Nik Nocturnal: “A lot of what makes a song heavy isn’t the riff – the mix, I’d argue, makes something heavier than the riff itself”

Nik Nocturnal
(Image credit: Nik Nocturnal)

From YouTube to TikTok to Twitch, hundreds of thousands of metal fans turn to Nik Nocturnal’s various social media channels to gauge the prolific content creator’s zanily overwhelmed reactions to the latest singles from Polyphia, Spiritbox, Lorna Shore and more. 

Similar to reaction video culture, writ large, Nocturnal lights up with eyes-agog at the techiest riffs; he furrows his brow deeply to give an appreciative stank face to the heaviest of metalcore breakdowns; he’ll jump out of his seat, if caught off-guard by a sick transition. He truly loves the world of modern metal, and with tons of subscribers tuning in (nearly 700,000 on YouTube alone), it seems like there’ll be plenty more mean-muggin’ to come.

Over the past few years, the Toronto, ON musician’s focus has morphed from guitar covers towards raw, in-the-moment vids. In part, that’s because it’s considerably quicker to cut a first-take reaction vid. 

You see, Nocturnal’s also busy building up a catalog of metal tunes off-camera — whether for his Termina project with Monuments vocalist Andy Cizek, a forthcoming early ‘00s-style metalcore project with All That Remains frontman Phil Labonte, or most recently via the groove-focused trap metal he crafts as NIK NXK. 

NIK NXK is a particularly meta project from the content creator. Overtop a hybrid of eerily-chimed synth tones and sub-atomic riffs, Industry has the YouTuber sounding off on faux-pas like corporations sinking big ad dollars into “fake virality,” or the pile-on of repetitive TikTok trends.

On latest single Burnout, he growl-raps verses on how the non-stop grind of working the algorithm takes its mental toll. While heavy in tone and approach, the online grimacer is still smiling his way through the process.

“I released the first song [Industry] and it became a little more serious. Still, my whole outfit and getup [is] wearing fake tattoos on my knuckles, shit like that,” he says of the over-the-top NIK NXK persona, adding, “It’s basically a fun little side project that gets more views than Termina on my channel. I’m not sure what to make of that.”

Speaking with Guitar World, Nocturnal further details the world of YouTube hot takes, copyright claim-free metal, and how low he’s willing to go on his trusted Ernie Ball Music Man JP6.

How did you get interested in the YouTube Reaction community?

“The reaction stuff came way later. I started [the channel] as guitar covers, and that was basically it. Then guitar meme content, [and] even educational videos. I wanted a way to check out some of those bands that aren’t as guitar-centric, [though], and make content around it. That’s basically why I started doing reactions. I did it as a joke at first, but people seemed to enjoy them. 

“It's just another type of content, which nowadays has somewhat overtaken the guitar covers, and that’s simply because they’re faster to do. And I’m spending my other time writing [for] my bands. I don’t have enough time to do the guitar covers anymore.”

I try to only check out stuff that I’m genuinely excited about, or something that is very appealing in a unique way, as a metal listener

Reaction videos are often hinging around hot takes and wild expressions – like, sometimes you just can’t believe how crazy a riff is. As someone who’s done this for quite some time, how do you maintain a genuine incredulity on-camera?

“I try to only check out stuff that I’m genuinely excited about, or something that is very appealing in a unique way, as a metal listener. I try to keep that perspective instead of worrying about, ‘This is a big band I’m checking out to hopefully get views’ I try to keep to a mindset of, ‘Oh, that sounds interesting!’ Nickelback trying to make a metalcore riff? 

“I wouldn’t [normally] listen to Nickelback, but that’s an intriguing [concept]. Letting my curiosity drive what I want to check out seems to have been the best thing, [in terms of] the curating.”

NIK NXK is taking you in a different direction than your work with Termina, specifically towards trap metal. How did you get this project going?

“The trap metal and metal scenes don’t seem to blend well yet, but I like what they’re doing. I also wanted an outlet to explore myself vocally, because I [didn’t] really have a project where I did that; I’m always the instrumentalist. So, why not explore and try to have some fun with it?”

You’ve done a series of videos exploring the heaviest riffs in metal, with each of those working in different tunings. Having gone through that, how did you decide where you wanted to sit, tuning-wise, with NIK NXK? 

“I used to be a person that messed around with a lot of tunings, especially because I did covers. I was used to, ‘Let’s do drop A, or drop G, or G standard.’ Whatever works. 

“Growing up with metalcore, my favorite tuning is drop C. When it comes to lower stuff, [I’ll use] drop E or drop F for seven-string. For all this new stuff, though, I’ve either been using drop E, or I’m taking my six-string in drop C and pitch shifting it an octave down to sit in drop C1. 

Actually, a lot of what makes it heavy isn’t the riff – it’s the drums that revolve around it. Even the mix, I’d argue, makes something heavier than the riff itself

“It’s cool, because I get the feeling of a six-string – which I’m most comfortable with – but I’m playing these really low-tuned, modern, heavy riffs on it, as if I’m playing a really thick baritone instead. But, it’s just a six-string with .52 to .10, an octave below drop C. That’s the tuning I use for NIK NXK and a lot of the new Termina stuff we’re writing.”

What’s your general rig for NIK NXK, and is it any different than what you would use for Termina?

“They’re the same for now.  I use Axe-Fx II for literally everything – [though] I did just get a [Quad] Cortex that Neural [DSP] sent me, so I need to delve into that; it’s a great unit. I basically go straight into Axe-Fx [with] a simple metalcore chain: a comp, gates, the Maxon OD-808 with either a Peavey or a Mesa amp, then a German cab, and some EQ. That’s basically the chain, but then I’ll throw the pitch-shifter in front – I’m using a DigiTech Whammy DT.

“Any other tone I use, I just add a bunch of random effects to it. If it’s the lead tone, reverb and delay it up; if it’s an effects tone, I just mess around with different effects in post and see what happens.”

Nik Nocturnal

(Image credit: Nik Nocturnal)

What are your main guitars?

“I’ve been using my JP6. I’ve blocked off the whammy, so it’s basically just a fixed guitar; that’s all I want. For a seven-string I’m using a JP7. I have Bare Knuckle Painkiller customs in that, which has helped a lot with drop F. 

“As soon as I get below drop E, that’s an 8-string; I’ll rarely use my 7 around there. Drop E is very much an 8-string; I use an Aristides H/08R for that stuff. But as I get lower, weirdly enough, I use the six-string with the pitch-shifter; as soon as I get to the C1 area, or B0, I’ll use that.

How do you feel when other YouTube channels react to NIK NXK or Termina songs?

“That’s awesome; I always promote it. Four years ago, when we started Termina, one of the biggest selling points I’d tell the reaction homies was, ‘This is copyright claim-free.” Now, labels go out of their way to make that happen, which is great, but way back when that was a unique concept. 

“Content creators expected their stuff to get copyright claims, no matter what. Since the pandemic [started], that’s changed quite a bit.  You can always use my material – unless it’s a cover, because then the original owner of that song could do something I have no control over. 

I try to keep a healthy relationship with it. Like, ‘Oh, I want to make a video today,’ instead of, ’I have to throw out a video’

“I know I’m a content creator, but writing music is the biggest reason I got into all this stuff. I know both worlds a decent amount, so when I hit up reactors, I’m like, “You need a logo? Well, here’s the logo, and here’s 10 perfect images you could use [for the thumbnail].”

Can we get into NIK NXK’s Burnout? You’re a musician first, but you’re also a prolific content creator across YouTube, TikTok and Twitch. There’s a pressure to keep creating and adding more content. How often does the channel work interfere with the actual creation of music?

“I try to keep a healthy relationship with it. Like, ‘Oh, I want to make a video today,’ instead of, ’I have to throw out a video.’ I try to balance that [by keeping] to a schedule of Monday, Wednesday, Friday. When I’m on my own schedule, I’m accountable for myself.”

How different of a mindset are you in when writing for Termina, vs NIK NXK.

“It’s decently different. Termina is still much more of an instrumental [project for me] – I’ve got a vocalist that’s writing the vocal hooks. It’s modern metal, a bit of a different concept than trap metal – even though the trap metal is modern, and there’s thall in NIK NXK like there is in Termina. 

“Also, for NIK NXK I work with a producer [deadwait]; it’s a different creative process. I’m sitting there on a call with them, we’re creating beats and I’m writing riffs to it. Whereas with Termina, I’ll come up with a cool riff or melody, show Andy, get some feedback, [and then] finish up the song.”

Translucent, the first Termina single to come out this year, kind of hits on what you’re mentioning:  there’s the darkly melodic chorus that Andy sings, but also some tech-y mosh parts; some wild runs… 

“That was a fun song. When it came to the instrumental, I was definitely going for DOOM-meets-Loathe-meets-Termina. That whole darker sound is something we started to get more used to after we finished our first album [2021’s Dysphoria]. 

“I feel like that’s where Andy can be kind of a sadboi, vocally. He’s just a very good sadboi when it comes to his lyrics and his melodies. Very post-hardcore. It’s something that a lot of bands in the sphere try to pull off [and] it sounds very forced and cheesy, whereas Andy makes it work. 

“I’m used to writing those darker melodies – harmonic minors and chromatic stuff – [so] I leaned into that, and that’s where Translucent came about. I started with that main riff, tried to make a really catchy chorus for Andy to do his thing, and then made it chaotic – we wanted a heavy, heavy modern breakdown.”

Termina is still in that phase of proving what we can do. A lot of people have no idea what the band does or what it’s about. They know we like weird noises, and that I like breakdowns

Earlier, you hinted that there’s more Termina on the way. It’s been series of single rollouts so far this year, but are you heading towards an album release?

“I love the single rollout. I feel like as the band gets bigger, I’ll focus even more on the single rollout, because I like spending time crafting a song and just going ‘There you go!’ instead of worrying about other songs as well. A mixture of singles is our priority, but we’re working on an album. We know we have to get that out. 

“[Termina is] still in that phase of proving what we can do. A lot of people have no idea what the band does or what it’s about. They know we like weird noises, and that I like breakdowns. I do think the album is quite important, so people can get the bigger picture. But before getting there, we’ll probably drop five singles, and on the fourth single we’ll announce the album.”

While you may be in the finding-your-voice stage with Termina, how about when it comes to the channel? Has there been much of an evolution when it comes to your on-screen personality?

“I’ve become way more comfortable. If anything, there’s been a de-evolution, because I had much more of a screen personality [in the beginning]. Like, ‘maybe I should act like this?’ Now I wake up, [and] this is what you get. It’s much more me. It took me a long time to feel that.”

One of your most-viewed videos is your compilation of the 500 heaviest riffs. What was your criteria going into that video?

“Riffs that just felt heavy to me. [Laughs] But that’s the weird thing: heaviness is so subjective. It’s hard to be like, ‘That’s the heaviest riff!’ I basically wanted those riffs that had an edge to ‘em. But, actually, a lot of what makes it heavy isn’t the riff – it’s the drums that revolve around it. Even the mix, I’d argue, makes something heavier than the riff itself. 

“That video in particular is a compilation of my heaviest riffs series, from E standard all the way to drop C1 – and through weird, octave-y tunings, which aren’t as known. Once I reached 500, I put it all together. If someone were to be like, ‘Hey, I want to learn cool heavy riffs in any tuning,’ well here you go!”

What’s the heaviest riff you’ve come across lately?

“Sylosis’ last single [Heavy Is the Crown] has one of the heavier riffs I’ve heard this year. [But] in general, Sweden is creating some disgustingly heavy riffs; just acing it. Vildhjarta and Humanity’s Last Breath – that whole thall-era Sweden – I’d say they’re winning, for me. 

I’d be surprised if someone was like, ‘Hey, I learned a NIK NXK riff!’ Like, out of all the riffs I’ve made, that’s where you went? [laughs]

“If I want to write a heavy riff, I go to that style nowadays because it’s low-tuned, spacious, and groovy. And it’s just so different and unique to the way riffs have existed before.”

Let’s imagine that another YouTuber is prepping their own “heaviest riffs” video. Whether it’s from Termina, NIK NXK, or otherwise, what’s the heaviest riff of yours that could potentially pop up on that list?

“There are a lot of fun, heavy riffs on the stuff I’m working on with Phil from All That Remains for that metalcore album that I wish people could hear. But they can’t, because it’s not out yet. When it comes to released stuff, Termina’s Lucid is probably the heaviest. That riff is surprisingly heavy. It’s just sludgy, chromatic, and groovy. 

“I wouldn’t consider NIK NXK riffs heavy. The riffs aren’t the shining point, they’re more support for the beat and the trap melodies. They’re heavy...[but] they’re not my favorite riffs. I’d be surprised if someone was like, ‘Hey, I learned a NIK NXK riff!’ Like, out of all the riffs I’ve made, that’s where you went? [laughs]”

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Gregory Adams is a Vancouver-based arts reporter. From metal legends to emerging pop icons to the best of the basement circuit, he’s interviewed musicians across countless genres for nearly two decades, most recently with Guitar World, Bass Player, Revolver, and more – as well as through his independent newsletter, Gut Feeling (opens in new tab). This all still blows his mind. He’s a guitar player, generally bouncing hardcore riffs off his ’52 Tele reissue and a dinged-up SG.