Jan 012015

art by PSHoudini


(Here’s a New Year’s Day opinion piece by Andy Synn.)

There’s been a lot of chat recently (actually, I suppose it’s a pretty constant state of affairs) about what is or, more frequently, what isn’t Metal. In fact you’d be hard-pressed to go very long at all in this scene without encountering someone willing to tell you how you’re “doing Metal wrong”, and happy to lay out a list of all the Heavy Metal Commandments which a good metalhead should adhere to.

And yet, somehow the irony of this goes right over their heads. The same people who preach the inviolable laws of “Metal” (which, strangely enough, always seem to apply solely to the things they do and the bands they like), are the same people who harp on about the evils of religion and blind faith. Whether it’s willful denial or simple ignorance, I don’t know, but it’s absolutely mind-boggling to me.

You see, not to be too blunt and simplistic about it, Heavy Metal is, at its heart, just a musical genre. And quite a varied one at that. But still, a defined genre. One based around loud, distorted guitars, hammering drums and (ideally) a palpable sense of passion and fire.

Yet there’s also an idea that it’s something more than that – that it’s something almost like a religious movement, that it’s a culture, something that exists independently – and somehow questioning this assertion is, in itself, “unmetal”.

In fact, certain people particularly don’t like it when you start to question what Metal is



Metal deals with darker subject matter than a lot of genres… that’s a common enough claim, although it’s not entirely unique in that regard by any means. In many that’s right and valid though. It should do that. It should address issues and ideas that other genres don’t. That’s one way it sets itself apart and defines itself. The minor-key melodies and ominous riffs of the Metal genre often provide the perfect context in which to explore the darker side of life, something which shouldn’t be ignored.

Heck, I want my bands to deal with darker and serious subject matter (well, except when I want something else from them, of course), but dealing with it… exploring it… discussing it… doesn’t give you the inalienable right to be an asshole yourself. From somewhere this idea took root that being “Metal” – whatever the hell that means in this ill-defined context – gives you carte blanche to act in whatever way you want, to say whatever you want, without fear of consequences or criticism.

There’s a reactionary part of the Metal community which holds fast to this idea, and to the idea that Metal should always be challenging the status quo. And, in many ways, that makes sense. Yet what happens when the status quo starts to improve? What happens when the world does start to get better, fairer, smarter… does Metal have to get worse, less tolerant, and dumber, in response?

That’s the problem with attributing such inflexible rules to an amorphous concept as “Metal” – it invites paradox and contradiction.



Indeed, trying to pin down exactly what Metal is, what makes it unique and singular and sets it apart from other genres of music – beyond the very vague definition of the genre stated above — quickly becomes an exercise in futility and constant contradiction if you’re not careful. For every claim made by one person, there’s always a counter-example available.

Some Manowar fans are often all-too keen to dictate what is or isn’t “true” to the spirit of Heavy Metal. Although exactly what this “spirit” is no-one ever seems entirely certain. Lots of Death Metal fans will tell you how there’s no room for melody in the genre… despite the fact that bands like Judas Priest, Black Sabbath, and Iron Maiden are the acknowledged “gods” of Heavy Metal.

Heck, even this very website is named “NoCleanSinging” after the idea that there’s no room for clean vocals (at least, of the poppy variety) in the Metal we cover here.

Some people claim that Metal fans are smarter… yet there’s also just as many examples of Metal fans being dumb as hell. Some people claim that Metal is more rebellious than other genres… yet it has its own strict rules and laws, as well as those who enforce them unflinchingly.

Some people claim that Metal is a liberal genre… yet there are endless examples of Metal bands and Metal fans who hold conservative viewpoints. Heck, even the supposed “liberal” values of certain bands and fans only extend so far until they’re threatened by progress and unforeseen changes.

Some people claim Metal shouldn’t be political, that it shouldn’t deal with serious social issues… and just as many people only want Metal that deals with those issues.

Some people claim that Metal is about progression. It’s a genre that doesn’t stand still. Yet also that it should hold tightly to tradition and not allow itself to change.

And, of course, just as many people hold that the only constant in Metal is change. That it needs to keep transforming and progressing, growing more extreme and pushing the boundaries, or else it will grow safe and stale.

So what is Metal? Really? Which of these interpretations, or group of interpretations, is the right one?

Well it’s all of these things. And none of these things

It’s everything. And nothing.

Ultimately, it’s us. All of us.

We are “Metal”. We embody it. We shape it. We define it.

But it doesn’t, or shouldn’t, define us.



This doesn’t mean that we’re somehow special, or a “chosen people” (I’ve seen variants on this argument pop up far too often for my liking). Metal fans – that’s you, me, and even people who inexplicably like The Monolith Deathcult — exist on a bell-curve, just like any other grouping of people. Get enough of us together and we’ll even out in pretty much the same way as everybody else. Sure, there’ll be certain trends, and here and there we’ll probably skew slightly differently than fans of other genres in certain areas, but ultimately, we’re all just people.

I’ve heard it said that it’s not “Metal” to care about other people, or to care what they think, or to take other people into consideration… or to otherwise act like a decent human being. And when you look at that in context, well, it’s a pretty ridiculous statement.

The only people who don’t really care what other people think are out-and-out psychopaths. This myth of the self-reliant, utterly individual, totally cool and relentlessly rebellious metalhead is just that… a myth… one that falls apart when you confront the simple reality that all of us… all of us… are interlinked and inter-related in the world we live in.

You see this thing that we call “Metal” does not exist in a vacuum, despite what some people want to believe. It wasn’t formed in isolation, and it doesn’t have its own independent form of existence. It’s made by, made up of, and made for people – people of all different types, who all make up part of a bigger society. And it’s ludicrous to ignore that.

That’s why it’s so hard to precisely define the genre past its key musical ingredients. It’s why people struggle so hard to specify one thing that is metal, yet can always find something that isn’t.

Because Metal, as a musical genre, is in a constant state of flux.

Trends come and go. People change. Society develops and grows. And Metal, like so much else in life, continues to reflect that.

Ultimately “Metal” is whatever we want it to be. It’s what we make of it. And because of that it will never truly die. Not as long as there are people who want to create, build, and express themselves honestly, with this thing that we call “Metal” as their medium.



  16 Responses to “WHAT IS METAL?”

  1. it was so much easier when i was a teenager, there was just hard rock and metal. what you heard on top 40 radio was hard rock, everything else was metal. if you liked any “metal” band you were a metalhead and terms like “poser” were years away from being part of the conversation. “pirating” was done by sharing low quality cassette copies of new albums with your friends and you discovered new bands by hanging out at the record store. there were no sub-genres, just degrees of “heavy” and “fast” or “slow”. and we never questioned whether or not a band was “real” metal, because something that silly just never even crossed our minds.

  2. Brian Posehn’s standup material includes a lot of playful jabs at metal fans and metal culture. He even recorded a few tracks of his own, like “More Metal Than You,” complete with a side-splitting parody video.


    Metal fans love our music with almost pious devotion. You even used religious buzzwords in your article to describe this phenomenon. But sometimes our devotion gives way to duplicity. I remember first experiencing this conundrum in middle school, but couldn’t really articulate it until 9th grade. Many of the metal heads I knew sought solace with each other’s company and with the music itself. They felt rejected and ostracized by the outside world. How did they respond? By rejecting and ostracizing the outside world.

    This same mentality can exist among fans of different subgenres. Brutal/slam/old-school DM fans harp on deathcore fans for being posers. Guys plastered with corpse paint try to out-kvlt anyone who likes power metal. This kind of elitism is no different than the mainstream culture. Metal can be, and often is, countercultural. But it’s easy to let that elitism, that our lyrical content so vehemently decries, slip into our culture. That sense of belonging can give way to “genre-centrism,” if you will. The feeling that our genre or subgenre is superior to all others.

    In all honesty, I hate it for the bands. Bands can’t market themselves without being compared to something else. There’s nothing wrong with using “for fans of…” to give prospective consumers an idea of what your band sounds like. I do that when I recommend music on this site. But it seems that our snobbery and desire for instant gratification cause us to immediately crucify a band that doesn’t impress us with the first five notes of a song. Islander’s recent post on Crypt Sermon compared them to Candlemass. Is that bad? Are they a derivative knockoff completely devoid of originality because their sound is similar to one of the progenitors of their genre? I don’t think so. I like that song, and I like Candlemass too. A lot of people bash “re-thrash” bands like Warbringer and Evile. I really like those bands. Sure, Evile DO sound a lot like Metallica. I know that. But that doesn’t bother me. I like thrash metal and Evile write catchy songs. Win-win for everybody. I get music I like, they get capital to keep making music I like.

    So whose job is to be the “metal police?” Well, I’m of the opinion that fans have caused a lot of our own problems. Sure, metal fans are devoted, but we’re also very opinionated and fickle. We speak from both sides of our mouth. We will praise one band for being innovative and visionary while at the same time calling another an irrelevant throwback. Bands should be free to make the music that they want to make, instead of feeling like they have to cater to me. They write and play what they want. If I don’t like it, I won’t buy it. But someone will. We need to be better consumers. We need to actually pay bands for their music, buy their merchandise, and go to their shows. We need to write intelligent critiques of their albums that are more substantial than “OMG. I just creamed my pants so full it leaked into my socks,” and, “OMG. If Satan himself passed a bowel movement into my ear, it would not be as bad as this. These guys are fags.” We need to create a consumer culture that helps the genre as a whole. Music is an art, but it’s also a business. If metal fans could hold off on all the friendly fire, we would be a very powerful cultural movement. Both within music and in other ways.

    Great article, I look forward to the next one.

  3. With the amount of bands now that mash up many different genres into their sound it is becoming increasingly difficult to determine what is exactly metal or not. Is Babymetal metal? Is Enabler metal? Obviously the former is J-pop with metal influences and the latter is mainly punk with thrash influences. But where do we draw the line?

    Websites such as the Metal Archives (which is a fantastic website by the way) don’t help though. Metal is a very large and diverse genre and putting strict guidelines like that in my opinion isn’t the way to go. Which is one reason why much maligned genres such as Nu-metal and metalcore are so hated by metalheads because they ‘pretend’ to be metal and are only liked by posers or whatever. Now I’m not really a fan of those genres either but not because they aren’t metal or aren’t included in the Metal Archives. To me, most of these bands are metal in some way.

    I may not like every metal band or every metal genre but that doesn’t make those bands or genres any less metal for it. That’s basically what I’m trying to say 🙂

  4. To a certain extent, it feels to me as if you’re conflating “extreme metal” and “metal as a whole”. Of course, “extreme metal” is just as nebulous as “metal” itself, but I think we can exclude a large portion of heavy metal, power metal, symphonic metal, etc.—and perhaps even melo-death metal. Of course, what I’m writing here is going to be heavily influenced by my own, personal observations, but the same goes for your essay. And seeing as I’m not from the US, these observations may also be influenced by cultural differences. Anyway, my personal experience is that “less extreme” metal fans are not as bigoted about what (everyone else is supposed) to wear, having the “right” cultural or political opinions, etc. Sure, they may be very obsessed about such things for their own part, and have strict rules for what music they do and don’t listen to, but I haven’t met many “less extreme” metal fans who impose their own “rules” on others. I’ve seen a lot more of the metal trolls (which I like to call them) among the more extreme followers, such as black and death metal fans. Christian black metal, for instance, is a sin (contradiction intended) and you must be “grim” and “trve” and “kvlt”, whatever than even means. And if a band sells more than 300 copies, they’re sell-out and you should stop listening to them immediately. As said, I personally see a lot more of this among the more extreme followers, so in my opinion it applies more to “extreme metal” than “regular metal”. However, seeing as I generally prefer metal of the more extreme type, myself, I haven’t attended many (if any) concerts that were purely heavy metal, power metal or the like. So I am rather biased in this, and you should probably take this with a pound of salt. Anyway, your message is ultimately the same, even if I interpret it as “extreme metal” instead of just “metal”.

    Personally, I’ve never seen extreme metal, and perhaps black metal in particular, as a challenge to the status quo, but rather as a challenge to taboos. I’d say this type of metal has played a significant part in questioning religion, redefining what the society considers to be “inappropriate” and, uhm—teaching mystical and grotesque words to children. In the mid ’90s, people (at least in Norway) were genuinely scared of black metal because of satanism and church burnings. Nowadays, most people don’t even bat an eyelid when satanism or black metal is mentioned. These taboos don’t seem to have the same effect as they did 20 years ago, so things appear to have changed. Challenging taboos goes against censorship and thus promotes liberty. And I don’t believe that any society will ever get to the point where there are no taboos left. As the world changes, new taboos arise, and thus new things to challenge.

    It should also be said that just like there are bigots obsessing about conserving the “true” metal, there are also bigots obsessing about “progression”. You can often see this in bands that significantly change their style, thus leaving a fair share of their old fans disappointed. In these situations you may see the band (indirectly or directly) bashing their “old” fans for not liking their new music, and it is something I truly despise. Common claims seem to be that the fans who dislike the new style are not “true” fans, that these fans are narrow-minded, etc. If it weren’t for the fans that supported the band from the very beginning, there probably wouldn’t be a band at all. These fans may actually be the most important ones, seeing as they contributed to the band’s popularity, allowing or motivating them to continue making music. Instead of bashing these fans, the band should thank the fans for supporting the band during those early years, bid them a nice farewell, and once every leap year do an “old album” tour. Not everyone is going to approve of a change in musical style. The fact that someone dislikes a band’s new style is not an insult—it’s a matter of personal taste.

  5. i enjoyed this read and it provoked me to make some statements..
    my current fav genre is black metal, atmospheric, ambient, melodic, epic, old school, darkthrone, satyricon, bathory..
    nevertheless; for me metal falls into the “music” category of my current pilgrimage in this world; in fact metal IS music.. more of a spiritual experience than entertainment..
    so i did not let myself be sieged within any of them genre/style boundaries..
    and, i really enjoy most of the new stuff by those bands who were once regarded as the leaders of their scene..
    with that said:
    St. Anger is my favorite record, after Aquilus – Griseus of course..
    Metallica was, still and will forever stay metal to me.. the best, the closest to heart..
    Pale Comunion is metal.
    try me

    • I’m very glad you enjoyed it. And for me too, Black Metal remains my favourite genre, particularly because of the sheer variety it displays, without sacrificing an ounce of integrity.

      One thing I will say though is that maybe ending your post with “try me” isn’t the best, as it does make it come across a bit combative and/or defensive!

      • right, sir.. that was just a bit of an unfortunate expression;
        i guess what i meant to say was that i can prove it.. or something like that..
        *apologetic mode*

  6. I couldn’t resist writing this: METAL IS WAR!

  7. Metal is NOT Slash whose playing has become so pasee (just like the retard Ace Frehely). Nor is Metal Dave Grohl who got pretty much a “free ticket to ride the A train”. Metal is not even Ozzy, who relies on the teleprompter to sing the new Sabbath songs ( yep that’s how much he cares about making music). Looking for metal ? travel abroad, I am sure something cool will be found.

    • I’m not sure where you mean by “abroad”…

      I mean, I’m not from the USA… so I could travel there to find Metal I suppose?

      Or in fact, I could travel to pretty much any country, or just stay home, and find some Metal there too?

      Except maybe North Korea.

  8. Here’s what metal has become in the year 2015: You’re boiling eggs and your friend decides to take a picture of it. You do the Dio-horn thing when your friend snaps the picture, and that right there makes boiled eggs metal. It’s so stupid it’s brilliant, like Manowar is so homo it’s not homo anymore. Everything is a parody of a parody. But Dio is always metal.

  9. The “That’s Metal, But It’s Not Music” posts are interesting in this regard, because while it’s hard to define what metal is, you nonetheless recognize it in other manifestations.

  10. Great article. Gets me thinking, though, of the perceived levels difference between the “metal” counterculture/scene and the status quo depending on country. Around the world, the geographically distinct scenes seem to generally resemble each other enough that you wouldn’t feel so out of place at a show regardless of what country you’re in (but that is, of course, without a large number of noted differentiating idiosyncrasies taken into account). But status quo’s in one country are certainly not the same in another, and in a more conservative country you would think that the expression of “metal” would be notably different from a less conservative one, but that doesn’t necessarily feel like its the case.

    I grew up in the American scene and operate in Japan’s, and I can tell you from experience the social paradigms of the 2 countries are vastly different (with Japan being significantly more conservative), yet the “extremeness” present in both of the undergrounds really do seem very similar. This isn’t a bad thing (its like a world-wide brotherhood!) and both are producing excellent examples of a wide range of sub-genres, but on first thought it sort of seems like if you take societal norms into account for where “metal” exists, wouldn’t it kinda make sense if that “metalness” were expressed in a more distinct way?

    Phew, that rambled. Merry Christmas.

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