Primer is The A.V. Club’s ongoing series of beginners’ guides to pop culture’s most notable subjects: filmmakers, music styles, literary genres, and whatever else interests us—and hopefully you. This week: heavy metal, organized by the major subgenres that have developed over the five decades of its existence. Moving from the best-known examples of heavy music to the deepest pits of black Satanic noise, we’ll conclude with five essential albums that belong in the music library of anyone who likes it hard.
Even casual fans know that the biggest name in heavy metal’s early days was Black Sabbath, and even today, Ozzy Osbourne and his Birmingham cohorts are widely considered the founding fathers of everything awesome about metal. But with so many years’ remove, it’s easy to forget what made this early form of metal so compelling: downtuned guitars, heavy bass, and crushing drums, and solos heavily influenced by, of all things, the blues—all slowed way, way down. Though it didn’t have the name at the time, Sabbath revolutionized music by inventing what would later be known as doom metal: a heady blend of a pounding rhythm section, guitars tuned chillingly low, and fearful, doomstruck lyrics, played slow enough so listeners had time to appreciate whatever drugs were coursing through their systems. By the 1990s, a new wave of doom metal would arise, tinged with the psychedelic heaviness of American bands like Pentagram and spearheaded by Electric Wizard, another Birmingham band that followed in the ironclad footsteps of Sabbath. A few years later, a number of bands concentrated largely in California ramped up the fuzzy tones, cranked up the heavy, and saturated everything in a sticky-slow haze of weed smoke, and stoner rock was born; Kyuss and its High Desert compatriots typified the genre, while Sleep took it to extremes and Earthless stripped away the frills, leaving nothing but pure, punishing heavy rock.
By the mid-1970s, a number of bands, particularly in Britain, were still drug-stuffed and in love with loudness as ever, but they were beginning to tire of playing slow and low. Retaining the rugged, rock-steady rhythm sections, they tuned their guitars up-up-up, and most of all, they got faster. The music they started making in the late 1970s was called speed metal, and it quickly became one of metal’s first global genres. The master of the form, then and now, is Motörhead, which was at the advance guard of the metal umlaut and set the loud-fast-rules aesthetic for decades to come. Lemmy throttled his bass like a lead guitar, and kicked the whole medium into overdrive. A few years later, a number of American bands mostly operating in the Bay Area took the basic elements of speed and applied them to the rhythm section as well; the heavy suffered, but the metal increased, as bands like Metallica, Megadeth, Exodus, and Anthrax popularized the finger-cracking, shredding guitar solo and brought thrash metal into existence.
While American bands turned the speed-metal aesthetic into thrash by throwing the hyperspeed switch and emphasizing technical acumen, a generation of English bands applied surprisingly poppy song structures along with a snotty, sneering, anti-authoritarian attitude to create the new wave of British heavy metal. The two scenes fed off each other, but ironically, the British movement met with more chart success in the United States, making millionaires out of bands like Saxon, Judas Priest, and Iron Maiden. Their slashing, dual-guitar attack and willingness to embrace the excess of the metal scene helped NWOBHM bands define the genre for decades to come.
Meanwhile, in Southern California, a number of bands concentrated in the Sunset Strip area embraced the wicked excess of NWOBHM and the flashy guitar solos of thrash, but abandoned any pretense of darkness or edge, instead embracing a wild party-time aesthetic that could only have become huge in the 1980s. Their genre started out as a more-or-less international phenomenon known as glam metal, which combined the sleazy, androgynous decadence of ’70s glam rock with speed-metal musicianship. But by the time it arrived in Hollywood, bands like Hanoi Rocks and Quiet Riot had given way to poppy, power-ballad-heavy groups like Warrant, Poison, and Great White. Traditional metal fans hated them, denigrating them as hair metal, but the bands scored huge chart successes. Their musical merit is, surprisingly, still a topic of some debate.
Just as hair metal dominated the charts in its heyday while being critically vilified, metalcore looms over today’s heavy scene, selling millions to Hot Topic shoppers while drawing the ire of traditional metalheads. Growing out of the post-hardcore scene, where bands like Cave In, Earth Crisis, and Time In Malta fused the melodic intensity and flashy play of thrash with the rhythms, vocals, and lyrical concerns of hardcore punk, metalcore prettied up the whole style, dressing it in the latest fashions and adding a strong melodic influence. If a band blends pop-metal hooks and hardcore breakdowns, combines the death-metal growl with “clean” (that is, traditionally sung) vocals, and has a long, awkward-sounding name, it just might be metalcore. But not every metalcore band deserves the “mall metal” tag; some worthwhile bands have emerged from the scene, including Bullet For My Valentine and the thrash-inspired God Forbid. Micro-genres have also emerged from metalcore, including deathcore (melodic death metal with a strong metalcore element), best heard in the Swedish “Gothenburg sound” of At The Gates and In Flames, and screamo, a much-denigrated blend of punk, metal, and emo.
Though it comes directly from the California thrash-metal scene, Slayer represented a quantum leap forward in the development of modern metal; lyrically savage, brutally loud, and with an emphasis on jaw-dropping instrumental prowess, the band paved the way for what would become known as death metal. It’s now a global phenomenon (any city with electricity has a death-metal scene), but the genre developed in the sweltering Florida heat in the 1990s, when bands like Cynic, Atheist, Morbid Angel, and especially Death, led by the late, lamented Chuck Schuldiner, held sway. Their emphasis was on dark, despairing lyrics and punishing drum and guitar attacks; later bands like Cannibal Corpse would further refine the genre, and more significantly, introduce the death growl (denigrated as “Cookie Monster vocals” by detractors) that would become such a polarizing factor in heavy music. Later bands—for example, Gorguts, Psycroptic, and the astounding Meshuggah—refined the jazz-like time signatures and precise instrumental attack of the Florida scene and ramp it up to an unprecedented degree; the music they created, with its neck-breaking rhythmic assault and mind-blowingly adept guitar playing, would become known as technical death metal.
With its roots in the neoclassical metal of brilliantly egomaniacal fucking-fury-unleasher Yngwie J. Malmsteen, the subgenre known as power metal appeals to fans of the “classic” era of heavy music from the late ’70s to the early ’80s. Power metal tends to feature clean vocals, making it appealing to those who can’t tolerate the death growl, but its emphasis on hyper-difficult guitar and keyboard solos can rival all but the best tech-death bands, as evidenced by DragonForce, whose song “Through The Fire And Flames” is the ultimate fuck-you to Guitar Hero players. Power metal is much more popular in Europe than in the U.S., largely because its lyrics tend to be pretty hokey, but for awesome solos and old-school-metal feel without the “extreme” one-upmanship of a lot of other metal subgenres, bands like Iced Earth, Manowar, Hammerfall, and Blind Guardian fit the bill.
Closely related to power metal, but given a twist that makes it simultaneously more nerdy and more awesome, is folk metal and its various offshoots. Beginning in the 1990s in places like Great Britain and Scandinavia, a number of bands (generally in the death-metal mold) began incorporating local martial rhythms and folk traditions into their musical palate, resulting in everything from the Celtic metal of bands like Cruachan to the Finnish folk metal of Finntroll and Korpiklaani to the Oriental metal (or as they call it, “Mesopotamian metal”) of the blistering Melechesh. Metal already tends to go overboard with the elf and goblin imagery, so some of the offshoots of folk metal can get ridiculous—witness the ludicrous, though entertaining, “pirate metal” of Alestorm, and whatever the hell Slough Feg thinks it’s doing. Still, the scene isn’t all hobbits and grandpa guitars; Viking metal, as typified by Sweden’s Amon Amarth, is producing some incredibly ass-kicking metal at the moment.
No musical genre is more tediously obsessed with authenticity than metal; those who think nothing is more boring than watching hip-hop heads yelling at each other on the Internet about “realness” should try having a conversation with someone about what constituted “true” black metal. As a result, a consensus has built up around the idea that metal is never worse than when it tries to blend with other musical forms. Unfortunately, the nü-metal movement of the late 1990s, with its attempts to fuse metal with rap and “alternative” music, didn’t do much to dispel that notion, and for every decent band like Rage Against The Machine or Deftones that’s emerged from the scene, there was a disaster like Limp Bizkit or Linkin Park. Likewise, Gothic metal is generally a love-it-or-loathe-it affair, with the music, mysticism, and self-absorbed gloominess of bands like My Dying Bride, Within Temptation, and Lacuna Coil finding a solid crossover audience—especially among female goth fans—but finding resistance among traditional metalheads. Industrial metal has met with more acceptance, partly because of its long history and its valorization of pure aggressive noise; Ministry has long been the genre’s flag-bearer, with the surprising Rammstein hitting it big in the nü-metal years, and younger groups like Static-X carrying on the tradition.
Prog-metal, in the form of bands like King’s X, Dream Theater, and Fates Warning, has been around for decades, combining complex, jazz-like structures, fluid guitar playing, and ambitious song structures and time signatures with a solid heavy-metal rhythm core and theatrical vocals. The genre has repeatedly been refined and expanded, bringing everything from the thrash-imbued Queensrÿche and the neo-psychedelic Porcupine Tree to the intense death-metal variations of Opeth into the prog tent. Building on the experimentalism and eclecticism of prog-metal while building up the heaviness, a number of bands have emerged in recent years in a relatively new subgenre known as post-metal (also called “instru-metal,” since the bands often dispense with vocals altogether, ridding them of a potential embarrassment that no doubt helps their substantial hipster appeal). One of the leading proponents of this style, though its members claim to loathe the term “post-metal,” is Chicago’s Pelican; others include Neurosis and a handful of affiliated Los Angeles bands—Isis, Intronaut, and the Red Sparowes. As with prog-metal before them, post-metal bands are creating fascinating music that pushes the boundaries of what metal means, but they also strike many metal purists as pretentious and indulgent.
Past the bleeding edges of post-metal, far out on the distant edges of the genre, are a number of bands so difficult to categorize that they practically occupy subgenres all to themselves. Some still enjoy commercial and critical success; the Melvins, in particular, are hugely influential, even though they play a style of music that belongs, essentially, just to them. While no one has managed to fully embrace the group’s unique style of slow doom tempos, choppy guitars and drums, off-kilter song structures, and bizarre lyrics, a number of bands in the late ’80s and early ’90s, particularly in Louisiana, picked up on it, slowed it down even further, and, emphasizing the punk elements and the druggy lyrical concerns, invented sludge metal. This slow, vicious form of metal was best heard in bands like Eyehategod, Crowbar, and Buzzoven. Meanwhile, beginning with Seattle’s Earth, a number of bands kept the slow tempos, but emphasized the pulsing, repetitive riffs instead of the hardcore intensity, giving birth to drone metal. The style has many proponents and offshoots, including Sunn O)))’s experimental flavor and the industrial creaking of Britain’s Esoteric, but perhaps the best band to emerge from the genre is Japan’s Boris. Named after a Melvins song and incorporating both sludge and doom elements, Boris also throws in pure, old-school heavy-rock riffs and noise-rock experimentalism to create a sound that’s truly like no one else’s—and louder than hell.
On the exact opposite end of the spectrum from drone is grindcore. Its fans like it loud and they like it hard, but most of all, they like it fast. Very, very, fast. Incalculably fast. So fast, in fact, that British grind pioneer Napalm Death holds a Guinness-certified record for the world’s shortest recorded song: “You Suffer,” clocking in at a blink-and-you’ll-literally-miss-it 1.1 seconds long. There are endless variations of grind: the goregrind of Carcass, with its industrial staccato rhythms and horrific lyrics drawn straight from medical encyclopedias; the New England style of grindcore practiced by Anal Cunt and Agoraphobic Nosebleed, with their comically hateful song titles and whiplash intensity; the more punk-influenced New York scene of Discordance Axis and Brutal Truth; and even a new generation of bands, typified by the excellent Genghis Tron and The Locust, which combine grindcore speed and power with spastic synth and electro. In whatever guise grind comes calling, though, you’ll know it by its blinding speed and the fanatic devotion of its listeners.
Finally, existing in the darkest recesses of the metal world, self-isolated and deliberately extreme and alienating, lies black metal. Embracing without irony the most sinister stereotypes of heavy metal—corpsepaint, spiked leather, and an unabashed love of Satan—black-metal bands have also been the focus of incredible controversy abroad: A few of their more rambunctious members in Germany and Scandinavia have been involved in church burnings and even murders. Curiously, the black-metal genre is difficult to pin down, at least in a musical sense; its founding fathers were in the British trio Venom, who introduced the ultra-violent Satanic lyrical imagery and the distinctive look (as well as the over-the-top names for band members, now practically a black-metal prerequisite), but musically, they were in the NWOBHM tradition: hooky, mid-tempo metal that few today would categorize as “extreme.” Later iterations of the style, starting with Bathory and moving along through bands like Mayhem and Marduk, maintained the imagery, but moved the musical style into a fast, intense form of death metal. Later refinements took black metal even further away from a recognizable form of rock music: beginning with Sweden’s Abruptum and progressing through today’s French black-metal scene with bands like Antaeus, Spektr, and Blut Aus Nord, ambient black metal is becoming more commonplace, with rhythm sections vanishing entirely in favor of screaming guitars and creepy, evocative electronics. The commitment to shock, blasphemy, and almost cartoonish evil hasn’t changed, though.
1. Black Sabbath, Paranoid (1970)
If you don’t have any Sabbath in your record collection, read no further—just go out and get the band’s second album and listen to it all the way through. If it doesn’t convince you of the validity of metal as an art form, nothing will. Any one of Sabbath’s first four albums is a must-own, but Paranoid is probably the strongest overall collection of songs, from the unforgettable “War Pigs” to the impossibly heavy “Iron Man” to the jumpy “Electric Funeral” to the ridiculous—and ridiculously catchy—“Fairies Wear Boots,” it’s a stone classic from beginning to end.
2. Iron Maiden, The Number Of The Beast (1982)
Anyone who wants to know why the new wave of British heavy metal was such a big deal needs look no further than Iron Maiden’s third album—and the first to feature vocalist Bruce Dickinson, whose voice is one of the all-time great instruments in rock ’n’ roll. Half the songs on the album (“Invaders,” “The Prisoner,” “Run To The Hills,” and the title track) are instant classics. Clive Burr will never get enough credit for his clever drumwork—he actually makes the drums the catchiest part of many a song—and guitarists Dave Murray and Adrian Smith do some of their best playing here. Maiden’s quality has varied over the years, but on this album, the group sounds like it could take over the world.
3. Slayer, Reign In Blood (1986)
Producer Rick Rubin took liberties with Slayer’s sound on its third album, and the group’s members couldn’t have been happier about it. Kerry King’s wailing guitars stood out like Christ crucified against the blinding speed of the songs, and Rubin wisely brought Dave Lombardo’s astonishingly powerful drumming to the fore. “Angel Of Death” is still eye-gogglingly great 20 years later, but there isn’t a dud track on the entire record. The true birth of extreme metal, and by any estimation, a great leap forward for heavy music.
4. Death, Individual Thought Patterns (1993)
Any number of great Florida death-metal bands could fill this slot—Cynic’s Focus, Atheist’s Unquestionable Presence, or Deicide’s debut album were all fantastic records from around the same time—but those looking to get started in death metal might as well go with Chuck Schuldiner, the father of the whole scene. Individual Thought Patterns finds him sharing the solos for the first time, which opens up Death’s sound substantially and adds whole new levels of complexity to this most intricate of musical subgenres, and the rhythm section of bassist Steve DiGiorgio and drummer Gene Hoglan is one of the greatest team-ups in metal history.
5. Anaal Nathrakh, The Codex Necro (2001)
Britain’s dark master of extreme metal kicked off what has been an amazingly rich decade of metal music with this masterpiece. Its last three records—Eschaton, Hell Is Empty And All The Devils Are Here, and In The Constellation Of The Black Widow—have all been terrific, but it’s unlikely that it’ll ever surpass the raw power, surprising eclecticism, and sheer sonic intensity of its debut album, an unprecedented mix of black metal, death metal, industrial, and grind. Mick Kenney and Dave Hunt haven’t made a bad record yet, but they don’t come much better than The Codex Necro.