History of HEAVY METAL

Heavy MetalVery few genres of music incorporate as broad a palette of distinct sounds as Heavy Metal. From the technicality and musicianship of bands like Iron Maiden to the raw power of Mastodon, Heavy Metal offers a seemingly endless array of musical possibilities. Heavy Metal began as an attempt to play louder and faster than ever before, but it evolved into a nuanced and highly complex form of expression enjoyed by millions all across the world.

Heavy Metal (or simply Metal) is a genre of Rock music that developed in the late 1960s and early 1970s, largely in the United Kingdom and the United States. With roots in Blues Rock and Psychedelic Rock, the bands that created Heavy Metal developed a thick, massive sound, characterized by highly amplified distortion, extended guitar solos, emphatic beats, and overall loudness. Heavy Metal lyrics and performance styles are often associated with masculinity, aggression, and machismo.

Mid-1960s British bands such as Cream, the Yardbirds, and the Jeff Beck Group, along with Jimi Hendrix, are generally credited with developing the heavier drums, bass and distorted guitar sounds that differentiate Heavy Metal from other Blues-based Rock. The new sound was codified in the 1970s by Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple and Black Sabbath with the release of Led Zeppelin II, Deep Purple in Rock and Paranoid respectively, which featured heavy riffs, distorted “power chords,” mystical lyrics, guitar and drum solos and vocal styles that ranged from the wails of Zeppelin’s Robert Plant to the whines of Sabbath’s Ozzy Osbourne.

The first Heavy Metal bands such as Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath and Deep Purple attracted large audiences, though they were often derided by critics, a status common throughout the history of the genre. During the mid-1970s, Judas Priest helped spur the genre’s evolution by discarding much of its Blues influence; Motörhead introduced a Punk Rock sensibility and an increasing emphasis on speed. Beginning in the late 1970s, bands in the New Wave of British Heavy Metal (NWOBHM) such as Iron Maiden and Saxon followed in a similar vein. Before the end of the decade, Heavy Metal fans became known as “metalheads” or “headbangers”.

During the 1980s, Glam Metal became a commercial force with groups such as Mötley Crüe and Poison. Underground scenes produced an array of more aggressive styles: Thrash Metal broke into the mainstream with bands such as Metallica, Megadeth, Slayer and Anthrax, who dominated the scene with the impossibly fast riffs, howling vocals and dark, intense lyrics. The pure aggression and technical prowess of these bands inspired a new set of performers, who began tuning their guitars down and unleashing the unearthly growl of what would become Death metal. These extreme sub-genres of metal such as Death Metal and Black Metal remain sub-cultural phenomena. By the mid-1980s, Heavy Metal had spawned a new generation of musicians who pushed the limits of volume and speed.

Since the mid-1990s popular styles have further expanded the definition of the genre. These include Groove Metal (with bands such as Pantera) and Nu Metal (with bands such as Slipknot, Korn and Linkin Park), the latter of which often incorporates elements of Grunge and Hip Hop. The energy and catharsis of Heavy Metal continues to inspire new bands, and the genre has taken firm hold in Scandinavia, where there are more metal bands per capita than anywhere else in the world.


Heavy Metal is traditionally characterized by loud distorted guitars, emphatic rhythms, dense bass-and-drum sound, and vigorous vocals. Metal sub-genres variously emphasize, alter, or omit one or more of these attributes. New York Times critic Jon Pareles writes, “In the taxonomy of popular music, Heavy Metal is a major subspecies of Hard Rock — the breed with less syncopation, less blues, more showmanship and more brute force.” The typical band lineup includes a drummer, a bassist, a rhythm guitarist, a lead guitarist, and a singer, who may or may not be an instrumentalist. Keyboard instruments are sometimes used to enhance the fullness of the sound.

heavy-metalThe electric guitar and the sonic power that it projects through amplification has historically been the key element in Heavy Metal. The Heavy Metal guitar sound comes from a combined use of high volumes and heavy distortion. Guitar solos are an essential element of the Heavy Metal code that underscores the significance of the guitar to the genre. Most Heavy Metal songs feature at least one guitar solo, which is a primary means through which the Heavy Metal performer expresses virtuosity. One exception is Nu Metal bands, which tend to omit guitar solos. With rhythm guitar parts, the “heavy crunch sound in Heavy Metal…[is created by] palm muting” the strings with the right hand and using distortion. Palm muting creates a tighter, more precise sound and it emphasizes the low end.

The lead role of the guitar in Heavy Metal often collides with the traditional “frontman” or bandleader role of the vocalist, creating a musical tension as the two “contend for dominance” in a spirit of “affectionate rivalry”. Heavy Metal “demands the subordination of the voice” to the overall sound of the band. Reflecting metal’s roots in the 1960s counterculture, an “explicit display of emotion” is required from the vocals as a sign of authenticity. Critic Simon Frith claims that the metal singer’s “tone of voice” is more important than the lyrics.

The prominent role of the bass is also key to the metal sound, and the interplay of bass and guitar is a central element. The bass guitar provides the low-end sound crucial to making the music “heavy”. The bass plays a more important role in Heavy Metal than in any other genre of rock. Metal basslines vary widely in complexity, from holding down a low pedal point as a foundation to doubling complex riffs and licks along with the lead and/or rhythm guitars. Some bands feature the bass as a lead instrument, an approach popularized by Metallica’s Cliff Burton with his heavy emphasis on bass guitar solos and use of chords while playing bass in the early 1980s.

The essence of metal drumming is creating a loud, constant beat for the band using the “trifecta of speed, power, and precision”. Metal drumming requires an exceptional amount of endurance and drummers have to develop considerable speed, coordination, and dexterity to play the intricate patterns used in metal. A characteristic metal drumming technique is the cymbal choke, which consists of striking a cymbal and then immediately silencing it by grabbing it with the other hand (or, in some cases, the same striking hand), producing a burst of sound. The metal drum setup is generally much larger than those employed in other forms of rock music. Black Metal, Death Metal and some mainstream metal bands all depend upon double-kicks and blast beats.

Lyrical Themes

Black Sabbath, and the numerous metal bands that they inspired, have concentrated lyrically on dark and depressing subject matter to an extent hitherto unprecedented in any form of pop music. Take an Explicit Lyricsexample 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’. Deriving from the genre’s roots in blues music, sex is another important topic — a thread running from Led Zeppelin’s suggestive lyrics to the more explicit references of Glam and Nu Metal bands.

The thematic content of Heavy Metal has long been a target of criticism. According to Jon Pareles, “Heavy Metal’s main subject matter is simple and virtually universal. With grunts, moans and subliterary lyrics, it celebrates…a party without limits…. [T]he bulk of the music is stylized and formulaic.” Music critics have often deemed metal lyrics juvenile and banal, and others have objected to what they see as advocacy of misogyny and the occult. During the 1980s, the Parents Music Resource Center petitioned the U.S. Congress to regulate the popular music industry due to what the group asserted were objectionable lyrics, particularly those in Heavy Metal songs.

Image and Fashion

KISSFor certain artists and bands, visual imagery plays a large role in Heavy Metal. In addition to its sound and lyrics, a Heavy Metal band’s “image” is expressed in album sleeve art, logos, stage sets, clothing, and music videos. The classic uniform of Heavy Metal fans consists of light colored, ripped frayed or torn blue jeans, black T-shirts, boots and black leather or jeans jackets. T-shirts are generally emblazoned with the logos or other visual representations of favorite metal bands. Metal fans also appropriated elements from the S&M community (chains, metal studs, skulls, leather and crosses). In the 1980s, a range of sources, from punk and goth music to horror films, influenced metal fashion. Many metal performers of the 1970s and 1980s used radically shaped and brightly colored instruments to enhance their stage appearance.

Physical Gestures

Devils HornMany metal musicians when performing live engage in headbanging, which involves rhythmically beating time with the head, often emphasized by long hair. The ‘il cornuto’, or devil horns, hand gesture, also widespread, was popularized by vocalist Ronnie James Dio while with Black Sabbath and Dio. Although Gene Simmons of Kiss claims to have been the first to make the gesture on the 1977 Love Gun album cover, there is speculation as to who started the phenomenon.

Attendees of metal concerts do not dance in the usual sense. It has been argued that this is due to the music’s largely male audience and “extreme heterosexualist ideology.” Two primary body movements that substitute for dancing : headbanging and an arm thrust that is both a sign of appreciation and a rhythmic gesture. The performance of ‘air guitar’ is popular among metal fans both at concerts and listening to records at home. Thrash metal concerts have two elements that are not part of the other metal genres : moshing and stage diving, which were imported from the Punk / Hardcore subculture. Moshing participants bump and jostle each other as they move in a circle in an area called the “pit” near the stage. Stage divers climb onto the stage with the band and then jump “…back into the audience”.

Fan Sub-Culture

Heavy Metal fansIt has been argued that Heavy Metal has outlasted many other rock genres largely due to the emergence of an intense, exclusionary, strongly masculine subculture. While the metal fan-base is largely young, white, male, and blue-collar, the group is “tolerant of those outside its core demographic base who follow its codes of dress, appearance, and behavior”. Identification with the subculture is strengthened not only by the group experience of concert-going and shared elements of fashion, but also by contributing to metal magazines and, more recently, websites. Attending live concerts in particular has been called the “holiest of Heavy Metal communions”.

The metal scene has been characterized as a “subculture of alienation”, with its own code of authenticity. This code puts several demands on performers : they must appear both completely devoted to their music and loyal to the subculture that supports it; they must appear uninterested in mainstream appeal and radio hits; and they must never “sell out”. For the fans themselves, the code promotes “opposition to established authority, and separateness from the rest of society”.

Coining of the term ‘HEAVY METAL’

Although the origin of the term Heavy Metal is widely attributed to novelist William Burroughs, its use actually dates well back into the 19th century, when it referred to cannon or to power more generally. It also has been used to classify certain elements or compounds, as in the phrase Heavy Metal poisoning. The term “Heavy Metal” was first used in a musical sense in the ’60s song “Born To Be Wild” by Steppenwolf – “I like smoke and lightning / Heavy metal thunder / Racin’ with the wind / And the feelin’ that I’m under”, and by the early 1970s rock critics were using it to refer to a specific style of music.

Genres of Heavy Metal

At the beginning there was just traditional Heavy Metal. Shortly after it evolved and splintered into many different styles and sub-genres. This site has a series of articles on many of the genres and related artists / bands that will give you a more in-depth look at that particular type of metal. As time has gone on, there are literally hundreds of sub-genres, but the main genres of Heavy Metal is as depicted in the Metal Family-Tree below :

Metal History Timeline


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