Ask the average music listener to define heavy metal, and you will likely hear the words “loud” and “guitars.” While this is undoubtedly a staple, there’s far more complexity to the genre than that. So, who invented heavy metal, and what about heavy metal subgenres?
The music community largely agrees that heavy metal music was born with Black Sabbath’s debut album in 1970. Henceforth the popular subgenres thrash, doom, death, and industrial metal evolved. Different bands created different subgenres.
Like in jazz, rock, and R&B, some metal subgenres cause some people to like certain songs more than others. But thanks to the fastidiousness of metalheads, heavy metal has more categorizations than most genres. Suffice it to say; metal music is not just a scream-fest powered by distorted guitars and energy drinks.
Although there are dozens upon dozens of metal subgenres that have popped up in the past 50 years, we’re going to keep this article straightforward and provide a glimpse of the most important ones.
Doom Metal (1970 – present)
Who invented doom metal?
Doom metal, pioneered by Black Sabbath, is the oldest subgenre of heavy metal. Slow tempos, ominous ambiance, and low-pitched rhythms give it its signature sound.
What does doom metal sound like?
Lyrics focus on darker themes than hard rock. Many parents of the 1970s and ’80s were concerned about those themes, which isn’t uncommon for evolving genres.
While doom metal has a history of vaguely satanic themes, this is not necessarily a central characteristic. Compared to black metal, a more extreme style that does emphasize modern standards may best describe satanic themes, the sound of doom metal as a groovy, bluesy style of music with a dark lyrical tint.
“Low” and “slow” are the name of the game with this subgenre. The rhythm guitarist plays mostly low notes, sometimes down-tuning the guitar to do so. Meanwhile, the rest of the band crawls creepily through the song to create ominous, foreboding spaces between notes.
How did doom metal evolve?
The birth of a genre is pretty significant. Doom metal is especially noteworthy because its origin marks the beginning of heavy metal as a whole.
Whether you believe the sources that attribute Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, or Deep Purple as the creators of heavy metal (hence doom metal), the genre was undoubtedly invented in England.
Black Sabbath got together in Birmingham in 1968 as a group of urban factory workers. Led Zeppelin was formed in England in the same year in London, while Deep Purple was formed in Hertfordshire.
In the 1960s, the aggressive and rebellious sentiments of the aptly named “counterculture” fueled art and music. Rock music was dominating the record collections of teenagers and young adults.
The novelty of heavy electric guitar riffs, drums pounded harder than ever before, and grounded lyrics of discontent defined a new generation. Doom metal rose from the same seeds. With old rock and modern heavy metal at a crossroads, the sound of doom metal came to be a mishmash of bluesy, groovy, eerie, and ominous traits.
Since 1970, dozens of subgenres have pushed what once was the entirety of heavy metal into its category. The uniqueness of doom metal had prompted other artists like Electric Wizard, Pentagram, Saint Vitus, and Candlemass to pick up the style, even in decades when it was a distant memory of Ozzy and Iommi’s grainy band footage.
Industrial Metal (1980 – present)
Who invented industrial metal?
Heavy metal and industrial music synergized to create industrial metal from the fusion of two rising genres in the 1980s. Many accredit the band Killing Joke with merging hard rock and electronic music into this new genre with their self-titled album in 1980.
What does industrial metal sound like?
Industrial metal merges the traditional sounds of heavy metal with elements of electronic music. The result is a captivating combination of aggressive guitar/drums alongside synthesizer melodies and digital effects. Songs of this style frequently open with danceable electronic beats before being amplified with aggressive guitar riffs. When you think about it, metal is intrinsically electronic with the centrality of the electric guitar, so why not enhance that with even more crazy inventiveness?
This subgenre is defined pretty loosely. Industrial metal bands don’t confine themselves to specific guitar techniques or drumming styles. Some bands that might otherwise be described as thrash, death, or metalcore enter the industrial metal umbrella when the electric guitar becomes secondary to an electronic melody.
How did industrial metal evolve?
Industrial metal is a creative take on traditional heavy metal and industrial music. Given the origins of heavy metal, the second and final piece of the “how it came to be” puzzle is the origins of industrial music.
Industrial music began in the 1970s as a technological experiment. Advances in recording technologies, synthesizers, and sequencers opened up a world of new sounds. With these unique and quirky tools, music could speak of the flaws in the modern world with the technology that developed alongside it.
One of the progenitors of industrial music, The Second Annual Report, dubbed the genre “Industrial music for industrial people.” Those who felt like cogs in the system could empathize with the genre while enjoying an eclectic new approach to making music.
But the ultimate tool for aggression already existed, and heavy metal merged with industrial music to take rebellion to a new stage. Thus, industrial metal artists created albums that encapsulated the fierce energy of heavy metal with the dissatisfied, melodic irony of industrial music.
Famous artists like Nine Inch Nails, Godflesh, Rammstein, and Fear Factory brought the subgenre to new heights of fame that persist today. And as you can tell by the names of these bands, heavy metal didn’t lose its edge by bringing on the synth.
Thrash Metal (1983 – present)
Who invented thrash metal?
Many metalheads label 1983 the “year zero” of thrash metal with the release of Metallica‘s noteworthy album Kill ‘Em All. While Metallica seized this honor, other bands, including Anthrax and Slayer, released thrash metal albums less than a year later.
What does thrash metal sound like?
Contrary to the slow grooviness of doom, thrash metal moves fast. For comparison’s sake, the average BPM (beats-per-minute) of Black Sabbath’s signature album is 126, while the average BPM of Kill ‘Em All is 164.
As the 1980s progressed, thrash metal only grew faster and more aggressive, with songs like Metallica’s Master of Puppets hitting 220 BPM, averaged over eight minutes. Consequently, thrash metal is defined by its full-throttle, keep-playing-till-you-bleed style. Fans of thrash enjoy this music through migraine-inducing headbanging.
Thanks to the groundwork laid by the New Wave of British Heavy Metal (NWOBHM) bands like Judas Priest and Motörhead, thrash metal had abandoned the blues for pure metal. Thrash guitarists play low notes exceptionally quickly, using palm-muting to create a “chugging” sound.
The drummer often alternates rapidly between two bass drums while hitting the snare drum on every other beat. Thus, listening to thrash metal can feel like there is a turbocharged diesel engine pushing you forward.
How did thrash metal evolve?
While rock and metal have always been about rebellion, young people of the 1980s had a different way to express it than their 1960s counterparts.
James Hetfield of Metallica famously embodied the thrash metal attitude with this quote:
The theme of rebellion was nothing new, but the emergence of thrash metal told everybody that it was surging. This subgenre combined the anti-establishment mentality of punk with the finger-blazing guitar playing of new wave British metal bands.
Metalheads use the term “The Big Four” when they’re talking about thrash. They’re referring to the most iconic thrash metal bands of the 1980s: Metallica, Anthrax, Slayer, and Megadeth. These kings undeniably shaped the image of thrash metal culture, whose members adopted their appearance and grew their hair out specifically for headbanging.
Countless bands cropped up during the 80s, replicating the sound and style of The Big Four as the subgenre went mainstream, and these bands forever changed society. Sepultura, Testament, Kreator, and Exodus are just a few of the artists who gained their fair share of fame during the thrash metal craze.
The 1990s marked the end of thrash’s golden age. Grunge captured the attention of yet another phase of rebels while metal extremists turned to death and black metal to scratch their itch for aggression.
The Big Four broke apart as Metallica and Megadeth changed their style while Anthrax fell into obscurity. Slayer largely stuck to their roots, but their lyrical imagery made them forever straddle the line between thrash and death.
Death Metal (1985 – present)
Who invented death metal?
For those not content with the butterfly imagery of Metallica’s Kill ‘Em All, 11-year old Jeff Becerra wrote the song “Burning in Hell” in 1979. Six years later, Becerra’s band Possessed released the song in 1985.
What does death metal sound like?
Early death metal took thrash’s aggressive, blazing riffs and amplified them with hellish imagery and macabre themes. However, death metal artists employ a variety of instrumental techniques that make this subgenre very extensive.
At its core, death metal is dark and vicious. For many, the experience is disturbing and frightening. Lyrics are explicit, guitar riffs are heavily distorted, and music videos are heinous and full of gore. Percussion penetrates listeners’ bones through “blast beat” drumming, a technique that has come to define extreme music. Vocalists often use “death growls” in place of singing, resulting in a style that some love while others hate.
But even if you’re convinced you don’t like death metal, there’s plenty to explore. Some examples of sub-subcategories (if that’s a thing) include melodic, symphonic, and industrial. Many more variants continue to appear as death metal continues to evolve.
How did death metal evolve?
Not long after Metallica released Kill ‘Em All, death metal immediately appeared to outdo the aggression of thrash with darker lyrics and scary ambiance. Like most metal subgenres, it all started underground before working its way into the mainstream.
While Jeff Becerra created death metal, the famous thrash metal band Slayer brought death metal to the public’s attention. They sounded like thrash, but their lyrics incorporated death metal characteristics. Thus, this connection compelled thrash fans to explore the genre while metal extremists latched onto the genre as it gained momentum.
Unlike thrash and doom, death metal has grown rather than dwindled toward the close of the 20th century. The thirst for extreme music never stopped. While tastes have changed over the years, death metal has provided the perfect groundwork for evolving this appetite for hardcore music. The truth is in the blatant dubbing of this subgenre as “death.” After all, there’s nothing quite as aggressive as killing.
Nowadays, you’re likely to hear death metal described as melodic, symphonic, technical, or progressive. These classifications are a testament to how unique heavy metal truly is. Notable death metal bands include Slayer, Death, Morbid Angel, Amon Amarth, and Gojira.
Additional Heavy Metal Subgenres
Ronnie James Dio of Rainbow in 1976.
Power metal is highly melodic with extremely dynamic vocals. Guitarists usually play at higher octaves than in other heavy metal subgenres. Opposed to the aggression and discontent in most metal, power metal lyrics are fantasy-based and often uplifting. Famous artists include Dio, Stratovarius, Blind Guardian, and Dragonforce.
The band Venom named this subgenre with their album Black Metal released in 1982.
Black metal shares much in common with death metal, like blast beats and dark lyrics. However, black metal is even more blatantly satanic and has always been too controversial for mainstream audiences. Vocalists shriek and are often unintelligible. Bass is often omitted entirely. Nevertheless, the genre has gained underground momentum, especially in Scandanavia, thanks to bands like Mayhem, Bathory, and Emporer.
The band Korn in 1993.
Nu metal, like industrial metal, is a fusion genre. Hip hop wasn’t going anywhere when the 1990s rolled around, so metal artists incorporated elements such as rapping and sampling to create a hybrid of anti-establishment genres. By the early 2000s, people couldn’t get enough of this delicious creation, and bands like Slipknot, Mudvayne, Linkin Park, and Papa Roach found great commercial success. However, the nu-metal phase came to a close in the 2010s, and bands that once fronted it turned to their heavy metal roots.
The band Pantera in the late 1980s.
Groove metal, also called post-thrash, shares much in common with its predecessor genre. The difference lies in the emphasis on heaviness in groove metal as opposed to speed. Consequently, metalheads refer to groove metal as a catchier, mid-tempo thrash.
You can “groove” to it… hence the name. Many say Metallica’s Black Album fell into this category as the band adapted to the decline of thrash.
Metalcore came together on its own in the 1980s. It rose to mainstream popularity in the 1990s and 2000s (to the chagrin of heavy metal purists). Bands like Killswitch Engaged, Atreyu, Asking Alexandria, Avenged Sevenfold, and Trivium carried most of the subgenre’s popularity.
As a fusion of extreme metal and hardcore punk, metalcore uses breakdowns, blast beats, and death growls paired with melodic vocals. Many people mistake metalcore for emo music, but metalcore is defined by its instrumental style, while emo music is defined by its lyrics.
Skyclad in 1991 with the release of The Wayward Sons of Mother Earth.
Folk metal is a clash of other heavy metal genres and folk music. Music of this genre is known for delving into fantasy, mythology, and pagan themes.
Folk metal delves into multiple genres for inspiration, where you can hear inspirations from death metal. Sub-sub-genres include pirate metal, medieval metal, and biking metal. Popular bands from the genre include Korpiklaani, Turisas, Finntroll, and Alestorm.
Paradise Lost’s Gothic Album is credited as the first form of Goth Metal (1991).
Goth metal is a mishmash of musical styles of death and doom metal. Its origins go back to the United Kingdom, with a particular bit of popularity in Finland.
Celtic Frost in 1987 with the release of Into the Pandemonium.
Instead of focusing on the subject matter, symphonic metal combines heavy metal into symphonic elements. It can include an entire orchestra or a keyboard orchestration, but using a background orchestra is a strong indicator that you are in the genre.
At its core, heavy metal music is energetic and fierce. It’s a genre that stimulates adrenaline through its intensity. Sure, it begins with a heavily distorted rhythm guitar playing to its limits. But where does it end? That’s what metal subgenres define.
There’s thrash metal for the speed-junkie/headbanger. There’s industrial metal for the synth lover who isn’t afraid of the added intensity of a low, chugging rhythm guitar. And for the enthusiast who wants to shred while dripping sweat onto a pentagram, there’s death metal.
Of course, there are dozens upon dozens more heavy metal subgenres to explore.
Did Led Zeppelin Invent Heavy Metal?
Black Sabbath is the first heavy metal band, but many will attribute the genre’s creation to Led Zeppelin. This is because these British hard-rockers combined distorted guitars, thunderous drumlines, and bellowing guitar solos (intrinsic elements of metal) in a way that no band had done before.
While Led Zeppelin‘s style has come close, its lyrical content ties it more closely to blues and rock. Black Sabbath‘s lyrics frequently cite satanic imagery, war, and death, making these British artists indisputably heavy metal.
Is (insert metal subgenre) real metal?
You will find many online who say “nu-metal is not metal” and “metalcore is not metal.” While you can make a case to affirm or deny these claims, the truth is that not everyone is ever going to agree on anything. Metal is metal as long as it contains most of these things: distorted guitars, thunderous drumlines, fierce vocals, intense lyrics, and high energy. So is (insert subgenre) metal real metal? Probably so!