What the hell is “metal” anyway?

The ironic nature of this question is that it is a simple question, but there is no simple answer.

For the purposes of this post, I will be interpreting this question as “what the hell is metal music anyway?”.  But of course, it is so much more than that…it is a way of life and a “never give up and raise the middle finger in the face of adversity” type of philosophy.  Steffmetal has a great post about the lifestyle aspect here…..but read on if you want my take of what “metal music” is.

Step One – how does the song make you feel?

The first step is to figure out how the song makes you feel.  For me, metal invokes a lot of energy, passion and emotion that makes your blood pump.  Does the song make you do any of the following?

  • Metal music makes you bang your head (not bob your head, bang your head…like this);
  • Metal music makes your body flow with energy and passion that a rap/country/pop/classical/rock doesn’t (or does in a different way);
  • Metal music makes you want to punch someone in the face;
  • Metal music makes you think you can do 1 million push ups;
  • Metal music makes you want to rip off your shirt and yell at the top of your lungs;
  • Metal music makes you feel invincible.

Now, the problem with the list above is that  “Smack My Bitch Up” and “Breathe” by The Prodigy does all of the above to me too.  So what is it about metal that makes it different to these two obviously not metal (but still awesome imo) songs?  Also, power metal bands like DragonForce do not do the above for me, yet they are still definitely metal……

I’m afraid we are going to have to dig deeper…..

Step Two – the ingredients of metal music

There is no list of “ingredients” that define a metal song.  I’m not entirely sure I can scientifically dissect the genre of metal music and arrive at a defined answer….but I will contradict myself and provide 2 separate lists to try define metal (bound to miss something though):

  • A list of “key” ingredients – the removal of a key ingredient will render the song not metal; and
  • A list of “common” ingredients – common ingredients are not crucial to making a song
    metal, but they can be found in metal songs more often than not.

Key ingredients

  1. Electric Guitar with lots of gain – gain is hard to describe to a non-guitarist, but it’s that distorted “buzzing” tone that makes the guitar “growl”….like this :) .
  2. “Heavy” palm muted riffage, whether it is tremolo picking, downpicking mania or the good old gallop (the link in #1 demonstrates this perfectly…but also linked here for ya lazy bastards :) )
  3. Aggressive vocals that sound “angry” and “violent” – harshly sung, growled or screamed.
  4. To the veteran metalheads here yelling “where are the drums, double kicks, blast beats???” etc, I’m afraid I do not consider that a “key” ingredient.  I explain this further below.

If a song lacks any one of the above three “key ingredients”, it would render the song incapable of being metal.  I do realise I am doing an injustice to instrumental metal as fuck artists, such as Jeff Loomis, Keith Merrow and a whole raft of others, but for the sake of simplicity, lets leave #3 a requirement (otherwise it’s just too damn hard).

Common ingredients

  1. Double kick and, to a much lesser degree, blast beats on the drums.  It is not a key ingredient in my book, because I consider Enter Sandman by Metallica to be metal.  It has no double kick and no blast beat (*preparing to be flamed by those who do not consider the Black Album metal*).
  2. Intricate guitar solos – solos feature in the majority of metal songs, but not all.  Again, using Metallica as an example, many St Anger songs do not have solos, but it is still metal.  Albeit, really, really shit metal.
  3. Duelling solos – this is where two guitarists play the same lick together but one plays the harmony of the other (either a third harmony, an octave or any other interval).
  4. The old breakdown - done to death by many modern metal bands where sometimes the whole song is a breakdown, but nonetheless a core feature of many metal bands, but not all.
  5. Downtuned guitars (basically all the guitars in #4 are downtuned – definitely not a requirement, but commonly seen.  E.g. Machine Head, some Slayer etc etc)

Step Three – Putting it all together

If you can tick off most of the boxes in Step One, all the “key ingredients” in Step Two and many of the “common ingredients” also in Step Two, it’s probably metal.  If you can only tick some, then it is probably one of bands/songs that metalheads argue about day and night (Slipknot, Rammstein, Tool, System of A Down, Linkin Park, Korn, AC/DC etc).  Overall, it is a “feel” and “vibe” thing that you pick up as you listen to more and more metal.  I think if you have to question it, it is more likely than not, not metal (sorry about the double negatives)!

Having said that, I will be testing this claim in my next Metal Basics post – “is [insert band name here] metal?”.  That should get some good debate going….Linkin Park, Slipknot, AC/DC, Rob Zombie, Godsmack, Disturbed……. \m/

Hope the metal newbies learned something and the veteran metalheads don’t disagree too much.  Regardless, tell me your thoughts in the comments section below.




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8 thoughts on “What the hell is “metal” anyway?

  1. Newbie

    Long time listener, first time caller. Congrats on the blog. You made a good counter point in Step 1 on how the song makes you feel. Who hasn’t felt invincible after listening to “Eye of the Tiger”?

    1. meccalee Post author

      Hi Ivan

      Thanks for you comment. Yes, I feel that what makes a song “metal” so hard to define that it really needs an array of factors. Hope you enjoyed the post.

      Keep it metal

  2. Jonathan

    good list, and a good introduction for those who aren’t “in the know”. i think harsh/angry/aggressive vocals are up for debate as a requirement though. most notably power metal does not employ the angry vocals as often, and even some thrash can survive without, such as Belledonna era Anthrax. I do like the inclusion at the end about contested bands and songs. metal is hard to explain, but you know when you hear it. good work.

    1. meccalee Post author

      Hi Jonathan!

      Firstly, thanks so much for the comment! I really appreciate it :)

      Yes, I definitely agree with you about the harsh/angry/aggressive vocals. I acknowledged the Power Metal point somewhat (not directly in relation to vocals) in point one…..but totally missed the Belladonna era Anthrax which you have, very rightly, raised.

      To be honest, this issue is now really making me scratch my head now!!! Hopefully this post is 90% there!

      Feel free to browse around and comment elsewhere!


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