What were the highlights of the past 50 years of metal music?


Graphic by Madison Hummer

Fifty years ago on Feb. 13, 1970, heavy metal band Black Sabbath released its self-titled debut, spawning a music genre that has been both adored and reviled by listeners worldwide.

Seen as a sort of rebellious step-child, metal used to be (and for the most part still is) ridiculed and looked down upon in disgust. Many listeners are stereotyped as being angry, confrontational, Satanist, antisocial — you name it. Today, it has grown into one of the loudest and most iconic genres of music on the planet, with a rich array of subgenres that offer a little something for anyone to enjoy.

While Black Sabbath’s debut 50 years ago is seen as the “beginning” of heavy metal, it would be remiss to not mention the music that gave it its influence. Metal received its primary roots from blues and psychedelic rock, with 1960s bands like Iron Butterfly, Blue Cheer and Steppenwolf providing the sonic influence for metal’s trademark overdriven distortion sound.

Arthur Brown also deserves mention here, with his facepaint and macabre performances providing the inspiration for acts like Alice Cooper and King Diamond, who in turn developed into the corpsepaint and Satanic imagery extensively used by black metal bands in the 1990s.

After Black Sabbath’s release, fellow British band Judas Priest dropped their debut Rocka Rolla in 1974. This album strayed away from Sabbath’s primarily blues-driven sound by combining a twin-guitar attack with cleaner guitar distortion.

Another British band, Motörhead, took this sound and combined it with the speed of punk, creating a voracious and energetic sound lead by the furious bass attack of Lemmy Kilmister. These bands were the head of what was considered the New Wave of British Heavy Metal (NWOBHM).

Iron Maiden was another early NWOBHM metal band that began as a speedy punk rock/metal hybrid, before eventually settling into a style that prioritized grandiose song structures and guitar leads. Venom, the most underground of the major British groups, didn’t form until the end of the NWOBHM.

However, they were extraordinarily influential in influencing extreme metal. In 1982 their second album, Black Metal, later lent its name to an entire subgenre. Cronos’ coarse vocals, Satanic imagery and abrasive, lo-fi production made Venom by far the most inaccessible of the NWOBHM bands.

Many of these bands were responsible for a sound that influenced a specific subgenre. Bands such as Pentagram, Trouble, Saint Vitus and Candlemass took the traditional Sabbath sound of a thick guitar tone, slow riffs and wailing vocals to form doom metal in the early 1980s.

Judas Priest and Iron Maiden were responsible for traditional heavy metal (such as Tank or Accept) and power metal, with bands such as Helloween, Blind Guardian, Gamma Ray and Stratovarius trailblazing the way in the mid-1980s. These bands brought lightning-fast guitars, epic musical arrangements and wide vocal ranges to give power metal its distinctive sound.

Motörhead and punk provided a notable influence for what would become thrash metal, which formed in part as a response to the conservatism of the Reagan era. Bands such as Metallica, Megadeth, Slayer and Anthrax were considered the “big four” of thrash, with a sound that consisted of rough vocals, shredding guitars and tight sound structures.

Venom’s influence to black metal (and other forms of extreme metal) was palpable. The first wave of black metal in the 1980s had numerous bands emulating Venom’s blueprint, with Bathory, Celtic Frost and Mayhem playing a gritty, lo-fi and entirely inaccessible style of metal that was widely popular in underground circles.

Slayer deserves special mention during this time. Their Satanic imagery and extraordinary speed pushed the limits of thrash metal. Fellow San Francisco metal band, Possessed, connected the dots between thrash and death metal with their 1985 debut Seven Churches. This raw sound was later expanded upon by Florida band Death by adding growled vocals and eventually blast beats. Bands in the late 1980s like Morbid Angel, Deicide and Cannibal Corpse refined this sound into traditional death metal.

The 1990s were an interesting period in heavy metal, with several genres of metal being refined, blended and expanded. Melodic death metal developed in Sweden, with At the Gates, Dark Tranquillity and In Flames combining the growls of death metal with the grandiose riffs of Iron Maiden. Black metal settled in Norway, with bands such as Gorgoroth, Emperor, Darkthrone and Immortal perfecting the groundwork set by Venom and Bathory: tremolo picking, lo-fi recordings, corpsepaint, shrieked vocals, extreme Satanic imagery and blast beats.

Black metal is also notorious for its many controversies in the public sphere. In the 1990s, several bands were associated with church burnings and murders. A particularly grisly example was Burzum multi-instrumentalist/frontman Varg Vikernes murdering Mayhem guitarist Euronymous in 1993, where he was given a maximum prison sentence of 21 years.

The 1990s  also featured a deconstruction of sorts of heavy metal. Groove metal developed from Exhorder and then later by Louisiana band Pantera as a slower form of thrash metal with down-tuned guitars. Many of these bands, particularly Machine Head, Lamb of God and Chimaira formed the New Wave of American Heavy Metal (NWOAHM), which reached its height in the late 1990s.

Also during this time was the development of nü metal, a commercially popular form of metal that drew influences from hip-hop, EDM and industrial music. While some bands like Slipknot and Korn are still popular today, much of the genre phased out by the mid-2000s.

The mid-2000s saw the rise of metalcore, with groove metal fusing with hardcore punk. Metalcore is noted for a combination of melodic death metal riffs, a combination of screams and clean vocals, and breakdowns. Bands such as Avenged Sevenfold, Killswitch Engage and Trivium are among the most popular metalcore bands today.

Metalcore also combined with death metal to create deathcore, which also gained popularity in the mid-2000s. Suicide Silence, Job for a Cowboy and Whitechapel are among the most popular bands of this style.

Arguably the newest metal genre is djent. While it was first influenced by Swedish band Meshuggah in the late 1990s, it didn’t catch a head until the early 2010s. Its distinctive sound consists of incredibly high-gain and down-tuned 7 or 8-stringed guitars with virtuoso solos. Bands like Periphery, Born of Osiris and After the Burial are considered the standard-bearers of djent today.

Heavy metal has come a long way in 50 years. Each of these genres has a specific sound and mood associated with them, and there are of course many more notable bands and genre combinations that this article didn’t have space to accommodate.

I for one, am excited to see where heavy metal goes in the next 50 years.