Into the Pit – Riffs vs. Melodies: A Conversation

This month, I thought I’d do something a little different. Eight months ago, I met the most wonderful woman. We’ll call her Hilldawg. She’s the best thing ever in so many ways. One of those myriad ways is not only does she support my work with Heavy Blog, but she’s also a metalhead herself. We’ve had great times just introducing each other to music we love. Some of it is slammin’ (like when she told me Roots Bloody Roots is her favorite record and I remembered Sepultura was a band), some of it is less so (I’ll never get her into Municipal Waste). But we appreciate each other’s particular tastes.

One constant conversation we have is about the difference between our likes. I’m much more of a riff kind of guy. I love thrash metal, stoner doom, OSDM, and other little niche sounds that require a good riff or you’re dead. I like it when it sounds a little grindy and dirty. Keep the string orchestras away. If I can’t skate to it, then get the heck out. I mean, I’m a terrible skater, but you get the point.

On the other hand, Hilldawg is much more about melodies. She’s a huge power and folk metal fan. Her favorite band is Judas Priest, and a lot of her metal tastes reflect that. She loves a good singer who can really belt out vocals. While they are still riffs, she prefers her guitarists building a melodic line of clearer chords. She’s not opposed to the standouts of metal so long as your blast beats and distorted vocals are serving the song.

So on a weekend trip to see the Running of the Weiners (a dachshund race, which is totally a thing I’d recommend anyone attending), we had a nice chat about our differences, where they could’ve evolved from, and assorted related topics. (Please excuse my use of ellipses as we were rudely interrupted several times by GPS robots.) Enjoy!

Pete: Alright, so we’re having a discussion about our differing tastes. You like the really melodic stuff. And you like the dramatic flair. Is that fair?

Hilldawg: Haha, yes. I like the fantasy and the sci-fi.

P: Yeah, and all the theatricality that goes along with that. I’m not necessarily opposed to all that stuff. But I like the dirty stuff. I like crossover thrash and hardcore and a lot of OSDM stuff. I think we can boil this down to a central argument of…melody vs. riffs. So what is it about the melody that you like more?

H: It just gets into my head more. It speaks to me more on an emotional level, I guess. And it’s even the same thing with any other genre. Take rap as an example. I like rap songs where it has a climax that it builds to and it’s not just the same thing over and over again. To me, the more thrashy sound is just more repetitive and just not that interesting to me from an auditory perspective. I get kinda bored with it.

P: So the melody grabs your attention more than, like, “ugh, sick riffs, bro.”

H: It just…I have more of an emotional reaction to it. I feel more connected to the music and I get more enjoyment out of it. That kind of repetitive riffy stuff loses my attention.

P: See, I think part of it for me is that I grew up listening to a lot of punk music, and that was the only kind of counterculture music I could get in suburban Georgia. The radio stations I could get played nothing but contemporary country and stuff like that. I hated that stuff. But I could get punk music and kind of got into the riffier metal. Especially because the metal that was most accessible to me was on MTV. When I started really getting into it, it was all nü metal bands like System of a Down, Limp Bizkit, stuff like that. And that stuff is all about riffs. It’s really all it is.

H: So I was into stuff like the Offspring, but Stabbing Westward and that kind of industrial stuff where it’s generally a little bit slower and it doesn’t sound as much like choppy noise.

P: The melodic stuff has to be slower just so that you can build up the melody and the lines and things like that because those are all about the subtleties in the music.

H: For me especially, I like the folk metal and Celtic stuff because those are the ones with bagpipes and tin whistle. I grew up listening to a lot of Irish folk music because my dad’s side of the family is Irish…so that really hits all that happy nostalgia with drama.

P: What would be some of your favorite bands that are like that with melody and maybe some folk?

H: Well, Iron Maiden and Judas Priest. Eluveitie, the Swiss band. I love those guys because they have a lot of that folk and kinda Celtic influence. They sang in ancient Gallic which I just think is neat and nerdy.

P: Well, that’s certainly true.

H: I like synergy just because it’s fun to hear these ridiculous vocals with someone like Alexi Laiho playing lead guitar instead of…

P: (Rudely interrupting) Yeah, I did try that. I can’t argue against that. There are some theatrical vocals in that.

H: I like Sonata Arctica, and I usually don’t like that high-pitched Helloween-style vocal for the most part. But these guys do have that. I like it because it sounds absurd. It’s songs about becoming a swan ferrying souls to the afterlife, just ridiculous shit like that.

P: That’s so silly.

H: It is silly! But I like it for the storytelling, and I feel like you don’t really get that with thrash.

P: I would say for the overwhelming majority, that’s definitely true.

H: I grew up reading a lot of mythology. It was the Greek and Roman, but then also the Norse and Irish mythology. So that kind of power or folk or symphonic just hits all the notes for me.

P: So did you discover all this stuff as a result of Iron Maiden? Since that was the big discovery for you.

H: I guess I didn’t like Maiden at first because Bruce Dickinson’s vocals are really kind of an acquired taste. He has that air-raid siren kind of a voice. But it just grew on me. They have a song called “Mother Russia” which was written when it was still the USSR. I was taking Russian-area studies so it appealed to me on that level, too. So I gave them more of a chance and listened to some of their other stuff that way.

P: I get it then. You got into the more melodic and symphonic stuff as a result of that. I come from a totally opposite perspective. I didn’t really even get into the really extreme stuff until a couple of years ago. I wasn’t into death metal when I was in high school. Or even in college. I would attempt it, but really the closest thing I had would be listening to Slayer occasionally. But even that I had to get out of my own head of, “Get over yourself. It’s awesome music. Who cares about pentagrams?” But I now like really heavy and dirty stuff. I think part of it is because about the same time that I got into a lot of thrash and the accessible nü metal, I was learning to play guitar. Playing the riffs is just more fun to me simply because you can play them by yourself. Listen to the melodies in this song right now. If you’re just practicing these melody lines by yourself, it’s not very fun because you don’t have the rest of it around what you’re doing.

H: Yeah, that makes sense.

P: I mean, you are playing a melody line that could be very pleasing to the ear. And maybe you enjoy the finger exercise you’re getting out of that. But to me, the riffs can be way more fun to play by yourself because it’s more of a real exercise. The riffs are encapsulated in what you’re doing, so you feel like you’re accomplishing more since you have more of the song to play on your own.

But here’s another distinction to make: the melodic stuff is telling a story about something that’s happening. Whereas a lot of thrash tends to be more political. You’re talking about issues. “Master of Puppets” is about drug addiction and not having control of your life. …And Justice for All is mostly political and fighting the system. It’s not like what you’re talking about with fantastic tales.

H: Well, Iron Maiden writes a lot about history, but a lot of political ideas are in there, too, along with military history.

P: Sure, but it’s not overtly political in nature.

H: “Run to the Hills” absolutely is.

P: Yeah, good point. Though I would still argue that it’s more about a historical event.

H: Well, I had you listen to Roots Bloody Roots which is a lot about the favelas and slums of Brazil, and that’s very overtly political in a very current way.

P: Yeah, that’s the distinction. Like a political event as opposed to a political issue. “Run to the Hills” seems more like a historical event with political aspects to it.

H: I think with the thrash stuff, you see that punk influence with political protest and against the system stuff.

P: Yes! It is heavily influenced by music that talks about the issue as opposed to writing a song narrating the Stonewall riots.

H: To me, the melodic metal is more heavily influenced by a lot of classical composers with that same kind of drama and storytelling. Certainly those operatic influences. Things like the resurrection of Christ with Handel’s Messiah. I really like that classical stuff too. Some of my favorite stuff to listen to is metal covers of Vivaldi or Mozart. That’s another appeal of it to me.

P: People who play that kind of music also have more musical education. They’ve learned this instrument by being taught this stuff and then also learning musical theory. Like Kirk Hammett is a trained guitar player. He knows the technical stuff. But a lot of those thrash guys are heavily influenced by punk and that’s why they started playing. Punk and hardcore music is very much DIY and being self-taught. You know how to play your instrument and maybe you’ve learned some musical terms, but that isn’t how you were trained.

H: Building off of that, when I think of thrash, I think of kids who were expressing their frustration and anger with the life that they saw around them. Power metal is far more upbeat. Even when it’s a dark theme, it’s frequently about good triumphing over evil. They’re just different. Power metal makes me think of the nerdy kids who played in band and continued playing in college and likely had a formal musical education while they got into metal.

P: Probably a lot of drama and theater geeks, too, as opposed to me hanging out with all the poli-sci majors and talking punk and hardcore and thrash metal. Melodeath would come up occasionally, and I would see it in my guitar magazines. They used to talk a lot about the shredders and melo-players and all the scales. But something about that music at the time to me seemed so inaccessible maybe because I didn’t grow up in an urban area. I grew up fairly privileged in a suburban area, but I just didn’t grow up listening to that kind of stuff. We would have classical music on but I didn’t actively listen to that a whole lot. Maybe that’s also an aspect of it.

H: See, I did grow up listening to that. My sister went to college for classical music and vocals. I mentioned Handel’s Messiah before, and I’ve heard it so much that I hate it now because it would always get played at Easter when I would see my sister performing. We heard quite a bit of that growing up and my dad would always have it playing.

P: When I was younger, before I got into my own music, I would listen to my mom’s records. Lots of Led Zeppelin and the Doors, stuff like that. My dad’s music was a lot of R&B and some singer songwriters. There wasn’t a lot of classical music that wasn’t Christmas-oriented stuff. I played piano for a few years when I was younger, so you’ll inevitably learn that stuff along the way. But I just never drifted toward that.

H: Well, even our Christmas music wasn’t the kind of singalong stuff I think most people probably hear. But we had a cassette tape called Olde English Christmas which was a lot of the classic carols played on a lute and a harpsichord. It sounded far more choral like chamber music.

P: I think we’ve delved into a lot of good points. Maybe no conclusion here, but we’ve figured a few things out. Thank you for having this conversation with me.

H: You’re welcome!

Flash Review

Septagon Apocalyptic Rhymes

Yes, I do love the dirty American-style thrash, but that doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with Euro thrash! Germany’s Septagon is back with their second record of Teutonic thrash/speed metal, and boy is it ever enjoyable. The more melodic version of thrash metal can be so enjoyable. It really has something you can sink your teeth into. Twin guitar attacks combined with singing vocals just always works, but Septagon really has that sound on lockdown. The chorus riff from “Home, Sweet Hell” is especially satisfying as it builds up with both the vocals and guitars.

Pretty much everything on this album is a melodic Euro-thrash delight. It’s so cool when a band can straddle the line between down and dirty riffs and making more melodic songs. Sure, a lot of these songs rely on a central melody to hold it all together. But there are excellent instances of what old school metal fans love. Twin guitar riffs, quick chugging open strings to drive the songs along, and even I can’t deny those belting vocals. If this sound is the new face of thrash metal, then we should all count ourselves extremely lucky to be living in 2018.

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