One feature Steff Metal has been sorely lacking is a column dedicated to metal newbies. I’ve been assuming everyone who stumbles upon this site has been a metalhead for hundreds of years already, and would find such a column boring. I was wrong.
Metalheads 101 is the ultimate course on how to become a metalhead. I shall be your lecturer, and after every class, there will be some homework, and a discussion. Throughout the year, I’ll be posting lessons on absolutely everything a beginning metalhead needs to know, from choosing your first collection of albums, to attending your first show, to walking, talking, looking and acting like a metalhead. I may or may not wear a schoolteacher’s outfit. I’ll keep a running list of all the courses on the Metalheads 101 tab on the navigation bar, and at the end of the course I will bundle everything together, correct all the spelling mistakes, and turn it into a book. I may also, along the way, give out some prizes to the best students.
Please, please, please understand that I am NOT the authority on being metal. A lot of you folk who regularly read this blog have been listening to metal for much longer than I have, or have a lot more knowledge then me. I expect there to be loads of debate, especially when we get stuck into discussing seminal metal albums. This is good. I like debate. Debate away. Just make it nice debate. If you come on here and swear at me and act like a pillock, I am going to delete your comments. If you don’t like it, phrase your arguments in a more intelligent way.
I would love it if you wanted to spread the word about Metalheads 101 to your metalhead or wannabe metalhead friends.
For our first lesson, I thought we’d delve into a deeply philosophical question: What IS metal?
A good question. With such an insane variety of sub-genres, it often seems as though there are no definitive characteristics that can pinpoint a piece of music as specifically metal. Also, a lot of beginner metalheads don’t understand the difference between real metal music and bands like Korn.
How do you tell if a band is “metal” or not?
Drums: You may think it odd that I’ve placed drums at the top of this list, but what many people don’t realize it that drums drive metal music. Yes, the guitar is what most people listen to, but the drums are truly (and yeah, I probably only say this because I’ve been brainwashed by my cantankerous drummer husband). Metal drumming is intricate, complicated and precise – it can take years to master the skill and endurance to play a full set of metal songs.
Firstly, practically all metal bands use double kick. Double kick is a drumkit uing two bass drums instead of the usual one. This allows the drummer to use both feet to power a fast, crushing wall of bass drum that sounds like a machine gun going off. It gives a song a dense, pummeling kind of sensation which makes you feel as though the music is rolling over you. Two feet equals twice as fast, and some of the best double bass drummers can exceed 250bpm. The double-sized kits also create a stunning visual and uniquely metal look on stage. Double-bass plays an integral part in most (not all, but most) metal music.
There are a few other specific drumming techniques used frequently in metal. Foremost among these is the blastbeat – repeated sixteenth-notes played super fast, alternating between the kick drum/snare and ride, hi hat or crash cymbal. You’ll hear the blast beat almost exclusively in extreme metal.
Metal drummers also love the cymbal choke, where the drummer strikes the cymbal then grabs it with their hand to mute it, to give a sudden clash of sound.
Guitars: when you fall in love with metal for the first time, usually you fall in love with the electric guitar. A stunning instrument that can be gentle and beautiful and raw, ferocious and brutal, the guitar in metal will always be a force of power. Metal songs usually comprise of two distinct guitar parts – the riff, and the solo. But are intrinsic to the sound of metal. the riff gives a song it’s catchy, headbanging quality, and the solo lifts you up and slams you down again.
Metal guitarists love the power chord – which is not a chord at all but some kind of wacky interval (yeah, not a musician here) – and the tritone. The tritone is the most metal sound in the world. It’s an interval spanning three whole tones – and was called the diabolus in Musica “Devil’s Music” by medieval monks, who banned it from singing. Of course, with a history like that, the tritone plays a prominent part in metal. Although much of early metal was founded in blues-based music, the most prominent musicians in metal trained extensively in classical music. Although metal is rooted in the popular music tradition, more extreme styles like black and death often reject the popular structure in favor of a more classical composition.
Bass: The bassist provides the low-end of the guitar sound, giving metal it’s characteristic “heaviness”. The bass often plays off the guitar, creating intricate melodies and counter-melodies.
Vocals: I tend to split metal vocals into two distinct categories: clean and harsh. You can argue over whether that’s the best distinction to make, but I think, at this level, it’s the simplest.
- Clean: Clean doesn’t necessarily mean pretty, but it means whoever’s singing vocals in a metal band probably knows a thing or two about singing. Clean vocals – be they male or female – tend to shine with operatic and melodic qualities, although styles like thrash often employ a clean “shouted” vocal line.
- Harsh: the death metal growl, the black metal rasp, the screams and shrieks of grindcore and Cradle of Filth all belong to the “harsh” family. Harsh vocals are deliberately performed to sound fierce, frightening, otherworldly, and chaotic. Often, the lyrics will be unintelligible, and this is deliberate, ensuring only the initiated “get it”. Harsh vocals tend to be the biggest off-putter for potential metal fans, which is fine by us, as it keeps most of these bands underground and free from mass media corruption.
What’s “nu metal”? Is it metal?
The short answer: no.
The long answer: not really. Nu metal bands like Korn and System of a Down borrow heavily from other musical styles like hip hop, rap, funk, dance music and punk rock and synthpop. Most bands classified as “no metal” I would class as “hard rock” or “metal-influenced funk/hip hop/dance music” or whatever. It’s not really a genre because there’s no common music style to unite them – you couldn’t call Linkin Park and Godsmack similar, really, now could you? It’s more a term used to describe the teenage nu-metal movement, which was a big part of my life growing up, trying to be a real metalhead in a sea of “Korn rulz!”. Nu metal seems to have run it’s course now, thank goodness.
The main reason metalheads don’t consider these bands metal (we can ENJOY them, just not call them metal) is that they lack the intense drumming and orchestration usually present in metal. There aren’t normally any guitar solos(what? metal without guitar solos? Yeah, not really metal) and the riffs are based on rhythm, not melody. It’s too watered down to be considered metal. The lyrical themes also tend to focus on personal issues without the larger-than-life escapism themes of metal – leading the genre to have a bit of a stigma against it. Nu metal bands often lead people to find real metal, so it’s alright by me.
So that’s the metal sound. On a philosophical level, I believe metal is all about power. It’s the most powerful music in the world. That power can be definied in many ways – many metal bands deal with the theme of power through anger, sex, aggression, violence, and hatred – all of which are extremely powerful emotions. But just as many bands tackle themes like loyalty, friendship, bravery, and standing up for what you believe in.
The larger-than-life, extreme-fantasy lyrics in metal – inspired largely from history, poetry and literature – give the genre that escapist quality that will always find a place with the young and disillusioned. Metal is derided by critics for being a bit banal and silly, and the music for being formulaic, not serious music for serious music fans. Listen to music recommended on this and other sites, and see if you agree.
This theme of power extends into the instrumentation itself – with musicians trying to be the fastest, loudest, highest, lowest and the best. The fact that metal is played through amplified guitars and drumkits twice the size they need to be is a testament to the love of power. The aesthetics of metal also incorporate these “power” themes, through the dramatic depictions of dragons, gory death scenes and war <> on album covers and t-shirts, to the band names and logos themselves: Iron Maiden, Black Sabbath, Manowar … evocative of dark and powerful forces, war, torture and pain.
Band members give themselves “grymm” stage names, create dark costumes and attempt to evoke feelings of awe, dread and horror. When a metal musician plays on stage, they inoke the power they sing about seeking. A metal show is the natural progression from shock-rock like Alice Cooper. It’s meant to be larger-than-life. CDH has an interesting theory about the corpsepaint of black metal musicians invoking the “Hunt”, a popular theme in pagan mythology.
These themes of power appeal to males in particular, hence a heavy bias on masculine themes, male musicans and males fans in metal.
And that, class, is what I believe metal is. Here endeth the lesson.
What, in your opinion, IS metal?
Which of the following bands are metal? Which are not? Discuss:
- Sun (((O
- Leaves Eyes
- System of a Down
- Avenged Sevenfold
- Blood Stain Child