The Art of Heavy Metal Music — A Fandom in Four Parts
aka “I had no idea there was so much more to metal than horns and headbanging!”
Music is a pretty universal thing. Just about everyone enjoys music, and most people have a favourite style or two. Pop, Rock, and Country tend to be pretty common as people’s #1 choice.
Then there are less popular but still prominent subgenres, such as metal.
Now, depending on when you were born, your definition of what “counts” as heavy or metal can vary wildly. Lots of people like to argue about what counts and what doesn’t, but you can do that on your own time (I’m talking to you metal elitists who might read this). That’s not the point here.
I first got into music originally around 1996/1997 and have joked that to me, that’s basically the cut off point for music I tended to be able to enjoy easily. Anything recorded in ‘95 or since. Anything before that was generally either too slow tempo wise or the production was too rough (even if it was high quality for the time).
I kind of missed out on the grunge trend, and I always felt Nirvana was overrated anyway. My entry into music (and beginning to develop my own tastes) was alternative rock and hard rock, bands like Finger Eleven, I Mother Earth, Our Lady Peace (the late 90s Canadian Alt-Rock Trifecta).
The funny thing is, when I heard actual honest-to-goodness heavy metal for the first time, I didn’t like it. Mainly because of the vocals, which is the same reason I suspect most non-fans don’t like it.
I think one of the first truly “modern metal” albums I ever listened to in it’s entirety was System of a Down’s “Toxicity”. I remember hearing a leaked copy and being really turned off, both by how intense it was, and by the vocals. But eventually I converted and even graduated into next level metal bands like Nevermore and Opeth.
Even as a metal fan, I’m not typical. I don’t enjoy every genre and thus I don’t enjoy many of the most “popular” metal bands (such as Slayer, Sabbath, Metallica, Iron Maiden). I respect them, but I don’t really listen to them.
I found my niche in an under-serviced pocket between Progressive Metal and Doom Metal.
The goal of this article is two-fold:
(1) to profess and explain why I like and appreciate this form of art via what I like about it
(2) to hopefully make you at least a little bit more of a fan than you already were (assuming you weren’t already), or at least to bring you to a new level of appreciate of it for yourself.
The article breaks down as follows:
Part 1: The Sound Style(s)
Part 2: The Visual Style(s)
Part 3: The Culture (including covers and parodies)
Part 4: Recommendations
Part 1: The Sound
So if you’re not familiar with metal, I’m going to have to define some terms. I’m mainly going to be focusing on a couple of styles (my favourites) but it might help the uninitiated to see a more comprehensive map:
“Progressive” metal is fairly straight forward, though “progressive metal” can range quite a bit from being more flashy and opera-esque (“Power Metal”) to being extremely technical and precise (“Technical Death Metal”). I suppose I fall around the middle of that scale in what I like. Either way, progressive metal tends to have a higher tempo.
The other one I like is a subset of Doom/Stoner Metal known as “Post Metal”. These styles tend to be slower, sonically lower, and grungier in production as well (at the extreme you get “Sludge Metal”).
Here’s an example of modern Post Metal, from the band Pelican:
Despite liking metal (which most people associate with dissonant, chaotic noise), melody is really important to me. I like melody, and I really like melodic heaviness. What do I mean by that?
For example, Chevelle is a band I highly regard for achieving this balance (particularly on their first few albums). They downtune their instruments a few steps lower (despite lead vocalist Pete Loeffler’s higher pitched singing), which is not uncommon for modern metal bands (either downtuning or using 7 or 8 string guitars).
They also use what I’ve learned is called a “scoop” EQ, meaning bass and treble kept in and mids “scooped out”. This makes it really punchy and clear (to my ears at least), compared to a lot of typical production which to me feels weakened by mid range muddiness. With Chevelle, the guitars snarl and you can feel the palm mutes.
Here is an example with everything — guitar snarl, deep bass, melody, and heaviness:
Some purists think it’s wrong to down-tune. There’s a refrain of “if you can’t be heavy in standard tuning, then you suck at being heavy”, but I don’t agree.
For one thing, singers all have different ranges and some singers can sing better in keys like A or B. So tuning down to one of these makes sense, and if you like heavy music too, it’s just a bonus. You’re certainly not going to tune UP. Of course some bands do down-tune just to be heavier without needing it for their singer, but that’s not every band.
I’ll talk about some more examples of melodic heaviness, but first here’s some additional background.
There’s this subgenre called “Djent” (the D is silent, hard J). It kind of started as a random made up label that stuck. But those who like it and follow the Progressive Metal world will know what you’re talking about. For a bit of a history lesson: “How Meshuggah invented Djent, and Periphery perfected it”.
Djent is right up my alley. Technical, but not overly noodley/weedily, heavy but still melodic, and with clean, tight, punchy production. Often played on 7 or 8 string guitars, so good low end too.
If you want to get an idea of the sound, here’s one of my favourites:
Let’s look at one more example, perhaps the epitome. Meshuggah, a band who have changed their style over time from more muddy Thrash Metal roots to their current heavy Djent sound that often slows down to hit you extra hard.
Pay attention to the first 2 minutes particularly:
Admittedly I am not a big fan of the vocals with Meshuggah. I can only imagine what they’d sound like with good clean singing.
Speaking of which, much like there is a contingent of diehard “Djent” fans, there is also a diehard contingent of “harsh vox” fans, and there is even a website (called “No Clean Singing”) for these fans. You won’t find me on that site, but I want to acknowledge it exists, you know, for the purists.
Part 2: The Style(s)
What do you think when you think of a “metalhead”?
My relationship to music has changed over the years. When I was younger, I was definitely listening to music much more than I do now. I even spent the better part of a decade creating my own, then tailed off.
I used to have long hair (both because that was the style, but also because I liked the look).
I liked how it sounded, but I also liked how a few bands really dug into the visual aspect of the idea. Probably my favourite in that regard was Mudvayne:
Mudvayne, Mushroomhead, and Slipknot were all bands similarly known for a highly visual style, that they changed somewhat from album to album. I loved the look of Mudvayne’s leader singer (Chad Grey) the most, because at the time blue was my favourite colour, and I was fascinated by his long blue goatee.
Some more artists/musicians whose visual style caught my attention (you might notice a trend):
Metal has gone through several phases, and metal has intermingled with pretty much every other main genre too, leading to some interesting visuals. Some metal albums look very obviously like metal albums, but some don’t.
Here’s a collection of metal album covers that I don’t think necessarily scream “this is a heavy record”:
Whether it’s Pop Metal, Country (Southern) Metal, Industrial Metal, Rap Metal, Punk Metal (hardcore) or some other strange hybrid, there’s always something to look at with extreme music bands. Often both in their actual appearance, and in their album artwork or stage designs.
Part 3: The Culture
It’s a universal truth, everyone is a little different and something about them will surprise you. All different kinds of people come and create the art they feel inside regardless of how they look on the outside.
Metal isn’t just about how it sounds — that’s obviously a draw — but there’s a lot more to it.
The documentary “Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey” covers this aspect, trying to explain why metal heads love their muse (and was followed up by “Global Metal”, which asked metal fans around the globe the same question).
[for lots more documentaries about various shades and stripes of heavy metal, go here]
Of course, ask 10 metal heads why they like metal/what they like about it and you might get some similar answers, but probably several different ones.
This article is my attempt to answer the question for myself somewhat — why do I like metal? Even though I very minimally participate in the culture, I do appreciate certain aspects of it.
People have been surprised to learn that I like metal because I’m a fairly quiet, non-aggressive person, I don’t even swear all that much. But of course, volume, aggression, and swearing are not prerequisites to be a fan of anything.
Here’s another accurate take on the matter:
“I love metal heads, when I mention metal people go crazy because you have to give it up. You never see someone with their shirt off screaming “R&B!” Metal heads are different from any other fan of music. We have like our own symbol that means metal. You just do that to another metal head and they’re like ‘Indeed.’”
Metal Parodies, Mash Ups, and Covers
Speaking of Brian Posehn, he has a song (co-written by Scott Ian of Anthrax) called “Metal By Numbers” which is a tongue-in-cheek criticism of a string of bands that got popular by writing “cookie cutter metal”.
Here’s an example of metal parodying itself, via a music video by Lacuna Coil:
Remember Mushroomhead from before? Well the band Broken Social Scene decided to poke fun at them in this music video:
There are lots of subgenres of metal, some are kind of ridiculous. Here’s a quick humorous breakdown of styles:
Here’s an extremely tongue-in-cheek demonstration of different metal vocal styles (some are not real):
Did you know there’s a cartoon about a fictional metal band?
If not, meet Metalocalypse: Dethklok — a cartoon that is firmly tongue-in-cheek about a lot of metal stereotypes and tropes.
Speaking of fictional bands (sort of) there’s a Finnish children’s metal band made up of people in Dinosaur outfits. Yes, really.
They’re called — wait for it — Hevisaurus.
Speaking of puppets, famed metaller Devin “Hevy Devy” Townsend created not only a character (Ziltoid the Omniscient), but also a rock opera around that character. Like I said, some metal heads totally get how silly it is and yuck it up.
Aside from when metal musicians choose to cross genres, some keen fans have taken it upon themselves to do it another way — by creating mashups.
One of the best is “Psychosocial Baby”, a mashup between Slipknot and… Justin Bieber. You might be surprised how well it works, especially the chorus!
This one is eerily creepy (and good). Two artists you would definitely never expect to hear anywhere within the vicinity of each other — Meshuggah and Lady Gaga with “Bleedarazzi”.
There’s a band from Sweden called Hellsongs. They’re an indie-pop band and they do nothing but indie-pop covers of classic (and some more modern) metal songs. I’ve never been very big on indie pop, but I have to say I really like what they do.
My personal top 5 Hellsongs songs are:
1. Walk (Pantera)
2. Heaven Can Wait (Iron Maiden)
3. The Evil That Men Do (Iron Maiden)
4. Paranoid (Black Sabbath)
5. Jump (Van Halen)
Their cover of Black Sabbath’s Paranoid never fails to take my breath away in a hauntingly somber way.
Speaking of covers, there’s plenty of those, both by metal bands, and *of* metal songs by non-metal bands. Here are some you can find on youtube to check out, but of course there are many, many more.
Metal covers of non-metal songs
Botch — Rock Lobster (B-52s cover)
Disturbed — Shout 2000 (Tears for Fears cover)
Fear Factory — Cars (Gary Numan cover)
Graveworm — Losing My Religion (REM cover)
Gwar — West End Girls (Pet Shop Boys cover)
Kittie — Run Like Hell (Pink Floyd cover)
Marliyn Manson — Sweet Dreams (Eurythmics cover)
Nevermore — The Sound of Silence (Simon and Garfunkel cover)
Seether — Careless Whisper (George Michaels/WHAM cover)
Slayer — Inna Godda Davida (Iron Butterfly cover)
Van Canto — The Final Countdown (Europe cover)
Non-metal covers of metal songs
Andy Rehfeldt — In Your Words (Lamb of God cover — jazz version)
The Cardigans — Iron Man (Black Sabbath cover)
Emma’s Imagination — Change (in the house of flies) — Deftones cover
Hellsongs — Entire Discography
The Lounge Kittens — Duality (Slipknot cover), Bounce (System of a Down cover), Rollin (Limp Bizkit cover)
Luna Lee — Enter Sandman (Metallica cover), played on a Gayageum
Mambo Kurt — Engel (Rammstein cover)
Mardan Music — Trust (Sevendust cover)
Richard Cheese — Down with the Sickness (Disturbed), Chop Suey (System of a Down)
Tori Amos — Raining Blood (Slayer cover)
“Weird Al” Yankovic — The Angry White Boy Polka (covers of various “nu-metal” songs)
(You can also find a lot of other covers by googling “metal song covers”, though admittedly there you’re more likely to get metal versions than covers *of* metal)
More Covers & Homages
Then there are a few artists who perform covers or homages, that sometimes include metal songs:
Apocalyptica — all cello covers
A.V. Club Undercover — various songs
Dan Elias-Brevig — aCapella covers
Drewcif Stalin — metal covers of various pop songs
The Lounge Kittens — have covered a few rock/metal songs
Luna Lee — covers of various songs on a Gayageum (traditional Korean instrument)
Postmodern Jukebox — lounge/pop covers of various songs
Saxophone covers — Various artists, various songs
Two Cellos (2Cellos) — cello only covers of various songs
The Violution — electric violin covers of rock/metal songs
VKgoeswild — piano covers
For more, go here.
Some people do take things too seriously, but many of us recognize the silliness of the forced extremity of Metal. In fact, if you go to google image search and type “Meshuggah Band Photos”, the band pokes fun at this trope many times.
So Metalheads tend to like heavy music, that’s kind of the point, right? But it can admittedly get silly. To round out the culture section, here’s some metal nerd humour:
Scandinavia is well know for their metal, giving way to these jokes:
This next one is a pretty inside joke — Black Metal bands are known for their illegible/indecipherable logos. In fact, heavy metal news/satirical fansite MetalSucks.net even has a regular feature — “Completely Unreadable Band Logo of the Week” which primarily features black metal band logos. Here are some examples — there are all actual band logos.
Which led to this:
Speaking of genre specific inside jokes:
And there’s this:
Part 4: Recommendations
I thought I would round out this article by sharing some suggestions, as of course being a fan of a thing I want there to be more fans.
You’re probably familiar with that age old question — if you were stranded on a desert island, what one album would you want to be stranded with?
As you can probably guess, for me it would be a metal album. But picking one would be hard, so I’m going to list my 9 favourite metal albums of all time (in alphabetical order) and just say “one of these”:
Anup Sastry — Ghost (Djent/Prog)
Chevelle — This Type of Thinking Could Do Us In (Melodic/Groove Metal)
Fair to Midland (RIP) — Fables from a Mayfly (Melodic/Groove Metal)
ISIS — In the Absense of Truth (Post Metal)
Mudvayne — L.D.50 (Groove/Prog Metal)
The Ocean — Precambrian (Progressive/Post Metal)
Textures — Silhouettes (Prog/Groove Metal)
Portal (not the black metal one) —Blood Red Tape (Prog/Post Metal)
The Postman Syndrome — Terraforming (Prog/Post Metal)
I admit that it’s been several years since I tried to keep up with newer releases so the above list is “as of now, based on what I’m actually familiar with”. Subject to change of course.
So I could just leave you with a few samples (like above) but if you’re brave and open to trying new stuff (aside from the covers listed above), here are some recommendations from me, a fan of melodic heavy music with good singing.
This is what I like to call my “slow burn metal” playlist. These songs are slower, or take time to build up to the moment where the dam bursts. A good number of these songs also have clean singing (or no singing!)
Here’s a playlist of songs I made specifically for this article, for you to check out if you want to try and find a few new bands/songs to get into. It’s not “slow burn” this time, but not all of these songs are fast/super heavy either. This playlist is 99% clean vocals (or vocal-less). Obviously based around my tastes so there are lots of songs that could be on this list if I was more familiar with more genres.
I also have another playlist, since I particularly enjoy female vocalists, I have a playlist that is all female singers, and ranges from soft and gentle all the way up to pissed off banshee. This is the version that only includes the bands or songs that are typically on the darker/harder side of things (and there is more “hardcore vox” included here):
I hope you’ve come to have a better appreciation for this rough around the edges but still totally goofy at heart style of art. Maybe you just found a few new non-metal cover songs that you dig, either way, I enjoyed writing (And researching!) this so I hope you enjoyed reading it.