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A Guide to the Origin and Genres of Metal Music

Where did Heavy Metal come from? More importantly, perhaps, When?

First known instance of the term comes from Steppenwolf’s “Born to be Wild”–“Heavy Metal thunder!”

But lots of bands in the mid to late 60s began a trend towards a heavier, down-tuned, and/or faster sound. The Beatles “Helter Skelter” sounds almost nothing like what they’d done before. Jimi Hendrix, and similar (but not better) bands/artists, put a stronger emphasis on the guitar. Even The Kink’s get some credit with “You Really Got Me” and “All Day and All of the Night”.

When Deep Purple dropped the psychedelic sounds of its 60s era and took on Ian Gillian and Roger Glover giving us ‘In Rock‘ in 1970, we got a really strong contender for first Heavy Metal album. Along with Black Sabbath’s second album 1970’s ‘Paranoid’ and its all-time classic track “Iron Man”.

Led Zeppelin played a role by using a heavy sound for their 1968 song “Communication Breakdown” and their single from ‘Led Zeppelin II’ in 1969, “Whole Lotta Love”. ‘Led Zeppelin III’ in 1970 (again–obviously a seminal year in Heavy Metal) gave us perhaps Zeppelin’s first “real” Heavy Metal song, with “Immigrant Song”.

After 1970, metal began to open up to other bands. 1974 brought Judas Priest’s first album ‘Rocka Rolla’. But it really wasn’t until1976 with ‘Sad Wings of Destiny’ that their trademark style had been formed. They would prove to be the first truly Power Heavy Metal band. PURPLE played a Heavy Rock and SABBATH played Doom. No one would ever mistake Judas Priest as anything but pure Heavy Metal

There were a lot of borderline metal bands in the 70s; like Aerosmith, Thin Lizzy, UFO, Whitesnake, Budgie and Kiss. These bands might not be completely/truly Metal but they helped to evolve/influence the sound.

By the time Van Halen hit in 1978, the distinction between what was Metal and what was Hard Rock was becoming easier to make. Van Halen clearly focused on Rock themes of partying, woman, and drinking. Firmly planting them and bands like Aerosmith and AC/DC into the Rock category. While Black Sabbath and Judas Priest focused on the darker themes and the heavier, almost weighted-down “metal” sound.

The 80s were a watershed for metal music. This is the decade of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal (NWOBHM). Producing bands like Iron Maiden, Saxon, Motorhead, Diamond Head, Venom, and Def Leppard. These guys laid the foundation for the extreme metal genres that would follow, branching away from the earlier 70s type Classic Metal sound.

The American Bay-area (San Francisco/Oakland) sound of the early/mid 80s produced monoliths of Thrash Metal like Metallica, Anthrax, Megadeth, Exodus, Testment, and Slayer. Their thrash was fast, tight, mean, and very heavy.

Death Metal and Black Metal started around the same time/place. An early 80s band Possessed, also from the Bay-area, is often created with bridging the gap between Thrash and Death Metal. Allowing what Venom started to morph into bands like Slayer (‘Reign in Blood’) and Metallica (‘Ride the Lightning’ and ‘Master of Puppets’). And the bands DEATH, Obiturary, and Morbid Angel influenced the darker/depressing and harsh sound of Death Metal from the 80s and on.

Black Metal, a genre I generally have a great deal of disdain for, got its start with the Danish band Mercyful Fate. Black Metal took the “Satanic” themes of earlier bands like Black Sabbath and Venom and morphed it into something very literal–a worship and admiration of all things Satan. Whereas modern acts like Rob Zombie and Marlyn Manson and veteran acts like Alice Cooper and Ozzy clearly(?) played the Satan worship in a mocking way, these Black Metal bands are serious and the music they make is as provocative, perverse, and sacrilegious as one could ever imagine.

During the 80s the extremes of metal clearly splintered from the Hard Rock origins that many earlier bands rose out of. New bands that were clearly metal came into being like Accept, Helloween, Savatage, Queensryche, Destruction, etc… We no longer had to guess what the difference was, you could easily HEAR it.

As I’ve stated before, the so-called Hair-Metal of the 80s is Hard Rock in tone and theme. No Metal Here!

During the late 80s and early 90s European acts emerged that would take Metal into the next century, as America was no longer interested in pursuing metal, either commercially or culturally. Grunge and Alternative would replace Rock/Metal–never to return. Many American Metal bands like Anthrax, Exodus, Death, Slayer, and even “identity crisis” Metallica would linger and continue to produce Metal albums, sometimes even really good Metal albums.

But it was in Europe, Asia, South America that metal would continue and really flourish past the early 90s. Even today Heavy Metal music remains a global force (excluding America where its has mostly remained an underground and often ridiculed form of “pop” music).

Lots of genres and sub-genres of Metal. So I simply consolidated based on personal preferences:

Black Metal: Bat-sh*t crazy music. The one requirement, praise Satan and hope for death while bringing down Christianity and democracy. Often with obscene vocals and distorted guitars. Not my favorite genre. Bands include, King Diamond, Dimmu Borgir, Satyricon, Cradle of Filth and Emperor.

Classic Metal: Simple Heavy Metal that evokes the classic rock sound of the sixties and seventies. An origin style that bands can still play today. Include: Accept and U.D.O., Dio, and Saxon.

Death Metal: Metal with depressing themes dealing with death, war and suffering. Usually sung with harsh vocals. Can be fast or slow, often within the same song. Similar to Thrash but much darker. 80s-era Metallica, Entombed, In Flames, Opeth, Sentenced, and Entombed.

Doom Metal: The opposite of Thrash. Metal played loose and usually very slow. Usually with down-tuned guitars. Typically depressing themes, but can be more upbeat when invoking drug use;) Black Sabbath, Trouble, Blue Cheer, Down, Candlemass, and Cathedral are examples.

Folk Metal: Metal music that uses acoustic instrumentation and typically simple rhythm to evoke a folk feeling, but not it’s soft sound. Vocals can be in any style, and traditional metal instruments like electric guitars, drums, and bass are mostly present. Skyclad, Amorphis, Korpiklaani, Finntroll, Elvenking and Orphaned Land.

Gothic Metal: Like Doom but played faster. Depressing themes but not necessarily played angry or harsh. Often very beautifully song with strong melodies. Examples include, Lacuna Coil, Within Temptation, Tiamat, Paradise Lost and Anathema.

Power Metal: Metal using epic melodies, often clean vocals, and typically upbeat tone and themes. Can be played fast or mid-tempo, not usually very slow. Lots of bands live in this genre: Judas Priest, Helloween, Stratovarius, Primal Fear, Children of Bodom, Blind Guardian, Iced Earth, Hammerfall, Iron Maiden, and Savatage.

Progressive Metal: A fusion between Heavy Metal and progressive rock. Lots of complexity, rhythm changes, and variety. Talented musicianship is a must. Queensryche, Fates Warning, Symphony X, Iron Maiden (sometimes), and Vanden Plas.

Symphonic Metal: Metal that acts as a hybrid between pop and classical music. Usually has orchestrations, with traditional instruments or synths. Can utilize operatic style vocals as well. But it must contain metal instruments and heavier sound. Nightwish, Mekong Delta, Therion, Leave’s Eyes, Edenbridge, Dark Moor, and After Forever.

Thrash Metal: The closest thing to Punk music in Metal. Played very fast and aggressive. Often with less trained vocals and simple (but FAST) rhythm. But this genre has by necessity some of the best musicians–you’ve got to be good to play in control at these speeds. Anthrax, Slayer, Exodus, and Overkill.

For a guide into the tamer world of Rock music click here.