Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Quest for the Perfect Riff

A well-known portrait of the first black metal frontman, from Picasso's highly ignored Grim Period.
I don't think I have to tell you about riffs; if you're looking at this, you're probably either a) into metal or b) my dad (hi dad!).  Everybody is familiar with tasty riffage, even if it's only in the most superficial or oblique way.  In the interest of full disclosure, I must make it clear that I myself am a guitar player.  I am mediocre and unaccomplished in every conceivable way.  However, this fact does not stop me from questing for the Holy Grail of metal, the Arc of the Covenant of music, the perfect riff.  In my search for the best riff ever, I've uncovered some real turds, and have channeled into my fingers pure generic auditory vomit that even offends me, the inept, well-meaning creator.  However, I have also managed to put together some stuff that I was actually proud of, which I for a short time tried out with my now-defunct (and never actually active to begin with) band.  I don't normally plug my own stuff like this, but we aren't a band anymore and I was actually reasonably proud of some of it, so who gives a shit, right?

But please don't butcher me in the comments (at least for that).

With that out of the way, I've had riffs on my mind for the last couple of weeks, floating through the ether the way that I imagine I will once they find me dead on the toilet and use technology to launch my bloated corpse into space (I harbor delusions of Elvis/Spock grandeur in addition to my many odd obsessions).  I was walking to the train today and I had the impulse to put together a playlist that contained only the songs that gave refuge to my favorite riffs, and the thought occurred to me that I would share them with you, my faithful reader, who will give a halfhearted eulogy at my orbiting space funeral that gets cut short because Terminator robots have breached the outer hull.  You have to trick the Terminators into walking into a volcano or humanity will be forever enslaved!  Who will be the hero?!
 "I'll be happy to save you all, but beware: I'm probably going to fuck one of your guys' wives in the process." *Cocks sawed-off shotgun using only one hand and the force of gravity*
It's going to be quite a funeral, all right.

Defining the perfect riff is difficult because the riff can take so many forms.  They can be melodic, chunky, non-melodic but totally shreddy, and probably other kinds of riffs, too.  But those ones are stupid.  Since death metal riffs are highly disparate from hardcore riffs, so comparing them is like the highly cliched comparison between apples and oranges.  Luckily, I'm really fucking good at comparing two things that aren't alike at all and giving them arbitrary grades and/or placements on a given list.  And it's fun too!

My first submission into the forum for the perfect riff comes from Baroness, from the song "Isak" featured on their sublime Red Album (observe this motherfucker).  Baroness are really good at writing riffs that have a ridiculously amorphous character to them.  Is this some manner of Southern Rock?  Why aren't there Confederate Flags and chewing tobacco spit all over the place?  They're pretty hard to peg down, but that hasn't stopped music critics (like myself) from inventing genre tags to slap on them so that Baroness can be easily dropped into their proper place in our iTunes library.  For the best possible example, the main riff for the song starts at 0:54 and lasts until about 1:21, and it totally rocks.  Notice the vocal interplay and the groove.  Notice how fucking heavy that riff is.  It's nearly perfect in every way.

The next candidate for Perfect Riff is from "A King and A Thief," found on Misled By Certainty by Cephalic Carnage (crush it).  The riff in question starts at the 1:43 mark.  Oh, you say that sounds gay?  How does it sound at 1:55?  Awesome...I see.  Now how does it sound at 1:57?  2:00?  2:03?!?  This riff is so ridiculously creative with the harmonies it employs that it makes me angry at myself, because I would have never thought of it.  The way the harmony appears and then collapses on the melody is astonishing.  It sounds like me imploding after an evening of alone drinking in my den, slowly crushing myself into a quantum singularity (I do this every Friday night.  The only downfall to this riff is that it's too short a time before it's gone forever, though I have no idea how they could have possibly kept it going for any longer.

A riff list would be nothing without the mighty Meshuggah, and the riff I'd like to bring your attention to is quite a doozy, too.  From "New Millennium Cyanide Christ" on the album Chaosphere, starting at 0:25 seconds, is the single heaviest riff ever created by mankind (take a gander).  In the interest of fairness, Chaosphere holds a special place in my heart.  Prior to being given a burned copy by my good buddy Ed, the only Meshuggah I'd ever heard was Catch-33, Meshuggah's career low point.  I know I'm going to catch a lot of flak for saying that, but it wasn't really that good, and compared to Meshuggah at large, it sucked.  Anyway, Ed was on a suicide mission of mercy; he had heard me in the midst of a diatribe mention that I had heard Meshuggah was amazing, and so I went and bought this album (Catch-33) that totally bummed me out.  Ed knew, though.  With a knowing glint in his eye and a reassuring smile, he told me to just listen to this one and see what I thought.  I'm glad I did, too, because Meshuggah taught me that originality exists for those who are inspired.  Except not anymore, because now there are a million bands on Meshuggah's Djent jock, and they should all go away and leave me to my nostalgic ramblings.

One of the newer additions to my list of "most favorites" is from a band that I've been rambling about willy-nilly for some time now, called Cut Your Teeth.  I've been fawning over them for quite some time now, and it's because they totally rock balls.  But riff-wise, there isn't very much that gets my motor running the way that the main riff for "Drink Beers" does.  I've already predicted this song for the Song of the Year Grammy (spoiler alert: my prediction was wrong and Cut Your Teeth were snubbed entirely), and it's because of that slippery, bone-splintering riff that starts at 0:06 and continues steamrolling through the entirety of the song.  "Heavy" is a word; if you want to hear the sound, go hear the riff that I'm talking about here.  And download it and buy a shirt or something.

The last riff I want to nominate comes from "Ghost of Perdition," by Opeth (here).  From their Ghost Reveries album, this song is about 10.5 minutes in heavy metal heaven.  The great thing about this song is the main riff that begins at the 0:07 mark.  Opeth, prior to this, would generally write riffs in a clean phrase pattern usually consisting of 2 to 8 bar phrases.  We all loved those riffs.  I mean, who among us doesn't like Blackwater Park?  If you said "me," then fuck you.  You obviously don't like things that rule, and you probably thought Joseph Stalin was a misunderstood underdog with a heart of gold.  And I say that without even a hint of hyperbole.  Anyway, this song really brings the 16 bar phrase into Opeth's riff vocabulary, reappearing on their subsequent album Watershed on the verses for "Heir Apparent."  As it turns out, Mikael Akerfeldt can sing, write stupidly long songs, and riffs that make us plebeian n00bz look like a bunch of chump-ass tricks.

Who which riff is perfect?  The answer is easy: all of these riffs are perfect in different ways.  But which one is the most perfect, you ask?  Well, now you're asking me to rank them in order, which, though I'm good at doing so, ranking them would be an expression of my personal taste and would only be opinion.  But since my opinion doubles as fact, here are the top 3: Opeth, followed by Cut Your Teeth and Cephalic Carnage.  But there are so many more riffs to explore, and my hands are getting tired from all the off-jacking I've been doing fishing out all my favorite riffs to share with you.  That said, what are your favorite riffs?  What riff would be considered perfect by someone who doesn't have the ultimate and final say on the matter?

Let me know what I missed or was too stupid to have thought of/ever even heard of in the comments.


  1. You may be wordy, boner-obsessed and nearsighted, but "mediocre and unaccomplished" on the guitar you are not.

  2. Metal as fuck: