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?


  1. Yesterday morning, I unleashed a riff of in testing the conclusions drawn from this text. From my apartment bedroom through the living room, into the kitchen and back into the living room the embodiment lived, fed and rearranged structure.

    Riffs can achieve greatness on their own.

    I'm still drawing something here.

    1. Chase Your Dreams by Titan Force is a song that feels like one riff repeated continuously throughout its duration. However, it's a song, not a riff. I think its architectural simplicity illustrates the relentless drive of a realized human desire. The lyrics are clear and of little metaphor. Quick read. Immediate feel. The guitar solo is launched by stark contrast to the riff repetition.

      This song is perfect, ageless, beyond death, for me. I use it as a tool when I get emotionally disconnected from my goals.

      I agree with this: 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.

      Originally, I tested this text with my own riff and discovered it had to grow. Varying sonics qualities was a natural process and essential for self interest.

      Cauldron are classy in their riff development and modesty, I also agree. I enjoyed the dissection with guitar tabs very much. I could follow it and hear the similarities with Sorceress easily.

      The first impression idea resonated for me on different level. Here you've acknowledged song placement on albums. Personally, at 11 years old in my initial experience with Heavy Metal was through late night radio programs where I'd record to tape cassettes. A few great riffs stuck out.

      Slayer - At Dawn They Sleep, intro riff, this sounded evil to me
      Metallica - For Whom the Bell Tolls, this sounded like approaching death
      Accept - Balls to the Wall, this sounded like a rolling freight truck inches away
      Priest - Hellion, this was my Sinner At the Hands of an Angry God
      UFO - Lights Out, shrill, abrupt intro chords wallop.

      Best riff ever is Queensryche - The Whisper, riding on top of a gallop, the initial riff repeats a couple times in the song and in place of a solo, DeGarmo and Wilton extend the riff higher. The sensation makes me feel I'm flying.

      Singers, choruses, song theme, percussion, production factored into those great impressions. Riffs are not enough to achieve greatness on their own.

  2. I love 'Anything Is Mine' by Godflesh, which is about as close as you'll get to a song which has nothing but one great riff.

  3. It is perhaps not conductive to the discussion to say that I cannot listen to that Godflesh song as if it's any sort of Heavy Metal music. I can understand it as something else entirely, and to a degree feel it. It has no architectural majesty in mind. Instead I think it's trying to create access (in the listener) to some obsession, some recurring desire or fault. It is a riff, of course (and a good one).

    1. Ok, I understand and largely agree with your assessment. Godflesh has a simplicity of purpose that can make it both relentless in its riff-centricity, and opposed to concepts of Heavy Metal.

      A couple of other suggestions: '21st Century Schizoid Man' - not entirely about the riff, but whenever the main riff goes away, I sit waiting for its next return. The recent cover by Shining is a supreme exposition of this riff.

      'Pilgrim' by Atlantean Kodex. Absolutely crushing main riff, and the backbone of an enjoyable composition.

  4. This is downright painful for me:

    I love the riffs and the composition as a whole but when I read the sappy lyrics I feel betrayed.

    Anyway I'm glad you picked this subject. "Riffs are not enough" is something that I find very hard to explain to some people, or rather they find it hard to accept.

    "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?"

    Hard questions but one band that keeps coming into my mind when I think about great riffs and especially great series of riffs is Annihilator. The first two albums are full of riffs that make me drool in wonder. Main riffs in W.T.Y.D. and Wicked Mystic are insanely catchy and the transition from riff to solo in latter makes my mind explode. It's so slick!

    I also have to point out this one lead that makes me feel like "please play it few more times!" in the song Brain Damage by Vendetta:

    Around 1:19 - 1:34

    I'm also pleased to see that someones else has noted this in the comments. :D

    "Is one riff per song enough to call some of them your favorite ever?"

    Sometimes. I find Holocaust's "Heavy Metal Mania" to be very powerful and also historically interesting song even if it's mostly based on one riff and some leads and that probably wouldn't be enough with a lesser band. When Holocaust plays this it gives me goosebumps. It resonates so passionately with the lyrics.

    "Inside the power cage
    I can feel the music of my age
    It's paranoid...first degree
    Tellin' me that I'm not free"

    "As I lie in the shroud of darkness
    The wings of light remove the veil
    It's Heavy, Heavy, Heavy
    Heavy Metal Mania all the way"

    And so on..

  5. God, X Japan. So painful indeed. This sounds like Japanese Scorpions in the beginning and then that series of riffs is pretty prime power metal. But heartbreak lyrics? That Vanishing Vision cover is pretty creepy tpp, I had never seen it before. Really, X-Japan? Carving your insignia on the chest of a woman you've dressed up in leather, crucified in thorns and are also in the process of molesting? Is that what you're about? So odd.

    A big yes on Annihilator! First two records are some of the best techy thrash ever recorded. Shame about what happened after that.

    Vendetta is a band I'm not very versed on. Sounds like German speed metal, should I look into them a bit more carefully? That lick you like at the first minute is similar to a lot of Artillery, if you want more of that sort of melodic thrash.

  6. This is from wikipedia: "X Japan is a Japanese heavy metal band founded in 1982 by Yoshiki and Toshi. Originally named X, the group achieved their breakthrough success in 1989 with the release of their second album Blue Blood. They started out mainly as a power/speed metal band, but later gravitated towards a progressive sound with an emphasis on ballads."

    The band is in a way very weird, yes. Visuality played a big part in their entity as they used slogans like "Sexy Scandal Love Violence" and "Psychedelic Violence Crime of Visual Shock" in their flyers and such and if you look at the old photos or live clips of the band you find that they took the visual side very seriously:

    Bands like X spawned the "visual kei" movement (sort of like japanese extreme glam or goth rock of the 90s: here's the best informed piece about it that I've come across on internet: in their homeland to add another piece to this puzzle. It's hard for me to ignore the band completely because they in fact launched my interest in heavy metal (Well as I've told you I did listen to Metallica when I was a kid but that's it) and when I listen to them I feel warm nostalgy and excitement that's answered with bittersweet disappointment. So, so painful. Kind of like first love? Sigh...

    Vendetta (at least on Brain Damage album) is indeed similar to Artillery and even Annihilator and other flashy thrash metal like that. Not as great but I still listen to them every once in a while to see if I'm missing something and because this kind of thrash metal can sound so delicious even when it's not essential at all. Might be worth a few listens if you don't have anything better to do.

    And on to the topic of the your piece: I started to think about what would be the most Heavy Metal riff in essence that comes to my mind and before I change it I'll write it down here. Savatage's Dungeons Are Calling. Yes! That's what Heavy Metal sounds!

  7. Most of the riffs that i like come from the territory where most people would consider them hard rock (or even rock).
    1. UFO - rock bottom
    2. Accept - china lady
    3. AC/DC - let there be rock
    3. Budgie - breadfan
    4. Black sabbath - supernaut
    5. rage against the machine - bombtrack (all three riffs)
    6. zz top - waiting for the bus
    7. Jimi Hendrix - purple haze
    8. Led Zeppelin - Kashmir
    9. Thin lizzy - johnny the fox
    10. Wishbone Ash - throw down the sword (intro riff)

    From the metal world
    1. Diamond Head - sweet and innocent (many similarities with the first 2 rock riffs that i mention)
    2. Metallica - Orion (all riffs)
    3. Warlord - Black mass
    4. Mercyful fate - Satan's fall (all riffs)
    5. Candlemass - Blackstone weilder (all riffs)
    6. Candlemass - Dark are the veils of death (all riffs)
    7. Iron maiden - Losfer words (i know this seems a weird choice, but i always loved this one)
    8. Annihilator - too many to mention, mostly from Never, neverland
    9. Slayer - south of heaven
    10. Iron maiden - too many to mention from the "somewhere" album (still a weird choice).
    To the Priest/Maiden argument the answer is Up the irons.
    Now, to find a mediocre song with a good riff needs much thinking...

  8. One of the main reasons I can't name my favourite riffs so quickly is that most of the time I find the link between two riffs or a passage from one riff to another as the thing that works wonders so to speak.

    The focus of my attention in most music and in metal as well are the harmonics and how different parts work together. For example, an epic pre-chorus exploding into a perfect chorus can be the most rewarding audio sensory moment on a metal album for me.

    There are however riffs that have made me rewind a tape, cd or mp3 time and time again.

    Here's a list of some good riffs I've listened to this week in no particular order. I'm sure after posting I find myself asking why I didn't add this and this riff but oh well, here's my two cents.

    Annihilator - The Fun Palace (verse riff around 1:00)

    Hieronymus Bosch - Zero On A Dice (riff after clean intro and verse riff)

    Opeth - Dirge For November (3:26 onwards with the vocals) Not sure if this counts as a riff as its more of an accompaniment but the effect it adds to the vocals of this masterful song creates one of the most powerful moments in any music I've ever heard.

    Opeth - The Leper Affinity (first riff from 00:28 and the following riff And the riff after that one)Way to build up a song.

    Virgin Steele - Flames of The Black Star (riff from 2:01)

    Forbidden - Through Eyes of Glass (intro riff and the following riff.) Nice switch to step up the intimidation.

  9. I’ve said this before, but I don’t have a very broad knowledge of heavy metal, so my answers to these kinds of questions are surely influenced by my narrow experience, which early on was pretty exclusively just Metallica. Part of the reason I read your blog is to expand myself, both as a listener and as a composer, but at the present moment, I can’t say much is springing to mind besides Metallica, though I can't say that I still listen to them much these days (only when in the car with my nephew who insists that there's nothing else in the world worth listening to).

    "Seek and Destroy" strikes me as having a pretty distinctive riff. I don’t really remember now if it has much else going for it besides the riff, but perhaps that fact in itself says something about the song. Aside from "the Four Horsemen," which I always felt was a little overrated anyway, "Seek and Destroy" is pretty much the only part of Kill 'Em All that stands out in my mind, and I think it’s pretty clear that the riff in the song is chiefly responsible for that.

    Other than that...

    For me, the riff that sprang to mind most immediately was the main one in "Blackened." I think it was the main one. There’s so many riffs on that damn album that it’s hard to remember. In any case, for some reason, that riff has really stuck with me for a long time, but I think part of that has to do with the weird almost quasi-Steve Reich thing that they do with it for a few repetitions towards the end (playing the riff offset by a single note to accentuate different notes). Actually, I’m only half convinced that they even did that intentionally. It kind of sounds like it might have been an odd studio blunder that they liked and decided to keep.

    As a guitarist, "Battery" was always my favorite to play. I don’t have a hell of a lot to say about it, but playing it, once you get it under your fingers, is a lot of fun, though I suspect this is probably true of a lot of the faster thrash out there.

    Aside from Metallica, most of the music that even qualifies as a potential answer (for me) to this sort of question comes from music that’s not really metal, and here we’d probably have to expand the question beyond just riffs. King Crimson ("Starless," and I guess "Red" kind of qualifies, too). Meat Puppets, in their heavier and more riff-oriented moments.

    I’m sure there’s some really obvious important riff that I’m completely forgetting.

  10. I think the answer to “good riff, mediocre song” comes from lesser albums of bands that have achieved greatness in the past (may that be Metallica, Queensryche, etc). Brief example: i think that the beginning of Metallica’s ‘the end of the line’ is great, especially the riff at 0:20. But the song isn’t happening.

  11. ivory gate, most of that stuff sounds like molten steel to me. Not 'rock', whatever that is! Alright, perhaps the ZZ Top riff has little to nothing to do with it, but it's still ace. Nice taste.

    Nwyfre, I hear you about 'the switch up' being very potent. Mercyful Fate for me are the masters of this. Here's a great switch-up choice too:

    Actually - and this deserves a whole article - this song is a masterclass at a series of interconnected A-B parts, constantly switching up the rhythm. NOBODY does this better than In The Woods, who took it from, I suspect, Bathory.

    The best thing is at around 2:11 where he goes

    Pagan myths from the deep, eternal forests
    A true melancholic atmosphere
    Haunts this hidden world

    Where men, for hundreds of years
    Have immortalized their cult

    The punctuation points is where I scream to the heavens along with the lovely music.

    Great Forbidden choice as well. And I watched it live on youtube, boy, these guys could pull it off in the flesh, huh. Wait, bad metaphor mixing there.

    My Virgin Steele choice is probably from Invictus. Probably Invictus itself, actually.

    Erenan, I also enjoy 'Battery' a lot. The strange punkish up-beat riff, and the switch up when Lars turns it on the downbeat. And I also hear the Reich-ism in the Blackened riff you're talking about, I also think it probably came up accidentally at first, due to Lars' ineptitude, but good they kept it. Good choices from a band with a *lot* of riffs.

    Also another great choice for best riff in the universe is 'Sinners in the Hands of An Angry God' by Lordian Guard. The whole song's perfect, but that opening riff, God almighty.

  12. Cloudkicker - Avalanche, the riff at 1:23
    The riff in itself, the idea of the riff, is pretty simple but with each repetitions and differentiations with each of these repetitations makes it a damn fine riff for me.

    Gojira - Flying Whales, the riff at 2:27
    This is a perfect example of a riff that wouldn't do much on it's own. Three chords on the left, a signle note tremolo-ed (double picked) on the right. But the power this riffs gives to the song after the 2:00 of "calm" is whats makes it a wonderful and efficient riff.

    Gojira - Oroborus, the first riff and its variations
    Another simple riff in its execution: a simple tapping with no variation in note length. But I find it so clever. The little variation at 0:21, reprise at 0:44, the little rise of the right guitar at 0:32, these little details over a simple idea is, for my taste, what makes a great riff.
    I could say the same for their riff at 0:47 in A Sight To Behold except for the fact that this time what I like most about that riff is that it's in fact reused as the chorus. The addition of the voice over it is damn pefect. ("The way I see myself so confused so sophisticated!")

    By the way, glad to bring a different set of tastes to your blog ;)

  13. Glad to have you, as long as you can stand that I can't find much of anything in the riffs you've presented to adore. I can enjoy the rhythmic qualities of the Cloudkicker riff at least, I see it more like drumming than guitar playing. But I never could understand what all the hype on Gojira is about, listening to these songs hasn't changed my mind.

    If you're young and coming to Heavy Metal music through death metal, I can understand how these riffs you're endorsing are moving outside your norm. Perhaps over time you might invest some time in all the crazy shit that happened in HM from 1980 to 1996 and your mind will be blown. I have recommendations if you'd like them.

  14. Helm, Johnny the Fox's riff is molten steel??? You must be out of your mind! It's great though.

    When I woke up this morning I heard this riff playing in my head that felt amazing when I was younger and still does: Holy Wars... The Punishment Due, main riff.

  15. It seems a lot of very popular riffs have chromatic qualities in them, though never atonal.