. . .
Nerds love taxonomy, and metal nerds are among the nerdiest of music nerds. (What other genre treats the work of Robert E. Howard so seriously?) We classify the shit out of everything we hear.
This obsession with categorization can be annoying, but it can also be useful. I’m especially fond of tracing individual riff types. If metal songs are sentences, riffs are the common words that make up those sentences. Tracing the etymology of riffs can reveal a lot about the song: its influences, its intentions, and its internal standards for success.
Like any language, the language of riffs involves synonyms and near-synonyms. Say, for instance, that you’re writing a metal song. You want to switch from a fast or driving riff to a crushing heavy part at a climatic moment of your song. The heavy part should have more rhythmic breathing room than the preceding riff. What kind of riff do you write?
Metal songwriters have devised several options for this situation. (Notice that the Wikipedia entry for death metal includes “tempo changes” in its list of genre tropes.) I’ve made out three options for heavy-part riffs. I’ve listed them below with examples; they’re ordered from most- to least-palatable for metal listeners over 30.
. . .
This is the most capital-m Metal version of the heavy part. It appears frequently in early American death metal.
I use the term “slowdown” literally here. This type of heavy part is defined by a noticeable drop in tempo, paired with more open picking-hand patterns. Sometimes the tempo drop is so extreme that the song grinds to a near-halt.
Autopsy – “In the Grip of Winter” (Mental Funeral)
Incantation – “Blasphemous Cremation” (Onward to Golgotha)
Morbid Angel – “Rapture” (Covenant)
Dead Congregation – “Morbid Paroxysm” (Graves of the Archangels)
Father Befouled – “Sacrilegious Defilement of Deranged Salvation” (Morbid Destitution of Covenant)
Portal – “Writhen” (Swarth)
. . .
When most modern death metal bands want to write a heavy part, they write slams. Unlike slowdowns, slams don’t necessarily involve a tempo drop, though some involve one.
Slams are usually simpler and more predictable than the preceding riff. They also usually involve chromatic, palm-muted chord progressions. I think of Suffocation’s heavy parts as archetypal slams, though I wouldn’t be surprised if they picked up the trick elsewhere.
Suffocation – “Funeral Inception” (Despise the Sun)
Cryptopsy – “Slit Your Guts” (None So Vile)
Devourment – “Autoerotic Asphyxiation” (Butcher the Weak)
Hate Eternal – “Hatesworn” (Phoenix Among the Ashes)
Atheist – “Fictitious Glide” (Jupiter)
Agoraphobic Nosebleed – “Timelord Two (Paradoxical Reaction)” (Agorapocalypse)
. . .
“Breakdown” is a four-letter word to many metal folks these days. Understandably so—during the aughties, breakdown-centric bands overran the metal world like kudzu. But like any riffing style, breakdowns can be effective when used sparingly.
Breakdowns differ from slams in their increased simplicity. They typically consist of single chugged chords, interspersed with pauses and occasionally with other chords for contrast. They’re often associated with hardcore, though I’ve yet to hear a hardcore punk band with no metal influence to speak of play a breakdown.
Sometimes distinctly non-hardcore bands will use breakdowns, to varying effect. I remember Anaal Nathrakh catching a lot of flack for the below example, but nothing was made of the Hypocrisy and Pig Destroyer breakdowns here.
Converge – “When Forever Comes Crashing” (When Forever Comes Crashing)
Knut – “Bite the Bullet” (Challenger)
All Shall Perish – “Better Living Through Catastrophe” (The Price of Existence)
Anaal Nathrakh – “The Lucifer Effect” (In the Constellation of the Black Widow)
Pig Destroyer – “Phantom Limb” (Phantom Limb)
Hypocrisy – “Alive” (A Taste of Extreme Divinity)
. . .
What are your favorite examples of each of these riff types? Are there other ways that bands do this that I haven’t touched on here? Do you have special affection (or distaste) for any of these?
. . .