The Ultimate Guide to Metal Music

Exactly how many types of metal music are there?

A full family tree, complete with origins of each type

Not only are there thick limbs for markedly different types of metal music, but there are also spindly branches shooting off of these as sub-genres and sub-sub-genres emerge.

Some of these sub-genres loop back together as is the case with deathcore and blackened doom, two hybridizations tying sub-genres together into new sub-genres.

Sometimes influences come from outside of the metal family tree, as in the case of hardcore punk’s hybridization with metal to form metalcore or folk’s influence on different genres of metal in the case of folk metal.

All of this is to say that the easiest way to understand the variety in all types of metal music is to trace the family tree and the divergences and convergences of the various branches, which is what we will be doing in this article, so now is the time to turn on something heavy, grab a beverage of your choice, and get ready for the most brutal (but in a good way) history lesson of all time.

The most notable bands from each of the metal music genres

The complete family tree of metal music genres

At the end, I’ll go over some additional info you might want to read up on, including the origins of all types of metal music

The types of metal include:

This brings us to our first type of metal music, and the earliest named metal type, which is heavy metal.

The characteristics of heavy metal music go on to factor in varying degrees to all of the metal subgenres that might count heavy metal music as a common ancestor.

These, of course, are distorted guitars, powerful, complex drum rhythms, and assertive vocals.

The subject matter of heavy metal lyrics gets into the darker facets of human existence, with some groups diving into the positively taboo, such as death, destruction, and an obsession with satanic semiotics.

Of the triumvirate of early heavy metal–Black Sabbath, Judas Priest, and Iron Maiden–the latter two bands also fall into the category of NWOBHM, on which I’ll expand further below.

This is more a subset of heavy metal music: NWOBHM stands for New Wave of British Heavy Metal.

The term was coined by Geoff Barton of Sounds magazine and refers to a phenomenon in late 1970s England, characterized by a heavy sound of a uniquely British variety.

Saxon, Raven, and Diamond Head are among the best-known and most successful of these British heavy metal acts.

A theme that will return throughout the remainder of this article is the oppositional nature of metal genres.

Time and time again the story behind a genre is that its progenitors are motivated by something they don’t like instead of something they like, so movements in metal are often defined oppositionally.

Thrash metal is a terrific example of this phenomenon: aesthetically, it is a response to the perceived hollowness of hair, or glam metal, which developed around the same time, but more on that in the next section.

Thus, the sound of thrash could be characterized as a marriage of the heavy bassiness and virtuosic guitar work of heavy metal music and the uptempo energy and drive of punk rock.

Metallica, Anthrax, and Slayer are some of the best-known thrash acts.

On the opposite side of the divide, hair metal tends towards a union of pop and heavy metal music.

This is the metal made for mass consumption via ready-for-radio songs and the first and perhaps last physically attractive metal musicians.

That is an exaggeration, of course, but it is generally understood in the metal community that the ugliest bands tend to sound the best.

While heavy metal of the late 1970s and early 1980s was mostly a denim and leather scene, the acts on the Sunset Strip were wearing brightly colored spandex and makeup.

Well-known glam metal groups include Mötley Crüe, Poison, and Warrant.

The lines grow somewhat blurred when it comes to speed metal and thrash metal.

Speed probably grew out of heavy metal first and influenced the origins of thrash metal, but it was basically in heavy metal bands playing a few fast songs that it came about.

Early adopters of the speed metal genre are Anvil and Exciter, both out of Canada, and the German band, Accept.

The speed metal sound is defined in large part by the tempo of the music: for speed metal players, faster is better.

They are also known for clean melodic lines, virtuosic guitar work, and vocals tending to be cleaner than the more guttural vocals you might hear in thrash and other heavy metal songs.

Power metal is closely related to speed metal.

In fact, Accept could be cross-listed as both speed metal and power metal; there is a significant overlap in these genres.

The best way to distinguish power metal from everything else is by focusing on the vocalist.

Singers in power metal groups tend to sing clean and with a high and wide range.

The lyrics tend to distinguish power metal from speed and thrash, too, as they frequently delve into themes related to fantasy, mythology, camaraderie, and hope.

Some groups, combine the typical dual guitars, bass, drums, and vocals with keyboards and symphonic performing forces to bolster the epic nature of the music.

Sabaton, Helloween, and Sonata Arctica are great bands with which to start a deep dive into power metal.

Death metal grew out of some of the more extreme elements of thrash in the mid-80s, with bands like Obituary, Death, Deicide, and Morbid Angel paving the way into the new genre.

Stylistically, death metal guitars tend to be tuned low and heavily distorted, and guitarists use the full range of extended techniques, including palm muting, tremolo picking, and all sorts of harmonics.

The next few genres could easily be considered subgenres of the umbrella of death metal, but they’re also distinct enough to warrant their own discussion.

8. Melodic Death Metal

8. Melodic Death Metal

When you think of melodic death metal, think of death metal with some tweaks to the guitars and vocals.

As the name would suggest, the guitar work in melodic death metal tends to emphasize melodic riffs, often harmonized with a second guitar and likely layered neatly in studio recordings.

The vocals might also cut through the mix a bit more to reveal a melodic character in contrast to the standard guttural sound of a death metal vocalist.

Melodic death metal is often associated with Swedish groups in the mid-’90s, particularly the trifecta of the Gothenburg sound: At the Gates, Dark Tranquility, and In Flames.

9. Technical Death Metal

9. Technical Death Metal

The characteristics of death metal that make it particularly difficult to play are the complexity of the riffs, the sudden changes in key and meter, the chromatic harmonies, and the uncommon time signatures.

Technical death metal takes these characteristics to their furthest extremes.

The development of this subgenre was already underway in the late 80s and early 90s.

Three of the “Big Four” of technical death metal were a big part of the Florida metal scene in that timeframe: Death, Cynic, and Atheist.

These four are great places to start in getting into tech-death.

Closely related to technical death metal, progressive metal bridges the gap between heavy metal and progressive rock.

It essentially combines some of the interesting syncopated rhythms and complex time signatures of technical death metal, the driven and aggressive tone of pretty much all metal, and the neoclassical compositional elements of progressive rock into one sound.

This sound gained some acclaim in the 90s with bands like Queensrÿche, Tool, and Dream Theater.

Gojira, having entered the progressive scene in the early aughts, has also had an outsized influence on the development of the subgenre.

In particular, their lyrical content focused on the degradation of the environment brings the music back to the earth, whereas metal lyrics are so often spun out of the stuff of fantasy or brutal half-truths or make-believe.

This is not to diminish the power of other metal lyricists, of course, only to draw attention to something different coming out of this progressive band from France.

Depending on whom you ask, djent is either a technique of palm-muted chugging on a guitar plugged into a really high-gain signal chain or it is the subgenre that grew out of progressive metal that features a lot of djent-playing.

Fredrik Thordendal, the lead guitarist of Meshuggah, is credited with originating the djent technique.

As such, Meshuggah, along with Periphery and Tesseract, are a few of the djent bands worth taking a listen to.

That said, whether djent is a true subgenre or just a technique used by bands coming from a few different subgenres is an open question, so it is always worth getting a feel for the room before bringing up djent with a bunch of metalheads.

As the name would suggest, metalcore is a combination of elements from metal and hardcore punk.

Metalcore of the ‘90s sounds more akin to hardcore–particularly New York Hardcore (NYHC), which in and of itself could almost be considered a metal subgenre–and metalcore of the aughts tends to be more influenced by melodic death metal.

The influence of metal can be found in the double bass drumming and blast beats, as well as brutal, heavy guitar riffs.

Vocalists tend to use the screaming vocal style heard in a lot of punk genres, although a thrash style or death growl might find its way into the singer’s arsenal as well.

Metalcore of the aughts and later frequently features some clean singing as well, particularly in choruses.

This is the moment in the song where everything slows down, there will be some space in the drum part, and the guitars will descend to the lowest part of their range and do some rhythmic chugging as the vocalist calls for the audience to make their way to the pit and mosh.

Early metalcore groups that grew out of the NYHC scene include Agnostic Front, Cro-Mags, and Killing Time.

Some other bands worth noting are Converge and the Dillinger Escape Plan.

Deathcore is a pretty transparent combination of two subgenres: death metal and metalcore.

Basically, it takes most of the elements of death metal, from the guitar work to the blast beats, and adds one critical weapon to the arsenal from metalcore: the breakdown.

Imagine everything you love from death metal with the addition of at least one breakdown in almost every song, and you have good deathcore.

Deathcore really hit its stride in the mid-2000s with groups like All Shalt Perish, Carnifex, and Job for a Cowboy: these three are a great place to start if you’re looking to get into the deathcore scene.

Folk metal is metal that incorporates traditional folk instruments or styles of singing into some sort of metal.

Styles of folk metal vary pretty widely within the genre, with both the metal component and the folk component open to interpretation.

Tengger Cavalry incorporates Mongolian throat singing and traditional instruments into their own form of folk metal.

Finntroll, on the other hand, plays something more akin to Finnish folk music infused with black metal.

Skyforger incorporates bagpipes and first grew out of a Latvian doom band called Grindmaster Dead.

Really, folk metal is all over the place and it is difficult to nail it down as having a particular sound or list of lyrical themes.

That said, the aforementioned groups are a good place to start in getting a general picture of what folk metal is all about.

Symphonic metal, like folk metal, is something of a catchall for the combination of two elements: in this case, all things symphonic and all things metal.

Dimmu Borgir, for example, is a black metal band with some symphonic qualities, in the same way, that Septicflesh is a death metal band that frequently performs with a full orchestra.

Epica, on the other hand, is an example of a band that really embraces the symphonic before the metal.

The main common traits across the various subgenres of symphonic metal include big, powerful performing forces to match the size of a symphonic orchestra and sometimes even a choir, as well as more classical form in the songwriting process, which sometimes comes across as rather repetitive but makes it easier for the orchestra and the band to interface.

Perhaps one of the most fascinating and shortest-lived genres of metal is nu-metal.

In the late 90s, bands like Limp Bizkit and Linkin Park gained some acclaim when they combined some of the heaviness of metal–think distorted guitars and aggressive drums–with elements of hip hop music, like rapped vocals and including a turntablist in the band.

In this way, the nu-metal sound is essentially a crossover between a few non-metal genres–hip hop, electronic, pop, and perhaps others, depending on how you hear it–and heavy metal.

Adding turntables to metal makes available a whole lot of textures, like sample-based sounds and scratching, that wouldn’t be a part of metal otherwise.

Vocalists, in rapping and singing clean in addition to the typical death growl and scream, broadened the palette in nu-metal.

By the mid-aughts, though, there were just too many nu-metal bands.

New releases underperformed, and a lot of bands either folded or re-branded.

This might have something to do with the explosion in metalcore in the late aughts and the 2010s.

There was something of a nu-metal revival in the 2010s, but mostly, groups in other genres began incorporating nu-metal elements into their own sounds, as has been the case with Issues and My Ticket Home.

Kid Rock and Papa Roach are a couple more bands to add to the classic nu-metal list.

The former has branched out in a few different directions in the hopes of staying relevant, but the latter is still going strong making more or less the same old nu-metal.

Industrial metal was always going to happen: industrial music is about pushing the envelope when it comes to the types of sounds that can be music, and in a lot of ways, so is metal.

In this way, industrial metal is basically industrial music in which guitars play a central role along with the common performing forces of synthesizers, samples, distorted vocals, and drums.

The roots of doom metal are in the low and slow sound of Black Sabbath.

Doom metal is distinguished from other heavy metal genres by the low-tuned guitars, slow tempo, and dense, often fuzzy texture.

Bleak and dread-inducing lyrical themes presenting an overall feeling of, in a word, doom, match the performing forces.

Witchfinder General, Pentagram, and Candlemass are three early adopters of the genre who were innovating in the early-to-mid-80s.

Doom is another of the genre umbrellas, with quite a few hybrid subgenres that more exactly match bands’ outputs.

There are plenty of bands playing doom more recently than in the 80s, Primitive Man is a great example, but a lot of them end up being slotted into other more specific subgenres.

If doom metal and psychedelic rock had a baby, it would be stoner metal, also known as stoner rock or desert rock.

The influences of psychedelic rock, namely guitar distortion that is fuzzier in nature than your typical metal guitar distortion; extended, jammy solos; and whimsical, surreal lyrics that often reference hallucinogens figuratively if not directly, make their presence felt in stoner metal, along with the blues, which is deeply embedded in the origins of doom metal.

Sleep, Electric Wizard, and Mastodon are towering influences on the genre.

They hail from my hometown and were my initial introduction to heavier music back in high school.

We won’t get into every hybrid subgenre out there, but sludge metal is definitely worth mentioning, as it has a particularly distinct sound in combining doom metal and hardcore punk.

Bands like the Melvins, Eyehategod, and Corrupted have been instrumental in shaping the sound of the sludge metal subgenre.

Black metal is typically fast, with the drummers playing blast beats and guitarists playing tremolo.

It generally features high-pitched, shrieked vocals, and often values lo-fi recording techniques that capture feeling over technique.

Black metal lyrical themes frequently delve into the darkest, most satanic subject areas.

Of all the genres of metal, black metal musicians might work the hardest at shock value, often wearing corpse paint or some other means of disguising facial features, like the hoods worn by Gaerea.

Lo-fi recording is part of black metal heritage but it is not necessarily a determining factor in the genre.

While Darkthrone’s Fenriz has spoken out about the evils of compression and plenty of black metal bands have released records that sound like they were recorded through a gaming headset, there are also groups like Spectral Wound releasing records of unspeakable beauty where every element is clear and obviously very painstakingly placed in the recording.

Venom, Bathory, and Celtic Frost, among others, are considered to be part of the first wave of black metal of the 1980s.

They didn’t call themselves black metal, but the second wave, of the 1990s, enshrined the genre and named the first wave as influences.

Since then, black metal has been associated with some deplorable elements within the metal community, including the very small and generally shunned Nazi black metal scene.

This has been the longest section because we lumped all of the black metal influences into one section rather than breaking the genre into further subgenres.

Black metal, perhaps more than any of the other genres, has hybridized with outside influences as well as other metal genres.

An entire article could be written about the various forms of black metal and blackened subgenres, but for now, it should suffice to say that the thing that unites these various forms is the umbrella term of black metal.

Hybridized or not, there is not a black metal band around that would resist the distinction of being named a black metal band.

That said, I would recommend to anybody interested in black metal to keep an eye on the Black Metal Promotion YouTube channel for frequent new releases from across the black metal spectrum.

The Origins Of Metal Music Itself

The origins of heavy metal music are hotly contested.

Some metalheads point to a particular band or a few bands making music around the same time and call them the first metal band(s), whereas others might indicate a trend of proto-metal groups that pursued the heavier sounds that paved the way for metal.

Still, others go way back to the 19th century, when the music of the late Romantic era made use of darker tonalities and the type of chromaticism employed in metal a century later.

As far as the first self-proclaimed “heavy metal” bands go, it gets a little complicated.

The question of who first coined the term “heavy metal” is hotly contested.

Deena Weinstein, a professor of sociology at DePaul University and the author of a number of books on metal, wrote about her search for the origins of the term “heavy metal” in Just So Stories: How Heavy Metal Got Its Name—A Cautionary Tale (2014).

One is the line “heavy metal thunder” from Steppenwolf’s 1968 hit, “Born to be Wild.” Though heard in a musical context, the song’s lyricist, Mars Bonfire, claims his intent for the line was to capture the sound and feel of a car or motorcycle tearing down a highway.

This is one of those strange situations in which a lot of people remember something that did not actually happen, however, the term “heavy metal” does not ever occur in the book.

It does appear in the Nova trilogy, however, in the form of “Uranium Willy the Heavy Metal Kid,” a character who appears throughout the three novels by Burroughs.

This is clearly more a reference to the periodic table than to anything particularly musical, but the vibe might match with the values that would later be incorporated into the musical and cultural aesthetics of heavy metal.

The most likely first user of the term “heavy metal” in the context of talking about a genre of music comes from the community of music writers in the 1960s and 70s.

Lester Bangs and Mike Saunders, both writing for Creem in the 60s and 70s, among other publications, used “heavy metal” as a disparaging adjective for music they did not much care for.

Thus, a term that began as an insult, something meant to turn an audience away from a record rather than towards it, came to define a genre.

The question that remains is, which band was the first to embrace the genre, warts and all, to become the first metal band in name, and not only in sound?

Plenty of listeners point to popular groups whose sounds got heavier in the late sixties and early seventies.

The first bands to claim the title, though, were later Black Sabbath, Judas Priest, and Iron Maiden.

Plenty of groups have been included under the heavy metal music umbrella post-facto, as well.

For the history buffs in here, why not also check out my post on the origins of music itself?

Metal or Heavy Metal?

It is worth noting here that heavy metal might be the first genre of metal, but it is also its own distinct genre.

As such, not all types of metal music share that much in common with heavy metal.

For that reason, a lot of metalheads will use the term “metal” as the umbrella term for all types of metal music, and not “heavy metal.”

When talking about metal with fellow metalheads I will almost never use the term “heavy” because I don’t listen to much heavy metal, and I don’t think of “heavy metal” as the umbrella term for all types of metal music–I think of metal as the umbrella term.

Meanwhile, it is pretty common for outsiders to think of all types of metal music as heavy metal types.

When, for example, my aunt uses the words “heavy metal” I know I am about to hear the sort of generalization of all types of metal music you will only hear from somebody who has not done any deep listening in any genre of the art form.

All of that said, if you are among the outsiders to the metal community, consider this a free tip that will help you bring yourself into the community, as will the remainder of this article, covering all types of metal music.

When it comes right down to it, metal is especially resistant to categorization.

These are some of the big ones when it comes to all types of metal music, but I don’t know of anyone who would be comfortable saying definitively, “there are exactly _____ genres of metal” because this music is not top-down: it is grassroots.

Right this very minute, someone is sitting in a basement in the midwest developing a new genre of metal, and if the first wave of black metal is any indication of how these things work, they won’t even know that they invented a genre until fifteen years from now, five years after the rest of us first hear their stuff.

The amount of hybridization within the metal community makes it equally resistant to categorization but is one of the hallmarks of a strong, sustainable ecosystem.

In this way, metal is the solution to musical monoculture.

There can be no experts on this music, only students; thus I hope, speaking as one student to another, that this article has been informative and entertaining, and you will be more encouraged than disappointed to read that when it comes to the question, “how many types of metal music are there?” the answer is “fortunately, very many, with more added all the time.”

Have a favorite metal subgenre that we didn’t include on the list?

Scroll to Top