Greetings everyone! Hope you are having a wonderful day. A lot of you may have encountered me by now, but allow me to introduce myself one more time – I’m Yoan, but I prefer the spelling Joan, and as of right now, I am one of the newest additions to the Mod team. I’ve been really enjoying my time here so far and one of the most wonderful things the Community allows us to do is start fun musical discussions with all of you. Music is after all a uniting factor, it’s something universal, it’s also an endless sea of fascinating discovery. So I decided to celebrate the power of music (and maybe other things too) by starting a bi-weekly blog where I will present some interesting topics to you. This will also (hopefully) help my next QOTW or IOH post be a little less essay-like. In any case, I hope you enjoy reading what I have for you as much as I will enjoy writing it.
And what better way to start than with the origin story of my favourite genre of music and the one everyone seems to exclusively associate me with – heavy metal. Now, it seems to be a surprisingly difficult thing to pinpoint what heavy metal exactly is. A lot of people also have a lot of misconceptions about it, thinking it’s devil music, nothing but noise, nothing but screaming, just a big bundle of negativity and violence and so on. But all of these are just ignorant stereotypes piled on by ignorant people throughout the now 5 or so decades that metal has existed. In reality, it’s some of the most profound and often some of the most uplifting music you could ever hear. So, let’s break it down.
First, a brief history lesson – where did metal come from? Well, without going too deep into it, it all stems from the blues and hard rock movements of the 60s, mainly in the United Kingdom, but in the United States as well. As we all know, rock is primarily guitar-focused music with an energetic and upbeat sound. Defining it any further already becomes difficult as one of rock’s most defining characteristics is it’s diversity and variety of sound and it’s tendency to incorporate elements of other music styles into itself. But for our purposes, this definition will suffice.
Hard rock is the most direct precursor to metal and the two often get mixed up. While there is a whole debate around what classifies as one or the other, this is a discussion for another time. In my opinion, the best way to handle this is on a case by case basis. Hard rock bands are typically the ones that are still definitively in the rock space in terms of sound and songwriting, but play louder and with more intensity than the rock and roll that came before. The music also more heavily focuses on the electric guitar as it’s leading instrument and guitar solos are very common too. A lot of the most famous rock bands ever that you’ve definitely heard of are considered hard rock – Kiss, AC/DC, Scorpions, Guns ‘n’ Roses, etc. The style also stands in contrast to the melodic ballads of soft rock acts like Sting, Phil Collins, Simon & Garfunkel, etc.
Now, there are two important changes that differentiated heavy metal from their hard rock predecessors – intensity and subject matter. Hard rock acts play fast and energetic music, but they still follow standard rock songwriting and your typical pop lyrical themes – love, romance, having a good time, how awesome of a rock star you are, etc. Early heavy metal acts however sought to go beyond that. Firstly, the intensity was dialed up with lower tuning, faster playing and a general increase in the “heaviness” of the sound. Black Sabbath, the band most often (rightfully) credited as pioneers of the genre, innovated a lot in this sphere. Everyone knows the story of how Sabbath guitarist Tony Iommi lost the tips of two of his fingers while working with an industrial machine, this potentially jeopardizing his entire career as a guitarist. But Iommi adapted, tuning his guitar lower and developing a more percussive, aggressive and dark style. Combine this with other pioneering acts of the late 60s and early 70s like Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin who sought to bring more speed and general aggression to their sound and all of these became the primordial soup from which the style of metal was born. Lower tuned guitars, gratuitous distortion, fast drumming, powerful and emotional vocals, advanced instrumentation, these are what defined the sound we all know today.
Sabbath members were also huge horror fans, even taking the band name from a 60s horror film. Combine this with their frontman Ozzy Osbourne’s fascination with the occult, paranormal and darker tendencies and you have the second major ingredient for metal – subject matter. What really differentiated metal from it’s rock ancestors was it’s love of darker or taboo topics – death, war, evil, Satanism, demons, depression, politics, substance abuse, etc. Taking inspiration from psychedelic rock and progressive rock acts of the 60s, as well as horror films/literature and real life events (remember, heavy metal was born in the early 70s, at the height of the Cold War, Iron Curtain and Vietnam War), mostly gone were the songs about love and partying and in come the songs about the darkest tendencies of the human mind and heart.
This new approach captivated audiences and despite rampant critique from the establishments and mainstream media, the seed had been planted and it would blossom more and more, until metal finally came into it’s own in the early 80s with the so called New Wave of British Heavy Metal. By then, bands like Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, Accept and more were cranking up the intensity even more and exploring even further into dark subjects, firmly cementing metal as a worldwide phenomenon that unites the outcasts, the rebels, the nonconformists. Metal had truly become a force to be reckoned with.
So to summarize – heavy metal is the evolutionary next step from hard rock. It’s guitar driven music played with a lot of intensity, speed and aggression. It’s also well known for dabbling with darker subject matters that are often left untouched by most other genres of music. Oh and by the way, if you’re curious where the term “heavy metal” comes from, it’s pretty hard to say. Most commonly, it’s associated with hippie slang from the 60s where “metal” was used to refer to that specific dense and dark vibe that the music became known for. The term was often used in relation to biker culture as well, with which metal has significant overlap. Journalists of the 70s also compared the heavy and bombastic sound of the aforementioned bands like Sabbath, Purple and Zeppelin to industrial machinery, hence the name. Oh and by the way, this song holds the honour of being the first to have the words “heavy metal” in it’s lyrics, again describing motorcycles.
There is a lot more to say here, but I think this is enough for now. I hope you found this story captivating and I hope the songs scattered above inspired you to look into the style and these bands more. Below you can find a playlist of all the songs mentioned in this blog, along with an assortiment of classic rock and oldschool heavy metal, along with some modern variety metal to show how far the genre has come. Happy listening, take care and see you soon!