Subgenres in metal and why they matter

This is a guest post from the mighty Joe Koza from koejoza.com/. If you enjoy this post be sure to go check out his site!

Heavy.  Death.  Black.  Thrash.  Progressive.  Power.  Doom.  The list goes on.  Ask any metalhead if subgenres matter; chances are, they have an entire thesis fully equipped with diagrams and flowcharts ready to go, proving their necessity.  Although this is a bit of an exaggeration, the premise holds true.  To outsiders not familiar with metal and its various subcultures, it’s all the same.  If there is one experience all metalheads share, it’s that we’ve all been asked the quintessential “how do you even understand what they’re saying?” question or told the typical “it’s just so loud” claim.  However, as one begins to develop an interest in the genre and dive a bit deeper to discover just how vast metal is, subgenres and their associated conventions become integral to understanding the style as a whole.  Let’s dig in.

metal meme.png

Before discussing subgenres and why they’re important, deciphering whether or not an artist fits under the often-debated, somewhat ambiguous metal umbrella to begin with is key.  Although the genre’s reach is far and wide, many bands often considered “gateways” into metal (Disturbed and Korn types- I’m looking at you) are hardly metal once dissected.  This is a conversation for another time, though it’s crucial to understand that common aspects of the genre, such as distorted guitars or shouted vocals, do not necessarily constitute a metal label on their own.  It has been said that an artist is most likely defined as metal if they can somehow trace the roots of their sound back to Black Sabbath in some way.  While this does make some sort of sense, one could argue that the mighty Sabbath’s influence reaches beyond metal bands, extending into other heavy music subcultures, making these claims somewhat unreliable in the grand scheme.  A trained ear will soon be able to pick up on the subtle differences through prolonged exposure to different forms of heavier music.

Assigning a subgenre to a band is undoubtedly beneficial.  Often times, metal fans will choose to identify with certain subgenres more than others for a variety of reasons.  Each comes with its own style, mood, and imagery, making it that much easier to discover new bands within the confines of a particular sound and style.  In the age of the internet, fans will often post to forums such as Reddit’s popular “/r/metal” asking for recommendations for a particular mood, opening up discussion with other users interested in similar subgenres.  These classifications are essential to organization and serve as a road map for what to expect.  While black metal enthusiasts can usually count on some sort of tremolo-style guitar picking, thrash fans embrace the same punk-tinged, two-step drum grooves time and time again; characteristics that come with the territories.  The barriers are often gray, but with time listeners begin to gravitate towards their selected styles and expand from there.

 Black Metal band Immortal Live at Hole in the Sky Festival source:  https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Immortal_live_@_Hole_in_the_Sky.jpg

Black Metal band Immortal Live at Hole in the Sky Festival source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Immortal_live_@_Hole_in_the_Sky.jpg

While some consider this to be tedious and unnecessary, assigning multiple subgenres to an artist is often appreciated and results in an enhanced dialogue surrounding them.  A prime example of this is Virginia metallers Arsis having been assigned the label “Technical Melodic Death Metal”, describing the various influences that make up their sound to a T.  The music, as one would guess, is full of technicality, yet contains choruses melodic enough to hum along to in a most evil fashion.  Again, for the sake of classification, subgenres become increasingly beneficial.

            If you’re a self-proclaimed metalhead, you probably already have your subgenres of choice.  For those just breaking into the scene, play around with different subgenres and see what sticks.  For the sake of oversimplification, here are some quick notes.  If you’re looking to bridge the gap between rock and metal, it may be helpful to start with traditional heavy metal.  Bands such as Black Sabbath, Iron Maiden, and Motorhead helped define the genre at its core and are considered essential listening by many.  Play around with thrash, speed, and power metal when looking for a swift kick in the ass, then slow things down by exploring doom metal.  Death and black metal are often considered two of the more extreme varieties and may take a bit longer to digest.  However, like a fine wine, it is with time that these styles and their intricacies are truly appreciated.  Do not limit yourself; you may be surprised by which sounds you end up settling on and enjoying the most.

Article written by Joe Koza.  For more information, visit https://koejoza.com/.