Saturday, June 26, 2010

Defining Metal

Is AC/DC a metal band? Is Slipknot? What about Alice in Chains?

There has been no shortage of discussion over the topic of what heavy metal is, and what it isn't, and which band is or is not metal. Spurred in part by a lively discussion at Metallattorney, I will attempt to define metal music.

If scientists can argue over whether two animal populations are the same species, or whether Pluto should be a planet, then it should come as no surprise that an artistic endeavor will fail to have a comprehensive, objective classification system. But that's fine; some gray area is to be expected, and blurring the lines will often lead to evolution of the genre. Without evolution there is only stagnation and eventual demise.

I will propose two basic characteristics which define metal, and explore each of them in some detail, before taking on certain controversial topics within this ongoing argument.

The First Criterion

To explore the definition of metal, we must go to its roots. At some point, people decided the term "hard rock" was not adequate to describe certain new music. A few will argue Steppenwolf was the first heavy metal band, in 1968, being the first group to use the words "heavy metal" in a hard rock song. A few more will argue it was Deep Purple in 1968, or Led Zeppelin in 1969. But only a metal outsider would claim any of those is metal.

Black Sabbath Any metalhead with a lick of intelligence and an even rudimentary grasp on music history will tell you the genre was born in 1970 with Black Sabbath. The sound was born from a combination of blues and psychedelic rock. It had nothing at all to do with hard rock until shortly later, when Deep Purple began to incorporate Sabbath influence into their hard rock.

With two albums released in 1970, Black Sabbath created something different. This new thing was heavy metal, a genre named from the lyrics of a hard rock song.

The next band which is universally identified as a metal band is Judas Priest. They had the same producer as Black Sabbath (Rodger Bain), who also produced the mostly-forgotten Budgie, which is in fact the second metal band (releasing their debut in 1971).

Other styles of music were exploring similar territory during this period. Of course, there was already hard rock, but punk sprang up in the mid-1970's. Neither of these is metal (though the boundaries can be crossed). On the other hand, hard rock of any period seemingly has more in common with these early metal bands than, say, the death metal of Nile. So, why is Nile metal, when it has so little in common with Sabbath, while ZZ Top is not metal, when it has much more in common (superficially) with Sabbath?

This brings us to our first criterion: To be metal, it must have historical ties to the sound of Black Sabbath.

In other words, it must be able to trace its lineage to the original metal band. For example, death metal grew out of thrash metal, which in turn grew out of speed metal and punk, and speed metal in turn grew out of the early heavy metal sound. A while ago, I made this chart to demonstrate the stylistic origins of various heavy metal genres:

As you can see, no variety of metal sprang up on its own. If it springs up independently, it's not metal.

The Second Criterion

Having a historical tie to the origins of metal is only a threshold issue. Some things with origins in metal are not, such as crust punk or dark ambient.

Why aren't these things metal? This brings us to our second criterion: To be metal, it must sound like metal.

Unfortunately, I can't give you a bright line test to determine whether something sounds like metal. This is one of those fuzzy balancing tests we lawyers are somewhat infamous for. You could just rely on your gut to tell you the answer, but I'll lay out some factors to consider. No one of them is necessarily controlling, and it's not a matter of how many of the factors it meets, but to what extent it meets each factor. And I don't assert that I've laid out every possible one.

1. Metal has that fuzzy, distorted sound, most often achieved by using gain on guitar amps.
2. Metal is heavy, requiring a certain amount of bass and relying extensively on minor chords rather than major chords. (This is the most obvious distinction between metal and punk.)
3. Metal is musical, using both rhythm (usually emphatic) and melody (often using power chords, but simply meaning that it can't be the same note/chord repeated ad infinitum). (This distinguishes it from certain varieties of noise music.)
4. Metal is usually riff-based.
5. A metal band is usually comprised of a vocalist, bassist, drummer, and one or two guitarists.
6. Instrumental proficiency is important, and is often demonstrated by extended solos (particularly on guitar).
7. Metal vocals are generally characterized by overt emotion.
8. Metal deals with the darker side of human experience (without necessarily promoting the negative, but addressing it), such as anger, violence, madness, death, depression, and the occult. This is often reflected both lyrically and in the mood of the music.
9. Metal lyrics generally do not overtly address personal topics, instead dealing with such topics as fantasy, mythology, religion, philosophy, history, horror, and epic stories, or may be abstract or nonsensical. They only rarely deal with politics, and sex is a subject addressed rarely.
10. Metal is an outsider genre; it does not intentionally cater to a wider audience. This is not to say that having major label backing or achieving widespread success necessarily disqualifies a band as metal, but instead the focus should be on whether the band intentionally crafts their music to appeal to a wider audience.

I tend to take an expansive view of what qualifies as metal. Some would insist true metal has to meet all 10 factors perfectly, disqualifying such genres as post-metal (due to lessened focus on riffs) and folk metal (because of the added instrumentation and folk-based writing). Some people would even go so far as to say Black Sabbath is not metal because it doesn't meet their own personal definition; such a point of view ignores the history of metal and is, in any case, a lunatic fringe opinion.

Controversial Examples

People with only a passing interest in the genre are probably shocked by the assertion sex is an uncommon topic for metal lyrics. The Wikipedia article states, "Deriving from the genre's roots in blues music, sex is another important topic—a thread running from Led Zeppelin's suggestive lyrics to the more explicit references of glam and nu metal bands." Any metalhead clearly sees the problem with this statement: All of those are on the fringes of metal, and are not considered metal by many fans of the genre. The emphasis on sex (which is a symptom of employing more personal lyrics and, in some cases, catering to a wider audience) is only one of the reasons.

Glam Metal Noize 1983-1990Glam metal is a perfect example of a genre which may or may not be metal, and no definitive answer can be given. It meets the first seven factors above, but not the last three. Nu metal is another such example, because of the lyrical content, a perceived intent to cater to a wider audience, and because it has lesser emphasis on instrumental proficiency (notably, solos are usually dropped altogether). Nu metal is also derided for incorporating excessive influence from hip hop and rap.

It's hard to tell whether glam metal roots are really in metal, or in hard rock, though they do seem to borrow a lot from Judas Priest. On balance, I think glam metal is in fact metal, but just barely. Given specific examples, such as Mötley Crüe, Twisted Sister, or Warrant, I may come down on one side of the fence or the other on different days. Given that these groups only meet 7 factors at all, it comes down to the question of factor 2, how heavy it is, as these groups aren't particularly heavy. They often fall into the hard rock category.

Nu metal is also metal. It grew out of metal origins and other influences (like many other subgenres). It doesn't seem to appeal to the core fans of hip hop or rap, and people in my generation (myself included) often became fans of the genre due in part to early exposure to nu metal. In contrast, I've never heard anyone say they got into rap because they listened to Korn.

Highway to Hell (Dlx) AC/DC is almost always cited as a metal band by non-metalheads. Most metalheads, on the other hand, do not count them among the metal pantheon. They aren't very heavy, and though they do have solos their music is very simplistic. In my opinion, they straddle the line between metal and hard rock. In that sense, I'm not really answering the question. The same would go for Godsmack.

Alice in Chains is another troubling band to classify. They came out of the same Seattle music scene as grunge, which has its roots in punk and hard rock. But metal fans tend to claim them as metal, with several groups (such as Opeth) having covered them. They are much heavier than the typical grunge bands, and much darker, so I think on balance they end up in the metal camp.

Slipknot is a highly controversial topic among metal circles. Many claim they are not metal, though I've never heard a cogent argument to support that statement. It basically boils down to, "They have metal parts, but it's not really metal." There's never an explanation for what, exactly, is not metal. They have their roots in metal, and meet every metal sound factor I laid out above, with the exception that they also have a few extra band members. The extra percussionists seem to make it even more metal-like, though the DJ and sampler tend to bring in some non-metal sounds (but that's no different from an industrial metal band). They do have some nu metal influence, mostly on their debut, but the extreme metal far outweighs the nu.

Finally, I posit that Apocalyptica is, in fact, a metal band. They clearly trace their style to the origins of metal. They use cellos instead of guitar and bass; nonetheless, they achieve that fuzzy, distorted sound, and the heaviness, and otherwise meet the other factors for sounding like metal. Many people probably will not agree, but I think they're metal.


I believe I have laid down the most comprehensive definition of metal that can be given. It requires two things: 1, it has its roots in the Black Sabbath tradition, and 2, it sounds like metal. Any more restrictive definition would not adequately describe the genre, and any looser definition would include much non-metal. I've also shown how to analyze whether a particular genre or band is metal by using a few concrete examples.

I'll close with some Dream Evil lyrics:
Some twenty years ago, the gods put down their feet,
So firmly into the ground that no man of sword nor pen,
could ever change the rules upon which
The very fundament of metal was made.

Read all about it, in the book of heavy metal
Read all about it, in the manual
Read all about it, in the book of heavy metal
Read all about it


  1. Good post.

    I am obviously a bit more exclusive when it comes to categorizing metal, as we have discussed. I don't believe that all hair bands are metal as many are just too poppy or too close to rock. Some certainly are metal, but definitely not all. I think the easiest example is Bon Jovi for a band that is very clearly not a metal band.

    As for nu-metal, I view this genre as a fusion genre and not one falling under the metal genre. I also view it as more of a catch-all term that was used to describe many rock acts of the late 1990's/early 2000's as bands like Godsmack, System of a Down, Korn, Mudvayne, Slipknot, and the like bore only a little sonic resemblance to each other.

    My issue with nu-metal is mostly due to a lack of real metal riffs, simple melodic structures, and the use of the guitar as more of rhythmic, rather than melodic instrument. I feel that it is more of a growth out of hardcore or alternative rock rather than metal. There are some metal influences certainly, but not enough for me to classify the genre as metal.

    Slipknot, as I have mentioned before, certainly have some metal influence, but I don't believe it is the primary part of their sound. I think they are fairly evenly influenced by a variety of genres including hard rock, metal, industrial rock, hardcore, and perhaps some hip hop. I view the self-titled release and Iowa to be primarily nu-metal releases, the Vol. 3 album to be more of a hard rock/postgrunge album, and the most recent album to be at least bordering closer on metal, but I have not heard it all the way through at this point.

    Obviously, what are metal bands and what are not is not agreed upon by everyone. You did an admirable job at defining metal though. Great post.

  2. Thanks. The next step is to distinguish between true and false metal (and if it's false, then how important is that fact), so I'll be working on that one soon.