Early heavy metal bands such as Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, and Deep Purple attracted large audiences, though they were often critically reviled, a status common throughout the history of the genre. In the mid-1970s, Judas Priest helped spur the genre's evolution by discarding much of its blues influence; Motörhead introduced a punk rock sensibility and an increasing emphasis on speed. Bands in the New Wave of British Heavy Metal such as Iron Maiden followed in a similar vein. Before the end of the decade, heavy metal had attracted a worldwide following of fans known as "metalheads" or "headbangers".
In the 1980s, glam metal became a major commercial force with groups like Mötley Crüe. Underground scenes produced an array of more extreme, aggressive styles: thrash metal broke into the mainstream with bands such as Metallica, while other styles like death metal and black metal remain subcultural phenomena. Since the mid-1990s, popular styles such as nu metal, which often incorporates elements of funk and hip hop; and metalcore, which blends extreme metal with hardcore punk, have further expanded the definition of the genre.
The electric guitar and the sonic power that it projects through amplification has historically been the key element in heavy metal. Guitars are often played with distortion pedals through heavily overdriven tube amplifiers to create a thick, powerful, "heavy" sound. In the early 1970s, some popular metal groups began cofeaturing two guitarists. Leading bands such as Judas Priest and Iron Maiden followed this pattern of having two or three guitarists share the roles of both lead and rhythm guitar. A central element of much heavy metal is the guitar solo, a form of cadenza. As the genre developed, more intricate solos and riffs became an integral part of the style. Guitarists use sweep-picking, tapping, and other advanced techniques for rapid playing, and many styles of metal emphasize virtuosic displays.
The lead role of the guitar in heavy metal often collides with the traditional "frontman" or bandleader role of the vocalist, creating a musical tension as the two "contend for dominance" in a spirit of "affectionate rivalry". Heavy metal "demands the subordination of the voice" to the overall sound of the band. Reflecting metal's roots in the 1960s counterculture, an "explicit display of emotion" is required from the vocals as a sign of authenticity. Critic Simon Frith claims that the metal singer's "tone of voice" is more important than the lyrics. Metal vocals vary widely in style, from the multioctave, theatrical approach of Judas Priest's Rob Halford and Iron Maiden's Bruce Dickinson, to the gruff style of Motörhead's Lemmy and Metallica's James Hetfield, to the straight-out screaming and growling At the Gates' Tomas Lindberg, to the phlegm-clogged, possessed style of black metal singers such as Mayhem's Dead.
The prominent role of the bass is also key to the metal sound, and the interplay of bass and guitar is a central element. The bass guitar provides the low-end sound crucial to making the music "heavy". Metal basslines vary widely in complexity, from holding down a low pedal point as a foundation to doubling complex riffs and licks along with the lead and/or rhythm guitars. Some bands feature the bass as a lead instrument, an approach popularized by Metallica's Cliff Burton in the early 1980s. Metal bassists frequently use picks instead of fingerstyle plucking, to get a stronger, clearer articulation. A few use shred guitar–style techniques such as tapping and sweep picking. In some styles, such as thrash and death metal, the bass may be distorted with a bass overdrive pedal for a heavier, thicker sound. Nu metal as well as death metal bassists often use a five- or six-string bass (or a detuned instrument) with an extended lower range.
The essence of metal drumming is creating a loud, constant beat for the band using the "trifecta of speed, power, and precision". Metal drumming "requires an exceptional amount of endurance", and drummers have to develop "considerable speed, coordination, and dexterity...to play the intricate patterns" used in metal. A characteristic metal drumming technique is the cymbal choke, which consists of striking a cymbal and then immediately silencing it by grabbing it with the other hand (or, in some cases, the same striking hand), producing a burst of sound. The metal drum setup is generally much larger than those employed in other forms of rock music; in some cases, a "huge drum kit envelope[s] the whole of the backline" of the stage. Aside from the standard toms, bass drum, snare, and hi-hat, ride, and crash cymbals used in many rock drumkits, there is often a double bass drum, additional toms, a number of additional cymbals (e.g., splash and extra crash cymbals), and other instruments such as a cowbell.
In live performance, loudness—an "onslaught of sound," in Deena Weinstein's description—is considered vital. In his book Metalheads, Jeffrey Arnett refers to heavy metal concerts as "the sensory equivalent of war. Following the lead set by Jimi Hendrix, Cream and The Who, early heavy metal acts such as Blue Cheer set new benchmarks for volume. As Blue Cheer's Dick Peterson puts it, "All we knew was we wanted more power." Reviewing a Motörhead concert in 1977, Paul Sutcliffe noted how "excessive volume in particular figured into the band’s impact. Weinstein makes the case that in the same way that melody is the main element of pop and rhythm is the main focus of house music, powerful sound, timbre, and volume are the key elements of metal. She argues that the loudness is designed to "sweep the listener into the sound" and to provide a "shot of youthful vitality." Heavy metal's fixation on loudness was mocked in the rockumentary spoof This Is Spinal Tap, in which a metal guitarist claims to have modified his amplifiers to "go to eleven."
Brief, abrupt, and detached rhythmic cells are joined into rhythmic phrases with a distinctive, often jerky texture. These phrases are used to create rhythmic accompaniment and melodic figures called riffs, which help to establish thematic hooks. Heavy metal songs also use longer rhythmic figures such as whole note- or dotted quarter note-length chords in slow-tempo power ballads. The tempos in early heavy metal music tended to be "slow, even ponderous." By the late 1970s, however, metal bands were employing a wide variety of tempos. In the 2000s, metal tempos range from slow ballad tempos (quarter note = 60 beats per minute) to extremely fast blast beat tempos (quarter note = 350 beats per minute).
Traditional heavy metal tends to employ modal scales, in particular the Aeolian and Phrygian modes. Harmonically speaking, this means the genre typically incorporates modal chord progressions such as the Aeolian progressions I-VI-VII, I-VII-(VI), or I-VI-IV-VII and Phrygian progressions implying the relation between I and ♭II (I-♭II-I, I-♭II-III, or I-♭II-VII for example).
Aeolian harmony is used in songs such as Judas Priest's "Breaking the Law", Iron Maiden's "Hallowed Be Thy Name", and Accept's "Princess of the Dawn", each employing a I-VI-VII progression as its main riff. Phrygian harmony is used in songs such as Mercyful Fate's "Gypsy" (main riff I-♭II-I-VI-V), Megadeth's "Symphony of Destruction" (main riff built on the ♭II-I relation), and Sodom's "Remember the Fallen" (Introduction + main riff—the riff closing implies a Phrygian cadence: I-♭II-III).
Tritone and chromatism
Tense-sounding chromatic or tritone relationships are used in a number of metal chord progressions. The tritone, an interval spanning three whole tones—such as C and F#—was a forbidden dissonance in medieval ecclesiastical singing, which led monks to call it diabolus in musica—"the devil in music. Because of that original symbolic association, it came to be heard in Western cultural convention as "evil". Heavy metal has made extensive use of the tritone in guitar solos and riffs, such as in the beginning of "Black Sabbath".
Heavy metal songs often make extensive use of pedal point as a harmonic basis. A pedal point is a sustained tone, typically in the bass range, during which at least one foreign (i.e., dissonant) harmony is sounded in the other parts. Heavy metal riffs are frequently constructed over a persistent repeating note played on the low strings of the bass or rhythmic guitar, most usually on the E, A, and D strings. In other words, a single bass note—most frequently low E or A—is persistently repeated while some different chords are successively played, including chords that do not normally incorporate that bass note, which creates a sense of tension. An example is the opening riff of Judas Priest's "You've Got Another Thing Comin'". In this case, one guitar plays the pedal point in F#, while the second guitar plays the chords.
The appropriation of "classical" music by heavy metal musicians typically involves musical elements associated with the Baroque, Classical, and Romantic eras of art music. Deep Purple/Rainbow guitarist Ritchie Blackmore and Scorpions guitarist Uli Jon Roth began experimenting with musical figurations borrowed from classical music in the early 1970s. In the 1980s, guitarists Randy Rhoads and Yngwie Malmsteen used eighteenth-century Baroque and later classical compositions as models, inspiring neoclassical metal players including Michael Romeo, Michael Angelo Batio, and Tony MacAlpine.
Although a number of metal musicians cite classical composers as inspiration, heavy metal cannot be regarded as the modern descendant of classical music. Classical and metal are rooted in different cultural traditions and practices—classical in the art music tradition, metal in the popular music tradition. As musicologists Nicolas Cook and Nicola Dibben note, "Analyses of popular music also sometimes reveal the influence of 'art traditions.' An example is Walser’s linkage of heavy metal music with the ideologies and even some of the performance practices of nineteenth-century Romanticism. However, it would be clearly wrong to claim that traditions such as blues, rock, heavy metal, rap or dance music derive primarily from 'art music.' Heavy metal borrows only some aspects of classical music, such as motifs, melodies, and scales, rather than more complex features, such as counterpoint, polyphony, and classical structural forms. Heavy metal bands, including progressive and neoclassical metal bands, generally do not seek to observe the compositional and aesthetical exigencies of classical music.
Heavy metal songs often feature outlandish, fantasy-inspired lyrics, lending them an escapist quality. Iron Maiden's songs, for instance, were frequently inspired by mythology, fiction, and poetry, such as "Rime of the Ancient Mariner," based on the Samuel Taylor Coleridge poem. Other examples include Black Sabbath's "The Wizard," Megadeth's "The Conjuring" and "Five Magics," and Judas Priest's "Dreamer Deceiver." Other artists base their lyrics on war, nuclear annihilation, environmental issues, politics, and society or religion. Examples include Black Sabbath's "War Pigs," Ozzy Osbourne's "Killer of Giants," Metallica's ...And Justice for All, Iron Maiden's "2 Minutes to Midnight," Accept's "Balls to the Wall," and Megadeth's "Peace Sells." Death is a predominant theme in heavy metal, routinely featuring in the lyrics of such different bands as Black Sabbath, Slayer, and W.A.S.P.
The thematic content of heavy metal has long been a target of criticism. According to Jon Pareles, "Heavy metal's main subject matter is simple and virtually universal. With grunts, moans and subliterary lyrics, it celebrates...a party without limits.... [T]he bulk of the music is stylized and formulaic." Music critics have often deemed metal lyrics juvenile and banal, and others have objected to what they see as advocacy of misogyny and the occult. During the 1980s, the Parents Music Resource Center petitioned the U.S. Congress to regulate the popular music industry due to what the group asserted were objectionable lyrics, particularly those in heavy metal songs. In 1990, Judas Priest was sued by the parents of two young men who had shot themselves five years earlier, allegedly after hearing the subliminal statement "do it" in a Priest song. While the case attracted a great deal of media attention, it was ultimately dismissed.
As with much popular music, visual imagery plays a large role in heavy metal. In addition to its sound and lyrics, a heavy metal band's "image" is expressed in album sleeve art, stage sets, the clothes of the band, band logos, and music videos. Some early heavy metal acts, such as Alice Cooper and Kiss and some newer bands such as Slipknot, Marilyn Manson, and GWAR have become known as much for their outrageous performance personas and stage shows as for their music.
Down-the-back long hair, according to Weinstein, is the "most crucial distinguishing feature of metal fashion. Originally adopted from the hippie subculture, by the 1980s and 1990s heavy metal hair "symbolised the hate, angst and disenchantment of a generation that seemingly never felt at home," according to journalist Nader Rahman. Long hair gave members of the metal community "the power they needed to rebel against nothing in general.
The classic uniform of heavy metal fans consists of "blue jeans, black T-shirts, boots and black leather or jeans jackets.... T-shirts are generally emblazoned with the logos or other visual representations of favorite metal bands. In the mid-1970s, Judas Priest and Mötorhead helped establish elements of biker culture and leather fashion in the heavy metal scene. Metal fans also "appropriated elements from the S&M community (chains, metal studs, skulls, leather and crosses)." In the 1980s, a range of sources, from punk and goth music to horror films, influenced metal fashion. Many metal performers of the 1970s and 1980s used radically shaped and brightly colored instruments to enhance their stage appearance. Fashion and personal style was especially important for glam metal bands of the era. Performers typically wore long, dyed, hairspray-teased hair (hence the nickname, "hair metal"); makeup such as lipstick and eyeliner; gaudy clothing, including leopard-skin-printed shirts or vests and tight denim, leather, or spandex pants; and accessories such as headbands and jewelry. Pioneered by the heavy metal act X Japan in the late 1980s, bands in the Japanese movement known as visual kei—which includes many nonmetal groups—emphasize elaborate costumes, hair, and makeup.
Many metal musicians when performing live engage in headbanging, which involves rhythmically beating time with the head, often emphasized by long hair. The corna, or devil horns, hand gesture, also widespread, was popularized by vocalist Ronnie James Dio while with Black Sabbath and Dio. Gene Simmons of Kiss claims to have been the first to make the gesture in concert.
Attendees of metal concerts do not dance in the usual sense; Deena Weinstein has argued that this is due to the music's largely male audience and "extreme heterosexualist ideology." She identifies two primary body movements that substitute for dancing: headbanging and an arm thrust that is both a sign of appreciation and a rhythmic gesture. The performance of air guitar is popular among metal fans both at concerts and listening to records at home. Other concert audience activities include stage diving, crowd surfing, pushing and shoving in a chaotic mélée called moshing, and displaying the corna hand symbol.
Deena Weinstein argues that heavy metal has outlasted many other rock genres largely due to the emergence of an intense, exclusionary, strongly masculine subculture. While the metal fanbase is largely young, white, male, and blue-collar, the group is "tolerant of those outside its core demographic base who follow its codes of dress, appearance, and behavior.” Identification with the subculture is strengthened not only by the shared experience of concert-going and shared elements of fashion, but also by contributing to metal magazines and, more recently, websites.
The metal scene has been characterized as a "subculture of alienation", with its own code of authenticity. This code puts several demands on performers: they must appear both completely devoted to their music and loyal to the subculture that supports it; they must appear disinterested in mainstream appeal and radio hits; and they must never “sell out”. For the fans themselves, the code promotes “opposition to established authority, and separateness from the rest of society.” Scholars of metal have noted the tendency of fans to classify and reject some performers (and some other fans) as "poseurs" "who pretended to be part of the subculture, but who were deemed to lack authenticity and sincerity."
Metal historian Ian Christe describes what the components of the term mean in "hippiespeak": "heavy" is roughly synonymous with "potent" or "profound," and "metal" designates a certain type of mood, grinding and weighted as with metal. The word "heavy" in this sense was a basic element of beatnik and later countercultural slang, and references to "heavy music"—typically slower, more amplified variations of standard pop fare—were already common by the mid-1960s. Iron Butterfly's debut album, released in early 1968, was titled Heavy. The first recorded use of heavy metal is a reference to a motorcycle in the Steppenwolf song "Born to Be Wild," also released that year: "I like smoke and lightning/Heavy metal thunder/Racin' with the wind/And the feelin' that I'm under." A late, and disputed, claim about the source of the term was made by "Chas" Chandler, former manager of the Jimi Hendrix Experience. In a 1995 interview on the PBS program Rock and Roll, he asserted that heavy metal "was a term originated in a New York Times article reviewing a Jimi Hendrix performance," in which the author likened the event to "listening to heavy metal falling from the sky." A source for Chandler's claim has never been found.
The first documented uses of the phrase to describe a type of rock music are from reviews by critic Mike Saunders. In the November 12, 1970, issue of Rolling Stone, he commented on an album put out the previous year by the British band Humble Pie: "Safe As Yesterday Is, their first American release, proved that Humble Pie could be boring in lots of different ways. Here they were a noisy, unmelodic, heavy metal-leaden shit-rock band with the loud and noisy parts beyond doubt. There were a couple of nice songs...and one monumental pile of refuse." He described the band's latest, self-titled release as "more of the same 27th-rate heavy metal crap. In a review of Sir Lord Baltimore's Kingdom Come in the May 1971 Creem, Saunders wrote, "Sir Lord Baltimore seems to have down pat most all the best heavy metal tricks in the book. Creem critic Lester Bangs is credited with popularizing the term via his early 1970s essays on bands such as Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath. Through the decade, heavy metal was used by certain critics as a virtually automatic putdown. In 1979, lead New York Times popular music critic John Rockwell described what he called "heavy-metal rock" as "brutally aggressive music played mostly for minds clouded by drugs, and, in a different article, as "a crude exaggeration of rock basics that appeals to white teenagers.
The terms "heavy metal" and "hard rock" have often been used interchangeably, particularly in discussing bands of the 1970s, a period when the terms were largely synonymous. For example, the 1983 Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll includes this passage: "known for its aggressive blues-based hard-rock style, Aerosmith was the top American heavy-metal band of the mid-Seventies. Few would now characterize Aerosmith's classic sound, with its clear links to traditional rock and roll, as "heavy metal."
The combination of blues-rock with psychedelic rock formed much of the original basis for heavy metal. One of the most influential bands in forging the merger of genres was the power trio Cream, who derived a massive, heavy sound from unison riffing between guitarist Eric Clapton and bassist Jack Bruce, as well as Ginger Baker's double bass drumming. Their first two LPs, Fresh Cream (1966) and Disraeli Gears (1967), are regarded as essential prototypes for the future style. The Jimi Hendrix Experience's debut album, Are You Experienced (1967), was also highly influential. Hendrix's virtuosic technique would be emulated by many metal guitarists and the album's most successful single, "Purple Haze," is identified by some as the first heavy metal hit.
In January 1969, Led Zeppelin's self-titled debut album was released and reached number 10 on the Billboard album chart. In July, Zeppelin and a power trio with a Cream-inspired, but cruder sound, Grand Funk Railroad, played the Atlanta Pop Festival. That same month, another Cream-rooted trio led by Leslie West released Mountain, an album filled with heavy blues-rock guitar and roaring vocals. In August, the group—now itself dubbed Mountain—played an hour-long set at the Woodstock Festival. Grand Funk's debut album, On Time, also came out that month. In the fall, Led Zeppelin II went to number 1 and the album's single "Whole Lotta Love" hit number 4 on the Billboard pop chart. The metal revolution was under way. Led Zeppelin defined central aspects of the emerging genre, with Page's highly distorted guitar style and singer Robert Plant's dramatic, wailing vocals. Other bands, with a more consistently heavy, "purely" metal sound, would prove equally important in codifying the genre. The 1970 releases by Black Sabbath (Black Sabbath and Paranoid) and Deep Purple (In Rock) were crucial in this regard. Black Sabbath had developed a particularly heavy sound in part due to an industrial accident guitarist Tony Iommi suffered before cofounding the band. Unable to play normally, Iommi had to tune his guitar down for easier fretting and rely on power chords with their relatively simple fingering. Deep Purple had fluctuated between styles in its early years, but by 1969 vocalist Ian Gillan and guitarist Ritchie Blackmore had led the band toward the developing heavy metal style. In 1970, Black Sabbath and Deep Purple scored major UK chart hits with "Paranoid" and "Black Night," respectively. That same year, three other British bands released debut albums in a heavy metal mode: Uriah Heep with Very 'eavy... Very 'umble, UFO with UFO 1, and Black Widow with Sacrifice. Wishbone Ash, though not commonly identified as metal, introduced a dual-lead/rhythm-guitar style that many metal bands of the following generation would adopt. Budgie brought the new metal sound into a power trio context. The occult lyrics and imagery employed by Black Sabbath, Uriah Heep, and Black Widow would prove particularly influential; Led Zeppelin also began foregrounding such elements with its fourth album, released in 1971.
On the other side of the Atlantic, the trend-setting group was Grand Funk Railroad, "the most commercially successful American heavy-metal band from 1970 until they disbanded in 1976, [they] established the Seventies success formula: continuous touring. Other bands identified with metal emerged in the U.S., such as Dust (first LP in 1971), Blue Öyster Cult (1972), and Kiss (1974). In Germany, the Scorpions debuted with Lonesome Crow in 1972. Blackmore, who had emerged as a virtuoso soloist with Deep Purple's Machine Head (1972), quit the group in 1975 to form Rainbow. These bands also built audiences via constant touring and increasingly elaborate stage shows. As described above, there are arguments about whether these and other early bands truly qualify as "heavy metal" or simply as "hard rock." Those closer to the music's blues roots or placing greater emphasis on melody are now commonly ascribed the latter label. AC/DC, which debuted with High Voltage in 1975, is a prime example. The 1983 Rolling Stone encyclopedia entry begins, "Australian heavy-metal band AC/DC... Rock historian Clinton Walker writes, "Calling AC/DC a heavy metal band in the seventies was as inaccurate as it is today.... [They] were a rock'n'roll band that just happened to be heavy enough for metal. The issue is not only one of shifting definitions, but also a persistent distinction between musical style and audience identification: Ian Christe describes how the band "became the stepping-stone that led huge numbers of hard rock fans into heavy metal perdition.
audience was ... left to scavenge for sounds with similar impact. By the mid-1970s, heavy metal aesthetic could be spotted, like a mythical beast, in the moody bass and complex dual guitars of Thin Lizzy, in the stagecraft of Alice Cooper, in the sizzling guitar and showy vocals of Queen, and in the thundering medieval questions of Rainbow .... Judas Priest arrived to unify and amplify these diverse highlights from hard rock's sonic palette. For the first time, heavy metal became a true genre unto itself.Though Judas Priest did not have a top 40 album in the U.S. until 1980, for many it was the definitive post-Sabbath heavy metal band; its twin-guitar attack, featuring rapid tempos and a nonbluesy, more cleanly metallic sound, was a major influence on later acts. While heavy metal was growing in popularity, most critics were not enamored of the music. Objections were raised to metal's adoption of visual spectacle and other trappings of commercial artifice, but the main offense was its perceived musical and lyrical vacuity: reviewing a Black Sabbath album in the early 1970s, leading critic Robert Christgau described it as "dull and decadent...dim-witted, amoral exploitation.
Punk rock emerged in the mid-1970s as a reaction against contemporary social conditions as well as what was perceived as the overindulgent, overproduced rock music of the time, including heavy metal. Sales of heavy metal records declined sharply in the late 1970s in the face of punk, disco, and more mainstream rock. With the major labels fixated on punk, many newer British heavy metal bands were inspired by the movement's aggressive, high-energy sound and "lo-fi", do it yourself ethos. Underground metal bands began putting out cheaply recorded releases independently to small, devoted audiences. Motörhead, founded in 1975, was the first important band to straddle the punk/metal divide. With the explosion of punk in 1977, others followed. British music papers such as the NME and Sounds took notice, with Sounds writer Geoff Barton christening the movement the "New Wave of British Heavy Metal. NWOBHM bands including Iron Maiden, Saxon, and Def Leppard reenergized the heavy metal genre. Following the lead set by Judas Priest and Motörhead, they toughened up the sound, reduced its blues elements, and emphasized increasingly fast tempos. In 1980, NWOBHM broke into the mainstream, as albums by Iron Maiden and Saxon, as well as Motörhead, reached the British top 10. Though less commercially successful, other NWOBHM bands such as Venom and Diamond Head would have a significant influence on metal's development. In 1981, Motörhead became the first of this new breed of metal bands to top the UK charts with No Sleep 'til Hammersmith.
The first generation of metal bands was ceding the limelight. Deep Purple had broken up soon after Blackmore's departure in 1975, and Led Zeppelin broke up following drummer John Bonham's death in 1980. Black Sabbath was routinely upstaged in concert by its opening act, the Los Angeles band Van Halen. Eddie Van Halen established himself as one of the leading metal guitar virtuosos of the era—his solo on "Eruption," from the band's self-titled 1978 album, is considered a milestone. Randy Rhoads and Yngwie Malmsteen also became famed virtuosos, associated with what would be known as the neoclassical metal style. The adoption of classical elements had been spearheaded by Blackmore and the Scorpions' Uli Jon Roth; this next generation progressed to occasionally using classical nylon-stringed guitars, as Rhoads does on "Dee" from former Sabbath lead singer Ozzy Osbourne's first solo album, Blizzard of Ozz (1980). Inspired by Van Halen's success, a metal scene began to develop in Southern California during the late 1970s. Based around the clubs of L.A.'s Sunset Strip, bands such as Quiet Riot, Ratt, Mötley Crüe, and W.A.S.P. were influenced by traditional heavy metal of the earlier 1970s and incorporated the theatrics (and sometimes makeup) of glam rock acts such as Alice Cooper and Kiss. The lyrics of these glam metal bands characteristically emphasized hedonism and wild behavior. Musically, the style was distinguished by rapid-fire shred guitar solos, anthemic choruses, and a relatively pop-oriented melodic approach. The glam metal movement—along with similarly styled acts such as New York's Twisted Sister—became a major force in metal and the wider spectrum of rock music.
In the wake of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal and Judas Priest's breakthrough British Steel (1980), heavy metal became increasingly popular in the early 1980s. Many metal artists benefited from the exposure they received on MTV, which began airing in 1981—sales often soared if a band's videos screened on the channel. Def Leppard's videos for Pyromania (1983) made them superstars in America and Quiet Riot became the first domestic heavy metal band to top the Billboard chart with Metal Health (1983). One of the seminal events in metal's growing popularity was the 1983 US Festival in California, where the "heavy metal day" featuring Ozzy Osbourne, Van Halen, Scorpions, Mötley Crüe, Judas Priest, and others drew the largest audiences of the three-day event. Between 1983 and 1984, heavy metal went from an 8 percent to a 20 percent share of all recordings sold in the U.S. Several major professional magazines devoted to the genre were launched, including Kerrang! (in 1981) and Metal Hammer (in 1984), as well as a host of fan journals. In 1985, Billboard declared, "Metal has broadened its audience base. Metal music is no longer the exclusive domain of male teenagers. The metal audience has become older (college-aged), younger (pre-teen), and more female.
By the mid-1980s, glam metal was a dominant presence on the U.S. charts, music television, and the arena concert circuit. New bands such as L.A.'s Warrant and acts from the East Coast like Poison and Cinderella became major draws, while Mötley Crüe and Ratt remained very popular. Bridging the stylistic gap between hard rock and glam metal, New Jersey's Bon Jovi became enormously successful with its third album, Slippery When Wet (1986). In 1987, MTV launched a show, Headbanger's Ball, devoted exclusively to heavy metal videos. However, the metal audience had begun to factionalize, with those in many underground metal scenes favoring more extreme sounds and disparaging the popular style as "lite metal" or "hair metal.
One band that reached diverse audiences was Guns N' Roses. In contrast to their glam metal contemporaries in L.A., they were seen as much rawer and more dangerous. With the release of their chart-topping Appetite for Destruction (1987), they "recharged and almost single-handedly sustained the Sunset Strip sleaze system for several years. The following year, Jane's Addiction emerged from the same L.A. hard-rock club scene with its major label debut, Nothing's Shocking. Reviewing the album, Rolling Stone declared, "as much as any band in existence, Jane's Addiction is the true heir to Led Zeppelin. The group was one of the first to be identified with the "alternative metal" trend that would come to the fore in the next decade. Meanwhile, new bands such as New York's Winger and New Jersey's Skid Row sustained the popularity of the glam metal style.
The subgenre was popularized by the "Big Four of Thrash": Metallica, Anthrax, Megadeth, and Slayer. Three German bands, Kreator, Sodom, and Destruction, played a central role in bringing the style to Europe. Others, including San Francisco's Testament and Exodus, New Jersey's Overkill, and Brazil's Sepultura, also had a significant impact. While thrash began as an underground scene, and remained largely that for almost a decade, the leading bands in the movement began to reach a wider audience. Metallica brought the sound into the top 40 of the Billboard album chart in 1986 with Master of Puppets; two years later, the band's ...And Justice for All hit number 6, while Megadeth and Anthrax had top 40 records.
Though less commercially successful than the rest of the Big Four, Slayer released one of the genre's definitive records: Reign in Blood (1986) was described by Kerrang! as the "heaviest album of all time." Two decades later, Metal Hammer named it the best album of the preceding twenty years. Slayer attracted a following among far-right skinheads, and accusations of promoting violence and Nazi themes have dogged the band. In the early 1990s, thrash achieved breakout success, challenging and redefining the metal mainstream. Metallica's self-titled 1991 album topped the Billboard chart, Megadeth's Countdown to Extinction (1992) hit number 2, Anthrax and Slayer cracked the top 10, and albums by regional bands such as Testament and Sepultura entered the top 100.
Thrash soon began to evolve and split into more extreme metal genres. "Slayer's music was directly responsible for the rise of death metal", according to MTV News. The NWOBHM band Venom was also an important progenitor. The death metal movement in both North America and Europe adopted and emphasized the elements of blasphemy and diabolism employed by such acts. Florida's Death and the Bay Area's Possessed are recognized as seminal bands in the style. Both groups have been credited with inspiring the subgenre's name, the latter via its 1984 demo Death Metal and the song "Death Metal," from its 1985 debut album Seven Churches (1985).
Death metal utilizes the speed and aggression of both thrash and hardcore, fused with lyrics preoccupied with Z-grade slasher movie violence and Satanism. Vocals are typically bleak, involving guttural "death growls", high-pitched screaming, the "death rasp", and other uncommon techniques. Complementing the deep, aggressive vocal style are downtuned, highly distorted guitars and extremely fast percussion, often with rapid double bass drumming and "wall of sound"–style blast beats. Frequent tempo and time signature changes and syncopation are also typical.
Death metal, like thrash metal, generally rejects the theatrics of earlier metal styles, opting instead for an everyday look of ripped jeans and plain leather jackets. One major exception to this rule was Deicide's Glen Benton, who branded an inverted cross on his forehead and wore armor on stage. Morbid Angel adopted neo-fascist imagery. These two bands, along with Death and Obituary, were leaders of the major death metal scene that emerged in Florida in the mid-1980s. In the UK, the related style of grindcore, led by bands such as Napalm Death and Extreme Noise Terror, emerged out of the anarcho-punk movement. A large Scandinavian death metal scene, with bands such as Sweden's Entombed and Dismember, began to develop as well. Out of this evolved a melodic death metal sound, typified by Swedish bands such as In Flames and Dark Tranquillity and Finland's Children of Bodom and Kalmah.
The first wave of black metal emerged in Europe in the early and mid-1980s, led by Britain's Venom, Denmark's Mercyful Fate, Switzerland's Hellhammer and Celtic Frost, and Sweden's Bathory. By the late 1980s, Norwegian bands such as Mayhem, Burzum, and Emperor were heading a second wave. Black metal varies considerably in style and production quality, although most bands emphasize shrieked and growled vocals, highly distorted guitars frequently played with rapid tremolo picking, a "dark" atmosphere and intentionally lo-fi production, with ambient noise and background hiss. Satanic themes are common in black metal, though many bands take inspiration from ancient paganism, promoting a return to pre-Christian values. Numerous black metal bands also "experiment with sounds from all possible forms of metal, folk, classical music, electronica and avant-garde." Darkthrone drummer Fenriz explains, "It had something to do with production, lyrics, the way they dressed and a commitment to making ugly, raw, grim stuff. There wasn't a generic sound."
By 1990, Mayhem was regularly wearing corpsepaint; many other black metal acts also adopted the look. Bathory inspired the Viking metal and folk metal movements and Immortal brought blast beats to the fore. Some bands in the Scandinavian black metal scene became associated with considerable violence in the early 1990s, with Mayhem and Burzum linked to church burnings. Growing commercial hype around death metal generated a backlash; beginning in Norway, much of the Scandinavian metal underground shifted to support a black metal scene that resisted being co-opted by the commercial metal industry. According to Gorgoroth vocalist Gaahl, "Black Metal was never meant to reach an audience.... [We] had a common enemy which was, of course, Christianity, socialism and everything that democracy stands for."
By 1992, black metal scenes had begun to emerge in areas outside Scandinavia, including Germany, France, and Poland. The 1993 murder of Mayhem's Euronymous by Burzum's Varg Vikernes provoked intensive media coverage. Around 1996, when many in the scene felt the genre was stagnating, several key bands, including Burzum and Finland's Beherit, moved toward an ambient style, while symphonic black metal was explored by Sweden's Tiamat and Switzerland's Samael. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Norway's Dimmu Borgir brought black metal closer to the mainstream, as did Cradle of Filth, which Metal Hammer calls England's most successful metal band since Iron Maiden. Critically lauded contemporary acts include Sweden's traditionalist Watain, France's more experimental Deathspell Omega, and America's one-man Xasthur.
During the late 1980s, the power metal scene came together largely in reaction to the harshness of death and black metal. Though a relatively underground style in North America, it enjoys wide popularity in Europe, Japan, and South America. Power metal focuses on upbeat, epic melodies and themes that "appeal to the listener's sense of valor and loveliness. The prototype for the sound was established in the mid- to late 1980s by Germany's Helloween, which combined the power riffs, melodic approach, and high-pitched, "clean" singing style of bands like Judas Priest and Iron Maiden with thrash's speed and energy, "crystalliz[ing] the sonic ingredients of what is now known as power metal. New York's Manowar and Virgin Steele were pioneering American bands. Yngwie J. Malmsteen's Rising Force (1984) was crucial in popularizing the ultrafast electric guitar style known as "shredding" as well as the merger of metal with classical music elements, developments that have strongly influenced power metal. Traditional power metal bands like Sweden's HammerFall, England's DragonForce, and Florida's Iced Earth have a sound clearly indebted to the classic NWOBHM style. Many power metal bands such as Florida's Kamelot, Finland's Nightwish, Italy's Rhapsody of Fire, and Russia's Catharsis feature a keyboard-based "symphonic" sound, sometimes employing orchestras and opera singers. Power metal has built a strong fanbase in Japan and South America, where bands like Brazil's Angra and Argentina's Rata Blanca are popular.
Closely related to power metal is progressive metal, which adopts the complex compositional approach of bands like Rush and King Crimson. This style emerged in the United States in the early and mid-1980s, with innovators such as Queensrÿche, Fates Warning, and Dream Theater. The mix of the progressive and power metal sounds is typified by New Jersey's Symphony X, whose guitarist Michael Romeo is among the most recognized of latter-day shredders.
The 1991 release of Forest of Equilibrium, the debut album by UK band Cathedral, helped spark a new wave of doom metal. During the same period, the doom-death fusion style of British bands Paradise Lost, My Dying Bride, and Anathema gave rise to European gothic metal, with its signature dual-vocalist arrangements, exemplified by Norway's Theatre of Tragedy and Tristania. New York's Type O Negative introduced an American take on the style. Led by the Swedish band Therion's incorporation of classical elements, gothic metal in turn spawned a symphonic metal movement including Australia's Virgin Black, Finland's Nightwish, and the Netherlands' Within Temptation and After Forever.
In the United States, sludge metal, mixing doom and hardcore, emerged in the late 1980s—Eyehategod and Crowbar were leaders in a major Louisiana sludge scene. Early in the next decade, California's Kyuss and Sleep, inspired by the earlier doom metal bands, spearheaded the rise of stoner metal, while Seattle's Earth helped develop the drone metal subgenre. The late 1990s saw new bands form such as the Los Angeles–based Goatsnake, with a classic stoner/doom sound, and Sunn O))), which crosses lines between doom, drone, and dark ambient metal—the New York Times has compared their sound to an "Indian raga in the middle of an earthquake".
Glam metal fell out of favor due not only to the success of grunge, but also because of the growing popularity of the more aggressive sound typified by Metallica and the post-thrash groove metal of Pantera and White Zombie. A few new, unambiguously metal bands had commercial success during the first half of the decade—Pantera's Far Beyond Driven topped the Billboard chart in 1994—but, "In the dull eyes of the mainstream, metal was dead. Some bands tried to adapt to the new musical landscape. Metallica revamped its image: the band members cut their hair and, in 1996, headlined the alternative musical festival Lollapalooza founded by Jane's Addiction singer Perry Farrell. While this prompted a backlash among some long-time fans, Metallica remained one of the most successful bands in the world into the new century.
Like Jane's Addiction, many of the most popular early 1990s groups with roots in heavy metal fall under the umbrella term "alternative metal." The label was applied to a wide spectrum of acts that fused metal with different styles, not all associated with alternative rock. Acts labeled alternative metal included the Seattle grunge scene's Alice in Chains and groups drawing on multiple styles: Faith No More combined their alternative rock sound with punk, funk, metal, and hip hop; Primus joined elements of funk, punk, thrash metal, and experimental music. Tool mixed metal and progressive rock; Ministry began incorporating metal into its industrial sound; and Marilyn Manson went down a similar route, while also employing shock effects of the sort popularized by Alice Cooper. Alternative metal artists, though they did not represent a cohesive scene, were united by their willingness to experiment with the metal genre and their rejection of glam metal aesthetics (with the stagecraft of Marilyn Manson and White Zombie—also identified with alt-metal—significant, if partial, exceptions). Alternative metal's mix of styles and sounds represented "the colorful results of metal opening up to face the outside world.
In the mid- and late 1990s came a new wave of U.S. metal groups inspired by the alternative metal bands and their mix of genres. Dubbed "nu metal", bands such as P.O.D., Korn, Papa Roach, Limp Bizkit, Flaw, Slipknot, and Linkin Park incorporated elements ranging from death metal to hip hop, often including DJs and rap-style vocals. The mix demonstrated that "pancultural metal could pay off. Nu metal gained mainstream success through heavy MTV rotation and Ozzy Osbourne's 1996 introduction of Ozzfest, which led the media to talk of a resurgence of heavy metal. That year, Korn released Life Is Peachy, the first nu metal album to reach the top 10; two years later, the band's Follow the Leader hit number 1. In 1999, Billboard noted that there were more than 500 specialty metal radio shows in the U.S., nearly three times as many as ten years before. While nu metal was widely popular early in the 2000s, traditional metal fans did not fully embrace the style. By early 2003, the movement had clearly passed its peak, though several nu metal acts, as well as bands with related styles, such as System of a Down, retained substantial followings.
The term "retro-metal" has been applied to such bands as England's The Darkness and Australia's Wolfmother. The Darkness's Permission to Land (2003), described as an "eerily realistic simulation of '80s metal and '70s glam," topped the UK charts, going quintuple platinum. One Way Ticket To Hell And Back (2005) reached number 11. Wolfmother's self-titled 2005 debut album had "Deep Purple-ish organs," "Jimmy Page-worthy chordal riffing," and lead singer Andrew Stockdale howling "notes that Robert Plant can't reach anymore." "Woman," a track from the album, won for Best Hard Rock Performance at the 2007 Grammy Awards. Slayer's "Eyes of the Insane" won for Best Metal Performance in 2007; their "Final Six" won the same award in 2008.
In continental Europe, especially Germany and Scandinavia, metal continues to be broadly popular. Well-established British acts such as Judas Priest and Iron Maiden continue to have chart success on the continent, as do a range of local groups. In Germany, Western Europe's largest music market, several continental metal bands placed multiple albums in the top 20 of the charts between 2003 and 2008, including Finnish melodic death metal band Children of Bodom, Norwegian symphonic extreme metal act Dimmu Borgir, and two power metal groups, Germany's Blind Guardian and Sweden's HammerFall. The Swedish melodic death metal act In Flames took both Come Clarity (2006) and A Sense of Purpose (2008) to number 6 in Germany; each album topped the Swedish charts.