The 10 best riffs of all time, according to Cancer Bats’ Scott Middleton

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Scott Middleton is the guitarist and co-founder of Cancer Bats.

His heavy tone and unabating riffs have helped inform the Toronto quartet’s distinctive sound over the course of five full-length albums, their most recent being the Ross Robinson-produced Searching For Zero.

Here then, are the 10 songs which have shaped Middleton’s style…

BIG GUN (AC/DC, Last Action Hero Official Movie Soundtrack, 1993)

“I was around 11 years when I started getting into heavier music. All my friends had the AC/DC live album, which I loved, but the first record I really got into was the soundtrack to Last Action Hero with Arnold Schwarzenegger. My favourite song on there was AC/DC’s Big Gun. I even bought the cassette single. I went to summer camp that year, and I bought this cheap little ghetto blaster so I could crank this AC/DC tape over and over again. One day I was at my buddy’s house and his neighbour was having a garage sale, and he was selling a guitar. I walked over and opened the case, and it was a Gibson SG copy that looked exactly like Angus Young’s guitar. I called my dad and was I like, ‘Dad, can I please have 50 bucks to buy this guitar?’ He said, ‘Well, does it come with an amp?’ So I asked the guy if he’d do it for 50 bucks with an amp and he said, ‘Yeah, OK.’ When I got it home I realised I was left-handed and I’d bought a right-handed guitar, but my teacher told me I was so young that I could learn right-handed anyway, and that would save me having to buy really ugly, more expensive guitars. I still do everything else left-handed, but I play guitar right-handed, and I owe that to Angus Young.”

WHEREVER I MAY ROAM (Metallica, The Black Album, 1991)

“When I first bought The Black Album, I liked every song on it. The riff for Wherever I May Roam is so huge. It starts with that weird sitar intro, and then builds up and gets faster, and there’s so many dynamics to it. But the real thing for me was Kirk Hammett’s wah-wah solo. I was like, ‘That’s a guitar making that sound? That’s what I want to do!’ So this song really pushed me to want to be a musician. I must have sat down and played that main riff over and over and over again. That was one of the great things about Metallica; they had such good riffs that were fun to learn. I remember one of the first songbooks that I actually bought was a Metallica book called ‘Riff by Riff’, and it was literally just the riffs to their songs. I wasn’t interested in the full songs or the solos – just the riffs. Wherever I May Roam was one of the first riffs I learned.”

STONE THE CROW (Down, NOLA, 1995)

“I happened to pick up a guitar magazine one day that had Stone The Crow tabbed out. Of course, I was a massive Pantera fan, but I was also a massive Corrosion Of Conformity fan, and hearing Pepper Keenan play that way and go even more melodic was super cool. I had NOLA on repeat. When I was a kid, there was this awesome video show called ‘Power 30’, where they played 30 minutes of metal videos every day after school. I’d record the show and watch the videos over and over again, because they didn’t play music like this on the radio at all. I could watch these guys play guitar and it would help me figure out songs, and learning Stone The Crow had so much influence on what I do today in Cancer Bats – that bluesy, pentatonic, sludgy style of playing comes straight from Down.”

BLACK SUNSHINE (White Zombie, La Sexorcisto: Devil Music Volume One, 1992)

“You’re going to notice there’s a big theme of ‘90s bands in this list, because that’s my era. Looking back, there were so many awesome heavy bands around during that time, and they were all doing different stuff. The first band I ever got to see live was White Zombie, supported by the Melvins. I think Reverend Horton Heat played too, which was really cool. White Zombie was the first music I heard that used movie samples, and the song Black Sunshine has this spoken word intro from Iggy Pop. From the moment I first heard it, I thought it was the coolest thing ever. They reference weird comic books and horror movies, and they play such interesting music too. The guitar line in this song is so snaky with that single note run, and I’ve totally ripped off and incorporated things like that in my own music. Seeing White Zombie was a life-changing experience for me – my neck was destroyed for a week afterwards. They caused my first true bangover.”

N.W.O. (Ministry, Psalm 69: The Way To Succeed And The Way To Suck Eggs, 1992)

“White Zombie kind of crossed over into that industrial stuff a bit, and another band that I really got into around that time was Ministry, especially their album Psalm 69. The first song I heard from that record was New World Order – or N.W.O. – and the video was so crazy. The band are standing in what looks like a war zone in some third world country and shit’s blowing up around them, and they’re just stood there rocking out in the street. The song is literally just one riff, too. But I took so much from the simplicity of that. Hearing this song, I realised that you don’t have to be complicated or technical to be heavy. It was one of the first really heavy riffs that I learned. I learned some Metallica riffs before this, but it was always kind of intuitive for me to lean more towards the melodic stuff with them. This song was just straight down picking and power chords, and I loved that if you could play this one riff then you knew the whole song. Maybe it was laziness on my part, but I was so stoked when I could play this song; the whole record was just so cool and unique. I never hear bands playing music like this anymore, and I really miss that golden age of heavy industrial music. So I had to put some Ministry in there.”

HOLLOWMAN (Entombed, Wolverine Blues, 1993)

“Entombed were a huge band for me growing up. The first song of theirs that I really go into was Hollowman from the Wolverine Blues album. The guitars are so evil. If you go back and listen to Entombed’s back catalogue, you’ll see they put out an EP based around the song Hollowman, and it’s one of the best things they ever did. There are all these creepy songs on it, including this instrumental one called Hellraiser, which is basically just a collection of samples from the film. That song is the scariest thing ever if you’re a 12-year-old kid. As I got older though, I thought the minor melodic scales that they were putting into this crushing death metal with rock ‘n’ roll punk drumming was the coolest sound ever. I can really hear the influence that Entombed had on so many guitar players. They were some of my favourite days, when Earache Records was putting out the sickest stuff – like Napalm Death and Carcass – and Entombed are still one of those bands that are just untouchable. I don’t think there’s a better death metal band from that time, and they really changed the way I play guitar.”

OLD (Machine Head, Burn My Eyes, 1994)

“Another band I got into right around that time was Machine Head. Old had all these sliding octave chords and natural harmonics. That doesn’t sound like anything special now, but at the time people weren’t really playing that way. We played with them at the Graspop Metal Meeting in Belgium in 2012, and their guitar player Phil Demmel saw me watching them side of stage, so he came up to me and said, ‘Hey man, do you want to come up and sing Davidian on the bit where we go, ‘Let freedom ring with the shotgun blast.’ I was like, ‘Oh my god, yes!’ It was the coolest fucking thing ever, and afterwards I was talking to Robb Flynn and I said, ‘Thanks man, that meant so much to me because you guys are one of my favourite bands.’ He was like, ‘Really? I’ve heard your stuff but I don’t really hear any Machine Head in there.’ But the way that I tune my guitars and put all kinds of harmonics in there, and play all kinds of punk and metal and be open to all these politics – that all came from Machine Head. Most people won’t hear that in Cancer Bats, but if you really analyse some of our stuff then you’ll notice it. So I told him that and he was like, ‘That’s really cool, man.’ Later on, we played a show in San Francisco, and whilst I was playing I looked down and saw Robb Flynn in the photo pit taking photos of us playing on stage. He’s one of the reasons I play in a band, and he was down there taking photos of us. That felt really good! I really have to hammer home how good that band is. They still are, man.”

KAIOWAS (Sepultura, Chaos A.D., 1993)

“One of the first times I heard Sepultura was probably the Arise album, when they were getting more thrashy, but Chaos A.D. was the one that blew my mind open. It was so cool and different, with the tribal drums and its political message. They really painted a picture of what it was like to live in a third world country, and so much of what they did was so punk – the simplicity of some of those riffs, and the drumming and rhythms where they went all fast. There’s a song on that album called Kaiowas, and it’s basically an acoustic jam about a tribe in Brazil that was losing its land because they were tearing down the rainforest and destroying their homes. The reason I’m choosing this over some of the heavier songs on that album is because this is the song that taught me that you don’t need distorted guitars to be heavy, it’s about the vibe. At school, I was asked by one of the teachers to be part of this improv jazz band he was starting, and he said we needed to come up with something different to showcase other kinds of music. So my friends and I that were into metal suggested we do Kaiowas, and we played the song in front of all these parents in suits. One of the things Ross Robinson said to us when we were making our latest record [Searching For Zero] – and he of course worked with Sepultura on the Roots album – was that if you want to write heavy music, then you have to be afraid of what that means. He helped show us that being heavy is as much about the mood and intention behind what you’re doing as the distortion and volume of the music, and Kaiowas was the first song to teach me that.”

UNTIL YOU CALL ON THE DARK (Danzig, Danzig 4, 1994)

“I have to pick Danzig. One of the first songs I heard of his was Mother and a lot of that early stuff, but my favourite album by them is actually Danzig 4. The songs on it are great, and I love how dark and moody and different it is. It kind of came around the same time I was really getting into Ministry, and he was flirting with industrial sounds a little bit on this album as well. My favourite song off it is Until You Call On The Dark, and we just toured with the band and they’d play it every now and again during the encore. It’s funny because so many people come up to me and tell me they love all the Zakk Wylde-style pinch harmonics that I do, and I always have to tell them that I do that because of Danzig. Zakk Wylde shreds and he’s awesome, but it’s all because of John Christ. Until You Call On The Dark has so many pinch harmonics and when we toured with Danzig, Tommy Victor was playing guitar. He’d just slay them every night. Danzig and his whole band and crew were the best to us and it was actually one of the nicest times we’ve ever had touring. Much respect to Danzig.”

BIG RIFF (Cave In, Jupiter, 2000)

“The last song that I’m going to list is the only one that’s after 2000, and it’s by one of my favourite bands, Cave In. I grew up going to hardcore shows because there wasn’t a massive metal scene in Toronto during the late ‘90s and early 2000s – or if there was then I was too young to get into the shows. So I’d go to a lot of all-ages punk shows because I just wanted loud, heavy music and that was inspiring to me. I got into all the stuff coming out of Massachusetts like Converge and Isis, and I found out about Cave In because Neurosis was coming to town and they were the support band. I heard their album Until Your Heart Stops, and it was this technical metalcore thing mixed with a bit of Led Zeppelin, and it was totally different to anything around at that time. I remember when they finally came to Toronto to play, because they never made it across the border to the Neurosis show, they played this set of completely new material that was nothing like metalcore. It had more to do with Rush and bands like Failure, and all my elitist hardcore friends were so bummed because they didn’t get to do any of the hardcore dance moves they were planning on doing! I thought it was the coolest thing ever. The songs would be the ones that ended up on their album Jupiter, and out of anything that came out post-2000, I think that’s the coolest record going. I’ve read interviews where they’ve said they were tired of being a second-rate Converge by that point, so they stopped trying to be that band, and total respect to them for doing that. That was the inspiration of us starting Cancer Bats, really. I’d been doing death metal and metalcore and all that stuff for years, and I got bored with it. I wanted to do something different with melody, and Cave In was the band that showed me that was possible. I was lucky enough to see them live in those days a couple of times, and the song that really blew my mind off that Jupiter record was a song called Big Riff. I love that they had the audacity to call their song that, first of all, and everyone that I knew who heard the song was like, ‘What the fuck is this?’ It was almost prog rock, but that’s what I thought was so cool. They put out this weird space rock record, and everybody respected them for that in the end. The same thing happened to us as a band. When we first got signed all the hardcore kids deserted us, and I’m OK with that. That’s what hardcore is, it lives in the moment. But it was refreshing to break out of that, and I have to give respect to Cave In for showing me to not be afraid to try new things. You have to do that, otherwise you’re just going to play the same stuff for the rest of your life. I can literally trace through this whole playlist where I progressed as a person and a musician, from the early ‘90s to the early 2000s. Cave In was one of the last bands to really blow my mind with heavy music. I can directly relate that they’re one of the bands that inspired Liam and I to start a band, so I had to end my list with them.”

Cancer Bats play Slam Dunk in May. For more details, click here. Scott was talking to Matt Stocks.