Calling All (Knowledgeable) Metalheads; it's subgenre time

I grew up on a steady diet of Black Sabbath, Iron Maiden, and what I’ve come to discover was called “The New Wave of British Heavy Metal” (consisting of the aforesaid Maiden, Def Leppard, Diamondhead, Motorhead, Headhead*). I was doing some reading on the history of metal and it seems, after the NWOBHM, that metal splintered into all these surgically defined subgenres: Black Metal, Doom Metal, Goth Metal, Thrash, Speed, so on, so forth. But, really, there are dozens of them and I haven’t heard of too many of the acts that populate these genres, so, what I’m looking for is an explanation. Actually, more of a little history. I’m feeling metally today.

Any info/reading about post-NWOBHM bands would satisfy some of my curiosity, but, as a guide:

Which of these subgenres were/are the most popular?

Which remain relevant today?

Which came first and then, what evolved from that?

Why the “over-genre-fication”? Is there really that much of a difference between Death Metal and Thrash Metal?

I’d like to kind of keep this as a flowing discussion and ask some questions to any amateur metal historians out there. So, throw up the corna and let’s get cracking.

  • Terrible joke. Sorry.

I have to bug out of work, but will hopefully be able to check over the weekend. I would also be interested in getting an overview of the metal genre these days…thanks for starting the thread Birdmonster.

Black metal and doom metal are extremely trendy right now. Most doom sucks because so many of those bands just play 10 minute songs of rehashed Sabbath riffs. Plus doom attracts a lot of beardos and creeps who bum me out. Black metal is interesting because there’s a lot of variety within the genre: bands like Behemoth that are more death metal influenced; Enslaved, who transitioned into a more progressive sound; and Wolves in the Throne Room, which is awful eco hippy metal for hipster nerds. In fact, I’d say black metal bands have shown the most willingness to experiment of any metal subgenre.

Straight up death metal is still big, thrash had a bit of a revival, goth metal is hilarious, and deathcore is a total joke. Oh, and don’t get me started on wigger slam.

Outta curiosity, how’s Hair Metal looked at in hindsight? My feeling is: squarely between embarrassing and horrifying.

Roughly speaking, metal can be pretty cleanly divided–or at least as cleanly divided as any artistic endeavor can be–into five styles: traditional, fast, slow, alternative and symphonic. There are genres and subgenres within each of those styles, but the lines are a lot less clear.

Traditional metal consists of the first few waves of heavy metal, the power metal that really took off in the 80s and 90s, and bands who are playing in either of those styles. The major bands in this style are Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, Helloween and Stratovarius.

Fast metal is like traditional metal, but played faster. Power metal grew into thrash metal, which grew into death metal. Some hardcore punk bands changed up their sound and became either old school punk metal, late 90s crossover, or modern metalcore. Others went even more extreme and started playing grindcore. Early industrial metal falls in here as well. Notable bands are Metallica, Megadeth, Anthrax, Slayer, Pantera, Napalm Death, Ministry, Morbid Angel, Carcass, Deicide, early Corrosion of Conformity, At the Gates, early In Flames, Vision of Disorder, Refused and As I Lay Dying (who are the biggest metalcore band that I’m familiar with).

Slow metal started out as a reaction to the movement towards faster metal and away from Black Sabbath’s sounds. There’s a significant amount of Sabbath worship, but also some more adventurous bands who either play for the sweet leaf crowd or play very slowly to make music that not everyone will enjoy. Note that except for the extreme doom, “slow” is a relative notion. Some goth metal and grunge falls into this category as well. Major bands are Candlemass, St. Vitus, later Corrosion of Conformity, Crowbar, Monster Magnet, Kyuss, Orange Goblin, Electric Wizard, Thergothon, Skepticism, Cathedral, Theatre of Tragedy, the Melvins and Alice in Chains.

Alternative metal is the heavy music of a younger generation, who weren’t quite old enough to participate in the first few waves of heavy metal. In addition to traditional heavy metal, bands playing in this style have been heavily influenced by rap, the so called funk metal of the late 80s and early 90s, and electronic music. Modern industrial metal and some metalcore influenced acts fall in here as well. Major acts include Helmet, Korn, Disturbed, Rage Against the Machine, Killswitch Engage, later In Flames, Marilyn Manson, later Within Temptation and System of a Down.

Symphonic metal is metal that’s influenced by traditional European music. This includes not only classical/symphonic music, but folk music as well. Black metal and viking metal fall in this category, as well as folk metal and what some have called dark opera. Look for work by Bathory, Emperor, Darkthrone, Enslaved, Einherjer, Tyr, Korpiklaani and Lacrimosa.

As always, there are some bands that don’t fall neatly into any category (most notably Opeth, who play death metal influenced prog rock). I’ve also left out very closely related types of music, such as hard rock (which is where most of the hair metal acts fall), hardcore and crust punk, and more traditional industrial. I’ve also left out bands who are very strongly metal influenced, but don’t really play music that can be described as metal (most notably Arcturus, but also stuff like Ulver or Mother Earth-era Within Temptation).

ultrafilter: That was well-done. Never seen it broken down like that, which, to be honest, really cuts through the bullshit of the pointless genrefication while not jettisoning it totally.

The mention of Headhead in the OP, and what you might have ment by the joke, could be considered to be Metallica. In an old VHS tape of some interview of them I have James says to come up with their sound they basically took Motorhead and Diamondhead and mooshed them together.

So according to Metallica you could call them Headhead and be correct.

Although MotörDiamond is not without a certain charm.

Agreed. Although I don’t think genrefication is completely pointless. I have a lot of music on my iPod and I sometimes like to be able to find stylistically similar bands quickly.

If you want to further divide Fast Metal into subgenes, you might also want to place a division between bands you can hear the lyrics (Metallica, Anthrax, Motorhead) and bands where it’s mostly incomprehensible growling (some of the newer death metal bands).

Another thing (if you want to further subdivide your music). I may be mistaken, but I believe alternative metal stylistically has roots closer to hardcore punk than Zeppelin-esq 60s hard rock. And depending on what you mix it with, you get a number of interesting subgenres:

Metal + ska or funk = Funk Metal (Fishbone, Primus, Red Hot Chilli Peppers)
Metal + rap = Nu-metal (Korn, Limp Bizkit)
Metal + hard electronica = Industrial (NIN, Ministry, Stabbing Westward)
Metal + flannel = Grunge

I don’t think metalheads look at bands like Motley Crue and Def Leppard in the same way as they might look at Sabbath or Metallica. I think it’s more viewed as pop metal that jocks and frat guys played in their Mustangs in the 80s.

Bang up job ultrafilter. Your five styles of Metal sums up the different subgenres as well as I’ve ever seen it done. But if you would allow a fellow Metalhead a few quibbles (a never before heard of phenomenon in this genre :wink: )…

I would argue that not all Slow Metal started as an out and out reaction against the faster stuff. The aforementioned Therogothon as well as Katatonia, My Dying Bride, Paradise Lost and Anathema all started pretty much as Death Metal bands that just happened to be playing slow. They were evolving out of the fast stuff, as opposed to in defiance of it. Perhaps not much of a distinction I know, but I feel if the question is about the history of the genres, then it’s an important thing to mention.

I think you’re being overly simplistic in what you allow into the Symphonic Metal range, especially in regards to Black Metal. While it’s true that Bathory, Emperor and Enslaved have all used symphonic elements to great effect in their latter works, they all started out squarely in the fast school of thought that includes Speed, Thrash, N.W.O.B.H.M. and Death Metal. And Darkthrone never even grew out of that category. Indeed, they reverted to an even more primitive style after the release of their first album, to the point where their latest releases are far more Punk Rock than anything your standard long hair would call Metal. Black Metal came out of the early 80’s Thrash scene, in tandem with Death Metal and also taking influences from it whenever it suited the bands. Many bands do use keyboards and guitar harmonies and other such techniques (whether use of such techniques automatically constitutes the band being Symphonic is a whole other matter all together), but an equally large number do not. I guess what I’m saying is I would have put these bands in the Fast category instead of the Symphonic one.

Of course this all IMHO and all that, and I tried not to be too nitpicky, being anew poster and all. I’m not too sure if I succeeded in that endeavour, but I do hope I added something to the discussion. I’m also going to start tell people I play “Fast Metal” when they ask what kind of music I play.

It’s definitely a little tough to give a completely accurate history in six or seven paragraphs, but I don’t think that I mangled things too badly. I think there may be some value in distinguishing between genres at a lower level, but you don’t have to go too far before you end up with a lot of genres, some of which don’t have many acts playing in them. I think the five styles breakdown is the right tradeoff between making meaningful distinctions between styles of music and generalizing well as new genres evolve.

Ultrafilter, I think you did a fairly good job there, even if I would have never grouped things the way you did. I do think your lump a lot of bands into each of you 5 basic categories, tho, that would stun a listener who thought he was gonna get even vaguely similar music from, say, Electric Wizard and Candlemass or Metallica and Napalm Death. I think there’s some merit to the way you grouped things; it just isn’t the way I would have done it.

There are reasons for the various sub-genre labels, even tho at times there may only be a handful of acts that fit the description, and I think it’s more useful to trace the evolution of the genre over time, rather than purely stylistically.

Were? Without a doubt NWOBHM and Hair metal were the 2 most popular types of metal. Thankfully, one is dead and the other is much improved and currently enjoying a revival, complete with awesome stadium tours.

As I said, NWOBHM bands are enjoying a resurgence in popularity, bolstered by (mostly excellent) new albums and touring. Judas Priest and Iron Maiden fans in particular have been banging their heads extra hard this past year.

Thrash has been having a resurgence since about 2006, when Slayer released their first new album in 5 years, Skeleton Christ. The album sold very well, the tour(s) did well, and interest in the genre saw new bands (Municipal Waste, Exile, Gama Bomb, Toxic Holocaust) and old (Exodus, Testament, Kreator) release excellent albums which sold well (and not just well for a thrash band, either).

A new sound is emerging from grindcore bands like Architects and Trigger The Bloodshed. This new sound combines a more metalcore sense of groove with the discipline and radical sweeping textural changes of math rock (like Converge, Meshuggah, Dillenger Escape Plan) and occassionally even throws in a brief contrasting passage of major chords and singing, as opposed to shouted or growled vocals. It’s very different, very technically accomplished stuff. I happen to think it’s amazing music, although I recognize that it’s very challenging music for most people to listen to.

This chart, taken from the excellent film Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey is very well done and can help you see who influenced whom, and when. Here’s Director Sam Dunn explaining the chart.

Yeah, there is.

Death metal is not necessarily fast, and features cookie monster vocals, usually mixed way down, so that the vocals are very indistinct. Sometimes even when you have the lyrics in front of you, it’s hard to follow along with the actual vocals. Lyrics are focused on, well, death (also pain, suffering, misery, etc.) Bolt Thrower’s World Eater is a great death metal song.

Thrash is always fast; that’s the point. Vocals range from shouted to growled, but rarely will a thrash band have cookie monster vocals. Lyrical content ranges from death to war to religion to drinking beer to fast cars to monster trucks. Humor is a vital part of thrash, ever since Anthrax and (especially) Stormtroopers Of Death unleashed their aural assault back in the early '80s.
Municipal Waste - The Art of Partying
Slayer - Skeleton Christ
Kreator - Destroy What Destroys You

And on a personal note, another genre I like a lot is metalcore. Bands like Throwdown and Hatebreed, with their focus on riffing and shouted mosh pit chant choruses are totally fun to listen to and their lyrics are generally about things like friendship, trust, staying focused on goals and staying true to one’s heart. Great headbanging fun!

Anyone else listening to either Blood Island Raiders (stoner doom metal) or Lair Of The Minotaur (doom metal) obsessively lately?


… I have nothing. I mean nothing to contribute here. Thanks for the Blood Island Raiders, Bo.

LotM is a lot of fun.

Blood Island Raiders was way better than I thought it would be. Thanks.

Also, everyone should keep in mid that bands can make huge changes. Consider this and the other.

The important bit is that Electric Wizard and Candlemass are more similar to each other than either is to (older) Metallica or Napalm Death, and vice versa. You might be able to get a better fit by breaking it down slightly further, but I don’t want to for reasons that I’ll explain in just a second.

What I’m really trying to do here is to approximate a clustering without having much quantitative data to back it up. In any sort of machine learning problem, if you’re given the choice between a simple model that fits the data reasonably well and a very complex model that fits it much better, the simple model is almost always the better choice if you want to make predictions about new data. That’s my issue with the traditional breakdown by genres and subgenres and sub-subgenres: almost every time a new band comes out that’s doing something slightly different from what’s already out there, you’re tempted to create a new genre, and before long you have a very complex model, and then you’re overfitting.

(I can’t find it now, but I did see a guy doing a real cluster analysis of metal genres based on what people over at listen to. I’d need to see it again to make any claims about it, but I don’t believe it was too far off from what I’ve described.)

Didn’t I already say this? I thought I did.

Thanks for explaining why you grouped things that way, I guess. /shrug

Kudos so far. Just spent an hour or so clicking through links and getting my learn on. (That Lair of the Minotaur video is hilarious, by the way. I couldn’t have enjoyed it more).

A few follow-ups:

One thing that’s always struck me with this genre in general is the sheer technical skill. Whether you like the music or not, most metal instrumentalists have serious, serious chops. My question then: are they any that don’t? The Sex Pistols, for example, were famous for their near lack of musicianship but are revered as a quintessential punk act. Is there an analogous metal band? Or is technicality basically a prerequisite?

Metal also, I think, is viewed as an almost wholly male genre. While I’m aware there are female fronted bands and female metalheads, is this a fair assessment? Going to metal shows in the late '90s, I was struck by the overwhelming dudeness of the clubs. Has this changed or are you still looking into the audience and seeing a vast majority of males?

That’s a fair point and I was definitely too forceful with “pointless.” It just seems that metal is especially prone to these highly specific subgenres—Wiki has a full 26 listed. As to why, I can only guess. It’s charming though, in a weird way.