Explosion of Metal Subgenres in the 80’s

I entered my teens when heavy metal became a household word. Back in 1983/84, heavy metal was the music of choice among my friends. We had such a choice, too. There were Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, and the old boys, Black Sabbath. Then there were the hits bands like Quiet Riot, Def Leppard, Twisted Sister, and Motley Crue. There were the German bands: Scorpions and Accept. And then there were all the bands who managed to squeak a video on the late night video programs, bands such as Killer Dwarfs, Krokus, Kick Axe, and so on.

Helix

Helix

Back in those days, heavy metal was not neatly divided into various sub-genres as it is today. Van Halen, Blue Oyster Cult, Motorhead, Venom, Saxon, Helix, and even AC/DC all fell under the metal banner. If your music was loud, hard, heavy, pounding, fist-pumping, head-banging rock, that was enough. Headpins “Turn It Loud” was metal enough. Santers made it in the heavy metal pages. Aerosmith, Ted Nugent, KISS, and the list goes on. These days metal scholars and fans are much more critical and discerning about what gets called metal and what is hard rock. Metal itself has splintered into so many subgenres, and I would say that the 1980’s were responsible for this rapid branching of the metal tree.

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Exodus (photo from Full In Bloom Music)

The first subgenre I heard about was thrash metal. While the Los Angeles metal scene (which gave us what is now referred to as glam metal or hair metal) was producing wild and colourful bands like Ratt, Poison, Cinderella, and so on), metal purists who loved Judas Priest, Motorhead, and Venom and who also liked hardcore punk, decided to go against the grain and emphasis speed and aggression over party rock and cosmetics. The leaders here in the 1983 to 1987 period were Metallica, Megadeth, Anthrax, Slayer, Testament, Exodus, Death Angel, Violence, and a host of others. The music became not only faster but, as in the case of some bands, it also became more technical.

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Anvil

Around this same period, specifically 1982 to 1984, three other countries also saw movements toward extreme metal. In Toronto, Canada there was a concurrent metal movement that was initiated by the band Anvil. Anvil are often seen as the link between traditional heavy metal (Judas Priest, etc.) and thrash metal. But Anvil were not alone. Sacrifice, Slaughter, Razor, and Exciter were also part of this speedier and more aggressive scene. The Canadian label Banzai began stamping albums with a speed metal logo. Quebecers, Voivod, also earned this label, as did some European bands like Destruction. Speed metal today is recognized as being different from thrash metal and also power metal in that it is a little looser, and bit more biker-ish. As it was described on Banger Lock Horns (44:55 to 45:15 in the video), it’s like power metal but with a five-o’clock shadow.

Meanwhile, across the pond in England, the hardcore punk scene was taking an interest in metal. Going the opposite route from American thrash metal bands, who added hardcore to metal, British grindcore bands added metal to hardcore. By the latter half of the 80’s, you had two similar metal scenes with different roots.

Then there was Germany, Switzerland, and Sweden. Inspired by the music of Judas Priest, Motorhead, Black Sabbath, and Venom, new bands emerged in these three countries that would prove to be very influential in the development of new emerging subgenres. In Germany, Kreator focused on violence and aggressive, heavy music. Though similar to thrash metal music, Kreator’s sound was more evilly intense, more threatening, the vocals gruffer and growlier. Switzerland produced first Hellhammer which evolved into Celtic Frost. Here was a band that combined the speed of thrash metal with the slow and heavy riffs of doom metal and featured a vocalist who could growl and roar even lower and more ominously than Motorhead’s Lemmy or Venom’s Chronos. Finally, up in Sweden, a young Tomas Forsberg created Bathory, a band which focused on Satanic lyrical themes and, like others, combined speed and heaviness. Most outstanding was Forsberg’s vocal style: a back-of-the-throat, rattling, croak that could resemble a wicked witch singing. Though they were not yet fully developed, the subgenres of death and black metal were gestating amid the sounds of these bands.

Back in the U.S.A., two important bands were taking thrash metal in a new direction. Possessed from California released “Seven Churches” in 1985. The music was thrash-based, but Jeff Becerra’s deep, roaring, guttural vocals and the band’s Satanic themes took thrash metal as Slayer had conceived it into darker territory, if that were possible. Across the continent in Florida, Chuck Schuldiner was putting together Death and the first album, “Scream Bloody Gore” was released in 1987. While thrash metal lyrics were more about violence and war, death metal focused on gore and the occult. The American death metal scene produced bands like Morbid Angel, Obituary, and Autopsy in the late eighties, and by the early nineties the scene had fully grown, particularly along the East Coast and up into Quebec with bands like Cannibal Corpse, Immolation, Malevolent Creation, and Gorguts.

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Darkthrone – Black metal from Norway

By the late eighties, both Norway and Sweden had picked up on the sounds of black metal and a second generation was born. Though both countries would contribute, it was basically Norwegian bands that moved from death metal over to the black metal scene, while in Sweden death metal became the more popular.

Taking a cue from as far back as Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow, power metal was yet another subgenre to emerge from the eighties metal scene. Ronnie James Dio, who had sung with Rainbow in the seventies, took the knights and dragons theme further in the mid-eighties on his “Sacred Heart” album (the tour featured a towering dragon on stage).

Virgin Steele

Virgin Steele

Virgin Steele in New York also moved from a trad metal approach into power metal. As someone on Banger TV said, power metal is trad metal but with louder, bigger, more over-the-top, with bolder melodies and an almost symphonic approach to music themes. It’s totally conceivable that symphonic metal developed from a combination of power metal and prog metal. The vocal style is usually more operatic, and Judas Priest’s Rob Halford can be seen as creating the blueprint. Manowar, Helloween, and Blind Guardian are recognized as early true power metal bands; however, elements of power metal can be found in the music and also the lyrical themes of bands like Iron Maiden, Queensryche, Uli Jon Roth era Scorpions, and Accept.

While it seems a natural course for heavy metal music to become more aggressive, more technical, darker, faster, and heavier, two other subgenres that emerged from in the eighties were looking to travel with their guitars down slightly different paths. Perhaps the older of the two would be progressive metal. The instigator would likely be Iron Maiden. Bassist and founding member Steve Harris was a fan of progressive rock bands of the seventies and right from the debut album in 1980, Iron Maiden proved there were more than just a band of three to four minute songs. They included instrumental sections that were not just dedicated to guitar pyrotechnics and even instrumental tracks. Iron Maiden was clearly an influence on two important American bands now associated with the development of progressive metal: Fates Warning and Queensryche. Add to that Crimson Glory and Watchtower and you have four of the earliest prog metal bands.

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Queensryche

Following the lead of Iron Maiden, these bands endeavored to write music that had complex instrumental parts, or danced around odd time signatures. Lyrics were often more intellectual and socio/political. The star child of progressive metal would be born in the eighties but not stamp its mark on the subgenre until 1992. Dream Theater was the band that seemed to define what progressive metal should be about, and yet the desire to take metal into more progressive territory was already spreading to the thrash and speed metal scene in 1986/87 as Metallica introduced longer songs with multi-part musical themes on “Master of Puppets” and “…And Justice for All” and Voivod created their own form of space sci-fi prog metal, culminating in the classic album “Nothingface” in 1989.

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Godflesh

The other new and also more experimental subgenre of metal was industrial metal. Musicians combined metal’s heaviness and aggression with techno and electronica, giving birth to a new underground movement. Ministry, Godflesh and others both in the U.S. and overseas in Europe (Germany’s KMFDM) kicked off the first generation of industrial metal in the latter half of the eighties and the movement continued into the nineties, gaining a second momentum by the middle of the decade.

One other important subgenre that came into its own in the eighties would be doom metal. Originally born in the sound of Black Sabbath in late 1969, bands such as Saint Vitus and Pentagram (who were actually active concurrently with Sabbath in their heyday) emphasized slow and heavy riffs and particularly Saint Vitus sought to recreate that early seventies sound. As the eighties progressed, some bands combined the speed and deep guttural vocals of death metal with the slow and heavy riffs of doom metal, and thus the death/doom subgenre was also born. Autopsy were one band that emerged from the Florida death metal scene who liked to slow down at times and get heavy. Meanwhile back in England, My Dying Bride and Paradise Lost also emphasized deep, growling vocals and slow heavy riffs. Interestingly enough, the European bands would go on into new directions now labeled gothic metal and post metal, as would many bands from the black metal scene.

It’s not uncommon to hear people criticize the 80’s for a lot of crimes against pop music and rock. However, I find it really interesting to see how heavy metal experienced an explosion of growth in subgenre branches. We saw thrash metal, speed metal, grindcore, black metal, death metal, progressive metal, industrial metal, doom metal, and death doom all emerge from the heavy metal tree. Now we recognize traditional metal, hair or glam metal, and hard rock as the three most popular forms of heavy music in the eighties. But in the underground, so much more was happening.

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Metal On Ice – A book review

As we saw in the last two posts, hard rock and heavy metal were a driving force behind the success of Canadian bands beyond the national border. While some bands fared better than others, the world – meaning mostly Western Europe, parts of the United States, and Japan – were becoming acquainted with hard and heavy sounds from Canada.

Canada’s love for heavy music was surely obvious by the eighties as several bands paid homage to heavy rock fever. Anvil’s anthem “Metal on Metal, Helix’s party rock hit “Heavy Metal Love”, Kick Axe’s “Heavy Metal Shuffle”, Killer Dwarfs’ “Heavy Metal Breakdown”, White Wolf’s “Metal Thunder” and Lee Aaron’s “Metal Queen” all offered different takes on what heavy metal meant and sounded like to them and nearly all of these songs reached the radio waves and late night video programs. Add to that the debut album by Sword, “Metalized”, and there’s no doubt that Canadians loved their metal.

In spite of the fact that Canadian rock had made great headway through the seventies and into the early eighties, there were still great hurdles for bands to overcome. As many bands discovered, deals with record labels didn’t guarantee their albums would make them superstars. And as the nineties began, a lot of bands who had fought hard to achieve some degree of international success and play in the big arenas found themselves back in the bars as grunge made metal subgenres like thrash and glam passé almost overnight.

The story of the Canadian heavy metal band in the eighties has been wonderfully retold in a book by musician Sean Kelly (Crash Kelly, Helix, Nelly Futardo). Metal On Ice: Tales from Canada’s Hard Rock and Heavy Metal Heroes takes the reader on a journey from fandom to budding musician, to bar band to debut album, to arena band to canned band wondering what to do next. Kelly interviews over a dozen Canadian hard rock and heavy metal musicians about their early days in their respective bands, their experiences in making their way to the peak of their success and what happened after the grunge explosion hit plus where they are at now and how they look back on the eighties and early nineties. There are stories of harrowing winter road travels packed in a small touring van and the wild lifestyle that evolved around glam metal in particular. While the book doesn’t expound upon episodes of gratuitous debauchery, certain suggestions of youth-gone-wild are mentioned where artists are willing to offer a little insight. More importantly are the common trials shared by Canadian bands trying to make the big time.

For this book – remarkable for its subject matter (how many other books can you name that deal with the subject of Canadian hard rock and metal?) – Kelly interviews members of Coney Hatch, Helix, Headpins, Haywire, Harem Scarem, Slik Toxik, Sven Gali, Voivod, Sword, Lee Aaron, Sacrifice, Killer Dwarfs, Razor and more. Plus he recounts his own experiences as a youth first exposed to heavy metal, learning to play the guitar, the life on Younge Street, Toronto, and his own pursuit of heavy metal-dom into the nineties. It makes for a very entertaining read if you were/are a fan of Canadian hard rock and metal. That last point – the Canadian one – is very important because there is a strong sense of Canadian identity running throughout the book. Near the end, musicians are asked if being Canadian had any influence on their lives on the international scene and how they were regarded or treated as Canadian musicians abroad.

Finally, the book ties in the heavy metal arena with the hockey arena; musicians share their thoughts on how hockey and heavy metal are related in Canada and how the relationship is reflected in the life of a Canadian rocker.

If there are any cautionary points to make about this book, then there are three that I noticed. The first is that this is a very Canadian book and perhaps Europeans will be sympathetic but I suspect some Americans might be less so. As a Canadian who is proud of his country’s hard rock, heavy metal, and progressive rock output, I felt a glow of pride often while reading the book. But Canadian pride is often and personal thing and not something we shout about to the rest of the world. So I felt it would be a little humbling to sit next to an American reading this book. The second point is that this book is very Ontario/Toronto-centric. I felt most bands mentioned were from Ontario or on the periphery but western bands in particular received less mention. Not something to really complain about however as there was plenty for me to learn about from a Torontonian’s perspective. And it’s thanks to this book that I learned muscleman Thor was from Vancouver! Furthermore, Mr. Kelly’s life experiences as a metal head in the eighties are not so far from mine (we are only a year apart in age), and as Toronto’s Younge Street became like the Sunset Strip of the North, it was interesting to read about.

My biggest warning to any potential reader, however, is that you may feel tempted to go add some Canadian metal albums to your collections, and finding some of these like Sven Gali and Slik Toxik means tracking down expensive collector’s copies or finding used CDs in excellent condition. This means it can be a little expensive to satisfy the craving for Canuck metal that this book encourages.

“Metal On Ice” is published by Dundurn and is available on Amazon.ca for $14.98. It’s 208 pages and includes several pages of B&W images.

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