Music subgenres: the revenge (rock and hard classifications edition)

With Guitar Hero and Rock Band have so popular (I play both, don’t start militancy with me), it marks the first major exposure to the myriad rock and metal subgenres for a lot of us. I didn’t know the first thing about Metallica before Guitar Hero, and most of my Aerosmith knowledge was from that stupid Crazy/Cryin’ flap and Revolution X.

Anyway, this has once again raised the issue of who is hard rock and who is metal, to say nothing of alternative, or glam, or hair metal, or power metal, or, shudder, big beat. Seriously, there was an Amazon.com reviewer who was FUMING about The Crystal Method being labelled big beat. And don’t get me started on “emo”. Or Amazon.com started on “emo”. Or anyone else started on “emo”.

We’ve had a bunch of rock discussions here recently, so I think the time is right for this. For the purposes of this thread, I’d like to keep it focused mainly on the individual bands. A lot of what “really” constitutes particular subgenres is subjective, and we’ll probably never reach a consensus anyway.

All right, let’s just start with plain ‘ol “rock”, which I guess we can simply call mainstream and/or classic rock (pretty much the same thing now). You know these guys: Bruce Springsteen, Huey Lewis and the News, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Steppenwolf, John “John Cougar” Mellencamp, U2, Fleetwood Mac, The Rolling Stones, etc. Listenable, neither too sweet nor too bitter, and there’s usually a solo in there somewhere. No biggie. I place Kiss here as well (straight-down-the-pipe triple vanilla mainstream in every way besides the goofy makeup), along with Joan Jett (wearing tight clothes and occasionally flipping the bird in a random direction =/= “punk”).

Rock & roll - I’m aware this term simply means “barr nar nar nar baeer na narrrrr owww-woo” to a lot of people (presumably why the Hall of Fame is named after it), but to me, this is a distinctive sound. I’d apply this to most of Elvis Presley, Dire Straits, J.Geils Band, and early Aerosmith. And a lot of individual songs: Summertime Blues, Surfin’ USA, ’65 Love Affair, Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting (original Elton John version), etc.

Soft rock - Toto, Air Supply, Boston (for the most part)…basically, for when Michael Jackson isn’t glurgy enough.

Hard rock/mainstream-classic metal. A source of much debate, as you all know, and to the untrained ear there’s no distinction. It’s a subtle divide, but it’s there. The thing is that hard rock is just that, rock cranked up to up to…okay, not quite 11, but at least a solid 8. It can have the melodic elements, the piano and acoustic guitar and all, it’s just louder and more forceful than Fleetwood Mac. Mainstream metal is exactly the opposite; it’s hard edged, harsh, acerbic, completely lacking in melodic elements, but it’s not excessively loud or forceful or angry. The perfect example is Iron Man, an extremely bitter song that has simple, repetitive, slow-paced stanzas and an even-keeled vocal part. Van Halen, Guns ‘n Roses, later Aerosmith, Foghat, and Vanilla Ninja are hard rock; Black Sabbath, Dio, White Zombie, and (for the most part) Blue Oyster Cult are mainstream metal. I’d feel really weird calling Foghat metal or Black Sabbath rock.

Heavy metal, as I understand it, is the subgenre with all the stereotypes, especially “screaming” and (snork, chuckle, guffaw) “Satanism” (hee hee ha ha hee hee). I’m pretty sure this one has the most cussing as well. AC/DC, Motley Crue, Twisted Sister, W.A.S.P., Quiet Riot, Iron Maiden, etc.

Not much to say about pop metal. It’s pop. And it’s metal. Piece of cake. It first took off, of course, when Bon Jovi hit the scene. Jon Bon Jovi is the MC Hammer of metal: The first person who figured out how to make a largely misunderstood niche genre widely popular, and as a result made a killing off of it. Other examples include Warrant, Scorpions, Def Leppard, Europe, and White Lion (someone here said that Def Leppard wasn’t “sappy enough” to qualify as pop metal, but I think that’s splitting hairs). I’m aware of the terms “glam” and “hair metal” as well, but I consider these minor tweaks on pop metal rather than full-blown subgenres.

Traditional, pure, no-frills punk is easy to recognize by the fast pace and relentlessly political lyrics. It’s also tends to have the most unimpressive singers, mainly because getting the message across is more important than range or volume. Rapid tempo changes, sometimes within the same stanza, are also common. E.g. Bad Religion, Dead Kennedys, Pennywise. Pop punk has the same free spirit, just not as angry. The Ramones is the most obvious example; Anet (Anet:In The Groove :: Dragonforce:Guitar Hero) is another.

Alternative rock. Mmmm. Great stuff, man. Great stuff…ahem. Lost myself there for a bit. This, of course, began as a direct rebuke to all the sappy, gooey, syrupy, treacly pop factories of the 80’s (not to mention respectable mainstream rock bands that became sappy, gooey, syrupy, treacly pop factories). The result was some of the prettiest and most refreshing music I’ve ever heard. I swear by this subgenre. REM, Vertical Horizon, Gin Blossoms, Goo Goo Dolls, Matchbox 20, Third Eye Blind, Toad The Wet Sprocket, you know these guys. Some of them hit it big with mainstream America, so the distinction’s blurred somewhat.

Pop rock is both pop and rock, just like pop metal is both pop and metal. So it’s okay to call it both “rock” and “pop”, just so long as you realize there are other types of rock and pop. I don’t understand what’s so hard about this. Anyway, examples include The Bangles, Aly & AJ, Boston, Duran Duran, The Go-Gos, Don Henley, and Puffy Amiyumi.

Thrash seems to be one of those know-it-when-you-hear-it deals. From what I’ve heard, it’s fast, it’s forceful, and the vocals are somewhere between top-of-the-lungs and bowels-of-the-lungs, as Strong Bad so eloquently put it*. Motorhead definitely, Metallica for the most part, Pantera, from what little I’ve heard, yeah.

Nu-metal, the most recent metal subgenre (hence the name) is a pretty distinctive sound, and rapcore is just nu-metal with rap lyrics inserted (hence the name). Tends to be moodier than traditional or heavy metal. Hoobastank, Linkin Park, Crazy Town, etc.

Then there’s that lovely pair, big beat and digi-rock. Okay, big beat is simply rock set to techno. (Or the other way around. Not important, really.) Whereas digi-rock is…well, rock done electronically. It’s sounds like “electronica” but doesn’t have the techno elements…scratches, switching, fading, you know. Crystal Method is a well-known big beat outfit; Under The Influence by Citizen King is a perfect example. Some of Machinae Supremacy’s work (Machinae Supremacy:In The Groove :: Anet:In The Groove) qualifies as digi-rock. I think someone from Machine Supremacy said what they were going for was “video game music”, which is as good a descriptor as any. I’ve only heard one Buckethead song, Jordan, but that definitely qualifies as digi-rock too.

I’ve heard a lot of flack about how Green Day and Blink-182 “aren’t really punk”. I prefer the term “alternative punk”, which I think is perfectly legitimate. It makes the kind of statements punk does but has the more musical alternative sound. Social Distortion is another good example. I peg Five Iron Frenzy as “alternative ska” for similar reasons.

Now, a few wild cards. I have Midnight Oil as “folk punk” in my MP3 files. If there’s something better, I’d appreciate it. Dragonforce is supposedly “power metal”. I’ve never heard this term before Dragonforce hit it big; is this accurate? I get that Kansas is progressive rock, but is it because of the subject matter, or the “musicianship”, or the arrangements, maybe a little of everything? And is it okay to call Genesis “progressive pop”? Lenny Kravitz I put in something called “groove rock”. Evanescence, I don’t have a clue. There really needs to be a subgenre for this type of ethereal/alterna/power rock; there isn’t anything remotely “goth” about it. And Steve Winwood is all over the place…classic rock, dancepop, ska, synth, jazz, and who knows what else.

  • Sheesh, seems I can’t go four posts without a Homestar Runner reference these days. It’s become my personal The Simpsons.