Early / Classic Metal


Traditional Heavy Metal, also known as Classic Metal, or simply Heavy Metal, is the seminal genre of Heavy Metal music before the genre “evolved and splintered into many different styles and sub-genres.” It is characterized by mid-to-fast-tempo riffs, by thumping basslines, crunchy riffs, extended lead guitar solos, and clean, often high-pitched vocals and anthemic choruses. It is not generally categorized as a sub-genre of Metal, but the main genre of it.


Classic MetalThe short, original, and proper term for this genre is “Heavy Metal”, but as Michka Assayas notes in his Dictionary of Rock, the term “Heavy Metal” may sometimes be used in different senses. While the term can refer to the seminal style, it also can be used as a large umbrella term for any derivative sub-genres. Hence the term “Traditional Heavy Metal” or “Classic Heavy Metal” may be employed to avoid confusion with the larger sense. In order to avoid the potential ambiguity others, like Sharpe Young, use the term “Heavy Metal” exclusively to refer to original genre and use the term “Metal” instead to refer to the global genre including sub-genres. Similarly, Paul Du Noyer also uses the term ‘Heavy Metal’ to refer to the original style exclusively.

Assayas points out another ambiguity of the term “Heavy Metal” and notes that in certain context some may consider it synonymous with Hard Rock (most particularly in the USA) while others consider these to be distinct genres. The former view is supported by authors including Ian Christe and Robert Walser. Christe regards Hard Rock bands like AC/DC, Queen, Led Zeppelin or Deep Purple as Heavy Metal in the original sense. In contrast others, including Garry Sharpe-Young and Paul Dunoyer’s music Black-Sabbathencyclopedia reject this label for these bands. Sharpe-Young, Rob Halford and Sam Dunn trace the origin of this genre to Black Sabbath exclusively, with a style characterized by the dropping of the genre’s blues roots. Rob Halford argues :

    “Black Sabbath absolutely invented Heavy Metal. I’ve read a lot of essays and such like about tracing it all back further and further. It’s as though these writers want to claim the source, a bit like Dr. Livingstone and the source of the Nile. But as a purist metal musician, I can tell you – it’s Black Sabbath.”

Early Heavy Metal Bands

Critics disagree over who can be thought of as the first Heavy Metal band. Most credit either Led Zeppelin or Black Sabbath, with American commentators tending to favour Led Zeppelin and British commentators tending to favour Black Sabbath, though many give equal credit to both. A few commentators—mainly American—argue for other groups including Iron Butterfly, Steppenwolf or Blue Cheer.

Led ZeppelinLed Zeppelin defined central aspects of the emerging genre, with Page’s highly distorted guitar style and singer Robert Plant’s dramatic, wailing vocals. Other bands, with a more consistently heavy, “purely” metal sound, would prove equally important in codifying the genre. The 1970 releases by Black Sabbath (Black Sabbath and Paranoid) and Deep Purple (In Rock) were crucial in this regard.

Black Sabbath had developed a particularly heavy sound in part due to an industrial accident guitarist Tony Iommi suffered before co-founding the band. Unable to play normally, Iommi had to tune his guitar down for easier fretting and rely on power chords with their relatively simple fingering. Deep Purple had fluctuated between styles in its early years, but by 1969 vocalist Ian Gillan and guitarist Ritchie Blackmore had led the band toward the developing Heavy Metal style. In 1970, Black Sabbath and Deep Purple scored major UK chart hits with “Paranoid” and “Black Night”, respectively.

That same year, two other British bands released debut albums in a Heavy Metal mode : Uriah Heep with Very ‘Eavy… Very ‘Umble and UFO with UFO 1. Bloodrock released their self-titled debut album, containing a collection of heavy guitar riffs, gruff style vocals and sadistic and macabre lyrics. Budgie brought the new Metal sound into a power trio context. The occult lyrics and imagery employed by Black Sabbath and Uriah Heep would prove particularly influential; Led Zeppelin also began foregrounding such elements with its fourth album, released in 1971.

Deep PurpleOn the other side of the Atlantic, the trend-setting group was Grand Funk Railroad, described as “the most commercially successful American Heavy Metal band from 1970 until they disbanded in 1976, [they] established the Seventies success formula : continuous touring”. Other bands identified with metal emerged in the U.S., such as Blue Öyster Cult (1972), Aerosmith (1973) and KISS (1974). In Germany, Scorpions debuted with Lonesome Crow in 1972. Blackmore, who had emerged as a virtuoso soloist with Deep Purple’s Machine Head (1972), quit the group in 1975 to form Rainbow. These bands also built audiences via constant touring and increasingly elaborate stage shows.

As described above, there are arguments about whether these and other early bands truly qualify as “Heavy Metal” or simply as “Hard Rock”. Those closer to the music’s blues roots or placing greater emphasis on melody are now commonly ascribed the latter label. AC/DC, which debuted with High Voltage in 1975, is a prime example. The 1983 Rolling Stone encyclopedia entry begins, “Australian Heavy Metal band AC/DC”. Rock historian Clinton Walker writes, “Calling AC/DC a Heavy Metal band in the seventies was as inaccurate as it is today…. [They] were a rock ‘n’ roll band that just happened to be heavy enough for metal”. The issue is not only one of shifting definitions, but also a persistent distinction between musical style and audience identification: Ian Christe describes how the band “became the stepping-stone that led huge numbers of Hard Rock fans into Heavy Metal perdition”.

Judas_PriestIn certain cases, there is little debate. After Black Sabbath, the next major example is Britain’s Judas Priest, which debuted with Rocka Rolla in 1974. In Christe’s description,

    “Black Sabbath’s audience was…left to scavenge for sounds with similar impact. By the mid-1970s, Heavy Metal aesthetic could be spotted, like a mythical beast, in the moody bass and complex dual guitars of Thin Lizzy, in the stagecraft of Alice Cooper, in the sizzling guitar and showy vocals of Queen, and in the thundering medieval questions of Rainbow…. Judas Priest arrived to unify and amplify these diverse highlights from Hard Rock’s sonic palette. For the first time, Heavy Metal became a true genre unto itself.”

Though Judas Priest did not have a top 40 album in the United States until 1980, for many it was the definitive post-Sabbath Heavy Metal band; its twin-guitar attack, featuring rapid tempos and a non-bluesy, more cleanly metallic sound, was a major influence on later acts. While Heavy Metal was growing in popularity, most critics were not enamored of the music. Objections were raised to metal’s adoption of visual spectacle and other trappings of commercial artifice, but the main offense was its perceived musical and lyrical vacuity : reviewing a Black Sabbath album in the early 1970s, leading critic Robert Christgau described it as “dull and decadent…dim-witted, amoral exploitation.”

Musical Characteristics

Authors such as Paul Du Noyer, Garry Sharpe Young, and Andrew Cope recognize many similarities between Hard Rock and Heavy Metal, but state that Heavy Metal tends to depart from the original blues roots of Hard Rock. According to this view, original Heavy Metal is characterized by mid-to-fast-tempo riffs, by thumping basslines, crunchy riffs, extended lead guitar solos, and clean, often high-pitched vocals and anthemic choruses. One of the most important and innovative concepts of traditional Heavy Metal was the use of the double lead guitar pioneered by bands like Thin Lizzy , Scorpions and Judas Priest.

Lyrical Themes

Traditional Heavy Metal bands like Black Sabbath and the many bands they inspired have concentrated lyrically “on dark and depressing subject matter to an extent hitherto unprecedented in any form of Pop music”, according to scholars David Hatch and Stephen Millward. They take as an example Sabbath’s second album Paranoid (1970), which “included songs dealing with personal trauma – ‘Paranoid’ and ‘Fairies Wear Boots’ (which described the unsavoury side effects of drug-taking) – as well as those confronting wider issues, such as the self-explanatory ‘War Pigs’ and ‘Hand of Doom’.” Nuclear annihilation was addressed in later songs such as Black Sabbath’s “Electric Funeral”, Iron Maiden’s “2 Minutes to Midnight” and Ozzy Osbourne’s “Killer of Giants”.

Traditional Heavy Metal songs often feature outlandish, fantasy-inspired lyrics, lending them an escapist quality. Iron Maiden’s songs, for instance, were frequently inspired by mythology, fiction, and poetry, such as Iron Maiden’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner”, based on the Samuel Taylor Coleridge poem. Other examples include Black Sabbath’s “The Wizard” and Judas Priest’s “Dreamer Deceiver”.

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