The Misnomer of “Melodic” Metal

carcass friends

“Melodic death metal” is meaningless. What is popularly called “melodic” death or black metal can be roughly divided into the three different types of music sketched out by Ludvig Boysen in his “The Three Types of Melodic Death Metal” article for Death Metal Underground. While Ludvig’s three categories are essentially correct, refining and broadening them allows formal classification of all “melodic” death and black metal. Note that Death Metal Underground’s extensive Heavy Metal FAQ covers the topic of genre in great depth but a brief rundown for the ignorant and lazy is in order.

Melodies must be understood to be merely a sequence of notes that is perceived by listeners as a single linear entity based on a key or scale. The riffs that define metal as a musical genre are each individual melodies or collections thereof. Most western classical music is based on heptatonic major and minor diatonic scales consisting of five whole tones and two semitones while popular music tends to strictly use pentatonic scales and sometimes the harmonic minor.

Most death metal rhythm riffs (and black metal when it actually has rhythm guitars) make use of the twelve pitch chromatic scale, which of course consists of all twelve semitones. Such chromatic composition enabled death metal to deliberately create and resolve dissonance, building and relieving narrative tension through songwriting. Of course death metal was every bit as melodic as the earlier heavy and speed metal. Incantation‘s entrancing Onward to Golgotha is almost entirely chromatic and features flowing, legato-like melodies and rhythms.

Death and black metal rhythm guitars are incredibly distorted too. High-gain amplifiers and pedals produce much more partials than traditional rock and metal guitars, forcing listeners to pay attention. Power chords are clearer than others as the partials produced are closer to the natural harmonics of the notes played. Being neither major nor minor grants them additional compositional flexibility through chromaticism.

Thus “melodic death metal” and “melodic black metal” are hollow terms attempting to describe one of the three categorical styles below:

  1. Death or black metal containing more conventional melodies or less distortion.
    Not that bands not called “melodic” death or black metal by the press and public as diverse as Morbid Angel, Dismember, Immolation, Suffocation, Immortal, and Burzum lacked them to begin with.

  2. Heavy and speed metal with distortion, growls, and rasps.
    Clean up the instrumental and vocal sound and these would all be traditional heavy or speed metal albums.

  3. Pop music and stadium rock for posers.
    No more metal than Ghost and Babymetal, i.e. not actually metal at all. Swansong, metalcore, Children of Bodom, Fredrik Nordstrom bands, and Dethklok belong to this inner circle of hell.

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42 thoughts on “The Misnomer of “Melodic” Metal”

  1. fenrir says:

    Good effort here!

    But something else is missing. With death metal that uses chromatism extensively, the order is reinforced by staying MODAL.

    This modal aspects is what gives it its themes, its identity. The Chromatism provides part of the background aura.

    1. More divergence would weaken the article’s argument.

      1. fenrir says:

        This is not divergence, it is clarification.
        Chromatism itself does not define death or black metal so much as modality.

        Chromatism is more incidental, and is used for effect selectively, most of the time, only dominating the songwriting of some death metal bands.

        1. Most death metal bands don’t glue their chromatic riffs together modally but that doesn’t make their music any less melodic than most speed metal or “melodic death metal” bands.

          1. David Rosales says:

            1. They work at different levels. One does not eliminate the other.

            We must differentiate between chromaticism as a definitive basis for composition (as in the case of early Gorguts), or the mere use of chromatic transitions, which one can find even in the music of Mozart, creating very powerful tension through harmony. Celtic Frost, for instance, used chromaticism inside some of its riffs, but not in between them as “glue”, necessarily. And many of their riffs involve a lot of jumping around, and the semi-tone movements come as a compensation for the jumps, and should not be considered “chromatic”.

            The Red in the Sky is Ours makes use of both in an extremely controlled manner that really does not define their music anymore than other harmonic devices do. In that sense, we have chromatic SHIFTS, but not chromaticism as the basis for riff making or riff gluing necessarily.

            Yet another good example is the music of early Morbid Angel. Morbid Angel’s music is strictly TONAL MUSIC (except the solos, which are truly atonal), chromatic movement is limited to the inside of riffs to create tension of semi-tones. These two, At the Gates and Morbid Angel, seem to use chromatic movements as an in-riff coloration, but not as the basis for composition. Both use it in a MELODIC sense, and not a HARMONIC one. Again, these are more like SHIFTS.

            Burzum’s music for instance, is definitely not defined by chromaticism, neither is Darkthrone’s. We are talking about modal composition, not chromatic. In general, “chromaticism” in the sense that you want to emphasize really does not dominate black metal.

            The example of Incantation in this article is close to what you want to say, since there is really an extreme amount of chromaticism used, but it is more like the backdrop for the clear thematic linking of consistent modal patterns in it . In the case of Incantation, Chromaticism is REALLY used as some kind of glue.

            What I am saying is that modality as a thematic, unifying element is universal in death and black metal, chromaticism as the basis of the composition, is not, and is more optional. Even where you see semi-steps, it doesn’t mean this is a strictly “chromatic” action in the sense that we are talking.

            Among Incantation, Morbid Angel, At the Gates, Asphyx, and Gorguts, only the last fits the bill of what you say.

            2. I would say that the modal approach of actual death and black metal bands makes them MORE “melodic” than most speed metal or ‘melodic death metal bands.

            1. David Rosales says:

              Quick correction: At the Gates DOES use Chromatic shifts in a Harmonic way, as well, usually, and strictly, I’d say, INSIDE (in between) the two parts of a antecedent-consequent riff structure.

              Morbid Angel, mostly in a melodic sense, not so much in a Harmonic one. And definitely not as the basis of their whole sound, as Gorguts. Celtic Frost has a little bit of different things. People remember the chromatic thing because it’s what stands out more for them as “different”, that’s all.

              1. You raise good points but are confusing the exceptional with the routine.

                1. David Rosales says:

                  That’s precisely what I think you are doing XD

                  1. You completely missed the point of the article which is that chromatically constructed riffs are melodies too. That is why I gave “Flight of the Bumblebee” and “Profanation” as examples.

                    1. David Rosales says:

                      Thank you for the clarification.

          2. Something to aid the discussion and our understanding:

            link: Phrase Painting and Goal Orientation In Two Late Gesualdo Madrigals

          3. Robert says:

            Where does Ceremonium fit in all of this?

  2. Ludvig B.B. (vOddy) says:

    There is some good music of the second category. Heavy metal is heavy metal no matter how you paint it, and that genre has the potential to be good.
    There is thus some value in its existence; it’s merely misnamed.

    The third category, however, is nasty.

    1. LostInTheANUS says:

      I can’t even fathom how someone can listen to melodic metalcore – annoying vocals, annoying guitar sound, annoying stop-start playing… I worked at a construction site every summer when I was in secondary school and construction equipment sounded better than this, not to mention more melodic.

  3. Cauterize says:

    What would you categorize Sacramentum – Far Away From The Sun as?

    People say they are like Dissection but I hear more layers in Sacramentum’s music.

    1. C.M. says:

      Dissection is basically heavy metal when stripped of its aesthetics. Sacramentum has a uniquely robust sound; it would be recognizable and powerful if heard coming from a keyboard or string quartet. The musical substance is underneath Sacramentum’s adornments (fast drums, distortion, raspy vocals) but Dissection’s music teeters atop these flimsy surface aspects.

    2. All prophets are false; only death is real. How about you think critically? Both Manowar and Mercyful Fate are heavy metal.

  4. Virgin Slayer says:

    That orchestratal rendition of Flight of the Bumblebee is real nice

  5. Johan P says:

    More of this, please!

  6. Clippy says:

    It looks like you’re trying to write an article on metal. I can help!

    > Melodies must be understood be merely a sequence of notes

    Did you mean “to be”?

    > diatonic scales consisting of five whole notes and two semitones

    Did you mean “whole tones”?

    Please reply “go fuck yourself” if you don’t want to see these tips again!

    1. Thanks Clippy! You’re a true friend of Microsoft-supplied malware that will never leave the corner of my desktop!

  7. Matt Risnes says:

    “But a brief rundown for the ignorant and lazy is in order”

    So to read this article would be to admit to one or both? This site is such a pedantic, fart sniffing joke. Eat shit.

  8. thewaters says:

    I dont think any of you know what your talking about to be honest.

    1. Matt Risnes says:

      Absolutely. I’ve never read such nonsense in my whole life. I just come to this site to get mad nowadays. That’s because this site is a massive troll. I mean, writing “unironically” about the merits of pipe tobacco and the structural requirements of “true death metal”? What a fucking wank. I especially love then when they do big up some band and I listen to it and it’s invariably the most generic and shitty sounding garbage imaginable. No, but this is the real stuff and every band you’ve heard of that anybody likes is some blasphemic bastardized version of actual death metal. Fuck outta here with this site.

      1. Poser Patrol says:

        If you don’t like it here then run along back to back to Invisible Oranges or Metalsucks or whatever metal industry shill website you prefer. Then you won’t have to deal with dm.org’s close-minded writers and their elitist ideas.

        1. Matt Risnes says:

          Ok.

      2. I’m not criticizing the music in the second category. Many of those releases are excellent. I’m just stating what they are.

      3. bung butter says:

        The last band this site got me into was Desecresy who are pretty far from generic or the shittiest imaginable.

        1. Matt Risnes says:

          Ok.

  9. thewaters says:

    oops …..*you’re*

  10. Poser Patrol says:

    There is an important distinction to make between between bands that use melody as an “effect” in otherwise rhythmic-based music and bands whose music is based around melody. Effigy of the Forgotten is an example of the former; Onward to Golgotha the latter.

    1. Suffocation’s riffs are cyclical with extended phrasing. They fit together as a narrative that resolves dissonance with consonance in Suffocation’s songs.
      http://www.deathmetal.org/article/a-closer-look-at-suffocations-pierced-from-within/

      1. Poser Patrol says:

        I haven’t listened to Pierced in a while, but Effigy rarely ever settles into a consonant melody. Suffocation do have a deft understanding of the tension and release of musical energy but it is expressed through the contrasts present in the rhythms. They go from fast, tense, erosive hammering before a grooving breakdown brings total destruction. The ‘melodic’ tremolo riffs on Effigy do add a tonal dimension but are primarily used to excite the rhythms to towards climax.

  11. Disremember says:

    Im kind of interested how would you classify or categorize this song…
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SCS6q1Oteg8
    Because I can actually feel the song … I prefer Melody and compostion from this type of Death Metal as compared to Incantation ” Onward to Calcutta-Profanation ”
    or At The Gates… which I

  12. ttt says:

    SÜHNOPFER – OFFERTOIRE is a great black metal release of recent times, and it seems many haven’t heard of it. You can easily find it on Youtube or listen here: https://thoseopposedrecords.bandcamp.com/album/offertoire

    1. C.M. says:

      Anime theme songs with the guy from Weakling on vocals. I’d rather hook my scrotum up to a car battery and rev the engine.

      1. Virgin Slayer says:

        Bug chasing is more leather & steel

  13. Disremember says:

    Good insights here…

    GT: is your writing process any different now than from what it was in the earlier years of the band?

    Jeff – Not really, what I would say is there’s been a “power shift” over the years – what I mean by that each album has had a different “core” of people writing the riffs- “Reek” was probably Bill, Ken and Me almost equally, “Symphonies” a hell of a lot of Ken, “Neuroticism” still a lot of Ken, But Bill and a bit of Amott, “Heartwork” Bill & Mike, “Swansong” Bill, me & Carlo Regadas and finally “Surgical Steel” Bill, and one song by me. You can see how/why each album is “different”.

    Bill – Ha, not sure I’d completely agree with that analysis… But one thing nobody would deny is that Ken contributed a lot of killer riffs to the first three albums. As for the actual process itself, I’d say it’s scarcely changed at all, in the sense that we still get together in a rehearsal room and work on a bunch of riffs.
    http://pioneeringglorioustimes.blogspot.my/2016/02/exhuming-carcass.html

    1. Ara says:

      Had no idea Ken was responsible for so many riffs. Such a shame he can’t save the band now.

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