Hello again, my students of the riff. It’s been a while since our last lesson, but, at this point, that’s usually the case, isn’t it? For this lesson, stroll with your professor down memory lane: The year was 1992, and I was attending high school in Massachusetts. Two of my greatest passions at that point in my life were heavy metal and lifting weights, and the two were almost inextricably intertwined. It was in my high school’s weight room where I first heard iconic metal bands like Metallica and Slayer, but also local hardcore and metal bands like Slapshot, Sam Black Church, and the subject of our lesson today, Only Living Witness.
Only Living Witness was formed in 1989, from the remnants of the thrash band Formicide. By 1992 the line-up had solidified around vocalist Jonah Jenkins, drummer Eric Stevenson, bassist Chris Crowley and guitarist Craig Silverman. The band’s 1992 demo, Prone Mortal Form, was making the rounds in my high school, and I first heard the title track’s mammoth riff blasting through the not-at-all-high fidelity boom box that served as the weight room’s sound system, and brothers and sisters, that was some of the heaviest shit I’d heard in my young life. Through the generosity of a friend, I ended up with a dubbed cassette copy of the demo, and in 1993, I picked up the band’s debut album, also titled Prone Mortal Form.
Like a lot of metal bands in the Boston area at the time, Only Living Witness had a fair bit of hardcore punk in its sound, and Prone Mortal Form, the album, while consistently heavy, is fairly wide-ranging, stylistically speaking. “Prone Mortal Form” the song, however, is the most straightforward, bone-crushingly heavy track on the album. I mean not to discount the quality of the song nor the band’s performance when I say this tune is all riff. I mean only to say that “Prone Mortal Form” is built around a big, bold, instantly memorable riff that would do Tony Iommi proud. Said riff kicks off the track, so let’s have a listen.
If you are playing along at home, the guitars on “Prone Mortal Form” are tuned down. From what little live footage I’ve found, I believe Craig Silverman employs a dropped-D tunning down a half step (Low to High C#, G#, C#, F#, A#, D#), but if you want to tune all your strings down one-and-a-half steps from standard, that should work as well. For reference the dropped-D, down a half-step tuning can be heard on songs such as Van Halen’s “Unchained”, Ozzy Osbourne’s “No More Tears” and Alice in Chains’ “Them Bones”.
I don’t want to dive too deep into music theory, but most of “Prone Mortal Form” is in Phrygian mode. C# Phrygian, to be specific. Practically speaking, a mode is just a different scale pattern than the usual major or minor scales. In the case of Phrygian mode, it is almost identical to the natural minor scale, except the second degree of the scale is lowered from a major second to a minor second. This creates a a half-step interval between the first and second degrees in the mode, resulting in a sound that is a little more exotic, and, pertinent to metal, a little more evil-sounding than the natural minor scale. A well-known example of Phrygian mode is the “Die By My Hand” riff in Metallica’s “Creeping Death”
The “Prone Mortal Form” main riff is rather simple from a technical standpoint, being built primarily from a handful of power chords. However, though it is a meat-and-potatoes affair, the riff does have a few interesting twists. The Riff begins with some palm-muted chugging on the open C#-5 power chord rooted on the sixth string then moves, moves to some fifth string rooted power chords, starting on the at the third fret, moving up to the C#-5 at the fifth fret, then to the D-5 at the seventh fret, and sliding back down to the C#-5 at the fifth fret to conclude the measure. The half-step movement between the tonic, C# and the minor second, D exploits the defining difference between Phrygian and the natural minor scale. The second measure of the riff is identical to the first, but instead of moving from the C#-5 to the D-5 and back, this time around the movement is from C#-5 up to E-5 and then concluding the measure at D-5. The third measure begins in much the same manner as the previous two, but after moving from B-5 to C#-5 there is jump down to the sixth string, grabbing the E-5 at the third fret, moving up to the F#-5 at the fifth fret on the final beat of the measure. The fourth measure begins with a couple whacks at the B-5 on the fifth string, the final one of which rings almost to the end of the measure, where there then appears a little hammer-on turnaround lick reminiscent of a lick Tony and Geezer play in Black Sabbath’s “Heaven and Hell” There’s a hammer-on from F# to G# on the sixth string and then two hammer-ons from B to C# on the fifth string.
The four-measure cycle then begins again in nearly identical fashion, but although it uses the exact same notes and power chords in the exact same sequence, the timing of the phrases in the first and second measures is slightly different. This most subtle of variances turns what would be a four-bar riff into an eight-bar riff in, shall we say, a creatively economical fashion. While the change is seemingly insignificant, because this song just about runs the main riff into the ground, the variation does help allay some potential ear-fatigue.
The chorus riff, for its part, doesn’t exactly rock the boat; the melody is only slightly different, with more emphasis on the D5 chord, really bringing out the riff’s Phrygian quality, but it is built of all the same chords as the main riff and it and uses a similar groove, it’s not until around 2:25 that the band finally shakes things up with an interlude that has a sludgy feel, reminiscent of Crowbar. The band shifts from Phrygian mode to the blues scale, for a somewhat chaotic sequence of riffs that would seem almost like a free form jam, if the band wasn’t so lock-tight.
Unfortunately, the story of Only Living Witness is a pretty short one. The band did some international touring for Prone Mortal Form, but by the time of the release of its second album, Innocents, in 1996, the group had already broken up. As to the reasons for the breakup, I can only speculate, but the nineties were a pretty tough time for bands not wearing flannel. Only Living Witness was probably too heavy for the mainstream and too melodic for the underground. The band has reunited at least once for a local show or two, but sadly, Eric Stevenson, who composed much of the band’s music passed away in 2008. Things haven’t worked out too bad for Craig Stevenson, though, as he is currently pulling double duty as the guitarist for New York hardcore legends Agnostic Front and the aforementioned Slapshot.
However brief Only Living Witness’s time in the sun was, with “Prone Mortal Form”, the band wrote a riff for the ages, and, as far as I’m concerned, that’s about all that matters. Almost thirty years on and that son of a bitch still hits me like a ton of bricks.
Essential Listening: Only Living Witness – Prone Mortal Form, Century Media, 1993
Homework: In the comments share some of your favorite bands that straddled the line between hardcore and metal, the more obscure, the better.
Extra Credit: Learn to play “Prone Mortal Form”.