Last updated on 10 July 2020
Long gone are the times where we split everything up between Hard Rock and its younger sibling Heavy Metal. Being a metalhead really meant you went to a Heavy Metal concert. Straightforward bands like Iron Maiden, AC/DC, Krokus, Metallica played, and you knew them all.
Since then, people developed this inbred and somewhat insane need to give a new name to every friggin’ undercurrent of the metal universe. This annoying temptation to put everything into little boxes is called Divide Et Impera (divide and conquer). Or in other words: If you can’t convince them, confuse them.
Much ink has already been spilled to explain all this stuff in elaborate detail to folks – even books written. Forsooth!
So, I have given in to the temptation to go down the thorny route of Metal Silo Management. But I will try to be a bit more concise and not too wordy in the description below. After all, this is to provide a reference, but don’t quote me on that later.
#1 – Heavy Metal
This style emerged from Hard Rock (or simply Rock) way back in the late ’60s to early ’70s. Probably with Black Sabbath as the first to explore this cold and hard road.
However, the style back then does not much resemble today’s metal much. And only a few bands still long for the old and initial style. Heavy Metal originated from Blues Rock and the more psychedelic rock versions. At that time, it was a welcome change to the flowery pop-rock crowd (the ‘make love not war’ movement) that was so overpoweringly present.
Later Heavy Metal (and Hard Rock) somehow got onto the backburner with other flashy music directions taking over. I just grind my teeth thinking about that.
But by the early ’80s, there was a massive comeback and this continued to this day. It is amazing to see how Heavy Metal bands can still fill whole arenas without much effort in advertisement – oldsters included.
Or should I say, especially the oldsters?
Heavy Metal is at the source of many of the sub-genres advertised these days. You can even invent your own if that takes your fancy. Nothing holds you back. At the end of the day, all that you folks like to decorate yourself with is Heavy Metal, the Mother of Metal.
- Usually lead guitar, rhythm guitar, bass, drums
- Guitars distorted, heavy massive sound, relatively little to no use of keyboards.
- Guitar riffs are often employed.
- Very loud, somewhat repetitive drum work, usually pretty simple in pattern. This as opposed to – for example – Black Metal where we often see very complicated drum schemes.
- Usually high pitched vocals delivered in clear voice, lyrics are often difficult to understand.
- Heavy Metal tries to create an aggressive atmosphere overall in demeanor, songwriting and delivery, whereas never as menacing as some of the Black Metal sub-culture try to do.
#2 – Gothic Metal
One of the most interesting aspects of Gothic Metal is that it originates from Europe. Mainly from Northern Europe back in the ’90s. There seems to be lots of doom and gloom starting from The Netherlands northwards. It appears this also impacts other genres – like Black Metal. Interestingly, the Gothic Metal movement somehow syncs with Symphonic Metal or morphed into Symphonic Metal. Many bands with the Gothic label also prominently feature in the Symphonic area.
At the outset, Gothic Metal was an offshoot of sorts from Death and Doom Metal styles with origins in Gothic Rock, usually with a growler in the band.
Very soon this was abandoned by most bands and they shifted over into the Symphonic Metal arena with operatic/bombastic interludes.
Interestingly, no band can these days really be labeled Gothic Metal in the proper sense, whereas we could argue that the original Gothic-Rock-turned-Metal bands could be the ones.
In reality, many gigs wear the Gothic Metal decoration, ranging from Symphonic Metal over Cinematic Metal to Doom Metal. The genre is said to support the Goth subculture, which in itself is more mellow than that the harsh sounds of other Metal styles might suggest and – indeed – is shunned by many of them.
- Often female-fronted, whereas there is no hard rule to that.
- Some female-fronted bands have male growlers on their crew, whilst this is on the decline.
- One or several guitars, heavy use of keyboards, pretty elaborate drum work often using double drum beats.
- Softer and more melodic than your usual Heavy Metal. Often interspersed by airy passages and peppered with guitar riffs and solos.
- The music should project a dark atmosphere – whatever that may mean.
- Lyrics often deal with doom and gloom without displaying the characteristics of a Doom Metal band, but not the slow-motion playing the latter excel in.
#3 – Symphonic Metal
This metal subgenre is very difficult to dissect from Gothic Metal, as they often form one symbiotic existence. Symphonic Metal originated from the cold North of Europe as well but developing into a more symphonic style of the Gothic Metal music.
Some bands ‘specialize’ in a more cinematic approach, letting their music sound like some sort of movie without being one. Or a computer game, if that is their fancy. Others have moved to an operatic/bombastic style, and not always to their advantage.
- Usually female-fronted, often by classically trained vocalists.
- Sometimes they have a male growler in the band, but this has become more seldom.
- Bands with a male growler are often using the ‘Beauty and the Beast’ concept, creating some sort of dialogue between the beauty (the female vocalist) and the beast (the growler) exchanging lines of lyrics.
- Use of electric and acoustic guitars, abundant use of keyboards, sometimes archaic instruments.
- Pretty elaborate use of drum work, often using double drum beats to emphasize the tune.
- More or less heavy use of classical orchestras (or the synthesized equivalent of it). Some bands have taken to use full classical orchestras.
Typical bands on this blog are Epica (if nobody else is, they are for sure), Illuminata (they would argue that they are Cinematic Metal, but – hey – part of it probably is, others are clearly Symphonic Metal), Within Temptation, Nightwish, Stream of Passion, Diabulus in Musica.
#4 – Melodic Death Metal
The genre – often called Gothenburg or Swedish Death Metal – mixes traditional Heavy Metal with Death Metal characteristics, extraordinary guitar playing prowess with aggressive Death Metal lyrics.
Some bands employ a more doomish kind of metal. Whilst Death Metal itself originated mainly from the US, its slightly younger brother Melodic Death Metal found its origins – again – in Scandinavia.
This sub-genre of Death Metal is one of the most alluring of this very specific Metal universe. It features featuring apart from the more traditional Death Metal growls, very often clear voice passages.
- Usually male fronted. There are exceptions.
- Traditional growls are often replaced by screams to render the music more aggressive.
- Clear voice passages are often heard – much to the dismay of Death Metal purists, but what can you do.
- Often two lead guitars, distorted rhythm guitar, bass, occasional use of keyboards – more so in the more doomish Melodeath styles.
- On rare occasions, symphonic elements are added to the Melodic Death Metal productions.
- Heavy Metal style riffs are often used to great effect using a variety of complex techniques.
- Elaborate drum work, prominently featuring double-blast beats.
#5 – Doom Metal
This genre – by its name – tries to create an atmosphere of impending doom, desperation and despair, employing a slow, very heavy sound. Originating directly from Heavy Metal (and sometimes intricately interlinked), the genre traditionally often uses sequences like the triton, also called the Devil Tone.
Black Sabbath again seem to be at the outset of this style again (poor guys, they seem to be guilty of everything…). The very heavy sound sometimes gives you the impression of pounding you into the dust, often almost hypnotic in style.
- Often male-fronted. There are exceptions, Draconian being one of them.
- Vocals are mostly displayed in clear voice.
- Traditional Heavy Metal line up – distorted to heavily distorted guitars, rhythm guitar, bass
- Drum work very reminiscent of Heavy Metal.
- Relatively little use of keyboards and/or symphonic elements, whereas sometimes elements can be found.
- Guitar riffs are often employed and some stellar examples. The slow, pounding sound renders them especially alluring.
- Lyrics often deal with depression, despair, and doom (yeah, right..)
#6 – Progressive Metal
Whenever we have no clue what to call it, we call it Progressive! Right? Well, there is some truth in that. But this kind of opinion is a tad simplistic too.
Progressive Metal has been with us since the early 70’s or so. Just think Uriah Heep or Jethro Tull (ok, not metal for sure, but almost the archetype of progressive).
It is the kind of music in rock and metal that is probably the most difficult to play too. And there is a reason why specialists say that only seasoned musicians will be able to play this kind of tune to any degree of quality.
- Either female or male fronted, no specific rule or preference to that.
- Vocals usually in clear voice.
- Vocals and melodies are more melodious and varied than the rest of their metal brethren.
- Often a typical line-up is established – lead and rhythm guitars, bass, drums as a base. Then added to that are keyboards, sometimes extensively so and any type of acoustic instrument.
- Progressive Metal is usually not that heavy, very often very focused on a djent influenced stretches of music.
- Changes of tempi, styles and – to an extent – experimentation with the instruments, speed, and genres give this style a very special flavor.
- There is no specific style preference, but often a theme is used and this drives the lyrics.
#7 Black Metal
Yeah, you heard that one right. They crept up on me, the Satanists.
Some bands openly declare Satanism to be their goal, but others will more turn towards paganism as their credo. Others again constructed musical fantasy worlds based on the Black Metal style. This renders this genre one of the most interesting ones, even if many of the mainstream metal genres frown on them.
Be this as it will, the crunch they can bring to the table is often amazing. Putting the spiked fist division aside, there are Black Metal acts out there that will blow you away.
The style initially emerged in Europe back in the ’80s and really took off with a Scandinavian drive (no kidding…) in the ’90. Of course, casual listeners may not necessary like this, but some of that stuff is really technically advanced. But be careful when meeting them in a dark alley on your own anyway. You never know!
- High-pitch rasps for most acts, however clean singing has been observed too.
- Mostly male-fronted, yet there are exceptions, very good exceptions
- Use of tremolo picking for guitars.
- Often heavy drum double blasts. And a generally difficult and demanding drum work.
- Use of dissonance through a disrupted, unconventional song structure.
- A dark, menacing atmosphere is being projected onto the audience.
- Live performances with heavy corpse paint or in a disguise. Often nicknames are used for band members.
- Many bands either do not perform live, wishing to remain totally anonymous. Some of them see their performances as a black mass, not destined for the grand public. Or perform rituals outright.