It's only been a couple of days, but so thick is the bombardment that the opening salvos of the Great Riff War of 2010 already seem like a distant memory. I'm just glad that Carl's opened up a conversation I had with a friend a few months back: whatever happened to good guitar riffs?
Think about it. How many songs from the past decade do you recall primarily, let alone exclusively, for a good ol' meathook of a guitar riff? Two? Maybe. Odds are one of 'em is by Queens of the Stone Age and the other's by the White Stripes, which is a sorry goddamn state of affairs when such derivative throwback pablum is the only populist statement a guitarist can make.
The retreat of the guitar to textural support is thanks to a two-pronged attack by (1) too-clever indie kids, and (2) an ever-retarding mainstream. After grunge had re-democratized the instrument and made underachieving mediocrity cool, the underground (as always) circled the wagons. Some guitarists took their cues from the '80s most progressive players - Moore & Ranaldo, Shields, Haino - and began pushing the instrument into more abstract & impressionist realms. (See: Fennesz, Nadja, etc.) Others, like U.S. Maple, Polvo, and Shellac, went deconstructionist, piecing rock back together Frankenstein-style into fractal, schizophrenic, and deliberately anti-cathartic forms. But what most stripped the guitar of populist appeal was indie's own bebop movement: math rock. Emotionally obtuse and indifferent to audience expectations, it was first a reaction against the earnest simplicity of the post-grunge glut. But moreover it was a wry reclamation of skill from onanist shred-heads. This swiftly became a war of attrition amongst who could most cleverly subdivide a single beat, reaching its endgame in 1999 with the impossibly dense finger-sports marathon Calculating Infinity by the Dillinger Escape Plan.
Meanwhile, things were going from bad to worse in the mainstream. Once flannel & greasy hair had fallen from favour, grunge's longest-lasting contribution to pop culture was its mawkish alienation. So when bands equally enamoured of Pantera and N.W.A. began appearing, their lyrics read as much like a high school alcoholic's diary as the prelude to an ass-whuppin'. As this "new" (or nü) metal's currency grew, it sacrificed any iconoclasm or cleverness it might have brought with it from the underground metal & hardcore scenes - neither of which were particularly dedicated to crafting earworm guitar work in the first place. As the culture machine serves only to sand off features, eventually nu-metal's angularity & dissonance were completely shorn, abdicating the rock Top 40 to sensitive rednecks blasting the same ol' bar chords through Marshall stacks.
Now, the musical centrality of the guitar both above- & underground waxes & wanes as quickly as the moon, so it's not as though the past decade has been riff-free by any stretch. Hell, in the mix below, the Aughts are better represented than the '60s. (Just a matter of taste... and avoiding the dead-horse obvious like Zeppelin.) So a better conundrum to tackle would be... what exactly is a riff?
Carl's already been parsing the taxonomy, splitting hairs between "riffs", "licks", and "vibes". I like his idea that a "lick... impl[ies] everything from a painterly, Fine Art flick of the wrist to the minimum possible unit in a cunnilingual encounter." The latter part is especially relevant: guitar licks, like the hook to "Layla", are generally spry, dexterous single-note runs that convey sensual melody - a quick tickle or cocktease, as opposed to the clenched-fist masturbation of, say, anything by Yngwie Malmsteen.
"Vibe", of course, suggests ambiance - which is generally what the guitar drifts into once the tempos ascend past or fall below a certain threshold. Most doom & sludge fall well below a b.p.m. you could comfortable bang your head to. On the other hand, as Carl explains, excessive speed isn't what's wanted either:
I think it’s probably why speed and thrash metal are such boring genres... too fast on one level but not so fast that it blurs into ambience a la black or death metal. It's more akin to a series of rapid-fire quips... that just leave you feeling slightly puzzled, there’s nothing to savour.This reminded me of when David Yow explained why he was never terribly taken with hardcore punk (I'm paraphrasing): it just flies by like a bird trapped indoors; once the tempo slows down, the music becomes more tactile, visceral, "like being in a fistfight."
But then, what to call all the stuff guitarists do that aren't riffs? There are the obvious non-riffs: chord progressions, fingerstyle. But most of my favourite guitar bands are surprisingly riff-free. The closest to a riff that My Bloody Valentine have ever come is "Feed Me With Your Kiss", but that's still more a Big Black-like series of face-slaps than a proper riff. Do the Fall or Sonic Youth really traffic in riffs? I feel like they're more into motifs, and the obvious exceptions prove the rule. And what about Fugazi, Drive Like Jehu, Spacemen 3, or the Butthole Surfers?
The word "riff" itself has a lupine growl, and suggests something base, feral. A hoarse, rhythmic breath. This suggests to me a possible expansion beyond the bounds of pentatonic, palm-muted chopping: there are times when the bass supplants the guitar as the spine of the song. The Fall and the Jesus Lizard are excellent examples of this, where the bass is the music's inky outline with the guitar adding accents & colour.
Of course, am I just using this notion to excuse the inclusion of the Birthday Party in the mix below? Maybe. Click on the title to download.
1. AC/DC - "Let There Be Rock"
2. Flied Egg - "Rolling Down the Broadway" (Live)
3. Focus - "Hocus Pocus" (Live)
4. Sir Lord Baltimore - "Master Heartache"
5. The Birthday Party - "Nick the Stripper"
6. Lungfish - "Searchlight"
7. OXES - "Dear Spirit, I'm In France"
8. Shellac - "My Black Ass"
9. Karp - "Bacon Industry"
10. Rye Coalition - "Stairway To The Free Bird On The Way To The Smokey Water"
11. Melvins - "Hooch"
12. Mayyors - "Metro"
13. Metallica - "For Whom the Bell Tolls"
14. The Jesus Lizard - "Mouthbreather"
15. Sleep - "Dopesmoker" (Part 5)
16. Sleep - "Dopesmoker" (Part 6)
Addendum: Yes, the above is all rather North Americentric, but only because I'm not about to make sweeping generalisations about Britain over the past twenty years - least of all in the company of Messrs. Reynolds, Ingram, and Carl. I'll go so far as to say that Britpop was a provincial, conservative revival, and the guitar's been a backwards-looking instrument in England ever since the ascension of the Stone Roses. The closest the UK's come to having a six-string visionary since Kevin Shields is perhaps Graham Coxon or Johnny Greenwood - but of course the former's overshadowed but that twat up front, the latter is a tad too advanced to be content with such a quotidian instrument.