Categories: Entertainment

Breaking Down The Insane Tree Of Metal Subgenres

Metal subgenres are like beehives; thousands of genre tags are buzzing around just beneath the surface. However, unlike hives, where each individual bee is working synchronously with its community toward a singular goal, all the different subgenres are constantly fighting with one another about what real metal is. The genres cross-pollinate just like bees, but I’d rather get stung by a bee directly on my eyeball than split hairs over what exact asinine genre tag a band should have. 

Progressive avant-garde atmospheric blackened death doom is a real genre tag I’ve seen. And no, those weren’t meant to be six separate genres, but one mono-genre. Join me on my descent into madness as I explore the major metal subgenres, and the sub-subgenres contained therein. This is going to get silly.

Progressive Metal

We’re starting here because the progressive tag can be thrown in front of anything, yet is paradoxically its own genre despite having no specific sound. If that sounds stupid and arbitrary to you, then you’re right. Prog is typically defined by long songs, unusual time signatures and extremely technical playing, but don’t get that confused with the “technical” genre tag, because that’s something else entirely.

Basically, prog is the nerdy version of any other subgenre. If you like your music to be perpetually uncool and needlessly confusing, then prog is for you. Prog fans are the ones that almost deserve to get bullied a little bit, because they sneer at anything that’s in 4/4 time and get such an ego for liking a “musician’s genre.” Dream Theater is credited with popularizing and validating the genre that was developing in the 80’s with bands like Voivod and Fates Warning. Sit back, grab your abacus and start wafting your own farts, because you’ll love the smell.


We have memes and onomatopoeia to thank for this one. It’s honestly kind of hard to describe this genre with actual words. If you know, you know. Regardless, djent was a strange fad that really began to take off around 10 years ago when Periphery’s debut album hit the scene.

Djent takes the off-kilter chugging that Meshuggah pioneered and milks it dry. Most of the prominent djent musicians don’t even recognize it as a genre, but I had to single it out because memes control the world now, and even if you have very little knowledge of metal, there’s still a chance that you’ve heard this term. If you want your progressive metal to sound decidedly more bro-like, then give djent a try. 

Black Metal

Time to head over to Norway and start burning some churches! Black metal is one of the least welcoming branches on the metal tree, as its sound and dubious origins are a likely turn-off for many. If you imagine what being crushed to death under dozens of feet of snow sounds like, you’re on the right track. It’s generally characterized by high-pitched shrieking vocals, more blast beats than you can shake an independent limb at, hilariously cartoonish corpse paint and a desired rawness in audio quality that really makes you feel like you have tinnitus.

It might be unfair to the genre to focus on the murders and arsons, but how could you not? In the early 90’s the black metal scene in Norway was responsible for burning down around 50 churches. Oh yeah, there was also that whole thing where Mayhem guitarist Euronymous allegedly made a necklace out of the skull fragments of his bandmate that had committed suicide. But hey, at least he was murdered a couple years later by another prominent figure in the black metal scene, bandmate Varg Vikernes. All’s well that ends well, right?

Horrible crimes aside, black metal, like all of the bigger metal subgenres, has greatly splintered in today’s landscape. From shoegazing hipster bands like Deafheaven to the symphonic bombast of artists like Dimmu Borgir, black metal really has a little something for everyone. You know, if murder, Neo-Nazism and Satanism aren’t your things. 

Death Metal

Death metal is black metal’s thick-necked cousin. The primary difference between the two styles generally lies with the vocals. While black metal vocals tend to sound more like the cries of a ghostly murder-hyena, death metal vocals usually sound a bit more like a pig in desperate need of the Heimlich maneuver. 

While bands like Death and Possessed were early adopters, it was Cannibal Corpse that brought the genre to a new level of infamy, drawing the ire of senators and Karens all throughout the country with their horrifyingly violent lyrics and imagery. If you’re not already familiar, Google with discretion. Their cameo in “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective” is legendary, though. 

The sub-subgenres are endless here, from melodic death metal and technical death metal to pornogrind (that’s right, pornogrind). We’d be here for days if we got into all of them.


I don’t want to talk about nu-metal, but here we are. In the late 90’s and early 00’s, nu-metal was all the rage. Bands like Korn, Limp Bizkit and Linkin Park were dominating the airwaves. How do I describe nu-metal to the uninitiated? It’s like if a pair of jean shorts came to life and tried to sell you heroin. If that’s not clear enough, nu-metal is categorized mainly by incorporating hip-hop and groove into its sound, pairing them with heavy down-tuned guitars and occasional harsh vocals.

While its popularity declined almost as quickly as it rose, many of the early practitioners are still going strong today, and the genre has seen its influence on metalcore bands like Emmure and even pop artists like Poppy. Nu-metal will live on forever, in our hearts and our frosted tips.

Doom Metal

Let’s slow things down. Slower. Slower. Doom metal is a monolith that moves in four dimensions. While Black Sabbath laid the blueprint for this glacial metal subgenre, bands like Saint Vitus and Candlemass solidified it. If you want to feel like you’re trudging through a foot of mud on your way to a funeral, then doom is for you.

Speaking of funerals, I think funeral doom might be my favorite name for a subgenre. It’s so specific yet redundant at the same time.   

See Also

Power Metal

If you’ve found all of the previous genres to be sorely lacking in dragons, then I have some good news for you! Power metal is the Dungeons and Dragons of metal. It’s all about fantasy and theatricality. Over the top clean vocals, anthemic choruses and lightning fast tempos mix together in this bubbling cauldron of heavy metal splendor.

Bands like Helloween, Blind Guardian and Dragonforce helped popularize one of the most unapologetically cheesy metal subgenres around. If you’re not familiar with power metal but have heard of Dragonforce, it’s likely because their song “Through The Fire And Flames” became legendary after it’s inclusion in “Guitar Hero 3.” Remember when everybody played with plastic instruments? What a time to be alive that was.


Meet me in the pit. Metalcore is all about those sick breakdowns that make you slam dance like a buffoon. It began to rise in prominence in the early 00’s with bands like Killswitch Engage, Trivium, Atreyu and (early) Avenged Sevenfold giving popularity to an otherwise relatively inaccessible subgenre thanks to their inclusion of catchy, cleanly sung hooks.

The branches of this tree are particularly interesting to consider. Deathcore is exactly what it sounds like; it’s metalcore but with more death metal influence. Mathcore, however, is what happens when you calculate the limits of metalcore. That’s a calculus joke. It’s not a very good one, but there it is.

Thrash Metal

We conclude with what is arguably the most important metal subgenre. Thrash was pioneered and made famous by the big four: Metallica, Slayer, Megadeth and Anthrax. If you think Metallica is that dad rock band that goes “Off to Never Neverland” then you might be in for a surprise. If you think Slayer is just the text on a shirt worn by Kendall Jenner, I’ve got some news for you.

Thrash is all about speed and aggression. It was a huge part of metal’s rise in popularity in the 80’s while simultaneously helping give rise to the more extreme subgenres like death and black metal. Who knows what metal would look like today without thrash?

I hope you enjoyed this glimpse into the ridiculously complicated world of metal subgenres. There were so many that weren’t touched on here, because to describe them all would simply be impossible. Let us know what’s missing!

Featured Image Source: Elektra Records

Images via Atco Records, Sumerian Records, Deathwish Inc, Flip Records, Peaceville Records, Virgin Records, Roadrunner Records, Megaforce Records

Brian Beushausen

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