The Cannibalization of Nomenclature in Metal Music: Will We Ever Run Out of Band Names?

From a sociological perspective, music genres have completely plateaued. Analyzing any style of music, from psych rock, hip hop, folk, to metal, undoubtedly reveals a past point of origination and a list of artists who founded the genre within a scene. Easy examples of these historical points are psychedelic rock and the 1967 Summer of Love, disco sprawling out of urban nightclubs in the 1970s, goth rock and the UK scene of the same name in the 1980s… you get the idea. While looking back at these music moments is a fun exercise in reliving the past, it’s easy to feel like there aren’t any new music movements happening in the modern age, given the widespread diversity and accessibility of music today.

If all the music genres agreeable to humans’ ears have already been established, surely the players within these individual genres are also struggling to find originality. A question many acts of today face is how to stay original, when recorded music has been around for over 150 years. Will all possible riffs ever be written? Will all song titles be taken? To what extent is it okay to create new songs that have the same title as older ones? Is writing a new song and calling it “Stairway to Heaven” any different than writing a new song and calling it “Tonight,” of which 44 separate songs of the same title have charted since the 1960s?

Exploring these ideas on a wider scale is daunting. Therefore, looking at a specific established music genre with repetitive themes, a worshipping devotion to those who founded the genre, and a general closed-minded nature may be an easier exercise. Metal music is a primary candidate in our case (sorry, metal music).

Within the genre, it’s widely accepted that Encyclopeadia Metallum (or The Metal Archives), created by two Canadians, is the baseline archive for what we call metal. The website provides an easy means of learning about bands, retrieving information about their discographies, finding out which acts fall under the various metal subgenres, and so on. Although Encyclopaedia Metallum really only furnishes surface-level information (think of it as a very basic Wikipedia), for what the website lacks in terms of depth, it makes up for in sheer volume.

As of this article’s publication, there are 156,371 approved metal bands listed on the archive. Did you catch that? Over one hundred and fifty thousand bands. As a result, there’s quite a bit of repetitiveness going on in the genre’s nomenclature.

Let’s say you’re really into witches. Many metal bands are. If you’ve ever thought that Witch would be a killer name for a metal band, you’ve already been beaten by 6 separate acts. Well, no problem – you can always spice things up a bit and maybe throw some adjectives in there to make your group name more unique. Just make sure you check the list of nearly 400 metal bands that have some form of the word “witch” in their name.

This isn’t even the worst of it. There are nearly 1,800 bands with the word “death” in their band name. Unlike the six bands just called Witch however, there’s only one metal band just named Death – given the Florida group’s legacy within the genre as the founders of – you guessed it – death metal. Hop on over to see how many acts incorporate the word “black” into their title, and you’ll find nearly 1,700.

This situation raises an interesting question. When is it okay to establish a new group under the same name of an old one? Clearly, bands don’t want to step on Death’s toes given the notoriety of the act. However, if you wanted to start a new Witch project today, would you be disrespecting the Dayton, Ohio ‘80s heavy metal act Witch, who only released one obscure 1985 LP? Is the onus on new bands to stick to 100 per cent original band names? How much time has to pass before the names of old forgotten bands go up on the metal band name real estate market?

Thankfully, it’s still relatively easy to come up with original band names in the metal genre, even over fifty years since the form of music was first established. One of the hottest new metal bands today, Blood Incantation from Denver, Colorado, managed to find a name that applies to their music style, isn’t too complex, and is unique.

Eager new acts can also delve into the world of foreign languages when picking their new band name out of a sorting hat. Although this fact is quickly changing, metal bands around the world still mainly opt for nomenclature within the English language, making it easier for them to find international success. As a result, non-English words can also serve as fresh fodder, proven by bands such as caveman death metallers Sanguisugabogg, whose name means “bloodsucker” in Latin.

So, what happens in the future? When the answer is “only time will tell,” it helps to look back at the past to observe the relationship between historical nomenclature and modern band names. Cursory analysis reveals that many acts adopt the names of established historical entities, putting a spin on the name through artistic expression. Examples include the German ‘80s heavy metal act Stalin, the number of bands named Aphrodite, or infamous black metal founders Bathory, naming the project after the bloodthirsty 16th century Hungarian noblewoman. These acts reached back to proper nouns that have permeated through humanity’s history, adding an interesting depth to their band names by alluding to the past. Of course, so much time has gone on that no one is accusing Bathory of “copying” someone else’s name.

There’s also a popular trend of metal bands naming their acts after songs/albums from bands that heavily inspired them, such as Apokalyptic Raids (named after the Hellhammer EP), Aggressive Perfector (named after the Slayer song), or Chapel of Ghouls (named after the Morbid Angel song). Here, we’ve entered an arena where metal bands feel comfortable copying established titles within the same artistic medium, purely in the name of homage.

At the end of the day, we can probably put our panicked nomenclatural worries aside for now – unless you’re like super into witches or concepts like death. While metal acts are already cannibalizing established titles within the genre, it’s unclear how far we’ll have to go into the future for us to see new metal bands paying homage to older metal bands by outright copying their band name, in similar fashion to modern acts named after historical figures. For now, you can rest easy listening to your favourite 400 witch-themed metal bands.

Hunter co-hosts The Iron Club, your weekly guide to the dark and mysterious realm of underground metal, which airs every Sunday from 9:00 - 11:00 p.m.