Each week, CMN’s Kevin Ashley delves into the vast expanse of metal and electronic music, bringing recommendations, reviews, and news. Do not expect to find safe, chart-topping music here. Welcome to Headbanging on the Dance Floor.
This week, I’m going to cover one of the most contentious arguments in the metal scene. What makes a band metal, versus metal influenced? Even if you aren’t a metal fan, you might have heard arguments where people try and make their case whether bands like Avenged Sevenfold, Disturbed, Slipknot, and the like are metal or not. I admit that I am biased, as I generally follow the rules set forth by Metal-Archives, who accept bands into their encyclopedia of heaviness based on their “metalness”. For instance, they generally do not accept bands that fall under the hard rock, nu-metal, metalcore, deathcore, or hardcore genres unless they have at least one “consistently metal” release. That being said, bands like Trivium, Rings of Saturn, and As I Lay Dying are on there, so there is no blanket rejection of these genres. There are several facets that define this argument.
First, the social context. Metal, as a genre, was born out of a rejection of the music mainstream ideals, and the commercial sound of glam rock – also known as hair metal – during the 80’s. Bands like Black Sabbath and Judas Priest started off heavier and faster than anything before, while bands like Slayer pushed ahead with grim and evil imagery. However, many metal bands were not promoted by big labels at the time, limiting their visibility. As a consequence of this, the five “heavy” genres tertiary to metal, with the exception of hardcore, are generally what the public thinks “metal” is at first glance, because that is what they have been exposed to through radio, Youtube, and shelves at Best Buy. Metal purists think these bands co-opt the “heavy” sound and darker imagery of metal to look edgy, while comfortably inhabiting the mainstream and it’s values. This turns off many metal listeners, who see the bands as “try-hard” and “fake” in their musical intentions. That being said, there are many, many metal bands that do not use dark imagery, like Galneryus, Alestorm, Helloween, etc.
The people who like hard rock, nu-metal, etc push back against this, for a couple reasons. First, they identify with the metal scene and want to be included, but don’t really listen to any of the established (this does not exclude new bands) metal bands. Maybe it’s financial related, or they just don’t know where to look for underground bands. Another reason is an agreement with the aforementioned “public image” of metal, with screaming skinny guys or shouting muscled dudes. I appoint this second reason to ignorance. Does this image of Rhapsody of Fire classify as “metal” to the public?
Second, the musical context. To me personally, many of the “other” bands try too hard to sound “heavy” and “hard”. I think it’s the guitar tone and the “tough guy” attitude. Even within that, I feel there are bands where the “tough guy” attitude feels less authentic. Compare Disturbed’s “Stupify” with Vow of Hatred’s “Cut & Run”. I feel that “Cut and Run” has the real gritty, urban tough-guy attitude while “Stupify” feels too much like teenage angst.
Guitar riffs and drumming are both major aspects that affect the “heaviness” of a band. Some bands may be very heavy, yet not be classified as metal, or light and melodic yet be considered metal. A good example is Livet Som Insats’s “Tystnad” vs W. Angel’s Conquest’s “Frozen Sky”. The former is grindcore – an extreme genre of punk- and the latter power metal.
I hope this brief explanation clarifies why some people are for or against various bands being classified as metal, and the reasoning behind those viewpoints.
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