The dark themes and strikingly gory album covers are one thing, but what makes metal inaccessible to many is its bounty of subgenres, from black to death to thrash, to say nothing of death 'n' roll and pornogrind. Which is why we've compiled metal's most popular subgenres into one handy guide, and thrown in some of their subgenres as well.
This is by no means an exhaustive accounting of the discipline, but it's a good start for anyone who doesn't know their Cannibal Corpse from their Cradle of Filth.
Notable bands: Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, Ozzy Osbourne
Also referred to as “classic metal,” this is what most folks imagine when they think of heavy metal. The guitars are loud and there's likely a blistering solo in every song, but the focus is on anthemic choruses. The vocals, meanwhile, tend to be melodic, with singers often hitting high registers.
Notable bands: Early Metallica, early Megadeth, Slayer
The pace gets faster with thrash metal, with guitars and drums galloping along at high speeds. The vocals are more snarled and shouted than sung, and lyrics often are unintelligible due to the quick pace of delivery.
Notable Sub-Subgenres of Thrash Metal:
Skater Thrash: Thrash blended with a hardcore punk approach and lyrics about non-serious topics such as beer, pizza and skateboarding. Examples: D.R.I., Municipal Waste.
Retro-Thrash: Thrash performed by newer bands who aren't influenced by any group after 1987; the music sometimes is produced by their '80s heroes themselves. Examples: Warbringer, Mantic Ritual
Notable bands: Obituary, Cannibal Corpse, Nile
Thrash metal provides death metal's basic blueprint, but the vocals are either guttural “Cookie Monster” grunts or high-pitched squeals. Double-bass drums are common, and the lyrics focus on the morbid — hence the moniker.
Notable Sub-Subgenres of Death Metal:
Tech-Death: Basically death metal with an emphasis on “look at how many notes and time changes I can cram into this song” musicianship. Examples: Gorguts, Obscura, Psycroptic
Death 'n' Roll: Death metal with a bed of rock swagger and groove underpinnings, most popularized by early-'90s Swedish bands. Examples: Entombed, Dismember, Black Breath
Melodic Death: Death metal with an emphasis on harmonious guitar solos, most popularized by mid- to late-'90s Swedish bands. Examples: later-era Carcass, At the Gates, early In Flames
Notable bands: Mayhem, Immortal, Burzum
Think “being alone in a Norwegian forest while demons try to suck your soul out of your body.” Elements of thrash and death metal lurk beneath, but the pace is even more manic and the production lends an ethereal air. Vocals often sound like a goblin being suffocated.
Notable Sub-Subgenres of Black Metal:
Neo-Folk Black Metal: Black metal laced with elements of traditional stringed instruments and pagan folk elements. Examples: Agalloch, Midnight Odyssey
Symphonic Black Metal: Emphasizes big production with full orchestras, at times crossing over into classical territory. Examples: Dimmu Borgir, Cradle of Filth
Notable bands: Nasum,early Napalm Death, Agoraphobic Nosebleed
Like death metal, grindcore also has unintelligible vocals, but the music is much more primal. It employs a hardcore ethos, sometimes with high-BPM drums, and many songs that clock in at 90 seconds or less. The guitar work often has a danceable groove, while the lyrics can be more grounded in politics and real-world issues than other metal subgenres.
Notable Sub-Subgenres of Grindcore:
Goregrind (also known as “deathgrind”): Shares the slam-dance grooves of most grindcore, but also incorporates the morbid themes of death metal. Examples: early Carcass, Autopsy
Pornogrind: Lyrics and samples centered around the sexual and the scatological. Examples: XXX Maniak, Anal Blast
Notable bands: Dream Theater, Fates Warning, Symphony-X
Traditional metal serves as the backbone, but progressive metal bands are equally influenced by '70s prog rock like Rush and early Genesis. There's an emphasis on musical proficiency, and songs that are seven minutes or more take listeners through multiple narrative peaks and valleys. The songs also sometimes include spurts of jazz-fusion.
Notable Sub-subgenres of Progressive Metal:
Death-Prog: Blends the musicianship of progressive metal with death metal growls and shouts. Examples: Opeth, Between the Buried and Me
Djent: Pronounced “junt,” it describes a new wave of bands incorporating elements of progressive metal, thrash and death. The name djent comes from the sound of the genre's standard rhythm riff. Examples: Meshuggah, Periphery
Notable bands: Saint Vitus, early Trouble, Sleep
Doom metal bands go against the “fast, faster, fastest” grain by taking moments (or even entire songs) to slow everything to a crawl. The atmosphere is one of desperation and despair.
Notable Sub-Subgenres of Doom Metal:
Funeral Doom: Also known as “gothic doom” or “death doom,” it's accentuated by death vocals, goth-style production and lyrics centered around death. Examples: early Paradise Lost, early Anathema, Bereft
Stoner Doom: Accentuated by riffs lifted from the Black Sabbath playbook and bits of psychedelia. Not quite as much despair as funeral doom, but still with a “trapped in the desert in a broken-down car” aura. Examples: Electric Wizard, Acid Witch
Sludge Doom: Popularized by bands from the southeastern United States, sludge doom takes the doom metal blueprint and infuses it with brief passages of fast-paced hardcore punk and swampy-sounding blues riffs. Examples: EyeHateGod, Crowbar
Notable bands: Isis, Neurosis, Pelican
Here, elements from doom metal and progressive metal are combined with elements of indie rock, shoegaze and ambient music. Vocals are few and far between, and when they do show up they often alternate between growls and world-weary spoken lyrics. Not much headbanging to be found here.
Notable bands: Gamma Ray, Hammerfall, Blind Guardian
Classic literature, folklore and science fiction are power metal's domain. Traditional metal is a backbone, but the guitars are louder and the anthemic choruses often are layered to the point of ridiculousness. Concept albums often tell fast-paced tales of dragons, knights and warriors, with a token ballad or two thrown in.
Notable bands: Killswitch Engage, All That Remains
Metalcore was more popular in the mid-aughts than it is now, but the bands that broke through are still relevant today. Groups blend influences from hardcore with late-'90s Swedish melodic death, and the music often is characterized by screamed vocals during verses and melodic crooning during choruses.
Notable Sub-subgenres of Metalcore:
Deathcore: Hardcore-mosh breakdowns, death metal riffage and vocals that are 100 percent abrasive from start to finish. Examples: Suicide Silence, Carnifex [Corrected July 9, 2012.]
A previous version of this story misidentified the band Carnifex.