How We Stayed Individuated

An associative journey into the world of the heavy, hooky, hypnotising guitar riff.

Protomartyr, “Uncle Mother’s”, from Agent Intellect, 2015

This intricate song marks the point where the Detroit band’s album metamorphoses into a weird and truly wonderful creature. Fittingly, the riff itself undergoes various transmutations, as if intent on presenting the plentiful array of post-punk guitar possibilities: after entering a shifty scene of menacing orientation and propelling the song into hypnotic hook territory, it is consecutively chopped into stuttering discordant chords, pared-down into piercing shards, smeared into vaporous clouds of sound, condensed into rhythmically insistent eighth, and finally heaped into rough layers that seem to include all of the above, dominated by the shrill sounds of anxious alarm.

TV on the Radio, “Poppy”, from Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes, 2004

Taken from the Brooklyn band’s debut album, this song characteristically adopts the values of hip hop – beat, loop, repetitive minimalist melody – and mixes them with a Sonic Youth-type guitar sound. It tells a harsh, dense, urban tale of identity politics and love. Gradually nature comes into the picture, in the shape of blackbirds and dragonflies, and with the line “there is something special in the air” the song breaks into a signature TVOTR contrapuntal a cappella passage. The idyll is then gradually invaded by a more wall-of-noise version of the original riff, creating a beautiful swirl of jarring harmonies. Until at the end the riff stops again, releasing the human voices into an aerobatic, swarming, disappearing flight. (please excuse the stupid YouTube image)

Lync, “B”, from These Are Not Fall Colors, 1994

Hailing from Olympia, Washington, Lync were one of the shining lights in the experimental jet set, trash and no star-studded firmament of early ‘90s American guitar bands. Their version of the figure-of-four catchy guitar riff is grungy and full of brio: a strident, raspy and ringing affair that is further enhanced by its entangled relationship with the bass and drums. Changes of rhythm, quiet-loud dynamics and varying arrangements of the foreground/background relationships between the instruments provide a wonderful example of imaginative rock trio composition. The song feels organic, contrary and a bit shambolic, but it handles tension and texture so well that every time the riff comes back, the listener gets a moment of pure punk-pop pleasure.

Le Thug, “Bird”, from Ripping EP, 2013

In the Glasgow shoegazers’ hands the riff is piled up and extended over eight bars and stretched and smeared and warped and slowed way down until it becomes a murky and woolly atmosphere, steadily becoming even murkier and woollier, yet somehow managing to be more and more luminous. Also present in their absence are big reverberating machinic drums, a sub-booming bass and distant, deeply-buried and extremely sweet vocals. Each time the tension builds and builds until finally the riff returns, bringing a huge sense of relief in a spacious nebula of electronic bliss. Until in the end it doesn’t – leaving us hanging in an ever-receding, void and echoey expanse.

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