In this article, I introduce “Extreme Metal” in several respects. First, I consider its “generic” character, locating it within the larger musical scene of “Metal” and distinguishing its particular musical shape. I also consider (in generic terms), the larger subcultural textures of the Extreme Metal world including its related activities and performance.
Finally, I locate Extreme Metal subculture within a larger “turn to extremity” that has crossed media and genres in recent years. Throughout this article, I argue that Extreme Metal refers, on the one hand, to a distinctive musical repertoire and style, and on the other, to a musical subculture, of which music is only a part.
In addition, Extreme Metal can be located in wider cultural elaborations of “extremity” that serve to question the nature of its generic identity as both a music genre and subculture and that highlight key points of focus for this project.
Extreme Metal is an overarching term used to group and unite the genres of Death Metal, Grindcore, Black Metal and Doom Metal. The Extreme Metal music genre can be characterised in relation to extremity and its attenuation from Heavy Metal.
Extreme Metal music is largely characterised by its sonic extremity. This can be seen in the genre’s utilisation of extreme forms of tempo (both slow and fast), unconventional song structures, sound-scapes of amplified distortion and vocal manipulations, and lyrical themes that include death, violence and the occult.
Extreme Metal, therefore, presents the listener with an extremity of sound. Kahn-Harris (2007: 5) has pointed to such an extremity of sound existing on the boundary between music and non-music, because: “Extreme Metal music frequently teeters on the edge of formless noise”.
Weinstein (2000) claims that the sonic, the visual and the verbal dimensions all make crucial contributions to the definition of Heavy Metal as a genre, and indeed the same is true for Extreme Metal.
The often shocking lyrical content of Extreme Metal is supported by a delivery of growled, grunted, rasped, shouted or screamed vocal and a bombardment of amplified and distorted sound, accompanied by performance and imagery featuring a dominant masculinity and demonic possession.
Extreme Metal has its roots in Heavy Metal, and indeed can be situated in the larger music genre of Metal. Heavy Metal has an emphasis upon power, volume and skill and uses distorted electric guitar with strong rhythm (Weinstein, 2000).
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Heavy Metal genre arose from Rock music, fusing Psychedelic/Acid Rock to the basic structure of Blues Rock.
The first Heavy Metal bands such as Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath had strong rhythm, used vocals as instruments, had technical guitar solos and sang lyrics about alienation, the occult and dangerous women (Walser, 1993).
By the mid-1970s, some musicians had moved away from the Blues influence, adopting an increased tempo and tougher sound inspired by Punk, which characterised the rise of the “New Wave of British Heavy Metal” (NWOBHM) that included bands like Iron Maiden, Saxon and Motorhead (Christe, 2003).
From 1979 to 1983, there was a growth of Heavy Metal bands and fans. This period of growth Weinstein (2000) claims finally resulted in a fragmentation of Heavy Metal into sub-genres due to diverse and conflicting styles.
It is at this point that Extreme Metal genres emerged, breaking from Heavy Metal codes but remaining part of the Heavy Metal “family”. The emergence of Extreme Metal genres had much to do with a reaction to the Heavy Metal genre.
This was not only to achieve new sounds, but also in attempts to give a literal interpretation of Heavy Metal, indeed, Weinstein (2000: 42) refers to Speed Metal as characterising a “fundamentalist” return to Heavy Metal.
The Extreme Metal genres changed the focus and sound of Heavy Metal. The genres of Speed Metal, Thrash, Grindcore and Death Metal created a heavier sound, particularly through increased tempo and technicality, Black Metal attempted to seriously portray the subject of the occult and Satanism; whilst Doom Metal explored the intensities of slow rhythm and atmosphere. These are issues, which I now explore further.
Extreme Metal music has a specific generic character that separates it from other forms of “Metal” music. Extreme Metal consists of a collection of genres that are distinct from one another, with their own sound structures and with “different histories, which are constantly developing and reconfiguring” (Kahn-Harris, 2007: 7).
Speed Metal and Thrash emerged in California between 1981-83 with bands such as Anthrax, Exodus, Megadeth, Metallica and Slayer. The genres were influenced by Punk, Hardcore and the NWOBHM in relation to its pursuit of speed, and shouted vocals. These influences were combined with the Heavy Metal standards of distortion and technical guitar solos (that were also fast and frequent).
Band members wore street clothes like their fans rather than eccentric stage wear and had lyrics about the horrors of the real world, which Weinstein (2000: 49) also argues separated the genre from Heavy Metal: “The Speed/Thrash subgenre can be understood to represent as much a transformation of attitude as a change in music. It pares away the arty, the fantastic, the overblown, and the heroic elements in Heavy Metal”.
Speed Metal and Thrash are not always placed in the category of Extreme Metal but are considered to have had definite influence on the emerging Extreme Metal genres (Mudrian, 2004).
Death Metal grew out of the extremes of speed in Speed Metal and Thrash and a concern with the subject of morbidity and death by European Thrash bands such as Celtic Frost and Sodom (Purcell, 2003; Mudrian, 2004).
Its emergence has also been linked to the aggressive sounds of 1980s Hardcore Punk such as Discharge and GBH (Mudrian, 2004; Zero Tolerance, Jan/Feb; 2007: 28).
The emerging sound was distinct from Heavy Metal: “Death Metal took the speed of both Hardcore and Thrash to build its skeleton, and fleshed this out with churning, down-tuned guitars and growling style of singing which provided a dramatic antithesis to the falsettos and high-pitched lead vocals dominating mainstream Metal at the time.” (Moynihan and Soderlind, 1998: 27)
“Death Metal” name originates from its main features: morbid themes and lyrical descriptions of violence and death, themes that are often shocking and extreme. Death Metal is “fast, low, powerful, intense and played very loudly” (Purcell, 2003: 9).
The genre’s sound can be characterised by drumming that uses double bass pedal and blast beats that serve to provide a constant battery of rhythm; electric guitars that are distorted and often down-tuned; and the use of vocal manipulations to convey the lyrics, particularly guttural growling but also grunting, snarling, and screeching.
Many subgenres of Death Metal have emerged that are based upon differing styles of tempo, distortion and vocal. Influential subgenre styles of the Death Metal sound were named after the areas from which the styles emerged such as “Florida Death Metal” characterised by precise and “clear” (undistorted) guitar and machine-gun-like blast beats (Morbid Angel, Cannibal Corpse) or “Swedish Death Metal” characterised by self-conscious moral lyrics, down-tuned guitar, with melody and groove (Entombed, Dismember).
Grindcore melds together aspects of Hardcore Punk and Thrash with the guttural vocals and the down-tuned guitars of Death Metal (Mudrian, 2004). Unlike Death Metal, Grindcore has a more political emphasis, which is influenced by Hardcore Punk.
The genre has a sound defined by tempo and distortion: “The [Grindcore] genre these days is often defined by detuned guitars, blasting drums (sometimes with a high-tuned clanging ‘biscuit tin’ snare drum sound), sickening lyrics and often heavily processed/distorted vocals, all of which together make it one of the most obnoxious of underground genres.” (Zero Tolerance, May/April 2005: 46)
The Grindcore movement emerged in Birmingham, Britain in the mid-1980s, and is particularly associated with the band Napalm Death whose debut album ‘Scum’ (1987) and follow-up album ‘From Enslavement to Obliteration’ (1988) featured extremely fast and short songs (27-28 songs per album).
The music was characterised by deep and raspy vocals, fast drums with blast beats, distorted bass, simple and fast guitar work, and socio-political content such as songs addressing animal rights and racism (Purcell, 2003; Mudrian, 2004).
Napalm Death member, Bill Steer’s side-project band Carcass, is also recognised as a key influence on the genre style (Zero Tolerance, May/April 2005: 46).
Their debut album ‘Reek of Putrefaction’ (1988) influenced Grindcore with its technical guitar solos, high and low pitched growls and gore-centred lyrics with elaborate medical terminology.
Such an emphasis on obsessive and elaborate lyrical content has led to the emergence of subgenres based on one theme such as “splattercore” that concentrates upon gore.