Heavy metal tends to be divisive. Over the past five decades, this category of music has been associated with large-scale transgression in various forms including church burnings, drug abuse, misogyny, ethnic cleansing, sexual deviance, and general rebellion and social dissonance. Outside of metal communities, it is not uncommon for the style to be dismissed as merely noise, a non-musical cultural practice that cultivates social transgression while fetishizing loudness, speed, and musical dissonance. From the inside, critiques can be equally harsh, as participants maintain their faith in part by upholding an often ruthless curatorial gauntlet through which new works must pass.
But what is metal? It would make sense for something so divisive to have clear boundaries, determined in part by the set of traditional musical concerns that typically allow consumers to draw lines in the sand with regard to so-called “genre*.” Form, harmony, instrumentation, even subject matter, contribute to how a work is categorized within the context of music, and although each piece is different, each genre usually consists of pieces that share some intrinsic structural elements. Blues for example, is a broad reaching genre that includes such varied artists as Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, T-Bone Walker, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and Eric Clapton. Some of these artists play different instruments, some had three piece bands while others have been accompanied by a whole stage full of performers, and one of them recorded his entire oeuvre using only an acoustic guitar and his voice. Furthermore, there are countless blues “songs” that do not have any vocal parts whatsoever (this represents a peculiarity that exists within popular music in which two pieces can be considered to be of the same genre despite the fact that one includes lyrics while the other is purely instrumental.) So what is it that makes all of these musicians blues musicians? Form. Form is at the heart of the blues style. 12-bar blues and 8-bar blues together form the structural foundation of the blues genre, a foundation that provides the basis for outlines harmonic interaction and textual design. And so, society has collectively decided that if there is a conscious adherence to this structural foundation, a work of art (and often the artist themselves) may be granted membership into the genre of blues music.
Membership criteria for the string quartet, a traditional genre in the European art music tradition, is perhaps more obvious. Pieces that are written for the ensemble of the string quartet (two violins, one viola, one cello) are considered to fall within the string quartet genre. Furthermore, the string quartet as a genre was originally associated with a particular structure:
Key: NOT tonic (typically a closely related key)
Form: Minuet & Trio
Form: Rondo or Sonata
Stylistically, pieces can differ greatly; consider the numerous differences between Haydn’s Quartet No. 53 “The Lark,” and Alban Berg’s Lyric Suite. These two works were composed about 135 years apart from one another, and as one would expect, sound rather different in terms of harmony and thematic material. However, the inherent sonic qualities of the acoustic string quartet as an ensemble are practically inescapable, and in those 135 years the ranges of those instruments, along with the tuning conventions and the bulk of the standard performance techniques, have remained the same. And so to our ears there is an immediate similarity. Indeed, to those unfamiliar with European art music, these two pieces might even sound rather similar.
The problem with the idea of metal as a genre is that there exists no shared heritage that dictates or even indicates a standard for harmony, form, or overall instrumentation. We can come close, we could say that something is not metal if it does not have electric guitar. Fine, but it would be remiss to say that everything that has electric guitar is metal. Is John Mayer metal? What about Michael Jackson? Okay fine, how about themes? Surely all metal songs are about death and destruction. Wrong. Thrash metal has a legacy of dealing with environmental concerns, power metal often deals with self empowerment, and much of doom metal does not even have lyrics. Okay, well what about the legacy of the blues? Metal tends to be regarded as an outgrowth of rock, and rock is generally considered to be a descendent of the blues, amongst many other things, so maybe we can agree that metal is of the same lineage? Black Sabbath is considered to be an early metal band, and in terms of form and harmony, the connection is apparent. But what about Yngwie Malmsteen? The majority of his output does not even hint at anything that remotely resembles blues harmony or form, and his work is considered to be relatively conservative compared to more “extreme” acts. In fact, let us consider the so-called extreme styles of metal: black metal, death metal, doom metal. The I-IV-V progression is so rarely seen within these styles that an attempt at linking extreme metal to the blues seems fruitless. And so there exist entire worlds within the universe of metal that are completely devoid of any formal or harmonic link to the blues. Not that the blues is our only option here, but since many types of American popular music can be traced back that way, it seems useful to start there. This is not to say that metal is not influenced by the blues. Some metal is, but more is not. And so we are still left without an element that unifies metal as a genre; something that every piece of music categorized as metal shares.
Form, harmony, thematic material. These have traditionally guided us in our assessment and categorization of music. But this method has failed us in our discussion of metal. And so I suggest we look elsewhere, towards an element of music that has not experienced compositional prioritization or cultural examination in the Western tradition in the same way that harmony, form, and rhythm have. Timbre. Thought of simply, timbre provides music with a surface-level treatment, aesthetic flavor, an artifact that some could mistakenly refer to as appliqué. Examined more closely, timbre has the potential to function as a musical element that is similar to harmony. Timbre is the term we use to describe the color or quality of a sound. The same pitch played on two different instruments will sound differently, despite having the same fundamental frequency. This is because in each respective case, there exists a different spectrum of overtones (this is based largely on the resonant bodies that are involved with displacing the air in such a way that we perceive pitch.) With the electrification of instruments in the 20th century, the world of acoustics became disrupted in a way that was entirely unprecedented. For the first time in the known history of the universe, we could generate sounds that did not adhere to the acoustical laws of the universe. This is a big deal. For many reasons. One of them is that, in what I am calling a post-acoustical world, we can start to think of timbre as a structural element of music, rather than a surface-level one. Not only will doing this help to free us from Eurocentric paradigms of judgement, but it will allow us to assess new styles of music in contextually significant terms.
Let us return to the topic of metal as a genre, and re-examine the situation. Does the new addition to our curatorial pantheon help us at all? In this case, yes. Despite differences in form, harmony, and thematic material, works of music that are considered to fall into the category of metal, in general, share common ground in terms of timbre. Despite harmonic, formal, and thematic differences between the work of Black Sabbath and that of Cannibal Corpse, for example, there exists common ground at the timbral level that is reached through the process and phenomenon of guitar distortion. This type of signal distortion yields a timbre so complex that it results in acoustical anomalies. Indeed, at the micro level, the level of harmonic partials in the overtone series, metal has a harmonic language of its own. Without diving too far into the complexities of acoustics, consider that a high level of guitar distortion, a phenomenon involving the physical compression of resonant bodies, is the unifying element that we are looking for. If you doubt the compositional significance of guitar distortion, then consider that the extended technique of the “screamed” vocals, a something that has become standard practice for metal vocalists, is amongst other things, an attempt on the part of the vocalist to model a similar timbre using an acoustic instrument. How recursive.
And so, past a certain threshold of signal distortion, or saturation, perhaps all types of music eventually become metal. The Finnish melodic death metal band Children of Bodom famously covered the Britney Spears hit Oops!… I Did it Again, and I have yet to meet anyone who would not regard this particular rendition as metal. Yet the form, harmony, and thematic material are all identical to that of Britney’s original recording. So what makes COB’s version metal? It appears that the addition of extreme guitar distortion is all that is needed to transform what was originally a bubblegum pop song into a death metal anthem.
*Genre is a problematic term; what people often seem to mean when they use this term, particularly in popular contexts, is “style,” but this is a topic for another post.