Every metalhead, from neophyte to full-blown Satanic priest, dreams of one day crafting a guitar part so dark, so ominous that Satan himself immediately bursts forth from a blood-red portal, commending them for their devotion to the dark art of the metal riff and dragging them off to play for the infernal denizens of Hell. Or, if not the big guy himself, at least one of the second-stringers like Belial or someone. What, you play in a metal band and you don’t want that? Poser!
From the early days of distortion, to the dark ages when everyone thought Deep Purple was as heavy as it could get, the art of the metal riff has been steadily growing ever more wicked…and with them, the likelihood that a demonic summoning will occur. Here are 13 riffs that, when played, wear the dimensional door between Earth and the inferno dangerously thin. Practice them at your own risk!
Black Sabbath – “Black Sabbath” (1970)
Let’s unleash the tide of darkness with the band (and song) that started it all. “Black Sabbath” is the archetypal evil riff, and it’s only three notes! Of course, it helps that those three notes form a diminished fifth, or the tritone, or the preferred moniker of metal musicians & medieval monks everywhere: diabolus in musica, the devil in music. Stories that the tritone was explicitly banned from Catholic music in the Middle Ages are likely apocryphal, but “Black Sabbath” was one of the earliest songs to utilize the evil interval, inspiring demonic music disciples for years to come.
Cactus – “Rumblin’ Man” (1970)
Hard to believe something this heavy could be recorded more than four decades ago, but New York blues rockers Cactus were always ahead of the curve. The rest of Cactus’ 1970 self-titled debut was equally crushing, albeit not quite as evil as this unreleased track from the same sessions.
Motörhead – “Overkill” (1979)
Forget “Ace of Spades,” “Overkill” should be the Motörhead riff everyone thinks of when Lemmy’s warty face pops into their head. Aside from the punishing guitar, the track is also notable for being the first taste Motörhead fans got of Philthy Animal’s double bass drums.
Diamond Head – “Am I Evil?” (1980)
This re-interpretation of Gustav Holst’s iconic “Mars, The Bringer of War” was made famous by Metallica’s cover eight years later, but Diamond Head’s 1980 original can’t be beat for pure demonic power. The song is so influential to heavy metal, the Big 4 of heavy metal – Anthrax, Slayer, Megadeth, and Metallica – paid homage to it in concert in 2010.
Dark Angel – “Darkness Descends” (1986)
Los Angeles’ Dark Angel hit their stride on their 1986 album Darkness Descends, now considered a seminal thrash metal release. Opening with what sounds like a cloud of locusts descending on an unsuspecting listener, the riff soon morphs into one of the most intense fretwork ever committed to tape. Not bad for a song about Judge Dredd.
Testament – “The New Order” (1988)
What is it with metal title tracks being the best thing on the album? Wait…nevermind, don’t answer that. Berkeley, California’s Testament have sold over 14 million albums worldwide, which is pretty much unthinkable for a metal band who aren’t part of the Big 4 (or Slipknot), and monstrous riffs like “The New Order” are the reason why.
Slayer – “South Of Heaven” (1988)
Pretty much any Slayer riff could make the list, but “South of Heaven” from the band’s 1988 album of the same name just barely edges out other contenders like “Angel of Death” and “Hell Awaits.” Part of the reason “South Of Heaven” is so effective is the band’s deliberate decision to slow down their previously lightning-speed tempo, resulting in the song turning out like Slayer were commissioned to write an anthem for Hell by Satan himself.
Demilich – “The Sixteenth Six-Tooth Son of Fourteen Four-Regional Dimensions (Still Unnamed)” (1993)
“Fellas, I’m just not sure about the name of this one” – somebody in Demilich during the Nespithe recording sessions, probably. These Finnish death metallers are unfortunately now broken up, but we’ll always have tracks like “The Sixteenth” to remind us how, um, good death metal can get. Really cool how they got Barney from The Simpsons‘ to do beer belches instead of vocals, too.
Summoning – “Lugburz” (1995)
Really? This is the first band with an explicit Lord of The Rings reference? I thought it would come a lot sooner, honestly. Austrian black metal band Summoning formed in 1993, when then-teenage band members Protector, Silenius, and Trifixion decided they needed an outlet for their Tolkien fixation. I can only imagine how tough it was to be these guys’ parents. “Alexander, it’s time for your friends to go home!” “Mom, for the last time, MY NAME IS TRIFIXION!” To Summoning’s credit though, I can definitely see Uruk-hai vibing to this.
Necrophagist – “Foul Body Autopsy” (1995)
Recorded in 1995, Necrophagist’s self-titled demo gave listeners the first taste of technical death metal masterpieces like “Foul Body Autopsy,” but it wasn’t until the 2004 re-release of their debut Onset of Putrefaction that head ‘phagist Muhammed Suiçmez was able to show off his full vision for the song, with real drum samples replacing the previous electronic ones.
Burzum – “Jesus’ Tod” (1996)
Varg Vikernes probably has more press than everyone else on this list put together, but the interviews and articles are probably just as focused on the murder of Euronymous, the church burnings and the uh, ‘problematic’ neo-volkisch nationalist philosophy as they are on his music. Burzum’s 1996 album Filosofem was recorded three years earlier, just before Varg started his 15-year imprisonment for murder. Though Vikernes is a controversial figure, to put it lightly, it’s hard to deny his talent and impact on black metal…whether it’s in spite of his actions or because of them.
Emperor – “Ye Entrancemperium” (1997)
Norwegian black metal masters Emperor have contributed more to the musical development of genre than any other band apart from Mayhem, and tremolo-picked masterpieces like “Ye Entranceperium” are just the tip of the ice floe. Here’s a homework question: why do all the best black metal bands have to a) be from Scandinavia, and b) count convicted murderers as members? Original Emperor drummer Faust was convicted for murdering a Lillehammer man in his native Norway in 1992, and was imprisoned until 2003.
Death – “The Flesh And The Power It Holds” (1998)
Not to be confused with the Detroit proto-punk band of the same name, Orlando’s Death have been around since 1983, with bandleader/only static member Chuck Schuldiner acknowledged as one of the driving forces behind death metal. Schuldiner died in 2001 of brain cancer, exactly three years to the day after Death’s final concert, but his lasting influence on metal is still felt, and will be for dark ages to come. This song from Death’s last album, The Sound of Perseverance, is more progressive than the earlier Death releases, but that only goes to show what a metal master Schuldiner was. Everyone knows Satan loves riffs.