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Journey of Metal: Understanding Early Metal Music

Over the years, most people understood (or perhaps misunderstood) metal music as rock’s little brother. Is that really the case? How and why did metal emerge? Does metal music predominantly mean heavy metal? How has metal music changed over time? What are the characteristics of some early subgenres? What is the main philosophy of metal? Let’s dive in.

First of all, I find it necessary to define metal music. The starting point of metal’s main philosophy is that its listeners and artists define themselves as “protrusions”, which is something that sticks out, as musicologist Dr. Selim Yavuz puts it. Metal music has always tried to separate itself from mainstream music, and although it has experienced mergers from time to time, it has become increasingly more distant from the characteristics of mainstream music over time.

Understanding the blues-based rock music’s evolution from the Beatles to bands like Deep Purple, Jimi Hendrix, and Led Zeppelin over time helps us understand how metal came to be. Deep Purple boosted the BPM (beats per minute) level with songs like “Burn”, Zeppelin did some atonal compositions, not always staying faithful to the song’s harmony and experimented a lot in terms of “sound” (as in different guitar tones and special effects in vocals), Hendrix made the guitar the main instrument of his music to an unprecedented extent, highlighting the instrument even more than his vocals and introduced complicated guitar parts to rock music when compared to his predecessors. It is safe to say that everything that I just mentioned are fundamental elements that you will often see at different points of the metal music timeline.

The most fundamental point where music started to differentiate from rock music to metal was with Black Sabbath’s Black Sabbath album. Even the fact that the album cover, which features a witch figure, is nowhere near any other rock album cover from the early 70s is a sign that there is something odd about the album. The album’s first track “Black Sabbath” is definitely much more static and darker than a random Deep Purple or Queen track. Guitarist Iommi’s riff, which keeps the song insistently on the diminished 5th tritone a.k.a. “The Devil’s Interval” (Wiederhorn) without resolution, and Ozzy’s inclusion of the devil in the lyrics are a clear indication that we are taking a step in the opposite direction of rock music’s “Woodstock” world full of flower children.

It may come in handy right now to try and categorize Sabbath’s music in retrospect. Black Sabbath’s music is labeled as Heavy Metal. Contrary to popular belief, heavy metal is not an umbrella for every metal genre and is a genre of its own just like Thrash Metal, which we will examine later. “Heavy Metal” uses blues as a basis as it relies a lot on the pentatonic scale (a musical scale with five notes per octave, in contrast to the heptatonic scale, which has seven notes per octave (such as the major scale and minor scale)), a great example of this would be Sabbath’s song “Paranoid”. In other words, even though metal music in the 70s started to separate from rock, it has not ruptured from the blues foundation yet.

The aforementioned rupture took place in the late 70s and early 80s when the New Wave of British Heavy Metal (NWOBHM for short) took over the metal scene. Bands such as Iron Maiden and Judas Priest no longer relied heavily on blues and pentatonic concepts. The most iconic novelties with NWOBHM are probably high-pitched, falsetto vocals (for example Bruce Dickinson from Iron Maiden, Rob Halford from Judas Priest, and Ian Swift from Avenger), story and myth-based lyrics, and perhaps most importantly the popularization of metal music. Although it can be argued that Sabbath had already popularized metal by the end of the 70s, NWOBHM bands like Iron Maiden and Priest started to regularly fill stadiums at their concerts. Popularization of metal bands and the formation of a huge economy in metal music has led to a serious increase in the number of metal bands and labels started showing interest in them as they discovered that there is money to be made from this type of music, which seriously impacted metal.

The introduction of big labels has led to “easier-to-listen” versions of metal. The main actors of this kind of metal music are, of course, Glam Metal bands. Bands including Motley Crüe, Quiet Riot, Twisted Sister, and Skid Row gave life to the rockstar stereotype and brought the “Sex, Drugs, and Rock n Roll” culture to people’s eyes with their lyrics, clothes, and lifestyle. This type of lifestyle must have been very interesting to a serious part of people at the time as there were many Glam Metal bands that topped music charts for years. Just like that, metal music started to become mainstream.

Inevitably, there was a huge reaction from the metal community to this, which initiated the “Extreme Turn” in the mid-80s. The first step to this change in metal music was taken when the band Motörhead blended Punk elements with metal. Both Glam Metal’s effort to “simplify the music for everyone to listen to” and NWOBHM’s clean playing and falsetto vocals were broken with the Do It Yourself philosophy (with the main idea being, “we can also play for only 20 people”) coming from Punk culture as it normalized dirty and gritty playing/singing. Moreover, the fast-paced nature of punk music introduced metalheads with unfiltered energy and intensity by causing metal tracks to speed up drastically. With this, metal subgenres started to enrich.

One of the most well-known genres that came with the Extreme Turn is “Thrash Metal”. With Thrash kings like Testament, Megadeth, Metallica, and Slayer, the tempo reached new heights but in contrast to Punk music’s sloppy playing style, technical playing is emphasized in instrument scores. In addition, it can be said that the concept of melody sometimes gets obscured in songs even though melodies have not yet disappeared completely. As an example, we can look at certain parts of Slayer’s “Raining Blood”, Metallica’s “Metal Militia” or Megadeth’s “Take No Prisoners”. Also, thrash metal vocals are not particularly easy to listen to and are quite aggressive. Additionally, the lyrics are far from the “Sex, Drugs, and Rock n Roll” concept of Glam Metal and are mostly about political concepts such as war, corruption, and injustice. In general, it can be said that Thrash Metal has rearranged metal as a more serious and aggressive genre.

The next stop on the path to aggression is “Death Metal”, which elevated the aggressive musical elements of Thrash even more. In Death Metal, identified with the band “Death” founded by Chuck Schuldiner, guitar compositions have become faster and more aggressive as the importance of melody has diminished, and drums have changed significantly by becoming more “blast beat” oriented. Just like the guitar, vocals became much more aggressive and brutal (grunting, growling vocals) and there was mostly no note or harmony purpose in the vocals. The lyrics, while occasionally illuminatingly mentioning the irony of the life-death dichotomy or the collapse of the concepts of privacy and intimacy (“1000 Eyes” by Death), are generally obsessively filled with themes of human anatomy, death, blood, and murder. From time to time, themes of Satan and anti-religion also appear in songs but it cannot be said that the said themes are fully integrated.

Finally, arguably the most extreme type of metal, “Black Metal”, which takes metal further away from the rails of melody. Its most foundational characteristic is definitely the undeniable placement of Satan and anti-religion at the center of the music. You can mainly divide early black metal into two sections: First and Second Wave Black Metal. During the First Wave Black Metal period from the 80s to the early 90s, bands like Bathory, Venom, Sodom, Hellhammer, and (partially) Slayer provided the characteristic features of the genre such as production rawness, static guitar parts and themes like demon obsession, God hatred, and suicide. After the first wave, the Second Wave Black Metal led by bands (mostly from Norway) such as Burzum, Darkthrone, Mayhem, Immortal, Gorgoroth, Emperor, Enslaved, and Marduk defined the genre and dragged it to the extremes by overdoing musical and cultural elements compared to its pioneers. The vocals have become more distant from the human voice, adding eardrum-scratching high-pitched screams next to the bassy growls we encountered in Death Metal, guitars became dominated by chord-based static riffs without palm muting the strings (meaning suppressing distortion guitar sound with the palm), and the drums started to accompany the music with fast-paced (sometimes maintaining around 300 BPM) blast beats by not letting the music breathe as much as possible. In addition to all of these, Black Metal artists recorded their music with bad equipment and presented it to the market with as little refinement as possible in the studio as a reaction to the “overproduction” habit that they thought had taken over the music industry. Moreover, the main theme of the lyrics is Satan and a deep hatred of God and the church as a reaction to the active eradication of paganism and the Christianization of Scandinavia even though it is an age-old matter. Also, there is a negative atmosphere concerning the main themes such as suicide, death, misanthropy, and sometimes disasters being integrated into the lyrics. And maybe the weirdest part of the entire genre is the criminal activity like burning churches by a minority of the artists and fans of the genre between 1990 and 2000. As a result certain unfortunate offenses have taken precedence over the music by the media.

In conclusion, it is possible to find a sociological reason for the origination of each sub-genre when analyzed. Metal is a very interesting music genre to study with its efforts to be much more “protruding” than other genres and its opposition to the mainstream trends of music. It is possible to go in-depth into countless topics like the culture, philosophy, origin, and characteristics of many other sub-genres but I don’t want to take away the fun of learning. Farewell until next time and may metal be with you, always.

The writer of the article with local metal musicians

Me, Yiğit Gülmez (bottom left) and local metal heroes of Istanbul Özgür Özkan (left/ lead vocals and bass in Killing and Soul Sacrifice, guitars in Hayko Cepkin) and Başer Çelebi (right/ lead vocals and rhythm guitar in Razor Inc. and Furtherial) in Dorock Heavy Metal Club after their acoustic setlist, accompanied by the great staff of Dorock and renowned photographer/videographer Çağlar Barikan (top left stairs) and the mighty Tonmeister Umut Batuhan Kızıltepe (middle, playing guitar). [All rights of the photo belong to Ayfer Erkan]

Written by: Yiğit Gülmez

Edited by: Simay Cemre Tülübaş and Yağmur Ece Nisanoğlu

Works Cited:

  • Cover photo by Jonathan Edwin

  • Dr. Mehmet Selim Yavuz. Dr.Doom ile Metal 101. Gitar Edevat youtube channel, November 2019.[along with the other videos from the series Dr.Doom ile Metal 102, 201 part 1, 201 part 2].

  • Thrash Metal: Time Signature. Thrash Metal.

  • Death Metal Lyrics: Nordström, Stefan. Death Metal Lyrics., November 2019.

  • skunkspritz. First Wave of Black Metal Timeline and bands.

  • Ammirato, James. A Brief History of Black Metal., December 2018.

  • Doom Wizard. Second Wave of Black Metal.

  • Fisher, Kieran. The Devil’s Roots: Satanism in Black Metal., 2016.

  • Wiederhorn, Jon. The Devil’s Chord: The Eerie History of ‘Diabolus in Musica’.

  • Wikipedia, Pentatonic Scale

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