Wednesday, February 8, 2006

A History of Heavy Metal Part Three: Rock of Ages

The release of Judas Priest's second album, Second Wings of Destiny, is widely believed to have sparked the New Wave of British Heavy Metal (also known by the abbreviation NWOBHM). While there was a great diversity of styles within the NWOBHM, the bands within the movement were largely characterised by the loudness of their music and its speed (they played faster than Black Sabbath ever did). Most of the bands also had an idealised working class image (no surprise given Judas Priest's origins in Birmingham and Iron Maiden's origins in East London).

Aside from Judas Priest, perhaps the most important band to emerge from the New Wave of British Heavy Metal was Iron Maiden. The band was formed in London by bassist Steve Harris, who had previously been with Gypsy's Kiss and Smiler, and guitarist Dave Murray. Like Judas Priest, Iron Maiden's sound is characterised by dual lead guitars. In Iron Maiden's case, however, it is also characterised by staccato rhythms and a basis in the blues. The band was obviously influenced by earlier British metal bands, such as Black Sabbath and Judas Priest. Their first album, Iron Maiden, released in 1980, was a success. It was with their second album, Killers, released in 1981, that their success was cemented. They have continued to be one of the major heavy metal bands since that time. One thing that has set Iron Maiden apart is the subject matter of their songs. Like Blue Oyster Cult, they often draw upon fantasy, science fiction, and even history for inspiration. What may be their best known song, "The Trooper," has its basis in Napoleonic warfare. From their first album, "Phantom of the Opera," deals with the famous character of the same name. Among their most famous songs is one based on the movie The Wicker Man. If it is doubted that Iron Maiden are genuine geeks, then one need look no further than the song "The Prisoner," based on the TV series of the same name and complete with the show's spoken introduction!

While Iron Maiden may well have been the most important heavy metal band to emerge from the British New Wave of Heavy Metal, they were by no means the most successful. That honour would go to Def Leppard. While Iron Maiden was a heavy metal band more in the Judas Priest mould, Def Leppard drew more upon traditional rock, glam rock, and AOR. In fact, it has been a matter of debate since the band debuted as to whether they are heavy metal or hard rock. My own thought is that whether Def Leppard is heavy metal or hard rock depends on the album or the song one is talking about. Regardless, the band was formed in 1977 by Rick Savage, Pete Willis, and Tony Kenning. Their first album On Through the Night, released in March 1980, could perhaps best be described as hard rock. The album reached the UK's top 15, although it did not perform well in the United States. Their second album, High 'N' Dry, released in 1982, was more firmly heavy metal. It also brought the band their first real attention in the United States. It was with their third album, Pyromania, that Def Leppard was propelled to rock superstardom. Another album that can be considered heavy metal, the album featured the hit single "Photograph" and was an enormous success in the United States (although they were virtually ignored in their native UK). Following an accident in which drummer Rick Allen lost an arm, the band would not release their fourth album, Hysteria, until 1987. It was the first Def Lepp album to do well in the UK since their first album and was a hit in the United States as well. The album also marked a shift from the heavy metal style of their second and third albums. While some songs ("Women") are heavy metal, others ("Pour Some Sugar on Me") seem to me to be hard rock. With subsequent albums Def Leppard would move more towards hard rock than heavy metal. Regardless, they would have an enormous impact on heavy metal. Alongside Kiss and the hard rock band Van Halen, they would influence the pop metal bands that would arise in America later in the decade.

While Def Leppard would be an undoubted commercial success, Motorhead would not be. Formed in 1975 by Lemmy Kilmister (formerly of Hawkwind), Motorhead utilised a dual guitar set up and tended to play their music very fast. In many respects, they were a forerunner of speed metal or thrash metal. Their self titled debut was released in 1977. By the early 80s they would be hitting the British top 40, although in the United States they largely remained a cult band. Their popularity would fade even more in the Nineties, although they have maintained a loyal following for their entire history. Indeed, the fact that they foresaw thrash metal is enough to cement their place in rock history.

Of course, while the NWOBHM was taking place, it would be a mistake to think that there were not other heavy metal bands forming elsewhere. Among the most important heavy metal bands in the history of the subgenre formed not in the UK or U.S., but in Hanover, Germany. Scorpions can trace their history back to 1969 when Rudolf Schenker, his brother Michael, and Klaus Meine formed a band. The original Scorpions would release one album (Lonesome Crow in 1972) and break up, but Rudolf Schenker and vocalist Klaus Meine would later join the band Dawn Road. That band would become a new (and current) version of Scorpions. Although successuful in Europe, success in the United States eluded them until the release of Lovedrive in 1979, which reached #55 on the Billboard album charts. Subsequent albums also did well in America until the release of Love at First Sting in 1984, which firmly established Scorpions as one of the top heavy metal bands even in the States. Although they reached the peak of their popularity, Scorpions continue to record and still have a worldwide following. Their style was similar in many respects to that of the NWOBHM, with an additional emphasis on the rhythm section.

While Scorpions' career was underway in Germany, a group arose in America that was in some respects similar to the bands of the British New Wave of Heavy Metal. Manowar was formed by Joey DiMaio, a pyrotechnic for Black Sabbath, guitarist Ross the Boss (then playing with Black Sabbath support band Shakin Street), vocalist Eric Adams, and drummer Donnie Hamzik in 1980. It was with their third album, Hail to England, that the band started to attract attention. They were named by The Guinness Book Of World Records as the world's loudest band not long after the album's release. Indeed, it should be no surprise that Manowar should be loud. Their sound could be aptly described as epic and was heavy influenced by the music of Wagner. Manowar aslo differed from other heavy metal bands in that they believed that heavy metal should be uplifting. They preferred to write about heroes than sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll. Indeed, perhaps only Manowar could write a 28 minute song on the Greek hero Achilles... Manowar has never been a commercial success, although they have always maintained a loyal cult following. They are still recording to this day and still boast a legion of fans.

The New Wave of British Heavy Metal also produced a slough of other bands, ranging from Saxon to Girlschool to Venom to Grim Reaper (who would be the nadir of heavy metal if not for the American pop metal bands...). While the NWBHM was under way, however, there were other developments in heavy metal. There had been classical influences in the subgenre ever since heavy metal had began. Indeed, they are noticeable in several Deep Purple songs dating from the early Seventies. By the late Seventies and early Eighties, however, the influence became more pronounced. Although not a heavy metal artist, guitarist Eddie Van Halen had started experimenting with classical guitar as early as Van Halen's first album. Heavy metal artists followed Van Halen's lead. Among the earliest such artists was Swedish guitarist Yngwe Malmsteen. Playing with various bands in the early Eighties, Malmsteen released a solo album Rising Force in 1984. Yngwe would be followed in utilising classical techniques by the rise of progressive metal.

Progressive metal is essentially a cross between progressive rock (which had used classical techniques from the beginning--King Crimson and Yes are examples of the genre) and heavy metal. The prime example of progressive metal is the band Queensryche. The group was formed in Bellevue, Washington by Chris DeGarmo and Michael Wilton in 1981. By 1983 they released an EP, Queen of the Ryche, on their own label. Later that year they signed with EMI. Their self titled debut album would peak at #81 on the Billboard album charts. It was their album Rage for Order, released in 1986 that brought them to the attention of the public. The song "Gonna Get Close to You" received a good deal of airplay. Their breakthrough effort, however, was the concept album Operation: Mindcrime released in 1988. Similar to The Manchurian Candidate, Operation: Mindcrime centred on Nikki, a drug addict brainwashed by the sinister Dr. X into peforming assassinations. It peaked at #50 on the Billboard charts, while the track "I Don't Believe in Love" received a good deal of airplay. Queensryche continued to be popular following the release of Operation: Mindcrime, although their popularity faltered in the Nineties like so many other metal bands. They are still together and still recording.

Progressive metal would produce other bands in the Eighties, although none as well known as Queensryche. Even within progressive metal styles could vary. Dream Theater remained closer to the progressive rock bands, such as Emerson, Lake, and Palmer, in sound. The band Fates Warning tended to sound more like metal bands such as Iron Maiden. At the other end of the spectrum is King's X, who tended to be more melodic and to draw more upon mainstream rock.

With the British New Wave of Heavy Metal underway and classical influences creeping into heavy metal, something unexpected would happen in the early Eighties. After years of being just one of a number of rock subgnres, heavy metal would soar in popularity. For much of the decade, heavy metal would be one of the most popular musical forms around. And the subgenre would spawn yet even more subgenres of its own.

To be continued...

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