Metal is riff-driven music, this much is taken at face value, but somewhere along the way, the meaning of this relationship has become obscured. The riff is a self-contained unit of melodic information that acts in concert with others like itself to form the song’s geography. The riff represents a perfectly logical world in itself; to give a lay example, when one sits down to doodle a riff on the guitar, the overwhelming feeling at the end of the phrase is one either of closure, or of an anticipation of what is to follow. Think of ‘Mad Butcher‘ or its cousin ‘Master Of Puppets‘ in terms of the former, think of ‘Golgotha‘, perhaps, as an example of a more sustained and preemptive style of riff-stitching. Maybe even the infectious refrain on ‘Profanation‘ as a combination of both aspects. Or, further left of centre, the stretched-to-the-utmost ‘Host Beasts Rose As Angels Nocturnal‘ by Prosanctus Inferi.
What all three of the above riffs have in common is identity, memorability, and primacy in the framework of their respective songs. They are sharply defined, in that they boast of acute movement within their sphere of influence; small though their world may be, they divide themselves into parts, at times more than just a couple, to create contrast on a microcosmic level. In other words, they feel alive, in a capacity greater than that of a simple coloring agent. In collusion with other riffs – of either lesser or greater importance and accessibility in the scheme of things – they participate in a kind of relay formation that perpetuates the motion of the song.
The riff serves no such purpose in much of modern metal, but war metal and black metal are especially culpable on this front. Not only is the connective tissue between riffs in modern metal so much redundant filler, but the riffs themselves are devoid of the identity, memorability, and relevance mentioned above. One might argue that they exist exclusively for the pursuit of atmosphere, but atmosphere by its very nature is more smear than sharp profile. By compromising intrinsic movement, modern riffs become predictable exercises in recursion; simple circular clusters of notes that have little internal logic, and even less as threads in the song’s tapestry.