There are few genres as diverse, controversial and longstanding as heavy metal. Born out of the free love and good times of the 1960s, metal was the darker, heavier cousin of the rock music that gained traction throughout the 60s and 70s.
The history of metal music has seen the genre go through a huge variety of phases, peaking in popularity in the late 1970s and 1980s, it has since moved back into the shadows. With almost countless subgenres and thousands of bands out there, condensing it into a Kore guide was no easy task, but we managed it.
Born to be wild
Metal music, like almost all modern guitar music, can trace its roots back to the black blues artists of the early 20th century. Specifically, the electric blues of John Lee Hooker and Muddy Waters. These blues musicians were some of the first to use electric guitars, with James Cotton’s Cotton Crop Blues and Elmore James’ Dust My Broom acting as particular stand-out pieces in the ancestry of heavy metal.
Both of the aforementioned songs feature screaming guitars that pioneer the kind of sound more closely associated with the likes of Judas Priest rather than 1940s blues. Of course, metal has always been as concerned with dark aesthetics as it has electric guitars and pounding drums. Once again, it was blues that pioneered the darker avenues that metal would soon make its way down. Just take the story of Robert Johnson selling his soul to the devil at a crossroads in return for becoming a legendary guitarist... how very metal.
During the late 50s, rock and roll grew in popularity, with white artists putting their own spin on African-American blues. Most of this music was acoustic, fun-loving and relatively safe, but some bands – just like their electric blues forbears – pushed the music closer to what came to be known as metal.
In 1958, Link Wray released Rumble. The track was a distortion-heavy instrumental based around a single iconic riff. It was banned from the radio, was one of the first songs to make use of power chords and incorporated fast tremolo picking, all of which became defining features of the metal music to come. Fast, distorted guitars became more popular following Rumble, but it was in surf music in particular that they came to the forefront of music. Fans of Pulp Fiction and the Black Eyed Peas will instantly recognise Misirlou by legendary surf guitarist Dick Dale. The heavy distortion and dominant use of tremolo picked guitars were staples of Dale’s surf rock, and later became the backbone of Norwegian black metal, certainly an unlikely crossover.
While the blues, rock and roll and surf music all contributed to the final heavy metal product in one way or another, it was the late 60s and the hippie movement that was the true precursor to metal. The term heavy metal itself was coined in 1968 on Steppenwolf’s iconic Born to Be Wild, a song released during a period where heavy, ultra distorted blues rock was popular amongst the more rebellious youth. Eric Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Jimi Hendrix were headlining music festivals around the world and were an inspiration to countless artists.
Heavy music was still something of a gimmick during the late 60s, with bands seeming to challenge themselves to write ‘the heaviest song ever’. This led to Paul McCartney writing Helter Skelter for The Beatles’ White Album in 1968, potentially in an attempt to outshine I Can See For Miles released by The Who in ‘67. Helter Skelter was certainly a contender for the heaviest song ever. However, considering The Beatles’ track was released alongside Vanilla Fudge’s first album, Blue Cheer’s heavy reimagining of Eddie Cochran’s Summertime Blues and Iron Butterfly’s 17-minute heavy psychedelic epic In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida, it’s safe to say that the Fab Four faced fierce competition.
No matter how heavy the music released between 1966 and 1968 got, it never quite nailed the heavy metal sound. Even when Coven released their decidedly spooky Witchcraft Destroys Minds & Reaps Souls (an album that concluded with a 13-minute long ‘Satanic Mass’) a definite occult metal aesthetic had been established, but the sound just wasn’t ‘metal’.
What is this that stands before me?
In 1969, three bands released music that could feasibly be considered the first heavy metal: Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath. This so-called unholy trinity was active at the same time in the UK and creating some undeniably heavy music. The albums Shades of Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin I and Black Sabbath all contributed to what became heavy metal, but it was Sabbath’s unique sludging guitars, memorable riffs and occult lyrics and atmosphere that succinctly defined the new genre.
The band released their first two albums in 1970: the self-titled debut and Paranoid. Tony Iommi’s unique guitar playing style and Ozzy Osbourne’s instantly recognisable vocal performance made the band instant icons and trendsetters. Following Sabbath’s initial impact on the scene, the 70s saw metal consistently snowball in popularity, with more and more bands forming on both sides of the Atlantic. The charts were filled with bands like Rainbow, UFO, Blue Öyster Cult and Kiss and, while many of these artists toed the line between hard rock and heavy metal, the birth of the 70s punk scene helped push heavier music directly into the mainstream.
Five miles off the ground
By the time Iron Maiden and Motörhead had formed in 1975, heavy metal had well and truly established itself as a new, unique genre. The late seventies saw these bands, along with Saxon, Diamond Head, Tygers of Pan Tang and plenty more hilariously named bands grow into huge names as a new wave of British heavy metal, or NWOBHM for short.
The NWOBHM eventually made it to America in the early 80s and it wasn’t long until heavy metal was on top of the music world. In 1985 Billboard magazine declared that “metal music is no longer the exclusive domain of male teenagers”, a statement backed up by the huge crowds of men and women packing into stadiums and festivals around the world.
Inspired by the biggest British bands of the time, the 80s saw the rapid formation of a variety of US-based metal bands. It was these artists such as Guns N Roses, Van Halen and Bon Jovi that made sure that metal was on track to go decidedly mainstream. Unlike the heavier, darker bands of the past, the new generation of American ‘glam metal’ bands that formed in the 1980s hung out on LA’s Sunset Strip and sang about women, beer and good times – Just look at a few Mötley Crüe song titles to get an idea of what we mean.
While undoubtedly popular and accessible, the fun, upbeat style of glam drew plenty of criticism and opposition from other bands from the UK and the US. Whether motivated by jealousy or anger at the commercialisation of their scene, one thing that was certain was the response to glam and the birth of more extreme varieties of metal.
Some kind of monster
It was the so-called ‘Big Four’ – Metallica, Anthrax, Megadeth and Slayer – who emerged as the antithesis of the latex-clad glam groups who were topping the rock charts. These new ‘thrash metal’ bands played a far more raw and aggressive style of music, with more nihilistic lyrical themes that focussed on war and horror stories rather than romance and partying.
Thrash did eventually soften and breakthrough into mainstream rock music. In fact, Metallica’s 1991 self-titled album – often known as The Black Album – has spent over 500 weeks on the US top 200 album charts. Despite this, it paved the way for metal to go down far more extreme routes, namely death metal and black metal.
Death metal was defined by the chugging guitars, guttural vocals and gory horror themes championed by bands like Possessed and Death and introduced listeners to what remains some of the heaviest music out there. Black metal, on the other hand, focussed on creating a cold ‘evil’ atmosphere with the screeching vocals and tremolo guitars coming out of Norway giving listeners a definitively unique musical experience. While death metal bands kept their aggression and violence within the music, the same couldn’t always be said for Norway’s black metal bands.
Give me something to break
The late 90s and early 2000s saw mainstream metal reach a peak in popularity. The likes of Linkin Park, Papa Roach, Korn and Limp Bizkit took the metal scene by storm. Many of these ‘nu-metal’ bands fused rap and metal, while also bringing in catchy sing-a-long choruses and an arrogant swagger that had never seemed to be found in the genre before.
These bands were certainly in the mainstream, with Limp Bizkit’s Fred Durst reaching particularly high levels of popular infamy thanks to a catastrophic duet performance with Christina Aguilera and his claims that he was dating Britney Spears. Ultimately, the popularity of these nu-metal bands was their downfall and metal seemed to retreat out of the limelight.
Today it seems as though metal music may no longer be content with laying dormant. A rapid rise in success for metalcore acts – artists who fuse metal elements with hardcore punk – has introduced metal to a new, younger audience. More recent acts such as Bring Me The Horizon, Architects and Parkway Drive have breathed new life into the genre and attracted plenty of younger bands to a scene that many saw to be riding on the coattails of its predecessors. That’s without even mentioning the growing talent in the underground
In the words of Tenacious D “You can’t kill the metal”, and there is a consistently growing interest in the UK’s young talent thanks to successes like Bury Tomorrow and Architects inspiring thousands of new bands. Are you the next metal superstars? Contact Kore today and discover how you can benefit from our expert knowledge when recording your next album.