It’s a good question, isn’t it? It’s one that metalheads and non-listeners alike have debated for decades. And there isn’t a good answer to it.
So how do we define heavy metal? Are there specific rules we can use to measure a band’s ‘metalness’? Well, no, unfortunately not. Anyone who purports to know any hard and fast rules that heavy metal music must abide by to be considered ‘metal’ is probably a little too immersed in their own subgenre of choice to be able to judge the genre as a whole clearly. So what do we do?
When in doubt, consult Wikipedia. Here’s an excerpt from the article on heavy metal music:
“Heavy metal is traditionally characterized by loud distorted guitars, emphatic rhythms, dense bass-and-drum sound, and vigorous vocals. Metal subgenres variously emphasize, alter, or omit one or more of these attributes. New York Times critic Jon Pareles writes, “In the taxonomy of popular music, heavy metal is a major subspecies of hard-rock—the breed with less syncopation, less blues, more showmanship and more brute force.” The typical band lineup includes a drummer, a bassist, a rhythm guitarist, a lead guitarist, and a singer, who may or may not be an instrumentalist. Keyboard instruments are sometimes used to enhance the fullness of the sound.”
Alright, well that’s partially helpful. It gives us some insight on what sorts of sounds and musicians you might find in heavy metal music and in heavy metal bands. But it’s this line that I find particularly telling:
“Metal subgenres variously emphasize, alter, or omit one or more of these attributes.”
So basically, you could have a metal band that omits numerous elements of metal, adds elements of other music, and is still considered metal. So let’s say you have a band with emphatic rhythms and vigorous vocals, but with pop elements. Doesn’t that just make you a pop band?
Maybe that’s stretching things, you say. Well, what if you have a band with loud distorted guitars, emphatic rhythms, vigorous vocals, and you add in some guitar solos? There’s plenty of solos in metal, but that sounds like hard rock to me. So what’s the defining characteristic that makes metal ‘metal’?
Let’s start with a few facts:
1. No one really knows where the term ‘heavy metal’ comes from.
The first reference to heavy metal in literature seems to have been in a novel by William S. Burroughs entitled Nova Express, where he makes a passing reference to insect people who listen to ‘metal music’. The first mention of heavy metal in a song lyric seems to have been in Steppenwolf’s “Born to Be Wild,” and the first instance of the term used to describe a band seems to have been by Barry Gilford in a 1968 article in Rolling Stone describing the band Electric Flag.
For the record, neither Steppenwolf nor Electric Flag is now considered to be heavy metal.
2. Heavy metal evolved out of rock music.
The history of rock music and heavy metal is far too lengthy to go into any great depth here. Suffice it to say that rock music developed in the early 1950’s, by the late 1960’s rock music had evolved enough to be able to be separated into soft and hard rock, and then somewhere in the 1970’s, metal started to emerge. Though many bands in the mid 70’s straddled the line between hard rock and the newly emerging metal genre, by the late 70’s and early 80’s, metal had firmly separated itself from hard rock and become its own class of music.
3. Bands that are extremely musically disparate are nonetheless considered to be ‘heavy metal’ bands.
Let’s say you could find someone who had never listened to heavy metal, or rock music of any kind for that matter, and you then decided to play him or her a selection of songs. You chose to play:
– AC/DC’s “Back in Black”
– Iron Maiden’s “The Number of the Beast”
– Metallica’s “Fade to Black”
– In Flames’ “Embody the Invisible”
– Nightwish’s “Swanheart”
You then asked him or her to pick out the band that didn’t fit. I have to imagine they would look at you strangely and perhaps pick out either In Flames or Nightwish. In fact, AC/DC is the only band that is not considered heavy metal. Iron Maiden is metal, Metallica is thrash metal, In Flames is melodic death metal, and Nightwish is symphonic metal. AC/DC is just hard rock.
The fact of the matter is that I cherry picked those songs specifically. AC/DC has always been one of the ‘harder’ hard rock bands, but I also chose metal songs that are not particularly extreme. If I had thrown in some hardcore black or death metal, those would have stood out like sore thumbs.
Overall, the point is that musically, it is very difficult to identify what distinguishes metal from everything else, specifically from hard rock. So is there any way for us to identify metal bands? What identifying characteristic can we use if not the music itself?
Well, I think I know what makes a metal band a metal band. Here it is:
Attitude. Confidence. Belief.
That’s it. I’m serious. I mean, guitars and drums help, but I think attitude and desire is the real key.
Have you ever watched Kung Fu Panda? It’s a great movie. It’s a story about a fat panda who learns kung fu and ends up saving his village from an evil kung fu snow leopard. I bring it up because the movie has a quality message. Po, the panda, through training becomes an impressive kung fu warrior, but he still doubts his skills. To aid him, he is given the dragon scroll, which supposedly contains the secret to untold martial arts power. However, the scroll turns out to be blank. In the end, Po deciphers the meaning of the dragon scroll: that there is no secret ingredient. It’s just you. If you want to be something special, you just have to believe in it.
The same is true of metal, I think. Musically, there’s nothing that defines heavy metal, nothing that can define heavy metal, I think. It’s more about belief. It’s about attitude, about your image, about your fan base and your desire. AC/DC never considered themselves a heavy metal band, and so they aren’t. It’s as simple as that.
So that’s my take. What do you think?
Image credit: Feature image by Mark Wainwright from Nottingham, United Kingdom (One) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.