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The History of Heavy Metal

Updated on April 19, 2017

"Lyrically I like to use themes that make the listener use his or her imagination, and to give a little of the lessons I've learned in my own life."

Ronnie James Dio.

Simply put, heavy metal is a form of distorted blues influenced rock and roll. The genre is thought to have originated in the United Kingdom during the late 1960s with bands such as Black Sabbath and Judas Priest. Controversial throughout its existence, many bands have more often than not been pushed underground and ignored by the musical mainstream but has never disappeared thanks to an incredibly loyal following from its fans.

Black Sabbath guitarist is referred to as the man who came up for the early sound of metal, using the note known as the diminished fifth or "tritone". The note was never used before then because of the superstitious belief it was believed to be used to summon the devil, this revolutionised and shaped the future of music.

"Black Sabbath never used to write a structured song. There'd be a long intro that would go into a jazz piece, then go all folky ... and it worked. Tony Iommi—and I have said this a zillion times—should be up there with the greats. He can pick up a guitar, play a riff, and you say, 'He's gotta be out now, he can't top that.' Then you come back, and I bet you a billion dollars, he'd come up with a riff that'd knock your fucking socks off."

David Sprague.

Tony Iommi
Tony Iommi

Early days

The early groups of heavy metal were influenced by artists such as The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, The Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin. The combination of blues rock and psychedelic rock formed the basis for metal.

In the late sixties, psychedelic singers like Arthur Brown, began to introduce more outlandish and macabre scenery in their acts. After releasing their first album, Vanilla Fudge were described as "one of the few American links between psychedelia and what soon became heavy metal" by Steve Huey. Critics to disagree on who the first metal band was, American critics generally favour Led Zeppelin whilst the British critics will tell you it was Black Sabbath. A few of them (mainly American) make a case for other artists like Ian Butterfly, Steppenwolf and /or Blue Cheer.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.

Who do you think was the first heavy metal band?

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Metal subgenres
Metal subgenres

The subgenres

The term "heavy metal" is in fact vary vague and does not tell the full story of a particular band or song you might be listening to. Indeed many subgenres have emerged throughout the years, all distinctly different from sound to imagery, from controversy to cliché.

Thrash metal:

Thrash first came on to the scene in America in the early 1980s. Bands such as Metallica and Slayer brought about a new style of aggression and speed to their music thanks to the influences of hardcore punk and the new wave of British heavy metal. The movement stated in the United States, with Bay area thrash being the the leading scene. Low register guitar riffs are generally accompanied by blistering leads. Lyrics often express nihilistic views and deal with social issues in a gory fashion.

Death metal:

Thrash eventually split into more extreme genres, for example death metal. The rise of death metal has been attributed to Slayer and Venom. In both North America and Europe, bands like Death and Possessed became more interested in using blasphemy and diabolism in their acts. Death metal vocals typically utilise low growls and high pitched screaming.

Black metal:

The first wave of black metal appeared during the early an mid 1980s in Europe (Britain, Sweden, Switzerland, Denmark). By the late 1980s, Norwegian bands Mayhem and Celtic Frost were headlining a second wave. Satanic themes are common in black metal although artists are often inspired by paganism, promoting a return to pre-Christian values.

Power metal:

During the late 1980s, the power metal scene emerged as a reaction to the harshness of death and black metal. Despite a rather underground scene in North America, the genre enjoys popularity in Europe, South America and Japan. A different approach is taken, with epic melodies and themes that appeal to the listener's sense of valour and loveliness. The prototype for the sound was established in the mid-to-late 1980s by Germany's Halloween, 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.

Thrash metal band Metallica's frontman James Hetfield
Thrash metal band Metallica's frontman James Hetfield


Metal music is no stranger to controversy, with court case after court case, no other genre (a part maybe from rap) has endured as much bad publicity. The Parental Advisory Label (PAL), is a label attached to the album cover of records accused of using excessive profanities or inappropriate references. The measure was implemented in 1985 and although it was originally perceived as detrimental to record sales, people kept buying and popularity grew. It is now sometimes referred to as a blessing in disguise.

However, more serious accusations have been thrown at the music and artists. Various accounts of teenage suicide and violence have been attributed to people like Ozzy Osbourne and Marilyn Manson. Artists accused of this argue that it all comes down to lyrical interpretation and that it is unfair to blame them for the tragedies of others.

The Parental Advisory Label
The Parental Advisory Label


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