Heavy Metal was born out of the music of the 1960s, through the sonic innovations in guitar tech and distortion petals. It was nurtured through the endeavors of many young bands willing to challenge the norms of popular music to lay down thick, loud guitar chords, howling melodies, and the pulsing march of a bass and drum rhythm dirge insinuating lust and insidious decadence to a nation of young listeners throughout the world. What started as movement became a genre that instead of seeking popular acceptance craved infamy and dread.
Dawn of the Dark Sabbath
In the US during the beginning of the 1970s, a movement of bands began delivering a hard and loud energy into record studios and local music venues.
Steppenwolf, a Canadian band, was not only one of many bands to introduce this new sound but also gave the genre its name. In their 1968 single “Born to Be Wild,” which is forever attached to Easy Rider, Steppenwolf sings of “heavy metal thunder” referencing riding a chopper on the open highway. The song, propelled by its appearance in Easy Ride, became a big hit for the group and introduced a new kind of Rock&Roll that would contribute to new a movement. This new movement would broaden to include a variety of groups from around the world.
Later, in 1970, a new group in Brittan called Black Sabbath would release two albums that would further explore this sound. Focusing on dark explorations of themes commonly reconnoitered in horror films and macabre novels, the albums Black Sabbath and, later that year, Paranoid would establish a vision of Heavy Metal that would inspire generations of artists from Alice Cooper to Slayer to Morbid Angel. The single “Iron Man” from Paranoid is a great example of the kind of dark story telling the band was infamous. The song focuses on the story of a man who has visited the apocalyptic future and upon return to the present is turned into steel. Attempting to express what he has seen, Iron Man is mocked and vilified until he ends up reeking destruction on society, becoming the source of global destruction he prophesied.
The Forge of Darkness – Metal Evolves
By the late 1970s, Heavy Metal would expand to include many seminal acts but it was during the 1980s the many different bands and sub-genres would spread their shadows on music landscape. These bands would stretch and shape Metal into various molds, incorporating bleaker themes with quicker tempos. By the 1990s and 2000s, extreme Metal genres like Death Metal would take this sound to harsher realms, embellishing on images and refrains forged by their processors.
Speed Metal Accelerates
Motorhead came on the tailgate of 1970s, taking their name from a song from lead singer Lemmy’s previous band Hawkwind. Motorhead, sporting from Brittan with frontman Lemmy coming out of Scotland, took basic Heavy Metal, added some bluesy Rock&Roll, and sped it up into a frenzy. Through all of this, Motorhead baked together the prime ingredients for Speed Metal—a genre of Metal that maintained a quick tempo along with the Heavy distortion. Inspired by the Ramones, Motorhead created a similar kind of high-speed rock, while leaning more towards metal with hints of punk. “Ironfist” represents this sound perfectly, pounding out a rapid tempo of drums and guitars. Lemmy vocalizes with rusty growls a vision of an ominous chase and dire threat from an unknown assailant.
Meanwhile in the United State, Metallica, inspired by Motorhead as Motorhead was inspired by the Ramones, began taking Speed Metal and composing complex and often jarring compositions. From James Hetfield’s classical training and Kirk Hammett’s prodigious guitarmanship, Metallica would create seven minute plus opuses; discussing fears, nightmares, political and religious oppression, and war tragedy. Songs like “Disposable Heroes” would prove the full potential of the band. Profiling an exploited soldier victimized by the war he is fighting, the song features tempo changes, heavy distortion guitar, and an advance long composition form that disregards any simple popular song format—resembling more or a four movement classical symphony structure.
Death Metal Angels
This movement of extreme Heavy Metal was born in the early 80’s with albums like Seven Churches by Possessed and later Reign in Blood by Slayer. These bands inspired and propelled the genre, creating of movement bands devoted the dark mass of metal dirges. The genre became especially popular in Europe, creating a whole culture of dissonance and demonic lyrical extremism.
In the United State, Slayer would become not only one of the unholy Big Four of Speed Metal—along with Anthrax, Megadeath, and Metallica—but a prime pioneer of Death Metal. Focusing on fast tempo metal and demonic images of murder, deviltry, and diabolic behavior, Slayer would create a catalog of Death Metal classic albums from Seasons of the Abyss to God Hates Everyone. “Skeletons of Society,” from their album Seasons of the Abyss is perfect example of their menacing sound and vision. Being a “slow” song in their discography, the songs focus on a post-apocalyptic landscape with portrait of urban decay after the world has collapsed into a post-nuclear, dark-age wasteland.
Meanwhile in Sweden, Celtic Frost took this concept and fashioned its own distinctive sound. Formed in 1981, the band used extreme metal techniques to harness its sound. The band would pass through more basic Heavy Metal and cross through Speed Metal and Death Metal and onward.
Their influence on the how Heavy Metal evolved in Europe, along with Helloween, made the band one of the most important Metal groups in Europe. In their song “Into the Crypt of Rays,” Celtic Frost harnesses their idea in a mid-tempo metal dirge about human sacrifices and evil rituals.
Vision of Metal in the Future
Metal has expanded into a myriad of other sub-genres from doom metal to gothic metal. The sounds and bands continue as classic groups like Anthrax, Metallic, and Slayer continue to play for raging fans throughout the world. Meanwhile, new groups form in small pockets of the United State and around the world.
Heavy Metal has always been a genre of extremes, provoking people worse fears and delving into loud, aggressive music. At its worse, it plays on the putrid dusk of the human heart while spreading dire images of chaos and deviltry. It some cases, it has become the musical version of a horror film. In other cases, it offers a harsh rebuke of what it sees as the hypocrisy in society. At its best, it provides a voice for the disenchanted and opportunity to express dark fears and neurotic anxieties—a means of expelling and conveying their audience’s inner angst.
- 1970: The Year Heavy Metal Was Born
- 1980s heavy metal explosion: a guide to sub-genres | MusicRadar
- Heavy Metal Classifications: A History of Death Metal — Metal Descent
- 10 Best European Metal Bands
This article is part of GROM’s Music Genre series for 2017. To read more about other genres like Rock, Blues, Classical, check out here: http://gromaudio.com/blog/2017/02/grom-music-genre-2017/