Me and My Muse

Saturday, March 14, 2009

History of Heavy Metal

There are many theories about the “origin” of this dark genre, being, Heavy Metal, but I believe this to be a fairly accurate version. During the sixties, Rock & Roll demonstrated a clear split from R&B and Swing. Though many of the aspects of Blues have been sustained in all its sons and daughters, many of the modal traits of its brother, Jazz were gone. Rock & Roll became the popular movement, catering to the teenager, and often borrowing tunes from R&B and making them its own (ie. Beatles and Rolling Stones).

Rock & Roll itself, however, suffered splits during the late sixties, with many bands re-incorporating folk ideas, and many others incorporating classical progressions and artistic near-jazz colorings. Rock & Roll continued on into the seventies as Pop Rock, with many fabulous acts such as Elton John and Billy Joel. The other versions, however, became powerful genres unto their own. The folk artists became an anti-war activist collection, providing us with CSNY, the Guess Who, Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix (who, himself, could be considered a member of many genres). Most importantly, the progressive movement developed into “Progressive Rock,” providing such class acts as Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Jethro Tull, Deep Purple and Black Sabbath, and many, many more. It has even been argued that the Beatles attained a complete defection from Rock & Roll over to Progressive Rock.

Is it a wonder that all the well-known Progressive Rock bands were British? Just like the Who, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, these groups had a sincere influence on Rock, and competed with the American groups for fans. These Progressive artists introduced new concepts of powerful operatic vocals, condensed distortion, and progressions that were previously unheard of outside of classical music. But it would be Black Sabbath (in direct contention with both Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin), with its dark themes and very heavy, bluesy sound, which would become known much later as the “father of Heavy Metal.” Pink Floyd, meanwhile, drifted into the visual realm, and after its climactic “The Wall” album, drifted on into memory, having etched a permanent mark on all of modern music.

Very early in the seventies, another wave of this Progressive movement invaded America, bringing with it the likes of Judas Priest, the Scorpions (from Germany) and Iron Maiden. Listen to an early Judas Priest or Scorpions album and you might think you’re listening to a Floyd or Sabbath set. Iron Maiden and Judas Priest each carried forward the vocal torch as set by Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple (Ian Gillan). Other groups from this invasion introduced still darker themes in their lyrics, carrying on the trend started by Black Sabbath. This was known as the New Wave of British Heavy Metal (NWOBHM) and, though short lived, would finally seal Metal as a distinct version of music from Rock & Roll.

However, many Pop acts enjoyed the distortion, visual demonstrations and heaviness of the entire Progressive movement. Though they stuck with the Rock & Roll format, they further emphasized the “solo.” Musicians of this latent seventies Pop movement gradually improved the solo standards. Hard Rock was here to stay. Groups like Van Halen, Foreigner and Bad Company were born. KISS provided elaborate shows. And AC/DC has held strongly to the Hard Rock (blues based) flag for over two decades.

During the early eighties, these two genres of Heavy Metal and Hard Rock competed extensively. Iron Maiden, Judas Priest and OZZY (having left Black Sabbath) put out incredible albums. Hard Rock (now with British members) fought back with Def Leppard, Motley Crue, and AC/DC. The Scorpions changed format, and defected from NWOBHM to Hard Rock, releasing the ever-memorable “Blackout” album (arguably fitting comfortably within both genres). It became difficult to the average listener to tell the difference between the two styles, and soon, Hard Rock radio stations would even be calling Heavy Metal a “heavier version of Hard Rock” (which was a huge mistake in my opinion!). Hard Rock groups like Ratt, Queensryche, Twisted Sister, Accept and Krokus emulated their Heavy Metal cousins, confusing the audiences even further.

During the mid-eighties, however, a low rumble was being heard within the Metal genre—one which was distinctly different in tone and attitude, and one which absolutely could not be confused as Hard Rock. Some Metal groups had experimented with a more aggressive vocal approach, had incorporated a “punkier” style of instrumental attack, a quicker form of time transition, and an increase and speed. One group in particular, being heavily influenced by NWOBHM as well as the likes of Deep Purple, had difficulty finding gigs, being considered too “rock” for Punk yet too “punk” for Hard Rock—Metallica had arrived on the West coast, and upset the status quo! Anthrax did the same back East. Thrash was born. But this still wasn’t fast enough for some, and Slayer helped launch Speed Metal.

As Hard Rock weaved its way into glam rock in the mid and late eighties (same music, though a bit toned down with the likes of Bon Jovi and Poison), Heavy Metal introduced a still darker movement in Death Metal. But in the early nineties, both genres would suffer dearly, as Seattle spawned the contra-punk movement which would shake Pop music to its very core, “Grunge.” Nothing has been the same since, and even with valiant efforts on the part of Corrosion of Conformity, Pantera, Iced Earth, Anthrax, etc., and a couple of mediocre efforts from top-billing Metallica, Metal has once again returned to the underground. It is here, within this context of underground motivation and motifs, that Black Metal would be born under a dark sign.

And now? Grunge came and went, being framed as a movement by the coming and going of Nirvana. The remaining Seattle acts either died out quick, became more artistic and strange (Pearl Jam—who hasn’t provided a decent album, in my opinion, since its debut, “Ten”), or eventually just fizzled (ie Soundgarden). The Pop scene became known as the “Alternative Rock” scene, with some fine jewels presented in re-discovery of older acts, and an especially fresh and powerful representation on the part of female vocalists (Ani DiFranco, Sarah McGlauchlin, Holly McNarland, Tori Amos, Sheryl Crow, Alanis Morisette, Joan Osborne, Beth Orton, and many more—even Madonna, the queen of eightees bubble gum pop, has presented tremendous and mature material of late, having discovered that soft-techno can be good too).

Genre-specific Metal Traits:

Metal is a sub-genre of Rock, stemming (as noted above) not from Hard Rock, as is the common misperception, but rather from the progressive rock movement of the late 60’s and early 70’s. Metal’s own sub-genres (sub-sub genres of progressive rock):

Heavy Metal (ie Judas Priest, Iron Maiden): aggressive, driving beat

Speed Metal (ie Slayer): blindingly fast

Thrash (ie Metallica, Anthrax): punk influences, very quick meter changes

Black Metal (ie Iced Earth, Lacuna Coil): combination of Heavy Metal and Thrash

Death Metal (ie Obituary, Cannibal Corpse): that indescribable vocal quality

Progressive Metal (ie Therion and Opeth): very long tunes of near-Floyd standard in composition

Some Metal bands fall into more than one of the above category, and bands who evolve often switch categories completely (ie Metallica shifting from Thrash to a standard Heavy Metal format for their self-titled 5th album—“the black album”).

Metal songs follow their progressive roots, reaching back to Classical and Jazz forms in many instances, by maintaining 4-8 minute average tunes, as opposed to their Hard Rock cousins who average 3-5. Also, Hard Rock tunes, for the most part, follows the standard for all Rock & Roll: “stanza, stanza, solo, stanza.” This is definitely not the case for Metal, which has no strict format, will provide extensive intro and outros, cut-aways in the middle of songs, etc.

Whereas Hard Rock (simply a hard form of Pop Rock) follows Rock and Roll in concerning itself the standard interests of “Sex, Drugs and Itself,” the main themes of Metal tend to delve into more complex issues and often darker recesses of human emotion, and though the following examples are not all-encompassing of the Metal genre, they are common threads throughout :

politics & governmental abuses:

“One” – Metallica (anti-war song)

“Electric Eye” – Judas Priest (anti-abuse of power song)

“Two Minutes to Midnight” – Iron Maiden

“Freedom” – Rage Against the Machine


“Potters Field” – Anthrax (societal observation)

“Prison Sex” – Tool

“Evidence” – Faith No More

deaths of loved ones:

“Cemetery Gates” – Pantera

“10,000 Days” – Tool

effects of drugs:

“Hollow” – Pantera (effects of drug overdose)

“Master of Puppets” – Metallica (cocaine addiction)

“Snowblind” – Black Sabbath (cocaine)

“Rosetta Stoned” – Tool

metaphysics / religious studies:

“Creeping Death” – Metallica

“The Real Thing” – Faith No More

As for the next stage for our beloved genre, well, if I am correct in stating that Metal incorporates a high level of integrity in lyrical structure, progression and theme, then it might follow that we have not heard the last of Metal…our numbers are again growing…we’re just waiting for that next great Metal act to follow in the footsteps of Black Sabbath, Judas Priest, Metallica and Pantera, and show the way for Metal to come out from the underground. That’s why you’re here, taking in all this history, reviewing up-and-coming bands in your local dive bars, and listening intently for an indication of more than just “Sex, Drugs and Rock and Roll”: you are devoted fans who know that Metal offers an outlet for musical and intellectual exploration of a higher nature than mere Hard or Alternative Rock -- thanks to you, Metal, Heavy or otherwise, is here to stay.




Post a Comment

<< Home