I’ll be thirty-four this year; just short of halfway to forty. But I’ve never felt like I was getting older as a metalhead until recently. It occurred to me a few weeks ago when I was attempting to listen to a new album by a band that shall remain nameless and is being released by a well respected label; for the first time, I felt like the crotchety old fart who didn’t understand what the hell the young whippersnappers were doing. I simply could not wrap my head around what the appeal of this album was supposed to be or what the intent was. I shut it off after one track on my first attempt, after three tracks on my second attempt. And that’s when it hit me like the proverbial ton of bricks.
WHERE’S THE RIFF?!
Now, this is NOT meant as a dis on the band who cannot be named, but I had finally started to understand where the cantankerous old men wearing patch vests (as well as the young guys who wear patch vests and behave like cantankerous old men; they’re out there, there’s probably some of them living in your mother’s basement) and pining for the ’80s were coming from. I was only eleven years old when the Eighties ended, but I could identify with the prevailing sentiment of “shit was better back then.” “Back in my day, we had choruses, we had melodies, we had THE RIFF!”
The great bands at the dawn of heavy metal, as well as at each major juncture of the genre’s evolution (e.g. NWOBHM, thrash, death metal, 2nd wave of black metal, etc), possessed a combination of youthful bravery, reckless abandon and naiveté that lead them to THE RIFF; it was understood that this was the wellspring from which all heavy metal flowed. As time went on, the naiveté dissipated, but the boldness continued as younger bands absorbed what had come before them, picked up the torch and ran with it. But, as so-called “post-metal” began to get a foothold in the underground, it was also misunderstood and misinterpreted as it began to proliferate. Bands copied Neurosis’ style but lacked their substance, and it is here that the primacy of the THE RIFF started to be ignored in favor of something more vague and indefinite.
Today, there seems to be a fearfulness among the majority of young bands to commit to THE RIFF. Everything is either experimental or avant-garde or hyper-technical or ancient ritual murkified metal of death or blackened psychedelic extreme championship pig-fucking ultra-drone, and all of it is just a fancy way of saying “we have no riffs.” As my friend UA of The Ash Eaters pointed out (sorry to drag you into this old boy, no hard feelings I hope 😉 ), a riff is a bold statement. We all know the “every riff has been written” excuse is complete bullshit; the lack of riffs in modern metal is a symptom of younger generations being mostly (but by no means entirely, mind) comprised of musicians who won’t commit to such a striking, definitive declaration.
Look at the way things are going; should it surprise anyone that everything that sounds “modern” sounds completely amorphous, ambiguous, and ultimately disposable/forgettable, while the veteran bands and bands being labelled as “retro” or “new wave of old school” whatever are bringing the songs that warrant listen after listen? As society continues to crumble around the edges, it is reflected in popular culture; most people are too busy dicking with their smartphones, spending too much time plugged into the hive to be truly bold, passionate or even just curious, and this translates into the art they create. Musicians either (falsely) believe THE RIFF has somehow become passe and create pointless noise in a misguided attempt to be “cutting edge” or are some deplorable hybrid of timid, lazy and ignorant, unwilling or just plain unable to tap into and harness its considerable power.
Now, now, don’t get your feathers too ruffled; I’m not saying all our youth are lost. I correspond with people far younger than me on a regular basis that are doing great things within metal, and there are plenty of young bands out there leading the way back to the riff-filled land. Beastwars, Enforcer, Uncle Acid & The Deadbeats, DeathCult, Weapon, Early Graves, Kadavar (to call out but a few recent examples by name); bands across the entire spectrum of the genre are brandishing THE RIFF in innumerable ways, whether it be as a blunt object to get the pit started, a sharp blade to cut through the blasting din, or as a form of hypnosis to draw the listener into a sonic opium dream.
This is the part where you say; “But, these bands aren’t doing anything new!” and to that I say; “So fucking what?!” Yes, you are reading the words of the same man who once railed against metal’s “cult of regression,” but slowly over the course of the past several years, I’ve come to value craftsmanship over innovation (is this a byproduct of advancing age?). This is largely because “innovation,” as well as “experimentation” in heavy metal circa 2013 are often code for “a bunch of songs you won’t remember five minutes from now,” but can also mean “irritating noise,” “pretentious horseshit,” “BOOOOOOORING,” or some combination of those. The established forms which cultivate THE RIFF have stood the test of time precisely because they are timeless; a song like Riot’s “Swords and Tequila” for instance, sounds just as vital, energetic and ass-kicking today as it probably did back in 1981.
There’s a reason for that. A great riff can convey so many things; death, aggression, violence, sex, sadness, happiness; you name it, THE RIFF is the ultimate primal musical expression, specifically designed to tickle the living shit out of your lizard brain. It’s the key component of rock and by extension metal; the goddamn electric pulse that surges through the music, making the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. It might also make you want to raise a fist, pound a beer (or twelve) or go slamming haphazardly into a pack of your closest friends. It is the musical equivalent of the Force; it surrounds us and penetrates us; it binds the galaxy (of metal) together. It boils down to simplicity itself; THE RIFF is heavy metal and heavy metal is THE RIFF. Embrace it or leave the fucking hall.
Oh, and one last thing, just in case any of you reading this are too young to get the title/picture reference…