Saturday, August 2, 2014

Riffs are not Enough: Understanding Riff Ambiguity

I like a great riff. Here's one:

Pretty ripping, right?

More than any one riff in Heavy Metal, I like instead a wonderful riff that is followed by another wonderful riff. Here's an example of that:

Two minutes in. The malignant majesty of the two parts that would seem to never need end.

I never studied composition formally, but I know what I like, right? We can all be idiots with a cliche. We all know what we all like. But do we know what we love?

Once I started appreciating small sequences in riffs, I could never be satisfied with a band that just finds one good riff and hammers on it per song (or sometimes per record). It felt dumb, to me, one-sided. This is the process of one's taste being refined.

The one-two sequence that Cirith Ungol milk on the song above is not multi-sided in a conventional sense, it's not soft/loud like a post-grunge pop song, it's not minor/major like a Simon & Garfunkel tune and it sure as hell is not switching it up emotionally, opening up with some contrast in lyrics, singing style or orchestration like a proper composer would.

So it's marginally less dumb that one riff, but yet effective. Effective in a way that I haven't yet described, and I couldn't know how to describe for many years.

I like a riff, but I prefer a small sequence of riffs, oscillating back and forth. What I found I loved even more is a larger sequence of riffs and passages that created a larger structure that seemed to support itself and reach for something higher. The one song that explains this best, for me, as a huge Fates Warning appreciator, is The Apparition. Have a listen if you're not that familiar with the song:

Much can - and should - be written about the beauty of this song, but I don't want to wax poetic about Fates Warning right now. Just pay attention to the structure of this song. It has its verse-chorus structure, although with an extended intro, but it does settle in a 'rock song' format for some time. Then it has an adventurous middle section where the music, spurred by the culmination of the lyrical theme, takes over in a series of less riff-based and more movement-based sequences. Then, once the point is made, the original form of verse/chorus is reprised for the ending.

This is a very common rock songwriting formula, but no rock subgenre loved it more than Heavy Metal. Though I first took notice of it with Fates Warning, it is by much more well-known and celebrated bands that it was established. Case in point:

(though here, without a reprise of the main themes at the end)

(here completely - and perfectly - reprised)

God, I have such a hard-on right now. I am expending sizable effort not to veer this article right off of the Judas-Priest-Are-Better-Than-You cliff. I'm trying to make a point. Let me just calm down a little bit.

Black Sabbath and Judas Priest are what Fates Warning are made out of, nobody would disagree.

Most of Heavy Metal is made out of Black Sabbath and Judas Priest.

This is made out of Black Sabbath and Judas Priest too:

Led Zeppelin also did this shtick all the time. Rip off an old blues song, stick a weird part in the middle.

I like a riff. I like a couple of riffs. But I love a weird middle part. But why? What is it about a weird middle part that strengthens the whole?

I have my theories, and by following their natural conclusions to their logical endpoints, I came full-circle in re-understanding the dumb building block of all of this, the singular riff as well.

This is where this gets a bit complicated.

Heavy Metal is misunderstood, by outsiders but by its proponents as well. It wants to present itself as if it has figured itself out. It wants to be masculine, linear, to just pummel listeners with riff after riff. And it has achieved its desire to be viewed in this simple-minded fashion. This is, now, the popular conception of extreme metal. Just an endless circle of blast beats, ripping solos, machine-gun riffs and growly manbears.

But Heavy Metal is confused and in its confusion lies its power. I've written a lot on this blog about how Heavy Metal is weird and how the weirdness shows more in the 70s to 90s than in does in the last two decades, be it because of inexperience, lack of funds, silly recording techniques, but also sometimes due to clarity of vision.

Mercyful Fate didn't have a lot of money and their first record does sound underproduced. But nobody held a gun to King Diamond's head to get out like this.

The weirdness in Heavy Metal is close to its soul. Don't trust Heavy Metal that isn't weird. Though its pretending to be tough, masculine, old, hell, beyond old, eternal. It's also a weird lonely teenager trying to figure shit out.

When you pick up a guitar and you're a weird kid, you're going to play some weird shit. You're going to play some nice shit as well (hopefully), but you're bound to come up with off-the-wall noises that other people, pretending to be normal, wanting to fit in normal society, would quickly discard and hone on the material that does sound good in any context.

The Heavy Metal music I like thrived on collecting the weird material and juxtaposing it with more normal riffs and sequences, because although it didn't have a direct, academic language for it, what it was really trying to do was to create ambiguous moral spaces where ugly and beauty could meet, a dim-lit mindspace where such a dialogue could happen and there is no light, no god and no parent that can step in and say it's wrong.

That 'symphonic' quality of middle sections of Heavy Metal music that I extolled above with the Priest and Helloween and other examples is not symphonic in a classical music sense and it's such a tragedy to let whatever half-baked neoclassical aspirations the Heavy Metal mutants might have had obfuscate a much more useful reading of what was going on. Instead what's attempted - I not only theorize but practice myself in my own music - is a creation of compositional ambiguity and in turn a space for internal, ontological and moral exploration.

Great Heavy Metal takes off in the sense that it 'goes inside'. The journey appears to take lift, but instead ingresses. Voivod would play weird shit not just because it sounded weird, but because it created a space were their own weirdness could be considered alright, not even just that, but good. Needed. Wanted.

In the same sense, the weird middle part in Heavy Metal I feel upsets the concise masculine roleplay of the rock song, it creates a discussion between its phallogocentric rigidity and much less clear-cut concepts. The balance of these elements ends up not just describing the long structure of a song (verse, chorus, weird shit in the middle, verse, chorus) but also - and here's the kicker - the relationship of the inner parts of a good riff with themselves.

Go back and listen to the very first riff on display, here, Death's Crystal Mountain. Have you ever wondered why the composer of that riff doesn't just repeat the first bars of it over and over, but instead provides a second coda to the very same riff, bouncing them off of each other, A-B-A-B? That riff has its own 'weird middle part' written inside of it. And it's quite fruity, if you don't mind me saying. Surely the first bars of the riff are more punishing on their own..... aaaaand endlessly they've been reproduced, on their own, by other bands that are trying to fool you by saying that's what metal is.

So look at it from micro to macro, as a fractalized desire to set and then upset an expectation. This is what I find the most beautiful in Heavy Metal, and it accurately describes which albums and songs I enjoy and the reason I usually do not enjoy the other albums and songs out there that are still categorized as some sort of Heavy Metal music. I either haven't come to find and appreciate how they upset their own set-up, from every micro-riff element up to the overall construct of the song, or they simply do not do this at all and there's nothing there for me to find.

If a song is making a single statement (let's go with "THIS IS EXTREME"), then this is a declaration. A declaration is short and violent, and if it's drawn out it just becomes normalized, it fights itself, a loud continuous noise eventually fades into the background.

If, instead, a song is having a conversation with itself and the composer is on that sweet spot where they don't really know what they're doing in a traditional sense but they've fashioned their own makeshift musical language in order to have this conversation, what you're left is with a mainstream statement, and various points of compositional derivation, dissension and discourse all encapsulated from building block (riff) to structure (song).

This is difficult to do and exactly because it's not done perfectly, it's vague. The vagueness is a feature. Much like listening to the neighbours having a spirited quarrel through an apartment wall that may or may not end up with reconciliation sex, you can't make up every single statement and how it follows the others, you can only get tone of voice, a few words here and there, silences. It's so alluring that we end up filling the blanks, and creating a narrative to make it all make sense.

As an exercise, link me to metal music that has this internal ambiguity, especially if it's created by set-upset not only of riffs in themselves but by larger compositional choices.


  1. Excellent post. Resonating examples.

    i m u s t be a priest killer. who else is going to do it? no, i can not see examples. i'm blinded. I am crafting. I may be knitting right now...

    but, yes, excellent post. illuminating samples. hail creators. hail second hearts.

    thanks for watering the Garden.

    i'll fish around for resonating links. back in a few weeks after some tests and listening to the first Saxon LP.

    1. my mind is in a bit of a tangle on the subject of riffs. BBC's The Joy of Riff was pleasing to view for me.

      at the 17 minute mark Toni Iommi talks about the Black Sabbath riff followed by Lita Ford's perspective and Robert Fripp afterwards.

      on Saxon's first LP, i like three songs well. they struck me as weird good when i first heard them about 2 years ago. they've always been a pleasure for me to go back to. they may not be HM of POS but they are what's timeless beauty, creativity, weird good nutrition for me. they each have at least two riffs working interestingly as my mind co-operates with it.

      Frozen Rainbow - manly setup - one bass note pulsating at an excitable rate (stop here, consider this *is* a riff, one note repeated, functioning, living, moving, exercising, throbbing, one is all we get until guitar chords form an announcement allied with drum work. (Rainbow Theme done) enter the Frozen Rainbow - vocals portray ...(i'll continue another time, it'll help me understand / feel this sequential art, the HM riff)

    2. Sequential is a useful way to look at it - at least for me as a comic artist, I find it's similar, I like a good illustration (riff) but I prefer a great sequence of riffs to it (a comic strip) and there's ambiguity and interactivity in a whole page/pages of a comic (overarching composition)

    3. Having a big think on this. Thanks for the reply.

    4. Yes, also for me, sequential continues to activate a useful way to look at. Though it may not be apparent to others, the thoughts, text and comments here continue to be a fruitful crossroad.

  2. could almost be a late period Death song!