When someone in a group of metalheads mentions the subgenre “Metalcore” by name, half of the group would frown, and the other half will instantly get defensive. But why does this happen? Well, just as with any theme, cultural and fashion trend, or artistic genre, when something becomes popular, it also brings along people who do not appreciate it.
This usually happens when said genre becomes so widely performed that a lot of lower-quality artists jump on board. And, with Metalcore, people who do not like the genre are quick to present you with a list of low-quality artists.
Art, however, is entirely subjective. One could argue that we can evaluate the “soul” put into a piece of art and thus determine its quality, but who could ever be the judge of what has a soul and what doesn’t? But even if popularity and the lowering of quality of the art in question often go hand in hand, we cannot dismiss a whole genre simply because there are some, admittedly very few, bad examples of artists; Metalcore has offered a lot to the Metal scene and is still goes strong with being innovative and fresh.
Just like the majority of Metal subgenres, Metalcore technically started in the 80s, but it hadn’t yet developed into its own thing until the mid-late 90s. It came to be as more in-depth experimentation in the Thrash, Punk and Hardoce subgenres, and, at first, the line between experimentation, evolution, and full-on emergence of a new genre was pretty blurred. Some people claim that Hogan’s Heroes’ self-titled album (1990) is the first-ever Metalcord record, while others would argue that Integrity’s “Those Who Fear Tomorrow” (1991) is closer to what we would call Metalcore today. But what would we call Metalcore today in the first place?
There are many things that add to a genre’s aesthetic and uniqueness, so what is it that makes this one stand out? Let’s start with the fact that this genre is almost exclusively performed by drop-tuned [*] guitars. I’ll try to explain the next part as non-musician-friendly as possible:
A musical instrument can play many scales and modes. The guitar can do that as well; however, when one drop-tunes their guitar, a new way of playing is presented to the guitarist which takes place in one string – mostly in relation to the one next to it (E and A strings, although E is now D). This means that the D scale is the one that can have those new styles of playing all to itself. As such, even though the guitar can still play all other scales, Metalcore tends to cycle around the scale the guitars are down-tuned to (often drop D), and even if they start in other scales, they will 99% switch to the drop tunings scale for the song’s breakdown.
This leads us to the next part of Metalcore and possibly the genre’s highlight: breakdowns. You haven’t truly experienced a Metal breakdown if it wasn’t one in a Metalcore song.
The initial Thrash-like and exciting riffs slow down, and the drums give a brief moment of silence. As sweat drips from the musicians’ faces on stage while they are staring at the floor, people start forming the “wall of death”. And, after what feels like an intense eternity of build-up, you hear two hits on the drum’s cymbals.. and then hell is let loose.
The idea of a compelling breakdown is something that has been driving the genre and its subs ever forward. If your friend listens to Metalcore, they will have already had you listen to “this cool breakdown that is absolutely insane!”. And if you yourself are a fan of the genre, you definitely have had a friend of yours listen to an intense breakdown you recently discovered. Breakdowns are fanservice, they are heavy, and they aim to please and force you to headbang slowly, whether you initially planned to or not.
The rest of the music usually follows some very “soft rules” which are generally followed but not necessarily. Such ideas are the natural minor scales (sad sounding scales that are generally sweet and mellow), but they can often be harmonic minor ones (also sad sounding scales but a bit more aggressive, in a sense) as well as Phyrygian minor scales (still sad ones, but a bit serious and heavy. Mostly used by Metal music nowadays). These scales are expressed by fast, cycling riffs that resemble Thrash Metal and the emphasis on the drums’ double-bass techniques. Metalcore guitars will often play interesting rhythmic, palm-muted patterns that are usually in synch with the double bass itself, creating a very primal (in a good way) vibe and expression of music that has listeners move with it involuntarily.
We can’t talk about a Metal subgenre without talking a bit about the lyrics. Metalcore often features personal and depressive lyrics, usually about failure and self-hate, but they also sometimes speak about the many flaws of our society. There was a wave which drew in a lot of teenagers back in the mid-2000s, which would also include lyrics about failed romance and relationships, and, honestly, that supposedly “immature” part of the genre that had the youngest people loving it is the main reason people will often express their dislike for the genre nowadays. While having a young fanbase is often seen as proof of publishing poor-quality music, in my honest opinion, it is a very unfair accusation. Young people have feelings as well, and teens are often the ones that are least understood. And music is all about expressing feelings and allowing listeners to take some comfort and relate to them. Is it so wrong to offer such things to a younger audience?
Drop-tuning is when a guitarist lowers the low E string by a tone. Not all of the strings, only the most bass-sounding one. This tuning originated – and you’re not gonna believe this – in Classical guitar playing. And is now almost exclusively utilised by Metal artists. So next time your pop-listening friend tells you that “Metal is just noise”, remind them of that little fan fact.