The term “breakdown” has been used in music for decades. What constitutes a breakdown varies from genre to genre, but for most popular forms of music, it refers to a section of a song wherein most of the instruments drop out, usually leaving the drums, or a combination of drums and bass, to carry the tune.
The term “breakdown” as it relates to metal has come to refer to a slower section of a song with a relatively simple riff and heavy groove that is conducive to moshing, head-banging, and generally getting the crowd moving. While the phenomenon of the breakdown in metal has existed for quite some time, widespread use of the term has really only come fully under the spotlight in the last decade or so, with the rise in popularity of metalcore and deathcore, as breakdowns can be key focal points in certain forms of the aforementioned genres. When I think of a metal breakdown, however, one song always comes to mind: “Suffer the Children.”
“Suffer the Children” comes from Napalm Death’s 1990 album Harmony Corruption, which was a major turning point for the band, as it featured the debut of a new line-up and showcased a new musical direction.
Joining drummer Mick Harris and bassist Shane Embury on the album were new guitarists Mitch Harris and Jesse Pintado, and new vocalist Barney Greenway. Mick Harris would leave the band shortly, but the rest of the Harmony Corruption line-up would remain with Napalm Death to this day, save Pintado, who sadly passed away in 2006.
The new members brought with them a taste for death metal, and this had a profound effect on the band’s sound; Napalm Death’s compositions grew longer and somewhat more sophisticated, and this new version of the band was a much tighter, more focused unit, though the band’s grindcore ferocity remained largely intact.The riff in question begins at 2:50 in the video below.
Musically, the “Suffer the Children” breakdown holds no secrets. For the riff’s two musical phrases, the band employs the tried-and-true technique of palm-muted, eighth-note chugging on the sixth string, and they throw in a handful of low-end power chords and a few slides, plus (of course), our old friend the diminished fifth. What makes this riff work so effectively – and having had the pleasure of witnessing Napalm Death perform this song live, I can tell you it is very effective – is the groove and the way that groove contrasts with the rest of the song. Coming as it does in the midst of an otherwise uptempo track, the shift to a much slower pace gives the riff a more dramatic effect than its musical merits might indicate. Similarly, Mick Harris’s adoption of simpler, sparser drumming patterns allows each note to hit harder and sink in deeper. Another couple of small, but crucial parts of the riff are a few well placed vocal hits by Barney: a Tom G. Warrior “Oooh” and a signature “Heyyyy” serve to give the riff an extra shove out of the gate. Napalm Death itself was apparently so pleased with this particular riff that it chose to ride it out for a full minute and a half, all the way to the song’s conclusion.
The “Suffer the Children” breakdown was certainly not the first breakdown in metal, but I would count it as one of the best, and, as the song has been a staple of Napalm Death’s set for the past two-plus decades, it is safe to say that this riff has probably been responsible for wrecking more necks and other body parts than just about any other breakdown in history. To me, “Suffer the Children” will always be the mother of all breakdowns.
Post your favorite breakdown riff.
Napalm Death – Harmony Corruption
Learn to play “Suffer the Children”.