Metalheads do like to label stuff. The proliferation of metal subgenres is nothing sort of staggering. According to the Encyclopedia Metallum – The Discordance (basically a big old database of metal based information mined from the Encyclopedia Metallum – thanks to Cosmo at Invisible Oranges for publicizing this fascinating site):
There are almost 5500 “genres” attributed in [Encyclopedia Metallum]. 5000+ of these have fewer than 10 bands each. Almost 4000 of them are assigned to exactly 1 band. But this chaos of descriptors is actually constructed of a fairly small set of significant terms, rearranged in more or less every possible permutation and assembly.
When describing music it’s essential to have a lexicon of descriptive terms to work with. Conveying the essence of a song, sound or style in words is not easy, so saying “X sounds like Y” is an essential mechanism. When certain styles repeat often enough we create classifications for them, usually described as genres. Most types of music have a pretty discrete set of genres supported by a range of other related terms to help qualify and further refine one’s description. So if we take an Indie band, for example Elbow, we could describe them as “British prog inflected melancholic indie rock”. This not a genre in itself – most people, on hearing the music would simply call it “Indie”, or “Alternative” or maybe just “Rock”, those words are just one person’s description. However, in the metal world, Tombs are not simply described as “blackened hardcore”, to metal fans the are Blackened Hardcore. It’s not enough to say that At the Gates are Death Metal, they are Melodic Death Metal. Melodic Death Metal may be a sub-genre of Death Metal, but they are not the same thing. Most other genres don’t suffer from this genre proliferation. We have shoegaze indie (and shoegaze metal lately!) and Happy Hardcore is a sub-genre of dance, old-school Hip-hop, Alt-Country, Prog Rock, but it usually stops at a single sub-strata rather than branching endlessly as sometimes happens in metal. So we have:
We see this to an extent in other genres, but it it somehow seldom manages to stick in the same way (eg. Big Beat, Nu-rave, and Acid Jazz were all pretty short lived. That said NWOAHM and Pirate Metal are unlikely to stand the test of time).
In metal, it gets more baffling still when you look at the lexical topography of the metal genre spectrum. At first glance it would appear to be broadly taxonomical – that is, there is a rigid hierarchy of genres and sub-genres, and any given band fits somewhere. We start at the top with Metal (itself a subset of Rock), and below we have the mainline sub-genres, eg. Thrash, Death, Black, Hardcore…hold on, isn’t Hardcore a sub-genre of Punk? But its influence on metal (not mention the influence of Punk in general on metal) is huge. So here we hit our first problem – Metal isn’t pure, it’s an amalgam, and strictly taxonomical structures will not easily apply. If we gloss over that we hit other issues. For example, Deathcore would probably considered a subgenre of Death Metal, whereas Mathcore is most definitely a subgenre of hardcore. So although the *cores are (somewhat dubiously) afforded a common heritage, they are taxonomically fragmented. Then we have the issue of genre bleedthrough – Alcest are both Black Metal and Shoegaze. Neurosis could variously be described as Post-hardcore, Sludge, Doom, Post-rock etc. etc. And what of Sludge? A sub-genre of Doom or Punk? And try even classifying Baroness, SYL, Cobalt, Om, Earth…
(Incidentally an attempt has been made to establish a taxonomy of musical genres in an attempt to make sense of the burgeoning availability of music in the digital era. Read about it here.)
The ‘structure’ is perhaps more ontological (in the more modern sense of the word), where genres are related to each other in a more semantic sense. So Symphonic Metal, a sub-genre of Power Metal, is like Symphonic Black Metal even though they’re from a pretty distinct lineage. Some genres are grouped geographically – Swedish Death metal was very much a style of its own, NWOBHM (and the various other perversions of that acronym that we’ve been subjected to since). NWOBHM could also be taken to denote a period in time and only bands from that period (late 70′s to early 80′s) could belong to this genre – bands practising this type of music these days would probably be described as Classic Metal. Death Metal derives (to a significant extent) from Thrash, but is not a subgenre of Thrash. Thrash in turn borrows from hardcore although it largely derives from NWOBHM and proto-BM.
Some genres are stylistically ridiculously broad – Folk Metal (which encompasses some pretty disparate regional influences), Post-Hardcore (this one pretty much defies any meaningful definition and probably doesn’t exist at all). On the other hand some descriptors and sub-strata are pretty definitive, and a genre of 1 (or very few) is a very real concept. The Black Metal fraternity are particularly proficient at this, being so pathologically tribal. So there’s really only a couple of Orthodox Black Metal bands, and post-BM and Depressive-BM are pretty sparse. I think this gives us a suggestion of what all this genre chaos is about – loyalty, belonging, pride.
The bewildering array of sub-genres is as constraining as it is helpful, and many bands balk at the being pigeon-holed, but still journalists, record labels, bands and fans alike create and perpetuate these labels. Metallers are often outsiders, and tend to cluster in cliques of similar minds. The different genres attract different types of metalheads, and the genre label acts like a badge, drawing people to it and each other – something more tangible to take pride in and remain loyal to. I also think metalheads are often shameless geeks – like stamp collectors they collect and group and organise, like train spotters they note sightings.
Interestingly, genre labels are often synonymous with feelings of quality. So labelling something Nu-Metal is generally derogatory, whereas calling something ‘Progressive’ is generally considered good (despite the link with the overtly indulgent and un-cool 70′s prog scene). These days the *cores are often seen as bad, mainly by the metal snoberatti and hardcore purists. Black Metal kvltists are notoriously defensive of their beloved genre to the extent of attempting to ‘unclassify’ bands that don’t suit their view of what the genre represents, despite clear lineage (Cradle of Filth, Dimmu Bogir). There’s actually a report in The Discordance that claims to quantify this (see it here).
Perhaps the most compelling reason for metal genre proliferation is simply the diversity of the metal genre. When both Steel Panther and Sunn O))) coexist under the metal banner which derives influence from Hip-hop, Folk, Classical, Dance and even Country some serious descriptors are needed just so we can get a feel for what stuff might suit our particular taste. The ‘metal’ genre itself comes with much baggage and preconceptions particularly with outsiders whom I find often have a narrow view of what that tag represents. Simply calling a band ‘metal’ does little convey what the bands represent (unless perhaps you’re talking about archetypes like Judas Priest or Iron Maiden) so a more specific definition would seem appropriate – shame they often mean nothing to anyone not pretty well acquainted with the genre!
It’s a fascinating subject, and you could probably write a whole book on the variations, nuances, idiocies and inconsistencies contained within the metal subgenre spectrum. At the end of the day, call it what you want – if it sounds good then stop talking about it and concentrate of listening to it!