Origins of Heavy Metal

Music has always been malleable to the course of our history, shaping itself according to what the people were going through and what they wanted. Heavy Metal was no different. With the establishment of the genre from bands like Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple (AKA ‘The Unholy Trinity’), Heavy Metal laid its roots to the monstrosity of guitar riffs, hard hitting drums, and anti cultural themes. Aggression, darkness, and an overall new sound was the quintessential flavor of Metal. But in a decade, something new happened. The genre morphed into an innovation of novelty in the North American regions, giving us a new sound, a new feel, and new messages. Young bands with the boiling blood of angry youth had something to say. A new genre that would dominate (or I should say destroy!), the 80s was born – Thrash Metal!

Unlike Baby-Boomers, who benefited from the post-WWII economic boom in the US, GenX-ers faced a tough economy during their youth in the US and UK. Domestic instability and economic depressions in the families, characterized the childhood of such individuals. The dissatisfied youth preferred music with darker topics and harsher sounds. But this was not the birth of thrash, not yet! This influenced the musical movement every metalhead is familiar with! The New Wave of British Heavy Metal, or simply the N.W.O.B.H.M. The initial tide of the N.W.O.B.H.M was put forth by big names like Iron Maiden and Judas Priest. Harmonized guitars, upbeat drums, and offbeat themes defined them. Like any generational entity, Heavy Metal had its family too. When we have such “Gods” and “elders” producing such art, the “kids” yearned for and garnered inspiration. Soon, the act of four young high school kids, meeting every evening in a garage and playing their hearts out became a staple and thrash was born!

What is the thrash sound and how exactly did it come up? If this question lingers in your mind, then here is the answer- a consequence! In a simple-single word, thrash was a consequence of many aspects. Musically, the popular hardcore punk scene in LA, USA (entailing bands like Black Flag) and the N.W.O.B.H.M bands met with a wild fusion to create a fast and angry vibe in metal music. Culturally, this also satiated the anger of the youth due to those financial and familial issues. Culture and Music were thus the parental aspects of thrash. These angry “kids” saw that such a fusion was a great way to express their emotions and came up with the soundprint of this genre. Without diving into the technicalities, we can conclude that it was indeed a lot of experimentation with guitar tones and techniques that gave thrash the voice. Now that we have a basic understanding of the nucleus of this genre, it’s time to give credit to those “kids” who actually sparked this. Needless to say, 40 years and some of these “kids” have still not stopped! Let us zoom into the west coast of the USA, into LA and San Francisco.

It was 1981, and a group of kids had formed a band called Leather Charm. Their song “Hit The Lights” was up and ready, but they disbanded. Little did we know that the band’s singer would go on with this venture. This young man (who was about my present age – 19), was a high school kid, more of a chair warmer. He worked in sticker factories and spent time trucking, but guitar and singing were his ways of escaping from not just the monotony of his life but also the repercussions of his troubled childhood. While he was “riffing,” genius songs of new sounds were in the works. He would soon go on to form a new band with a Danish drummer, a lead guitarist, and a bassist. This man was none other than James Hetfield and Metallica was born! Similarly, we had another bunch of young men, with two prominent guitarists- Gary Holt and Kirk Hammett, “bonded by blood” in a band called Exodus. These two bands were responsible for turning the heads of The Bay Area Scene to the new sound. The sound now channeled to more bands due to the friendship between these musicians and unity propagated thrash. One guitar player knew 2 other drummers and 1 bassist from school, who in turn knew a fellow soccer player who played guitar, who in turn knew a man who “owned many guitars” and so on. Word of mouth and friendship gave birth to many other famous thrash bands like SOD, Possessed, Dark Angel, Carnivore, etc. The Burton-Hammett friendship was a famous one for instance. This way, thrash became a communal thing where one metalhead walking in the streets in the morning could throw horns at another and grab a drink with him at night after a Metallica show in a club. The man who “owned many guitars” was a son of a cop and jammed with many musicians. He once met another player named Jeff in a jam venue. This man was Kerry King and co-founded Slayer, another HUGE name. Headliners like Metallica, Exodus, and then Slayer, followed by a plethora of other bands built a thrash kingdom in the Bay Area.

The music industry is a business, but Thrash was a brotherhood! Yes, business aspects did come up, but the “marketing” of thrash was not directly and primarily put forth by labels. Fanzines in the underground came up and these were initially responsible for “marketing” bands. Bands with “cool-looking” (but not posers!) outfits were the faces of the zines and caught local popularity. “Whiplash” was a famous zine and featured Metallica and some of their setlists in local clubs. As bands “graduated” from playing in clubs to the studios to finally show the world of their thrash, independent Record Labels such as Megaforce, Metal Blade, and Noise supported the bands. The biggest breakouts (at that time) for thrash with Metallica’s Kill ‘Em All and Slayer’s Show No Mercy were accelerated by Megaforce and Metal Blade. As described in the documentary “Murder In The Front Row” these albums (along with Exodus’s Bonded By Blood) were the first albums which carved the genre into the world. By now, the growth of thrash was going up. All the other bands were getting their shots in the game too. The initial years of the 80s saw thrash’s first wave.

The following years saw an explosion in the popularity of Metallica and Slayer. The consecutive albums defined the genre more deeply than before. Megadeth was born and New York scene’s Anthrax were soon to join the hub too. The year 1986 saw pioneering albums from these bands and gave us the concept of The Big 4. Each of these bands were now capable of touring and they were even shocked to be welcomed at international borders like Europe. Thrash was world famous now! The second wave of thrash went on to come up and was even followed by the third wave. More famous bands like Testament, Overkill, Havoc, Municipal Waste, etc were coming up. As we proceeded to the end of the 80s, Metallica and Slayer were economy monsters and had found commercial success like no one else. The thrash scene was still present, but touring life was rough and competition was peaking. New bands were constantly coming up, but many were weeded out. By the 90s, thrash was no longer in the monstrosity it initially was at. The upheaval was only depending on The Big 4, and mainly on Metallica.

Thrash may have been out of the scene, but thrash is community, thrash is family, thrash is emotion, and thrash is brotherhood. In reality, none of these can be killed as they are ingrained within us. Want proof? The same “kids” are still “thrashing” arenas and venues every year, even after 40 years. We may not be playing on the radio, but as long as we have another brother raising horns at us, the brotherhood lives, and it will, forever! Long live THRASH METAL!!!

Namit Riffs.

Heavy metal (or simply metal) is a rock genre that developed in the late 1960s and early 1970s, largely in the United Kingdom and the United States. With blues-rock and psychedelic rock as their roots, the bands that created heavy metal developed a massive, full-bodied sound, characterized by a saturated, distorted amplifier timbre, low guitar strings to create riffs, and the exploration of lower-toned sonorities, giving a sombre air to the compositions. Allmusic states that “of all rock ‘n’ roll formats, heavy metal is the most extreme form in terms of volume, intensity and theatricality.

Bands such as Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple and Black Sabbath were inspirations to early Metal bands and attracted a large audience, despite often being disdained by critics, a common fact throughout the genre’s history. In the mid-1970s, Judas Priest helped drive the evolution of the genre by suppressing much of the existing blues influence; Motörhead introduced punk rock sensibilities and an increasing emphasis on speed. New Wave of British Heavy Metal bands like Iron Maiden and Saxon followed suit.

During the 1980s, glam metal became a commercial force with groups like Mötley Crüe, Quiet Riot and Poison. The underground produced more extreme scenes and aggressive styles: thrash metal invaded the mainstream bringing to light bands like Anthrax, Megadeth, Metallica, and Slayer, while even heavier styles like death metal and black metal remained as phenomena of the metal subculture. Since the mid-1990s, popular styles such as groove metal (e.g. Pantera), which combines extreme metal with hardcore punk, and nu-metal (e.g. Korn), which incorporates elements of grunge and hip hop, have helped to broaden the definition of the genre.

Heavy metal is traditionally characterized by loud, distorted guitars, emphatic rhythms, a dense bass-and-drums sound, and vigorous vocals. Subgenres of metal traditionally emphasize, alter, or omit one or more of these attributes. According to New York Times critic Jon Pareles, “In the taxonomy of popular music, heavy metal is the main subspecies of hard rock – the type with less syncopation, fewer blues, with more emphasis on spectacle and more brute force. The typical band lineup includes a drummer, a bassist, a base guitarist, a solo guitarist, and a singer, who may or may not also play any of the instruments. Keyboards are sometimes used to enrich the body of the sound; early heavy metal bands used to use a Hammond organ, while synthesizers have become more common later.

The electric guitar and the sonic power it projects through amplifiers has historically been the key element of heavy metal. Guitars are often played with distortion pedals, through tube amplifiers with plenty of overdrive, creating a thick, powerful, “heavy” sound. A central element of heavy metal is the guitar solo, a form of the cadenza. As the genre has developed, more sophisticated and complex solos and riffs have become an integral part of the style. Guitarists use techniques such as sweep-picking and tapping to play with more speed, and many styles of metal emphasize displays of virtuosity. Some influential bands in the genre, such as Judas Priest and Iron Maiden, have two or even three guitarists who share both lead and lead guitar. An important feature is the use of pentatonic scales, exemplified in bands like Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple or Black Sabbath.

The lead role of the guitar in heavy metal often clashes with the traditional bandleader role of the vocalist, which creates a musical tension as the two “vie 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 counterculture of the 1960s, an “explicit display of emotion” is demanded of the vocals as a sign of authenticity. Critic Simon Frith claims that the “tone of voice” of the metal singer is more important than the lyrics. Metal vocals vary enormously by style, from the theatrical approach, spanning multiple octaves, of Rob Halford of Judas Priest and Bruce Dickinson of Iron Maiden, to the gruff style of Lemmy of Motörhead and James Hetfield of Metallica, to the guttural howl of several death metal vocalists.

The prominent role of the bass is also crucial to the sound of metal, and the interchange between bass and guitar form a central element of the style. The bass provides the bass sound necessary to make the music “heavy. Metal basslines vary enormously in complexity, from maintaining a simple bass pedal point to serving as a “foundation” for the guitarists, doubling complex riffs and licks along with the base and/or rhythm guitars. Some bands rely on the bass drum as a solo instrument, an approach popularized by Metallica bassist Cliff Burton in the early 1980s.

The essence of metal drumming is to create a loud, steady beat for the band, using the “trifecta of speed, power, and precision. Metal drumming “requires an exceptional amount of stamina,” and drummers in the style must develop “considerable dexterity, coordination, and speed to play the complex patterns” used in metal. A characteristic technique of metal drumming is cymbal muffling, which consists of the percussion of a cymbal followed by its immediate muting through the use of the other hand (or, in some cases, the very hand that percussed it), producing a short sound emission. The setup of metal drums is generally much larger than that used in other forms of rock music.

In live performances volume – “a sonic assault,” in sociologist Deena Weinstein’s description – is considered vital. In his book Metalheads, psychologist Jeffrey Arnett refers to heavy metal concerts as “the sensory equivalent of war. Soon after the first steps taken by Jimi Hendrix, Cream, and The Who, early heavy metal bands such as Blue Cheer set new milestones in terms of volume. According to Blue cheerleader Dickie Peterson himself, “all we knew was that we wanted more power. A review of a 1977 Motörhead concert recorded how “excessive volume figures particularly prominently in the band’s impact. According to Weinstein, in the same way, that melody is the main element of pop music and rhythm is the main focus of house music, powerful sound, timbre, and volume are the key elements of metal; excessive volume would be intended to “sweep the listener into the sound” by providing them with a “dose of jovial vitality.” Heavy metal’s fixation with volume was satirized in the comedy documentary This Is Spinal Tap, in which a metal guitarist claims to have modified his amplifiers to “go up to eleven.”

The rhythm in metal songs is emphatic, with intentional accents. The wide range of sound effects available to metal drummers allows the rhythmic patterns used to assume great complexity while maintaining their elemental insistence and power. In a good part of the songs of this style the main note is characterized by short, two- or three-note rhythmic figures – usually composed of eighth or sixteenth notes. These rhythmic figures are usually executed with staccato attacks created through the technique known as palm muting on the base guitar.

Rhythm and tempo

Example of a rhythmic pattern used in heavy metal
Brief, abrupt, independent rhythmic cells are joined to rhythmic phrases with a distinctive, often irregular texture. These phrases are used to create a rhythmic accompaniment and melodic figures called riffs, which help create thematic hooks. Heavy metal songs also use longer rhythmic figures, such as chords, semibreves, or with the duration of a quarter note in the so-called slower power ballads. Tempo in older heavy metal tended to be “slow, even ponderous. By the late 1970s, however, metal bands employed a wide variety of tempos. In the 2000s, metal tempos range from slow ballads (quarter note = about 60 beats per minute) to extremely fast blast beat tempos (quarter note = 350 beats per minute).

One of the hallmarks of the style is a chord form played on the guitar and known as the power chord. In technical terms, the power chord is relatively simple: it involves only a single major interval, usually the perfect fifth, although an octave can be added to double the root. Although the interval of the perfect fifth is the most common basis for the power chord, these chords can also be based on different intervals, such as the minor third, major third, perfect fourth, diminished fifth, or minor sixth. Most power chords are also played based on a finger arrangement that can easily be shifted throughout the length of the arm.

Typical harmonic structures
Heavy metal is usually grounded in riffs created with the three main harmonic features: scales in modal progressions, tritones and chromatic progressions, and the use of pedal points. Traditional heavy metal tends to employ modal scales, particularly the Phrygian and Aeolian modes Harmonically, this means that the style usually incorporates modal chord progressions, such as the I-VI-VII, I-VII-(VI) or I-VI-IV-VII Aeolian progressions and the Phrygian progressions that involve the relationship between I and ♭II (I-♭II-I, I-♭II-III, or I-♭II-VII, for example). Tense-sounding chromatic or tritone relationships are used in several metal chord progressions.

The tritone, a musical interval spanning three whole tones – such as C and F sharp – was a dissonance forbidden in medieval ecclesiastical chant, which caused monks to call it “Diabolus in music” – “the devil in music” in Latin. [Note 1] Because of this original symbolic association, the interval came to be seen in the Western cultural convention as “evil.” The heavy metal used the tritone extensively in its guitar solos and riffs, of which one of the most notorious examples is the beginning of the song “Black Sabbath” by the band of the same name.

Genre songs make frequent use of the pedal point as a harmonic base. A pedal point is a tone that is sustained, typically by a bass instrument, during which at least one “odd” (i.e. dissonant) harmony is played by the other instruments.