Heavy metal is a form of rock music characterized by aggressive, driving rhythms and highly amplified distorted guitars, generally with grandiose lyrics and virtuosic instrumentation.
Heavy metal is a a development of blues, blues rock and rock. Its origins lie in the hard rock bands who between 1967 and 1974 took blues and rock and created a hybrid with a heavy, guitar and drums centered sound. Heavy metal had its peak popularity in the 1980s, during which many of the now existing subgenres first evolved. Though not as commercially successful as it was then, heavy metal still has a large worldwide following.
Early examples and influences
American blues music was highly popular and influential among the early British rockers; bands like the Rolling Stones and the Yardbirds had recorded covers of many classic blues songs, sometimes speeding up the tempo and using electric guitar where the original used acoustic. (Similar adaptations of blues and other race music had formed the basis of the earliest rock and roll, notably that of Elvis Presley).
Such powered-up blues music was encouraged by the intellectual and artistic experimentation that arose when musicians started to exploit the opportunities of the electrically amplified guitar to produce a louder, more discordant sound. Where blues-rock drumming styles had been largely simple shuffle beats on small drum kits, drummers began using a more muscular, complex, and amplified approach to match and be heard with the increasingly loud guitar sounds; similarly vocalists modified their technique and increased their reliance on amplification, often becoming more stylized and dramatic in the process. Simultaneous advances in amplification and recording technology made it possible to successfully capture the power of this heavier approach on record.
The earliest music commonly identified as heavy metal came out of the Birmingham area of the United Kingdom in the late 1960s when bands such as Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath applied an overtly non-traditional approach to blues standards and created new music often based on blues scales and arrangements. These bands were highly influenced by American psychedelic rock musicians including Jimi Hendrix, who had pioneered amplified and processed blues-rock guitar and acted as a bridge between black American music and white European rockers.
Other oft-cited influences include Vanilla Fudge, who had slowed down and psychedelicised pop tunes, as well as earlier British rockers such as The Who and The Kinks, who had paved the way for heavy metal styles by introducing power chords and more aggressive percussion to the rock genre. Another key influence was Cream, who exemplified the power trio format that would become a staple of heavy metal. Some also cite The Beatles as a key influence; they had increasingly used distortion and heavier arrangements as early as 1967's Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.
Perhaps the earliest song that is clearly identifiable as prototype heavy metal is "You Really Got Me" by The Kinks (1965). By late 1968 heavy blues sounds were becoming common: many fans and scholars point to Blue Cheer's 1968 cover of Eddie Cochran's hit "Summertime Blues" as the first true heavy-metal song; Beatles scholars cite in particular the song "Helter Skelter" from The White Album (1968), which set new standards for distortion and aggressive sound on a pop album. Dave Edmunds' band Love Sculpture released an aggressive heavy guitar version of Khachaturian's Sabre Dance in November 1968. The Jeff Beck Group's album Truth (late 1968) was an important and influential rock album released just before Led Zeppelin's first album, leading some (especially British blues fans) to argue that Truth was the first heavy metal album. However, it was the release of Led Zeppelin in 1969 that brought worldwide notice of the formation of a new genre.
The early heavy metal bands, like Led Zeppelin, Uriah Heep, UFO and Black Sabbath are often called hard rock bands rather than heavy metal, especially those bands whose sound was more similar to traditional rock music. In general, the terms heavy metal and hard rock are often used interchangeably, in particular when discussing the 1970s.
Origins of "heavy metal"
Cover from Led Zeppelin. The album greatly influenced many heavy metal musicians
The origin of the term heavy metal is uncertain. An early use of the term was by counter-culture writer William S. Burroughs. In his 1962 novel The Soft Machine, he introduces the character "Uranian Willy, the Heavy Metal Kid". His next novel in 1964 Nova Express, develops this theme further, heavy metal being a metaphor for addictive drugs. Another aspect of these novels is the use of recorded sound to free oneself from a programmed life and the alienation caused by an increasingly mechanical world.
"With their diseases and orgasm drugs and their sexless parasite life forms - Heavy Metal People of Uranus wrapped in cool blue mist of vaporized bank notes - And the Insect People of Minraud with metal music"
- Burroughs, William S, (1964). Nova Express. New York: Grove Press. p. 112
Given the publication dates of these works it is unlikely that Burroughs had any intent to relate the term to rock music; however Burroughs' writing may have influenced later usage of the term.
The first use of the term "heavy metal" in a song lyric is the words "heavy metal thunder" in the 1968 Steppenwolf song "Born to be Wild" (Walser 1993, p. 8):
"I like smoke and lightning
Heavy metal thunder
Racin' with the wind
And the feelin' that I'm under"
The word "heavy" (meaning serious or profound) had entered beatnik/counterculture slang some time earlier, and references to "heavy music" -- typically slower, more amplified variations of standard pop fare -- were already common; indeed, Iron Butterfly's 1968 debut album was entitled Heavy. The fact that Led Zeppelin (whose moniker came partly in reference to Keith Moon's jest that they would "go over like a lead balloon") incorporated a heavy metal into its name may have sealed the usage of the term.
In the late 1960s, Birmingham, England was still a centre of industry and (given the many rock bands that evolved in and around the city, such as Led Zeppelin, The Move and Black Sabbath) some people suggest that the term Heavy Metal may have some relation to such activity. Biographies of The Move have claimed that the sound came from their 'heavy' guitar riffs that were popular amongst the 'metal midlands'.
Sandy Pearlman, original producer, manager and songwriter for the Blue Öyster Cult, claims to have been the first person to apply the term "heavy metal" to rock music in 1970.
A widespread but disputed hypothesis about the origin of the genre was brought forth by "Chas" Chandler, who was a manager of the Jimi Hendrix Experience in 1969, in an interview on the PBS TV programme "Rock and Roll" in 1995. He states that "...it [heavy metal] was a term originated in a New York Times article reviewing a Jimi Hendrix performance", and claims the author described the Jimi Hendrix Experience "...like listening to heavy metal falling from the sky". The precise source of this claim, however, has not been found and its accuracy is disputed.
The first well-documented usage of the term "heavy metal" referring to a style of music, appears to be the May 1971 issue of Creem, in a review of Sir Lord Baltimore's Kingdom Come. In this review we are told that "Sir Lord Baltimore seems to have down pat most all the best heavy metal tricks in the book".
Regardless of its origin, heavy metal may have been used as a jibe initially but was quickly adopted by its adherents. Other, already-established bands, such as Deep Purple, who had origins in pop or progressive rock, immediately took on the heavy metal mantle, adding distortion and additional amplification in a more aggressive approach.
The 1970s history of heavy metal music is highly debated among music historians. Some would call the period an era of "selling-out", in which bands like Blue Öyster Cult achieved moderate mainstream success and the Los Angeles hair metal scene began finding pop audiences, especially in the 1980s. Others ignore or downplay the importance of these bands, instead focusing on the arrival of classical influences, which can be heard in the work of Eddie Van Halen and Randy Rhoads and such like. Others still highlight the late-70s cross-fertilization of heavy metal with fast-paced, youthful punk rock (e.g. Sex Pistols), culminating in the New Wave of British Heavy Metal around the year 1980, led by bands like Judas Priest and Iron Maiden. In the 1980s and onwards, heavy metal further influenced the development of hardcore punk and alternative rock, and spawned a host of new "metal" genres such as death metal.
The explosion of guitar virtuosity (pioneered by Jimi Hendrix a musical generation earlier) was brought to the fore by Eddie Van Halen, and many consider his 1978 solo "Eruption" (Van Halen, 1978) a milestone. Ritchie Blackmore (formerly of Deep Purple), Randy Rhoads (with pioneer Ozzy Osbourne) and Yngwie Malmsteen went on to solidify this explosion of virtuoso guitar work, and in some cases, classical guitars and nylon-stringed guitars were played at heavy metal concerts. Classical icons such as Liona Boyd also became associated with the heavy metal stars as peers in a newly diverse guitar fraternity where conservative and aggressive guitarists could come together to "trade licks". Such collaborations came to the mainstream, as MP3.com recently featured a collection of Ms. Boyd's collaborations with such rock stars as David Gilmour and Eric Clapton as further evidence of the open associations between exponents of diverse musical genres.
This explosion would cool down in the music of Ronnie James Dio (who himself had a tenure at lead vocals with the legendary Black Sabbath) and continue to settle towards Judas Priest and Iron Maiden, who may be the final and complete consummation of "pure" heavy metal in the lineage of the "grandfathers" - Hendrix, Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple. After Iron Maiden, metal would push the limits of aggressive loudness in thrash metal, speed metal, black metal and death metal.
In a separate development, taking place mostly in the U.S., heavy metal would return full circle through the pop vanity of the L.A. scene, led by Mötley Crüe. During the 1980s, a pop-based form of hard-rocking heavy metal (sometimes referred to as "hair metal" due to the long hair of band members) dominated the music charts in some parts of the world, and superstars like Guns N' Roses, Def Leppard, Poison, Mötley Crüe, and Ratt helped lead the way. While their music has endured as representative of a particular view, time and place, this form is not always seen by metal purists as a particularly pure or well-executed form of metal. Grunge music appeared as a popularized endpoint of the punk rock-influenced alternative rock music of the 1990s which fought any mainstream influence (seen as "selling out") articularly reacted against overly-aggressive and increasingly formulaic hair metal bands from Ratt to Extreme. Grunge evolved out of Seattle in the work of Alice In Chains, Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Soundgarden.
Cover versions of classic rock songs would become a standard part of many metal bands' repertoire. Notable is Mötley Crüe's version of "Helter Skelter" which very strongly brings to the fore the heavy metal undertones implied in the Beatles song.
An important element to be remembered is that heavy metal is considered by many to be primarily white, in opposition to the blues-based rock which derives from African-American music. This only means that the majority of the audience and the players are white. There are, however, examples of bands that have broken this mould -- Thin Lizzy's Phil Lynott and Living Colour are two examples, and the audiences can be quite mixed.
The most commonly used line-up for metal is: a drummer, sometimes using a double bass-drum, a bass guitar, a rhythm guitar, a lead guitar (in early metal bands a single guitarist often sufficed -- see power trio), and a singer (who is sometimes also one of the instrumentalists); sometimes a keyboard player can also be found. Guitar playing is very important in heavy metal. Amplification of guitars, as well as innovative effects and electronic processing is used to thicken the sound. The result was a simple yet powerful impact (although some of the original heavy metallers joked that their simplified sound was more the result of limited ability than of innovation.).
There is a great variety of ways that heavy metal singers sing, from mid-range clean vocals to a high-pitched wail to a deep growl. The black and death metal scene tend to use distorted and guttural voices called death grunts (as exemplified by the Florida band Death). Generally, it is hard to understand what the singer is "singing". Often, the text is considered to be too crude to be spoken out clearly (such as in Cannibal Corpse), but there are some bands that will have very good lyrics obscured by the style of the singing.
Intricate solos and riffs are a big part of heavy metal music. Guitarists use sweep-picking, tapping and similar techniques to obtain amazing fast playing. Heavy metal is not limited, however, to the standard outfit of guitars and drums. The Finnish cello quartet, Apocalyptica, has created their own version of heavy metal, difficult to categorize but leaning towards the darker side of metal. They apply various familiar effects to their sounds such as the all-familiar distortion, chorusing, flanging, etc. to create their style, which has fallen under a mixed assortment of applause and criticism due to their deviance.
The American band Grand Funk Railroad was one of the early proto-heavy metal bands (along with The Who, etc.) who set new benchmarks for volume levels during shows. The volume of the music was seen as the important factor rather than its musical qualities; though this influence is often denigrated as pointless extravagance, it has proven enormously influential and still dominates many people's perceptions of the genre. Motörhead and Manowar are more recent examples of bands that pride themselves of keeping the volume very high (cf. Manowar's 1984 song "All Men Play On Ten").
Heavy metal, as an art form, is more than just music; it is as much visual as it is audible. Album covers and stage shows are almost as important to the presentation of the material as the music itself. Thus, through heavy metal, many artists collaborate to produce a menu of experiences in each piece, offering a wider range of experiences to the audience. In this respect, heavy metal becomes perhaps more of a diverse art form than any single form dominated by one method of expression. Whereas a painting is experienced visually, a symphony experienced audibly, a heavy metal band's "image" and the common theme that binds all their music is expressed in the artwork on the album, the set of the stage, the tone of the lyrics, in addition to the sound of the music.
Rock historians tend to find that the influence of Western pop music gives heavy metal its escape-from-reality fantasy side, as an escape from reality through outlandish and fantastic lyrics, while African-American blues gives heavy metal its naked reality side, focusing on loss, depression and loneliness.
If the audio/thematic components of heavy metal are predominantly blues-influenced reality, then the visual component is predominantly pop-influenced fantasy. The themes of darkness, evil, power, and apocalypse are fantastic language components for addressing the reality of life's problems. Further, in reaction to the "peace and love" hippie culture of the 1960s, heavy metal developed as a counterculture, where light is supplanted by darkness, and the happy ending of pop is replaced by the naked reality that things don't always work out in this world. While fans claim that the medium of darkness is not the message, critics have accused the genre of glorifying the negative aspects of reality.
Heavy metal themes are typically more grave than the generally airy pop from the 1950s, 60s and 70s, focusing on war, nuclear annihilation, environmental issues, political and religious propaganda. Black Sabbath's "War Pigs", Ozzy Osbourne's "Killer of Giants" are examples of serious contributions to the discussion of the state of affairs. The commentary on reality sometimes tends to become over-simplified because the fantastic poetic vocabulary of heavy metal deals primarily with very clear dichotomies of light and dark, hope and despair, good and evil, which don't make much room for complex shades of grey.
Some might differentiate by observing that pure heavy metal doesn't generally sing about love, while many hair metal songs are focused on love. In some respects, one might argue that the hair metal scene of the 80s was the logical endpoint of the glitter or glam rock movement of the 70s; the visual similarities between the two, with the make-up and fanciful costumes, makes the argument more compelling. Glitter rock, however, was lyrically focused on sexual ambiguity, free expression and individuality, while hair metal was unambiguously macho and heterosexual, with little room for diversity of political or social opinions. Ultimately, "pure" heavy metal would position itself at the periphery of pop culture, never quite at centre, and metal denizens contend that the move towards the centre was a commercialism that compromised both the artistic integrity of the form and the opportunity for messages to be taken seriously.
The appropriation of classical music by heavy metal typically includes the influence of Bach and Paganini rather than Mozart or Franz Liszt. Though Deep Purple/Rainbow guitarist Ritchie Blackmore had been experimenting with musical figurations borrowed from classical music since the early 70s, Edward Van Halen's solo cadenza "Eruption" (released on Van Halen's first album in 1978) marks an important moment in the development of virtuosity in metal. Following Van Halen, the "classical" influence in metal guitar during the 80s actually looked to the early eigtheenth century for its model of speed and technique. Indeed, the late Baroque era of western art music was also frequently interpreted through a gothic lens. For example, "Mr. Crowley," (1981) by Ozzy Osbourne and guitarist Randy Rhoads, uses both a pipe organ and Baroque-inspired guitar solos to create a particular mood for Osbourne's lyrics on the legendary occultist Aleister Crowley. Like many other metal guitarists in the 80s, Rhoads quite earnestly took up the "learned" study of musical theory and helped to solidify the minor industry of guitar pedagogy magazines (such as Guitar for the Practicing Musician) that grew up during the decade. In most instances, however, metal musicians who borrowed the technique and rhetoric of art music were not attempting to be classical musicians. (An exception can arguably be found in Yngwie Malmsteen, though many argue that his music relies more on virtuosity and the use of classical-sounding elements such as the harmonic minor scale to appear classical without actually being classical).
The Encarta encyclopedia claims that "when a text was associated with the music, Bach could write musical equivalents of verbal ideas". As heavy metal uses apocalyptic themes and images of power and darkness, the ability to translate verbal ideas into musical ideas that successfully convey the ideas of the words is critical to heavy metal authenticity and credibility. An excellent example of this is the theme album Powerslave, by Iron Maiden. The cover is of a dramatic Egyptian pyramid scene, and many of the songs on the album have subject matter that requires a sound suggestive of life and death, including a song entitled "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner", based on the poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
The above discussion of the history of heavy metal, from its 60s precursors to the proliferation of heavy metal sub-genres of the late 1980s, can be summarized in the following key artists from three main waves of bands that to a large extent came out of Britain: 1) influential rock bands like The Beatles, The Who and The Rolling Stones in the 60s; 2) "early" heavy metal exemplified by Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Deep Purple and KISS in the early and mid 70s; and 3) the New Wave of British Heavy Metal pioneered most successfully by Iron Maiden and Judas Priest in the late 70s and early 80s. Importantly, it was this last generation of metal musicians who first self-consciously marketed themselves as "heavy metal" bands. By the mid-1980s, as the term "heavy metal" became the subject of much contestation, heavy metal had branched out in so many different directions that new sub-classifications were created by fans, record companies, and fanzines, although sometimes the differences between various sub-genres were unclear, even to the artists purportedly belonging to a given style (see List of heavy metal genres). Notable early 80s sub-genres where the overarching term "heavy metal" is occasionally still in use include the faster thrash metal, pioneered by key U.S. artists like Metallica and Slayer, and a hard-edged form of pop-metal (sometimes categorized perjoratively by purists as hair metal), from bands like Guns N' Roses and Def Leppard that brought pop-friendly music to mainstream audiences (to a mix of critical acclaim, mainstream popularity and purist disavowal).
Later styles of heavy rock music in the 1990s, such as grunge (the typical example being Seattle's Nirvana), show influences of heavy metal but are typically not labelled sub-genres of heavy metal, as opposed to thrash metal and hair metal. The general absence of virtuosic guitar solos is perhaps one reason grunge bands haven't been considered heavy metal bands. Another key artist during this time was Megadeth, which combined the relentless, speedy thrash metal riffs with the fancy guitar soloing of speed metal ala Judas Priest. Bands like Mekong Delta, Watchtower, Unleashed Power and Beyond Fallen went beyond what was typical of metal, bringing in exceptional musicianship and odd sounds to the genre never heard before.
The loud, confrontational aspects of heavy metal have lead to friction between fans and mainstream society in many countries. Due to the hedonistic nature promoted by the music and its occasional anti-religious sentiments heavy metal as a sub-culture has come under attack in many Islamic countries where even wearing a black T-shirt can be an arrestable offence. Generally, heavy metal music and lyrics explore themes of conflict, aggression and (in certain sub-genres) extreme violence. In Europe and America, the fan base for heavy metal consists primarily of young white males, many of whom are attracted to heavy metal's overtly anti-social yet fantastical lyrics and extreme volume and tempos. Hence, the stereotype of the spotty-faced, adolescent headbanger venting his rebellious urges by listening to presposterously loud, morbid music. This image has been highlighted in popular culture with such television shows and movies as "Beavis and Butthead"" and "Airheads". Heavy metal's bombastic excesses, exemplified by hair metal, have often been parodied, most famously in the film This Is Spinal Tap (see also the phenomenon of the heavy metal umlaut). Douglas Adams neatly satirized the propensity for excessive volume in The Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy with the fictional rock band Disaster Area — creators of the loudest sound in the known universe. It should be noted, however, that Adams was satirising Pink Floyd stage shows specifically, rather than metal in general.
Many heavy metal stylings have made their way into everyday (albeit ironic) use; for instance, the "devil horns" hand sign first popularised by Ronnie James Dio has become a common sight at many rock concerts. During the late 1970's and early 1980's, flirtation with occult themes by artists such as Ozzy Osbourne and Iron Maiden lead to accusations of "satanic" influences in heavy metal by American conservative Christians. One popular contention during that period was that heavy metal albums featured hidden messages urging listeners to worship the Devil or to commit suicide (see Judas Priest and backward message).
Subgenres and related styles
Heavy Metal has proven somewhat difficult to categorise. Some fans and musicians have a firm concept of genre and subgenre, but others reject such categorisation as limiting or useless.
Heavy metal is the progenitor of the "metal-family" of genres including black metal, death metal, thrash metal and others. Most metal derives directly from blues and rock, while some sub-genres include an evident influence of Western classical music. Thus, even if classical heavy metal and avant-garde black metal belong to the same family, there are important differences between them. Pure heavy metal is mainly blues-based, with pentatonic scales and a blues-like song structure; black metal and related forms often draw on classical music, even if at a first glance it seems to be only distorted guitars playing a very fast repeating melody.
Glitter rock, a short-lived era in the mid-1970s, is the extreme exploration of the fantasy-side of the reality-fantasy parents of heavy metal. T. Rex, David Bowie and Alice Cooper are among the more popular standard examples of this sub-genre.
Hard rock, mentioned earlier, is also closely related to heavy metal, but doesn't consistently match the description of what purists consider the definition heavy metal. While still guitar-driven in nature and sometimes deriving off of riffs, its themes and execution differ from that of the major heavy metal bands listed earlier in the article. This is perhaps best examplified by The Who in the late-60's, early-70's, as well as other 70's and 80's bands like Queen, Aerosmith, Thin Lizzy and AC/DC.
Punk rock is a sometimes closely related form, established by The Ramones, the Clash, The Stooges, The Velvet Underground, The New York Dolls and Sex Pistols. Though punk rock and heavy metal began as linked genres of disaffected youth, punk quickly diverged as a reaction against the perceived bombastic arena rock of 1970s heavy metal bands. Heavy metal also had an important influence on grunge which, like punk, was partly a reaction to the perceived slickness and corporate nature of much rock music.
In the early '80s the New Wave of British Heavy Metal made metal music very popular (especially in Europe) with bands like Iron Maiden and Motörhead. This period is often considered the very pinnacle of the original heavy metal form.
There are numerous, often overlapping subgenres. See List of heavy metal genres.
Heavy metal dance styles
Although most heavy metal fans would disagree with the term "dance," there are certain body movements that are nearly universal in the metal world, including:
The following are also found, although they are considerably rarer at metal shows:
Nicknames for heavy metal fans
- Walser, Robert (1993). Running with the Devil: Power, Gender, and Madness in Heavy Metal Music. Wesleyan University Press. ISBN 0819562602.