A Genre of Paradoxes and Dichotomies of Extreme Metal

Matthew P. Unger
Matthew P. Unger

This article will be concerned with characterising extreme metal in its breadth and complicated historical paths. It is not my intention to present a comprehensive history of extreme metal and its various subgenres, but to lay some groundwork for the different themes, sounds, and musical components that comprise the genre in order to relate these to broad social patterns and conceptions of casual relations.

I am interested in how music and sound contribute to, reflect, constrain, and produce symbolically social discourses of identity, difference, and transgression. In the first section of this article, I will describe the common technical characteristics and innovations that typically characterise the extreme metal sound. I will then talk briefly about its history, major figures, and bands, as well as controversies and major academic considerations.

According to Nancy Purcell (2003) and Keith Kahn-Harris ( 2007 ), extreme metal is a genre of transgression and extremes. Within the various genres of extreme metal, transgression exists not only in the lyrics, but also within the sonic, instrumental, musical, artistic, and performative material.

Robert Walser and Kahn-Harris maintain, that the high standards of musicality within the various subgenres of extreme metal allow the sonic material, timbre, tempo, and rhythm to contribute to a highly specialised symbolics of transgression significant for the extreme metal community. These symbolics of transgression have gained widespread significance since they are what lead twentieth-century avant-garde composer and performer John Zorn to adopt an aggressive hardcore punk styling throughout his career and collaborate with heavy metal experimentalist singer, Mike Patton, and drummer from Napalm Death, Mick Harris (Berendt and Günther Huesmann 2009; Watson 2004 ). While the hardcore-influenced performances and experimental recordings by John Zorn have a sense of irony and the avant-garde to them, they still rely upon this transgressive symbolics.

People outside of the metal community generally recognise extreme metal by the gruff, low, aggressive, growled, and often indecipherable vocalisations. Within the metal community, however, the many variations of vocal performance constitute one important way of differentiating the various subgenres of extreme metal. Typically, extreme metal vocals transgress ideas of melody, timbre, and technique traditionally valued as the hallmark of good singing. In consequence, extreme metal has developed very innovative forms of vocal performance either not found in other musics, or used in very novel manners.

The two major characterisations of extreme metal singing can be expressed in the difference between death metal and black metal. Death metal vocals are often voiced by the “vestibular folds,” also known as false vocal chords. If you imagine that we have two sets of vocal chords, the kind that we use to normally talk and sing with — true vocal chords — which are more flexible and allows for smooth and clean sounds unless pushed and strained.

Surrounding these usual vocal chords are the false vocal chords that can be activated to produce sound, but require effort and practice. The vestibular folds are often used in different forms of throat singing, and especially in the kargyraa style of Mongolian traditional throat singing. Extreme metal uses both sets of vocals chords, but to varying degrees, mixtures, and tensions to create different tonalities, overtones, and sounds.

These are less flexible since they act as protection for the true chords and when activated produce a very low, quiet sound that feels like they are vibrating further down in your larynx. Death metal has been experimenting with this kind of vocalisation since the late 1980s and has developed a varied use of false chord vocals. A paradigmatic example of this is Chris Barnes, the original singer for the band Cannibal Corpse that became popular and helped pioneer death metal in the early 1990s. Barnes’ voice is extremely low and has been characterised as “brutal” for its relative inhuman sound, visceral, guttural, and aggressive sound.

Black metal also produced a characteristic vocalisation style that reflects the subgenre’s broader aesthetic traits — often a thin very strained and distorted use of the right vocal chords that is not quite screaming, but is produced by exerting much pressure on the vocal chords. However, black metal has experimented with different vocalisations as well, which is exemplified by the singer, Attila Csihar who performed on Mayhem’s pivotal black metal album ‘Die Mysterium Satanis’ from 1992. Attila, can be considered a virtuoso of extreme metal singing, blending the various forms of false and true vocal chord vocalisations, producing overtones, and harmonics similar to the “throat singing” of traditional Tuvin monks.

Extreme metal is generally low, powerful, intense, often virtuosic, and technically demanding music played at high volume levels and fast tempos. The major instruments that bands employ in much of extreme metal are, unsurprisingly, guitars, bass, and drums, but depending on the subgenre, bands may use many other instruments and arrangements. For instance, second wave black metal began using keyboards in the early 1990s to help increase a foreboding atmosphere and feelings of darkness and despair (Patterson 2013 ).

Black metal became popular in Norway in the late 1980s and early 1990s with its almost ascetic, cold productions, thin, grating distorted guitars playing tremolo style harmonic chords, and driving drums and rhythm. European symphonic metal, such as Swedish band Therion, often uses classically trained opera singers, orchestral instrument sections, and keyboards. Because of this diversity, extreme metal also has a varied use of harmony and melody, from complete obfuscation of overt melody in exchange for chaos, dissonance, and aggression, to emotionally evocative and powerful melodic and progressive music.

For instance, Ian Christe, metal journalist and author sums up the influence of the Swedish brand of extreme metal bands: “Stockholm bands Entombed and Dismember, followed by Gothenburg acts In Flames and At the Gates, administered a regional Swedish sound that poured melody atop grotesque imagery” (Christe 2004 , 251). This quote evokes a very significant aspect of extreme metal in both its sonic diversity but also in relation to place and geography.

Diversity is not merely signified between the different subgenres, but place and space also play a huge factor in musical production. As metal scholars have emphasised, extreme metal is at once international and local. This will be emphasised later in the chapter but reflects one of the main queries of this project — what is it about extreme metal that allows such a great diversity of sounds, musical elements, themes, symbols, ideas and ideologies to be cast under the umbrella of this genre?

Other sub-genres emphasise a particular instrument out of the primary rock instruments. For example, most extreme metal genres emphasise frenetic, double-kick drumming, intermixed with rapidly changing and compound time signatures, rhythms, and tempos that to the casual listener may sound chaotic, but to the aficionado are technical or “brutal.” “Blast beats,” prevalent throughout extreme metal but especially within technical death metal or brutal death metal and grindcore, consists of extremely fast, articulated, 16th and 32nd notes. The death metal triple time drumming is different from the standard double time of thrash or speed metal.

Similarly, the musicians usually detune their guitars and basses lower than standard guitar tunings or use 7 or 8 string guitars. For instance, Australian band Portal use extended range guitars to accent the low, sludgy, dark and abstract quality of their sound, as does the guitarist, Ihsahn, for the Norwegian band Emperor.

Trey Azagthoth for Morbid Angel has been credited for introducing 7 string guitarists into extreme metal on their 1993 album, ‘Covenant’, particularly in ‘God of Emptiness,’ to produce very low, slow tempo death metal.

Musicians process their instruments, and sometimes their voices, heavily with a thick and grating distortion that contributes to a harmonically dense, powerful, guttural, and aggressive sound. The level of virtuosity depends on the sub-genre. For instance, Cryptopsy, the influential technical death metal band from Montreal with important albums such as ‘Blasphemy Made Flesh’ ( 1994 ), ‘None So Vile’ ( 1996 ), and ‘Whisper Supremacy’ ( 1998 ), uses fast, virtuosic guitar riffs and solos of varying tempos and time signature changes with prevalent drumming and frequent blast beats.

Their recent albums — while more experimental and less ground-breaking than their previous albums — still exhibit chaotic and dissonant chordal, harmonic, and rhythmic structures, with prominent, virtuosic drumming with scene legend, Flo Mournier.

Early Carcass, the progenitors of grindcore and goregrind from Britain were less technically demanding but very heavy, with a groove-oriented sound and a focus on clinically medical grotesque lyrics. Doom metal, influenced by Black Sabbath and Pentagram of the 1970s and bands such as Paradise Lost and My Dying Bride, emphasises a very low, detuned, heavy and thick sound with much slower passages in order to increase a heavy, ominous, and foreboding atmosphere.

Although lyrics generally vary between the different subgenres, certain recurrent themes exist. For instance, black metal bands such as Mayhem, Emperor, and Gorgoroth from Norway are characterised by darkness, evil, satanic, or occult motifs that the writers evoke to challenge the traditional Christian beliefs of the country. In addition, the Florida and South Carolina death metal scene, with bands such as Cannibal Corpse, Morbid Angel, and Nile, typically use gore and horror as well as mythological and anti-Christian themes.

Other genres such as goregrind with European bands such as Carcass, General Surgery, Regurgitate, and Necrony, and American bands, The Meat Shits, Lividity, and Waco Jesus, evoke medical terminology and the defilement of the human body for disturbingly comedic reasons. A prevalent lyrical motif throughout all extreme metal genres is the critique of religion and anti-religious or anti-Christian themes (Purcell 2003).

The seeds of extreme metal music lay in early forms of metal and hard rock. The interest in the occult and Satanism came from very popular bands in the 1960s and the 1970s, including The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, and Ozzy Osbourne. Rock musicians often used a musical interval and motif called the tritone, or augmented fourth, for its unsettling, foreboding, and dissonant qualities.

However, being labelled in the eighteenth-century as diabolus in musica which music theorists prohibited from use in Middle Ages and Renaissance music for its non-consonant qualities also helped promote its use in horror movies and heavy metal.

Early Jazz music, heavy metal, second-wave black metal uses this chord and interval frequently.

Classical music uses the tritone frequently (it has also been associated with Wagner’s opera Tristane and Isolde) in order to create tension in music.

Extreme metal tends to use the tritone in conjunction with and as a part of diminished scale structures, typically to undermine the sense of any determined scale and melody, destabilise the listener, and add an exotic flavour to songs. The significance of its knowledge for a lot of early metal has to do with its association before the baroque period as a prohibited musical harmony; it is, therefore, is both sonically and discursively transgressive.

To me, this is significant in the sense that music, and by extension sound and noise, has always reflected normative structures of our world-view connected to symbols, ideas, and more of the time.

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