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Overview of Heavy Metal



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What is Heavy Metal?


Some regard any loud rock music as heavy metal. In reality there are a multitude of heavy metal styles and subgenres. Heavy metal is a wide umbrella characterizing a style of music that is generally loud and aggressive. There are genres that are very melodic and mainstream, and other genres that are extreme and underground. Here's a brief overview of heavy metal and its many styles.



History of Heavy Metal


The term "heavy metal" was first used in a musical sense in the '60s song "Born To Be Wild" by Steppenwolf when they referred to "heavy metal thunder." Although there are debates, many consider groups like Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple to be the first heavy metal bands but some claim that Judas Priest were the first Heavy Metal band and that anything previous was Heavy Rock. For those not around in the 60s and 70s this is a very fine distinction. From these early bands, the style evolved and branched into many different genres and subgenres.


Heavy metal remains a vital force in music today, with sellout concert tours and CDs selling impressive numbers of copies without any radio airplay or MTV exposure.



Musical and Vocal Styles


The backbone of heavy metal is the electric guitar. You can't have metal without at least one guitarist, and many bands have two or more. Certain genres have some quiet and mellow parts, but most metal is loud, intense, fast and aggressive. The vocal styles in heavy metal range from melodic singing to aggressive singing to unintelligible screaming, depending on the genre.





In the late 1970s there was just traditional heavy metal. Shortly after it evolved and splintered into many different styles and subgenres. As time has gone on, there are literally hundreds of subgenres and Heavy Metal stands for its number of styles.


Avant Garde Metal

Also called experimental metal, it's characterized by unusual and nontraditional instruments and song structures.
Examples: Arcturus, Dog Fashion Disco, Mr. Bungle, Peccatum, Vintersorg


Black Metal

Characterized by high-pitched raspy vocals and pagan/satanic lyrical imagery. Symphonic black metal is a subgenre that uses keyboards and is more melodic.
Examples: Bathory, Burzum, Emperor, Mayhem, Venom


Celtic Metal

A combination of heavy metal and Celtic music with lyrics focusing on Celtic mythology.
Examples: Cruachan, Geasa, Waylander


Death Metal

An extreme form of the genre that uses distorted guitars and a growling vocal style sometimes described as "cookie monster" vocals.
Examples: Cannibal Corpse, Death, Deicide, Morbid Angel


Doom Metal

A genre that uses slower tempos and emphasizes gloomy, melancholy and atmospheric music. There are numerous subgenres of doom, including drone, epic, industrial, sludge and stoner.
Examples: Candlemass, Pentagram, Saint Vitus, Solstice


Gothic Metal

A combination of the darkness and melancholy of goth rock with heavy metal. The lyrics tend to be epic and melodramatic. This is a genre that uses a lot of male/female vocal combinations with the male vocalist generally using more aggressive vocals and the female singing in an ethereal soprano.
Examples: Lacuna Coil, Leaves Eyes, Theatre Of Tragedy, Tristania.



This is a genre influenced by thrash metal and death metal. It takes its name from the sound of the atonal guitar riffs combined with blast beats from the bass drum. The vocals are similar to death metal.
Examples: Carcass, Napalm Death, Nasum, Pig Destroyer, Terrorizer


Hair Metal

Also called pop metal and hairspray metal, this genre is very melodic and mass appeal. Some of the most commercially successful and critically despised bands came from this genre. They wore a lot of makeup and had huge teased hair, thus the name. They received a lot of radio airplay and chart success in the late '80s and early '90s until grunge rock destroyed it.
Examples: Poison, Ratt, Warrant, Winger, White Lion



This genre is currently very popular and combines heavy metal with hardcore. They use the musical style of heavy metal, especially melodic death metal, and the shouting vocal style of hardcore. are also heavily utilized.
Examples: As I Lay Dying, God Forbid, Killswitch Engage, Shadows Fall


New Wave Of British Heavy Metal (NWOBHM)

This genre has influenced almost all metal that has followed it. These were the metal pioneers that took the original sound of groups like Black Sabbath and took out the rock and blues influences to make the traditional metal sound that we're familiar with today.
Examples: Def Leppard,
Diamond Head, Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, Saxon



Combining heavy metal riffs with hip-hop influences and rapped lyrics, this genre became very popular in the late '90s through the early 2000's and then fell from favor. There are a few bands of this style still doing well, although most have come and gone.
Examples: Korn, Limp Bizkit, Papa Roach, Slipknot


Power Metal

A very melodic form of metal that utilizes soaring guitars and strong vocals, usually in a higher register. It's also an epic style, with long songs and many lyrics about mythology, fantasy and metaphysical topics. Most power metal bands also have a keyboardist.
Examples: Blind Guardian, Fate's Warning, Helloween, Jag Panzer


Progressive Metal

A mixture of heavy metal and progressive rock, this genre utilizes many of the characteristics of avant-garde and power metal. The song structures are complex, using many time signatures and key changes and are usually long. The lyrics are epic and often progressive metal albums are concept albums, utilizing a main theme that runs throughout.
Examples: Dream Theater, Evergrey, Fates Warning, Queensryche


Thrash Metal

This genre evolved from NWOBHM and became heavier and more extreme. It's characterized by fast guitar and double bass drum with aggressive but understandable vocals. Some of the most popular bands in metal started as thrash bands, although most evolved as they went along.
Examples: Anthrax, Megadeth, Metallica, Slayer


Heavy Metal Chronology


Heavy metal is one of the newer genres of music. Most experts put its beginnings in the late '60s and early '70s. Since that beginning, metal has grown and evolved, spawning a multitude of genres and subgenres. In the '80s some heavy metal became mainstream, but throughout the years it been mainly an underground phenomenon. Even though most people have heard of Def Leppard or Judas Priest, the huge majority of metal bands are unknown to the mainstream. Here's a heavy metal timeline:


Late 1960's - Early 1970's


The birth of heavy metal. Groups like Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple are considered to be the first heavy metal bands but this description is retrospective.


The Court of the Crimson King

A Theosophical interpretation

of this King Crimson song


Iron Man

The Damaged Hero Now Ignored.

A Black Sabbath Song about

Karmic Retribution.


Late 1970's


The rise of the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal Bands like Iron Maiden and Judas Priest become very popular. The term Heavy Metal is now in general use.




Van Halen released their debut album. This began the Los Angeles/Sunset Strip scene, and many bands would come out of this era, including Motley Crue and Quiet Riot. The so called "hair bands" like Poison, Warrant and Ratt came from that scene as well.


See the mountains darken yonder

Black sun rising, time is running out

From Sinner by Judas Priest


In line with the cyclic nature of History,

we are knocked out of our complacency as a

period of calm and stability is swept away by

higher forces which we cannot control.




The German band Accept releases their self-titled debut album. They are considered to be the first European power metal band.




AC/DC lead singer Bon Scott dies and is replaced by Brian Johnson. Also Led Zeppelin drummer John Bonham dies.




Venom's first album was released, beginning the genre of black metal.

Thrash metal titans Metallica, Slayer and Anthrax form.




Quiet Riot's Metal Health becomes the first heavy metal album to top the U.S. Billboard chart.

Paul Di'Anno is replaced by Bruce Dickinson as the lead singer for Iron Maiden.




Metallica releases Kill 'Em All, which would begin the rise of the genre of thrash metal.

Queensryche's self-titled debut is released. They are considered the first progressive metal band, combining progressive rock and heavy metal. Later groups like Dream Theater and Fates Warning would help popularize the genre.




Candlemass releases Epicus Doomicus Metallicus, the genre-defining doom metal album.

Metallica bassist Cliff Burton is killed in a bus accident and former Flotsam and Jetsam member Jason Newsted takes his place in the band.




Death releases Scream Bloody Gore, pioneering the death metal genre.

Napalm Death releases their debut album Scum. They are considered by many to be the first grindcore band.


Trapped in purgatory

A lifeless object, alive

Awaiting reprisal

Death will be their acquisition

Raining Blood by Slayer from the Album Reign in Blood


A Dweller on the Threshold (past self)

waits on the lowest rung of the Astral Plane

to settle the account of a past life with a

current self which now hopes to make

spiritual progress.




The science fiction blockbuster film Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure is released. The film is about two aspirational time travelling Heavy Metal Guitarists, whose music will eventually lead to the solution of all the world’s problems. Air guitar also figures strongly in the film.




Metallica's self-titled "black" album becomes the first thrash metal album to hit number one.

Nirvana releases Nevermind, beginning grunge music that would wipe the "hair bands" off the popular charts.




The Secret Doctrine


Swedish Heavy Metal Band Morgana Lefay release The Secret Doctrine, an album on which many of the tracks contain Theosophical ideas. This album is still available. Morgana Lefay still exists but the line up has changed.




Korn releases their self-titled debut album, beginning the genre of nu-metal. Other bands like Limp Bizkit would popularize the genre in the late '90s and early 2000's.




Ozzfest begins. The traveling summer metal tour was started by Ozzy Osbourne. The first year included bands like Slayer, Danzig, Sepultura, Fear Factory, and of course Ozzy.




MTV2 brings back the heavy metal show "Headbanger's Ball."




"Dimebag" Darrell Abbott of the band Damageplan and formerly Pantera was shot and killed while performing on stage in Ohio.




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