A Brief Commentary On Metal's Past
When I was first discovering music at the beginning of the 80s, metal was in its infancy
and the heavy music of Black Sabbath, Deep Purple,
AC/DC, Judas Priest and others was simply called 'hard rock'.
I don't remember when I first heard the term 'heavy metal', though I was searching for
the metal sound long before I knew it's name. But sometime in the early 80s the term
'heavy metal' became widespread, and included any hard rock which employed the familiar
distorted metallic chord-based style, and for a time this simple categorization sufficed.
It wasn't long, however, before new types of metal began to appear. Some bands focused
primarily on Satanic themes, spawning the Death Metal genre. Much of this music was
shallow and somewhat one dimensional (diversity is limited within such a narrow theme),
but there were exceptions. For me, possibly the most creative and talented of the death
metal genre was Mercyful Fate, who's 1984 album Don't Break
The Oath remains a metal classic. Other notable death metal bands included
Slayer and Venom, and while most did not reach
a mainstream audience, they had some influence within the metal genre and helped to
shape the foundations of what would become 90s metal. Speed Metal, a close cousin
of Death Metal, also began to appear in the early-mid 80s. It's primary characteristic
was its incredibly fast guitar style, which depended more on galloping chord progressions
and less on traditional metal's power chords. Two of the most successful bands of the 90s,
Metallica and Megadeth, have their roots in the 80s
speed metal genre, and most 90s metal is heavily influenced by it.
By the mid-late 80s, heavy metal was at it's zenith of creativity and diversity.
Iron Maiden was in their prime, supporting their Seventh Son
album and headlining at the Castle Donington festival. Metallica had
survived the tragic death of Cliff Burton and had released And Justice For All.
Dio and Ozzy's solo careers were in full swing,
and veteran bands like Black Sabbath and Judas Priest
continued to produce excellent material. There was Accept,
Dokken, WASP, Alice Cooper,
Queensryche, Guns'n'Roses, and many others too
numerous to mention. There was also a profusion of young metal bands like
Helloween, Fifth Angel and Tokyo Blade,
making the metal genre vibrant and diverse. It was an amazing time to be a metal fan.
Despite its diverse sub-genres, all heavy metal retained several common elements.
The first was the trademark metallic guitar sound, which completely set it apart from
the pop music of the time. The second and equally important element was the guitar solo,
which formed the heart of virtually every metal song. Some detractors claimed that the
guitar solo was merely an artificial way for the guitarists to showcase their abilities,
but the solos had become the emotional and climactic centers of the songs since the 70s,
and heavy metal was quick to incorporate them. Bands like Iron Maiden
realized the unique power of the mid-song instrumentals, and wrote riff-based songs which
integrally depended on complex and powerful solos. Maiden,
Judas Priest, Accept, and others implemented a
2-guitar attack, which further increased the potential for power, versatility, and creativity.
It's interesting to compare these elements of metal with the alternative music of the 90s.
Although some alternative music features heavy metallic chords and riffs, the guitar solo
is virtually non-existent. Why is this? Guitar solos are difficult. With a couple hours of practice,
any schmuck can learn to play metal chords (called alternative when played out of tune),
but skillful solos require years of practice as well as natural talent. Not just any schmuck
can play a guitar solo. So to put it simply, alternative music is about angst, and has little
need for skillful musicianship. The guitar solo is one of the elements that sets the metal
genre on a different level.
As the genre gained in popularity during the 80s, the inevitable happened. Imitation bands
began to spring up, hoping to cash in on the success of the genre. Some were more
concerned with appearance and fashion than with music, and were seen on and off the stage
dressed in absurd silks with make-up and big hair. The music of Poison,
Cinderella, and others was as shallow as their cartoonish appearances,
leading to the terms "glam metal", "poser metal", or my own term
"bubble-gum metal". Even a few bands like Motley Crue,
Ratt, and Bon Jovi, which had begun as honest metal
switched into glam mode, presumably hoping to exploit the fad. In the end, I believe it was
the disgust with the obvious fakeness and over-commercialization of glam metal that led to
the decline of the entire metal genre. Such is the price of mainstream popularity.
For a short time in the early 90s metal reached it's widest mainstream audience.
Metallica's black album and Guns'n'Roses'
Use Your Illusion each sold millions of copies around the world and received
massive radio and MTV airplay. But metal's time in the popular limelight was brief,
and the release of Nirvana's Nevermind triggered an explosion
of alternative music which virtually eliminated metal from the mainstream consciousness.
This cultural shift was not only a musical one, but the changing of an entire generation.
The rap/alternative generation had begun, and metal suddenly became an un-cool symbol
of the previous generation. Heads were shaved, pants were baggy, and the metal genre
virtually disappeared from popular culture. From the metal explosion of the late 80s,
only a small remnant of metal bands survived into the alternative generation, and many
of those survived only by adapting their sound and style. Perhaps the saddest example of
this is Metallica, whose spectacularly successful Load and
Reload albums cannot truthfully be classified as metal at all, but instead seem
to be some strange sort of blues-metal-rock hybrid. Likewise, Queensryche
now seems to produce commercial pap aimed at the radio audience, rather than the original
and powerful metal of their 80s albums. I think I even heard a new Motley Crue
song on the radio the other day, though I had to change the station to save my sanity.
Of the few surviving bands which remain true to their roots, few have experienced the
commercial success of metal's golden era. Dave Mustane's Megadeth
seems to be prosperous, while Iron Maiden, Black Sabbath,
and Judas Priest are still alive, occasionally releasing albums, announcing
reunions, and generally behaving as metal's old-timers. I'm a die-hard Maiden fan, and will be
until the day I die, but no band carries on forever. If these bands represented the full spectrum
of 90s metal, the future of metal would be grim indeed. But out of the ashes have risen a
new wave of metal bands which remain faithful to metal's roots while at the same time
blazing new and exciting territory. They are the alternative to the alternative, and in my
next rant I'll take a closer look at the new metal of the 90s and perhaps make a few
predictions about the future of the metal genre.
5th March 1999
[Back to Index]