Drawing its power and its origins from the UK 🇬🇧 and the US 🇺🇸 , hard rock from the late 60s , heavy metal more commonly known as “metal” is undoubtedly one of the most divisive, controversial and nuanced musical genres.
The Heavy Metal Subculture
This musical genre is often compared to hard rock because it has characteristics like blues and rock with in particular a very strong presence of the drums 🥁 and the amplified guitar 🎸
It is complicated in fact to fit heavy metal music into a generic definition!
We can nevertheless say that metal is a musical genre characterized by its radicality and its tendency to be extreme.
As well in the reactions aroused after his birth (with hardcore fans on one side and anti-metal on the other) or in the lifestyle, the musical sounds, the attitude and in the visual identity.
To begin with we can say that the common denominator of heavy metal music is the powerful rhythm, accompanied of the dominance of the drums 🥁 and the guitar 🎸
One of the particularities of the use of the guitar in metal music, is that the sound of the instrument is quite saturated.
This constitutes one of the core sound recognition of the heavy metal music.
To this we can add the rhythm which can be accelerated ⬆ or slowed down ⬇
The powerfull vocals 🎤 can also be considered like one of the fundamental pillars of heavy metal music.
Again, this is diversified according to the genre of metal and the artistic direction of the group.
You can just as well find a clear and symphonic song 🎶 as much as a darker song with a hoarse and squeaky voice.
The lyrics and the texts also occupy a very important place in heavy metal.
If in the collective imagination the heavy metal is mainly linked to the world of the fantastic (with mythological references for exemple).
Some detractors will even go so far as to say that it is a satanist musical genre😈 it would be a shame to reduce it solely to these two themes.
In reality there are so many sub genres within metal, that there is something for every taste and everything !
Celtic and Nordic mythology, for instance, takes a large place in the world of black metal and folk metal. They are associated and directly linked with the desire to rediscover our roots and to be in tune with the forces of nature.
Most of the greateast metal musician, even if they don’t say it, have often followed a traditional course through conservatories.
The complexity of some style and variant of heavy metal music requires a perfect knowledge of the musical theory and a perfect mastering of their instrument.
The list of themes approached by the metal is rich and varied. We can find there metaphysical themes like: ancient Death, Love, chaos and war, and more contemporary concerns related to social claim or politics.
As well as societal subjects such as globalization, ecology, while dealing with subjects drawn from rock, sex and drugs.
Tracing its history and its key moments, we will see through this article how the metal was born and how it developed over the decades. Are you Ready ?
The birth of the Heavy Metal music
The creation of heavy metal is the result of a long process. Before it took a place in the mainstream music industry / scene , the music went through different stages of evolution.
The starting point of our favorite musical genre took place during the 1960’s. The first half of this decisive decade is known to have seen a new wave of popular rock bands such as The Rolling Stones, The Beatles and The Kinks. These groups contributed to build the model of a rock band with their own particularities, attitude and lifestyle.
People perceived and qualified them as a band of Rebellious, Loud and unpredictable men.
The single ‘You really got me’ from The Kinks was the trigger of the birth of metal. This single has inspired many famous metal artists, folks says that this guitar rift is the beginning of every thing.
During the early half of the 1960’s many musical inspiration has paved the way for the birth of metal. Jimi Hendrix was also a huge influence for future metalheads.
His guitar 🎸 skills, his mastery and innovation in the way of playing this instrument forced admiration.
From a social point of view, everything was auspicious too, for the birth of heavy metal.
At that time in England 🇬🇧 they were many industrial factories, the children of the time could hear the sound of the hammer working the metal, a lot of smoke came out of those factories.
Metal particles were floating in the air, the atmosphere was litterally heavy. All those things contributed in their own way for the birth of heavy metal.
All the generation of future metal band in England shared something together, they all came from a depressed, poor enviromnent surrounded by the gloominess of an industrial zone.
The music is their only loophole, their desire to free oneself from work in the factory will be the engine of the birth of the metal music.
Everyone considers Black Sabbath as the founding fathers of heavy metal. Let’s see together how it happened.
The founding fathers of metal : Black Sabbath
One day, during 1969, they began to write their own music. Their music was what we can call « Scary Music » : their songs were permeat of their love for horror films.
In 1969, their first song called « Black Sabbath » received a breathtaking reception from the public. The group then adopted the name of « Black Sabbath ».
This combination of hard rock and demonic imagery soon earned them a sulphurous reputation.
They started to sing very loud and be very aggressive, angry, arrogant and unpredictable on stage.
Their first album was a huge success, ( they managed to record the 12 tracks of the album in only 12 hours...).
The mixture of texts, the use of sound effects and devastating power chords is explosive 💥 The press which until now had been content to ignore them.
Their second album contains the hit “Paranoïd” (this song is still considered today as one of the greatest masterpieces of metal music and they wrote it in only 20 minutes…) .
For an underground group like Black sabbath such popular success was unexpected.
In the early 70’s, bands like Black Sabbath, Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin conquered America where their music had influenced countless bands. One of them was Elf, fouded by Ronnie James Dio, who would later play a crucial role in the history of Black Sabbath.
The Black Sabbath, didn’t hesitate to take lyrical risks and bring up taboo subjects like social ostracization, drug use and political corruption.
Although the compositions of Black Sabbath were not very sophisticated, the intensity of their performances and their energy on stage more than made up for the "shortcoming" previously quoted.
In 1972, a new band consisting of four profesional musicians made its apperance, you already guessed it, I’m talking about Deep Purple.
This band came from the north of London, from Hertford more precisely. Unlike Black Sabbath at their beginning, the members of Deep Purple already had a proffesional experience in the music industry.
The guitarist of the group Richie Blackmore already had a great reputation and was already a well known personality in the 1960’s, he was known to be one of the greatest guitarists around.
Deep Purple was never very heavy, they were always slightly funky and also psychedelic. Their music combined the intensity and the melody and musical aspect perfectly.
Their first album « Shade of Deep Purple » recorded in only 3 days was an instant success when the single « Hush » came out and reached n°4 in the American Charts.
Their music was a highly musical form of heavy metal, this was the result of Ritchie Blackmore’s guitar skills and Ian Gillian’s hovering vocals. The band contributed to the definition of Metal music.
We can say that Deep Purple contributed to Metal music, bringing a lot of talent and its own conception of the metal music ;
We saw earlier that Black Sabbath and Deep Purple have been very successful during the 70s.
1978 was an important year for the development ofmetal music. A lot of people say that this year was the beginning of a new era of metal. Judas Priest is the name of the band who was key this new era.
A new face of The Heavy Metal Scene :
Judas Priest came from the same city as Black Sabbath : Birmingham.
Can we say that Birmingham is the headquarter of metal ?
Judas Priest was naturally inspired by Black Sabbath and Deep Purple. The group succeeded in bringing out what was the best of both bands, by combining the melodical approach of Black Sabbath and Deep Purple.
The result was astonishing.
Their music had the intensity of the two bands, the dark side of Black Sabbath and the melodical and complexity of Deep Purple. But Judas Priest’s influence wasn’t only musical.
The fashion and visual identity of the band hadn’t changed since the 60’s. Rob Halford the leader of the group, introduced a whole new fashion style at that time.
Rod Halford incorporated the leather and studs style he took from London’s Soho gay bars ( it was common knowledge that Rob Halford was gay ).
With the notoriety of Judas Priest, the leather and studs fashion became part of the metal universe and gave another dimension to this musical genre.
The NWOBHM era
During the first half of the 80’s a new generation of metal band arose, we call them the NWOBHM bands ( abreviation for New wave of british heavy metal).
Bands like Iron Maiden, Diamond Head and Motörhead were part of this new wave.
These bands evolved metal music by bringing and incorporing new concepts to the music and the way they interpretated their performance on stage.
New themes like fantasy universe and mythology were part of their music and their lyrics, although they kept the social themes (like rebellion for example) that their elders had installed.
Their music was also more aggressive due to the high and powerful vocals along with the two electric guitars which made a perfect combination.
Bands like Iron Maiden were also really creative in their visual identity ( with the covers of their albums with Eddie The Head) and the also brought a theatrical dimension on their performance.
The most obvious example is when the band killed Eddie the Head during a performance on stage.
These things resulted in sublimating their music and adding an esoteric dimension to their group and made them even more attractive to the audience.
The new wave of British Heavy Metal spread its influence and popularity beyond the English borders.
They were popular in a lot of European countries and in North America. Iron Maiden had even performed in Japan!
The birth of another metal subgenre: Glam Metal
Meanwhile, at the other side of the Atlantic ocean, a new metal style was emerging : the Glam Metal.
This Metal sub genre was also really successful during the 80’s. We also see the appearance of groups like Kiss and Alice Cooper with deliberately provocative and shocking staging involved in the development of heavy metal.
Groups like Alice Cooper and Kiss made use of intentionally outrageous staging during their performances.
Of course not all metalheads consider that these musicians have contributed fairly to the development of metal.
Glam Metal then conquered mainstream radio waves from the early 1980s to the 1990s, elevating metal to the rank of a popular genre.
Then comes what we call Hairs Bands
Hair bands ( like Poison and RATT) are well known for their visual and spectacular approach to metal music.
This metal sub genre beats all the entertainment on the visual and theatrical aspects.
They wanted to mark an impression by outrageous visuals during their show. The lyrics are neglected in favor of entertainment led by the show.
This response has been enourmously successful, appealing to a large audience
Opposed to Hairs Metal , another subgenre of Metal emerged ; the nemesis of Hair Bands : Thrash Metal. This new explosive metal subgenre took everything about the original metal and made it more extreme.
The Trash Metal music was represented by bands such as : Slayer, Exodus, Metallica, Anthrax, Megadeth....
The success of this sub-genre of metal nevertheless creates a divide between metalheads.
An opposition was born then between glam metal groups with fairly androgynous and not very masculine imagery like the Poison group with trash metal groups like Slayer with an imagery much more masculine.
But it is more particularly Thrash metal which will fare well among all these new sub-genres.
The sound of this metal genre is more aggressive, louder and faster than that of original metal bands or popular glam metal bands at that time.
This meets the expectations of a large part of the community.
This sub-genre was carried by what some call the Big Four Of Thrash: Anthrax, Megadeth, Metallica, and Slayer.
In the early 90s the heavy metal road found itself split in two. The hair metal trend had evaporated as quickly as it had arrived.
Thrash, which was an exacerbated version of metal, was not accessible to the general public.
Only a handful of Thrash Metal groups managed to achieve a significant level of notoriety. Among them: Metallica and Megadeth.
These groups have managed to make thrash music more accessible without disguising themselves completely.
A split has again emerged between commercially accessible thrash artists and underground thrash artists.
The advantage we can find in the underground world is the freedom in artistic choices, free from the pressure of success, from major record labels and the general public. It is in this context that the group Pantera emerged.
The thrash metal through the Big Four of Trash
The group managed to achieve commercial success by offering the public a version of the Thrash Extreme revisited in the Pantera way.
Loyal to this kind of heavy metal, the group remains fair to the fundamental codes of thrash music whether in radical lyrics deliberately dealing with taboo subjects, frenetic tempo or in detuned guitars.
However this approach was limited and didn’t suggest the possibility of an evolution ( which is fundamental for metal music). Therefore these derived forms of thrash metal lost the attention of the audience.
Along with Venom, Slayer is one of the bands that has greatly contributed to spreading the sinister aura gravitating around metal music.
This is with the publication of Aggressive Perfector that the group made itself known.
Indeed, Slayer plays a lot on the provocation with satanist lyrics and their inclination for World War II.
This resulted in defamatory charges against them, folks assimilated the group with the Nazi ideology.
In fact, one of the members of the group, Jeff Hanneman always defended himself to be passionate about that part of history, since his father participated in it.
A subversive image emanated from the group. Nevertheless their music was even more impressive than that.
Slayer was known for their violent, fast and agressive music, the contrast with what was done at the time was enormous, especially with the Hair metal music.
Their text, lyrics and musical ambiance was very visual, you could almost see the atrocity of war and death by listening to their music.
In terms of wildness , velocity and violence nobody could compete with Slayer. Their album Reign in Blood is considered an undeniable classic.
Slayer is without a doubt the most unique and influential 80’s thrash metal band.
Even three decades later the band had of one of the most devoted fan bases. Slayer is one of the rare bands that has persited and resisted through the decade.
The grundge music took the place of the metal music
The Grundge Music era
By the early / mid 90s, metal was starting to run out of steam from a popular point of view. This is when the Grundge music style took its place.
All the audience moved from the thrash and emigrated to Grundge.
Grundge music is inspired by heavy metal, alternative rock and hardcore punk. This music genre took a huge place in the musical scene at that time.
Lead by bands like Nirvana and Alice in Chains, these groups were huge and sold millions of albums.
In 1991, Nirvana driven by the album « Nevermind » and the single « Smells like a teen spirit » made heavy metal look old fashioned at that time.
Kurt Cobain blew the final whistle to the extended guitar solo, with improbable pageantry. Nirvana imposed a violent rock but free from artifice. Music refocused on itself.
On the other hand Alice in Chains, the other huge Grundge band at that time, formed in the 80’s, in 1987 more precisely.
It is important to notice that the vocalist Layne Staley and the guitarist Jerry Cantrell of Alice in Chains were both part of metal bands before the creation of Alice in Chains.
In fact, Alice in Chains with their famous album Facelift made light of grundge music before the explosion of Nirvana.
Alice in Chains achieved a heavy sound thanks to a perfect combination of tortured lyrics and a use and mastery of the dark guitar riffs.
All this without going overboard with too dark and heavy music. This perfect mix made their music accessible and radio friendly.
The 90s marked a turning point for heavy metal, the genre became more and more outrageous.
The music was played faster and faster and louder, with ever more violent lyrics and extreme disguises.
Slipknot and Sepultura are examples. Above this mixture of radical groups emerged a few names well known to the general public.
We then find Eagle vision or Marilyn Manson who are the heritage of groups like Kiss and Alice Cooper.
Marilyn Manson is today one of the superstars of the genre regardless of his controversial personality and his success is far from unanimous.
The 90s were a special decade for our favorite musical genre. Indeed, heavy metal was hidden in the shade.
Alternative rock and grundge largely influenced by the success of the metal during the last few decades, began to monopolize the first positions and dominate the media and popular scene.
Some heavy metal fans saw the lack of awareness as a new breath of freedom.
No longer on the front of the stage, heavy metal could quietly reinvent itself and indulge in new experiments.
The cement of the fan base, the loyalists of the genre could not be more present to answer the call.
Even after 30 years of existence, despite the ups and downs of their careers, groups like Iron Maiden, Black Sabbath, Metallica, Judas Priest, Deep Purple and Kiss have not finished shaking the walls.
All historic groups have returned to service. These bands are endowed with an extraordinary lifetime and an extraordinary popularity.
Even after all this time their appearance on stage exulted the crowds.
However, these living legends will not be able to perform forever. Who will be the next legends?
It has now been over 20 years since any group exploded for the general public.
One thing is certain, heavy metal never needed anything or anyone to chart its course and take its place in contemporary music.