British Honour to Tony Iommi

The Perfect Riff Paradox (or Sought Music Hypothesis)

What it means to be a song writer is different for Tony Iommi. He is not a typical metal composer. I’m suggesting that he possesses a vision of music itself. He isn’t making it up. Many artists do that. They make new music by making more old music. Iommi seems to be searching for the ideal form of music itself.


In the Iommi Paradox (IP), I argue that Tony Iommi’s riffs are primordial, that he’s finding the riffs instead of building them.  I still believe that, but I think the theory may need to be refined.  I think I’ve fallen into the “instant incarnation” fallacy—that Iommi always immediately divines a perfect riff.   While most of us would surely agree that Iommi has a well—developed musical intuition, I think I’ve allowed that assumption to cloud my vision a bit.  I’ve made an error in my thinking, a common one.  I’ve overlooked what I already know.  It’s the curse of knowledge—that we know so much about something we forget that other people may not know it.  In this case, I did it to myself.  I got caught up in the product and missed the process.

The Perfect Riff Paradox

So, here’s the premise.  In the Iommi Paradox, I argue a found music hypothesis.  I argue that the riffs Iommi produces are not created but found, that he has tapped into an archetypal feeling and elaborated that to us through his riffs.

 I am not abandoning this theory in any way.  But I think in setting the contrast between Iommi finding riffs and most other people struggling to create even a shadow of the music he transmits to us, I missed a larger truth.  I claim he finds the riffs rather than building them, but until this morning I had never considered a much simpler and perhaps more valid—and valuable—possibility.  It’s so simple, in fact, that it seems immediately axiomatic.

Tony Iommi found these perfect riffs…because he was looking for them.

So, I offer you The Perfect Riff Paradox, a corollary to the Iommi Paradox.

I submit the notion in the Iommi Paradox that “Maybe these “simple” riffs didn’t exist before because no one was looking for them.  I know it may sound a little odd, but Tony’s gift is one of awareness. He finds the terrible beauty of the cosmos and gives it to us in a handful of power chords.”  The notion that Iommi has an awareness—an intuition—most of us do not had already occurred to me.  And I argue in the Master of Realty review (MOR) that the first three Black Sabbath albums evince an obvious evolution in composition (which I again elaborate in the Great Lefty: Live Forever liner notes); he seems to break every die he has cast.   What I had not really considered before was that the riffs along the way to absolutely perfection—while powerful, memorable, iconic—were perfect in their time and place.  Their integrity and power are not in question, and any riff The Master offers has the depth and aplomb to fulfill the Iommi Paradox, to “warm our hearts with chilled blood.”  But their excellence doesn’t mean Iommi had found what he sought.  In a Platonic sense, the riffs along the way are as perfect as they can be.  As he climbed the ladder of progressive illumination, the riffs he recorded as he ascended represented the highest awareness available.  When he finds the absolute version, it is so perfect that it seems like it’s brand new.  But he had given us glimpses all along, and when the perfect riff or song emerges, we were somehow expecting it.  While most of Iommi’s riffs are found, the perfect ones took longer to locate.  He was looking for them, and found many others along the way.  The examples below will illustrate this hypothesis.

The metal world has been arguing for decades now that the opening riff of the song “Black Sabbath” uses the flattened fifth or “Devil’s Interval” and that this riff constitutes the beginning of heavy metal itself.  The argument that “Symptom of the Universe” off Sabotage is proto-thrash has been in the air for some time.  I have long said that “Symptom” confirms rather than creates thrash, and I’ve mentioned that “Paranoid,” “War Pigs,” “Electric Funeral,” and “Children of the Grave” all herald thrash.  In fact, I argue in MOR that “Children of the Grave” is the first consolidation of elements that would become the thrash moment.  I’ve likewise argued for many years that the opening riff of “Cornucopia” is the pinnacle of doom metal and that some bands—Saint Vitus in particular—have sought to reproduce it because of its perfection.  But as I’ve thought about the doom elements in the albums preceding this one (especially “Lord of this World”), I’ve somehow bought into my own conclusion that the riff is somehow perfect by accident.  That was a mistake.  It wasn’t accidental.  It was sought after, and ultimately, found.  Herein lies the Perfect Riff Paradox, a sought music hypothesis.

Let’s take two riffs (actually, entire songs or groups of riffs) noted above: and “Cornucopia” and “Symptom of the Universe” and explore this.  You can hear the songs by clicking the titles here.  You may also want to hear “Children of the Grave”


Iommi had generated doom riffs as far back as the first album.  The riffs in the “Sleeping Village” suite are surely pieces of the puzzle.  “Iron Man,” “Electric Funeral,” and “Hand of Doom” all reflect a doomy approach.  As I argue in MOR, the final three songs on Master of Reality refine the approach, and on Volume 4, not only “Cornucopia” but much of the album offers the ethos that would come to define doom metal.  Some fans offer “Under the Sun” as the “god riff” of doom, and it’s surely as good as “Cornucopia.”  One could say that the two together are the finishing touches of doom.  But I’m going to use just “Cornucopia.”   The interesting thing about this riff—the entire song, really—is how perfect it seems.  I cannot hear it without thinking that all other doom metal is derivative.  It fulfills all expectations.  It’s perfect.

My misapprehension, as I note above, rests on the assumption that all the riffs before it were also perfect.  What I mean is that I’ve always perceived them as somehow final.  I felt that his riffs were somehow all separate but equal items in a collection.  I now think this was an incomplete approach.  Perhaps (and maybe Iommi didn’t think of it this way on purpose) Iommi was seeking that perfect sound, that perfect configuration.  He really does the same things on Paranoid, Master of Reality, and Volume 4.  The layouts of these albums are more or less similar.  But the music gets heavier and heavier.  During the songs in which he means to be heavy, each album is almost impossibly heavier than the one before it.  That seems like seeking the truth.  The last four albums seem not to have this sort of thick, sludgy, plodding menace.  In fact, there may not be anything after Volume 4 that’s as heavy as Volume 4, at least during the Ozzy era and perhaps throughout Iommi’s oeuvre.   He’d found it in “Cornucopia” (and/or “Under the Sun”).  It’s so heavy that is seems brand new.  All the elements form former iterations of doom are there, but they are more perfectly rendered.  The slow, plodding diatonic components are slurred together, and held to the point of breaking.  The riff falls, then heaves upward, then falls lower, then falls and heaves downward until beginning again.  It seems new.  But it isn’t really new, it’s perfect.  Perhaps what makes perfect, perfect, resides in sounding new no matter how familiar it becomes (or always-already has been).

“Symptom of the Universe”

Perhaps because doom metal had been settled on Volume 4, the next couple of Black Sabbath albums experimented with numerous approaches—overall faster tempos, elaborate (even sprawling) compositions, increased use of keyboards, increased use studio effects, variations of genre.  Amidst this experimental atmosphere, we find what many have come to call the beginning of thrash: “Symptom of the Universe” off Sabotage.  Above, I’ve listed songs that reflect thrash metal elements before thrash was cool.  Starting with the Paranoid album, we hear the incipient thrash template: chugging riffs, dominant use of the open sixth string under the riff, solo breaks based on long scales and shredding, tempo changes, and themes such as metal health, addiction, and war.  Master of Reality continues this trend, ultimately offering “Children of the Grave”—which I will go to my grave defending as the first complete thrash song.  In fact, a comparison of “Children of the Grave” with “Symptom of the Universe” may illustrate this hypothesis as well as any approach.  The thrash section of “Symptom” runs from 0:00-4:10.  In “Children” that section runs from 0:00-4:30.  The songs are about the same length overall.  Both songs share a number of features in terms of overall design.  This analysis will extend the Perfect Riff Paradox to the collected riffs constituting both of these songs and demonstrate how “Symptom” offers a clearer vision of what would become thrash metal.

“Children of the Grave opens with Geezer’s famous bass chug and Bill Ward’s iconic drum roll, but at :14 when the entire band goes into the main riff—a tight chug followed by descending power chords (a half step)— thrash metal is born.  From :20-30 we find the “sustained power chords over the chug” section (reminiscent of “Paranoid”).  Then we return to the riff.  This constitutes the main body of the song.  From 2:09-2:21, a rapid ascent/descent pattern creates a “toggle” effect.  Then they slow it down to a doomy march from 2:37-2:46 as a bridge back to the riff.  The shredding solo lasts from 3:45-4:10, followed by the power chords, followed by ascending bends toward the closing sound effects.
The song itself lasts about 4:10.  There’s 50 seconds of sound effects at the end, so this analysis focuses only on the first 4:10.  In that time, we have five distinct parts.  While the song does have an identifiable verse/chorus base (as do most thrash songs), there is considerable variety.
“Symptom” follows the same basic pattern.  It begins with a chug followed by descending power chords, but this time, the chords form the “Devil’s Interval,” just as in “Black Sabbath.”  From :22-33, the riff changes to sustained power chords, but this time, they are the entire riff and not an addition to the chug.  The power chords in “Children” follow a basic pattern of diatonic elements (again, as in “Paranoid”), but in “Symptom,” it’s a flattened pattern, just as in the main riff.  This flattening seems to be part of what Iommi was seeking and elevates the riff to a different form of perfect.  It seems new, yet it combines two former approaches to reveal a pattern that was always there but not available until Iommi had spent considerable time seeking it.  From 1:55-2:20, they launch into descending scale (repeating it 8 times), which corresponds with the toggling part in “Children.”  They do so again at 3:14-3:36, where they then follow with a bridge to 3:50.  The bridge comprises tremolo picking followed by ascending licks.  While this segment corresponds structurally with the doomy march in “Children” (although it appears later in the song) its construction intensifies rather than slows the song.  The tremolo picking echoes the chug of the main thrash riff, and the ascending licks pull the song toward the solo section.  In “Children,” the solo follows the sustained power chords; in “Symptom,” it follows this bridge section, or rather, is undergirded by that bridge section, which is changed to a high-register chug, increasing the intensity by increasing the speed and raising the register.  So, in order, we have the descending scales, then the ascending tremolo—picked bridge, then the shred solo over the high-register chug.  All of these elements—the ascending structures, increased tempos, and infinitely varied patterns—presage thrash metal.  While the pattern replicates “Children” in its basics, and both thrash sections are about the same length, the songwriting in “Symptom” reflects a much greater moment of discovery.  Iommi included not only new elements (such as tremolo picking and increasing speed) but also formerly used approaches like the Devil’s Interval.  He had already been looking for the thrash model (whether he knew it or not), and this analysis shows that he found it.  His former use of thrash elements were part of the search.  “Symptom” was the ideal form.


An argument could perhaps be made claiming that Iommi just got better at song writing as time passed.  He is, after all, a working musician, and it stands to reason that he would improve over the years.  My response to such an argument would be that he has indeed steadily improved as a musician and a song writer.  I’m not disputing that.  I’m suggesting that what it means to be a song writer is different for Tony Iommi.  He is not a typical metal composer.  I’m suggesting that he possesses a vision of music itself.  He isn’t making it up.  Many artists do that.  They make new music by making more old music.  Iommi seems to be searching for the ideal form of music itself.  As I’ve shown here, he continually found more perfect models.  It’s not an accident that “Symptom” has been held up as a primordial thrash song.  But the fact that it inspired others to imitate only enhances our understanding of Iommi’s vision.  He’s never really claimed allegiance to any particular genre, and as I’ve written in the past and as many fans would say, he’s founded metal and most of its subgenres, not to mention experimenting with numerous forms.  He wasn’t trying to create thrash metal.  He was trying to find a perfect riff .

And he did.

Acknowledgements: I would like to thank Michelle Johnson and Karen DiZefalo for reading the draft form for me.


Martin M. Jacobsen, Ph.D. West Texas A&M University 

Published with permission  26 December 2016