Riff University: Map of the Problematique by Muse

All aboaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaardahahaha! Welcome to Riff University, where each week, Dr* Oliver Butler (@notoliverbutler), with his PhD in Riffology** will walk you through some of the biggest, baddest and boldest riffs of all time, right from the genesis of rock and roll, to some of our future classics. By the end of this intensive course, you will be able to recognise a classic riff from the first note, make pub conversations awkwardly unbearable, and alienate Tinder matches from the word go.

*Abbreviation of “Dad Rock”
**Not a real PhD

Up This Week: Map of the Problematique by Muse

Read Last Week’s Lecture on Seek & Destroy by Metallica here.

Once upon a time, Muse were arguably the most powerful band in the world. Their space opera theatrics mixed with symphonic, heartbroken aggression, plus some big riffs, they made the world dance to their beat. Whilst yes, now they’re on the speed dial of every festival organiser, can sell out arenas with the flick of a wrist and shift records by the pallet, Muse reached their headiest heights in 2007, not long after the release of Black Holes & Revelations, as they took to the stage in Wembley Stadium, becoming the first band to sell out the “new” Wembley.

Your reaction to their name might be one of pure adoration, or pure disgust, but the run of four albums from Showbiz to Black Holes is full of absolute treats, with few songs across those records disappointing the senses. Many of you will likely argue that Absolution or Origin of Symmetry is the GOAT Muse album, and to be honest, you’d be right with either selection. However, Black Holes is not without its charms and is a handsome bronze medallist. Think Knights of CydoniaHoodoo and Assassin, and you can see why Black Holes is such a treasure. However, nothing post-Black Holes has come close to it, with The Resistance, The 2nd Law and Drones offering flashes of greatness, but nothing that could slip the surly bonds of earth and touch the face of Matt Bellamy.

But one song off that album is anecdotally regarded as the best Muse will ever produce, and whilst this is a lecture, not an op-ed, it’s hard to disagree with anyone who puts this song at the top of their list. That song? Map of the Problematique. The composers? Muse. The result? Shock and awe.

Let’s just dive in right away and look at the riff, shall we? It’s absolutely sublime. First of all, how the fuck does it work? Research suggests that as per Matt’s mid noughties guitar work, involves a lot of effects-based jiggery pokery, largely focused around the Digitech Whammy, a particular favourite Mr Bellamy, and a Molten Midi 2, based on what Equipboard, a few YouTubers and a few live performances can tell us. Sorry to break the Magician’s Code on that particular riff, but peeking behind the curtain is the whole point of the series.

The result of tech wizardry is an octaved, harmonised riff that rattles around your brain as the notes crack through the sky like lightning. Couple that with the gently tapped piano, thundering drums and scratchy, choral sounds exploding through the song, the opening of Map of the Problematique paints an image of lightning breaking through a darkened sky, the white hot light of the bolts mixing with the inky blue of the night to create a midnight purple that illuminates the night sky. The use of a delayed, ocatved effect is prominent through the whole song, and has a real Depeche Mode feel to it.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZyLx0qc_gKc]

You’ll probably have a favourite Muse song, but it’s hard to find a song more polished, refined and perfect than Map. The title comes from the 1972 book, The Limits to Growth, commissioned by Club of Rome, a think tank. The book talks of a “map of the problematique”, referencing to a “global problematique”, or a set of catastrophic problems that will face the world in years to come (See also: Trump: The Art of the Deal). The opening line refers to “Fear, and panic in the air”, which Wikipedia reckons is a reference to Mars, with Mars’ two moons being Phobos and Deimos, the Greek gods of fear and panic (not to be confused with comedy duo Pain & Panic from 1997’s Disney classic Hercules). Not a bad shout considering that the cover is shot on a red plane, maybe Mars, Cydonia is on Mars, and members of the band have been enjoying Mars bars[Citation Needed].

However, Map is unarguably about the faltering relationship between Bellamy and his then girlfriend. First and foremost, the first verse doesn’t exactly scream “Lad’s Holiday to Mars!” now does it? It instead paints a picture of the protagonist struggling with their relationship, and the feeling of hopelessness in failing to get things right.

“Fear, and panic in the air // I want to be free from desolation and despair // and I feel, like everything I sow is being swept away // well I refuse to let you go” 

Whilst Wikipedia argues that pain and pan- fuck – fear and panic refer to the two moons of Mars, “fear, and panic” in this context could refer to the fear that the protagonist’s efforts aren’t good enough for their lover, and panic that the relationship will be swept away as a result of it.

The chorus isn’t much of a picnic either, with the protagonist bringing their beau into the song:

“I can’t get it right // get it right // since I met you”

Three little lines, but it’s a very relatable chorus, it’s fair to say that in the midst of a rocky patch in a relationship, we’ve all felt that we can’t get it right, no matter how hard we try. Interestingly, since the eventual collapse of Matt’s relationship, he altered the last chorus to “since I lost you”, implying that either he, or the protagonist in the song still wrestles with the same demons that they did when with their lover. or that without them in their life, they struggle to live with the same vitality they did when with them. Arguably, this should have been reflected in the studio version of the song to add extra poignancy, but, none of us are members of Muse, unless you’re a member of Muse, then hello!

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0o2qwYeXBHY]

The use of a delayed, stuttered midi effect is also prevalent in the bridge in the chorus, moving the protagonist to plead:

“Loneliness be over, when will this loneliness be over?”

This is pretty poignant, as the protagonist feels alone in their own relationship, maybe through the rockiness in their relationship, they’re not speaking, and that can be an exceedingly lonely time. However, the poignancy and eternal romantic struggle, as the stuttered riff comes back in with some thumpy-ass drums, moving into a really dance-heavy section of the song, but still carries the gloomy lyrical theme of the first verse into the second, if not gloomier as the tone gets lower.

“Life, will flash before my eyes // so scattered almost // I want to touch the other side // and the world, thinks they are to blame // why can’t we see, that when we bleed, we bleed the same?”

Sort of like a real-life professor interpreting a body of work, it could be argued that wanting to “touch the other side” loosely refers to the protagonist taking their own life. Considering the gloom that envelopes them and their struggle to find happiness, or do right in their relationship, going to the other side may have become an option. For a song with such a pacey tempo & dancey structure, it’s pretty fucking dark.

Something that really stands out though is the last line before the final chorus

“Why can’t we see, that when we bleed, we bleed the same?”

In the context of the song it’s pretty hard to see what Bellamy means. Is it the protagonist trying to reach through their lover, in that both of them not communicating or seeking to destroy their relationship is destroying them at the same time? However, in a wider context, this line has a lot of poignancy, largely because we’re all human, we’re all of the human race, but the marginalisation of select groups, growing wealth inequality and rise of far-right rhetoric has caused multiple schisms in our collective human race. But if you were to cut us, we would all bleed the same red blood, just that some groups are cut more than others, and others can afford to be cut.

Again, this theory is probably GCSE-level philosophy at its maxim, but there’s something about that line that’s extra meaningful.

But the poignancy of Map’s lyrical theme, plus the perfectly polished production and composition of the track is what makes it one of, if not the best Muse songs ever written. The intricacy of the riff and similarities to Enjoy the Silence by Depeche Mode is what really makes it stand out. The upped tempo of the riff gives it a real uniqueness as well, and something that you won’t really find elsewhere in Muse’s back catalogue. Lyrically, Muse were really in their own in the mid noughties, especially with Absolution, but even more especially with Black Holes. You only need to look at the depth of songs like Hoodoo, Take a Bow and Invincible to see that the band had a real knack for writing meaningful songs back in the day.

Fingers crossed that with whatever Muse are up to this year in terms of studio time, they manage to bottle some of the magic that Map of the Problematique offered, and produce a song that bursts through the sky like violent lightning.




Riff University: Seek and Destroy by Metallica

All aboaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaardahahaha! Welcome to Riff University, where each week, Dr* Oliver Butler (@notoliverbutler), with his PhD in Riffology** will walk you through some of the biggest, baddest and boldest riffs of all time, right from the genesis of rock and roll, to some of our future classics. By the end of this intensive course, you will be able to recognise a classic riff from the first note, make pub conversations awkwardly unbearable, and alienate Tinder matches from the word go.

*Abbreviation of “Dad Rock”
**Not a real PhD

Up This Week: Seek & Destroy by Metallica

Read Last Week’s Lecture on Passenger by Deftones here.

Your opinion on them is strong but either way, you know who they are; their albums, the hits, the members, the t-shirts, the drama. The band is a brand, and the brand is Metallica. But long before the widespread commercial success, the thronging crowds and Some Kind Of Monster (2004), a fledgling Bay Area thrash band had just thrown out their first album, Kill ‘Em All (1983).

Marrying the sounds of bands like Motörhead, Diamond Head and Blitzkreig to turbocharged tempo, Kill ‘Em All is widely regarded as a groundbreaking album for the thrash movement as one of the ‘Big Four’ bands along with Megadeth, Anthrax and Slayer. That being said, Kill ‘Em All is not the first thrash album: that accolade is often given to Exciter‘s Heavy Metal Maniac released in January of the same year, whereas Kill ‘Em All came out in July 1983, nearly 35 years ago.

The groundbreaking sound is what set Metallica apart from their peers in the early eighties. Whilst an album like this is familiar to us now, there must have been nothing like this in 1983. This is the sort of album that is a watershed moment; there was music before Kill ‘Em All, and then there was music after Kill ‘Em All.

The whole album, as is standard with all pre-Black Album Metallica records, is a masterpiece from front to back. Arguably one of the best ways to raise the curtain on your recording career, Hit the Lights announces Metallica right off the bat, then you have Motorbreath, Whiplash, Metal Militia, Phantom Lord and of course the masterful Cliff Burton on Anaesthesia (Pulling Teeth). However, every crown must have its jewel, and the one song that stands taller than all its peers is the legendary Seek and Destroy.

The whole purpose of Riff University is to explore the writing, meanings and impacts of the biggest, baddest and boldest riffs of all time, and in Seek and Destroy’s case, it’s a struggle to find a riff bigger, badder or bolder (please @ us if you think otherwise). Second only to Master of Puppets in terms of live play, having been played nearly, or just over 1,500 times to millions, upon millions of Metallica fans across the globe.

The opening riff is quite simply, iconic; with James Hetfield and Kirk Hammet crawling along the necks of their guitar in perfect harmony, before Cliff and Lars join in the fun. The verse is pretty simple, but to be honest, so is the riff. The real tasty bits of guitar work come into play during the three solos in the song, but the simplicity of the riff is what makes it work so well. Crowds can sing along to the riff as loud as they can the song, and THAT is what makes a riff iconic; if someone can sing the riff as well as they can sing the lyrics, you know you’ve got a major hit on your hands.

The riff, as Lars Ulrich will and has happily admitted, can be traced back to Dead Reckoning by Diamond Head, a New Wave of British Heavy Metal band that greatly inspired the young band, and you can absolutely hear the similarities between Seek and Destroy and Dead Reckoning. Of course, most of Kill ‘Em All was either written by NWOBHM bands, James Hetfield or Dave Mustaine, but bands in their early days should be allowed to write in the shadows of their inspirations, because that’s how we all learn, grow and do better, by borrowing from those who inspire us. Or massively fucking shaft their original guitarist who’s kind of a dick and cause them to start Megadeth, the edgy teenager’s choice of thrash band.

Seek and Destroy is a song that doesn’t run out of puff either, an absolute highlight of the song is right after a burning solo from a fresh-faced Kirk Hammet, and the song slows down, before bursting right back into that riff all over again for a second round.

Whilst not the original lyric, it’s hard not to resonate strongly with “Our brains are on fire with the feeling to kill // And it won’t go away ’til we drink all your beers” from the band’s 1989 performance of the song in Seattle. This video also captures the live power of Seek and Destroy, right at, arguably, the height of Metallica’s thrash metal assault; post …And Justice and pre-Black Album, the mix of a band at full tilt, capacity and power is something to truly behold. Late eighties Hetfield is beyond fucking frightening and has likely sent that ESP Explorer up someone’s arse, body first

That video just sums up Seek and Destroy: it’s a fan favorite, arguably more so than Master of Puppets, as it has closed out hundreds upon hundreds of sets; the song that allows everyone to go home happy, the song that everyone spends the whole gig excitedly bouncing around waiting for. Of course, Metallica offer a wide variety of fine thrash metal tunes that span nearly forty years, but nothing rouses the Metal Militia like the first few bars of Seek.

Lyrically, Seek and Destroy is overtly and unsubtly about wanting to kick the shit out of someone, but not actually doing it. It’s pretty obvious that the band are looking for a fight with “Scanning the scene in the city tonight // looking for you to start up a fight // there’s an evil feeling in our brains // but it’s nothing new, it drives us insane”. Which against why it makes it such a great live track, because “scanning the scene in [your city] tonight // looking for you to start up a fight” is enough to get the coldest of crowds warmed up.

Same goes for the chorus, with “Searchiiin’ // seek and destroy!” making for a fantastic call and response from Papa Het and the fans. Deliberately or totally by accident, Seek and Destroy was designed for the live Metallica show, especially with their fan-centric stage setups. Of course, the lyrics are second to the riff, but the simplicity of “Running, on our way // hiding, you will be // dying, a thousand deaths” just lets you scream it in a car, an arena or an interview, each with the same amount of aggression.

Metallica would go on to hone and develop their craft, especially with Ride the Lightning just one year later, and oh, we’ll get right into that album, but Seek and Destroy loudly heralded the arrival of your new metal overlords, and would go on to be a centrepiece of the Metallica stage show.

Riff University: Sorry, You’re Not A Winner by Enter Shikari

All aboaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaardahahaha! Welcome to Riff University, where each week, Dr* Oliver Butler, with his PhD in Riffology** will walk you through some of the biggest, baddest and boldest riffs of all time, right from the genesis of rock and roll, to some of our future classics. By the end of this intensive course, you will be able to recognise a classic riff from the first note, make pub conversations awkwardly unbearable, and alienate Tinder matches from the word go.
*Abbreviation of “Dad Rock”
**Not a real PhD

By Dr Oliver Butler (@notoliverbutler)

Up this week: Sorry, You’re Not A Winner by Enter Shikari from the album Take to the Skies
Read Last Week’s Lecture on Black Sabbath here

Cast your mind back to 2006, and whilst some of you might be too young to remember, music was consumed through three primary outlets; iTunes, Limewire and MySpace. Hours would be spent on the latter, meticulously picking a song that described your teenage angst as you pulled on your sweatbands to go loiter around the town centre on a Saturday, ready to rip the shag bands right off your crush’s wrist. Shag bands? No? Anyone? Fucking millenials.

However, one artist that found their work being passed around MySpace profiles, and fired through MSN Messenger chats, more than anyone else in the mid noughties, was a fledgling Hertfordshire post-hardcore outfit named Enter Shikari, slowly becoming more and more well known off the back of their first single, Mothership. However, it would be the single that came next that would become a staple of the early Shikari movement, and would become one of their most famous songs… even if the band didn’t groom it for mainstream success.

Sorry You’re Not A Winner, though not the jewel in their crown (oh, we’ll get to those), is easily one of the most recognisable Enter Shikari songs. SYNAW was meant to be the B-Side on the EP that also featured Ok, Time For Plan B and a demo of The Feast, but radio DJs resonated more strongly with the dancey vibes of SYNAW than the ‘heavy, bulldozing sound’ of Ok, Time For Plan B, and instantly became a hit with its infectious riff, and of course, the three claps right afterwards.#

The intro to the original, 2006 version is slightly different to the version that made it to Take to the Skies, but there’s something so nostalgic about that crystal-like synth intro. The video is indicative of Shikari’s DIY, independent attitude; filmed by the band in the living room of Chris Batten’s parents’ house, it features a fresh-faced Shikari performing the song, with a thronging crowd going positively ape around them. Remember when you had just a few friends round when your parents went on holiday and all hell broke loose? They threw a fucking concert in the living room and became international superstars. Maybe it’s because nothing got broken and there wasn’t half-full cans of whatever beer could be blagged from the offy around, but still.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P4MiC67seUY]

That being said, and as we’ve already alluded to, SYNAW wasn’t groomed to be the flag that flew atop the grand ship Shikari, in fact, quite the opposite. Recorded long before Take to the Skies took flight, all the way back in 2003, not long after a young man by the name of Liam Clelow (whatever happened to him?) had joined the band as a guitarist so that a young Rou Reynolds could focus on electronics and vocals. In the words of the aforementioned frontman and gin connoisseur, SYNAW…

“Already felt a bit old when we recorded for a 4-track EP, long before the release of Take to the Skies, but, as it became a live favourite, we felt including SYNAW on the album was paramount.”

The cultural impact of SYNAW was massive, as almost every MySpace page would be soundtracked by SYNAW, or the more edgy MySpacers would be streaming Mothership in their fight to innovate in the development of their profile. MSN screen names and statuses would reference SYNAW, and it seemed that every greebo, emo and scene kid across the land would know the “clap clap song”. Live as well, it flew into the hearts of fans, with the famed claps just “being another way to include the audience”, along with the gang vocals, the human pyramids and playing shows in the crowd. From first light, Shikari’s message was about togetherness and community, with the policy applying doubly so in the live scenario.

It’s also made itself a mainstay in the Shikari live setup, being played 640 times, according to setlist.fm, with only Mothership ahead of it on 655 times, with SYNAW finding a new home in the “quick fire” segment of a live show, which those of you that have experienced will be able to testify it is the most intensive workout on the planet, and for those have you that haven’t experienced it, imagine being in a washing machine in a sauna, whilst trying to run a record 100m sprint, and you’re about halfway there. Not for the faint of heart.

Another thing worth considering in this lecture is that Shikari weren’t having SYNAW pushed to the top by a money-thirsty label, looking for a radio hit to line their pockets, Enter Shikari were, are and will forever be an independent band. SYNAW’s success came naturally after their music being picked up by fans through the internet, with Kerrang Radio’s Alex Baker even streaming fellow EP track Ok, Time For Plan B straight off the band’s MySpace page. SYNAW found its success organically, and would plant the seeds for the bands growth over the years, culminating with the release of The Spark last year, which was a very, very good album.

Lyrically, SYNAW makes zero fucking sense, and as Rou pointed out in Dear Future Historians: Lyrics and Exgesis of Rou Reynolds, “some of the tracks on Take to the Skies are entirely made up of verse of non-sequitur gobbledegook”, which doesn’t come as a shock, and although a few learned scholars have likely tried to make something of it that isn’t more than it is, SYNAW is simply about…

“The nasty trait of brash over-confidence, and the, though maybe immature, still pleasurable act of informing the cocksure when things don’t work out in their favour. Like most of my pre-Shikari lyrics, it’s mostly nonsense; simple fun with words and images.”

Makes sense, as “Scratch card glory, or waist low pleasure? // Black eyes nose bleeds, don’t look back now” doesn’t. However, with the above considered, it does feel slightly gleeful in the demise of the otherwise cocksure. Same with “But it’s just such a thrill to find out // SORRY YOU’RE NOT! A winner with the air so cold and a mind so bitter”, it’s pretty easy to see the intention of this song lyrically. Maybe the next time you feel like recapturing your youth, why not scream “SORRY YOU’RE NOT!” then sing “A winnerER” in the face of your local workplace wanker the next time the dice don’t roll in their favour. Maybe “waist low pleasure” is about wanking or something. Bet you won’t see that one popping up in any thesis’ any time soon.

And, whilst this song never meant to become the treasure it is today, it’s interesting to see how a B-side with non-sequitur gobbeldegook originally recorded in 2003 made its way into the hearts of fans, guaranteeing it to make its way onto Take to the Skies, and with its catchy riff and easy listenablility, made its way onto numerous MySpace profiles, rock radio stations and probably a few Limewire searches… wouldn’t know, never used it! Heh!

Further down the line, we’ll delve into the deeper Shikari cuts with more intricate arrangements, more inquisitive lyrical themes, and more incendiary riffs, but for the sheer ripples in the music world that SYNAW caused and how it lit the fuse on the interstellar ES craft, it’s easily one of the most important Shikari songs.