Fatty Asks: What is Heavy?

I’ve been listening to metal in some form or another for most of my life.  I love the sound: the growling guitars, the pounding percussion, and the screaming vocals.  But it’s got me thinking about what makes music metal, as opposed to hard rock.  Along with that naturally comes the question of what exactly is heavy.

Let’s first tackle the question of metal separates hard rock from metal, cuz, in my mind, the answer’s pretty simple.  Both feature big, crunching riffs, wailing vocals, and thunderous drumming.  The big difference lies in the degree of technical proficiency present in the music.  Most hard rock is still rock, meaning there’s a looseness to the music and the arrangements are fairly uncomplicated.  It’s built around the riff, but said riff is usually fairly simple, leaving room for the vocals and such.  Think something along the lines of Monster Magnet’s “Space Lord” or Def Leppard’s “Photograph”.  Those are melodic songs built around simple riffs that rely more on the vocal performance than the musical prowess to hook the listener.

Now, that’s not to say that hard rock can’t contain technical riffs or virtuoso performances.  Steve Vai’s playing is incredibly complex and technical without streaming into the metal arena.  Slash shreds his way through a lot of Gun N’ Roses songs.  And there’s no way you can tell me Freddie Mercury’s bombastic vocal performances aren’t worthy of a virtuoso.  But most hard rock is taking the things it learned from the blues and blowing up out of proportion, all while still providing a melody you wanna sing along with.

In metal, there’s much more concern with playing riffs that are technically challenging to play.  Listen to early Ozzy, Megadeth, Iron Maiden, or Lamb of God and you’ll hear players trying to push the complexity of their music.  Sometimes, thing get so technical, it seems like it’s for the sake of playing finger-tangling riffs and wild, wobbly tempos (Hello, Dillinger Escape Plan).  That’s not a bad thing.  I love hear players play stuff that I have no idea how to play my self.  But for me, that is how metal differs from hard rock.

Now then, what is “heavy”?  How does music go from being “hard” to being “heavy”?  Both hard rock and heavy metal trade in extreme volume, so what’s the difference?  For me, it has everything to do with rhythmic tension in the music.  Most rock in written in a 4/4 time signature, and it seems to me that many rock bands go about filling every square inch of music with sound.  But, the heaviest stuff I’ve ever heard has some serious tension and release going on in the music.  For example, listen to the opening salvo from Gojira’s “Ocean Planet”.

It’s noisy, it’s full of crunching guitar noise, but listen to how the riffs stop and start.  There’s space there that allows the riff to breathe and come to life.  And when the guitars hit you again, they hit you all the harder.

That’s something I’ve noticed with a lot of music that I think is ultra-heavy.  It doesn’t have so much to do with have much gain is on the guitars, or how low everything is tuned.  It has to do with the groove and the way the groove builds and releases.

It should be pointed out that you don’t have to play metal to make heavy music.  If you don’t believe me, check Jimi Hendrix’s “Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)” or “Nobody’s Fault” by Aerosmith.  Conversely, not all metal music is heavy.  A lot of bands play super fast and don’t leave any room for tension and release.  I love fast frakking metal songs, but they don’t hit me very hard because there’s simply no time dedicated to develop any sort of groove.  Take DragonForce.  Love ’em, and to squealy, Journey-vocals-drenched “Nintendo-metal”.  And they are definitely a metal band.  Few human beings can shred like the boys in DragonForce.  But it’s so fast, there’s no real rhythmic push and pull.  Thus, it metal without being very heavy.

If you’re interested, here a five songs that further illustrate my idea of what heavy is.  And if you don’t agree with me, please share your thoughts.  Let’s get a discussion going!

  1. Sepultura – “Rattamahatta”
  2. Killswitch Engage – “Fixation on the Darkness”
  3. Black Sabbath – “Supernaut” (The push and pull in the verse riff is unreal.)
  4. Ash – “Clones”
  5. Van Halen – “Unchained”
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