Riffs Under Radar

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[Above: The Savannah, Ga. metal monsters of Baroness]

By necessity, the riffs that were singled out in my Greatest Riffs of the 21st Century (So Far) article were populist gestures - those that were commonplace enough that you would hear them over the loudspeakers at the local football stadium, catch them in highlight reels or find them in the next installment of Guitar Hero. As such, they are just the tip of the iceberg.

The turn of the musical wheel has brought us to a moment where instrumental prowess is increasingly back in vogue. In fact, even prog rock has experienced a subtle return to fashion. While the excesses of the Yes/ELO/ELP era that helped spawn the punk movement remain frequently satirized (witness the Asia jokes in The 40 Year Old Virgin for starters), the fascination with story, compositional density and sheer guitar chops has increasingly crept back into the zeitgeist, particularly as bands with punk and metal inclinations connect the lines between left-of-center prog heroes such as Frank Zappa, King Crimson and Dream Theater.

Meanwhile, in the metal world, the maximalism of the New Wave of British heavy metal has become fashionable once more, displacing the more droning assault of grindcore with Maidenesque guitars and, again, a fascination with imagery, storytelling and lyrical mythology. In parallel, the underworld of would-be “stoner rock” continues to grow in depth and power as the classic formulae of Sabbathy riffs and trippy effects are reiterated in an unbroken line from Blue Cheer to Monster Magnet today. Here, then, are a sampling of just some of today’s essential and undersung riff merchants from the edgier corners of the underground:

  Marnie Stern - Often performing with just an iPod and a guitar, this female axe-wielder may be one of today’s most pyrotechnic guitarists. Backed on wax by the stunning Hella kinsman Zach Hill, her debut record, In Advance of the Broken Arm, will cast your jaw to the floor.
Key track: “Precious Metal”

Earthless - With a woozy nod to the druggier depths of '70s guitar rock, Earthless hooks your brain up to the wah pedal and stomps furiously. Big, round bass riffs, blasting cap drums and endless roiling guitars cruise the magic carpet ride along.
Key track: “Flower Travelin Man”

Baroness - Following in the path of Mastodon, Pelican and Isis, Baroness leads this decade’s second great wave of alternative metal. Having quickly and impressively evolved from grungy thrash into full-on compositional mini-epics in the space of a few short years, this year's Red Album is nothing less than a tour de force.
Key track: “The Birthing”

The Fucking Champs - Wedged firmly in the space between metal and prog with an avant-garde edge and no particular fear of a well-placed synthesizer, the Champs are one of the few bands that could just as easily open for Mastodon as for Battles. God bless ’em for it.
Key Track: “Nebula Ball Rests In A Fantasy Claw”

Therion - Big, symphonic Scandinavian metal for those who aren’t afraid of the genre’s classical operatic edge. Capitalizing on the rich legacy of local folk music, Therion’s new opus Gothic Kabbalah employs its ethnomusicological instincts in a grand cinematic sweep of huge guitars and compelling drama.
Key track: “Son of the Staves of Time”

Amon Amarth - Viking metal! Proof that the current Scandinavian death-metal scene has more to offer than cannibalism and church burning, Amon Amarth is that rare extreme metal act whose sense of melody matches its brutal yawp, particularly on its current platter With Oden On Our Side (not joking).
Key Track: “Cry of the Black Birds”

Dig away!!!

*Full disclosure - In the author’s other life as an entertainment attorney, his firm works with several artists who quite frankly should be on this list, but in the interests of journalistic integrity shouldn’t be singled out specifically by this particular author. Still, if it’s riffs you’re looking for, you owe it to yourself to at least check out Five Finger Death Punch, Against Me!, Fireball Ministry, Coheed and Cambria, Avenged Sevenfold, Operator and Priestess.

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