Apparently the rest of the musical world doesn’t do this. I’ve always lived in the world of hard rock and heavy metal, so it just seems natural to me. It all just strikes me as perfectly normal that every type of thing should have its own name. It makes it easier to arrange a record shop for one thing.
Hang on, let me back up a bit. Heavy Metal isn’t really one type of music. It’s not a homogeneous one, that’s for sure. I tend to refer to the whole lot as “Metal”, but you probably think of that as a contraction of the aforementioned “Heavy Metal”. That is simultaneously true and not. My view is simultaneously helpful and not, but that’s just what I’m like. Let me walk you through this thing.
In the beginning there was music. It was little more than hairy little people banging sticks and rocks and the like together in order to create rhythms. It brought us together and it entertained us. For the greater part of human existence, that’s all it has been. Everywhere had their own little pockets of preferences; instruments were built and evolved; styles emerged. One day we were able to record the music we were making, and people elsewhere could hear it, and that changed everything.
Yes, that’s a generalisation, but that’s the format and I’m sticking to it. In order for us to be able to share music, it had to have a name. Cataloguing things is important for being able to find them again. In the early 20th century, a bunch of fine people started recording and cataloguing the songs which communities had been singing for centuries. It took place all over the world, and became very popular. I think of this “folk revival” movement as being the very starting point of all modern music.
From this came blues and jazz on one side of the Atlantic. When the youngsters of the other side of the pond heard these records their minds exploded. British jazz scenes took off, in absolute thrall of black American jazz and blues artists. The British blues scene took things further: out of this scene came bands like The Rolling Stones, The Beatles and The Yardbirds. Their presence is still felt now.
This swirling maelstrom of blues influences, jazz musicianship and the technological advances in both instruments and amplification led to the birth of rock in the UK: out of the ashes of The Blues Breakers and The Yardbirds came Cream and Led Zeppelin. From Birmingham came Black Sabbath.
Bigger, harder, louder, more distorted. That’s how the early rhythm and blues bands of the sixties took their pop sounds in to rock. It was also how they took their rock in to metal, although many of them denied it for some time. Zeppelin and Sabbath may have invented metal, but they deny being metal bands; always will. Hard rock was the label they chose, and it took them around the world.
The youngsters who grew up listening to Zeppelin and Sabbath, growing ever further from the blues backgrounds of both bands, created a harder sound. They used the repeated musical motif – the riff – from blues, and added even more dirt and distortion to the guitar sound. It moved your body, and it made you bang your head. And, to an extent, it was largely a boys’ thing. And that is a shame.
Metal, as born in hard rock and codified in NWOBHM (the New Wave of British Heavy Metal), was very male when it got going. This could have killed the genre stone dead, but actually led to a form of categorisation and codification which has held it together for decades. The fact that women found it for themselves, and made themselves part of the scene has only made metal far far stronger.
What am I getting at, when I talk about categorisation and codification? Have you ever noticed the predominantly male pursuit of collecting lots of things, and then putting them in order? Have you ever tried to find a comic book to buy? Have you ever seen a book on trains? All of these, and metal is no different, have been subdivided by type over the years. It helps certain people make sense of the world they are in, allowing them to navigate different styles. Others need rules in order to exist.
Let’s take two big metal genres: black and death. Black metal, originating in Newcastle upon Tyne, in the UK, but popularised by Norwegians, relies on fast picking, screamed vocals, and a love of Satan. Death metal originated from many points, but was popularised by Americans, and relies on blast beat drumming, growling vocals and the love of all things bloody and rotten. Very different sounds.
The original blueprint for each of these genres may have been laid down time and time again by a set of seminal bands, but every region, every scene, developed their own unique style. Floridian and Gothenburg death metal are very different from each other. As are Norwegian and US black metal.
And there we have it. Every time someone comes up with a distinctive development in any given genre, a new subgenre is born. Be it the use of NWOBM style melody on death metal roots, giving us melodeath, or the combination of hardcore punk with thrash metal to give us Metalcore, new metal (not Nu Metal) genres are being created all of the time. But that doesn’t mean that they’re popular.
It used to be that divisions in rock music divided people. Punks and metallers would fight like cat and dog as often as they encountered each other. Nowadays, with fans of metal and punk enjoying each other’s music equally, differences are seen more naturally, as a question of personal preference. It is now heading to the situation where, instead of the fans of death and black metal arguing over which style is best, they try to outdo each other by sharing their favourite songs and bands to blow minds.
In essence, a genre is a way of going back and finding what you like. I like a lot of black metal and doom, but I don’t always enjoy melodeath or metalcore; knowing the difference means I can find what I want, and avoid what I don’t want. Or, I can easily find something new to try; that’s good too.