Genre Whore

King Diamond

Earlier today I was having a text-versation (and subsequent spoken conversation) with Eternal Legacy guitarist Shaun Vanek about how to classify a band like Mercyful Fate. On the one hand, the lyrics are mostly about satanic subject matter, with King Diamond wearing black and white corpse paint; both hallmarks of black metal. On the other hand, musically, Hank Sherman’s riffing is more akin to the powerful rhythms of a band like Judas Priest, and King’s vocals are nothing if unique in metal, with the closest comparison being to the operatic delivery of power metal. Mercyful Fate has been categorized a number of different things by those of the metal community, with the most prominent being the aforementioned black metal, as well as just straight classic metal.

The impetus for the conversation is one I am particularly vocal about. A self-proclaimed genre whore myself, I have a very staunch viewpoint about what attributes allow one band to exist in a particular genre or sub-genre and what disqualifies them from others. I argued that Mercyful Fate was not at all black metal. Sure, King has the corpse paint going and talks about satanic subject matter, but compare the sonic approach of a band like Mercyful Fate to a proper modern black metal act like Mayhem or Emperor and it won’t be hard to hear the difference between the two.

The thrust of this is that lyrical content and stage aesthetic do not a classification make. Take for example two disparate bands: Slayer and Kiss. Slayer speaks predominantly, at least in the earlier days, about satanic topics, and has imagery like pentagrams and demons on their album covers and in their live set, yet they are classified as thrash metal. Kiss wears black and white face paint indistinguishable from corpse paint (aside from the decidedly more tame designs) yet they are known as a rock and roll group. What is the point of comparing these two bands? A common thread exists in that both are classified by their acoustic attributes and not superficial qualities like image or lyrical content.

A band’s style is entirely independent of either its look or its subject matter. A group can wear pirate outfits and sing about science fiction, but play in a death metal style. Does this make the group something silly like “pirate metal”? No, because a death metal band can sing about any topic and still remain a death metal band. This argument applies similarly to asinine taxonomies like “Viking metal” or “Egyptian metal”  (Amon Amarth and Nile, I’m looking at both of you, respectively) because they are predicated on the idea that lyrical content somehow defines a sound. Do most bands tend to match their lyrics and appearance to their musical style? Typically, yes, but correlation does not equal causation. Let me reiterate: genre names are meant to elicit an idea about the acoustic quality of the music, not what the band sings about or looks like.

That’s not to say that these attributes are not valid in supplementing the classification of a band. Let’s take another example in the form of Venom. The band is almost unanimously considered black metal because of their lyrical content and album of the same name. However, we’ve already established that these things are superficial when talking about what a band sounds like. In fact, upon listening to Welcome to Hell or Black Metal, you hear something of a proto-thrash sound, with even some bluesy/shuffle moments thrown in for good measure.

The second point to take away from this is that a band may belong to a movement or scene, yet that scene does not define their sound. Black metal is both a scene and a musical style. Bands like Immortal belong to both the Norwegian black metal scene and play in the style of black metal. Venom and Merycful Fate may arguably belong to the black metal scene due to their aesthetic and topical influence, but do not play in the vein of black metal. Some movements don’t have a concrete sound associated with them, like the New Wave of British Heavy Metal. We can see examples of these points with bands such as Witchfinder General (who belong to the NWoBHM movement, but play doom metal) and Alice in Chains (who belong to the grunge movement, but play something in the vein of heavy metal).

There is something important to be taken out of the aforementioned superficial qualities that may explain our tendency to want to consider them in how we classify bands. Why does someone have a craving to listen to Slayer, Mercyful Fate, and Darkthrone in succession other than that they are all in some form metal? The answer is because all three bands set the same kind of mood and evoke the same kind of imagery; that is: one of evil and darkness.

Ultimately, when we decide what we want to listen to, heavy metal or otherwise, we do so because we want a particular mood to be set. Rarely is it the case that we listen to thrash metal for thrash metal’s sake, for example. More typically, consciously or subconsciously we say to ourselves, “I want something fast and with energy.” We are in the mood for a particular atmosphere, be it conveyed through sound or other means like lyrical content.

This begs the question: Should music continue to be classified by its sonic approach, or the mood it sets? Sometimes the two are linked. More often, we want the two to be linked, which manifests itself as a genre name that tells nothing about the actual sound of the band in question. Ask yourself how you would classify the music in a record store you owned and then get back to me.

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~ by Dux on November 4, 2010.

One Response to “Genre Whore”

  1. ahem – begs the question.

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