttural. Is this Finnish? Is this Krypt of Cerberos, perhaps? This riff sounds like Demilich, but Demilich I would never confuse with their lessers. Let me check. Yes! Crypt of Kerberos (and not the other way around). This goes on the delete pile even if I got a pretty good long shot guess out of it.


Messhugah? These ambient washes in the beginning sound familiar. Is this the intro to "Contradictions Collapse"? Ah, this is certainly Messhugah. Which song however. This is going to give me trouble. At least it's *good* Messhugah. By that I mean, here they still ultimately play thrash riffs that evolve and mutate, not just 'rhythms' that evolve and mutate. There's no way I'm going to identify which song this is, Contradictions Collapse (and "None" for that matter) are so uniform, I can only tell which songs 'Gods of Rapture' and 'Cadaverous Mastication' are. *checks* Oh! Terminal Illusions off of Destroy Erase Improve. A whole record off, huh? Delete.


"Dig Me", by King Crimson, off of the album "Three of a Perfect Pair". King Crimson save my ass twice in one playlist. It's impossible to mistake this song as anything else if you've ever heard it once, as it actually sounds like malfunctioning machinery. The clearly audible lyrics go on about just that. Dig me, don't bury me.

So, recapping, 9 out of 10 including guesses. But that's weak, so let's not include guesses. As per the rules, Artist - Record should count as at least partial recognition. With that criteria, 6 out of 10, which is pretty dire in itself. My pose has been exposed! How fare YOU, sir?

Friday, March 16, 2012

Riffs Are Not Enough

As it's often said (and I endorse): If you don't have riffs, you can't play Heavy Metal.

Let us add to this the less stated "...but riffs are not enough to achieve greatness, either" to that.

I'll try to get to this in a lucid manner but I'm not making any promises, it's all pretty roundabout as usual.

So in idle discussion over metal music, I asked my close friend and house mate, Miltiadis, what his favorite riff in the whole wide Heavy Metal world was. He struggled to answer. I'm not sure if he even came back with a final suggestion, actually. What I do remember is my uneasy feeling in realizing that I too, do not have a specific Riff of Riffs in mind. What have I been doing all these years if I can't answer this basic question?

The riff that comes to mind initially when I think of metal music is one off of Death's "Symbolic" (the intro to "Crystal Mountain", in fact). But I do not consider that riff to be the best ever, just very infectious rhythmically. The safe choice would be to go with the intro riff to "Black Sabbath", but there's such dynamic tension between it and when it calms down in its ABAB-C structure that it's not fair to choose it on its own. It has historical merit to do so, but that'd be hypocritical to be the deciding factor.

So I mulled over it for some time more. Candlemass' "Demon's Gate"? Too dependent on its release with the bridge/verse part as well, I couldn't listen to the riff of Demon's Gate forever on repeat after all. Every time the riff exits for the song to go to the verse, it feels the correct time to do so. So it can't be the best riff ever. Perhaps something by Fates Warning?

That's when it hit me. The best riff ever is not by Fates Warning, but its archetypal form was suggested by Fates Warning. Let's listen to Cauldron Born's "Crusader", now.

The very first riff, yes. Listen to this finely crafted sculpture. Listen to it again and again. When it goes away, it's too soon. When it returns (at the very end of the song) the tension explodes in such a way that you might feel "surely the composer could have shoehorned that at least somewhere in the middle to ride it a few more times!". But Cauldron Born are too classy for that.

Let's look at the parts of the riff. There's three microhooks to this long-form riff. The first bit, in glorious impromptu guitar tablature is the following (excuse errors, I haven't extensively played along, this is what it sounds like to me and it gets the point across):

A semitone down from standard tuning


This Phrygian opening (let's call it part A) is a strong enough riff in itself that lesser power metal bands would have repeated it ad infinitum by adding some insignificant coda at its second repetition to even it out, and called it a day. But the composer had something loftier in mind, and for his second variation (let's call it part B) he adds a triplet note run that sounds something like this, but I could - again - be wrong:

----------------- ---------------------------------
----------------- ---------------------------------
----------------- ---------------------------------
-----9----7----9- ---------------------------------
-----7----5----7- -8-7-5---------------------------
0-0--7----5----7- ---------8-7-5----4-5-7----5-4-1-

Which gives it a neoclassical feel similar to what Malmsteen would constantly do. It puts the riff off balance only to revitalize it by the return of the strong and dominant part A. Then for the end of the riff he offers:

----------------- --------
----------------- --------
----------------- --------
-----9----7----9- -10---5-
-----7----5----7- -8----3-
0-0--7----5----7- ------3-

Which makes sense well enough.

(I use a lot of inverted powerchord-fourth chords in my own music so I might be imagining them here and Cauldron Born could be playing straight-up two note power chords, it's hard to say with the sound and/or my ears. This is how it sounds most robust to me at least.)

So this riff, for me is an example of the perfectly sculpted riff. It's the sort of thing that in pop music, only Heavy Metal attempts to do, to get to the perfect logical and aesthetic end of the process of playing a short repeated pattern. It's a very revealing artifact of metalhead psyche, the 'perfect riff'. It reveals not only aspiration (towards something perfect, therefore, ageless, beyond death) but also more candidly, process. This is not the sort of riff someone jams out at practice with friends. This is the sort of riff someone sits in their lonely bedroom trying to get to, hours on hours putting it together and taking it apart in different ways before they're satisfied with its final form. Spending an age to become ageless. Inside riffs like this one can find Heavy Metal itself.

This riff, the very first riff of the very first song of the very first Cauldron Born record, refers to a riff by Fates Warning, the very first one in the very first song of their record "Awaken the Guardian". Let's listen to that one:

Standard Tuning

Different key, different tempo, but certainly rhythm and feel similarities abound. You could say the initial inspiration was to perfect this riff by Fates Warning, a band that played 'together' much less than Cauldron Born, and whose song-writing at this point was much more democratic. Which isn't to say Fates Warning 'jammed' (not to find song ideas, to my knowledge) but that for Fates Warning, the riff of "The Sorceress" was complete enough, if anything it had been simplified from past iterations to let harmonic room for singer John Arch to add a separate voice on top. The whole *song* by Fates Warning is stronger than the whole song of Cauldron Born, mainly due to the strengths of John Arch.

Cauldron Born, a latter day, much more self-aware-as-such US Power Metal band would pile on complexity on complexity because they knew that on one side their listeners were by now used to the conceits of this sort of music (whereas Fates Warning were trailblazing) and on the other side, they wanted to compete, as it were. Cauldron Born have listened to (notoriously complex Texan techno-thrash band) Watchtower, after all. In the end what makes one song better than the other is how well the parts flow and how well the individual melody lines of guitars, bass and vocals cohere as a functional harmonic statement. I'd say that "Crusader" flows very well - I especially enjoy how after The Riff we get a series of chord fills that destabilize the tonal center and then the verse of the song, even though set to a more conservative US Power rhythm, is basically a very apt variation of The Riff. However they lose me on some of their Malmsteen runs here and there, and for a guitar wizard of great repute, the Cauldron Born guitarist seems to me to have bit off more than he could chew in some of them. Fates Warning seem very at ease on their "Sorceress" instead, never overplaying or putting on much of a show. The hooks in their riffs are hidden very well, there is required diligence to unearth them from their austere rhythms and boxy chords. There really isn't anything as hard to play in "Awaken the Guardian" as there is in "Born of the Cauldron", I don't think. Perhaps some of Aresti's more flashy solos come close. As a nascent progressive metal band, Fates Warning were not at that time interested in overt showmanship though they were interested in complexity, but one that mirrored the lyrical nuance that John Arch was delivering. There is no John Arch in Cauldron Born.

The lyrical matter that informs the compositions then is the deciding factor as to which song is best. I hesitate to discuss "The Sorceress" here, as that deserves its own article, and without excuses about perfect riffs to induce it at all, but suffice to say "Crusader", with its pulpy examination of the motives of a holy warrior, does not inspire as its progenitor enduringly does.

So in this roundabout way I've realized why my mind does not keep in storage 'perfect riffs' to readily deploy. Because as riffs are beautiful, structures of many riffs, many mini-hooks within each riff are more beautiful. And songs whose meaning is reflected in the architecture of these many-hooked multi-part riffs are the best, and the form towards which for a time, Heavy Metal proudly moved. These are what my mind keeps a finite recollection of.

Essentially, then, riffs are enough to play metal. But riffs are not enough to make the best Heavy Metal there ever was. Which leads to a comment on what appears to me to be an aesthetic bankruptcy of sorts on the part of modern listeners of extreme music (metal being only one of the substrands that belong to the wider tree) that manifests as a fixation with The Riff above all else. To this I want to suggest, perhaps with a degree of unwaranted arrogance, that, people, anyone can write one or two great riffs. Even per song, some times. The history of metal music has shown this, even really bad records sometimes have a couple of choice cuts, and there is almost no well-known metal band that doesn't have at least a few great riffs to show for themselves. A lot of the new metal that I'm exposed to seems to suffer from this fixation on riffs that Heavy Metal seemed to have grown beyond (but never out~) circa 1988. I shouldn't be surprised at this regression as the cultural climate at the moment favours easily digestible bits of ear candy, and what's does that better describe than a good riff?

What's useful in going back and listening to the whole history of metal music is not that 'old music was better', but that many questions that modern types of metal music seem to be asking have, as far as I can tell, been answered in many different ways sometimes decades ago. Parts of the puzzle are missing, but they're only acutely felt as missing when one realizes that there is a puzzle to begin with, one that's been manipulated by many minds for half a century almost. We don't have to reinvent 'song structure' and 'thematic progression' and 'letimotiff' now, just because we reinvented the riff through the warped projection of extreme metal.

On the subject, which are some of the best riffs / series of riffs / songs (in reverse order of importance, as you see) of your choice? Is one riff per song enough to call some of them your favorite ever? Is this the age-old Judas Priest versus Iron Maiden argument in disguise? What are your favorite Heavy Metal songs in which there is nothing much of note but just ONE great riff? Are there any great Heavy Metal songs you enjoy that do not even seem to have a very memorable & repeated guitar pattern?