Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Heavy Metal for Dummies Part 1: The Basics

Disclaimer: As this is not a Wikipedia entry, do not expect citations for everything I write. Furthermore, there are many things mentioned which are based on general consensus, and some things which are my opinion, based on either observation or personal research. Being as such, everything in here is debatable to some degree. For this reason, anyone that argues in the comment section the validity of an opinion on the basis of "whether this (band/genre) is truly (genre/adjective)" or "what right to I have to say (insert statement) because I wasn't really there" or " (insert anyone here including myself) is a poser because of (any reason whatsoever)" will have their comment removed. I make no claim of being the authority on the subject, but then again, no one really is, or ever will be. This is not a comprehensive history or dictionary of heavy metal, as such a book would be impossible to write anyway, as no one with a bibliographical background and handy with a typewriter was around when most of the things mentioned in here occurred. No hard feelings, but elitism and postulation will defeat the purpose for which this series of notes is intended. Thank you for your understanding.


Out of all the possible types of listeners there could be for music like heavy metal, most fall into a few easy-to-spot categories: people who like metal, people who are actually into metal, and people who truly know metal. As time goes on, if enough interest remains or if it intensifies, a person usually transitions into the next category from the previous one with the proper support. For those that are in the first category and wish to step into the second, but don't have any clue on how and have no friends that share in their musical tastes, I write this guide. As for everyone else, read for kicks if you were tagged or have found it on your own, I don't care.. :)

What is Heavy Metal?

Well, it obviously isn't something on the periodic table of elements, at least not in this context, and it is a type of music. What it is exactly cannot be defined as it constantly evolves, which is ironic considering that a large portion of it's fans are conservative in nature and loathe change. What can be said is that it basically came from rock and roll, developing into it's own separate as artists began experimenting with over-driven amplifiers and distortion effects pedals. This separation began in earnest sometime in the mid to late 1960's, as artists like Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, Leslie West, Toni Iommi, and Ritchie Blackmore really began to make prominent use of such sounds. Many psychedelic rock and blues rock bands such as The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Cream, Led Zeppelin, Mountain, Deep Purple and Iron Butterfly set early standards for both heavy metal and hard rock, but it was the British band Black Sabbath that delivered what many agree was the first definitive work of heavy metal. Combining the heavy-handed nature of American blues with a darker lyrical bent, a foreboding sound played in minor chords and using European folk melodies intertwined with the ensemble playing of their peers, Black Sabbath created a style of music that was quite scary for it's time. This sense of dread and the implication of weight and force would be what typified heavy metal at the time, and is mostly upon what all further developments in the style would be based.

How Did the Name "Heavy Metal" Form?

A much more difficult question to answer, because of the many conflicting viewpoints on who developed what first and whether they were "truly" this or that to begin with. What can be generally agreed upon is that heavy metal and hard rock were somewhat synonymous throughout the 1970's, as many bands playing what would later be categorized as heavy metal were recognized as hard rock during the time their music was first received by the public. The term "heavy metal" began to emerge as the genre descriptor for the music mainly as the adjectives used for the music itself by critics, and as it was found in lyrics or titles (good examples of both instances are the aforementioned Jimi Hendrix and the band Steppenwolf, respectively). After a time, like many things do, the name just stuck, even though some bands from that period hit with the term in retrospect have rejected it (like Motorhead, for example).

How Did Heavy Metal Develop?

Early bands playing this style were still heavily rooted in the blues, as evidenced by work from Black Sabbath and Bloodrock. Older bands previously associated with psychedelic rock like Iron Butterfly and Deep Purple slowly "came over the fence" into more metallic sounds as their early careers wore on. Bands coming after Black Sabbath started to dispense with the blues influences altogether by incorporating flashy guitar work and theatrical vocals more akin to progressive rock (another influence on early heavy metal). Bands such as Uriah Heep, and early Queen all displayed these qualities, while bands like Rainbow and Judas Priest used them in combination with an increased sense of urgency. Other early groups like Motorhead fused a harder sound with the sensibilities of biker culture and the punk rock movement, giving an increase of speed that would be a major influence on future bands. By the late 1970's and early 1980's, an underground movement of British bands following in these early acts' footsteps would solidify a standard sound for heavy metal that remains to this day, and they would be looked upon as the "new wave of British heavy metal" or "N.W.O.B.H.M." by fans and critics. Beyond this point, the genre would only splinter into a multitude of sub-genres, as bands from regions all over the world would struggle to create unique niches for themselves so their music would be heard by fans all over. Some such sub-genres would become major developments in the style, while others would be relegated to subculture phenomena, and that's where it stands today.

Closing Statement

That about raps it up for this installment. Next installment we'll discuss the "golden era" of the 1980's, it's sub-genres, and "the fall" of heavy metal in the 1990's (it didn't really fall, but that's what MTV wants you to believe). Cheers!