Ever since Tony Iommi peeled out the malevolent opening notes that kicked off Black Sabbath’s iconic debut album, metal has been built on The Riff. But not all riffs are created equal – while some have become the cornerstones of the entire genre, others have been completely overlooked for various unfathomable reasons.
James Lascelles, frontman with Anglo-Finnish metallers Wheel, knows a fair bit about riffs - his band’s latest album Resident Human (opens in new tab) is full of ’em, swinging between the tricky and the direct. Which is why we asked James to pick the 10 metal and rock riffs that deserve way more love than they get.
“These are all underrated riffs that completely blew my mind, kicked my ass and left a lasting impression on me during my formative years,” he says. “I’ve deliberately avoided the most famous works by any of the artists. Hopefully it will result in a few new discoveries for people.”
Sounds good to us. Over to you, sir…
Sikth – Way Beyond The Fond Old River
Sikth have never reached the level of acclaim they’ve always deserved, but they have influenced some of the biggest players on the scene today – not bad at all for a group that have only released a handful of EPs and albums.
Way Beyond The Fond Old River (specifically the riff that comes in at 3:10) encompasses everything that makes the band great – an amazing guitar/bass riff that keeps subverting expectations both rhythmically and harmonically, a drum beat that using bells and small cymbals to accentuate the dynamics of the palm muting in the guitar riff while kicking you square in the mouth with the bass drum/snare placements and vocals that effortlessly slot into a super-dense instrumental passage, streamlining the complexity and elevating the overall intensity.
In layman’s terms, this riff absolutely slays – it sounds as good now as it did 15 years ago.
Nirvana – School
Nirvana deserve more love than they get for their work outside of their most famous releases. The riff in this song is far simpler than my previous choice but I think it hits just as hard.
Right from the start of the track, the riff in School epitomises the ‘off/on’ dynamic shift that was synonymous with the scene that birthed Nirvana; the opening guitar riff creates suspense and anticipation only to shatter it moments later when the bass and drums come in. The ‘weight’ of the riff is magnified by the perfect ‘looseness’ of the song’s tempo – there is a degree of movement which pulls back for the choruses and has a push/pull sense of chaos in the verse/pre-verses that elevates the drama far beyond the scope of a relatively simple riff.
School is a masterclass in perfectly executed simplicity and frankly, is heavy as fuck.
Black Sabbath – Immaculate Deception
This is from one of the lesser-known Black Sabbath records, Cross Purposes – I learned about it when I was a teenager, through my Dad (who has some seriously great musical taste btw).
It has an absolutely crushing riff which forms the main body of the song and the more times it repeats, the better it gets. It never leans into complexity for complexity’s sake; it’s fully focused from start to finish on repeatedly punching you squarely in the face and holy crap, it feels good when it does.
As much as I love classic Black Sabbath, this might be my favourite Sabbath track from my favourite Sabbath album. Check it out if you don’t know it and bring the pain!
Radiohead – The National Anthem
Radiohead made me a fan for life with Kid A in 2000, when they decided to forgo the incredible success of their previous guitar-based work and opted to make an album that dabbled in more progressive, experimental and electronic territories.
The whole of Kid A is a masterpiece, but The National Anthem was always one of my favourite tracks. It’s built around a brilliantly simple and effectively grooving bass riff, played by Colin Greenwood (who is one of the most underrated musicians in contemporary music).
Unlike other songs in this list, The National Anthem is built out of a single riff, which makes the range of moods it traverses are all the more impressive. The first part of the song rises to an initial crescendo before dropping out completely to make room for sparse and haunting vocals. It eventually escalates to a satisfying and cacophonous calamity that closes out the track.
The Mars Volta – Cicatriz Esp
The Mars Volta are one of the most original bands around, and although there are lots of familiar influences within their music, the way they deploy them was consistently bold, imaginative and interesting.
I chose Cicatriz Esp (the chorus specifically) as it’s so damn intense, especially considering it’s only a five note phrase on the guitar, (admittedly, it’s an amazing five note phrase on guitar).
Beyond having a kick-ass chorus riff is that behind all of its technicality and trickery, it is an amazingly constructed and structured song - a satisfying journey from start to finish and a brilliant place to start for anyone curious about the band’s music.
Foo Fighters – The Color And The Shape
This is still one of the lesser-known songs by the Foo Fighters – it was supposed to feature on the album of the same name, but the band decided not to include it and it ended up on special editions.
But the riff in is an absolute juggernaut. Seriously – those bends. I’ve always thought that songs like this one are a window into another stylistic direction the Foo Fighters could have chosen to pursue had they been inclined to do so. Dave Grohl has one of the most distinct screams of all time – it has an intensity more akin to Jens Kidman from Meshuggah than other bands from the grunge and post-grunge movement.
Miocene – Pure
Most people won’t have heard of Miocene, but when I was growing up, they were a regular feature on the touring circuit near where I lived.
They were never afraid to use elaborate structures and a broader dynamic range than many of their contemporaries and the balance they managed to strike between crafted sections and improvised feeling embellishment still holds up today – everyone into metal/grunge/prog-metal should check them out.
All the riffs in this song are amazing, but especially the one that begins at 0:16. Towards the end of the song where the riff returns is one of the many high points in the composition – I’ve been listening to it for years and still can’t get enough of it.
Billy Talent – Runnin’ Across The Tracks
Billy Talent have a lot riffs that I would consider underrated: the riffs in Devil in a Midnight Mass, Devil On My Shoulder and Viking Death March would all have been great picks.
I ended up choosing Runnin’ Across The Tracks as it kicks an enormous amount of ass. The energy in the track is amazing throughout and I love the way the main riff is broken down for the verses and recycled into a ‘nearly-a-solo’ section later in the song.
For anyone unfamiliar with their catalogue, it’s a damn good place to start.
Soundgarden – Limo Wreck
Soundgarden have written so many riffs that I could have chosen (other contenders were Jesus Christ Pose, Slaves And Bulldozers and Let Me Drown), but Limo Wreck has always been one of my favourites.
The song is built around a wonderfully weird grouping of five bars of three and the payoff of the chorus’s unexpected and ball-busting key change is only trumped by the high notes that nobody other than Cornell can deliver in quite this way. The open and moody verses are expertly juxtaposed by the passion and raw energy of this riff. And that guitar sound too...
The Smashing Pumpkins – (Fuck You) An Ode To No One
There are plenty of other great Smashing Pumpkins riffs that would have been appropriate choices, but back when I first heard this record at 12 or 13, An Ode To No One stood out due to its unique energy and intensity.
The main riff of this song is definitely underrated and in a manner not dissimilar to Nirvana, the on/off dynamics and the freedom in the tempo keeps things sounding really aggressive throughout. The guitar tones as well are absolutely killer – it’s a wall of pain that is perfectly punctuated by the wonderfully busy drums. It would be criminal not to mention that this song also includes one of my favourite drum solos of all time.
Wheel’s new album, Resident Human, is out now