Thursday, May 10, 2012

What's in a Name?

What makes a good metal band name? What makes a bad one? What does it matter?

Like it or not, a band's image matters. How they dress, how they interview, the album art they use, all of these are part of what is, in a sense, a marketing package. It's not quite so crass as pure marketing, in the same way that music is not precisely a "product" as much as it is "art," but at the core the two are hard to differentiate.

Perhaps the single most important element of that identity is the band's name. After all, you can't talk about a band without mentioning their name, and given the way that you find out about metal bands, their name is the first thing you'll know about them. Not their sound, their philosophy, or anything else, but their name. According to a recent poll on this site, at least 78% of you admit the name is important. Some of the rest of you are lying to yourselves. A full 11% will most likely avoid a band with a stupid name, unless you are thoroughly convinced of their excellence.

I admit this is probably not the ideal situation. U.S. Christmas is one of the stupidest band names I've ever heard, in any genre. Yet descriptions of them make it sound like they're right up my alley. Until very recently, when I had a chance to get a promo of the Bad Heart Bull reissue, I never listened. It turns out they're pretty awesome. The same goes for the Melvins, and I didn't give them a chance until Scion A/V released their free EP.

But Weekend Nachos . . . well, nothing could convince me to try them out. In another recent poll, they narrowly edged out Job for a Cowboy for the stupidest band name. Locrian's André Foisy informed me that I missed Kiss the Anus of a Black Cat for my poll, and I can't honestly decide which of these names I hate the most.

I admit that metal band names are pretty silly, on the whole. A while back, I poked fun at a lot of the naming conventions that are out there. But there's something beautiful about being able to tell what style a band plays just by knowing their name. A band named Autopsy couldn't possibly play anything but death metal. Year of No Light has to be a doom band. I know I can avoid any band with a name of five words or more, because they're metalcore.

So, yes, metal band names are pretty silly, and they are hopelessly cliched. But they're also awesome. That's really the key difference between the names Dew-Scented and Unearthly Trance. Venom was all about stuff they knew was over-the-top, but they made it cool. The entire genre of power metal lives and dies by it.

What Makes a Good Name?

In any genre, a good band name needs to meet certain criteria. It must be memorable. This can work in a lot of different ways, but it has to be unique. At this point, anything with "witch" in the name is probably out, because if you can't remember if you're looking for Black Witchery, Witchery, Witchslaughter, or Witchslayer, then you're going to have a hard time. People should also be able to draw associations with the name, so a bunch of gibberish is not good, but a made-up word is fine as long as it suggests a relationship to a real word (like Disma). It should be punchy as well, which usually means it's short (no more than four to five syllables), rolls off the tongue easily, and has some tension or excitement in it. Every word should add something. This is why Lightning Swords of Death is a good name, but And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead is awful (Trail of Dead would have been fine).

Secondly, the name has to be Google-able. If people can't spell your name, they can't find you. I spent a lot of time trying to find a band called Arunande, or Arononde, or Erinondae, until I finally figured out they were Eryn Non Dae. If your name is a common word like Switchblade, Cough, or Thou, no one can find you on the Internet, at least until you get as well-known as Down.

Those are the true essential elements of a good band name. But they only separate a bad name from a good one. A final element separates a really awesome name from a really awful name: The name should say something about your band's personality. This should be something that appeals to your likely audience. Weekend Nachos is a name that has nothing to do with grindcore. Jobs, though nice to have, aren't very metal. Cowboys are not a common metal theme. And I have no idea what kind of job is all that exciting for a cowboy (a cattle drive?).

The 10 Best Metal Band Names

Based on the above criteria, I've come up with a list of the 10 best metal band names. It's no coincidence that these are all well-known bands. The name plays a huge part in that. If you look at the really great but unsuccessful bands, there's a good chance they have a bad name.

10. At the Gates

Yes, it's three words, but it's only three syllables. It's easy to say, and suggests something extremely dramatic is about to happen.

9. Bloodbath

Alliteration aids the memorability of Bloodbath, and the name is also quite colorful.

8. Motörhead

It's got umlauts, which don't interfere with Google but tell everyone what it's all about. It sounds dirty, greasy, and powerful, and will burn fossil fuel. It has the added bonus of sounding British, and everyone in metal knows--hail England!

7. Metallica

The name Metallica is instantly recognizable. It leaves no doubt about the style of music they intended to play. It's incredibly memorable, and easy to spell, and to this day is one of the most searched-for names on the Internet.

6. Morbid Angel

The name Morbid Angel just sounds great, but it also evokes rich images of an angel who is either dead, murderous, a necrophiliac, or some combination, which is a strong contrast to the deep-seated archetype of the angel in our culture.

5. White Zombie

As suggested by the name Bloodbath, stark color is a strong aid to memory. Red, white, and black are the best (look at the commentary on movie names to find out that blue does not sell). A zombie also brings forth strong images.

4. Electric Wizard

Magic and electricity both suggest the topics Electric Wizard is really concerned with, but the name also creates an anachronistic image in the mind of a magic-user who depends on technology. It also creates a secondary association implying that the band is a figurative wizard (with music) who uses amplification to achieve its ends.

3. Iron Maiden

The name Iron Maiden, of course, comes from a torture device which may or may not have actually been used historically, but it is indeed a brutal idea. It also conjures another anachronism, by the strength associated with iron and frailty associated with maidens (at the time the word was in common use, women were certainly not seen as strong).

2. Napalm Death

Napalm instantly brings out images of fire and war, particularly a certain controversial war. Death, well, speaks for itself.

1. Black Sabbath

The ultimate metal band name comes from the original metal band. It has a stark color, it has an anachronistic image (evil with religion), it's short, and it's easy to say. There simply isn't a better band name.


  1. I'm surprised how you forgot about Lock Up, a great band but with funny name xD

  2. Lock Up is more of a hardcore band, aren't they? Anyway, I think that's a pretty decent name, although a little difficult Google-wise. I like the tension in that name, either a third person or an imperative but definitely present tense / imminent. It also sounds prison-related, so that's not too bad a theme for a hardcore band.

    1. Now that you said that, it makes sense...In fact, many hardcore and grind bands adopt similar names.

    2. Lock Up is what many drummers do to their elbows when they perform blast beats. I remember reading somewhere that that's where they got the name. I'm sure the other possible meanings crossed their minds.

  3. napalm death would probably be my number 2, but siege is my absolute favorite. this is how i described it before, talking about the power of names: It’s just an explosive monosyllabic burst that perfectly summarizes the mindset and power of the band. Just saying it invokes an impressive feat of linguistic legerdemain, with the seething sibilant of the S and the full stop affricative G. You’re practically forced to grit your teeth in rage as you say it.

    i'd say carcass would be another goodie, but being two syllables takes some of the punch away.

  4. Names like that were great before the Internet. But as late as two years ago, if you plugged "Death" into Amazon, you would get some punk band coming up first. Google-ability is important these days.

  5. The entire time I was reading this I kept wondering if you were going to mention Vomitory, since that's a band whose name I know has kept more than one listener away.

    On the other end of the spectrum, I've always loved the name Malevolent Creation. It's got more syllables than I typically accept, but I just think it sounds awesome.