Riffs That Rocked The Galaxy

by Charles Van de Kree

Uploaded to Aural Innovations: August 2003

As any reader of Aural Innovations must know, a riff is a repeated figure (either a cluster of chords or an arpeggiated cluster of notes) usually played on a guitar. Arguably, one could extend the definition to include other instruments, but frankly no one really talks about great keyboard riffs or great sax riffs. The guitar riff is often the driving force of any great rock song. This is especially the case in blues, surf music, punk, heavy metal, and occasionally progressive rock. Space rock is no exception. I’ve listened to space rock for over 25 years now, including everything from its embryonic psychedelic beginnings (Pink Floyd, Hawkwind, Amon Duul II, etc.) to the punk influenced strains of the ‘80s (Chrome, Alien Sex Fiend, Cabaret Voltaire, and the early XTC, for instance) to its recent resurgence in the ‘90s (Ozric Tentacles, Porcupine Tree, Pressurehed, Farflung, The Orb, to name a few). Though the genre has changed, grown, cross-pollinated with other genres, and assimilated new and diverse influences along the way, space rock has never entirely relinquished the guitar riff as a key element in its construction. In fact, one can say conclusively that a handful of artists devoted to the genre have codified a definite praxis of seminal guitar sounds (such as Helios Creed’s heavily effected, harshly shrieking mid-range boost) and guitar riffs (for instance, Dave Brock’s adaptation of the pentatonic minor scale used more traditionally in straight blues music) that have influenced countless space cadets and starfighters over the intervening years.

For me, these stylistic tendencies constitute the definitive manual of space rock guitar, though of course it’s a text that’s being continuously written, revised, and updated. From such a handbook, one could easily compile a fairly extensive list of notable riffs that could be called (though I loathe the term) “classic” space rock riffs. For the sake of brevity, I’ve limited myself to choosing 25 of these head-expanding, brain-shaking riffs for inclusion in the first time vault on Mars. And though naturally my list is purely subjective (I could’ve easily cited dozens more), I think most aficionados and pundits of space rock will at least agree with a few of my choices. So here are 25 riffs—ranked in descending order according to my own preference—that exploded into space and rocked the galaxy.

1. “Brainstorm” (Hawkwind, The Space Ritual)

Perhaps the penultimate guitar riff in the history of space rock. A simple blues figure in design but absolutely monolithic in execution. It’s like a g-force whiplash when the warp drive kicks in. The live version on The Space Ritual is much preferred to the studio take on Doremi Fasol Latido. Massive and impenetrable—the Stonehenge of space rock guitar.

2. “21st Century Schizoid Man” (King Crimson, In the Court of the Crimson King)

A full metal jacket, with the guitar conceived and wielded as an ideological weapon. After all these years it still assaults the senses and gives no quarter—angry, brutal, sadistic, and yet strangely elegant too. Fripp’s Gibson Les Paul punches like a velvet boxing glove. The tricky tempo changes add a feeling of manic desperation to this grim commentary on the future we’re all swiftly rushing toward or, perhaps, currently inhabiting.

3. “Archangel’s Thunderbird” (Amon Duul II, Yeti)

Crushing power—like a Panzer division sweeping through a nuclear firestorm or a Tyrannosaurus Rex thundering its way through some primeval forest. Kraut-rock that really rocks. The live version on Live in London is a blitzkrieg full of sturm and drang.

4. “Breathe” (Pink Floyd, Dark Side of the Moon)

Though Gilmour isn’t really known for his riffs, his tasteful, innovative use of effects achieves an almost symphonic grandeur here. Simple, elemental, transparent, ephemeral—a lush, dreamy ballad for stargazers and skywatchers. Utterly original use of lap steel guitar.

5. “Firebomb” (Chrome, 3rd from the Sun)

A virtual prototype of Helios Creed’s raunchy space garage guitar assault. Explosive, incendiary axe grinding for cybernauts. Bonus points for one of the most chaotic and twisted solos ever waxed to vinyl or burned to CD. The sonic equivalent to biting down on a piece of tin foil.

6. “The Right Stuff” (Robert Calvert, Captain Lockheed and the Starfighters)

A driving, visceral riff. Pure, sinewy muscle stretched lean over a power dive of alternating 5ths. Simultaneously earthy and stratospheric, the ascending/descending chord progression creates a sense of constantly accelerating momentum. May Bob’s phoenix soul rise from the ashes and soar forever in an F-104 over the skies of Valhalla.

7. “1988 Aktivator” (Steve Hillage, Open + Studio Herald)

This chunky Chuck Berry-influenced riff blazes like a glorious kamikaze through the sky. Amphetamine-fueled and hyperdriven, this is pure power guitar that overwhelms the mid-range spectrum. Hillage rarely achieved such total psychedelic anarchy, but here he polished his diamond-hard rock to a shimmering gleam.

8. “Kickmuck” (Ozric Tentacles, Pungent Effulgent)

Swirling, whirling, almost dervish-like. Shiva could slam dance to this hypnotic yet hyperactive riff phase-shifted beyond the third dimension. By the way, Ed, what the hell is a “kickmuck”?

9. “Negasonic Teenage Warhead” (Monster Magnet, Dopes to Infinity)

Anthemic and addicting—the “Baba O’Riley” of stoner/space rock. Cinematic in its defiant vision of youth on fire in the space age, and as primal as the moon itself. The new psychedelic commandos, masters of the neo-fuzz drone.

10. “Shockneck” (Pressurehed, Sudden Vertigo)

A tornadic frenzy of guitars, controlled, but just barely. Imagine if you could hotwire your Strat with a Van de Graaf generator. This is what it would sound like. “Shockneck” seethes with the awesome force of static electricity trapped in a laboratory test tube. Nerve-racking.

11. “Stand By” (Heldon, Stand By)

Richard Pinhas, Heldon’s chief axe-murderer, spirals downward on a flurry of diminished 6ths into a maelstrom of stormy arpeggios. Relentless, like a heat-seeking missile on a suicide mission. Guerilla warfare for the politically committed guitar terrorist.

12. “XL-35” (Helios Creed, Kiss to the Brain)

A towering inferno of power chords. This is what an acid trip would sound like if its chemical essence could be sonically distilled and amplified through a Marshall stack. Helios is your navigator on the express elevator to the center of the galaxy ... and beyond.

13. “Future Days” (Can, Future Days)

Though the late Michael Karoli’s guitar rarely dominated any Can song, his alternately slinky/jangly/droney/funky riff really propels this piece into another dimension where the remnants of ‘60s psychedelia collide head-on with tribal fusion—and years before Eno and Byrne did it on My Life in the Bush of Ghosts.

14. “Neuschnee” (Neu, Neu 2)

An achingly beautiful riff built around a pentatonic scale. As simple as a lotus blossom, reflective crystalline. This is the cosmic harmony the Buddha heard under the Bo tree, albeit with Klaus Dinger’s propulsive “motorik” backbeat tethering Michael Rother’s lofty aspirations to terra firma.

15. “Kings of Speed” (Hawkwind, Warrior on the Edge of Time)

Molten and rocketing, it hurtles like an asteroid through deep space. Better than “Silver Machine,” though not as popular, “Kinds of Speed” is one of Brock’s finest minor scale workouts. Cosmic blues with balls bigger than Jupiter. The instrumental version on the Hawkwind Zoo EP is also worth a listen.

16. “Hurricane Fighter Plane” (Alien Sex Fiend, Impossible Mission)

Though technically not an ASF song (Red Crayola did the original, and The Cramps later covered it), Nik Fiend and crew’s version is for my money the best: tense, sinister, and edgy, it roars its way through an angry black sky on a fatal collision course with cosmic forces at the eye of the storm. Also available on Cleopatra’s excellent ASF compilation Drive My Rocket.

17. “First Communication” (Agitation Free, 2nd)

Little known and underappreciated in their time, Agitation Free nevertheless did two excellent albums in the early ‘70s. Though clearly influenced by the Grateful Dead, “First Communication” transcends comparisons with San Francisco’s premier stoned freak band. The interplay of acoustic and electric guitars is cathartic, and the whole piece achieves an almost sacred calm.

18. “Vision of Infinity” (Farflung, So Many Minds, So Little Time)

A Riff as big as a solar flare. Menacing and colossal, like a star in its death throes waiting to go super nova. And you’re in your rocket headed straight into its heart. Supreme stoner/space punk.

19. “Phasors on Stun” (FM, Black Noise)

FM isn’t exactly your archetypal space rock group, and Nash the Slash doesn’t play guitar. Nevertheless, his heavily effected mandolin creates waves of rich, dynamic, tension-release arpeggios that soar like sapphire birds in a silvery Venusian skyline.

20. “Red” (King Crimson, Red)

Latent violence amplified beyond the aural threshold of pain. One of Fripp’s deadliest riffs. Nightmarish and disturbing, it’ll burn through your cerebral cortex like an argon laser.

21. “The Need” (Chrome, Blood on the Moon)

Mechanical, efficient, forceful—like sex between two of H.R. Giger’s aliens. Creed turns a conventional diminished interval for the main riff into a gritty, malevolent wail of repressed sexual frenzy. This is the music you’ll fuck to when you and your girlfriend are left dying in the radioactive fallout after the apocalypse.

22. “Blazing Apostles” (Be-Bop Deluxe, Live in the Air Age)

Bill Nelson’s esoteric but witty sci-fi view of the future to come is sadly underrated. Here he constructs a massive power-chorded riff and then skirts around it with all kinds of “inside” guitar vamps. Listen for the “Peter Gunn” fill in the third verse. Pure genius.

23. “Scorched Earth” (Van der Graaf Generator, Godbluff)

Peter Hammill never much cranked his guitar in the VDGG mix, but this one has a tense and ominous augmented interval riff that culminates in a welter of shrieking feedback—the sound of a world coming to a crashing end.

24. “The Atom Age” (XTC, White Music)

Okay, not exactly space rock, though personally I think their first record and early EPs fit into the category, though uneasily perhaps. Angular and jagged as a rusty switchblade; like many of Andy’s riffs, it’ll cut you to pieces.

25. “The Glorious Om Riff” (Steve Hillage, Green)

Hillage adapted this mesmerizing middle eastern motif from Gong’s “Master Builder.” Entrancing, like watching a cobra rise to the command of a snake charmer’s flute. Transposed to the harmonic minor scale, it still manages both to rock and to hypnotize.

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