A Brief History of Metal

And on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done.  And while God rested, the devil created Heavy Metal...

1967 - Before the Storm

Lately things don't seem the same... (Jimi Hendrix Experience - Purple Haze)

Unlike the creation of, well, creation, which (allegedly) only took six days, Heavy Metal took a slightly longer bath in the primordial stew before making it's grand entrance onto the world stage. For the sake of brevity, we begin our journey in the 1960's.  The early half of the decade witnessed an unparalled explosion of popular music.  Vanguard acts, such as The Beatles (I Wanna Hold Your Hand), The Rolling Stones (Paint It Black), The Who (My Generation), and The Kinks (You Really Got Me), emerged as the "third generation" of rock and roll (behind the blues originators and the Elvis Presely/Little Richard generation).  Each of these groups contributed to the creation the "rock band" archetype: loud, unpredictable, rebellious, and even dangerous.  By the latter half of the 1960's, the next generation of "rock stars" began to sow first seeds of protypical Heavy Metal.  Drawing inspiration from their blues and rock and roll forebearers, "hard rock" acts, like Cream (Tales of Brave Ulysses), Led Zeppelin (Communication Breakdown), and The Jimi Hendrix Experience (Voodoo Child), provided the soundtrack for a generation increasing disaffected by social injustice and the escalating war in Vietnam.  What differentiated these acts from their predecessors was technological advances that enabled new heights in sonic disruption (Blue Cheer - Summertime Blues).  These acts were markedly louder not only in volume, but in weaving of brutally blunt social commentary into their lyrics. Heavy Metal began to take shape...

1970 - The Birth of Heavy Metal

What is this that stands before me? (Black Sabbath - Black Sabbath)

Black Sabbath (1970)Just as physicists point to the Big Bang as the origin of our universe, so too can we pinpoint the exact moment and location when heavy metal burst forth onto the scene. That place and time?  England’s West Midlands, Birmingham to be exact, in 1968. What happens when you have a generation come of age in an economically depressed industrial town during an era of lost innocence? Well, Black Sabbath (Paranoid) happens. The quartet forged a sound that recalled the clamor of the steel mills (Iron Man) that dominated landscape of their hometown. In the process, they unleashed a sonic revolution. Black Sabbath succeeded in synthesizing early rock ‘n roll, hard-edged blues (Fairies Wear Boots) and the “Devil’s Interval” with a nightmare and a long line of patrons at a movie theater to see a horror film starring Boris Karloff (incidentally titled Black Sabbath). Black Sabbath forged an entirely new and unique musical path, marked by Tony Iommi’s brooding guitar riffs, Geezer Butler’s intelligent lyrics and thundering bass, Bill Ward’s pounding drums, and Ozzy Osbourne’s, well, Ozzy. Sonically, the music was starkly dark and ominous, standing in stark juxtapositon to the “flower power” pop music of contemporary acts. Lyrically, Sabbath openly addressed socially taboo subjects ranging from political corruption (War Pigs) to recreational drug use (Sweet Leaf) to social ostracization (Children of the Grave). Compared to the hard rock acts of the late 1960's, Sabbath's compositions and performances were minimalistic in form and execution. Yet, what they lacked in complexity, Black Sabbath compensated for in terms of power and intensity. Nevertheless, Black Sabbath set the standard as the first proper heavy metal band.

1972 - The Speed Kings Get Serious

It’s gonna break the speed of sound… (Deep Purple - Highway Star)

Meanwhile, something was brewing in Hertford, just north of London. A quintet by the name of Deep Purple (Smoke on the Water) was experimenting with many of the same influences as their countrymen to the northwest. However, unlike the amateurish, workmanlike nature of Black Sabbath, Deep Purple featured a collection of professional musicians, each highly skilled and coveted for their instrumental prowess (Space Truckin'). What ensued was a hard-driving, turbo-charged, highly musical form of prototypical heavy metal, fueled by Ritchie Blackmore’s guitar pyrotechnics and Ian Gillian’s soaring vocals. The songs were equally as intense as Sabbath’s, only more complex with numerous flourishes of instrumental virtuosity (Burn). Ultimately, Deep Purple helped establish and define heavy metal as a genre while simultaneously challenging its limits and conventions. Now, if someone could only do something about the silly early-1970s clothes…

1978 - Hellbent for Leather

There’s many who tried to prove that they’re faster… (Judas Priest - Hellbent for Leather)

Judas Priest (1978)With the musical foundation laid by Black Sabbath and Deep Purple, it was only a matter of time before someone synthesized heavy metal into a complete and proper ethos. Enter Judas Priest (Victim of Changes). Like Black Sabbath before them, Judas Priest hailed from Birmingham and sounded every bit the part. Yet, Priest incorporated many of the musical elements pioneered by Deep Purple. The quintet successfully combined the darkness and intensity (Dissident Aggressor) of Black Sabbath with the musicality and complexity (Tyrant) of Deep Purple. Featuring the twin-guitar attack of Glenn Tipton and K.K. Downing as well as the unworldly vocal ability of Rob Halford, Judas Priest ushered heavy metal into uncharted territory (Exciter). Capitalizing on their unique talents, Priest ushered in an era of heavy metal that was at once highly rhythmic and melodic that interchanged between breakneck and more reserved tempos (sometimes within one song). However, the lasting legacy of Judas Priest was the introduction of the indelible image of heavy metal: leather and studs. Co-opted from London’s Soho gay club scene, Rob Halford (who is openly gay) incorporated the fashion into Priest’s stage show in the late 1970s. No one could anticipate at the time that the look would become synonymous with heavy metal. Nevertheless, heavy metal now had a look that matched the power and intensity of its sound (Metal Gods).

1982 - The New Wave of British Heavy Metal (NWOBHM)

Run to the hills, run for your life… (Iron Maiden - Run to the Hills)

With the dawn of the 1980s came the birth of heavy metal’s second generation. Still centered primarily in England, this collection of bands earned the moniker the “New Wave of British Heavy Metal,” a play on the name bestowed to the “new wave” sensation in the pop charts. Vanguard acts like Iron Maiden (Hallowed Be Thy Name), Motörhead (Iron Fist), Saxon (Machine Gun), and Diamond Head (Am I Evil?) developed a distinctly new brand of heavy metal. Although heavily inspired by the founding heavy metal bands, the music of these new acts effectively eliminated influence of the blues, instead incorporating elements of late 1970s British punk. The result was a faster and aggressively bombastic sound. Lyrical, the NWOBHM bands ventured into new territory. Songs explored the realms of fantasy and mythology (Rime of the Ancient Mariner), yet also maintained the social ire of their predecessors. Building on this creative exploration, the NWOBHM bands, especially Iron Maiden, embarked on creating elaborate, theatrical stage shows that thematically complimented their music (Powerslave). These newly explored elements resonated with fans beyond England. By the mid-1980's, heavy metal experienced acceptance and popularity in mainland Europe, North America and South America.

1986 - Identity Crisis: Hair or Thrash?

Come crawling faster…obey your master… (Metallica - Master of Puppets)

PoisonHeavy metal experienced different interpretations as it began to disseminate globally. Nowhere was this more evident than the west coast of North America, especially Los Angeles, the San Francisco Bay Area, and Seattle/Vancouver. In Los Angeles, many bands developed a streamlined approach with a neutral, simplified sound and a focus on theatrics and showmanship. Bands like Poison (I Want Action), Mötley Crüe (Live Wire) and RATT (Round and Round) led the movement affectionately (or derisively, depending on your perspective) known as “Hair Metal.” For Hair Bands, the spectacle was the product. Metal’s most commercially successful incarnation, hair metal sold good times through simple song structures with lyrical content with a seemingly singular focus on  fast cars, partying, and the good life.

MetallicaMoving north along I-5, other bands embarked on a path diametrically opposed to the hair movement. Drawing inspiration from the original metal bands and the increased intensity of the NWOBHM acts, a new subgenre of metal coalesced: Thrash Metal. Led by Bay Area acts Metallica (Creeping Death), Exodus (Bonded by Blood), and Testament (Into the Pit), as well as Megadeth (Hook in Mouth) and Slayer (Raining Blood) in Los Angeles, Seattle’s Metal Church (Metal Church) and Vancouver’s Annihilator (Alison Hell), the thrash bands viewed the NWOBHM as an open challenge that culminated in a heavy metal arms race: harder, faster, louder. Thrash was the most extreme incarnation of heavy metal to date. Musically more rhythmic than melodic, its primary concern was complex riffs played at breakneck speed, pioneered by Metallica’s James Hetfield, Megadeth’s Dave Mustaine, and Slayer’s tandem of Kerry King and Jeff Hanneman. The thrash bands challenged the norm and openly expressed their vitriol and discontent through socially conscious and politically critical lyrics. By the end of the 1980s, heavy metal was becoming schizophrenic, developing in two converging directions with each pushing conventions to extremes.

1990 - A Turn to the Extreme

A new level of power and confidence… (Pantera - A New Level)

Heavy metal had reached a crossroads by the early 1990s. The novelty of hair metal vanished as quickly as it burst onto the scene. Thrash remained too extreme for mainstream audiences. Some thrash bands, most notably Metallica (Enter Sandman) and Megadeth (Symphony of Destruction), successfully experimented with a streamlined and commercially palatable direction. This move was a reaction to the rapidly growing popularity of Grunge (more on that in a minute). While some thrash bands turned to the limelight, others embraced the unbridled freedom of the underground. One act in particular, Dallas-based Pantera (Cowboys From Hell), enjoyed commercial success by exploring an evolved thrash-hardcore hybrid. Pantera championed many of the same conventions of thrash metal, only driven by extremes. The aggressively melodic guitar work of “Dimebag” Darrel Abbot combined with the sledgehammer vocals of Phil Anselmo created a no-nonsense, riff-driven sound that represented the natural progression in the metal arms race. Ironically, Pantera was pedestrian by comparison to the spectrum of bands exploring Extreme Metal. This broad subgenre represented the traditional conventions of metal taken to every conceivable extreme: severely detuned guitars, guttural vocals, unimaginably fast tempos, and radically taboo lyrical content. Extreme metal (which included Black [Immortal - Pure Holocaust] and Death [Death - Flattening of Emotions] metal) attracted limited, but intensely dedicated, audiences that wanted to explore the possibilities beholden in metal. A simplified or streamlined approach did not satisfy such listeners. No compromise: take it or leave it. Quite simply, the masses opted to leave it.

1992 - Grungy Days in Purgatory

Down in a hole and I don’t know if I can be saved... (Alice in Chains - Down in a Hole)

The remaining audience not alienated by metal’s extreme diversion followed the exodus created by the Grunge movement in the early to mid-1990s. The emergence of Grunge truly signaled the death knell for hair metal. Led by Seattle’s Nirvana (Smells Like Teen Spirit), Soundgarden (Outshined), and Alice in Chains (Them Bones), Grunge picked up where hair metal left off: a simplified musical approach. However, the comparison ended there. Gone were the theatrics and upbeat lyrical subjects, replaced with a stripped-down, progression-driven approach coupled with lyrics obsessed with disenfranchisement and angst. Coinciding with the global recession of 1990-1993, Grunge resonated with the masses preaching a message of resigned despair. Speaking of resignation, the early to mid-1990s saw much turmoil for some of metal’s most successful acts. In 1992, Rob Halford abruptly left Judas Priest, which entered an extended period of dormancy. Likewise, 1993 saw Bruce Dickinson quit Iron Maiden, which carried on with increased irrelevancy (Man on the Edge). The aforementioned mainstream turns by Metallica (Until It Sleeps) and Megadeth (A Secret Place) continued into the mid-1990s with similarly-veined follow-up releases to their commercial breakthroughs. With the original metal bands long since defunct (or enduring a non-stop carousel of lineup changes), heavy metal’s future was not bright. For all intents and purposes, as a mainstream commodity, heavy metal was dead. Thankfully, there’s always the underground…

2000 - Resurrection, Revolution, and Rebirth

Sell me the infection... (In Flames - Only for the Weak)

In FlamesDuring most of the 1990s, heavy metal languished in obscurity while Grunge and Alternative Rock dominated the modern rock charts. Ironically, heavy metal’s waning mainstream popularity was actually a blessing in disguise. Although the masses abandoned heavy metal in droves, the die-hard fans remained as loyal as ever, eagerly anticipating the next evolution of the genre. Luckily, metal bands enjoyed increased freedom to pursue new and unconventional directions, owing to their absolution from the expectations and obligations inherent in big-time record contracts. Left to its own devices, many original and avant-garde interpretations (often the synthesis of multiple subgenres) exploded on to the scene: Symphonic (Kamelot - March of Mephisto), Folk (Amorphis - Sampo), Melodic Death (aka Gothenberg-style) (At the Gates - Slaughter of the Soul), Progressive Death (Opeth - Blackwater Park), Technical Death (Meshuggah - Bleed)…well, you get the idea. In testimony to metal’s increased global diffusion, the Nordic Countries of Northern Europe were the epicenter of this creative surge. Led by Sweden’s In Flames (Crawl Through Knives), Opeth (Ghost of Perdition) and Therion (Uthark Runa), Finland’s Nightwish (Bless the Child) and Children of Bodom (Everytime I Die), and Norway’s Dimmu Borgir (In Death's Embrace), these acts pushed the conceptual boundaries of heavy metal to new extremes. The collective success of these underground acts reaffirmed heavy metal’s enduring appeal, driven by the loyalty of its rabid fan base. Perhaps, this success influenced the reunions of Iron Maiden (The Wicker Man), Judas Priest (Judas Rising), and even Black Sabbath (War Pigs), who all reconvened their classic lineups at various points during the 2000s. Nevertheless, heavy metal sustained itself as a phenomenon despite virtually no mainstream support.


MetalSo, there you have it. Four decades later, heavy metal thrives as a highly diverse, ever-evolving musical genre. That variety and growth are crucial to heavy metal’s enduring appeal. After all, in 1986 when Megadeth’s Dave Mustaine defiantly declared, “If there’s a new way, I’d be the first in line”  (Peace Sells), he meant it. Often mistaken for punk or hard rock, heavy metal can be a tricky subject open to much debate: to paraphrase Justice Potter Stewart, heavy metal is hard to define, but I know it when I hear it. While there are many nuanced and technical differences between the ever-expanding subgenres of metal, in the end, it’s all heavy metal. Based on the first forty years of heavy metal’s history, thankfully it shows no sign of slowing down of slowing down any time soon.


Harder. Faster. Louder. Forever.


For a visual representation of the history of Heavy Metal, see Google's Metal Music Timeline.