Metal fans take their metal seriously. Dead seriously. To illustrate the depth of this statement, consider a tattoo seen emblazoned across the shoulders of a fan at a recent show. "Metal is my life." I don't recall ever hearing anyone say "Motown is my life,” much less have it etched in their skin for the remainder of their existence.
This is a level of commitment not seen in every genre. And, actually, calling Metal a genre is itself a bit of a misnomer. Metal is less a subset of rock than it is an adversary of it. Its purpose being to tear down the conventions of rock music and rebuild them from the pits of hell on up.
Sociologist Deena Weinstein offers several possibilities on the origin of the term "Heavy Metal." Was the moniker adopted from William S. Burroughs's 1964 book "Nova Express?" Could "heavy metal" have been lifted from Steppenwolf's 1968 hit "Born to Be Wild?" Or was it Lester Bang's article in a 1970 issue of Rolling Stone that welded the term metal into our musical infrastructure? Whatever the source, the phrase has spawned more offspring than any other musical label.
The genealogical branches of the Metal family tree read like the begats in the Bible. Original Hardcore begat Thrash which begat Death Metal which begat Metalcore, etc. But where'd it all begin? That's one of those "which came first, the robot chicken or metallic egg?" questions. Do we say Sabbath, Zeppelin and Deep Purple? Do we reach back to The Vanilla Fudge, Blue Cheer, Steppenwolf? Hendrix? It's hard to say.
But no matter how it came into existence, let’s all rejoice! And take a look at some of the elements on the Metal Periodic Table.
Traditional Heavy Metal
Sometimes called Classic Metal, Traditional Metal, "True" Metal, or just plain old Heavy Metal. This is where it all coalesced. Where Metal started to sound like Metal before it fractured into subgenres in the mid-eighties.
Traditional Metal can be easily identified by its riff-based songs with soaring lead vocals, extended guitar solos, lots of volume, and a thick, heavy, sound became the main ingredients in the Heavy Metal mix. Scorn from the critics would also be a mainstay of the genre, alongside rabid fans who took little notice. As previously noted, for many of them Metal is their life.
It was the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal (NWOBHM) in the early 80's that helped popularize Heavy Metal around the world.
Examples: Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin, Blue Oyster Cult, Def Leppard, Diamond Head, AC/DC, KISS, Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, Manilla Road, Manowar, Omen, Primal Fear
Let's just say that Power Metal has a better attitude than most of the Metal subgenres. Often having prominent keyboards, Power Metal's clean and crisp rapid double-bass drum work and blazing fast guitar chords combine with towering high-sung vocals for an overall upbeat vibe.
It's sing-along time at the Metal show. Artists from Germany, Italy, and Sweden (among others) have all been instrumental in putting their own spin on the genre.
Examples: Blind Guardian, Sonata Arctica, Nightwish, Helloween, Gamma Ray, White Skull, Dark Moor, Dragonforce, Angus, Kamelot, Lost Horizon, Angel Dust, Nocturnal Rites, Human Fortress, Dragonland, Rhapsody, Rawhead Rexx
Metal for the masses. Also known as Pop Metal and Hair Metal, this is the Metal whose essential ingredient was hair spray. The most commercially successful and the most critically reviled of all the subgenres, Glam Metal owes as much of its popularity to MTV as it does fashion and makeup.
The music is characterized by anthemic pop songs and lots of unison sing-along hooks. The darkest of Metal aficionados will lobby to kick Glam out of the subgenres.
Examples: Motley Crue, Poison, Ratt, Warrant, Winger, White Lion
A union of seventies progressive rock and Heavy Metal. A hardening of the Art Rock styles of bands like Yes, Rush, and King Crimson and their often intricate, complex compositions. Odd time signatures along with tempo and key changes can be found throughout with lyrics usually more on the philosophical side.
This subgenre is littered with virtuosos. Some of the best of the best. This is Dream Theater's turf. So much so that they can't be listed with the other examples. They are the example. Virtuoso musicianship and epic songwriting and production exemplify the genre and are never more apparent than in a DT composition.
Examples: Evergrey, Fates Warning, Queensryche, Spiral Architect, Shadow Gallery, Power Of Omens, Pain Of Salvation
This is where Traditional Metal pushed the envelope in the mid-eighties. Where all aggression is channeled into extreme pulse-hastening double-bass drums, the palm-muted chugging of electric guitars, and vocals relying less on melody and more on shouting. A meshing of seventies Classic Metal and Hardcore Punk, Thrash Metal radically increased the guitar speed with choppy (often gated) rhythms and seriously shredding solos.
In the eighties, this music was often referred to as Speed Metal — though the term is now associated with faster Power Metal.
Examples: Anthrax, Megadeth, Metallica, Slayer
A melding of industrial music and Heavy Metal, this is where Metal embraces the digital world. Sequencing, synths, and sampling blend with heavily distorted guitars and vocals. Industrial Metal reached its zenith in the early nineties with the popularity of groups such as Nine Inch Nails.
Examples: Ministry, Nine Inch Nails, KMFDM, Rammstein, Fear Factory, Marilyn Manson, Godflesh
Death Metal is an extreme subgenre of Heavy Metal, where the vocals growl like the amplified death rattle of a corpse. Characterized by minor keys and atonality and bathed in distorted guitars, complex arrangements, and tempo changes, Death Metal embraces the most violent of themes, leaving pretty much nothing sacred.
Examples: Slayer, Cannibal Corpse, Deicide, Death, Immolation, Obituary, Carcass, Morbid Angel, Possessed
Grindcore is the chaotic cousin of Death Metal. It often ignores standard time signatures and blasts Death Metal into hyper speed. Gore-infused, guttural vocals tend to focus on blood and guts while blast beats punctuate the rhythm of these very short tunes.
Examples: Carcass, Napalm Death, Cannibal Corpse, Exhumed
A combination of Doom and Death Metal, Gothic Metal actually utilizes both male and female singers with the man handling the growl and the woman singing in the upper register. The created dark atmospheres are aided by the layering of keyboards to craft an epic melodrama.
Examples: Lacuna Coil, Leaves Eyes, Theatre Of Tragedy, Tristania, Paradise Lost, My Dying Bride, Anathema, Tiamat, The Gathering, Moonspell, Cradle of Filth, Within Temptation, Entwine, HIM, Lullacry, Poisonblack, Evanescence
Mixing hip-hop with Metal riffs, Nu-Metal often uses seven-string or tuned-down guitars and five- or six-string basses to achieve its deep, heavy, syncopated style. Rapped, growled, or sung lyrics are layered over turntables or sequences and the guitar mostly takes a back seat.
Examples: Limp Bizkit, Staind, Deftones, Slipknot, Linkin Park, Papa Roach, Disturbed, P.O.D., Godsmack
A combination of Hardcore Punk and Thrash Metal, Metalcore is among the most popular of the subgenres. Double-bass driven, tuned-down riffs punctuated by half-time breakdowns provide the foundation for the shouted vocals. Century Media and Medal Blade records saw huge success for the genre with several albums cracking the top ten of the Billboard Top 200. Quite an accomplishment.
Examples: Hatebreed, Bury Your Dead, Killswitch Engage, While She Sleeps, Asking Alexandria, Bleeding Through, Integrity, Unearth, Hogan's Heroes, As I Lay Dying, God Forbid, Shadows Fall
While the majority of Metal subgenres seem to race to the end of the song, barreling over anything that gets in their way, Doom Metal embraces slower tempos and a swimming-in-Jello thicker, heavier sound. The lyrics are all gloom and doom, full of dread and despair. Doom Metal could really use some Xanax.
Examples: Candlemass, Pentagram, Saint Vitus, Solstice, Pagan Altar, Witchfinder General, The Sword, Trouble
The Metal Epilogue
Though not every subgenre of Metal is covered here (the internet would run out of space), it's easy to see that there’s no style of music more capable of reinventing itself. As styles come and go, Metal will be with us in one form or another. In the words of Tenacious D, “The metal will live on!”