The Three Types of Melodic Death Metal

at-the-gates early

Article by Ludvig Boysen.

There are three different kinds of music that are popularly called “melodic death metal”. Each is distinct and none even belong to the same metal sub-genre.

To begin, here are definitions for some relevant concepts that will be touched upon:

  • Melody: A sequence of tones.
  • Rhythm: A pattern of binary recursion.
  • Harmony: The meeting of simultaneous, continuously emitted sound waves.

A correct observation is that the above three are intertwined. A melody has its own rhythm, and it produces harmony. Changing the pitch of a melody’s notes changes its harmony. Changing the timing and amount of a melody’s notes changes the melody’s rhythm.

The oldest of the three is a variant of death metal which places more emphasis on melody, over raw rhythm and percussion.┬áListen first to this song from Deicide‘s Legion:

Notice how the rhythms not only of the drums, but of the guitar riffs themselves change many times. The riff is defined not only by which tones are in it but by its internal rhythm. Ringing a tone for two seconds is not the same as striking the same tone eight times during two seconds. The same principle applies to sequences of tones, that is to melodies. When a tone is struck is often as important as which tone is struck. Deicide knows this, and makes good use of it. This is common in both percussive and in standard death metal.

Now listen to “Exile of the sons of Uisliu” from The Karelian Isthmus┬áby Amorphis:

The melodic phrasing is longer while rhythms are simpler and change less often. A riff is defined more by which tones are in it and by which tonal steps are taken, than by any intricate rhythmical pattern. Living up to its title of melodic death metal, it is undeniably as much death metal as Deicide is, but with more focus on melody. Amorphis was a more melodic version of the Florida death metal style. For a more melodic version of the Swedish style, check out Uncanny‘s Splenium For Nyktophobia.

Amorphis also has more consonant harmony between the two guitars, which leads to the second style: Heavy metal with death metal technique. This heavy/death metal hybrid combines surface traits and techniques of death metal with the structures of traditionmal heavy metal. Beneath the distorted exterior, this style has more in common with Judas Priest and Iron Maiden than with Obituary or Death. The two guitars often take up different positions of a consonant chord, and dual melodies in which the guitars form parallel fourths, or fifths, are common.

The music is melodic, but it’s also very harmonic, indulging in consonant harmonies more than strict death metal with melody such as At The Gates. Song structures tend to be more straight forward than the riff mazes of proper death metal. This distorted heavy metal is closer to the brighter, more overtly “glorious” side of metal. This Kalmah song illustrates some of the common characteristics of this style:

The third category is newer metalcore, often called melodeath (the original more melodic bands that actually played death metal were rarely called melodeath. This genre owes a lot to metal, is usually melodic, and tends to have surface elements of death metal. For this reason, many call it melodic death metal. However, underneath the timbre of the instruments, and some of the common smaller scale patterns, a different spirit is revealed. The songs do not progress narratively. The way that past riffs affect the upcoming riffs is related to death metal but only in the vaguely verse chorus verse fashion of simpler speed metal. The romantic themes described, and emotional tones expressed, are different. The following piece by a later, falling apart At The Gates has some some of these elements, providing a sample of what was to come:

13 thoughts on “The Three Types of Melodic Death Metal”

  1. Ludvig B.B (vOddy) says:

    Here is the original unedited version, which has superior prose:

    One clarification: In the last paragraph, I meant to explain that the founders of metalcore were not called melodeath, but as metalcore changed, people started confusing it with melodeath. However, it is also true that actual death metal which is more melodic, was not called melodic death metal, at least not as a sub genre. Melodic was just an adjective.

  2. Jori says:

    I come here for shits and giggles.

  3. HH says:

    Nice write up, appreciate it.

  4. Aaron says:

    Great stuff, but I wish it went more in depth.

    1. LostInTheANUS says:

      Not everyone is blessed with David’s ’tism.

      1. Poser Patrol says:

        Ludvig is on the spectrum, but his inner autist needs to be nurtured so he can bloom into a full-blown metal savant like Brett and Dave.

  5. Poser Patrol says:

    Hey Ludvig, how would you categorize this:

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

      I sense similarities with black metal, melodic “death metal” and some melodic death metal.
      I don’t know what to call it, however. It’s not far enough in the direction of either death metal or black metal for me to place it in either of those categories.

      The best way that I can describe it is that it is somewhere between melodic “death metal” and melodic death metal, with some riffs that could belong on black metal. It’s also very Swedish.

      By the way, I like some heavy metal, so heavy metal with surface traits of death metal is not automatically bad music to me. Heavy metal can be good.

  6. Disremember says:

    Good we want more …!!!!

  7. Rainer Weikusat says:

    “Keep calm an run away screaming”?

  8. Rainer Weikusat says:

    “Pattern of binary recursion” is a somewhat ill-picked term: ‘recursion’ and ‘binary’ are mathematical terms which
    don’t make any overt sense when used in this way. As I don’t have much else to do after work, I tried to come up with
    a formal definition yesterday evening I’m not going to reproduce here as it would be quite lengthy and incomprehensible. But I suggest ‘pattern of alterations’ instead, as in the acoutstic equivalent of the …—…
    Morse code signal.

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

      In every day speech, recursion is just something that recurs, something repeating.
      I chose the word binary since, for a rhythm, the pitch is not important, and neither is how long the sound lasts, really. At any given point in the measure of time, the rhythm strikes, or it doesn’t. Those other things matter for all instruments, including drums, but not for the rhythm itself. The rhythm is what it is regardless of those factors.

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