You may notice that we are no longer following a strictly linear chronology. By the early 90′s, metal was developing along several distinct lines, just as jazz had begun to do in the early 60′s.
Two lines of development are similar enough that their artists are often described as one or the other. The first I’d like to present is doom metal.
Doom metal can be traced to none other than Black Sabbath, whose albums Master of Reality and Sabbath Bloody Sabbath featured a number of dark, plodding tracks, including “Who Are You,” “Sweet Leaf,” and “Into the Void.” The detuned, down-tempo “downer rock,” as described by Sabbath drummer Bill Ward, is echoed quite strongly in the reefer-inspired music of groups like Electric Wizard, EyeHateGod, and Madison’s own Bongzilla.
The classic doom sound arose in the 1980′s, and was pioneered by groups like Witchfinder General, Saint Vitus, and Candlemass:
By the 1990′s, we were introduced to a less gothic, more rock ‘n roll variant on doom, as evidenced in the songs of groups like Crowbar. This brings us one step closer to a concurrent trend in metal — that of sludge.
Sludge metal, so-named because of its origins near the Mississippi delta, is not as tightly executed as other styles, giving it a resemblance to grunge, which seemed to rule the 90′s hard rock world. While Seattle-based artists Nirvana and Soundgarden infused the Sabbath sound with indie-pop and punk, their sludge counterparts kept things nice and heavy.
One sludge group that did not come out of the south, The Melvins, were among the most influential. From their formation in the 1980′s to today, they have consistently produced some of the finest hard rock I have heard, and I recommend their Houdini album whenever I have the chance.
Metal always had a progressive side. Black Sabbath, brutish though they seemed, would sometimes craft lengthy songs with sectional forms; and thrash artists like Metallica routinely served up 6-minute long mini-epics. Metal musicians historically seem to have been highly straightforward, pragmatic musicians who harbored fascination with the academic. And it was academia from which came Dream Theater, the brainchild of Berklee students John Petrucci and Mike Portnoy.
In the 90′s, critics had written metal off as dead at the hands of grunge, never minding that Metallica were still outselling Nirvana, and that grunge rockers like Soundgarden were living tributes to Sabbath. These were my college years, and I fondly recall the closed-door “parties within parties” where we rhythm section nerds would keep Dream Theater’s debut, Images And Words, in rotation alongside decidedly anti-metal artists Beck and Soul Coughing. Good music is good music, and prog rockers were determined to play their best in any cultural climate.
Progressive metal as realized by Dream Theater is sectional, often with sharp contrasts in meter and key from one section to the next. Every musician in the group is world-class. Arrangements push performers into tight rhythmic unison one moment, raggy polyphony the next. Odd meters figure prominently. Uncommon in other forms of metal, keyboards are often central to the sound.
Although Dream Theater ruled the 90′s, their neo-classical counterparts Symphony X have been the dominant prog band since, and at this moment are my personal preference. Here is one of their finest moments on record:
Modern progressive metal is often less melodic and more agressive. What it has in common with Dream Theater and Symphony X is its tight group work, but that’s where the parallels end. Today, the term “progressive” can refer to anything intricate or highly developed. From Protest the Hero, here is an impressive melding of hardcore, power, and progressive influences:
Death may be the most athletic of metal subgenres. It is packed with unrelenting tremolo-picked guitar riffs and blast beats. You might consider the drummer the star of a death metal band; to play death, a drummer must conquer hypersonic tempi, with all four limbs in constant play.
Death originated in Florida during the late 1980′s, with the release of Seven Churches, by Possessed. Other groups from the area, including Morbid Angel, Death, Atheist, and Deicide, followed their lead. In the hands of its progenitors, death metal isolated and expanded on thrash’s most extreme characteristics. Thrash beats were fast; death is faster. Thrash vocalists sang or chanted with a little grit; death singers screeched raspily. Guitars were more distorted and deeply tuned than ever.
By the time Cannibal Corpse broke in the early 90′s, the predominant vocal style had settled into a much lower register, becoming the “cookie monster” growl we now associate with death metal:
At its inception, lyrical and visual themes in death metal were anti-theistic. Later, it seems the novelty of religious rebellion wore off; and morbidity became the central focus. Some critics attribute this to our innate fascination with our own mortality; others prefer a more direct explanation — that gore is entertainment. Death metal seeks, if not to become a slasher film soundtrack, to at least narrate the details.
Even if death isn’t the most listened-to metal style, I consider it to be metal’s nerve center. It perpetually maintains a following among the most serious of metal fans. It is at once a natural extension of thrash and a wellspring from which came today’s extreme styles. And it remains strongly represented. Here are one of my current favorites — a group that chooses Egyptology over bloody gore as its prevailing motif, named Nile:
From the mid-80′s on, solo artists like Yngwie Malmsteen and Joe Satriani cultivated a market for flashy guitar instrumentals. As I mentioned earlier, pop metal bands were also a breeding ground for guitar heroes. Two institutions sprang up to capitalize on these trends: One a school for would-be shredders, the other a showcase for exceptional talent.
The school was GIT (Guitar Institute of Technology), founded in 1977 in Hollywood. As the 1980′s brought a new level of technicality to modern guitar, several flocked to the institute to learn how to play like their idols. After the opening of expansion programs for bass (BIT) and percussion (PIT), the school was rechristened the Musician’s Institute. Some graduates of GIT transitioned directly into recording careers; and one label, Shrapnel Records, was there to catch their brightest.
Mike Varney launched Shrapnel in 1980 with the intent of promoting “guitarists of extraordinary ability.” Given the impressive list of alumni, I would say his objective has been realized. Former Shrapnel artists include Jason Becker, Marty Friedman, Greg Howe, Yngwie Malmsteen, Vinnie Moore, Richie Kotzen, and a powerful speed/pop outfit called Racer X, featuring the twin leads of GIT alumnus-turned-instructor Paul Gilbert and one of Gilbert’s students, Bruce Bouillet.
Toward the end of the 80′s, Gilbert entered the pop arena by forming Mr. Big with bassist Billy Sheehan, vocalist Eric Martin, and drummer Pat Torpey. Mr. Big were one of a few groups that brought a high level of musicianship to the otherwise dumbed-down pop metal genre. This scene suffered major blows with the onset of grunge in the 90′s, which had the effect of purging the public’s interest in finely crafted rhythm section work.
One of the things I appreciate most about these guys is their dedication to sharing their expertise. Search YouTube for “Paul Gilbert,” “Jason Becker,” and “Vinnie Moore,” and you’ll see as much footage taken from instructional videos and clinics as there is from live performances.
Thrash began when metal musicians adopted some elements of hardcore punk. Once thrash had established itself as a distinct style, several artists emerged whose sound leaned back in a punk direction. Chief of these is the Los Angeles group Suicidal Tendencies, who broke with the single “Institutionalized,” a youth angst anthem if there ever was one, with a vaguely metal verse riff and a chorus that is clearly punk.
It was with their second album, Join the Army, that ST created the fully realized hardcore/thrash crossover sound. One highlight, “War Inside My Head,” is typical: Singer Mike Muir portrays a struggle with insanity — not Metallica’s supernatural or traumatic post-war madness, but some form of internally fueled raging urban burnout — while guitarist Rocky George transforms a mostly punk arrangement with classic thrash motifs.
Lest you think the blending of punk and thrash merged two discrete fan bases together into one loving family, remember that these are also styles whose fans are intensely territorial. In Get Thrashed, Anthrax guitarist Scott Ian recalls the animosity:
“We played a show out here in LA in 1986 at the Olympic Auditorium where it was just, it was chaos. You had 3,000 people there…and they all hated each other. It had nothing to do with moshing or slam-dancing. It was fights; it was packs of gangs chasing other people.”
This didn’t stop Ian from indulging his fascination with hardcore by launching S.O.D. (“Stormtroopers of Death”), a crossover group with abrasively satirical lyrics that failed to speak to those in the punk crowd who didn’t get the joke.
Acronyms seemed a popular naming convention; other groups in the movement include D.R.I. (“Dirty Rotten Imbeciles”), M.O.D. (“Methods of Destruction”) and C.O.C. (“Corrosion of Conformity”). Another trend in crossover is extremely short song forms. Some tracks by M.O.D. clock in at under 20 seconds — a device mirrored in grindcore, another offshoot of hardcore that developed in the United Kingdom.
Napalm Death were the pioneers of grindcore. They responded to metal and punk’s fascination with fast tempos by taking speed to its ultimate extreme. The blastbeat has since become a staple of hardcore and metal drumming. Their debut album, Scum, has a total running time of 33:04 despite containing 28 tracks.
From Scum, the song “You Suffer” was listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s shortest song, clocking in at 1.316 seconds. The full lyrics are, “You suffer, but why?”
At its inception, Metal appealed to a niche audience; but by the early 1980′s, pop metal bands found their way onto the charts, and MTV brought them into our living rooms. Amidst the hair metal mania, several artists continued working hard in the underground, pushing the metal sound into heavier territory. Just up the coast from pop metal’s epicenter in Los Angeles, bands in San Francisco were inventing a more extreme expression of metal that would somehow remain invisible to the general public while selling millions of albums, and filling the world’s concert seats. To the true metalhead, pop metal was merely a diversion; the style known as “thrash” represented metal’s true bloodline.
Thrash is to metal as Hard Bop is to jazz. Its techniques have remained the foundation for all but the most saccharine pop metal. In thrash, guitars are crunchy and syncopated, doubling the bass, and accented by the kick drum. Thrash riffs are less melodic and more visceral — they are meant to be felt as well as heard. Classical scales and harmonies are abandoned in favor of a more chromatic approach, seamlessly incorporating blues, phrygian, and spanish scales. Song forms are lengthy and progressive; half and double-time sections are used to vary the intensity, with the “breakdown” emerging as a staple of the extreme metal songwriting vocabulary. Vocals are more gruff than in pop and power metal, often with partly shouted, “call-and-response” refrains. Lyrical subject matter is grimly realistic, portraying disillusionment, insanity, paranoia, and the horrors of war. When thrash lyricists depart from cynicism, their more fun pieces are celebrations of thrash culture, as in the exemplary, adrenaline-soaked “Toxic Waltz,” by Exodus:
Whereas glam bands seemed to draw their inspiration from American shock rockers like Alice Cooper and KISS, thrashers sought to emulate and expand upon the sounds of the NWOBHM. Metallica were overt fans of Diamond Head, Budgie, and hardcore punkers The Misfits; and Megadeth frontman Dave Mustaine claimed to keep a copy of King Diamond’s Melissa with him as he toured. Metallica and Megadeth, along with Slayer and Anthrax (the only group from the east coast) comprised what critics and fans refer to as the “Big Four” of thrash.
Of the Big Four, Metallica is the most obviously prolific. Founded in Los Angeles and quickly relocated to the Bay Area, its members originally included Dave Mustaine, who was ousted just before the release of their debut album. Metallica’s immense success is no accident; of the four, they were far from the most talented, but they knew quite well how to work around their limitations and produce highly engaging songs, making them the ultimate garage band. Their rise was based on one brilliant career decision after another, from the removal of Dave Mustaine to their refusal to produce a video until well after the release of their fourth album, which helped cement their credibility with the anti-establishment element of metal fans, a demographic who also delighted in Metallica’s lyrics decrying censorship, totalitarianism, and war. In my opinion, their greatest moment is “Disposable Heroes,” from Master of Puppets: YouTube Video
Once fired from Metallica, their former chief songwriter and lead guitarist Dave Mustaine wasted no time in forming Megadeth. Mustaine has a knack for surrounding himself with quality musicians, and his arrangements have been described by other metal musicians as “jazz-like.” However fair an assessment that may be, he certainly demonstrates the advantage of being a one-man show: One’s vision can be most easily realized by the best talent one can afford, without personal loyalties getting in the way. From their album, Peace Sells, But Who’s Buying?, the song “Wake Up Dead” was my introduction to Megadeth, and it rocked my brains out: YouTube Video
New York City’s Anthrax were not only geographically removed from the others in the Big Four, but were stylistically quite distant as well. Their instrumental sound was classic thrash, but with more intense double and even quadruple-time beats and breaks, anticipating the “blast beats” so prevalent in today’s metal and metalcore styles. They took a less cynical approach to lyric writing; in their landmark album Among the Living, they focus on topics like teen angst (“Caught in a Mosh”) and comic book heroes (“I Am The Law”), and even lament the tragedy of John Belushi’s premature death (“Efilnikufesin”). Their willingness to cross over into other genres placed them squarely in the midst of a hardcore punk/thrash crossover movement that stirred enmity between punk fans and their long-haired headbanging counterparts. They also dabbled in hip-hop, teaming up with Public Enemy on the single “Bring the Noise,” subsequently enjoying some mainstream success. Even their image was upbeat; Anthrax routinely sported baseball caps and bright shorts, in contrast to Metallica’s black jeans and plain t-shirts. This is gateway metal for the frat crowd: YouTube Video
Slayer bears the distinction of being the best-aged thrash group. Throughout the decades since the 80′s, during which mainstream metal was first marginalized, then recalled with pitiful disdain, Slayer’s unapologetic thrash has retained its appeal. I attribute this in part to their resilience under fire. Their careers have perennially been plagued by controversy, making them thrash’s whipping boys. Their album art and subject matter explore dark concepts like murder, torture, and demonism, fueling accusations of satanism. For a time, their song “Angel of Death” invited (erroneous) allegations that they were Nazi sympathizers. Still they passed through the 80′s paranoia wave unscathed; and their furious, high-speed grinding has made them prototypes of death metal, black metal, and metalcore acts to come. Many of today’s more aggressive metal bands can trace their lineage to Slayer. YouTube Video
The music of the NWOBHM inspired a new generation of artists in the States, and American bands would dominate metal through the 80′s and well beyond. Some artists in San Francisco took the punky rhythms and textures explored by the likes of Motörhead, and beefed up the presentation; we shall explore their work in my next entry. But for now, let’s turn to Los Angeles, where music’s biggest party was getting underway.
LA’s Sunset Strip was the epicenter of so-called “hair metal,” a.k.a. “cock rock” and “glam metal.” For the sake of objectivity, I prefer “pop metal.” It is debatable whether you might even dare to call some of these acts “metal.” For some who played in these clubs hoping to be the next MTV sensation, the music was little more than an excuse to party hard, in every sense of the word.
Although it is easy to criticize pop metal for its superficiality, there arose among its legions a new musical archetype — the guitarist who is too good for his surroundings. So many pop metal acts — Dokken, Extreme, Winger, Van Halen, the David Lee Roth Group — balanced a pandering to the lowest common denominator with highly artful guitar work.
Ratt’s “Round and Round” is one of my favorite pop metal tunes, for not only showcasing Warren DeMartini’s slick leads, but also being a quite well-crafted tune. Here is an ideal pop metal song if there ever was one, appealing to the masses with its catchiness, without sacrificing musicianship.
Thanks to their having balanced pop banality with strong musical craftsmanship, or at least a rough enough image to pass as “metal enough”, some groups maintained respect among the more sincere metalheads. One such group is Quiet Riot, whose Metal Health album became the first metal album to reach #1 on the American Billboard pop album charts. The industry began signing everyone who wore long hair and carried a superstrat, and our airwaves became flooded with pure drivel.
During this era, filmmaker Penelope Spheeris produced an exposé of the Sunset Boulevard scene entitled The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years. In the interviews she compiled, we hear LA veterans and rising stars alike confessing to the most depraved and misogynistic behavior. Seen through Spheeris’s lens, the typical metal musician is a societal leech at his best, a dead-end drunk at his worst. Members of Poison gleefully relate their hedonistic exploits, W.A.S.P.’s Chris Holmes chugs an entire bottle of vodka in front of his mother, and KISS singer Paul Stanley smugly encourages any who would be rock stars to go for broke. But near the end, a scowling, makeup-free Dave Mustaine answers the question, “What do you have to say to kids who want to make it as a rock star?” with a blunt, “Dont.”
Stay tuned to learn what Mustaine and the other half of American metalheads were doing in the 80′s. It was pretty big. In the meantime, watch The Metal Years in its entirety on YouTube while you can.
Power metal is your stereotypical swords-and-sorcery fare. Lyrics dealt with the eternal struggle between good and evil, and album cover art evoked medieval or nordic imagery.
Cirith Ungol, Frost and Fire, 1980
You could say “speed” is best used when describing songs, not artists. Thus, speed metal becomes a subset of power metal, and is characterized by double-time beats, virtuosic guitars, and high, clean vocals. As metal progresses, we will see vocal styles grow increasingly rough; but power and speed vocalists prefer clarity over aggression. This “higher, faster, louder” approach to metal can be heard early on in Deep Purple’s “Highway Star,” then in the music of Judas Priest and Helloween.
Yngwie J. Malmsteen is the quintessential electric guitar virtuoso. Beginning with Ritchie Blackmore and Uli Jon Roth, there had been a trend of fusing elements of classical and metal, which Malmsteen does like no other. He even goes so far as to directly quote Bach and Paganini. Here is something from his Rising Force album:
Several groups lurked in Black Sabbath’s shadow during the 1970′s, including Deep Purple and a very young Judas Priest; but metal had yet to coalesce into a distinct movement. Even the term “heavy metal” was merely bandied about, and often used in a pejorative sense. Early on, Sabbath drummer Bill Ward coined the term “Downer Rock” — now echoed in the use of the term “Stoner Rock” to describe groups like Electric Wizard and Queens of the Stone Age, who themselves are blatantly Sabbathesque.
Perhaps it was this lack of coherence that may have opened a weak front to the Punk invasion of the late 1970′s. With a strong following in both the UK and New York, punk was a rebellion against the decadent and indulgent, which surely included metal. Sabbath themselves were on the verge of breakup due to alcohol-fueled internal tensions.
Punk caught on so well that metal album sales sharply declined, to the point that metal music was near extinction. It took a group with crossover appeal to bridge these rough waters — a band that could maintain the macho metal attitude while co-opting punk’s thrashiness. Enter Motörhead.
Punk faded as quickly as it caught on, and by 1979 a slew of metal acts who had incorporated punk’s DIY aesthetic were prepared to pick up the momentum. Their self-produced demos found enthusiastic audiences in suburban clubs, and spread across the Atlantic to the United States. Many were signed, and the first couple of years of the 1980′s saw releases by the likes of Def Leppard, Saxon, and Iron Maiden. This phenomenon was dubbed “New Wave of British Heavy Metal” — my nomination for most awkward genre label ever — usually abbreviated as NWOBHM.
NWOBHM is near-impossible to define in purely musical terms. It’s more of a designation of a historical era. These were the groups that came up through clubs to festivals, and for some, onward to arenas and world tours. Second-tier groups like Angel Witch and Diamond Head, as influential as they were on American up-and-comers, have since faded; but Def Leppard and Iron Maiden continue to enjoy legendary status, not just among metal fans, but among all rock listeners. Sometime toward the end of the 80′s, Def Leppard exchanged street cred for pop superstardom; but Iron Maiden has never lost their respect among metal purists.
Judas Priest is said to have taken the raw elements of metal procured by Black Sabbath, and refined them by introducing a twin lead guitar arranging style, operatic vocals, and a leathery image. With this formula in hand, Iron Maiden infused sophistication. Their arrangements represented a return to progressivism, and their lyrics avoided the usual callous rebelliousness of classic metal, focusing instead on responsibility in the face of tragedy. Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs” was a scathing indictment of warmongers, but Iron Maiden’s “The Trooper” and “Die With Your Boots On” depicted the futility of despair, and the honor of fulfilling one’s duty. Maiden even drew heady subject matter from mythology (“Flight of Icarus”), poetry (“Rime of the Ancient Mariner”), and history (“Alexander the Great”).
“Aces High” is a superb example of Maiden’s style. You’ll hear a double-time drum beat lifted straight from punk, supporting an intricate arrangement featuring harmonized lead guitars, soaring vocals, and harmonic modulations.