What is the greatest riff of all time? “Back in Black?” “For Whom the Bell Tolls?” “The Final Countdown?” “Raining Blood?” “Popcorn” by Hot Butter? “Cowboys From Hell?” “Milano Mosh?” “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)?” “Axel F?” “Super Freak?” Beethoven’s 5th? Every Tony Iommi riff? Every Led Zeppelin song?*
Don’t bother responding; the question is subjective and unanswerable, and “Your opinion doesn’t matter to us anyway.“** But if scientists ever were able to calculate a list of the best riffs ever recorded, there’s an unlikely piece that would appear right at the top:
“The Ultra-Violence” by Death Angel.
It’s the title track from their 1987 debut album, named for the favorite brutal pastime of Alex DeLarge and his Droog buddies in the cult 1970s film, “A Clockwork Orange” – – which in itself is based on the Anthony Burgess novel.
The full song is a ten-and-a-half minute instrumental containing about 6,000 sections, but if you know the tune, you know the part I mean. “The Ultra-Violence” is bookended at the start and finish with a cascading, repeating motif. Rob Cavestany’s lone guitar skates solely on the High-E-String – – the melody is not piercing, not bludgeoning, but crackling with epic power and elegance. After about 22 seconds, bass, drums, and more guitars jump fully in, chugging the same riff with heavy, palm-muted force on the low E. It’s not at all difficult to play, but as Death Angel have recorded it, it shimmers with immaculate, icy, metallic grace.
When the song comes on, time stops. Everyone within earshot shuts up and listens in reverence. It’s one for the ages, but is also derived from the same source as a number of other timeless, iconic motifs, including Mike Oldfield’s “Tubular Bells”***, Iron Maiden’s “Wasted Years,” “Thunderstruck” by AC/DC, John Carpenter’s “Halloween Theme,” Overkill’s “Overkill” album closers, and so on.
In fact, “The Ultra-Violence” is such a monstrous riff, it was honored by no less an institution than Carl’s Jr. Yes, it’s true. In an affront to all that is decent, the fast food chain once commissioned the song for use in a TV commercial. And it’s every bit as bad as you expect – – some guy committing oral copulation with a hamburger while the riff is playing. It’s sacrilege. Sacrilege, I tell you.
Look, the rest of the song is good too. . . It’s overlong and a little repetitive, but also wall-to-wall with mosh-starters and head-banging Thrash. Really though, it’s that main intro/outro riff that supercharges the song, that elevates “The Ultra-Violence” – – and young Death Angel – – to immortality status.
As is well known in the lore around the “Ultra-Violence” album, the members of Death Angel were all teenagers when they created this. Drummer Andy Galeon was only 14 at the time. I assume the word, “dude!“ was said a lot when Rob Cavestany played his new composition for his buddies.
In spite of some off-stage adversity, Death Angel would go on to hit many more heights in the decades that followed their auspicious debut. They’ve become indisputable icons of the hallowed Bay Area Thrash scene. But it’s this one single piece of music, written before most of them could legally drive, vote, or drink, that granted them entrance to Metal Valhalla.
I can spill words all day and night describing and honoring The Riff, but only your ears can appreciate its full magnificence. If you know “The Ultra-Violence,” then give it another play. If you’ve never heard it – – well, I envy you your chance to bask in this incredible piece of music for the first time. Carve out ten and a half minutes, get to a quiet place with no distractions, cue it up, and push play.
Jack Mangan is best known in the Metal world as the co-host of the popular Metal Hall of Fame and MetalAsylum.net livestreams with Rich Catino. He’s also the lead author/project runner for the “Am I Evil?” graphic novel and a journalist with MetalAsylum.net and the official Metal Hall of Fame. In an adjacent life, he was a podcast pioneer, with numerous appearances on Technorama, Dragon Page, Escape Pod/Pseudopod, and many others, including his own productions: Jack Mangan’s Deadpan, and the Podcast novel, “Spherical Tomi.” Friend him on Facebook if you can find him, but be warned: he’s not great about checking Facebook Messenger.
*Led Zeppelin: Metal or not Metal? https://www.metalhalloffame.org/heavy-as-led-an-open-letter-to-led-zeppelin/
**“Your opinion doesn’t matter to us anyway“ is a lyric from “Disturbing the Peace” – track 9 on Death Angel’s masterful 1990 album, “Act III.”
***”Tubular Bells” is another ridiculously long tune with ten thousand parts. It’s also famed for its signature intro, is also linked to a shocking 1970s film (the piano line was used as the theme to “The Exorcist”), and was also the product of a gifted teenager. Mike Oldfield released this masterpiece when he was only 19 years old.