Genre and Expression in Extreme Metal Music, 1990–2015

Eric Smialek, PhD, McGill University, 2016

Extreme metal music, a conglomeration of metal subgenres unified by a common interest in transgressive sounds and imagery, is now a global phenomenon with thriving scenes in every inhabited continent. Its individual subgenres represent a range of diverse aesthetics, some with histories spanning over thirty years. Scholarship on extreme metal now boasts a similar diversity as well as its own history spanning nearly two decades. With the rise of metal studies as an emerging field of scholarship, the scholarly literature on extreme metal has increased exponentially within the past seven years supported by annual conferences, the establishment of the International Society for Metal Music Studies (ISMMS), and a specialized journal (Metal Music Studies). Despite this growth, the field is still characterized by what sociologist Keith Kahn-Harris has called “undoubtedly the most critical weakness in metal studies as it stands: the relative paucity of detailed musicological analyses on metal” (Kahn-Harris 2011, 252). This blind spot in the literature is so pervasive that Sheila Whiteley began her preface to Andrew Cope’s Black Sabbath and the Rise of Heavy Metal Music with the exclamation, “At last! A book about heavy metal as music” (Cope 2010, xi).

As the first book-length musicological study of extreme metal, this dissertation responds to this critical gap by outlining, in previously unattempted detail, a wide range of genre conventions and semiotic codes that form the basis of aesthetic expression in extreme metal. Using an interdisciplinary mixture of literary genre theory, semiotics, music theory and analysis, acoustics, and linguistics, this dissertation presents a broad overview of extreme metal’s musical, verbal, and visual-symbolic systems of meaning. Part I: Interconnected Contexts and Paratexts begins with a critical survey of genre taxonomies, showing how their implicit logic masks value judgments and overlooks aspects of genre that are counterintuitive. This leads to an investigation of boundary discourses that reveals how fans define extreme metal negatively according to those subgenres and categories of identity that they treat as abject Others: nu metal, screamo, and deathcore as well as their associations with blackness, femininity, and adolescence.

Part I concludes with a thick description of death metal and black metal that shows how its lyrics, album reviews, album artwork, band logos, and font styles collectively provide messages about the semantics of genre, most notably by drawing upon archetypes of the sublime and, in the case of raw black metal, the dystopian imagery of fifteenth- and sixteenth-century woodcut engravings. Part II: Analyzing Musical Texts synthesizes large corpus studies of musical recordings with close readings of individual songs. This section begins with a demonstration of how technical death metal bands Cannibal Corpse, Demilich, and Spawn of Possession play with listener expectations towards meter, syntax, and musical complexity to create pleasurable forms of disorientation that reward active and repeated listenings. It proceeds to investigate musical accessibility and formal salience in melodic death metal, showing through examples by In Flames and Soilwork how the notion of melody pervades this music and contributes to its sense of rhetoric.


Part II concludes with a study of musical expression in extreme metal vocals. Using discussions and recordings from a vocalist participant, a corpus study of eighty-five songs that begin with wordless screams, and close readings of excerpts by Morbid Angel, Zimmers Hole, and At the Gates, I demonstrate that the acoustical features of vowel formants are central to vocal expression in extreme metal, enabling vocalists to mimic large beasts in a way that fans find convincing and powerful.