From Sabbath to Slipknot: The Ages of Metal

Published on 08 July 2019

 

Metal has always been one of the main ‘guitar’ genres. Along with Blues, Rock and Jazz, Metal and electric guitars go hand in hand. For fans, there are few things are satisfying as a huge riff, groove or solo, made with huge sounding guitars.

Metal has never been a style of music for snobs. Metal fans are typically passionate and sometimes intense, feeling strong allegiance to the bands and genres they love. To call Metal a simple, childish act of rebellion is in itself a pretty reductive and immature response to what is a highly specific and precise artform. And make no mistake: Metal is a legitimate artform, just like the Blues. It has its own dialects, modes of expression and languages through music. It requires its own tools and has its own uniforms, depending on the tribe you follow.

Metal fans are some of the most loyal fans in music for a reason: Metal can be an expression of hope and pleasure as much as pain and anger. To many, a huge ‘mosh’ moment in a song provides catharsis and solidarity as much as anything else. Venting angers and frustrations are part of it too, of course, but to call the aggression negative would be to highly miss the point. We don’t mean to preach to the choir here, but the power of good Metal is extraordinarily potent.

Put simply, in a world that is difficult and often hostile, Metal is a constant. Compromises are neither wanted nor welcome.

Metal does have certain characteristics – drama, volume, dynamics and a certain aesthetic – that apply no matter which band or song you refer to, but Metal has a huge number of subgenres, too. Some of these are chronologically subsequent periods whereas others co-exist alongside others.

This blog aims to highlight most of the main Ages of Metal. We’ve called it From Sabbath to Slipknot but in reality, the timeline exists further in both directions. We just wanted a catchy title! We’ll check out the main periods of heavy guitar music, highlighting examples of artists from each movement.

What we can’t be is exhaustive: it’s impossible to uncover every variation of French Punk Rap Beatdown from the late 90s, for example! We’ll be as broad and inclusive as space allows us though. As with all great tales, let us begin at the beginning.

 

Proto Metal

And in the beginning, there was The Riff.

The origins of Metal are hotly debated. Some say Steppenwolf’s lyric in Born to Be Wild (“Heavy Metal Thunder”) from 1968 marks the entry point of Heavy Metal to the lexicon of world music terms. Others attribute the origin of Metal to The Kinks’ Ray Davies, who used to slash the speakers of his amps to get a rattier tone for songs like ‘You Really Got Me’. Others again point to Link Wray for similar reasons. Some even say that Bluesman Robert Johnson’s alleged dalliances with Satan at the Crossroads make him the originator of Heavy Metal, by association, if not music.

All of these people are wrong.

Heavy Metal was invented in 1970 by Black Sabbath.

Behold: Metal

Look at the chilling, haunted front cover. Open it up, stick on the vinyl. Turn the lights down low. Brace yourself as the fully, completely evil riff of opening cut ‘Black Sabbath’ takes over your soul. Listen as Ozzy Osbourne fearfully describes a Hellish being standing at the foot of his bed, pointing at him as it’s unnatural eyes blaze.

This is Metal.

Now we’re talking! Yes, lots of bands suddenly got heavier in the 70s. Deep Purple and other standard-sounding Rock bands of the day were suddenly described by the press (and themselves sometimes) as ‘Heavy Metal’, but we know better. Aerosmith? No way. Mountain? Nope.

Were Led Zeppelin metal? It’s a hotly debated topic. They had riffs (though in our opinion, they could’ve been bigger and crunchier), they had magical symbols to represent each member, Page had his fascination with Aleister Crowley and there was a drawing of a wizard on the inner circle of IV.

So yeah, Led Zep were definitely Metal. Sabbath, however, not only had the best riffs, they also made the riff the star of the song above everything else. Tony Iommi’s high level of riff-ability is absurd: most of the greatest Metal riffs out there have something of his diabolic fingerprint on them. Sabbath introduced the world to slow tempo dread, grooves that sounded subterranean and riffs that destroyed everything else.

Whether you think Sabbath’s best riff is Iron Man, Snowblind, Supernaut, Children of the Grave, Symptom of the Universe or any of a hundred others, it is clear that this is the band who define Metal more than any other. Sabbath invented Metal and also inspired the Sludge, Doom and Stoner sub-genres. If all you know of Black Sabbath is Paranoid, it’s high time you delved deeper.

NWOBHM

In the mid-seventies, a new breed of heavy music began to be heard in the pubs of provincial England. Bands like Judas Priest and Iron Maiden were playing new rhythms, adding operatic content to their tales of horror and Satan, whilst the music was bigger and more elaborate. Tempos were quicker and tended to gallop. Songs were longer and often had lyrics with dramatic, story-like arcs.

Thus was born the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, a strange collective term that really doesn’t mean much when you stop to think, and also abbreviates terribly as NWOBHM. Nevertheless, this non-movement comprised some of the most significant Metal bands in history. In addition to the titanic awe of Iron Maiden and Judas Priest, other bands considered to be part of this New Wave included Def Leppard, Diamond Head and Saxon.

Drama was a big thing for NWOBHM bands, as was theatricality. Leather and chains worked well for Judas Priest (and riding motorcycles on stage: very Metal); Mascots brought fame for Iron Maiden (Eddie is still in use today, though it is still not clear just what he is meant to be...) and high-pitched air raid siren vocals form most of these bands delivered the New Wave of British Heavy Metal sound.

 

Hair Metal

Metal then branched off in different directions throughout the 80s. Hair Metal, or Glam Metal, was the cultural property of LA’s Sunset Strip. Home to the Roxy, the Whisky A Go-Go and the Rainbow Bar & Grill, the Sunset Strip scene of the 80s is what brought sexy decadence to metal. Out were goblins and dragons, in was makeup, groupies and neon.

Fair trade!

Hair metal put a lot of emphasis on poppy-sounding melodies, bringing a kind of Pop Rock vibe to the Metal of the day. Face-melting solos still swept in (incredibly so: Hair Metal is perhaps the softest AND Shreddiest Metal movement) but the overt aggression was replaced by a convivial-yet sleazy party atmosphere.

Van Halen, though not Hair Metal per se, played a big part in this change of direction for Metal. David Lee Roth was the opposite of a zombie: part-acrobat, part circus ringmaster, all Vegas-style raconteur, Diamond Dave was the antidote to Hard Rockers who took themselves (and their dungeons) too seriously. Smiling was okay now, as was having fun. Kiss were a big influence too, even though they had regrettably removed their makeup during the 80s.

The main players in this scene were Mötley Crüe (the umlauts do NOTHING to change the pronunciation by the way, and they nicked that from Motörhead anyway), Ratt, Poison, Whitesnake, Bon Jovi (they weren’t fully vanilla pop-rock until a little later), Dokken, Skid Row...let’s face it, there were loads. They all looked amazing and they all sounded very similar.

Kurt Cobain eventually killed off Hair Metal with Nirvana (as if anything truly Metal can ever really die...) but there was more to 80s Metal than just the Sunset Strip...

 

Thrash Metal

Motörhead already sped up Rock ‘n’ Roll/Metal (it’s actually impossible to accurately pigeonhole these guys) in the mid-70s, but the Heaviness caught up during the next decade. The ‘Big Four’ really are the best Thrash bands ever: Metallica, Megadeth, Slayer and Anthrax. Each band had a very different sound and aesthetic (Slayer win the visuals game for out-and-out evil) but the one thing they all shared in common was grade ‘A’ riffs that went noticeably quicker than those of the ‘classic’ Metal era.

You want examples? Try these:

  • Holy Wars...The Punishment Due by Megadeth
  • Necrophobic by Slayer
  • Creeping Death by Metallica
  • Indians (War Dance riff!) by Anthrax

Great riffs, one and all, though Anthrax lose points for their relatively un-Metal song title. Thrash happily matched Hair Metal for explosive solos. Stars of the Thrash era include Marty Friedman, Chris Poland, Dave Mustaine, Kerry King & Jeff Young.

By this point, Pop Metal people like David Lee Roth and Ozzy Osbourne had guitar wizards like Steve Vai and Jake E Lee busying up their songs with beautiful bursts of floral note-frenzies. The 80s were a very good time for the gunslinging guitarists out there.

 

The Nineties

As the 80s grew up, stopped partying and turned into the altogether more serious 90s, Metal changed. Metallica went on to become pretty much the biggest Metal band ever, Grunge reportedly hammered the coffin shut on Metal (even though bands like Alice in Chains and Soundgarden were unquestionably Metal, just not in a Dungeons & Dragons way) and the genre moved both forwards and backwards.

It moved backwards in terms of returning to its harsher, theatrical NWOBHM vibe with Scandinavian Death and Black Metal. Black Metal, full of Tolkien references and actual murder, was characterised by disaffected Norwegian youths painting their faces and burning churches. Their music was fast, gritty, portentous and unashamedly Satanic. Check out Venom for early-doors game-changers (yes, they were British but go with it) and both Emperor and Mayhem for archetypical genre examples. We actually took a good look at the Black Metal scene in a dedicated blog recently, so do click through if you want to read how extreme these people ended up being.

Death metal is a slightly different affair. Whilst sharing an aesthetic (to a certain degree) with Black Metal, it’s a fair comment to say that Death Metal is altogether more technical. This applies to guitars, drums, production and everything else. Death Metal is down-tuned, aggressive, fast, and difficult to pull off without a lot of practice. Bands like Death and Morbid Angel pioneered this particular artform, whilst Nile and Cannibal Corpse are good, intense examples of the genre.

Behemoth are a band who straddle the Black/Death chasm with confidence. These Polish Metallers take the technique and production from Death Metal and marry it with the grandiosity of Black Metal in ways that Black Metal bands could never quite afford to achieve! We spoke to Behemoth’s leader Nergal back in February and you can read that interview here.

In the Nineties, Thrash also evolved. Bands like Brazil’s Sepultura transcended their thrash roots (fans please excuse the pun) to produce original sounding Metal that fused tribal drum patterns and a decidedly political message with riffs that were cast in iron. 1994’s Chaos A.D. is a great starting point for anyone interested in Metal with a slightly more exotic flavour.

Elsewhere in the 90s, Metal was getting decidedly cyber. Influenced as much by movies like Aliens and The Terminator as they were by music, two entirely unrelated Metal bands did more to change the sound of extreme music than almost any other metal band in the first part of the decade.

Fear Factory hail from LA and their sound was a futuristic blend of bleak electronics and enormous sledgehammer riffs. This type of machine-hybrid music made sense in a world that was increasingly filling up with technology. Fear of all things somehow going ‘all Skynet’ on New Year’s Eve 1999 also contributed to a hesitant worry of computers somehow either taking over or shutting us down. This pre-Millennial tension was well-expressed with Fear Factory’s albums like Demanufacture and Obsolete.

Industrial Metal was not necessarily a new thing in the mid 90s (Ministry, Nail Inch Nails and others had all blended Metal riffs with synths and technology), but never before had both elements possessed such cold, monolithic precision. It’s now a product of its time (what isn’t?) but the creativity and sheer ferocity of the sound proved a landmark for the genre, not to mention the techno-fear social commentary.

Talking of landmarks, nobody has pushed boundaries like our other chosen band, Swedish pioneers Meshuggah. It may be a surprise to some, but they have been making their unique time-bending, utterly alien music for thirty years now! 1998’s Chaosphere is arguably the defining statement of the overall Meshuggah sound. With a similarly sci-fi world view to Fear Factory, Meshuggah have confounded and enthralled music fans with their head-scratching polyrhythms and terrifyingly intense Metal. We aren’t even kidding when we say that there are college degrees offered on Tomas Haake’s mesmerising drum rhythms.

He maintains that he plays almost exclusively in 4/4. Listen for yourself and see if your ears can keep up...

 

Nu Metal

Nu Metal, the much-maligned splicing of Rap and Rock, first appeared with Korn’s trailblazing 1994 debut album. In came 7 string guitars (people had been using them for years already, but never mind), slowed down tempos, no guitar solos and LOTS of angst. This genre brought bulldozer riffs front and centre, though the variation was now stop/start riffs at certain points of the song instead of constant chug-chug riffing.

Korn created a sound which was and still is original. It was fresh, had no overtly obvious artist influences (Korn were as likely to cite Ice Cube as being an influence as they were Pantera) and their music had an instant, seismic effect on music culture. Down-tuning existed as far back as Black Sabbath, but these guys down-tuned their 7 string guitars!

The hip hop influence helped make their riffs sound much heavier, since the slower tempo and less-busy drum patterns gave the sludgy, crunchy riffs more room to make an impact.

It could be argued that White Zombie (Rob Zombie’s band before he went solo) perfected the Nu Metal sound a few years before Korn but that’s a matter for debate. As it stands, Astrocreep 2000 is simply one of the best Metal albums of the 90s.

Nu Metal brought an entirely different aesthetic to Metal. Black, leather and denim were now replaced by baggy tracksuits, excessive hair styling products and sportswear. You can mainly blame Limp Bizkit frontman Fred Durst for this strange sartorial turn of events, since he popularised the ‘Fratboy Manchild’ look pretty well from day one.

His Bizkit bandmate Wes Borland re-addressed the balance handsomely, not only with some of the best guitar playing of the nineties, but with a never-ending (to this day, as it happens) succession of increasingly bonkers costumes involving body paint, contact lenses and a wardrobe full of unsavoury garments. Tortured soul.

Other bands followed suit in the theatricality stakes: also-rans like Mudvayne and Powerman 5000 dressed to impress but forgot about the tunes. There are always a few!

Rapping was a large factor in Nu Metal, something that was not in Korn’s original blueprint. It isn’t something that has lasted within Metal in any particular way. Otherwise traditional-sounding Metal bands who did indulge in some ill-advised flavour-of-the-month rapping (stop hiding at the back, Machine Head!) have now deeply buried such hiccups in their career. Seek and ye shall find.

Nu Metal didn’t last, but it did give us heavyweights like the Deftones, Incubus, Korn and perhaps the most notable band of the whole era: Slipknot.

Slipknot, a band of 9 anonymous musicians (at least for a while), all wearing serial killer masks and boiler suits, came out of nowhere and made a sound that was simultaneously thrilling and demented. At first, it was difficult to tell if it was all a cynically calculated career move or indeed a big joke. Their untameably ferocious sophomore album, Iowa, cemented their position as that of the Real Deal. They have remained at the top of the Metal tree ever since.

 

The New Millennium

So where has Metal gone since the turn of the millennium? After all, that was a while back now! Lots of revisionist genres have sprung up, with bands doing great business sounding extremely close to bands that came before. We’ll name no names here but we imagine you can think of a good few who uncomfortably remind you of records you bought a looong time ago...

An area that has developed is the more Technical scene. Shredding is back but it’s not really the same as before. Check out new-era shredders like Animals as Leaders, Plini and lots of bands with really similar names like Constructs and Intervals. Even festivals like Tech Fest have sprung up in the UK to cater for these masses of modern note-mongers.

Prog Metal

Prog Metal has seen a rise in popularity this millennium, too. Whilst we understand that it existed prior to this period (you could argue that Sabbath and King Crimson invented Prog Metal in the 70s and we will not disagree), the new Millennium has seen this genre go from niche to legitimacy. Artists such Opeth and Tool have paved the way for Devin Townsend and Mastodon to blur these Prog lines, blending all kinds of musical influences and ideas into songs that are wide in both range and scope. Meshuggah, whom we mentioned earlier, are notable of inclusion here, too. Pioneering music is happening now!

Today

In 2019, 7, 8 and even 9 string guitars are viable options for players, and significantly, not seen as gratuitous uber-niche instruments for only the most hardcore of headbangers. Musical that is far heavier and more challenging than ever before is being accepted by more (relatively) mainstream audiences.

Diversity seems to be key to Metal in this day and age. Take a look at the line-up for Download, the UK’s most significant ‘heavy’ festival, all you’ll see a rich blend of bands including classic Rock and Metal (Whitesnake, Def Leppard, Slash), Extreme Metal (Behemoth, Lamb of God), old school Thrash (Slayer, Anthrax), 90s Rock (Stone Temple Pilots, Clutch), Millennial Metal (Slipknot, Rob Zombie) and Prog Metal (Tool, Dream Theater & Opeth). There are new-ish bands who sound old (Halestorm, Royal Republic, Trivium) and a few random crossover bands like Die Antwoord. It’s a healthy mix indeed!

In other words, in this current musical climate, anything goes and there is something for everyone. Sounds good, but what is there to rebel against?

Same as there always was: everything.

 

Ray McClelland