Top 10 Characteristics of Extreme Metal

Primary genres of Extreme Metal are: Death metal, Black metal and Thrash metal.

There are many subgenres of the primary genres, such as Technical death metal, Melodic death metal, Symphonic black metal.
There are also fusion subgenres - Blackened death metal (fusion between 2 primary genres).

The "extreme" label is usually applied to bands whose music is extreme. It isn't applied to artists where only lyrics or musician appearance may be considered "extreme" - Kiss, M. Manson, Ghost B.C. and Alice Cooper aren't extreme metal because their music isn't extreme (and isn't metal).

Extreme Metal traits are all intended to challenge / violate given artistic, social,cultural, or aesthetic boundaries. Extreme Metal is very experimental and isn't for everyone.
The Top Ten
1 Extreme instrumentation, i.e. faster, heavier, more aggressive, more abrasive

You don't have to listen to death metal or black metal to hear this. Thrash metal is enough to convince you.

2 Emphasis on technical control and fast tempos

Extreme metal tempos are usually at over 200 BPM (beats per minute). George Kollias of Nile reached 280 BPM.
Drumming became even more important than it was in non-extreme metal.
I think the best example here is Brutal Technical Death Metal (song: Cast Down the Heretic by Nile).

3 Less focus on melody

Metal in general doesn't focus on melody but while non-extreme metal still has melodies (traditional metal, power metal, prog metal), extreme metal reduces melodies once again to focus on technical control or/and virtuosity of playing the instruments.

4 High levels of distortion that also include vocals (grunting, screaming)
5 Extreme types of vocals (guttural, harsh or abrasive singing)

This is one of the biggest problems of the new metal fans. Liking these types of vocals is an acquired taste, meaning it's more like getting used to it. Or liking them because they are different and challenging.
Who said extreme metal is easy listening?
You can read more about it in a list I made - Top 10 Death Metal Songs for Beginners

6 Blast Beats

Blast Beats are typical in extreme metal, mostly in black metal and death metal.
A blast beat is a drum beat described by Whitney Strub as "maniacal percussive explosions, less about rhythm per se than sheer sonic violence".
Blast Beats originated in hardcore punk and grindcore, and Napalm Death is said to have coined the term.

7 Tremolo picking

The first metal musician who did that was Ritchie Blackmore of Deep Purple - in the end of the solo to Highway Star. This solo was really the first true metal solo for many reasons.
Tremolo picking is a version of the guitar playing technique 'alternate picking'. Tremolo picking is when the technique is performed at high speed on a single string voicing the same note.

Very true. The whole black metal is consisted on tremolo picking. Death metal also uses tremolo picking (with palm muting). Thrash metal also have tremolo picking.

8 The instrumental part may be more melodic than the vocal line

You don't get much melody from the death growls or thrash snarls. Melody comes from the guitars that play melodic riffs - it's more noticeable in subgenres that still keep more melody (melodic death metal, thrash metal, progressive death metal). Black metal riffs can be very melodic and beautiful, too.
Extreme metal just INVERTED the standard music paradigm and this is another challenge because most of the music fans focus on vocals while listening to music. But metal is a guitar-based genre. And overall, the instrumental part is more important in metal.
Examples (listen to the guitars):
Arch Enemy - War Eternal, The World Is Yours
Amon Amarth - Twilight of the Thunder God, Tattered Banners and Bloody Flags

9 Palm muting

Especially in death and thrash metal. It is also used in non-extreme metal. But not like extreme metal.

As Steve Terreberry said, you have to "palm mute the crap out of them".

10 Music may be Lo-Fi (sometimes on purpose)

Lo-Fi music (short for "low fidelity") is music recorded on cheap substandard equipment and is of lower quality than the usual contemporary standards. It sounds like home-recorded music. Garage rock of the '60s and much of the punk rock of the late '70s could be tagged as Lo-Fi.
There are Lo-Fi recordings mainly in black metal. I think some black metal bands did it on purpose. Some fans believe that certain types of music sound better in Lo-Fi and I am inclined to partly agree with that.
But some extreme metal bands didn't do it on purpose - they just had no money for good equipment, usually for their debut albums/demos. Some extreme metal bands (not only black metal) never get sufficient financial support so their music is mostly Lo-Fi.
Music on such albums may be great but the sound quality is bad. If you are a metal fan, you know it. To be honest, I sometimes wish some metal albums had better sound quality because music is great and the band play amazingly but nevertheless, it doesn't sound very good.

The Contenders
11 Darker lyrics (death, war)

Darker lyrics are an additional feature of extreme metal subgenres but lyrics are not part of the music.
Only lyrics can't make music extreme - many old blues songs have extremely violent lyrics but music isn't extreme and basically nobody thinks blues is an extreme genre just because of some lyrics.
On the other hand, there are extreme metal songs where lyrics aren't violent or extremely dark. Metal lyrics are always more or less dark but there's "dark" and "darker".

12 Visual transgression (weaponry, bloody or horrific artwork)

This is optional because obviously it isn't part of the music but such images are used in extreme metal. You shouldn't expect happy couples holding hands from a brutal death metal album.
However, I noticed that extreme metal bands that offer music of higher quality don't use it or at least don't overuse it - death metal bands like Opeth, Obscura, Nile, Ne Obliviscaris, and so on. Also, many of the black metal album covers are just dark and atmospheric images of the nature, and some of them are extremely beautiful.
A band that probably overused the visual transgression is Cannibal Corpse - I think they used it for the shock value (to get noticed, etc.) But again, what do you expect from a death metal band named Cannibal Corpse?

13 Focusing more on rhythm guitar

I am not saying that extreme metal doesn't have lead guitar. But extreme metal focuses more on rhythm guitar than lead guitar. Cause sometimes they don't get heavy when doing lead guitar.

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