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September 3, 2012

Ask a Metalhead: Do Metal Sub-Genre’s Matter?

Ask a Metalhead, Metalheads 101, Tr00 Metal Life

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Dear Steff Metal

When it comes to metal subgenres how important are they? Do you see it as a black/white issue or is it more some shade of gray?

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Since I have just got back from a writers’ conference where a certain light-hearted romp through the world of BDSM was the topic of the day, this question immediately jumped out at me … for the wrong reasons. Nevertheless, I will try to answer it as best I can without reference to the forbidden book.

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Do metal sub-genres matter? That depends who you’re asking. For some metalheads, they matter a hell of a lot. I know bogans who won’t talk to each other because one of the thinks Manowar is power metal or someone called Xasthur Death Metal. For others, they’re a necessary part of life, but they’re not fussed one way or the other.

Sub-genres are a way of creating a language around the music, so that we can all understand and recognise each other. They create what anthropologists call “subcultural space” or “subcultural language” – words that are used within our subcultur that have meaning to us but not to anyone outside. An understanding of subcultural terms is one way you can tell a true metalhead from someone who hasn’t gone very in-depth with the music. If you start talking to a non-metalhead about melodic death metal verses technical death metal, have you ever noticed how their eyes glaze over and they shoot their mate on the other side of the room a “get me out of here” look? They don’t get it, because it’s not part of their communication.

Sub-genres are also marketing terms. Common sense says that if you like one band, you’re probably going to like other bands that sound similar. So giving all those bands a similar category and telling your customers that you sell bands under that category makes it very clear just what kind of music you’re offering. It makes it easier for labels and distros to describe what they sell and easier for you, as the consumer, to find music you like.

Sub-genres are also useful for music journalists and reviewers, up till a point. If we label a band with a sub-genre, metalheads who understand the subcultural terms will be able to form an idea in their head about what that music sounds like. However, writers have to be careful not to limit their descriptions to sub-genres alone. Part of our job is to get new people interested in metal, so we need to do that in ways that don’t assume prior knowledge of subcultural language. We also need to hone our skills for describing music in words, and the only way to do that is to step outside sub-genre boxes and find our own voice. It gets a bit convoluted when reviewers start in with: “technical Viking blackened death metal with progressive influences” – that means nothing to anyone outside the scene and very little to those of us inside it.

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Sub-genres do not necessarily mean that there is a specific “scene” around a certain style of music. A scene tends to be geographic, at least in it’s formation, and implies a closer-knit circle of bands and fans playing off combined creativity to create a distinct sound. Gothenburg and Hellenic Black Metal are two examples of sub-genres that are scenes. If you’ve picked up a copy of Black Metal: Beyond the Darkness (and at 40% off for steffmetal readers, I urge you to), you’ll find an interesting essay by Brendon Stosuy, called “A Blaze Across the North American Sky”, discussing USBM and whether it’s a cohesive “scene” as such, or whether it even has a distinct sound.

Some musicians and metalheads don’t like sub-genre labels. They feel they limit the band, as once you’re labelled with a sub-genre, you’re expected to remain within the sub-genre. However, even those that vocally oppose labels and genres tend to accept that they have their uses for marketing purposes, and will allow their labels and reviewers to use sub-genre labels unchecked.

And then you have musicians at the other end of the spectrum, those who are desperate to be the band behind the next big metal genre. After all, if a sub-genre suddenly becomes the next big thing, and you’re one of the founding bands … well, if you’re not seeing dollar signs yet, you’ll need to go back to the Gene Simmons Music Marketing University. This can result in bands making up their own sub-genre names – throwing them out into the world and hoping they stick. Unfortunately, all this usually manages to do is make them look like wankers.

The sub-genres can also turn off many new metalheads, who find the vast array of musical knowledge you need to possess in order to be considered “tr00” can be a real turn-off. “I like metal, but can’t stand metalheads,” is something I’ve heard a few times, stemming from one too many conversations where a newbie is chastised for giving a band the wrong genre classification. See 15 Most Hilariously Specific (and Often Terrible) Music Subgenres – for some great examples – a few metal sub-genres crept in.

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In short, I believe sub-genres are a useful way of classifying music within our scene, which is important to help us discern our own tastes and easily find the music we like. I think it’s important to realise that sub-genres are just that – classifications, and not some strict code of ethics that must be adhered to. Metal is all about breaking the rules, and that includes the rules we impose on ourselves.

Do you guys have anything to add? What do you think about sub-genres?

5 Comments on “Ask a Metalhead: Do Metal Sub-Genre’s Matter?

Corey
June 30, 2016 at 7:34 pm

Hey – love this article. I agree with the entire thing, and I was thinking about writing something similar pretty soon. Would you mind if I mentioned you or linked to this post in my blog?

steff
July 14, 2016 at 3:46 pm

@Corey – I don’t mind at all. Go ahead!

Joshua Russell
September 22, 2012 at 2:48 pm

There is a definate class system there. la dee da

bernad
September 21, 2012 at 9:56 am

I think sub-genres are important, coz for example I like death metal but I don’t like progressive death metal, so if in case I didn’t know opeth, and you recommend one of their albums to me, I won’t be very happy, and I’d consider it as a waste of money. Ofcaurse opeth a really talented band but simply their music is not my cup of coffee.

JypeK
September 3, 2012 at 5:15 pm

I agree with you. Sub-genres are an easy way for metalheads to talk about different styles of metal. It’s easiear to say “folk metal”, than it is to say “metal music with traditional instruments and lyrics” or something like that. Sub-genres are good if you have some sense in them. Sometimes people take it to far.
Also I’d like to say that there are many bands that don’t fall into just one genre. For example, I know some bands that can be described as thrash/deathmetal.

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