It took a meme for me to realize this was a thing, sort of like how once you learn a new word, you suddenly start seeing it in everything you read. But it’s basically canon at this point – introducing a riff with a simultaneous grunt is a textbook metal vocal tool. And since we’re all about excessive nerd bullshit on this website, we thought we’d put the tool under the microscope!
For some reason, the “ugh” is often overlooked in favor of high pitched screams, whether it’s Rob Halford or Dio, or even Tom Araya’s classic squeal at the beginning of “Angel of Death.” But “ugh” is written all over the DNA of the riff – when done right, the two have a symbiotic relationship. Some riffs just don’t rock as well without an “ugh,” while an “ugh” by itself is just… ugh.
The “ugh” has its roots in all sorts of metal – black, thrash, death, and more – but is perhaps most widely associated with thrash, in particular the grunts and growls of James Hetfield and Dave Mustaine. James of course is most associated with the “oooh” and the “yeah,” both of which are the 60’s and 70’s dad-rock origination of introducing riffs with an “ugh.” Although it’s not technically an “ugh,” you can’t quite beat the “Oooh” that introduces the final riff sequence of “Enter Sandman.”
The color “ugh” is all over classic extreme metal of the 80’s. I’m pretty sure it’s harder to find a metal album from the time without an ugh than it is to find one with. The thrashy mosh riffs of the time just called for a longhaired, stinky dude to grunt at you with on-beat force.
The “ugh” wasn’t straightforward even then, though. Going as far back as Celtic Frost’s To Mega Therion, the “ugh” was being used to add atmosphere and grit on top of an already multi-layered part. Bands found ways to creatively incorporate this device into their sonic palette in myriad forms – anything to get away with not writing a lyric, maybe. This particular “ugh” comes right over the guitar solo and riff drop in “The Usurper,” as you’ll find out:
Sometimes an “ugh” or a “gah” or a “aeihgpaowehgweg” can come mid-riff, to reinforce some piece of content that’s already been introduced. Chuck Schuldiner was particularly adept at this – although usually associated with a high-pitch scream, Schuldiner could really belt out a serious “pfwiouehpiweuhehwgweg” when need be, and as a master of songwriting, could place it in the most unlikely section of a riff pattern. See the main riff of “Infernal Death” off Scream Bloody Gore:
A classic from the more underground world from this time is “Black Breath” off Repulsion’s now-classic deathgrind album Horrified. We get what seems at first to just be a pretty sick thrash riff, but when the drums and bass kick in and that “ugh” (in this case, more like an “oogha”) is thrown over the top, all of a sudden the material really jives, which is perfect for this up-tempo number:
Black Breath, modern masters of Swedish death metal-infused hardcore punk (also known as Entombedcore), didn’t just borrow their name from Repulsion’s song title. They also learned well the power of throwing an “ugh” over the top of a sick riff. In the following example, my personal favorite riff off Sentenced to Life, Black Breath demonstrate how a simple “ugh” can add a real kick to a more groove-based riff. This one is a SERIOUS burner.
Some of the classics of modern metal continue this trend – including heavyweights in the mainstream scene like Lamb of God and Gojira. Randy Blythe prefers an “ugh” sounding lyric to a flat out grunt, but he situates them appropriately over breakdowns and mosh-riffs such that the riff really pops. Joe Duplantier is similar – he will sometimes throw a classic “go” over a pit-ready slammer, and it never fails to hit hard. The below examples show how both an on-time and off-time “ugh” or word that basically sounds like “ugh” can take your riff to the next level.
What are your favorite riffs that are introduced with an “ugh”? Am I going crazy? Sound off in the comments section.