Kirk Hammett exclusively opens up about one of Metallica’s greatest moments.
(Ride The Lightning, 1984)
What is it that hits you hardest about Creeping Death? Take a second to think about it, because this thrash metal journey has plenty going for it. Is it that thunderous, thudding introduction that shoots adrenaline through your veins, getting straight to the point and setting the riotous tone from the very first note of the song? Maybe it’s that middle section that slugs away like body blows from a heavyweight boxer and includes what could very well be the most definitive gang vocal ever recorded? The epic scale and tone of the guitar solos? The dual guitar moments that added a sophistication and element of class to the “hunt and kill” rhetoric thrash had made its forte by 1984?
Whatever it was, it was apparent upon the release of Ride The Lightning that Creeping Death was unchartered territory for both Metallica and metal as a whole.
“Creeping Death was one of the first songs responsible for the musical growth of the band, I think,” reflects Kirk Hammett. “It was one of the first songs written for Ride The Lightning and it was a clear step in the right direction. It was as heavy as anything on Kill ‘Em All but on a technical level, we had put that much more into the writing and arrangement and we made it more demanding for ourselves, and it set the stage for the rest of the album.”
Though the song obviously goes down as a Metallica classic, dig a little deeper and you can find that Hammett’s former band Exodus had a tiny part to play in the creation of this metal masterpiece…
“James and Lars hammered that song out in a day and then called me down to the rehearsal space,” Kirk reveals of the song’s origin. “They got to the ‘Die by my hand’ riff and they started grinning at me and I laughed because I’d had that riff kicking around for so long and we’d used it in an Exodus demo, but it just worked in Creeping Death so well. I wrote it when I was 16 years old, definitely still in high school, and I remember thinking, ‘Wow, this is heavier than a lot of the bands that I listen to,’ and thought I’d touched upon something. It was the first riff I ever wrote that was in that sphere and I’ll always have tremendous affinity with it for that reason.”
It’s perhaps in the live setting that Creeping Death has solidified its reputation as owning one of the biggest riffs in the history of metal. From sweaty clubs in the mid-80s to the stadiums and festival headline slots they occupy today, Creeping Death is second only to Master Of Puppets in the Metallica canon for most live airings ever, and is regularly deployed to open the band’s live set. Indeed, after a weekend of Glastonbury coverage that involved insipid pig vomit like Ed Sheeran and Arcade Fire, Creeping Death opening Metallica’s setlist on the main stage felt like a bazooka being fired at a hippie commune.
“Mission accomplished, then!” laughs Kirk. “It’s a song that pulls you in from the very beginning and we open with it for that reason. You don’t have to build yourself up; from the first second it pulls you in and the set goes from there.”
Perhaps the most impressive thing about the track is that it still sounds so crushingly heavy a full 30 years after its release. When you consider how dated some things from as recent as the late 90s and early noughties sound (have you listened to Soulfly, Drowning Pool or Static-X lately?), that Creeping Death still sounds like a Michael Bay scene set in Hell tells its own story.
“I can only speculate, but I think one of the things that makes it so timeless is that it sounded like nothing else that was going on at that time,” summarises Kirk. “It didn’t have anything to do with any of the trends that were going on. It didn’t sound anything like what would become hair metal and it only had elements of what was going on in thrash and when you can’t tie a song or a sound to a particular point in time, it means you can’t date it and that’s probably why people would say it’s stood the test of time so well. I’m proud of that.”
I LOVE METALLICA
“Do you really need me to sit here and explain why Creeping Death is a great riff? It’s not about chords or time signatures or any of that stuff. It’s about the feeling you get from a kickass Metallica riff, and that riff just slays. It’s impossible to not bang your head to it.”
ANGEL OF DEATH
(Reign In Blood, 1986)
One of metal’s most iconic songs, Angel Of Death introduced Slayer’s seminal Reign In Blood album to the world. Putting the ‘speed’ into speed metal, its first minute-and-a-half is dedicated to utter brutality, whereas its midsection contains one of the most measured and impactful riffs of Slayer’s entire career. “There are many of my favourite Slayer riffs in Angel Of Death,” recalls Kerry King today. “To be honest, we were just trying to make the best Slayer record for us at the time. We knew it was a great song, but that’s about it! Why did we have it open the record? It just made sense in the context of the songs we had for the session. That entire record was a riff machine.” Indeed, such is its power that its fame has spread beyond the genre, with rap legends Public Enemy isolating and looping the riff in their perhaps-equally famous number She Watch Channel Zero? Metal has rarely made a bigger impact.
I LOVE SLAYER
Bill Steer, Carcass
“That track is a masterclass in brutal riffing from start to finish. You have this really nasty, pacey, dark thrash riffing and then in the middle it slows down and becomes the sort of twisted thing you would find on a Mercyful Fate album. It’s almost atonal and just completely messes with your head, and it’s one of those riffs that never loses its mystique; every time you hear it, it takes you somewhere.”
HOLY WARS… THE PUNISHMENT DUE
(Rust In Peace, 1990)
“There’s no doubt that Megadeth are the most technically difficult band to play from
the big four. I mean, that riff just goes everywhere, changing time signatures and pace all the time. You just can’t believe that Mustaine can sing over the top of it while he’s playing. Add in Marty Friedman and Nick Menza and you’ve got the most talented musicians in thrash all in one place. I used to try and play those Megadeth riffs and couldn’t get anywhere near it. When you consider that it’s the song that starts Rust In Peace, you have to say that it’s one of the most iconic and killer moments in their career. It just comes in, BOOM, and smacks you right upside your head. Best production, most technically impressive, memorable as hell. How do you top that?”
COREY BEAULIEU, TRIVIUM
(Burn My Eyes, 1994)
“I remember writing that riff at my wife Genevra’s apartment – she was my girlfriend back then – on my cheap classical guitar. I could hear it all in my head: how I wanted the beat to go and everything else. I think Logan [Mader, original Machine Head guitarist] added some things to it as well. It’s all a little hazy now! The harmonics came from when I was a kid, trying to play Celtic Frost songs on this shitty four-inch practice amp. I was trying to reproduce the feedback on those records but the amp wouldn’t even distort, let alone feed back, so I’d play a harmonic instead because that’s what I thought feedback was! We ended up using that in a bunch of songs on Burn My Eyes and now it’s a trademark for Machine Head. There’s a lot of heavy riffs in that song, dude. ”
ROBB FLYNN, VOCALS/GUITAR
(Blackwater Park, 2001)
“Blackwater Park is a great one; it was a huge moment for them and I think they’ll always be compared to it. It’s just the riffy goodness of it. I think it’s the dynamics between opposing certain frames of mind, quiet and loud. I think Mikael has always been adept at transitioning between the two and his riffs encapsulate that. History will make any riff popular with the fans; people are always looking to have something that they’ve had an emotional connection to played loudly. With the record being a hit, I assume it makes people remember a time in their life and makes them want to jump up and down!”
(Sad Wings Of Destiny, 1976)
“Everything about the song is perfection. The opening guitar lick is so killer, it’s one of those completely memorable moments in metal history. Plus it’s part of my youth; it always sounds fresh, like the first time I heard it. The verse is so simple, just single-note chunks. A great riff like this gets the blood boiling, makes the heart start racing, and lays the foundation for the song. Throw on some sick drumming, killer bass, and mind-blowing vocals and then you really have something going on. I love riffs like these, it’s what gets me excited to keep playing metal!”
GARY HOLT, EXODUS/SLAYER
AT THE GATES
BLINDED BY FEAR
(Slaughter Of The Soul, 1995)
“That riff, man! Let me tell you about the first time I heard At The Gates. I was a kid and just getting into black metal like Cradle Of Filth and Satyricon and was sat outside this record shop. This guy comes up to me and says, ‘Hey man, I’m death metal Steve’ and then writes me out a list of bands I needed to check out. At The Gates were top of that list. So they were the first ones I listened to. And it just blew my mind; that riff is so catchy and heavy at the same time. So many bands have based their whole career around that riff, especially in the New Wave Of American Heavy Metal movement, they made a sound that was just so recognisable. To the point where, in Suicide Silence, we actively try and make sure we steer clear of doing anything like At The Gates so we don’t sound anything like that. Purely because there are so many Xeroxes of it. But you’ll never top the original.”
MARK HEYLMUN, SUICIDE SILENCE
PULL ME UNDER
(Images And Words, 1992)
“When we released Pull Me Under, it was almost like a fluke amongst the early to mid-90s grunge movement where I think the whole space for guitar solos had been kinda forgotten about. But somehow that song broke through! I would say it was the song and album that launched our career in many ways and became the catalyst for us taking our next steps, like international touring. That opening guitar riff was actually one of those organically instinctual things that just popped out. I was playing my guitar and the notes just came to me. That doesn’t happen very often, so when it does it’s very cool! And it’s pretty simple, too; just three notes at a time. I guess it’s the song we are most known for and the one that really started things for us.”
JOHN PETRUCCI, GUITAR
PULL HARDER ON THE STRINGS OF YOUR MARTYR
“When I wrote that riff, I was just sitting on my couch messing around. I wasn’t even trying to write anything, but it just came out of me and it sounded pretty cool, so the next day at practice, I said to Travis [Smith, former Trivium drummer], ‘Hey I’ve got this riff,’ and he had been playing the exact drum part the night before, totally without us interacting. So those two parts just fit in together. Which was pretty spooky. It’s become a really important part of our set, especially in the UK. You can feel the excitement in the crowd when that drum pattern starts and we often get people singing the actual riff back to us. That gets the hairs standing up on the back of your neck. You know you’ve written a good riff when they are singing the guitar part instead of the vocal. It’s an integral part of our arsenal.”
MATT HEAFY, VOCALS/GUITAR
As Seattle’s hair metal-slaying grunge onslaught began to reach its zenith and a boisterous bunch of scamps from Texas were making themselves heard, something darker was brewing in Bakersfield, CA. Something that would redefine what it could mean to be a metal band.
Yes, the timeless opening track from Korn’s classic debut album is perhaps best remembered for Jonathan Davis’s ’Arrreeeee youuuu rrrreeeeeaaadyyyyy?’ battle cry, but it was the down-tuned and dirty riff that followed that truly set the tone for metal’s most dramatic and controversial evolution yet. “That riff was originally from LAPD, one of Jonathan’s old bands,” explains guitarist Munky. “I heard it and I was like, ‘I can do something with this.’ It never used to be that heavy, but I got my hands on it with my seven-string and Munky-fied it up. We wanted something that was really quiet to start with, which is why the cymbal is so low, because we knew it was going to explode. It’s our iconic moment and I’m cool with that.”
I LOVE KORN
Timfy James, Hacktivist
“It’s my all-time favourite riff! My mate played it to me and it just made the hairs stand on the back of my neck. I’d never heard a guitar tuned like that; it was the song that got me hooked on the balls of lower tunings. It sounded heavier than Metallica and everything I’d heard before it!”
**COWBOYS FROM HELL **
(Cowboys From Hell, 1990)
The year is 1990 and the charts are being overwhelmingly dominated by Phil Collins, Sinéad O’Connor and Vanilla Ice. Thrash is still going strong, but doesn’t feel anywhere near as dangerous as it did five years ago. Record companies are racing to Seattle in the hope of finding the stars of tomorrow. The very future of metal is in question. And then a bunch of hard-drinkin’, heavy-tokin’ Texans come along with a riff so intoxicating, so goddamn electric, it gives heavy music the kick up the arse it needs and sends waves rippling across the face of the Earth.
Let’s face it: few riffs have been single-handedly responsible for so many hangovers, headaches and broken necks as the opening track on Pantera’s fifth album/official debut Cowboys From Hell. And as a mission statement, it pretty much said it all: we’re taking over this town. And take over towns they most certainly did. After touring with Exodus and Suicidal Tendencies, the band were invited to open for Judas Priest in Europe the following year, followed by an appearance at Monsters In Moscow with AC/DC and Metallica to a crowd of 500,000 – not bad. Basically what we’re saying here is: do not underestimate the power of a fucking brilliant riff. Pantera most certainly didn’t.
I LOVE PANTERA
Phil Demmel, Machine Head
“Cowboys From Hell was a game-changer. It had the energy of thrash but a groove that made you want to dance. That’s the beauty of Dime and his riffs; he didn’t know a lick of theory, it just poured out of him. He was a natural, organic resource for this thing called music.”
The eerie drum ‘n’ bass drop. Those frenetic, psychosis-inducing first notes. That unmistakable guitar tone. And then, accompanied by the most bloodcurdling, gut-wrenching scream of Corey Taylor’s entire career, that damn riff: one of the most pummelling, relentless, building-levelling metal riffs ever committed to record. Two songs into their unstoppable, self-titled debut and Slipknot had announced themselves with a force so terrifying that it is yet to be topped, 15 years on. Encapsulating everything that made the 18-legged Des Moines hate machine such an awe-inspiring, destructive presence upon their arrival, Eyeless is a flawless example of how the nine-piece landed a powerbomb into the heart of nu metal’s dominance. “The guitars in the song were recorded by Mick Thomson and [former ‘Knot guitarist] Josh Brainard,” recalls Monte Connor, former Senior Vice President for A&R at Roadrunner Records, and the man who helped to break Slipknot as one of metal’s biggest bands. “The band were hungry-as-fuck and totally driven in those early days. They would do anything it took to achieve world domination.” With this riff, Iowa’s finest were already well on their way, and metal itself had some new heroes to throw its weight behind.
I LOVE SLIPKNOT
Zoltan Bathory, 5FDP
“In this track, the guitar is almost playing a supportive role until the breakdown, which has a pretty gnarly riff! Slipknot are a band that can create a sonic landscape. As a guitarist, you have to co-exist with your band – especially with nine members – and sometimes you have to support your bandmates.”