Riffology: Therion’s “The Way”

These days, Therion is best known for some nearly-unclassifiable form of progressive, symphonic, operatic metal. If you’d like to know more about it, our own Mr. Duvall has review of one of the band’s beloved classics, Thelli, right here. We’re going to talk about a different Therion, however.

Way back when, Therion was a death metal band that was part of the Stockholm scene of the late-eighties and early-nineties, despite the fact that the band never had what you’d call the “Stockholm sound.” The group’s first record, Of Darkness… was, not surprisingly, dark, heavy, evil-as-fuck death metal, but it was fairly straightforward work that still retained some thrash elements. The band’s second album, which concerns us today, Beyond Sanctorum, was a surprisingly progressive album for its time, and one that foreshadowed all the kooky antics Therion would get up to in their later years. Beyond Sanctorum was, however, still very much a death metal album, and a great one at that.

The track we examine for this lesson is “The Way”. At over eleven minutes, “The Way” is a riff odyssey in the tradition of Mercyful Fate’s “Satan’s Fall,” and with this tune, Therion’s progressive leanings are on full display. The track features many techniques and motifs that were pretty forward-thinking for death metal in 1992. The intro flirts with dissonance, not to the degree of Gorguts or latter-day Immolation, but just the same, it was fairly novel for the time. In the middle of the cut, the band develops a modal, middle-eastern vibe that’s complemented by some electric sitar. Was Karl Sanders listening? Perhaps. Furthermore, there are a few riffs with a definite major key tonality, and a certain streamlined simplicity that could certainly pass for melodic death metal. That’s just scratching the surface of this epic.

The riff that is the focus of our lesson is perhaps the simplest we’ve ever covered. It’s so simple that it’s almost embarrassing to call it a riff. And yet, whenever I listen to Beyond Sanctorum—an album brimming with great riffs—this is the one I most look forward to hearing.

The riff in question emerges on the heels of an up tempo section of angular tremolo riffing which comes to an abrupt halt at 3:33. The band drops out, save for a single guitar and the drums, which slip into a relaxed groove. The riff consists of octave-length slides up and down the neck: two from F# (3rd fret) to F# (15th fret) on the third string (The guitars on this track are tuned down two whole steps), and two from Eb (5th fret) to Eb (17th fret) on the fourth string. These long, gliding notes create a dizzying, hypnotic feel—one that is only compounded when the riff is doubled by another guitar the second time through. The bass joins on the third repeat, tolling out long root notes that swing like a pendulum. The whole affair is dead simple, and it only last twenty seconds, but it’s brilliant and entrancing.

If there’s one thing we can take away from this lesson it’s that if you commit to it, you can craft a riff out of just about any sound. Metal is and probably always will be defined by power chords, pedal tones, and a few other stock techniques, and for the most part, it gets by just fine with those techniques. But when a band can break from convention—and lord knows Therion has broken from plenty of conventions—even in the simplest of ways, the results can be remarkable. That said, I do wish Therion hadn’t moved away from death metal so quickly, because the band was damn good at it.

Homework: post one of your favorite unconventional metal riffs in the comments below.

Extra Credit: Learn to play “The Way.” No tab available, ladies and gents; you’re on your own.

Posted by Jeremy Morse

Riffs or GTFO.

  1. I love the yawning/looping riff that opens (and closes) Aosoth’s “Arrow in Heart.”


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