I always enjoy it when music critics sit down together—either literally or metaphorically—and engage in a lively discourse about an aspect of the medium. And what subject have music journalist Simon Reynolds and Carl of the Impostume decided to exchange sporting back-and-forth Blogspot posts about all this week? Why, nothing less than the topic of the almighty riff. Between the two of them, they’ve already covered iconic licks by Iron Butterfly, Budgie, Ted Nugent, Nazareth, and Mountain, and I for one am following intently to see what slices of riff-based majesty they will whip out next.
The riff: is there any sweeter two-word phrase in the rock vocabulary? I say nay (okay, “Freddie Mercury” and “more cowbell” are contenders, but neither of them fill the soundtrack albums of summer blockbusters about Iron Man). As posited by Carl on the Impostume, “A good riff should, I think, make you squint. Or wince. Either way it’s eye-narrowing.” I briefly touched on the power and allure of an excellent riff before when discussing Green Day’s “When I Come Around” here in Sound Affects, where I held a similar viewpoint to his. Basically, what makes a riff great is how it instinctively grabs you, to the point where words fail to adequately convey the enrapturing experience. Sure, I can go on at length discussing a riff’s melodic components or how it locks into the groove in an effort to illuminate why I feel it works, but at the end of the day what I really judge the effectiveness of a riff against is by how much I want to hear it again. And again and again. Great riffs are ultimately only held to the pivotal “does it rock?” standard, which makes attempts to further complicate that criterion pretty pointless. Because of this, I have to disagree with Carl’s assertion that the best riffs are generally the slower ones. Quality riffs come in all shapes and forms, so the blitzkrieg attack of Motorhead’s “Ace of Spades” can pack as much of a punch as the self-assured stomp of AC/DC’s “Back in Black”, and both are as valid as the punk simplicity of the Damned’s “Neat Neat Neat”.