In praise (and memory) of the synth riff

Was just listening to Book of Love’s “Enchanted” which came up on the iPhone shuffle and was struck by how cool the riff is. Book of Love were great at the synth riff, and employed it regularly throughout their all-too-short career. Not surprising as they were so brazenly modelled on Depeche Mode, as DM were as of 1985 when BoL made their debut. The Mode were champions of the synth riff. Think of the moments – “Just Can’t Get Enough” (or for that matter, every single song from Speak & Spell), “Get the Balance Right”, “Everything Counts”, “Master and Servant”, “People are People”, “Shake the Disease”, and many many more – some classics, most pretty special in their own way, and that just in the band’s first five years.

They were far from alone, think of the defining sounds of early synth pop from the golden era – O.M.D.’s “Enola Gay”, Soft Cell’s “Tainted Love”, aha’s “Take On Me”, Men Without Hats’ “Safety Dance”, Gary Numan’s “Cars”, Human League’s “Don’t You Want Me”, Yazoo’s “Don’t Go”…or “Situation”…or “Nobody’s Diary”…or you know, just any song from Yazoo. The list is far too long to write. One can reflect back to some of the finest moments of the genre and the riff was dominant. Some were particularly good at it – New Order did ’em great, few were better at it than Vince Clarke, Numan was terrific at it and of course Kraftwerk pioneered the trick. It was the stuff of iconic music moments. 

But one need only look at the shift for the aforementioned Depeche Mode. The the late 80s/early 90s they still pulled an interesting riff out now and then (“Question of Time”, “Policy of Truth”) but one needs to take a magnifying glass out to find the songs that employ a good riff over their last several albums. The guitar riff or solo hasn’t been excised from rock music so why is the synth riff such a rare thing in electronic music these days?

Two things come to mind, the riff seems to be associated with lighter-weight music, something few electronic bands want to be compared to these days, and second, so many electronic bands are building toward moodier, atmospheric music that leaves no room for that kind of hook. Moreover, the notion of the identifying synth riff as consigning a song to the one hit wonder or novelty bin of history is surely on the minds of some when composing.

One of the reasons Future Perfect caught our attention so much when they came out with their great first single “The Hunter” was the surprise that someone was still willing to write a synth solo or hook, especially one that good. When we hear them these days it’s almost jarring. Those that still use the approach – like Tom Shear who turns to the cool riff on many Assemblage 23 songs, or Vince Clarke, who launched Erasure in 1985 with a great hook on “Who Needs Love Like That” and still employs the device today with some frequency, or La Roux, who broke huge with an album full of great riffs (but who have suggested electronic music is now worthless and plan to move “past it”) – these are the artists keeping alive what has increasingly become a lost art.

So raise your hands up high for that memorable riff. That signature hook that brands a song as something special and causes it to stand apart from the crowd. Meanwhile throw on a disc from yesteryear and remember…

Watch: Enola Gay (Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark)

Watch: Bronski Beat (Smalltown Boy)

Watch: Erasure (Who Needs Love Like That)

Eurythmics (Sweet Dreams [Are Made of This])

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7 Responses to “In praise (and memory) of the synth riff”

  1. Some of us try …

    🙂

  2. I’m still writing those riff. For me, the synth riff will never die. Here’s a video for a dancey tune: bit.ly/XJMDz9, here’s a slowey bit.ly/11eGnBW, and here’s a Euro-camp classic: bit.ly/YSFqV2, all featuring original synth riffs – enjoy 🙂

  3. Is it just an interesting coincidence or an integral part of the discussion that all 4 videos you posted are gay anthems?

    The golden age of synth was probably the first time that gay artists really thrived, and the synth riff is in some respects synonymous with that freedom. Sadly, I suspect many pop musicians today want to be thought of as tougher. Even the “gay bands” I can think of like Scissor Sisters aren’t synth bands.

    With so much progress being made in the gay rights arena, you’d think there’d be a new “Smalltown Boy” with an amazing synth riff released every week.

  4. Interesting article, and I’d agree that many of the classic and bigger name bands like Depeche Mode have certainly abandoned hooks and synth riffs. It’s a shame.

    On the other hand, I disagree that hooks and synth riffs have become rare. It seems quite a few current synthpop and futurepop bands make use of them liberally these days. A good starting place would be almost all of the bands on Conzoom Records, which mostly follow that 80s style synthpop sound (especially Zynic and Vanguard). Then you have bands like VNV, Ashbury Heights, Frozen Plasma, Mesh, Solitary Experiments, Cesium 137, etc.

    “Hunter” from Future Perfect was a great song. I wish the second album had more songs like that. 🙂

    • Thanks for the namecheck in here, much appreciated.
      Dan, if we did “Hunter” again and again, we’d just be repeating ourselves and not moving on and evolving. It’s not what we’re about at all sorry.

      If you like synth solos, check out the solo in “War of Words” from “Escape”, it’s much better than the one in “Hunter” IMHO..

      Simon – Future Perfect

      • Very understandable point Simon. While “Hunter” is still my fav from you guys (so upbeat and catchy – it just begs to be cranked up in the car), I did also enjoy the new album quite a bit. “War of Words,” “Escape” and “Counter Attack” are probably my favorites from the album. I’m interested to hear what you have planned next.

        I just “liked” your band page on Facebook so that I can keep up with what Future Perfect is up to going forward. Best wishes

  5. i think the synth riff is alive in the underground, but you’re right it’s pretty much gone from the mainstream.

    I put out a synthpop album a little while ago which is pretty riff-tastic, if I say so myself 🙂 https://itunes.apple.com/us/album/end-of-days/id295887124

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