Heavy, Dark, Folk, Cello, Extreme, Power, Trash, Death... how to navigate metal music without getting lost?
As far as I can remember, I've always loved rock music. I don’t think I am that old, but from memory, at the time, if we listened to rock, we could categorize ourselves in four or five styles; heavy metal, hard rock, punk, grunge and alternative. That was it. It was clear, easy and everyone understood in one word or in one look at our style the kind of music we preferred. Today? Well… we categorize, sub-categorize, dissect, niche and divide for a reason that I don’t actually really understand. In my mind, if you like rock, you advocate for freedom. Freedom of expression, freedom of emotion, freedom to be yourself. Why caricature, why place ourselves in small boxes of styles that separate us from others who love the same way of life as us?
When I’m asked what kind of metalhead I am, I tend to respond that I like what I like, no matter the specific box in the metal chart. But I understand that this is not enough anymore. People need to identify, to regroup, to merge with those who share the same tastes, in a more and more specific way. So, over the years, I’ve done my homework and tried to understand the 1001 styles of metal music. For rock veterans like me who are neophytes in categorization, here is the result of my research in order to help you find your box or your boxes too. We will see about fifteen styles of metal but those are, I admit, only the tip of the iceberg. Each style has subdivisions that have other sub-branches and so on. Distinction between styles is usually based on the type of song, the tempo, the themes and the musical technique (instruments and structure).
We can start by categorizing all styles into two very large groups: heavy metal and extreme metal.
Heavy metal is the base, the core, the foundation of the genre, born in the late 60s, when everything was simpler and much less categorized. The style included both hard rock and heavy metal as such. Later on, heavy metal was distinguished from hard rock by the clear voice of the singer, a little faster tempo and by more powerful riffs. Within this category, we find, among others, folk metal, avant-garde metal, alternative metal, dark metal and industrial metal.
Quite easily recognizable, folk metal is a very festive style and refers to folklore both by its themes (folklore and mythology) as by its instruments such as violin or bagpipes. The chants are composed of clear voices mixed with growl. The genre was born in Europe during the 90s. Examples of folk groups: Equilibrium, Skyclad, Mago de Oz and Golgotha.
Also called experimental metal, this style makes use of sounds, instruments, structures and unconventional techniques. It comes from the mix between progressive rock, jazz fusion and extreme metal, especially death metal and black metal (which we will discuss later on). Examples of avant-garde metal groups: Boris, Celtic Frost, Voivod, Helmet and Maudlin of the Well.
A style that emerged in the mid 80's from the mix of heavy metal and alternative rock. The genre is characterized by heavy riffs, melodious songs, unconventional structures often accompanied by an experimental approach. Examples of alternative metal groups: Alice in Chains, Chevelle, Faith no More, System of a Down, Deftones and Tool.
This type of metal is often categorized based on their themes of horror, occult and violence. This gothic genre includes many other types of metal that can amalgamate according to the presence of a certain technique mixed with dark themes. Several groups are therefore categorized as dark metal but also as another form of metal at a time. Examples of dark metal bands: Black Sabbath, Slayer, Judas Priest, Korn and Lake of Tears.
Born in the 90s, this style makes use of tools related to electronic music such as synthesizers and sequencers. Mix of industrial music and heavy metal, industrial metal is composed of clear chants with distorted voices with repeated guitar riffs. Controversial and aggressive topics are often addressed. Examples of industrial metal groups: Nine Inch Nails, Fear Factory, Rammstein, Marilyn Manson, Rob Zombie and Ministry.
Let's now talk about the second big metal genre group: the extreme metal. This category includes, among others, trash metal (which includes black metal and speed metal which includes power metal), metal doom (which includes sludge metal and drone metal) and death metal (which includes grindcore).
This was the first subgroup of extreme metal. It is recognized by its very fast tempo, its lyrics that are more shouted than sung and its political or societal themes. There is also a very fast drum rhythm, a lot of shred and many guitar solos. This genre was popularized by the Big Four (Metallica, Slayer, Megadeth and Anthrax). Other trash metal groups would be Machine Head, Sepultura and Kreator.
Style emerging in the mid-80s. Less violent, more melodic but as fast as trash metal from which it derives. Example of speed metal groups: Helloween, ADX, Gamma Ray and Stratovarius.
Derived from speed metal, this style is based on power cords, a very fast tempo, the use of the double bass drum and texts that are often inspired by fantastic literature. Examples of power metal bands: Blind Guardian, HammerFall, Sabaton, Kamelot and PowerWolf.
We recognize this genre by its relatively slow tempo and its melodies that are similar to funeral marches. That kind of metal is advocating texts with sad and macabre themes. It is a powerful style full of heaviness with its guitars tuned lower than normal. Examples of doom groups: Candlemass, Trouble, Electric funeral and Into the Void.
It's a mix of heavy metal and grunge that comes from doom metal. We usually find slow, heavy songs with some more hardcore passages, distorted string instruments, d-beats and double-kick on drums in it and the lyrics are often shouted. The texts are full of suffering and hate where they address drug addiction, politics or other pessimistic topics. Examples of metal sludge groups: Crowbar, Acid Bath, Eyehategod and Buzzov.
Also called drone doom, it's a style born in the early 90s where the chord notes are sustained and repeated, where we can hear the echo of the guitar, where the chants are howled or growled and where the songs are often longer than usual. Examples of drone metal groups: Earth, Boris and Sunn.
Born in the early 90's, death metal is recognized by its guttural songs, its very fast tempo, its tremolo pickings and blast beats. There are many changes of measure and tempo and texts are often morbid, violent and shocking. Indeed, groups in this category regularly rises controversy by their themes such as mutilation, torture, rape, cannibalism and necrophilia. Examples of death metal bands: Morbid Angel, Obituary, Unleashed and Venom.
A genre coming from several other categories such as crust punk, hardcore punk, trash metal and death metal. There are often grunts, blast beats and violent lyrics into it. It’s a somewhat chaotic music, with often very short songs that do not offer a conventional musical signature. Its beginnings are attributed to the British group Napalm Death and include the following groups among others: Brutal Truth, Anal Cunt and Pig Destroyer.
Originally considered a synonym for satanic metal, black metal features screaming high vocals, fast tempo, tremolo picking, blast beats, compressed-sounding guitars and lyrics referring to the devil and the occult. Examples of black metal groups: Mayhem, Immortal, Darkthrone and Burzum.
We've talked about fifteen types of metal music here, but as mentioned earlier, there are many other categories in these basic styles and it's a safe bet to say that other sub-branches will continue to appear over the course of time. We did not talk about symphonic metal, progressive metal, celtic metal, vicking metal, death'n'roll, glam metal, metalcore, deathgrind, goregrind, crust punk, nu metal, war metal, neo-classical metal, gothic metal, funk metal, post-metal, rap-metal, christian metal and stoner metal, to name only a few.
Metal music is far from dead and continues to evolve year after year for the pleasure of metalheads who never get tired of hearing new styles and new bands emerge within this rich and eclectic kind of music.
I hope this article was of interest to the metal category neophytes like I was not long ago and a good review for those already familiar with the concept!
See you soon metalheads and until then, rock on!