What the heck is metalcore?

by Brett Stevens
April 23, 2013 –

fugazi_flyerDuring the late 1990s, a different style of metal emerged in the death metal camp. Starting with bands like Dillinger Escape Plan, Killswitch Engage, Misery Index, The Haunted, Human remains, Ulcerate, Meshuggah and Discordance Axis, this new style was given many names at first.

It’s math-metal, they said. No, it’s technical death metal (later shortened to “tech-deth” to keep people from expecting something like what Pestilence did on Spheres). Finally someone came up with “modern metal,” which many of us use like a catch-all.

The record companies were excited. Musically it was different. This style is accessible to more musicians, in addition to more fans, than the old style. It’s easier to make a reasonable impression of it, at least.

Thematically it was different. It’s everything that rock ‘n’ roll has always been. It’s loud, angry, and chaotic; perfect to disturb parents, which sells albums. Finally, unlike metal, it doesn’t stray into truly dangerous areas of thought. It is more likely to be written from an individual perspective, and less likely to glorify war, disease and death than protest them. Socially, it’s much “safer.”

What made it new was that it wasn’t like the extreme metal before it. However, it shared many techniques in common not just with that generation, but the generation before it. Specifically, many of the composition aspects are similar to those from post-hardcore bands like Fugazi, Rites of Spring, and Botch. These differences distinguished it from death metal in the following ways:

  1. Vocal rhythms. Death metal vocals are more like speed metal, which is to chant out the rhythm of the main riff or chorus phrase. Modern metal vocals are much like hardcore, which uses regularity of intervals between syllables to form a sound of protest. Death metal also prefers monotonic delivery with variant timbre, where hardcore vocals prefer more melodic vocal delivery with invariant timbre.
  2. Riffing. Death metal riffs are phrasal, or written as a flow of power chords forming a phrase or melody, and these fit together to form a narrative with poetic form, meaning that it takes the song from an initial place to a final place with a much different outlook. Modern metal riffs are inherently designed toward circular song constructions, like hardcore, and are based upon radical contrast between each other to suggestdeconstruction, like hardcore. Metal riffs form a synthesis through contrast; hardcore riffs deconstruct through contrast and reject synthesis.
  3. Drumming. Death metal drumming tends to follow the riff changes; modern metal drumming tends to lead the riff changes, anticipating them. In death metal, instruments tend to act in unison. In metalcore, they tend to each work separately and overlap as convenient.
  4. Style. Death metal aims toward unison of all instruments and riffs fitting together to make a larger narrative so as to maintain mood; modern metal, like hardcore before it, seeks to interrupt mood as if a form of protest music.

Critics of the terms “metalcore” and “modern metal” correctly note that these terms are being used as a catch-all. That’s correct, but it’s only part of the story. These terms are being used to describe something that’s not new, but existed before death metal and black metal reached their modern form. It’s an alternate branch of metal’s evolution, upgraded with death metal technique.

For students of metal history, this isn’t surprising. Genres tend to lie dormant in alternating generations, and then pick up on whatever was done well by the intervening generation. For example, power metal is what happens when speed metal and glam metal bands integrate death metal technique. Grindcore occurs when hardcore adopts crust and death metal technique. Speed metal occurs when metal adopts punk technique. By the same token, metalcore is what happens when you mix Fugazi with death metal technique.

This is not an argument against metalcore. If we’re going to like metal, we should understand it; if we’re going to understand it, we should study it; if we study it, we should organize our categories and language so as not to mislead each other. By this analysis, metalcore is an extension not of metal, but of the post-hardcore movement using metal technique, and thus it should be analyzed as more like hardcore instead of having us project our metal expectations upon it.

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24 comments

  • fallot

    Rock music seeks to fulfill expectations, Punk music seeks to defy them. Metal seeks to destroy them and replace them with its own. Pandering and reaction versus art.

  • Concerned Citizen

    Also not death metal:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3FzprgruL8w
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WURcWkLgPps
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=942P4XdNXW4
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SnmbCLVwZvM
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vAhgkqe_6hg
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FFwgFJfx97E
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P8XKrWgv0bo
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=04ApUcT2Wxg
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UrcGUwEemgI
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R4Dn02bR4pg
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fh-RgX_2U9w

  • The most tiny of midgets

    Great! Now dial down the metalcore content. Their are new bands, albums and festivals happening all around the world that this site is failing to cover. For instance, did you know the guys from the legendary Blasphemy have a new project? Let’s see that kind of content!

    1. Metal Command

      What’s the new Blasphemy project? I hope it’s not another one of those droning “war metal” bands that are just really fast chromatic riffs with lyrics about getting disemboweled under a “sacred symbol” that everybody thinks is great but no one will name.

      1. The most tiny of midgets

        Death Worship with Black Winds, R.forester, and James fucking Reed. Check out the front page of nwnprod.com. The full length is out this year and will probably be the closest thing to a new Blasphemy album thet we can expect.

  • Antonio Espinosa

    Interesting way of looking at it. I never could get into the Fugazi/Rites of Spring as much as my friends tried to shove it down my throat. It’s whiny and the guitar tones are lame.

  • deadite

    Rites of Spring/Fugazi are metalcore? I dunno if I’d lump them under that but they’re both OK. Its more fitting to call them ‘emo’, but that term’s pretty diluted.

    Discordance Axis’ lyrics I’ve always found to be strange and esoteric. Not sure if I’d call them individualistic, but perhaps I’m missing your take on it. Great band though; ‘The Inalienable Dreamless’ far exceeds most metal put out around that time (early 2000s). Human Remains is pretty cool as well. Same for early Meshuggah.

    I’m glad this article exists, it both shows that there can be ‘metalcore’ which is acceptable to the site’s standards and it makes a distinction between it and metal itself. Good read, would read again.

    1. Brett Stevens Post author

      Rites of Spring/Fugazi are metalcore? I dunno if I’d lump them under that but they’re both OK. Its more fitting to call them ‘emo’, but that term’s pretty diluted.

      Some bands are like Hellhammer, Bathory and Slayer: touchstones for multiple genres.

      The whole post-hardcore movement did what post-punk could not, which was keep the rough style and inject the rock formula and variety elements.

      The problem: the variety elements took over.

      The solution: a developing post-hardcore scene which eventually borrowed more from metal since it liked the riff-salad approach, but never got to the integrative stage. This was deliberate, given that their artistic goals differ from those of metal.

      The point of this article was to pick the best examples of metalcore so that we may understand it. If slandering it were needed, a simple thread entitled “What are the worst metalcore bands ever?” on any metal forum would suffice.

      One of the more interesting developments here is what happens when death metal bands integrate this style. Behemoth, Suffocation, Kataklysm and Cryptopsy come to mind. It’s interesting that the more percussive and speed-metal-like bands were the first to adopt it.

  • billhopskins

    I think this is a good article. I understand the approach. It is presumably to engage with the metal community and to draw clear boundaries between disparate elements which have been getting lumped together increasingly in the last 15 years.

    “I’m glad this article exists, it both shows that there can be ‘metalcore’ which is acceptable to the site’s standards and it makes a distinction between it and metal itself. Good read, would read again.”

    The point of the post isn’t to show that these bands are ‘acceptable’ to the site’s standards. It’s to identify them as the beginning of another lineage of ‘heavy-music’ which is different from that of old-school death and black metal.

    1. Metal Command

      This article clarifies a lot. Why wasn’t it run before the Ara articles? Why isn’t this in the metal faq? Why do I have so many questions with this site?

  • billhopkins

    Also, I think the bands sampled here, when combined, pretty much equal bands like Ara. It’s quite perceptive in identifying the roots of what we’ve all been discussing in recent posts. Modern metal is a different species to death metal.

  • Invisible Sandwich

    I’m guessing the stuff labeled as metalcore here has more overt jazz influence than even the early ’90s wave of technical death metal. Not being familiar with much of this, it’s hard to say how much of this is actual jazz theory/practice working its way into the music and how much of it is just me saying “Gee willikers, this sounds improvisational, and I associate improvisation with jazz, so this must be jazz influenced!”

        1. Metal Command

          That’s the worst. It’s like jazz, with all the heart and soul taken out.

          I’m not the world’s biggest jazz fan but the difference between John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus and Ornet Coleman and waiting room jazz is as huge as the gap between Altars of Madness, Onward to Golgotha, and Legion and metalcore.

          I imagine that jazz fans have the same reaction to waiting room jazz as metal fans have to metalcore. That it imitates the style, but lost the substance on the way.

  • Metal Command

    I never thought of The Haunted and Meshuggah as metalcore, but now that I think about it, it’s true. They’re not death metal. They have a lot of post-hardcore bits in their songs. But most of all they don’t write like metal bands. They’re something else.

  • bitterman

    Might want to start sub-genre by sub-genre: death n’ roll, symphonic black, deathcore, etc. and what makes it remarkably different from the genre they borrow elements from. Like introducing Demilich as a death metal band, then comparing it to Standard Whore. Sounds like the same guitar player utilizing the same old tricks, completely different music. Then talk about how a band like Biolich (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KSfKSYZrwCs – WARNING!!! 3:15 is especially awful!!!), who mimic Demilich on the surface, but play a mix of old Cryptopsy/Kataklysm early death/grind ‘hyperblast’ parts, d-beat hardcore, easily recognized lite jazz (smooth clean bass line parts), and cringe worthy screamo/indie sections are metalcore. Same thing with grindcore and the bands that throw screamo and mallcore grooves into their songs like Gadget or indie influences like Orchid.

    1. Carg

      I paused Fairyland to listen to Biolich. You owe me a minute of Fairyland, because even Fairyland are a more cohesive act than this shit.

  • AsinineUsername

    Where’s Earth Crisis?
    Where’s Starkweather?
    Where’s Integrity?
    Gaza?
    Rorschach?
    Coalesce?

    Not a single actual metalcore band mentioned, great job idiots.