a field guide to metal
Don't fear the Black: A guide to Death, Thrash, Doom and other Metal sub-genresyou never knew existed
The Black Stage at Fun Fun Fun Fest can be a little intimidating: With few exceptions, the bands are mostly famous to an obscure assembly of (mostly) dudes, prone to wearing black t-shirts, beards and either long, stringy hair or shaved heads. Reunions are staged of acts that many casual fest-goers never knew existed. Metal, hardcore and punk are smooshed together onto one stage like an accordion, but those without the proper arcane knowledge to distinguish the genres (and the sub-genres within those genres!) can be left feeling foolish.
Still, the truly foolish thing to do would be to ignore the offerings that the Black Stage has to offer for fear of being exposed as a newbie. In order to help latecomers to the world of metal navigate the waters—which are much less treacherous than they may seem—we’ve assembled a helpful guide.
Perhaps the most commonly misunderstood sub-genre of metal, Death Metal isn’t just “whatever heavy metal is loud and scary.” (Though death metal is loud and scary.) The vocals are mostly growled and hard to understand; fans of the genre call ‘em “Cookie Monster vocals,” because singers kind of emulate the Muppet’s distinctive growl. Slayer’s not a death metal band, but death metal wouldn’t exist without them making the world safe for songs about Satan. Cannibal Corpse (Sunday, 6:10 p.m.) are the lone representative of pure death metal on the Fun Fun Fun Fest bill.
So, if Slayer (Sunday, 8:15 p.m.) aren’t a death metal band, what are they? They’re a Thrash Metal band. The music is fast-paced and aggressive, but not quite as insular as Death Metal. It was invented in the early 80s by the “Big Four”: Metallica, Megadeth, Anthrax and Slayer, and effectively represents the point at which Americans claimed the genre from its British forebears of Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin.
Doom Metal, Sludge Metal, Stoner Metal
At some point, we will have to acknowledge the obvious: Only big nerds really care that much about the distinction between metal subgenres. For instance, here is a thread from a music nerd website where fans debate the differences between Doom, Sludge, and Stoner Metal. These differences, to all but the most determined listener, are minimal: The key identifiers of all three genres are that they are slower-paced than Thrash Metal, more groove-oriented, and use lower-tuned guitars.
A Doom band like (at times) Danzig (Friday, 8:15 p.m., as part of Danzig Legacy) features less Southern rock influence and fewer hardcore punk elements (more on that in a minute) than a Sludge Metal band like Eyehategod(Sunday, 4:30 p.m.), while a Stoner Metal band like Doomriders(Friday, 2:05 p.m.) tends to be a bit less gloomy. Got all that?
Black Metal is arguably the most extreme form of metal. It originated in Scandinavia and favors gothic imagery, greater musical complexity and musicians who put photographs of their bandmates post-suicide photos on their album covers (note: NSFW, duh). There are no pure Black Metal bands on the Fun Fun Fun Fest lineup this year.
So, picture this: You’re the sort of person who’s been arguing passionately since you were 14-years-old about whether Funeral Doom or Viking Metal are the better sub-genres, and then suddenly some dude with an ironic mustache and a skin-tight t-shirt starts strutting around and talking about metal like he’s an authority.
Everything that guy likes belongs in the most controversial of all metal sub-genres: Hipster metal. It’s not really a reflection of the quality of the bands—Japanese “hipster metal” stalwarts Boris (Sunday, 7 p.m.) are among the genre’s most innovative acts—but the label tends to stick.
Providing a bridge between heavy metal and hardcore punk is Metalcore, represented at Fun Fun Fun Fest by one of the first bands to popularize the genre in the 90s, Cave In (Saturday, 6:55 p.m.). Metalcore is widely reviled by most serious music fans at this point. The genre’s mainstream commercial success in the hands of artists like Bullet For My Valentine and The Devil Wears Prada have made it hard for traditional metal fans, who are typically outsiders, to stomach. The second a pure metal fan hears the Drop-D tuning or hardcore-influenced breakdowns that typify contemporary metalcore, expect things to get real.
Punk rock, even in its ugliest forms, maintained a traditional approach to songwriting: The Ramones and the Sex Pistols maintained verse-chorus-verse structures, even if they kind of shat on them sometimes. Hardcore punk, which originated in the U.S. in the late 70s and early 80s, dismissed that more or less entirely.
One of the progenitors of the genre, Detroit’s Negative Approach (Saturday, 6:05 p.m.), broke up in 1983, but re-formed in 2006 for occasional performances. Hardcore has proven surprisingly resilient over the years; genre stalwarts Bane (Friday, 3:25 p.m.) didn’t form until 1998, and are still widely beloved.
Here’s a weird thing to think about: You can peg the origin of rock and roll to Sam Phillips and Ike Turner recording “Rocket 88” in 1951, which is about as early as the music can be credibly traced, and place “Blitzkrieg Bop” by the Ramones—recorded in April 1976—as the first true punk rock recording. That means that what started as a reaction against the excesses of the staidness of rock music has been raging its rebellion for most of the life of rock and roll itself. Or, to put it another way: “Anarchy In The U.K.” is now as old as “Chatanooga Choo Choo” was when the Sex Pistols recorded their first single.
What that means is that the history of punk rock is as storied as that of rock and roll itself—so the fact that Fun Fun Fun Fest features bands that date back to the genre’s origins, like The Damned (Saturday, 8:45 p.m.) andThe Misfits (Friday, 8:15, as part of Danzig Legacy) isn’t just impressive, it’s an overview of how the music has evolved.
In addition to the grandfathers of the music, representatives from every era appear on the Black Stage: Seattle’s Murder City Devils (Friday, 7:20 p.m.) are a near-universally beloved punk band that formed in 1996; the Black Lips (Sunday, 7:50 p.m.), whose first album was released in 2003, have played Austin festivals from Austin City Limits to SXSW to Fun Fun Fun Fest in the past 13 months.
In other words, just because there’s a shitload of metal subgenres on the punk-and-metal stage, don’t think that means that Fun Fun Fun Fest skimped on the punk rock.