Metal and Musicology w/ Lewis Kennedy

by | Mar 6, 2021 | MMS 101


Lewis Kennedy 


Metal music studies is an academic field that draws upon and engages a variety of disciplines and methodologies, including musicology (incorporating music theory, ethnomusicology, composition, performance, production, reception, etc.). As a musicologist studying metal, I focus on music as the locus of meaning for metal culture. In other words, I consider music as the site in which the myriad elements of metal culture are drawn together, codified, and contested. Broadly understood, ‘music’ need not be limited to a purely sonic artefact (a track, for instance). Instead, we might conceive music as encompassing all those things related to the artefact. Some of these so-called ‘extramusical’ features we study are the artwork and liner notes included in vinyl and CD releases (paratext), the audiovisual elements of music videos (iconography, narrative, modes of performance), and the reviews and interviews surrounding an artist or artefact (discourse). By interpreting these interrelated elements together – as they are often experienced by everyone from metal fans to detractors – we (might) better understand how it is they relate to one another. 

An area of study I find particularly fascinating is genre and its various functions in metal music culture. One way fans (and scholars) use genre is as a mode of classification to situate artists and artefacts within the diverse array of music called metal. It is, for example, how we can interpret dissimilar bands like Trivium and Bongripper as part of the same music culture. Genre taxonomies like Sam Dunn’s ‘Heavy Metal Family Tree’ (HMFT), first published in 2005, attempt to map this diversity by illustrating connections between metal genre categories and representative artists; but generic relationships are rarely simple. In 2015, Dunn updated the HMFT in a series of Lock Horns debates on BANGERTV’s YouTube channel and in the process highlighted some of metal’s generic complexities. Following the commercial success and critical acclaim garnered by releases from bands like Killswitch Engage and Shadows Fall during the mid-noughties, the metalcore genre became synonymous with elements of composition and performance espoused by bands in the New Wave of American Heavy Metal (NWOAHM). Acknowledging this shift, Dunn replaces most of the bands in his original metalcore category with those from the old NWOAHM category, while bands like Suicidal Tendencies and Cro-Mags (previously metalcore) are repositioned as crossover. These related adjustments underscore two important points: (1) since metal genres are interrelated, changes in one genre affect others, and (2) the way we construct and view genres can change over time, leading us to reconsider how metal genres (and artists and artefacts) relate to one another. Since genre classification is never complete, this form of genre discourse in part both sustains and is sustained by metal music. Combining analysis of discourse with that of specific musical artefacts allows us to uncover (and participate in) some of the means by which we structure our experience of metal music culture. 


Songs to keep in your ear 


Further reading/viewing 

The BANGERTV episode of Lock Horns on metalcore can be found here.  


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