Heavy Metal Genres
Last Updated (Tuesday, 30 November 1999 09:30)
Written by Steve Parker
Sunday, 31 August 2008 18:16
Metal is around for a few decades and it has evolved ever since into various flavors. It is very hard to define and distinguish heavy metal genres because some parts overlap each other. There are no specified borders between sub-genres. One may agree or disagree with them but still there are a few prominent elements in each genre that classify them. The following are some most common genres of metal.
- Classic Heavy Metal:
Classic heavy metal is the most difficult genre to define, primarily because there are 2 different definitions. The first definition is a not a reference to a particular sound; rather it is a tribute to the founding fathers of heavy metal. This is a confusing use of the term, because the founding fathers did not play the same styles of metal. (i.e. Black Sabbath was a doom metal band, Judas Priest was riding the NWOBHM). The more modern and commonly used definition of classic heavy metal is a reference to the sound created by metal bands when metal was at its peak of commercial success in the early to mid 80's. Typically, this sound was fronted by high mid-range to super high vocals. The choruses were memorable and often anthemia. The guitars were center stage, full of hooks and wheedling all over the place, and sounding a notch heavier than 70's hard rock. Drums and bass were also slowly speeding up. Though fairly tame by today's metal standards, this was the hardest stuff at the time, and the inspiration for many of today's bands. This genre of metal produced the highest number of bands, so that it's sound is now so generic to sometimes be simply labeled "Heavy Metal" (no prefix), and considered the main branch of music from which most other genres split. This genre is also experiencing resurgence in popularity. Lyrical content was often about guitars, heavy metal, violence, or Satan (though most were fairly clean).
Bands: Manowar, Judas Priest, Iron Maiden & King Diamond etc.
- Doom Metal:
Slow, low and heavy music that occasionally speeds up and takes higher tones. The guitar tends to plod between monster riffs. Keyboards are often used to creepy effect, and a flute is thrown in now and again. The vocals range from very low to medium-high vocals. Lyrical content often focuses on "spiritual" things.
Bands: Black Sabbath, Candlemass & Type O Negative
- New Wave of British Heavy Metal (NWOBHM):
Much of this genre bleeds over into classic heavy metal. This style is so named because of the hordes of British metal acts appearing in the late 70's and early 80's. They shared a sound and country of origin, so voila! NWOBHM. The sound is often described as a mixture of the old metal of the early 70's and the burgeoning punk sound of the late 70's. Most of these bands died off just as quickly as they had appeared, but not before leaving a lasting impression on future metal superstars (most notably Metallica & Megadeth). The few bands of this genre that survived went on to hone their sound into Classic Heavy Metal.
Bands: Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, Diamondhead
- Progressive Metal:
A lot of groups that defy description are lumped into this category. Most sound nothing like each other, but share a penchant for writing challenging music (i.e.: music without catchy choruses). The music is highly technical with a lot of strange timing and experimental sounds. It also tends to be epic in nature (many changes throughout the song, leaving the listener wondering if it's the same song).I guess you could call it the thinking man's metal, because it takes a good amount of cerebral activity to decipher all the unexpected turns and time changes. The sound can be very mellow or very harsh, but the "jazz of heavy metal" is always unique.
Bands: Voivod, Dream Theater, Saviour Machine
- Thrash Metal:
Heavy Metal tends to get progressively harder and outdo the advances of the previous genre. Thrash added distortion to the guitar, sped things up and took a less structured approach to songwriting. Drumming sped up and vocals tend to be mid-range and slightly gravelly. Lyrical content was very often about the political woes of the world. Thrash guitar has had an incredible impact on the world of music, and has influenced everything from crappy alternative music to most modern heavy metal bands. In fact, it may just be the most influential sound that metal has produced to date.
Bands: Metallica, Megadeth, Testament & Exodus
- Speed Metal:
As the name denotes, Speed Metal is incredibly fast, both with guitars, drumming, and bass. The vocals are usually on the high side, and the guitar is usually just a sped up and not too thrashy Classic Metal guitar. Song writing is very technical and structured, but unlike Progressive Metal, it has choruses and catchy hooks. Because of the skill level required to produce this style of metal, some of metal's best musicians have emerged from Speed Metal bands (i.e.: Marty Friedman, Jason Becker, Jeff Waters, Tim Calvert, Gary Lenaire) Lyrical content varies and doesn't appear to be genre typical. This genre emerged at the tail end of the eighties, and quickly went away in the early nineties. Though short lived, this genre produced some of my favorite songs and groups, and continues to appear in diluted form in many bands.
Bands: Annihilator, Tourniquet, Cacophony, Forbidden
- Glam Metal (Butt Rock):
I had a serious struggle deciding whether or not to even list this genre, as its "metalness" is very much in question. However, a full third of visits to this page came from someone typing "butt rock name origin" in a search engine, so I guess it was worth it. The debate of "metal or not" rises from many rock bands being misnamed as "metal" from the time they began. There was an image that went along with the genre, and if a band dressed the part, then they were included in the genre, regardless of the music. Many rock bands cashed in on the big-hair, chick make-up image, without coming close to playing metal (Poison being the most well known offender). Granted, the true glam metal band's watered down version of metal wasn't anything to be terribly proud of, and their image still sends shudders through most metalheads. Lyrical content was at it's shallowest, mostly concerned about girls and cars. The majority of glam bands seem to have migrated to the Sunset Strip in LA, which lead some to claim "glam" stood for "Gay LA Music". In my opinion, this was probably heavy metal's lowest point, because it attained public recognition and left the unknowing masses thinking that this was what metal was all about. The name really says it all, as it is the only genre that references the image rather than the sound, lyrical content, or point of origin. As for why it's called "Butt-Rock", the best explanation I've come across is that this is just a derogatory term for a type of music hated by most metal fans. It appears to be having a resurgance of popularity right now, made scary by the 40-something, sagging progenitors of this genre smearing make up back on.
Bands: Stryper, L.A. Guns, Faster Pussycat, Dokken
- Death Metal:
Death was the next step past thrash in levels of "hardness". It is most characterized by its very low, growly "cookie monster" vocals. The music ranges from very fast to very slow, but was almost always chaotic, often disregarding melody, choruses and other "catchy" elements of other genres. Regardless of guitar speed, the drumming is usually fast, often employing blast beats. Many bands of the era seemed to be in a contest to come up with the most revolting lyrics and album covers, concentrating on the imagery of people in various states of butchery (aka - "Gore Metal"). In fact, the name "Death Metal" is a reference to the vocals (like a dead man), and the primarily morbid lyrical content. This genre completely overwhelmed the metal scene from the early to mid-nineties, but the oversaturation of death metal bands lead to its early demise (no pun intended). Though the death metal scene died off, versions of the death vocals live on in many modern metal bands. It should also be noted that there are still quite a few (good) pure death metal bands plying their trade, though the genres day in the sun is long gone.
Bands: Death, Obituary, Morbid Angel
- Industrial Metal:
Industrial mixes sounds of industry, samples, and other computer-generated sounds or sound bytes with metal. The guitar is usually reminiscent of machinery, using fast, heavy, repetetive riffs. It's pretty self-explanatory, as the music is just a mix of Heavy Metal and Industrial music, with the emphasis on metal. There is no definable genre typical lyrical content, except for maybe a "fear of machines" theme. Heheh. There are so few bands in this genre, that it's difficult to give a set time of origin or era of popularity. There seems to be a fine line between this genre and metal influenced Industrial, where metal is a flourish added to an industrial band (like NIN or Ministry).
Bands: Brainchild, Fear Factory
- Hardcore Metal:
When two metal genres are mixed, what is created can become known as a "sub-genre". However, when metal mixes with non-metal music, it tends to create a whole new genre. Hardcore is such a mixture ... made up of 1 part metal and 2 parts punk. The vocals are either punk or death, the lyrical content usually deals with some topic of social unrest, and the music has the intensity of punk with the discipline of metal (i.e.: guitarists can play more than 3 chords). The scene is primarily underground, and appears to neither garner nor lose popularity with time. However, it appears to have influenced many bands in the early 2000s, leading to the NWOAHM.
Bands: Sick of It All
- "-core"/Nu Metal:
It should be noted that metalheads love to throw "-core" at the end of a word and claim it as the latest genre. Because of the multitude of "(fill in the blank)-core" names, I will not break down each one, as opinions of what they mean practically vary from one metalhead to the next. In the most general of terms, it is just a way of referencing a style of music that has some sort metalness or hardness to it. You can pretty much add it to any word and make a new genre. Let's try it! "Cheese-core", "Monkeycore", "Poopcore", "Applecore", "HondaCivic-core" Yay, I just made 5 genres!
When used in a complimentary manner you have names like "Grindcore" and "Deathcore". When used in a derogatory manner, you have names like "nu-core" and "mall-core". These last two are a reference to the dreaded "nu-metal" bands. These are bands that may use a few metal riffs, and call themselves "metal", but their whiny/(c)rappy vocals give them away as the alternative losers that they are. These bands can generally be found in a mall music store (hence "mallcore"), and are usually whining about how their dads were big meanies.
Important Note If a regular, non-nu metal band should have the audacity to veer from it's original style (as 99% of them do), the angry ("change makes me pee myself") fan will instantly label the group as a "sell-out","nu metal" or "mallcore". Beware this slanderous misnomer! Below are listed some of the true Nu Metal bands. I'm not saying you can't like them; I'm just saying that they suck.
Bands: Papa Roach, Limp Bizkit (see also "Rap Metal")
- Black Metal:
Black Metal was yet another step taken in hardness, making the genre very appealing to those who search for such things, and very unappealing to a non-metal listener. Black metal is characterized by a total cacophonic wall of noise with the music often blending indiscernibly into just loud, pounding noise. This is broken up with melody appearing behind this wall, or sometimes the noise just stops and reveals a simple melody. Keyboards are used to a great extent with some of the more "popular" black metal bands, and the vocals are generally a high-screeching death metal voice. (Sorry, that's the best rough description I can come up with) The imagery and lyrical content of the music is very dark, often delving into demonic and satanic issues. "Corpse paint" is often part of the image - which is basically white face paint with black designs. Though the genre appeared quite a while ago in the form of Mayhem, it's popularity peak was from the mid nineties to the turn of the millennia. As a weird side note, many of these genres band members have veered into new directions and made bands with a heavy techno influence! (ie: The Kovenant)
Bands: Mayhem, Emperor, Satyricon
- Gothenberg Metal/Melodic Death Metal:
The name refers to Gothenburg Sweden, the hometown of the originators of this genre. As more bands around the globe join the fray, a more common phrase for describing this genre is "melodic death metal". Vocals are usually death-like, but can drop into more dulcet "clean" tones. The music has the hardness of death metal, but the melody and rhythm of classic metal. This normally would classify it as a hybrid, but it's popularity and influence have garnered it the distinction of having its own category. This genre appeared in the mid-nineties amidst the fertile Swedish metal scene, and has continually grown in popularity. It is probably one of the most popular genres today, with In Flames sitting at the top of the pile.
Bands: In Flames, Dark Tranquility, Ebony Tears, At the Gates
- Power Metal:
Very catchy music with rousing sing-a-long choruses. The lyrics are almost always about fantasy subjects, i.e: dragons, elves, etc. Keyboards are used a lot, the guitar isn't thrashy, and vocals are in the higher range. This is really the 90's resurrection of classic metal, with some influence from speed metal. Currently, this is a very popular genre (gaining popularity in the mid-nineties), but the scene is starting to get choked with too many bands.
Bands: Blind Guardian, Nocturnal Rites, Stratovarius, Hammerfall
- Gothic Metal:
Gothic metal almost seems like a cross between Doom and Atmospheric, with extra instruments and a tendency to use bass-low vocals (or a death metal voice) interspersed with female soprano vocals to compliment the sound. It tends to be slow and have lots of extra atmosphere, sounds, and synths. In my experience, lyrics have been exceptionally poetic. There are not many gothic metal bands out there, as it is easy for the inexperienced group to drown in banality. However, there are a few bands out there that really stand out; namely Beseech. Theatre of Tragedy started off great, but has since been pooping out rave music. Side note: This genre is not to be confused with the very non-metal Goth scene and all its freaky wanna-be vampires.
Bands: Theatre of Tragedy, Beseech, Evereve, Paradise Lost
- Rap Metal:
Rap Metal, aka Rapcore, aka total crap, is metal with the lyrics rapped. Like glam, there are a number of bands that have cashed in on the image of rap metal without actually being a metal band. Limp Bizkit is a good example. There are some legitmate rap bands, but as I hate rap, I tend not to keep up. If I wanted to hear someone talk, I would turn on a frickin' radio talk show.
Bands: Kid Rock, Korn
- Atmospheric Metal:
This genre almost defies being placed under the category of "metal" because of its calm nature, though guitars still tend to be distorted. Usually made by metal bands that have already proven themselves in another metal genre, this style is soothing, slow, and awash with sounds to make one comfortable. Except for Tiamat, most bands can't be described as "Atmospheric", except for a song here and there. Bands that have churned out an "Atmospheric" tune or two are Opeth, Cathedral, and Theatre of Tragedy.
- Operatic Metal:
The music is power metal, the lyrics are power metal, the catchiness is power metal, but the vocals are operatic in sound and training.
- Folk Metal:
The name "Folk Metal" means that the group is playing metal influenced by the indigenous music of their culture or country. Not many bands are brave enough to allow local music history to have an influence on their songs, so these groups are pretty few and far between. (i.e. The Brittanic Skyclad mixing Irish folk music with metal.
Bands: Skyclad, Thyrfing, Finntroll
- Metalcore (NWOAHM, emo/screamo):
This genre is currently developing, so without a specific genre title at first, it went through many proposed names. "Metalcore" seems to be the best, all-encompassing name, and it appears to be sticking. Originally dubbed "The New Wave of American Heavy Metal" (NWOAHM) the scene is hot and heavy right now. A ton of bands, most of which are American, have appeared out of nowhere to storm the scene. It is basically an evolution of Hardcore, but has just balanced out the punk/metal mixture with a lot more metal. Hard, thrashy guitars define the sound with the occasional solo, or odd time change. Breakdowns are practically mandatory, with the music suddenly stopping and then picking up with a different rhythm. In concert, this is the cue to start moshing. Vocals are the most consistently similar trait between these bands, with a tendency to scream the lyrics. Most people unfamiliar with metal would claim that all heavy metal vocals are just screaming, but that's simply not true. Classic metal had high registered vocals, but were still singing; death metal growls; hardcore barks; and black metal screeches. Up to this point, the screamed vocal was just thrown in at an appropriate juncture in the song (Pantera). These bands tend to scream from start to finish, which has earned some the genre title of "screamo". The softer bands in this genre like to balance the screams with emotional crooning, earning them the name "emo". As is typical, fans of the harder side of this genre (Lamb of God), hate it when the softer versions are included under the same banner (Bullet For My Valentine). Sorry.
Bands: Lamb of God, Mastadon, Killswitch Engage & Trivium