I've noticed that there are many new fans of the metal genre and thought I would write a sort of "idiot's guide to metal." Of course people are going to find their styles of music and cling to them for dear life, but I just thought I would make clear some common misconceptions and genre mix-ups of my favorite style of music - Metal.
First things first. Stop calling it "heavy" metal. It sounds stupid and you sound like a senior citizen. We all know journalists and music critics love to tag anything and everything with popular trendy vernacular. It's of course to bring in readers or bash band a or band c. But lets be honest here. Your an intelligent individual. You obviously picked the best genre (ever) of music to listen to, and you want to know what's what. So lets cut the crap: it's metal. There is metal, and rock, and pop, and so on. Those are the musical genres. Yeah, you can say there's "black metal, thrash metal, doom metal, math metal" but your really just describing the same music over and over again. Let me give you an example: This text is black on default windows settings. It's not dark gray, or negative white. It's black. Just like black metal is metal, heavy metal is metal, and dare I say it, yes kids, metalcore is metal. Now here's where it gets tricky. The metal genre is dominated by gifted musicians, and as such they can play some extremely complicated stuff. How do you describe a palm muted power chord machine gun riff on the low e and a strings played at 120 bpm to a non-metal listener? Or better yet, a non-musician? This my friends is where the terms "black, goth, death, etc." come from. What's an extremely fast heavily distorted tremolo picked guitar riff? That's black metal. What's a slow moderately distorted lumbering power chord riff? That can be doom metal. 32nd note quintuplets played extremely fast on the high strings? That can be shred. These monikers are all open to interpretation, but for the most part the genuine musical masses agree. I'm leaving out snarky music critics and overzealous journalists for the sake of intelligent argument. Within the metal genre lies an honest trend of musical labeling that actually does the sound justice. In today's musical landscape no other genre of music is as accurately labeled in my humble opinion. To make an extremely long winded story short, this is why I think calling all metal "heavy" metal sounds foolish: It goes without saying that metal is heavy. That's why (hopefully for the most part) we listen to it! It's not Britney Spears! It's heavy! From the Gothenburg sound to Him's so called "love metal" every darn genre of metal is at least in the most minute form heavier than anything pop or rock has to offer. Slipknot is heavier than the Foo Fighters. In This Moment is heavier than Alanis Morissette. Opeth is heavier than John Mayer. And so on and so forth. Lets drop the "heavy" tag already. It's 2009. We have a black president. It's time for change. Now that that's out of the way, we have our esteemed sub genres of metal, only labeled as such to fairly and accurately describe radically unique styles of musical performance and technique. Oh, and did I mention this is where the bullets start flying? This is the heart of metal debate, the infinite argument. Is it hardcore or metalcore? Is that even metal? Is it mathcore or just progressive? Is this band thrash or speed metal? These are legitimate questions but for the most part the general consensus will agree on what bands are what. Oh, and when I say guitars, I am referring to guitars and bass guitars. Here are some examples:
(yes I know there are a trillion bands and your band is the best blah blah. This is just a small example, an appetizer if you will.)
Metallica - Thrash Metal (at least in the old days hehe)
Arch Enemy - Melodic Death Metal
Fear Factory - Industrial Metal
Bloodbath - Death Metal
Meshuggah - Math Metal
Opeth - Progressive Death Metal
Unearth - Metalcore
Emperor - Black Metal
Now there are a vast uncounted number of metal bands out there. Heck I'm even in a one-man band myself (no one I know listens to metal), this is just a microscopic smattering of different bands and styles. Looking at this list you may wonder, "what's the difference between melodic death metal and progressive death metal?" Melodic basically means there is a strong melody with a recurring theme of notes throughout. When you say music is progressive that basically means that it doesn't follow most conventions and instead ventures off into relatively unknown or unpredictable musical styles and time signatures. Melodic death metal for example equals morbid vocals and lyrics, heavily distorted melodic guitar / bass playing, and a wide range of fast or mid-tempo drumming. When it comes to metal, the genre tags are mostly true. When I say mostly I'm looking directly at you -metal. Some of it was, some of it wasn't. I dare not say which bands I think were which in this article. I value my life. With that said, here's a brief description of some sub genres of metal, some bands, and what they sound like:
Metal - Plain old metal. A good genre to describe bands like Machine Head or Gojira. Bands that wear their influences on their sleeves proudly. This music usually consists of heavily distorted guitars playing anything from chugging palm-muted riffs, cyclonic guitar solos, speedy tremolo single note runs, and anything under the sun. This is the jack-of-all-trades right here.
Math Metal - When your trying to head bang but just can't seem to keep in rhythm with the music. Why? Because of the odd time signatures. Aptly named for the dazzlingly complex instrumentation, and equally odd time signatures, this genre of metal will have you scrambling for a good music theory book or a calculator. Or both. It just makes me scramble for the volume control - so I can turn it up. Of course when you say math metal you have to mention Meshuggah, but there's also Dillinger Escape Plan, and arguably Mudvayne to name a few. Complex intricate time signatures, often brutal guitar work, and virtuoso drumming are the name of the game.
Black Metal - Two words: Blast Beats. What's a blast beat? Just check out Suffocation's (a black / death metal band) Mike Smith. He is the Godfather of the blast beat. A "Blast Beat" is a style of drumming in which the drummer pounds the snare, symbol, bass drum, and whatever else he can get his hands on at the same time as fast as humanly possible, and as loud as humanly possible. Slap your left leg with your left hand and your right leg with your right hand as fast as possible at the same time to see what I mean. Black metal often involves lots of blast beats (pulled off in varying levels of proficiency), tremolo picking from the guitars, and deeply dark subject matter. How dark? You heard of church burnings? Satan worshiping? I'm looking at you black metal. Destruction, darkness, the occult, and unsurprising topics of black metal lyrics. Oh, and the vocals are up to debate. Anything from high pitched screeching to low growls are standard place. Just don't expect any American Idol big-win choruses with squeaky clean soaring vocals. You shall receive a blast beat for your troubles sir. Founded and perfected in Europe. Check out Satyricon, Emperor, and of course, Venom.
Death Metal - "But wait dude... Wouldn't death metal fall under black metal? Like, death... It's black and stuff." Sure. In the 1980's maybe. Death metal is arguably the more popular of the two genres, and there is an enormous wealth of death metal bands, thus procuring it's own place within the metal genre hierarchy. Due to it's more accessible sound I'm guessing. Now, by accessible I don't mean Beatles accessible. I'm talking maybe you get a wheelchair ramp. Or even a building to enter to put a ramp in front of so to speak. You still get the "cookie monster" vocals, screeches, and masterful guitar and drum performances. You just get them differently. Less blast beats, less tremolo picking, and better production. Brutally distorted guitars and morbid subject matter. Lots of blood and guts. Often there is a thrash influence here. There are much more death metal bands located here than abroad. The Black Dahlia Murder, Carcass, and of course Cannibal Corpse are a good starting point. You can argue that Europe has got the Black metal, but we got the Death metal.
Thrash Metal - One of the most popular genres. Why? Metallica. Not the first band to perform thrash metal, but the most popular one. Megadeth and Anthrax are also notable thrash bands, though far from the only skilled ones. Thrash Metal is one of the few genres of metal that doesn't necessarily involve distorted screaming / yelling / growling / screeching in the vocal area. It's much more mainstream than say grindcore because of it's very melodic guitars, numerous solos, and relatively uncomplicated drumming. Comparing it to black or math metal drumming that is. The fun part about thrash metal is it's interesting mix of punk speed and attitude, mixed with beefy chunky guitar riffs. More often than not rhythm guitars will be palm muted, blazing fast, with a hyperspeed solo soon to follow. Another heavily distorted metal genre. Starting to see a trend? Which brings me to the last stop on this "metal tour."
There are many many genres of metal, each one as interesting and unique as the next. For the sake of simplicity I named some of the most popular genres and bands as a beginning guideline for the uninitiated. This is a novice guide, I would hardly lead unprepared Three Days Grace fans to the likes of Nile or Suicide Silence. One of the most important distinctions of metal is that it isn't like any other genre of music. Almost every aspect of metal is completely unique: from the guttural roars of the vocalists, the impossibly distorted, unnaturally tuned guitars, and the supersonic speeds and complex rhythms of the virtuoso percussionists. Though each band member plays an important role and is for the most part equally skilled, I would have to say that metal is defined by the electric guitar sound. After all, one of the most important things that separates rock from metal is the vast array of guitar sounds that are employed in metal, compared to the predictable nature of standard chord progressions and light distortion that is used in rock. There's nothing wrong with any genre of music, it's all about personal choice. But if you like your music to travel to the extremes of human possibility, and beyond, then it goes without saying that metal is the only genre of music capable of an infinite beyond. As for me? Nevermore, Meshuggah, and Opeth are my magical three for right now. Long live metal!