Heavy metal, often referred to as simply metal, is a popular genre of music that originated from the United States and the United Kingdom in the late 1960’s. It is derived from multiple subgenres of rock, namely blues rock, acid rock, and psychedelic rock.
Three of the first major metal bands were all formed in the same year, 1968. These were Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, and Deep Purple, sometimes called “the unholy trinity”. A year before, in 1967, the San Francisco-based band Blue Cheer recorded a cover of the 1958 classic song by Eddie Cochran “Summertime Blues”, which is considered by many to be the first metal song ever made. The term “heavy metal” per se comes from a lyric in the 1968 song by Steppenwolf “Born to Be Wild”, where the words “heavy metal thunder” are used in reference to a motorcycle.
For over a decade, the new, aggressive genre of metal was confined to the underground culture in big urban centers. Any song of this kind was usually received negatively by music critics. The first time metal bands began to see considerable mainstream success was in the 1980’s, with bands such as Van Halen, Slayer, Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, and Metallica. The 1990’s brought about the nu metal movement in music, with such artists as Limp Bizkit and Kid Rock, then later Linkin Park. While its popularity has declined a little since, metal’s still one of the more listen-to genres of today.
Heavy metal has a lot of similarities with rock, to the point where it’s very hard to distinguish between hard rock and metal, a distinction that sometimes comes down to personal opinion.
Just like rock, metal is usually played by bands, but there are a few exceptions to that rule. Solo metal artists such as Ozzy Osbourne and Marilyn Manson also have backup bands, but they are not involved in the songwriting process and have less of a stage presence at live performances than “regular” metal bands. The classic metal band line-up consists of a lead singer, a lead guitarist, a rhythm guitarist, a bassist, and a drummer.
The tempo is faster than in a rock song, the average being between 120 and 180 beats per minute. The rhythmic patterns are made up of short, detached, abruptly changing rhythmic cells. The drums are more prominently featured in instrumentals than in rock, with the drummer usually applying a double bass pedal.
Metal also uses the blues scale often used in rock, but has another distinct harmonic feature: the so-called “power chords”. Power chords are when (typically) a guitar player plays the root note and the 5th note in the chord at the same time, without any interval.
Metal vocalists sometimes use the technique of “growling” aka “the death growl”, which is the technique of singing in a deep, guttural voice. However, they also often sing high-pitched melodies, either in falsetto, or in their head voice - thus the range of a metal singer should be very wide. Metal performers are also known to do shocking stunts on stage from time to time, think of Ozzy Osbourne biting off the head of a bat during a live show in Des Moines, Iowa in 1982.
Heavy metal songs tend to have very dark themes in their lyrics, such as death, war, doom, despair, and an eagerness to destroy.
The most famous metal bands of today have been around for decades.
Metallica from California, US started in the early 1980’s. Their self-titled album from 1991 is one of the best selling records of all time with over 30 million copies sold worldwide. Their biggest hits to date are “Nothing Else Matters” (1991), “Enter Sandman” (also 1991), and “One” (1989). Kiss has been on the scene for even longer, since 1973. Their most famous songs are “I Was Made for Lovin’ You” (1979) and “Forever” (1989). Slipknot from Iowa is from the younger generation of metal bands, starting in the 1990’s.
Mötley Crüe has the typical “metal umlauts” in their name. They’re a California-based band with such hits as “Home Sweet Home” (1981), and “Kickstart My Heart" (1989), as well as a Netflix documentary based on their collective autobiography. The most successful band from the nu metal era has been Linkin Park. Their 2000 album “Hybrid Theory” sold a whopping 20 million copies worldwide. The best known tracks on that record are “One Step Closer” and “In the End”.
Iron Maiden from the United Kingdom has put out such classics over the years as "Hallowed Be Thy Name" (1982), "The Trooper" (1983), and the titular single of their smash hit 1992 album, “Fear of Dark”. The famous metal band Salem is also from the UK.