Metal music tends to carry a poor public reputation, with nonlisteners often claiming a variation on the dictum: “I like all genres except metal.” The stereotypically chaotic and hostile nature of the genre’s sound may be seen as uncomfortable and excessive, leading to an avoidance by those who are otherwise open to most forms of music. However, these associations are often exaggerated or inapplicable to many metal musicians, and a great deal of the genre may actually appeal to non-fans. With the right starting points, anyone can find metal songs that satisfy their musical sensibilities, even if they had been previously wary of its sound.
The genre of metal originally arose in the ’60s, with roots in psychedelic rock and blues. A key component of the style is its forcefulness, emphasizing a heavy, loud sound with distorted guitars, intense drumming and vocals that are often shouted or screamed. In my opinion, metal’s core appeal lies in the power behind its instrumentals and vocals, leaving the listener with a sense of empoweredness or cathartic release. Even though the darker, horror-influenced aesthetics used by many bands are a staple of the genre, other elements appeal to wider audiences. Although heavy rock bands like Led Zeppelin are often cited among the pioneers of the genre, the U.K. group Black Sabbath was the first band to have the distinct sound and visual style we associate with the genre today. The group makes for a great starting point for non-fans, embracing core characteristics of the genre without being excessively loud, screechy or intense. Songs like “Paranoid” or “The Wizard” share a sound similar to blues-inspired hard rock (albeit darker), appealing to fans of classic rock while utilizing distinctly metal riffs. If these tracks are enjoyable, I would recommend their track “Black Sabbath,” which employs slow, heavy guitar riffs and pained vocals that emphasize the horror of metal’s visual and sonic aesthetic.
Other metal bands within the generalized canon of “classic rock” include ’80s groups like Metallica and Iron Maiden, which appeal to more mainstream sensibilities with great commercial success. Metallica serves as a more inviting, melodic foray into the aggressive, guitar-solo laden style of thrash metal, in which artists shred with virtuosic ability. Instrumental pieces like “Orion” utilize theme and variation structure reminiscent of classical solo works, whereas “Fade to Black” or “For Whom the Bell Tolls” offer a more bombastic style with victorious, triumphant vocals. Iron Maiden balances a heavy, intense instrumental sound with a cleaner vocal delivery that similarly emphasizes melodicism. The galloping bass of “The Trooper” supports vocal harmonization over its top, offering an alternative to those who may be dissuaded by the gruffer vocals of Black Sabbath and Metallica. A variety of other mainstream bands like Van Halen and Kiss incorporate elements of metal and glam rock into their musical style; although these groups are not among my preferred bands, they provide a path for rock fans to ease into the world of metal.
For fans who enjoy the heaviness of metal without the abrasive vocals, bands like Candlemass and Warning serve as alternatives. Their music is grand and dense, combining doom metal riffs with smooth, operatic vocal style. “Solitude” and “Footprints” are the standout tracks from each of the respective bands, in which their singers soar above the slow, immense weight of distorted guitars. Similarly, the experimental group Ulver utilizes metal instrumentation with ethereal, clean vocals. Although the band now creates electronic music, the members began their musical careers as metal musicians, emphasizing the use of tremolo picking, uptempo beats and an often raw, atmospheric sound. In combining these qualities with haunting, folk-inspired interludes and ghostly vocals, songs like “I Troldskog Faren Vild” evoke mysterious forests and dark winter nights, while remaining a more accessible example of black metal.
This crossover of metal with other genres can prove to be a more welcoming approach for fans looking to explore the style. Other genres with no apparent relation to metal are effectively incorporated and combined by a number of groups. For instance, Deftones have soared in popularity as a perennial favorite among non-metal fans, combining early-2000s alternative metal with the ecstasy and bliss of shoegaze. Standout songs like “Digital Bath” and “Be Quiet and Drive (Far Away)” move effortlessly between the vocal styles of these respective genres, congealing into a thick, hazy brand of belligerence. The Japanese group Boris has similarly incorporated a number of other genres into their take on metal, creating expansive works inspired by ambient, post-rock and shoegaze such as “Farwell” or “Feedbacker, Pt. 2.” For fans of jazz, John Zorn’s group Electric Masada combines the chaotic improvisation of jazz instrumentation with a metal rhythm section. The group’s live album “At the Mountains of Madness” is a high energy performance of epic proportions, making for a more challenging listen that is nonetheless a fine example of cross-genre experimentation. Hip-hop listeners are more likely to gravitate towards a group like Rage Against the Machine, whose rapped lyrics and forceful backing band enable the group to articulate pointed political critiques.
Although metal’s stereotypical persona and sound may be off-putting for non-listeners, there are a variety of more welcoming places to begin within the genre that feature less abrasive or extreme musical tendencies. As you begin your journey into metal, locate what aspects of the above-mentioned music appeal to your own taste, and get ready to dive down the rabbit hole of all that metal has to offer. If you’re willing to take a chance and step outside of your comfort zone, you may find yourself enjoying music you never thought would interest you before.
Check out the playlist below of songs mentioned in this article, along with additional listening: