Metal Subgenres 101
Metal, in all its forms, can be alienating due to its pronounced aggression. It’s a visceral music built on sheer intensity where the more extreme metal scenes pride themselves on inaccessibility. Metal’s origin is debated, some critics pointing to the heavy blues rock of Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple as the starting point, while others put the beginning a couple years later at Black Sabbath’s titan of a debut. Metal is most basically defined as music that pushed rock into something louder and more distorted.
Sub-subgenres of metal can be comically excessive. (ex: raw black metal, symphonic black metal, black n’ roll, ambient black metal, post-black metal, blackened death metal). For purposes of this introductory list, we will stick to metal’s main divisions.
The original metal sound is more resembling of 60s and 70s hard rock with its commitment to fast riffs, soaring solos, and double bass drumming. In contrast to later developments in metal, the vocals are still considerably clean and decipherable.
Thrash retaliates against the commercially viable, arena ready, and corny glam metal bands gaining popularity in the early to mid-80s. The thrashers took influence from hardcore punk bands, adopting their anti-establishment attitude and sociopolitical critiques. Thrash built on heavy metal, pumping it with more speed and brutality. Thrash is when the vocals started becoming less squeaky clean and decipherable.
Death metal took over where trash started, pushing the limits of how brutal this music could be. Death metal bands down tuned their guitars and played chromatic, atonal riffs. The gruesome vocals death growls mesh with complex blast beat drumming. Gore and violence is death metal’s driving force.
Without question the most extreme and insular metal community, black metal bands were intent on being as underground as possible. The corpse paint and axes were an attempt to instill fear into those looking from the outside in. Black metal is about atmosphere. Tremolo picking, treble heavy guitar tones, and shrieked vocals are its most prominent characteristics.
Instead of going for speed, doom metal subverted the trend by focusing on slow, crushing riffs. Going for something murkier and mournful, doom circles back to the original sound pioneered by Sabbath. Doom is all about despair, grief, and sorrow.
Sludge takes on the dense textures of doom and combines it with the abrasiveness and shouted vocals of hardcore. Stoner metal shares many similarities with sludge metal, hence why this is one category, but stoner metal focuses more the druggy haziness of acid rock. Both of these styles lean towards a more bass heavy aesthetic than the doom metal they find roots in.
Power metal offers an alternative to the brutality of death and black metal with a more melodic and optimistic sound. With its anthemic choruses and operatic singing, power metal recalls the first wave of heavy metal bands more than other subgenres sprouting around the time. Power metal takes on less dark lyrical topics, approaching themes based in fantasy and literature. Black metal bands ventured the dark, cold north. Power metal bands slayed dragons on their maiden voyages.