Seventh Subgenre of a Seventh Subgenre

16/06/2006 § Leave a comment

I don’t know anything about music. In my line you don’t have to.
– Elvis Presley

As female-fronted metal becomes increasingly diverse, fanatics are creating more and more genre titles to describe it. I remember a few years ago when I first started getting into Gothic metal, the term ‘Gothic metal’ itself seemed rather a ludicrous proposition. In fact, as much as I love the style, I find the idea that any kind of music can be described as ‘Gothic’ to be rather amusing.

The term ‘Gothic’ itself seems to have derived from an interview in 1978 when the British broadcaster and record label owner Anthony H. Wilson was asked to describe the kind of music made by one of his bands, Joy Division, to which he replied it was more Gothic than poppie. For me, such a tag conjures up all kinds of unusual imagery. Gothic, in its historical sense, refers to a people, an art form and an architectural style, but Wilson bastardised the term to describe the kind of music that his band made. But did he use it inaccurately? Well, not altogether, since what he had tapped into was the essence of Gothic to describe a musical approach. Many people have since tried to elaborate on what the term ‘Gothic’ means with relation to music and the majority of them have not succeeded. This either means that it’s hard to define the style of Gothic music at all or that the word Gothic is a poor choice in the first place.

For me, it’s not a matter of which came first, the chicken or the egg. As soon as Gothic become a popular term for music in the 80s, and subsequently spawned various cliques and fashions, many bands were going out of their way to produce Gothic music specifically rather than adapting the term to describe the music that they were already making. What Wilson had managed to do, irrelevant of whether these bands were using the term correctly or not, was understand that something Gothic was dark, lush and extravagant, and also had the air of being mystical and foreboding. Gothic – in its accepted sense – never had been about evil, but about dark romanticism, and that meaning holds even today, in spite of the other sub-definitions that have sprouted up through its more mainstream popularity.

Even in the 18th and 19th centuries when Gothic literature was becoming popular through the works of Henry Walpole, Anne Radcliff and Matthew Lewis, the term ‘Gothic’ itself described the style of writing perfectly. All these authors wrote about very romantic situations but in an extravagant, dark and grandiose style. Sometimes the novels would have touches of mysticism and even horror. Edgar Allen Poe, for his part, is still considered one of the greatest Gothic writers, though he only started writing after the movement was thought dead in Europe; the last true Gothic work being Charles Maturin’s Melmoth The Wanderer in 1820. Poe took the more sinister and horrific aspects of Gothicism and mixed them with stories told in an extremely flamboyant but sometimes prolix fashion. In fact, his style is generally defined as being part of a new wave of American Gothic, which had a different colour altogether to the movement which ended in Europe not thirty years previously.

Similarly, the kind of Gothic music that was being made in the 1980s is very different to the kind of Gothic music being made in the 21st century. It would be hard for anyone new to the scene to describe some of the material produced by bands such as X-Mal Deutschland, Sisters Of Mercy and Siouxsie And The Banshees as ‘Gothic’ when measured against more recent bands since the musical styles have changed greatly over twenty years. In fact, 80s Gothic and present Gothic share little else but a nominal link. The post-punk wave of rock music at the end of the 70s created a following and a style of music which, though dark, rocky and angsty for the period, is almost incomparable to the neat Gothic music made by bands such as London After Midnight, Bloody Mary, Entwine, Switchblade Symphony and Diva Destruction. Gothic music in the 90s – and Gothic acts – became more pretentious in an attempt to validate and further justify their involvement in the scene, taking the genuineness out of the music and inserting more of a focussed and trend-dependent feel. What was once an observation on a musical evolution had now become an all too self-conscious effort to sustain something alternative and underground.

But it wasn’t until 1995 that metal and Gothic music became properly fused with the release of The Gathering’s Mandylion. Even though the 3rd and The Mortal had released Tears Laid In Earth the year before, which was still unlike many things that had been heard up till that point, it was The Gathering, an already established death metal act, that decided to fuse the warm and sumptuous vocals of Anneke van Giersbergen with their own heavy and rhythmic guitars. It wasn’t by any means an instant hit. Many listeners considered this a betrayal to The Gathering’s earlier sound – a sentiment which is further felt by some fans since How To Measure A Planet? – and many thought that the inclusion of female vocals wasn’t right with the metal rhythms and distortion. The trend was cemented in 1997 when Tristania put out Widows Weeds, a verdant soundscape of Gothic splendour. This was Gothic metal as it truly should have been defined and Tristania gleefully took the reins of something which The Gathering had already opened the stable door to. Unknown to most people, the Polish acts Moonlight, Undish and Artrosis had already done similar things by 1997, releasing albums which also contained heavy guitars with female vocals. This helped the movement of the Gothic metal scene aboard and established Poland, as well as the Netherlands and Norway as the main countries producing the Gothic metal sound.

2002 saw the release of Evanescence’s Fallen and the Gothic metal scene almost became concussed from the battering of the mainstream and major record labels. So many other metal bands were materialising in their wake that the term ‘Gothic metal’ not only become too restrictive to describe the sounds of the new bands but it also became misused as a description of any metal act with female vocals regardless of whether they retained the original tone of the earlier Tristania-era bands. If any digression from the accepted Gothic form crept in, another sub-genre would be created, leading to the terms female-fronted folk metal, doom metal and progressive metal all being used.

The problem was that as soon as too many terms were employed to describe musical form factors, female-fronted metal became bogged down with tags, descriptions and labels, some of which were ludicrously inaccurate. As a result, some bands became dubbed with a particular genre title purely because it was fashionable rather than a true reflection of their sound. In the last couple of years this has become so absurd that a whole new sub-genre can be created just to describe the sound of one particular band, a problem that Orphaned Land found after being labelled Oriental Metal even though their music was death metal with middle-eastern and progressive influences. Just because one band take elements of style from other places does not justify the initiation of an entirely new subgenre. Many bands already use some oriental themes in their music such as Penumbra and Therion but these are clearly either defined as Gothic or Symphonic rather than just creating new genre titles on a whim.

The problem with creating multiple genres is that instead of being more descriptive and useful for listeners, it actually becomes less useful, more disruptive and divisive since it is harder to make comparisons outside the sub-genres. If one band is described as progressive metal and if another is described as folk metal, this might deter fans of either one from fans of the other when really the two bands in question could be very similar in style. I have heard artists such as Distorted described as doom metal by some factions and death metal by others. After a while bands become labelled not merely on the style of music they produce but on how the individual listener wants them to sound or wants them to appear, indicating the interest in such music is not for the music itself, but for the fashion.

Unfortunately the unhelpful ad nauseam labelling of bands is unlikely just to stop there. At the end of the day it is the aficionados who care the least about how the music is labelled and those who are newer to the scene who care the most. Some labelling can be useful since it can point us in the right direction of what we’d like to hear but it can also be a deterrent to those unaware of the differences in a scene which is not that diverse in the first place. Just because one band employs folk or oriental elements does not make their sound new as long as they are under the umbrella of female-fronted metal. We seem to be forgetting that as long as the music is dark, heavy, extravagant and lushly vocalled, we are likely to enjoy it anyway. Only the idiotic would snub good music in favour of music which is more fashionably portrayed.

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