Thursday, June 24, 2010

Reader Requested Post: True Metal vs. False Metal

This request came from Kelly at Full Metal Attorney, my former law school colleague. It's sure to ruffle some feathers.

Heavy metal or no metal at all whimps and posers leave the hall
-Manowar: "Metal Warriors"

Almost as long as there has been heavy metal, there has been the perception, rightfully or wrongfully, that there is a true and false metal. Much of this has been largely the fault of the misunderstanding media. You see, the mainstream media does not understand metal, shocking, I know. As a result of this, we have lots of bands that the media labels "metal" which really have little to nothing to do with the genre. This has been the case since the very beginning when groups like The Eagles and Boston being labelled "heavy metal". In the 1980's, the entire glam scene was lumped under the "metal" category despite the differences between the music of metal artists like Twisted Sister, Quiet Riot, Dokken, W.A.S.P., and Motley Crue versus the hard tock artists like Aerosmith, Whitesnake, Poison, Ratt, and others. This continued to the 1990's when grunge groups like Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and even the Red Hot Chili Peppers were initially sold under the "metal" genre. In the late 1990's, nu-metal became popular, a genre which in itself is a misnomer because of the relatively minor metal influence. Korn, Limp Bizkit, Deftones, and other nu-metal bands had little to nothing to do with metal. Even today, bands play a fuson of genres that has lead some bands to be considered metal and others to be considered more hardcore. Avenged Sevenfold, Atreyu, Parkway Drive, Oceano, and Suicide Silence have fallen on the core side whereas Trivium, Bleeding Through, Killswitch Engage, Job for a Cowboy, Whitechapel, and Through the Eyes of the Dead have been deemed to have more metal influences than core influences. Part of the reason that the media does this may be due to lack of knowledge of the genre, and in particular in the early 1990's, it is a calculated effort to push other types of music. It is because of this that many metalheads have risen their fists in protest with the slogan "Death to False Metal".

At the center of this categorization controversy is the website Encyclopedia Metallum. The function of this website is to act as a database of known metal bands that have released physical copies of their music. However, it is the stringent guidelines for what is considered metal that has made the site infamous. Bands like Led Zeppelin, Slipknot, The Dillinger Escape Plan, Blue Oyster Cult, Alice Cooper, Soulfly, and many others are considered too borderline by the website to be included as metal bands. However the site also lets in groups like Faith No More, Soundgarden, Sunn O))), Helmet, Def Leppard, and other groups that have been complained about.

My own personal definition of false metal has been posted on this site. I believe false metal bands are those bands that attempt to define themselves as metal, despite having little to nothing in common with the genre, and their only metal influences being the very tip of the iceberg: mainstream bands like Metallica and Black Sabbath. I do not personally have a problem with bands that infuse other genres with metal. I do not have a problem with hardcore bands that add a little metal influence. I do not have a problem with bands playing the music they want to play. I just do not always consider those bands metal. Metal bands, to me, must play mostly metal music. If the music is not metal, the band is not metal.

Slipknot is a good example of what I am talking about. I don't consider the majority of the music Slipknot has played to be metal. Some songs certainly are, and many other songs have metal elements. But, many of those songs are not made up exclusively of metal elements, or even primarily. It's not pure metal influences. It does not have to be pure to be metal, but it should be primarily metal. That is not to say Slipknot is a bad band, I do not personally like them, but I have no issue with people who do.

Another issue that has frequently been brought up in false metal conversations are bands that play metal but for the wrong reasons. I have read many reviews of groups like The Sword, Dethklok, Early Man, Trivium, and others. These bands are accused of being trendhoppers, being exclusively products of record labels' manipulation of the media, or playing metal specifically for the potential market. Early Man in particular was derided for being trendhoppers, and there is some potential justification for that. The band was the creation of two members from Ohio who had backgrounds in largely indie music and then decided to grow their hair and play metal. Many metalheads are skeptical of band members who do not claim an undying, lifelong fascination with metal. Are they right or wrong? Who's to decide?

I consider myself to be a huge metal fan. My personal preferred genres are thrash, death, and traditional metal genres. As such, I would fit the definition of a true metal fan. I listen almost exclusively to metal. There was a blog I read recently which stated that music is a luxury and as such, one should only listen to music they enjoy. As metal is right now the only genre I truly enjoy, that's all I listen to. It does not make me close-minded. I know what I like. If exposed to something truly interesting in another genre, I would be willing to investigate further, but I have not found that. However, I do not claim people who do listen to other genres to be poseurs, or anything like that. People's musical preferences are none of my business.

With all that being said, I think it is the often close-minded, stubborn metalheads that take those way too seriously that raise the banner agaisnt false metal. I like to make fun of non-metal bands on here a lot. But since this is my blog and my opinion, I get to do so. I don't like the bands, but that doesn't mean I have a problem with the fans. I may not understand why they listen to The Devil Wears Prada or Iwrestledabearonce, but they may not understand why I listen to Katalepsy or Vomit Remnants. It's just music. The idea that we need to have a Crusade Against False Metal is silly.

The website Lamentations of the Flame Princess has an excellent essay on false metal for more information.


  1. Good post. I agree with you on the larger issues, though of course I disagree with you on some of the finer points (e.g. I think Slipknot is pretty obviously metal and Faith No More is obviously not, both of which I believe you disagree with). I doubt any two metalheads would agree on every single band.

    I think nu metal is unfairly maligned, and I will discuss that some day (probably in the context of an album review, but maybe not). I also think Slipknot is somewhat inaccurately lumped in with nu metal--of course there's a lot of nu metal in there, but there's also a lot of extreme metal and thrash.

  2. Mrs. MetallattorneyJune 24, 2010 at 10:30 PM

    I have to point out that this is a problem I have. If metalheads can't agree on what metal IS, then how can they claim that the music is so far superior to anything else. For the record, this isn't a problem with you, it is a problem in general with the genre and many of its fans. As stated by the blog you mentioned, music is a luxury, and to treat it as something more serious is only detrimental to not only the music that you do not care for, but the music you do as well. This isn't to say that you should listen to music you don't enjoy, but to be an elitist about that music can only be damaging. It makes it hard for people to truly get into the music, and learn about it without being treated as though their opinions are somehow less important. Wouldn't it be easier to welcome people, without expecting them to devote their entire music library, or worse, their entire lives to that music? Wouldn't it be easier and more effective to educate others about the differences in the genres, rather than looking down upon others choices in music? Music is NOT a lifestyle. (When I say this, I refer to fans, not necessarily musicians.) Some people can make it that way, and that is fine. However, that is NOT the PURPOSE of music, and to expect others to revolve their lives around music only hurts your genre of choice.

    Further, bands who choose to make a metal album should not be maligned for not choosing metal for their entire career. As you and many others have pointed out many times, metal is not a highly lucrative genre. It makes little sense for a band to do a metal album purely for the profit. I understand the distaste for bands that make a metal album as some sort of parody, but to malign an album without even the courtesy of listening to it merely because it was done by a band that is not primarily a metal band does nothing but demonstrate ones narrow-mindedness. This narrow-mindedness only limits the potential options, and potential quality of the music, and will slowly lead to its demise. Continually limiting a genre to a select few, especially a genre that is not terribly easy to find to begin with, will only increasingly limit the bands that DO meet the criteria that metalheads are looking for.

    Finally, you and I have discussed this before, but how do metalheads account for progression of music? If metal is viewed with extremely stringent guidelines as to what is actually considered metal, how does the genre evolve? Music as we know it has not been in existence for very long comparatively. The evolution of music throughout history has been exceptionally fast. Do metalheads want metal to continue to evolve, or do they want the genre to stagnate as it currently is? If that is truly the desire, maybe the exclusivity of the genre is how it should continue. But that begs the question: Is that what is best for metal as a genre, or will this attitude cause it to become outdated?

  3. Excellent points! I'm going to address the last one first.

    The progression of music is a good thing. I actually expected at least mention of "hipster" metal in the post. "Hipster" metal is generally more experimental, and doesn't fall into expected guidelines. Ultimately, the "hipsters" are going to do more to advance the genre. I had these thoughts more or less swimming around in my head before I read this article (ostensibly a review of Acrassicauda's latest, but really a discussion of hipster metal versus "true" metal). That article basically said what I was thinking about it.

    On the penultimate point (I got to use the word twice today!) I must partially disagree. Metal people can make other kinds of albums, certainly. Non-metal people can't make a metal album. They could, but it wouldn't be any good. Case in point: Moi Dix Mois. It just comes off sounding fake. There are very rare exceptions to this rule, made by people who are very eclectic and have an understanding of the genre; the only such example I can think of is Dave Grohl's Probot.

    Finally, to your first point. Music is a luxury. There is something about metal that makes its fans more enthusiastic about it than fans of any other genre of music (or perhaps any other form of entertainment, with the possible exception of pornography). This is why many will claim it is superior to other forms of music; I have in the past said that, and at least part of me still believes it. Based on any criteria I can think of, it absolutely is superior--but other people have different criteria for what makes good music. So given the same premises I work with, everyone would agree metal is superior.

    Now, metal can't be definitively and comprehensively laid out in a single definition. But neither can any other genre description (there's a lot of sci-fi versus fantasy argument in the world of speculative fiction). But we can agree on the majority of the defining characteristics, and at least 90% of metal can be easily defined as such. It's just that tricky 10% that crosses genre lines which gives pause, but I think that's less important than agreeing that metal is awesome. And we metalheads definitely agree on that.

    On the entire music library/life issue, the interesting thing is that many talented metal musicians will often listen to music of any genre, which then inspires them to try new things. But as I said before, we get more enthusiastic about metal, so it's only natural that most of our music would be metal. I also have a lot of classical, some rock, a little blues, a little jazz, and just a tiny little bit of country (2 artists).

    That was fun. But the main thing I wanted to say was that the thing that's best for the genre is a healthy balance between open-mindedness and respect for what the genre is.

  4. "Based on any criteria I can think of, it absolutely is superior"

    What I mean to say is, "Based on any criteria I would agree with, it absolutely is superior." I could think of other criteria (e.g. music should be pretty, or the lyrical content should be more important than the music), but I just wouldn't agree with them.

  5. This is quite the discussion that has resulted from this post. I'm going to try to address everything chronologically.

    Kelly, I absolutely agree with you that not every metalhead will agree on every band. Hell, there are some people who don't believe Black Sabbath is a metal band. There are a lot of people who don't believe Alice in Chains is a metal band, something I know you have mentioned before on your own blog. It can get to ridiculous degrees. You hit on two flashpoints with the bands that you mentioned and hit the nail on the end. As I mentioned in the original post, I don't consider nu-metal to be a metal genre and I don't consider Slipknot to be a metal band. I do consider Faith No More to be a metal band, certainly on The Real Thing, Angel Dust, and King for a Day. Much of their other stuff is not metal however as they were a very experimental band. Slipknot has so many influences and I believe that the metal influences are there and the band clearly has a love for metal, but I don't think that it all adds up to a primarily metal album. Certainly some songs are more metal than others, but I feel a line has to be drawn that just barely excludes Slipknot. I draw that line at one album. One album has to be predominantly metal for me to consider the band a metal band, and I don't feel Slipknot has reached that threshold.

    Mrs. Metallattorney, There are always going to be borderline bands that not everyone can agree with. I mentioned several in the original post, some of whom I believe are metal, others of whom I do not. The basic genres like thrash, black, death, power, and doom are there, but there are bands that push those boundaries so much that it can't reasonably be considered metal anymore. Look at doom metal bands that have descended into drone and noise like Sunn O))). Look at black metal bands that have descended into ambient like later Beherit. That doesn't necessarily mean that we can't agree on everything and of course we all do believe our musical genre is superior to any other. Of course rap fans believe their genre and there is just as much disagreement about whether something is rap or hip hop, an argument I still don't fully understand. County fans believe their genre is superior but there is a borderline that is causing problems with whether an artist is country or pop. Is Taylor Swift a country artist or a pop artist? Shania Twain? Garth Brooks?

  6. It's not that I refuse to listen to bands that are not metal. At one time, I used to listen to a lot of bands that are not considered metal. However right now, and for the last several years, metal is the only genre that I have wanted to listen to. I have had no desire to listen to jazz, classic rock, alternative, or any other genre that I once listened to. It's been all metal all the time. If I did want to listen to those genres I would and I would not feel bad about it. Metalheads can be somewhat surprising with their other listening habits. I know of a lot of metalheads that listen to a wide range of other genres. There's nothing wrong with it. Their preference is for metal though and that's what leads to the so-called "elitism". They are exposed to other genres, and they find metal superior.

    I do have a problem with a non-metal artist deciding to put together a metal album. There have been a few examples and they have been pretty much terrible. I'll give some: Moby recently formed a band called Diamondsnake and they are ridiculously awful, Ryan Adams has a black metal band called Werewolf, and Dave Grohl had the Probot project. If a non-metal artist were to release something and it was good, I think metalheads would be able to respect it more. But that's been rare. In addition, metal is a genre of music for outsiders, people who don't like being a part of the mainstream. When a mainstream artist decides to try metal for just a little bit, we're offended. Why? Because we feel that the artist is a poseur, either because they are truly a metalhead and hiding it from the mainstream or because they are trying desperately for support from the metal genre. It is not necessarily profitable to be a metal band, but there are trends and you usually see non-metal artists decide to try out metal when there is a trend. Take the Moby example, traiditional metal is coming back into style, and he decided to put together a traditional metal band. If that's not a case of carefully timing the wave, I don't know what is.

    As for progression, obviously there is quite a bit of that in metal. Bands today like Mastodon, Baroness, and otehr popular groups bear little sonic resemblance to Black Sabbath. Black metal sounds nothing like Sabbath and Maiden and Priest. We do account for progression, just look at Portal which is so far progressed that they sound nothing like death metal bands that came before them. However, there's certain elements that must exist to be considered metal, and all metal bands have those elements. It's an intrinsic "metalness" that makes the music metal. Some bands take influences from metal, but take them so far outside the genre, that they can not be considered metal anymore, but others have progressed over time, but still have the basic elements in place. We do want metal to evolve, we don't like bands to be constantly ripping each other off, we just want some homebase to come back to.

    Wow, I did not intend to write that much.

  7. The issue I have with a lot of metalheads is they like to insult people who listen to bands they consider not part of the metal genre.

    I remember joining this metal forum, and on a thread listing my fav bands I mentioned God Forbid, Underoath and DEP. I got flamed by a few people who claimed I don't know metal, and the admin deleted my post saying my bands were not metal enough.

    In the end it's fine if you think a band is not metal, you don't need to be an elitist about it. I think this what a lot of younger metalheads do though. You don't see fans of other genres being so anal , and I think it's a bad thing because you are just dissuading newcomers to the genre from truly embracing the genre or expressing a musical opinion just because they get accused of not knowing what metal is.

    Seriously I don't care about the genre , I listen to Pig Destroyer, Arcade Fire, Deftones. Good music is good music.

    Check out my profile for proof!

  8. I agree, that is a bad habit that a lot of younger metalheads have. But I think that's a response to the media issue I described in the original post. A lot of metalheads don't like it when the media tries to lump a bunch of bands into the metal genre that don't really belong. As I said, this goes back to the formation of the genre. Because metal came about so quickly, a bunch of ignorant media types had no idea what metal really was. This is still the case.

    If you enjoy music, you should listen to it and not worry about what the genre is or what other people think about it.

  9. Mrs. MetallattorneyJune 26, 2010 at 11:54 AM

    That is EXACTLY the attitude that I referred to in my comment. And as I pointed out, it is only damaging to young fans who are just beginning to listen to the music. This is a somewhat unrelated story, but it could be considered somewhat similar. When I was younger, I was very involved in various animal shows. We had purchased a llama, and I decided to get involved in the 4-H llama show. We joined a 4-H group dedicated to llama's. Well, I found many of the llama people to somewhat rude, unwelcoming, and elitist. Surprise, we no longer own llama's and not only do I have no real interest in showing llama's ever again, I also have no real interest in even OWNING a llama. Not because they were unpleasant animals, (well, except for Binky), but because the other people involved in them made an impression so bad that it has leached onto the animal itself.

    Anyway, before I respond to the other comments, I would really like to know how EXACTLY metal is defined. What is the definition of metal, and what are the differences between metal and other music? I ask this question on here, because I think it would be beneficial for others as well as myself.

  10. It's like the definition of obscenity handed down by Justice Stewart in Miller v. California. I know it when I hear it. For something a little more substantive, I believe the primary sound of metal should be evolved from the music of Black Sabbath. Therefore, to be a metal band, one must be able to have evolution traced from that band. If it is too far out in left field, it's difficult for me to call it metal.

  11. I am currently working on a post to define metal, inspired as a response to this post.