Heavy Metal: History, Genres & Artists

Instructor: Benjamin Olson
This lesson explains the significance, origins, and development of heavy metal music. You will learn how heavy metal departed from traditional rock music, both musically and thematically, and then you can test your knowledge with a brief quiz.

The Origins of Heavy Metal

Someone unfamiliar with the heavy metal genre would be forgiven for feeling a little bit confused upon first listen. How is heavy metal different from traditional rock music? What is death metal? What's with all the talk about the devil and fighting dragons? These are all fair questions that will be clarified in this lesson.

Heavy metal first emerged in England and the United States in the early 1970s as a natural outgrowth of the rock music of the time. While hard rock artists like Led Zeppelin, the Who, and Jimi Hendrix were pushing the envelope in terms of guitar amplification and on-stage antics, their music was still very much indebted to the blues and earlier forms of rock music.

Black Sabbath is widely considered to be the first true heavy metal band. Through the use of darker musical tones, religious lyrical themes, and a slow, crushing heaviness to their sound, Black Sabbath created the template for an entirely new genre of rock music. While many other genres of popular music attempt to talk about real-life experiences, love, or politics, heavy metal is famous for dealing with religious and supernatural metaphors. Black Sabbath's singer Ozzy Osbourne wrote lyrics about occult ceremonies and unspeakable monsters, but he was using these images as metaphors to talk about war and alienation.

Heavy Metal Subculture

By the late 1970s, a new generation of bands would take inspiration from Black Sabbath's menacing sound, while speeding up the tempo and continuing to distance themselves from the blues roots of rock. Judas Priest and Motörhead from England as well as Scorpions from Germany added speed and intensity to Black Sabbath's sound. Music journalists started using the term heavy metal to describe the new approach.

Rob Halford, lead vocalist of Judas Priest

In the large industrial cities of England, heavy metal developed very much in tandem with the punk movement, which was creating moral outrage throughout the United Kingdom. It borrowed the speed and nihilism of punk, leather and denim from outlaw biker culture, and a fascination with occultism drawn from horror films and Black Sabbath. With that, heavy metal came together in the late 1970s as not just a distinct musical genre, but as a fully formed subculture.

The 1980s: The Golden Age of Heavy Metal and the Rise of Extreme Metal

The 1980s saw an explosion in the popularity, musical development, and geographic spread of heavy metal. The early 1980s produced a movement within England called the New Wave of British Heavy Metal led by bands like Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, and Diamond Head. The blues base that characterized virtually all earlier forms of rock music was now almost undetectable. The New Wave of British Heavy Metal was defined by high, wailing vocals, two harmonizing electric guitars, and themes concerning rebellion, Satanism, and the occult. The popularity of heavy metal spread in North America and Europe, filling stadiums and outraging conservative parents.

During the huge upsurge of heavy metal's popularity in the 1980s, the subculture that had formed around the music began to fragment into different scenes and subgenres. More accessible, pop-friendly bands like Def Leppard, Van Halen, and Twisted Sister wrote catchy, radio-friendly songs combined with flashy, often gender-bending costumes, creating a subgenre known as glam metal.

At the same time, many bands started taking heavy metal in increasing experimental, dark, and thematically provocative directions, partially in reaction to the radio-friendly metal bands that they saw as sellouts. Venom from England, Mercyful Fate from Denmark, and Hellhammer from Switzerland expressed overtly satanic lyrics and played music that was more extreme and intense than anything previously heard. In California, heavy metal musicians started playing even faster than their British peers, creating the subgenre thrash metal. Metallica, Slayer, and Megadeth were at the forefront of this movement. Thrash, in combination with the extreme metal developing in Europe, would usher in a split within heavy metal subculture between the mainstream metal and extreme metal factions.

King Diamond, vocalist for Mercyful Fate as well as his own self-titled band

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