December 6, 2020 Jacob Watts

I’m doing this for my own amusement and my own amusement, only. I fully expect most people to bypass this blog post but hey, if you read it you might learn something interesting! You might even find out you’re a metalhead and you didn’t even know it!

How it started

Obviously we could always go back further and further for musical influences until we’re talking about the very first drums made in a remote village somewhere. For these purposes we’ll start with the band that truly started what we call Heavy Metal, Black Sabbath. Most people aren’t aware that Black Sabbath has a song titled “Black Sabbath”, in this song near the beginning you will hear something they refer to as the “tri-tone”. The three notes you hear played in that song were actually banned at one point in history because they were thought to summon demons. Fun! This point is just to illustrate that making “dark and scary” music goes back a long way.

Black Sabbath was influenced by some of the first bands to use distortion and guitar leads in their music like Cream, Led Zeppelin, and Jimi Hendrix. Another fun story about Black Sabbath is that their guitar player accidentally cut off the tips of several fingers on his fret hand in a factory accident. Anyone who has tried to play guitar knows that if you play enough the tips of your fingers can get pretty tender. Imagine having them cut off! So to be easier on his wounded fingers, he tuned his guitar down to make the strings looser and easier to play. This helped give Black Sabbath their signature sound!

Once Sabbath established their sound, other bands started adding more speed and skill to the mix. These pioneering bands included Deep Purple, Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, and Motorhead.

Once you get past that first wave of metal bands you start to find bands distinguishing themselves based on how they sound and creating all the sub-genres we all know and love today. (haha)

Starting in the early 80’s, most metal bands started to split into one of two distinct directions. You had the glamorous, mass appeal of Hair Metal juxtaposed with the grimy heaviness of Thrash Metal. People who liked Thrash bands like Slayer, Venom, Metallica (Yes they used to sound VERY different. You know, before they sold out, man), and Anthrax resented the Hair bands like Van Halen, Ratt, Motley Crue, and Poison. I don’t personally listen to either of these genres very much anymore but they were both crucial for me getting into heavier music. For my money, Hair Metal is mostly generic and predictable but GOSH DARNIT if I don’t love a good guitar solo. And Hair Metal is chock full of them. Thrash, on the other hand, supplied more groovy speed than you could shake a stick at.

At some point around this time there was a group of people who liked these types of bands but wanted to put their own spin on it. It’s helpful to think of a tree. Black Sabbath is the trunk of the tree. Then every time a branch breaks off to form a new sound, that leads to even further subdivisions and unique expressions of music. So in that light, Hair and Thrash lead us to the origins of Death Metal. Essentially people liked Thrash but wanted it to be faster, darker-sounding. Interestingly enough, arguably the first Death Metal band was called “Death”.

One interesting sub-genre is Power Metal. Power Metal likely was started with a little guy by the name of Ronnie James Dio and his band Rainbow. He was actually the first person to bring the horns ( \m/ \m/) into the world of metal. He would also end up being the lead singer for Black Sabbath once Ozzy left to start his solo band. It is pretty similar in sound and feel to Hair Metal in that it has a lot of very predictable rhythms, lots of palatable lyrics and vocals, and lots of guitar solos. But somehow Power Metal is very much thriving to this day while Hair Metal just kind of died off. I think part of that is because metal fans had an appetite for authenticity. Power metal songs, while typically about fantasy subjects or historic battles, do seem to coming from a genuine place. With Hair Metal it seems like it just became way too overdone and cheesy.

Interestingly on the Power Metal branch you have splits off of it that are things like Folk Metal, Viking Metal, and even Pirate Metal (yes I swear that’s a real thing). Actually a pretty cool thing about Power Metal is that, due to the nature and style of their songs, it is very common to have female vocalists. And damn, can they sing! If you wish to speak to an expert of Power Metal, hit up my brother, Alex. Power Metal and traditional Irish music are what he loves. *shrugs shoulders*

Despite metal sort of dying due to the popularity of Grunge and Alt Rock, bands like Pantera somehow broke from the mold. Interestingly about them, they started out as a legit Hair band. Go look it up. Do it. Before Phil Anselmo joined the band, they had another singer and they all had seriously big hair and sounded like other bands from that time. Even after Anselmo joined, their first album had elements of Hair and Thrash in it. Sometimes, however, a band comes along that just creates a sound so unique that they can’t really be defined. Pantera was like that with their second album “Vulgar Display of Power”. I still get freaking pumped up when I hear “Walk”.

As the Metal tree grew you started to see many different elements mixed in with metal music. Fusing Metal with Techno brought us Industrial Metal and bands like Nine Inch Nails and Rammstein. Taking influences from old-school progressive bands like Pink Floyd, Rush, and Kansas, Prog Metal was created by bands like Opeth, Tool, and Meshuggah (and carried on by my favorite band today: Between the Buried and Me). Prog is probably one of my two or three favorite genres because it’s signature sound is really that there is no signature sound. Prog bands are famous for implementing many different chord progressions, time signatures, whacky instruments and drawing from many different influences like polka and jazz.

Another fresh sound that came around in the late 90’s/early 2000’s was Nu-metal and this was really the first time bands were creating a whole sound around combining rap with metal. These bands are all ones you’ve probably heard of like Limp Bizkit, Korn, Slipknot, Deftones, and Linkin Park. I personally think Korn is one of the most overrated bands ever. I don’t think they sound good at all in any way. I think they are one of those bands that happened to be in the right place at the right time with the right sound and that propelled them into a long career as they now basically define the genre. Slipknot, on the other hand, I think kicks ass and has from day one. They surprisingly reached quite a bit of success with their first album and everyone wanted them to go more commercial with their sound, to continue the success. Well luckily for all of us, they didn’t. They made an even heavier album and they’re still going almost 20 years later.

While these Nu-metal bands became huge, there were many obscure bands in other countries incorporating things like opera and symphony sounds into their music. When my jokingly (or maybe not jokingly) called all metal bands “satan-worshippers” she was actually just mistakenly thinking the same thing most people think. But actually, most metal bands just sing about the same stuff every other genre of music sings about. Partying, hardships in life, corrupt governments, heartbreak, etc. However, these bands that came mostly from the Scandinavian countries, and formed a new sub-genre called Black Metal, actually did worship satan. They were mostly made up of guys that grew up in very conservative, very religious families and towns and, like most metal musicians throughout history, were simply rebelling against all of that. One of the good things that came out of this branch of metal is the surprisingly awesome use of synthesizers and keyboards. One would probably not think of those as heavy metal instruments. But there you go. If you want a kick-ass example, check out If You Want Peace, Prepare For War by the band Children of Bodom (the lead singer is also an insane guitarist).

Ever since the turn of the millennium, bands have been getting further and further branched out into more unique sounds and types of metal. Many of these bands can trace their lineage to the first bands to crossover and combine sounds from Metal with Hardcore Punk. These bands included Corrosion of Conformity, Bad Brains, Suicidal Tendencies, and Dirty Rotten Imbeciles. This is probably my favorite branch of the metal tree. We have genres like Metalcore, Deathcore, and Djent that make up most of what would be considered modern heavy metal. And to avoid turning this into an even longer post, I’ll just say that if you want to talk metal with me, clearly, I would love that. See you guys this week!