Entropy of the family tree: has metal’s genre addiction reached breaking point?

It’s a well-established fact that metal has an unhealthy addiction to genre classifications. One look at our database over at metal-archives will tell you as much. It is not just the sheer volume of genres – many of which are  just the same groups of words shuffled around a bit – it’s also how important genres are to discussing metal. We argue over what artist goes where and why, we go back to first principles on what defines a certain genre, and why a certain band is death/doom as opposed to doom/death.

Is this just metal getting insecure about how seriously others take it? It’s always been the annoying creepy uncle of the alternative music world, convinced of its own importance and insistent that it’s down with the kids, it sticks its fingers in its ears and screams when the mere suggestion of other music is raised. Constantly aware that outsiders think it all sounds the same, it has created vast charts and diagrams to demonstrate just how many different ways there are to strum a guitar, hit a drum, and scream. To hell with claims that genre doesn’t matter, as long as the music’s good. We need to know what we’re enjoying, why we’re enjoying it, and how the enjoyment is different to other enjoyments.  Then make a chart of enjoyments that influenced our current enjoyment. And discuss who the first artist was who created music so particularly enjoyable.

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Mathcore is not enjoyable

Another credible theory is metal’s connections with geek culture. The stereotype of a geek is a person who is fanatical about fandom. They take an idea and run with it. They don’t just watch Star Trek, they translate and perform Shakespeare in Klingon. The Sci-Fi and Fantasy genres offer a wealth of creative space for the dedicated geek, through a wealth of different mediums. Metal’s classification addiction could simply be that many metalheads are also committed geeks. And they are simply pumping  this fanatical energy into the world of metal. Whilst this can just translate into more geeks picking up a guitar and forming a band, it turns out that playing music is really hard. So taking to internet forums and blogs to relentlessly analyse every detail of the music and artists is a viable substitute for the non-musical.

Maybe it has something to do with metal and personal identity. Any well-travelled metalhead will know that there’s something heart-warming about going to metal bars, gigs, and festivals around the world. It’s like a home away from home. It’s not just a love of the same classic albums and bands that we all share, it’s the sense of a shared history, the same love and passion for the music and for the scene, in short: shared culture. One quick turn around a metal festival will demonstrate just how much metalheads love wearing band t-shirts and battle jackets covered in patches. We’re not just representing our local scene in a larger setting, we’re also sharing recognisable symbols we identify with and love, as a form of self-identity.

In this day and age, metal attracts an ever wider range of people. But their reasons for turning to metal in adolescence remains largely unchanged. Struggling to find a voice as a teenager, many turn to metal to give them that voice, and it becomes a part of their identity, one that people want to wear proudly on their clothes. For something so important, metalheads want to make sure that the music they use to represent themselves to the world is understood correctly. Your average death metaller would not want to be mistaken for a Motley Crue fan. Someone in an Electric Wizard t-shirt may find Iron Maiden tedious.

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Marrying a struggle for personal identity with geek culture’s passion for categorisation goes a long way to explaining metal’s addiction to new genre labels. Two questions remain. Is there any ontological truth behind all the chat about genre classifications? And is metal in danger of shoving itself up its own areshole if it continues in this way?

Let’s deal with the first question first. Is metal actually as varied as the amount of genre labels would have you believe? To answer this, let’s go back to first principles. What’s the point of describing music? To communicate an approximation of the sound without having to listen to it. Broadly speaking, this serves a purpose. If one knows facts about how certain music sounds, words like blues, ska, jungle, will conjure up the idea of a certain sound, and the more specific the description, the more likely you are to know if you will like the music.

If you recommend a band to me, and describe their sound as power metal with glam influences, I straight up won’t check them out. If you describe them as depressive black metal I would be bored before you finished speaking. If you described them as mincecore I could probably sing you their entire discography on the spot. These simple examples go some way to demonstrating the truth beneath the tags. Like a wine expert identifying the region and the grape from one sip, there’s no smoke without fire.

However, when does genre classification devolve into shoving different words together for the sake of it? Metalheads love their history. But like sociologists trying to define and analyse new social trends, the phenomena, once observed, changes as a result. Like a class of children behaving unnaturally in the presence of an Ofsted inspector.

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To some, genre classifications are not just dry descriptions, they are also value judgements as well. Black metal is an obvious example. Once a band has been tagged, they immediately appear on lists with other black metal artists, making them guilty by association. They may then change their sound consciously or unconsciously. Leaving us in the ridiculous position of addressing hipsters who claim they play ‘transcendental black metal’ to set them apart.

When is a sound different enough to warrant a new name? Is Viking metal just black metal bands singing about Vikings? Or is there enough difference between Bathory’s ‘Blood Fire Death’ and ‘Hammerheart’ to warrant the distinction? Is the ‘folk’ prefix just different metal bands adding folk instruments to spice things up, without actually studying any folk music? By adding the word ‘folk’, we really mean a very specific idea of folk music, otherwise the prefix is about as helpful as saying ‘we play music-metal’.

Are such fine grained genre distinctions legitimate? Yes and no. And this answer rests on how the styles are played. Pirate metal isn’t really its own thing, it’s just funny power metal with themed vocals and lyrics. Superficially different, the content remains familiar. Equally, to say a death metal band has jazz influences we don’t mean they’ve added a brass section, we mean they use odd time signatures and unconventional chord progressions. Sure we might as well say ‘this death metal band has music influences’, but the metal community has an agreed upon definition of the word jazz, just as we do folk. And agreed upon definitions are pretty much the foundation of language.

It’s also a matter of degrees, about as cut and dry and diverse as the amount of opinions out there. It’s wrong to say that Carcass play black metal. It’s very wrong to say that they play operatic metal. The legitimacy of a label ultimately rests on whether enough artists have changed the way they compose music within the bounds of ‘metal’, to warrant distinguishing them from what came before. Shoving a harpsichord into your speed metal band doesn’t entitle you to call yourself ‘baroque-metal’, but introducing  counterpoint, ornamentation, and harmonic organisation to your music, does.

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Given the current direction of our music, we consulted on a complete rebranding

So is metal disappearing completely up its own arsehole as a result? Genre descriptions, much like sociological classifications, are subject to observer bias. Unlike the natural sciences, our emotional proximity to the observed phenomena blocks us from claiming objectivity in our findings. Equally, the phenomena knows it’s being observed, and changes its behaviour accordingly. However, this does not necessarily mean it’s bad for the music. God knows there’s plenty of terrible metal music out there. Some of it is honest music that fails as art on its own terms. The real perpetrators here are the artists that are borderline novelty acts that exist for the sake of subverting expectations. And as any Star Wars fan will tell you, ‘subverting expectations’ is a conceptual tool which needs to be backed up by substance. The real damage is done when music that is superficially different is sold as something new and unique. Guess what, you’ve been had.

This does not stop honest artists creating quality music. Most new and innovative music was not created by people who sat down one day and decided to write new and innovative music. The truly memorable artists of the world started out playing a certain style, then stumbled on a unique take on it, and the zeitgeist decided it was unique enough to be given a new name. The problem with metal is that genre entropy has been taken so far that we’re in danger of missing something truly unique because we probably already have a name for it. And if we don’t, we’ll just shove some existing tags together and call it something new.

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Figure 1: You keep using words, I don’t think you know what they mean

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