LIKE RATS – How To Steal Riffs And Get Away With It

The statements herein do not necessarily reflect the views of Gear Gods, but those of Like Rats guitarist Todd. Take it away, Todd! 

A few years ago, a blog post and talk by Austin Kleon called “Steal Like an Artist” went somewhat viral and then became a best-selling book.

To be 100% honest, I haven’t read the book and I’ve only watched a few minutes of his TEDx talk. Still, I have my own ideas of what it means to “steal like an artist.”

Most people understand the idea of inspiration. It’s not too hard to see that Michael Jackson was influenced by James Brown who was influenced by Ray Charles. Nothing groundbreaking in drawing a line from Morbid Angel to Slayer to Judas Priest to Queen.

What many people don’t realize is how granular “stealing like an artist” can be. Not just in the sense of hip-hop artists sampling beats, but in chord progressions, vocal licks, transitions between parts, and drum fills. It’s big news when someone gets caught stealing – like the kerfuffle over Sam Smith and Tom Petty.

Back in 2012, I wrote a similar post for Like Rats’s 2012 LP detailing all the riffs that either were borrowed or were influential on our writing.

This is a fun exercise for me and seems to be somewhat interesting to others as well, so here’s a list of everything that I can remember purposefully stealing for our most recent Southern Lord record.

I went through and timestamped videos of every “influential riff” with the corresponding Like Rats riff. There’s also more than a few accidental thefts that occurred either by circumstance or subconscious action, so I included those, too.

“From Beyond”

When writing the intro for this song, I really wanted to take the feel of Sepultura songs where there’s just like five different riffs and 60-90 seconds of music before the main structure of the song actually starts.

Sepultura – Slaves of Pain

There’s probably a dozen examples of this over their first four records, but I think I was specifically thinking of “Slaves of Pain” as a reference point in terms of starting with a single note riff and moving into a catchy backbeat part.

Carcass – Buried Dreams

Turns out that I accidentally wrote something that has almost the exact same feel as the intro of Carcass’s “Buried Dreams” – single note riff to start with drumming accents on the “and” into mid-paced power chord riff.

As such, the working title of “From Beyond” was “Carcass” – and that’s still what we write on our setlists.

For the verse to this song, I wanted an ascending, chromatic single-note riff pattern like Incantation’s “Shadows of the Ancient Empire”

Incantation – Shadows of the Ancient Empire

The tail of that single-note riff actually started as a separate riff influenced by Morbid Angel’s “Thy Kingdom Come.” I love how the riffs on that record will shift the rhythm and the emphasis on a dime, so I was trying to do something similar.

Morbid Angel – Thy Kingdom Come

After writing the second riff, I blended it into the single-note riff making it the tail of that Incantation riff before transitioning into the more rhythmic part as the transition into the next part.

One of my favorite moments in death metal is this sequence from Pestilence’s “Dehydrated.” Moving from the off-time slow part into the backbeat version of the same riff condensed into 4/4 gives me goosebumps every single time.

We didn’t play any time signature games here, but having the slow riff switch to a backbeat with “chanting” rhythmic vocals was my attempt at copying that Pestilence part.

Pestilence – Dehydrated

We’re not the only band with ties to A389 records who liked that part, either – Noisem also had a similar break on the “Consumed” 7”.

Noisem – Consuming

“Primordial”

The intro riff to this song was actually written back in something like 2007 for a death metal project that never went anywhere. I repurposed it for Like Rats and changed the feel slightly, but my goal was to write something that felt like a Hate Eternal riff with hard stop palm muting and interesting melodic twiddling. Not sure if there’s a specific riff that I was thinking of, but the first track off of “I, Monarch” seems like a likely fit.

Hate Eternal – Two Demons

As I mentioned above, the quick rhythmic transitions on Morbid Angel’s “Blessed are the Sick” have always fascinated me. One of my favorite examples of that is the d-beat riff followed by a bizarre single-string hammer-on riff in Brainstorm. I ripped this off, but didn’t make it quite as jarring for “Primordial” – which made the working title of this song “Morbid Angel.”

Morbid Angel – Brainstorm

In an unfortunate series of events, I realized at some point that the rhythmic variation in the chorus where one of the hits gets shifted to being on the “and” sounds an awful lot like the Dragon Ball Z theme – one of those things that you can’t ever unhear. Oh well.

Dragon Ball Z theme

Immolation’s first LP is one of the most influential recordings on Like Rats in general – not just in terms of actually stealing riffs, but in terms of the overall stylistic feel of that record. That said, I’ve definitely borrowed from “Into Everlasting Fire” more than a few times. In this case, the bendy single-note riff transitioning into being backed up by a closed hi-hat is one of the heaviest things ever – so I ripped it off.

Immolation – Into Everlasting Fire

We needed a transition to get back into the bendy single note riff from a more “punkish” verse variation, so I called on my favorite band of all time and borrowed one of their classic rhythmic tricks.

They liked this so much that they used it on more than one occasion in their own career as well.

Celtic Frost – The Usurper

Celtic Frost – A Kiss or a Whisper

“Gates”

I came to practice with this song nearly done, and John – who also plays guitar in Like Rats – pointed out that the intro riff sounds like The Munsters theme. Shit.

The Munsters theme song

Unfortunately, he wasn’t the only one to notice.

While my utilization of The Munsters theme was accidental, Fall Out Boy also released a massive hit single sampling the same theme song so I think the cat is out of the bag.

Fall Out Boy – Uma Thurman

The rhythmic power chord sequence after the single note intro riff is completely borrowed from “Hell Awaits.” I’ve always loved how the power chords never land quite exactly where you expect them to in that intro, so I tried to make something similar.

Slayer – Hell Awaits

For “Gates,” I wanted to do something that had the same feel as the song “South of Heaven.” I love how that song is a slow build over time into the chorus, so I patterned the structure of “Gates” very particularly after that – single note intro riff into backbeat chorus into Motown beat chorus with a fake out first chorus.

Slayer – South of Heaven

I actually wasn’t in the studio when Dan and Andy recorded the laughter at the end of the song, and I was skeptical when I came back and heard it. However, they convinced it was ok me by telling me that it was the same as a Mercyful Fate song and I was like “oh yeah that’s cool then.”

Mercyful Fate – Nightmare

“Pandemic of Fear”

“Malleus Malleficarum” has quite a few melodic single note riffs, and kind of walks the line between being a thrash record and a death metal record. Pestilence doesn’t make use of the tremolo pick here on their single-note riffs, and I wanted to have a long, melodic phrase based upon a similar feel.

Pestilence – Parricide

In terms of the actual structure of the melody, I already ripped off this Prokoviev phrase for Like Rats’s first LP. This time, I was more influenced by the feel of the melody from this Sonata rather than directly borrowing it.

Sergei Prokofiev – Piano Sonata No. 6

Like Rats – Winter Sun

Incantation has a ton of parts where they switch into a half time feel and – rather than having a steady beat – Kyle just is basically playing fills the entire time. Parts like that are awesome.

Incantation – Invoked Inifinity

We went with an abrupt feel change to finish this song off – “Close to a World Below” has many parts like this that make me want to smash through walls.

Immolation – Higher Coward

“Dissociate”

This is probably the most egregious theft on this record. The whole chorus and verse riff in this song is very clearly lifted from Amorphis’s first EP.

Amorphis – Privilege of Evil

On a subconscious level, I guess I really liked this transition from our friends in Harms Way – especially the build-up followed by a few extra beats of drumming. I was listening to “Isolation” at some point, and was like “Oh wow definitely took that for Like Rats.”

Harms Way – Pretender

I was super excited about this transition. I love “Vanity/Nemesis,” and this part always pumps me right up.

When I brought this to practice, John was like, “This part sucks. It sounds like Bon Jovi.”

He’s right, but too bad. Bon Jovi rules and Vanity/Nemesis rules – shut up, John.

Celtic Frost – Vanity

Bon Jovi – You Give Love a Bad Name

“Evil Winter”

One of my favorite Celtic Frost songs is a pseudo deep cut off of “To Mega Therion.” The fast power chords and riff variations have shaped how I’ve thought of music and metal – I’ve written a lot of riffs that attempt to recreate something of this feel, and the verse riff to “Evil Winter” is another one.

Celtic Frost – Eternal Summer

One of my other favorite tricks from Incantation is their riffs with rhythmic power chords and little hammer-on/pull-off twiddles. I tried to write something that sounded like one of my favorite parts from “Christening the Afterbirth,” but I think this riff actually sounds more like Bolt Thrower all things considered. In fact, I forgot I had even borrowed from “Christening” until I stumbled across a note where I had laid out the structure of this song.

Incantation – Christening the Afterbirth

I’d like to comment for a second on how amazing Marc Grewe’s vocals are for Morgoth. He definitely comes from the Van Drunen/Tardy school – and I think he honestly one-ups those guys on “Cursed.”

I love “breakdowns” in death metal that are super heavy, but aren’t structured in a typical Hatebreed pit call manner. “Isolated” is crushing, so I wanted to shoot for something with a similar feel.

Morgoth – Isolated

Ancient isn’t a band that I listen to terribly often, so I actually had a hard time tracking down this riff – it sounds less like the riff that ended up in the “Evil Winter” than I remember. I think I had initially written a sort of black metal/punk part that sounded much more like this Ancient song, but then I added in the little twiddle parts based upon the “Christening the Afterbirth” riff I wrote – so the hybrid riff sounds less like either one of its influences, but still kind of rocks.

Ancient – Eerily Howling Winds

I should also note that I’m pretty sure that all of those slidey power chord riffs that characterize black metal and were used extensively by Darkthrone, Emperor, Graveland, etc. all come from this Bathory riff – which is one of the heaviest riffs with the funniest drumming ever recorded:

Cryptopsy has so many ridiculous transitions on “None so Vile.” They wrote the playbook for technical death metal bands here in terms of introing riffs by playing just the end part, cutting out into a clean guitar tone, slap bass, confusing drum fills, etc. I’ve always loved this bass only transition, but didn’t think the slapping would fit with Like Rats so…

Cryptopsy – Slit Your Guts

“Immortal Coil”

This song actually started as the end riff, and I was having a hard time writing something for the first part. I had a few riffs, but they all honestly sucked.

Andy wrote what would become the initial fast part of this song based upon trying to get something that felt like a Cryptic Slaughter song off of “Money Talks.”

Cryptic Slaughter – Money Talks

A classic black metal trick that always lands is to go from a snare “on the beat” version of a riff into a halftime version of the same riff or a similar riff with the snare on only the two and four. Ildjarn does this to great effect, and I think that’s probably what we were thinking of while writing this transition.

Ildjarn – Mørklagt Sti

This part in “Enchanted Land” has always blown my mind and gotten me super pumped up – so I stole it blatantly.

Sodom – Enchanted Land

Turns out that I wasn’t the only one with that idea, since I’m pretty sure that this Black Breath song has similar roots.

Or it’s possible that both Sodom and Black Breath were ripping off SOD – but I do know that I was ripping off Sodom, and only made the connection to SOD after the fact.

Stormtroopers of Death – Freddy Krueger

“Grief Incarnate”

The entire feel of this song was based on both “God of Emptiness” – which I go into more detail on shortly – and, of course, “Procreation of the Wicked.”

The intro riff is heavily influenced by the intro riff to “The Rack” by Asphyx. I was looking for a relatively simple, melodic riff that could be played repetitively – hopefully I got something of the sort.

Asphyx – The Rack

The first part of this song to be written was the chorus. I tried to take the chorus of “God of Emptiness” and get something slightly different but with a similar feel – so I took the palm-muting that Morbid Angel uses as a transition within the riff and moved it to the beginning, and then build something from there.

Morbid Angel – God of Emptiness

However, turns out that the transition we used going into the chorus is exactly the same as a transition on “Onward to Golgotha.” Realized that after writing the song, but kept it in since I like the part quite a bit anyway.

Incantation – Devoured Death

I already ripped off one bendy, percussive Immolation riff from “Close to a World Below” so why not another? Pretty sure this part was influenced by “Father You’re Not a Father” – which also features one of the finest moments of a stellar performance from drummer Alex Hernandez on this record.

Immolation – Father You’re Not a Father

So, there you have it. I read one favorable review of “II” that said we wear our influences on our sleeve, so here’s a reference point of that for anyone who wishes to know, or who wishes to see what the writing – or stealing – process actually looks like.

Written by

As Editor-in-Chief of Gear Gods, I've been feeding your sick instrument fetishism and trying unsuccessfully to hide my own since 2013. I studied music on both coasts (Berklee and SSU) and now I'm just trying to put my degree to some use. That's a music degree, not an English one. I'm sure you noticed.