Written by Harrison Fernelius.
Graphic by Emma Robinson.

“After all, very few musical genres are able to contain the sheer force of sentiment and anger that metal can accommodate. It simply has an enormous capacity for emotion. No anger is too great, and no sentiment is too dark. It is the musical mouthpiece of the counterculture.”

What makes music metal? Is it the yelling, the guitar, or the suggestive leather outfits? To most music listeners, metal is always too “loud,” too “grating,” or too unnecessarily “provocative;” it is the black sheep of musical genres. Some may have notions of what metal is, but the “screaming” often drowns out its musical worth. As an avid consumer of the genre myself, I find these generalizations somewhat frustrating. In fact, I am often asked if I truly believe metal is music, and to that I respond: Not only is metal music, but it has immense cultural relevance to modern society.

Metal’s origin lies in the tumultuous cultural upheaval of the late 1960s through the genres: blues, acid, and psychedelic rock. The year 1968 saw the formation of the three most important bands to early metal: Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, and Deep Purple. Each of these bands represented some unique confluence of the genres. Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple stayed close to their blues rock roots but with a louder, more distorted sound. Nevertheless, these two bands still featured the two most common lyrical themes at the time for rock music: sex and drugs. However, they never quite distinguished themselves from their roots as unique music styles. Thus, metal was initially more tamed until Black Sabbath changed the game. Widely considered to be the first true “metal” band, Black Sabbath diverged significantly from the lyrical themes of other contemporary music genres.

Black Sabbath was formed in Birmingham, England during a time when industrial ruin and capitalist malaise dominated the city. The band’s members were first and foremost disaffected youth from this grey environment. The bleakness made its way into their music, resulting in it having a notably sadder vibe compared to the peppier and more rapid energy of other rock music. Unlike Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple, they took the distortion to the extreme, even distorting and slowing down the song structure itself. Lead guitarist Tony Iommi was the biggest impetus behind this style change. Iommi lost significant portions of his fingers in an industrial accident as a teenager and was physically limited in the types of riffs he could perform. Thus, the songs were slowed down significantly, and the distortion and volume were increased astronomically to provide a level of power and aggression to make every note count. This slow, doom-filled power that permeated the sound of Sabbath formed a major part of the foundation on which all future metal would be built.

Another important contributor to the early genre was none other than the dark prince of metal himself, Ronnie James Dio. While legend says that he was forged—not born—deep within the bowels of hell before history began and was taught to sing by the devil himself, it is more accurate to say that he was born in 1942 in New Hampshire. Dio rose through the ranks of hard rock, playing in a band called Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow, formed by a member of Deep Purple. He represents the vocal pinnacle of early heavy metal. He had the voice of an opera singer, and his vibrato amplified the power of any music accompanying him. A certain ‘epicness’ (for a lack of better words) weaves its way into every song he sings, amplified by his obsession with fantasy and medieval lyrics. Frankly, it’s hard to not feel on top of the world while singing along to a song about dragon-slaying; I can confirm. While his contribution is immeasurable, Dio’s most iconic contribution is the famous “devil horns” hand sign that is so omnipresent in modern cultural portrayals of rock and roll. For some time, Dio even became a member of Black Sabbath—alongside fellow legend Tony lommi—and later Heaven and Hell. Once the foundational pieces of metal were in place, the genre had a chance to truly explode— 

—And explode it did. In the 1980s, fringe musicians in southern California increased the speed of the tempo and made the vocals more punishing by borrowing screams from punk rock. They did all of this while keeping the aforementioned distortion and lyrical aggression. Thus, thrash metal was born. The Big 4 of thrash metal: Megadeth, Metallica, Slayer, and Anthrax dominated the 80s and 90s, and provided the standard for what most associate with the genre—namely the big hair, yelling, and angsty lyrics. Thrash lyrics also provided a new perspective on the bleakness once glamorized by Black Sabbath. Earlier metal bands had viewed this bleakness as inevitable and part of some nearly pre-ordained doom. In stark contrast, thrash metal weaponized this bleakness as ammunition to attack those in power and the ruling class. Metal had always operated on the counter-cultural fringes of society and thrash metal was no exception. This modern take on bleakness is the genre’s greatest cultural achievement because it provided a much needed voice for the voiceless, an outlet for outcasts. After all, very few musical genres are able to contain the sheer force of sentiment and anger that metal can accommodate. It simply has an enormous capacity for emotion. No anger is too great, and no sentiment is too dark. It is the musical mouthpiece of the counterculture.

Wherever counter-cultural sentiment foments, new, extreme, and/or exotic forms of metal arise to give it a voice. There are innumerable genres of metal for this very reason. Much of it isn’t necessarily political in nature; instead, it simply differs from the norm. For example, there is power metal, doom metal, Scandanavian death metal, progressive metal, hair metal, German industrial metal, and even pirate metal. These subgenres highlight the malleability of metal, as each subgenre is unique in almost every aspect of its composition while still remaining fundamentally metal. This malleability and adaptability give metal its true cultural reach and influence. Fringe ideals get swept up into metal, and from there, they are projected to a larger society. Sometimes this can be positive, and other times it can be arguably negative, but this entirely has to do with what type of idea is being given a platform rather than the metal genre itself. For example, my favorite genre of metal blends the concerns of urban society expressed in hip hop and rap with the anti-establishment, somewhat radical, ideals of thrash metal. The result is a sort of rap metal that is intensely cathartic. The most popular band of this style is Rage Against the Machine. Staying true to their metal core, they have released stirring, unfiltered pieces on everything from police brutality to American imperialism, acting as yet another vehicle for counter cultural expression. 

Truly, metal has much more than meets the eye. The cultural signaling is there, along with the musical theory and structure. It is an art like any other form of music, yet it simultaneously carved its own cultural niche. It has been the music of disaffected youths for generations and a cultural medium through which outcasts can find their place. Metal is diverse. Metal is weird. Above all, I believe metal has something for everyone, so whether you want to rage against the machine, plunder some gold, or slay that dragon, just turn that amp up to 11 and rock out.

Song Recommendations:

  • Sad:
    • “Here Come the Tears” by Judas Priest; Album: Sin After Sin; Studio: Ramport studios
  • Angry:
    • “Killing in the Name” by Rage Against the Machine; Album: Rage against the machine; Studio: Sound City Studios
  • Chill:
    • “Parabol” by TOOL; Album: Lateralus Studio: Cello Studios
  • Inspiring:
    • “Stand Up and Shout” by Dio; Album: Holy Diver Studio: Sound City Studios
  • Funny:
    • “Tribute” by Tenacious D; Album: Tenacious D Studio: ArcAngel Studio
  • Weird:
    • “I-e-a-i-a-i-o” by System of a Down; Album: Steal This Album!  Studio: Cello Studios

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