Brief Description of Metal Genres, as they are used as a reviewing and classification tool.
This cannot be a comprehensive listing of all the genres ever named or postulated. Some genres are defined one way by some, another way by others. And the placement of bands within those genres is a subject of endless debate. So in this list I will stay as basic as possible, and only deal with the genres that are widely used and accepted by both labels and reviewers to classify metal. I will spend a little time on subgenres, but not a lot. I'm trying for a broad overview here, not a nitpick fest. I have broken down the vast field of metal into 9 main genres and 3 additional ones that are a bit harder to pin down but have enough distinct characteristics to warrant inclusion. The list:
Traditional: Often called "True Metal", sometimes "Classic" or just "Heavy Metal", this is the genre that was there before all the others. The proliferation of genres didn't begin until the first big metal wave began to crest in the mid 80's, and before that all metal bands were just "Heavy Metal". Hard and fast standards are hard to pin down here. Most Traditional Metal bands play music at least partially inspired by early pioneers like Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, and Manowar. There is a definite focus on two-guitar harmonies, aggressive riffs, and powerful clean vocals with a lot of emphasis on the upper ranges. Songs with "Barbarian" and "Metal" in the title are pretty much customary, and songs about Metal as a musical form and way of life are common. An exception is the pioneering band Manilla Road, who are the fathers of a subset of true metal including bands like Omen and Ironsword. These bands tend to use rawer production and riffage, as well as sometimes using gruffer vocals. These bands represent a small but respected subset of the Traditional Metal fold.
Another side note in Traditional Metal is the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal (NWOBHM) sound from the early 80s. This was a wave of new bands from England (Including Iron Maiden and Judas Priest, but also such bands as Def Leppard) that had an explosion of popularity from '79 to roughly 1983. There are still proponents of the NWOBHM sound, which can be hard to define, but is essentially a "rockier" variation on the early metal sound.
The lines between Traditional and Power Metal, as well as Traditional and Doom or Thrash can sometimes be blurry, and there are many bands that straddle two or more styles. Where exactly these bands fall is usually the decision of a given listener, or the bands themselves. If a band devotes one or more songs to how cool metal is, you can be pretty sure they consider themselves "True Metal".
Pioneers: Iron Maiden, Black Sabbath, Judas Priest, Manilla Road
Notable Bands: Manowar, Omen, Ironsword, Wizard, Pegazus, Twisted Tower Dire, The Lord Weird Slough Feg, Cage, Primal Fear, Steel Attack, Paragon, Skullview, Battleroar, Running Wild, Cauldron Born, Tarot, Hanker.
Thrash: Thrash really took off in the mid to late 80's, and once vast herds of thrash bands thundered across the landscape, but now they are a vanishing breed. Thrash was essentially invented by pioneering bands like Metallica, Megadeth, Slayer and Anthrax – the Big Four of the era. The popularity of the new style spawned numerous other bands, especially in San Francisco, which burgeoned with young acts like Forbidden, Dark Angel, Exodus and Testament. These were the bands that defined the sound and inspired countless imitators. Thrash relied on a fast, choppy riffing style and what was in those days the fastest machine-gun drumwork. Vocals were usually a rough sort of shout, though some bands (Forbidden, Heathen, Agent Steel) used melodic singers.
Thrash declined in popularity when Death Metal emerged in the late 80's and began to make it look a bit stodgy. Though there are still stalwarts of the genre (mostly in Europe), and some of the great bands of yesteryear are reforming and releasing new material, the style is nowhere near as popular as it once was. As a historical note "Speed Metal" was used as a term for Thrash back in the 80's, though now this term is mostly used to refer to faster forms of Power Metal.
Pioneers: Metallica, Slayer, Megadeth, Anthrax, Sodom.
Notable Bands: Forbidden, Testament, Destruction, Heathen, Forbidden, Agent Steel, Devastation, Dark Angel, Death Angel, Onslaught.
Power Metal: The history of Power Metal properly begins with the two Helloween albums "Keeper of the Seven Keys" parts 1 and 2. While Power Metal draws a lot of influence from traditional metal sources (Iron Maiden in particular), it has evolved over the decades into a distinct genre of its own. In fact Power Metal as a distinct entity, and as it is usually meant in the press nowadays, is very much a recent phenomenon.
Power Metal, in its usual form, consists of fast songs with an emphasis on melody, often accentuated with keyboards. Vocals are melodic and usually high-pitched, and the use of the double-bass drum kick is practically mandatory. As a style, Power Metal tends to use the guitar as a melodic, rather than a rhythm instrument, though there are exceptions. Lyrical themes are largely fantasy based and are often accused of being too ‘Happy'. The term ‘Flowercore' is sometimes used (jokingly or not) to refer to those bands deemed too cheerful.
Power Metal is almost entirely European, and all the biggest bands are from some part of the EU. Modern Power Metal owes a tremendous amount to innovators like Gamma Ray, HammerFall, Blind Guardian and Edguy. (HammerFall are seen as largely responsible for the modern popularity of the style, though they are much more a Traditional Metal band). Each country has their own regional variations on the basic Power Metal style, and as several of these scenes have become significant, and are used a lot in reviews, they are worth describing here briefly.
German: Teutonic Power Metal is usually heavier and less keyboard-driven than other varieties, and shares much more in common with Traditional Metal. Running Wild, Wizard and Steel Attack are examples of this sort of metal. There is obviously a lot of crossover with Traditional Metal here.
Italian: One of the most prolific schools. Italian Power Metal shares several characteristics in common: melodic, often classical or progressive-tinged songwriting, heavily fantastic lyrics, egregiously accented high-pitched vocals, and an addiction to speed, speed, speed. This scene exploded in the late 90s, and there are still a lot of these bands around. Notables include Rhapsody, Labyrinth and Domine.
Swedish: A sort of blend of the two. Swedish Power metal is generally ‘crunchier' and less speed-obsessed than Italian, but not so headbang-oriented as the Germans. Swedish metal often has a glossy, crisp sound to it. Proponents include Cryonic Temple, HammerFall, and earlier Lost Horizon.
There are of course bands devoted to Power Metal from many countries besides these, but these three styles are the predominant modes that Power Metal bands today follow. Of course many bands also mix in elements of other styles, hybridizing with Thrash, Death or Doom metal to produce new sounds. A use of keys or orchestral sampling to produce a symphonic effect is a notable trend since the advent of such successful bands as Rhapsody, Dark Moor, and Nightwish, and this shall be discussed further under "Symphonic Metal". As a further note, Power Metal bands that play extremely fast (DragonForce, Wizard, Cryonic Temple) are sometimes referred to as "Speed Metal", though the term had a much different meaning 15 to 20 years ago. (See "Thrash" above.)
Pioneers: Helloween, Gamma Ray, Blind Guardian
Notable Bands: White Skull, Dark Moor, Dragonforce, Angus, Kamelot, Lost Horizon, Angel Dust, Nocturnal Rites, Cryonic Temple, Nightwish, Human Fortress, Dragonland, Rhapsody, Athena, Domine, Rawhead Rexx.
Progressive Metal: Progressive Metal is properly a mix of the progressive art rock of the 70's such as Yes, Rush and King Crimson with the basic sound of melodic Traditional Metal to produce more musically challenging and intricate sounds. The founders and most influential bands in modern Prog Metal would have to be Queensryche and Fates Warning. Both these bands emerged in the early to mid 80s with a definite Traditional style, but distinguished themselves with advanced musicianship and a penchant for elaborate songwriting. Queensryche (or their marketing department) were the first to use the phrase "thinking man's metal" as a selling point, but in fact it was Fates Warning, with their obtuse and elaborate arrangements, that were the more progressive of the two. On their transitional album "Perfect Symmetry" they created a dry, very Rush-influenced sound that was still unmistakably a metal sound, and almost all modern Prog Metal is derived from it in some measure.
But no discussion of Prog can be complete without mention of Dream Theater – without doubt the most influential band in the genre. DT took the basic Fates Warning approach and added layers of keyboards as well as utterly opulent, over the top songwriting that placed a premium on complexity and showy musicianship. Modern Prog Metal was born. Now it is hard to find a Prog album that does not to some degree sound like Dream Theater's defining "Images and Words" album, and equally hard to find a reviewer who can avoid making comparisons. Now that Dream Theater have moved farther and farther away from a metal sound, other bands have moved in to fill the void. And we have bands like Spiral Architect and Power Of Omens who place an even greater emphasis on high-wire musicianship and incredibly technical songwriting. Like jazz and prog rock, Progressive Metal inspires its share of snobbery, and the mantle of "thinking man's metal" has sometimes been used dismissively on the rest of the metal scene. This is a genre that by its very pretensions invites animosity, and probably has as many fervent detractors as fans. Nevertheless it remains a vital and significant genre, not least of which by way of its influence on other genres, for where Prog and Power cross there are some very good bands to be found indeed.
Pioneers: Queensryche, Fates Warning, Dream Theater.
Notable Bands: Spiral Architect, Shadow Gallery, Power Of Omens, later Lost Horizon, Pagan's Mind, Dreamscape, Threshold, Ion Vein, Pain Of Salvation.
Death Metal: There are three albums that are largely responsible for the emergence of Death Metal from the morass of Thrash, all of them released between 1985 and 1987. In '85 Possessed released their "Seven Churches" album, which took influences from early Slayer and forged an even rawer, more violent sound. Slayer upped the ante the following year with "Reign In Blood", which despite its Thrash pedigree is inarguably a tremendously influential album on legions of Death Metal bands. But it was in 1987 that a genre took form, when Death released their legendary "Scream Bloody Gore" debut. The carnage began.
The late 80's and early 90's saw a burst of activity on the Death Metal front that would not be seen again until the Gothenburg wave of the late 90's. The US scene boomed, with the Florida sound predominating as bands like Deicide, Death, and Morbid Angel released landmark albums and kicked off a wave of Florida Death Metal the likes of which may never be seen again. Countless bands were formed in the wake of this vanguard, some of whom are still with us. From overseas the European scene weighed in with a flood of albums from Sweden. Entombed and Dismember led the charge here, with bands like Tiamat and Therion close behind. Most of these bands would later change their sound drastically, but their original recordings would remain to influence the next generation. Swedish Death took the fast, technical assault of US Death Metal and added a slash of melody and a slightly slower, heavier overall sound. This was largely the legacy of the legendary Sunlight Studios where Entombed produced their buzzsaw guitar sound that Death Metal bands are still imitating today. The scene was soon glutted, and a sort of "heavier and more guttural than you" ethic took over, producing some ridiculous albums as bands tried to out-heavy and out-blaspheme their contemporaries. In the spirit of Slayer and Possessed, most bands evinced a deep affection for satanic imagery and lyrics, a tendency cemented in place by the popularity of Deicide and the inimitable Morbid Angel.
The whole scene took a powder in the Grunge wave of the mid 90's, but as the decade closed a new wave of Death Metal bands once again took the fore in Sweden. A new crop of bands such as Dark Tranquility and In Flames injected a dose of old-school guitar harmonies into their Death Metal. The movement was soon known as "Melodic Death Metal", "Gothenburg Style", or derisively "Gothenburger". Soon Death Metal was a going concern again, and once again even as the original bands moved into different musical directions, new ones sprang up to carry on their original sounds. Even as this was going on in Europe, the Florida sound began to recover, though not necessarily in the hands of Florida bands. Nile proved that technical Death Metal still had legs, even as South American bands like Krisiun broke into a wider market with their own take on the old US Sound. Death remains a surprisingly adaptable and varied genre, going strong long after its Thrash progenitors have largely faded.
Pioneers: Possessed, Slayer, Death.
Notable Bands: Nile, Krisiun, Entombed, Dismember, In Flames, Runemagick, Paganizer, Arch Enemy, Amon Amarth, God Dethroned, Morbid Angel, Deicide, Vital Remains, The Chasm, Angel Corpse.
Black Metal: This is all Venom's fault. In 1982 they released their second album, entitled "Black Metal". No one would have called it a landmark release, but it was the seed of one of metal's most prolific genres. Modern Black Metal claims descent from Venom, Bathory, Celtic Frost, and to a lesser degree Mercyful Fate. The origin of the sound we now call Black Metal was born in 1987 with Mayhem's first release "The Deathcrush". The band took the raw, aggressive riffs of Celtic Frost and Venom, the shrieking vocals of Bathory, and the deeply satanic stance of all three to produce a new sound. By the early to mid 90s the sound became almost standardized, and now when we say Black Metal we mean a specific sound: fast tremolo riffing, blasting drums, and satanic lyrics delivered in a high-pitched shriek. There are endless variations, but that is the basic style.
Early on two basic schools of Black Metal emerged: the "Raw" style, which imitates the primitive instrumentation and raw production of early Black Metal. (Exemplars would be Dark Throne and Dark Funeral, plus legions of others.) And the "Melodic" school (sometimes called "Symphonic") which explored the use of keyboards and more melodic songwriting to create atmosphere. (Adherents would include Emperor and Dimmu Borgir.)
Black Metal exploded in popularity in the mid to late 90's, and while the tide has somewhat receded, the genre is still hugely popular. While Norway was the epicenter of the movement, now Black Metal scenes exist all over Europe, as well as healthy scenes in Japan, South America, and even Australia.
From the beginning, when Norwegian Black Metal musicians made international news by burning churches and murdering each other, the genre has been known for extreme beliefs, and in fact Black Metal is the only genre with a definite ethos as part of its image. True, Death is usually about violence and/or evil, and Doom is usually about something depressing, but Black Metal is expressly about evil and hatred, never anything else. There are variations, and some bands are more satanic than others, but the basic attitude is part of the genre, inseparable. As a genre, the scene is sometime preoccupied with the concepts of "True" and "Cult" status (usually spelled "tr00" and "kvlt.") To the uninitiated, these ideas may be puzzling, so an attempt to define these follows. The quality of "tr00"-ness is an elusive one, essentially defined as a band's dedication to the scene and the precepts of Black Metal. Bands that claim tr00 status are almost always found on the "Raw" side of the fence, and an avowed worship of Black metal originators such as Mayhem and Burzum is usual. A criminal record helps, especially if the crime is related to opposition of society or Christianity. A band that burns churches and assaults Christians is bidding for tr00 credit. (The story goes that Mayhem used to keep dead ravens in plastic bags, so they could always be surrounded by the smell of decay.) At its base the quest for tr00-ness is a desire to maintain artistic integrity, as part of the mystique of Black Metal has been from the beginning a disdain for commercial success and the trappings of the music industry, which brings us to the related concept of "kvlt". A band that is kvlt is essentially one that is not well-known. Popularity and success are regarded with suspicion by Black Metal scenesters, and a band that becomes too well-known and sells too many records is regarded as a sellout. This has led to the habit of underground bands releasing their recordings in limited numbers to prevent too many people from obtaining them. This seemingly counterproductive action is an attempt to remain kvlt. The success of many of the more "Melodic" bands, such as Dimmu Borgir and Cradle of Filth, has led to deep antipathies within the scene between their fans and those who espouse "tr00 kvlt Black Metal".
The look of Black Metal gets a lot of attention, and originally it was a move to make the scene more frightening to outsiders. Black Metallers wore leather and bulletbelts, spikes and knives and skulls everywhere, and they painted their faces to resemble corpses. Now the look has become cliché, with many bands more closely resembling members of Kiss than a dead person, it has become virtually mandatory, however, and few bands have discarded it. Nicknames are also a standard trapping.
Despite the inherent limitations of the style, Black Metal remains a vital and expanding genre that has proven especially fertile ground for cross-genre experimentation. Many bands have taken the Black Metal base and forged progressive, experimental sounds with it by mixing in everything from Folk music to Industrial sounds. And for every band that moves out of the raw style into new territory, seven more spring up to carry on the sounds of the original scene. Love it or hate it, Black Metal isn't going anywhere.
Pioneers: Mayhem, Dark Throne, Satyricon, Burzum, Emperor, Enslaved.
Notable Bands: Dark Funeral, Dimmu Borgir, Graveland, Immortal, Berserk, Nehemah, Moonblood, Feral Horde, Finnugor, Melechesh, Marduk, Absu, Enthroned.
Doom Metal: Doom Metal really comes from Black Sabbath's first three albums: the slow, evil riffs, the heavy groove and the bleak lyrics. But then a lot of metal is derived from Sabbath, so this particular facet of their sound just kind of lay around until St. Vitus and then Candlemass came along and did something with it. Candlemass are really the fathers of Doom Metal, and pretty much every Doom band today has either been inspired by them or compared to them at some point. The essence of Doom is slow, crushing riffs, long epic songs, and a general atmosphere of bleakness and despair. Doom bands sing about death, mourning, ruin and tragedy—sometimes all at once. Exact lyrical focus varies a bit, with some bands being more reality based, and some writing fantastical lyrics about ruined kingdoms and lost races.
There are now two real schools of doom. One is the traditional style with a melodic vocal approach that generally follows in the footsteps of Candlemass. Modern examples include While Heaven Wept, Solitude Aeturnus, and Doomsword. In the early 90's bands emerged that combined the musical approach of classical doom with a Death Metal vocal style. Paradise Lost and My Dying Bride were the pioneers of this style, which now has quite a tradition of its own. Runemagick and Morgion would be two bands of this school. You will sometimes hear mention of a subset called ‘Funeral Doom', which is championed by bands like Pantheist and Tyranny. Funeral Doom is essentially Doom with death vocals played even slower than is usual in Doom Metal: in other words, unbelievably frigging slow.
Pioneers: Black Sabbath, Candlemass, St. Vitus.
Notable Bands: Paradise Lost, My Dying Bride, Doomsword, Morgion, Solitude Aeturnus, While Heaven Wept, Pantheist.
Grindcore: The same one-upsmanship that led Thrash to evolve into Death Metal pushed Death bands into increasingly extreme territory in order to stand out from one another and establish that they were the meanest, scariest, gnarliest Death Metal band around. This led to Grindcore, which is essentially Death Metal played at a relentless hyperspeed pace with incredibly guttural vocals and a lyrical focus on blood and guts to almost the complete exclusion of anything else. Carcass were leaders in this general direction, though they were more musically varied than most Grind. The genre really took off with the advent of Cannibal Corpse and Napalm Death in the early 90s. Though it is musically even more limited than Black Metal, it remains a highly popular genre, with plenty of bands still trying to out-gross each other.
Pioneers: Carcass, Napalm Death, Cannibal Corpse.
Notable Bands: Exhumed, Genital Grinder, Aborted, Gorgasm.
Gothic Metal: Mostly what is referred to as Gothic Metal these days is not really very gothic at all. The early 90s were a booming time for Goth Rock bands, and inevitably some of this began to work into the metal scene. Paradise Lost probably started it when they released their album "Gothic" in 1991 which used soprano vocals mixed with the death growls. By the mid to late 90s bands like The Gathering and The 3rd And The Mortal were experimenting extensively with the style. Gothic Metal, as it is meant today, is usually a mixing of Death Metal riffing with moody keyboards and female vocals, sometimes mixed with aggressive growling from a male vocalist, sometimes not. (The combination has been called ‘Beauty and the Beast vocals') The genre is very loosely defined, and many bands that are essentially atmospheric rock or Power Metal with female singers are labeled Gothic.
Pioneers: Paradise Lost, Theater Of Tragedy, The 3rd And The Mortal.
Notable Bands: Trail Of Tears, After Forever, Tristania, Sirenia, The Gathering, Flowing Tears, Lacuna Coil, Rain Fell Within, Moonspell.
Subgenres: These last three genres are questionable. On the one hand they variously include bands of many different styles, and the criteria of the genres are nebulous. But these are designations frequently employed by fans, labels and reviewers when bands are being described. So I include them here, but with reservation.
Folk Metal: Essentially, any band that uses folk music in their songwriting is a Folk Metal band, but there is a wide array of bands under this rubric, and this makes classification difficult. There are Power Metal bands that make use of Folk elements, such as Tuatha De Danaan and Elvenking, Traditional bands that do the same like Tyr and Ensiferum, and more than a few Black Metal bands that do it as well – Falkenbach and Skyforger come to mind. Skyclad were undoubtedly the pioneers of this style, and one of the very few Folk Metal bands that does not cross over from some other genre—there are very, very few pure Folk Metal bands. There is a lot of crossover with Viking Metal, and the two are often found together, but not always. So if a band uses Folk influences they can be described as a Folk Metal band, but that is probably not all they are.
Notable Bands: Tuatha De Danaan, Elvenking, Tyr, Ensiferum, Skyforger, Falconer, Mithotyn, Finnugor, Slough Feg, Summoning.
Viking Metal: Not so much a musical style as a lyrical one, Viking Metal is metal about Vikings. Vikings are cool, and metal bands have been writing songs about them for a long time. The first Viking Metal song was probably Led Zeppelin's "Immigrant Song" (go read the lyrics if you don't believe me). But much of modern Viking Metal traces its roots to Bathory, and the seminal "Hammerheart" album. The mix of Black Metal styled music with Viking themes and lyrics has proved a potent and influential combination with lasting appeal. I am sure the fact that a lot of metal bands come from Scandinavia has something to do with this.
A lot of Viking Metal is Death or Black in basic style, as bands like Amon Amarth and Enslaved will attest. But there is also a significant contingent of more melodic bands that also use Viking imagery in their music, and so they also fall under the Viking Metal category, such bands include Tyr, Ensiferum, Skyforger and even Doomsword. Folkish influence is often a part of Viking Metal, but as Amon Amarth and Doomsword prove, this is not always true. Nevertheless Viking Metal remains a distinct enough genre to at least warrant mention.
Notable Bands: Amon Amarth, Tyr, Ensiferum, Doomsword, Unleashed, Enslaved.
Symphonic Metal: This is a problematic subset, as virtually no bands would be described as simply ‘symphonic' without some other label being attached as well. There are Symphonic Power Metal bands (Nightwish, Dark Moor, Kamelot), Symphonic Death Metal bands (Hollenthon, Eternal Tears of Sorrow), and Symphonic Black Metal bands (Dimmu Borgir, Emperor). But not really any that define themselves as that and nothing else. "Symphonic" remains an adjective, not really a genre in and of itself. The first band to use symphonic touches in their metal was undoubtedly Savatage, on their epochal "Gutter Ballet" album. They proved that orchestral music could combine with heavy metal to produce a powerful new sound. On later recordings they exploited this further and forged into new territory as a band. Later the Italian school of Power Metal picked up on this and bands like Rhapsody added epic symphonic stylings to their music. The late 90's saw the trend expanding with bands such as Nightwish and Dark Moor pushing the sound even farther. Even trend-whores Metallica got into the act with the much maligned but entertaining "S&M" which featured orchestrally enhanced versions of old band classics. As things stand now, more and more bands from all genres are adding an orchestral flourish to their sound, and it remains to be seen what will come of it.
Pioneers: Savatage, Rage.
Notable Bands: Nightwish, Edenbridge, Kamelot, Dark Moor, Rhapsody, Emperor, Dimmu Borgir, Hollenthon, Finnugor, While Heaven Wept, Rain Fell Within, Therion.
This is obviously not a be-all, end-all listing, but rather an attempt to make sense of the morass of genres now bandied about in metal for those who may be new to the scene, as well as providing a bit of history and perspective for those who might find it interesting. In case you are wondering, there is no listing for Industrial Metal, nor for Nu-Metal for a very good reason: both of those genres suck.
There will never be an end to the genre nitpicking and arguing about what band goes where, especially among Black Metallers. But this is meant as less of a definitive listing and more as a general guide. There are of course bands who do not fit any one existing category, or who cross so many they become unclassifiable, but that's the wonderful thing about metal. No genre of music contains so many diverse and distinct subsets, each with something to offer, and all with a sort of sibling rivalry between them; it's part of what makes metal fun. And if everything fit into some neat little plan, then we would know the scene was in serious trouble, as music only fits neatly in fanboy's imaginings, and it the wet dreams of record company salesmen.
Written by Sargon The Terrible, May 2004.