I recently took a sabbatical. And one of the joys of being on sabbatical is that you can devote time and attention and energy to pursuits that otherwise might seem frivolous and tangential and unrelated to your actual vocation. That’s how this heavy metal timeline came to be.
On sabbatical, I was hanging out with a group of friends we call “The Soul Brothers.” The Soul Brothers are music lovers, and one night we got to talking about music. I asked my friend Steve, who’s a heavy metal aficionado, what qualifies a song as “heavy metal.” Apart from “you know it when you hear it,” what defining features separate heavy metal from regular old rock-n-roll? And that started us down a rabbit hole from which we never really extricated ourselves. Our brief Google research unearthed theories upon theories upon theories… and of course, every artist wants to defy categories, which leads to endless debate over whether such-and-such artist should properly be understood as thrash metal or hardcore or crust punk or post-hardcore or something else. In the end, the Soul Brothers issued a challenge: why not answer my own question? They charged me to use my teaching gifts to create an accessible “family tree” for heavy metal bands – one that doesn’t encompass every band and sub-genre and metalhead nuance, but that explains the basic evolution of the genre for the casual listener.
This post is the result of that challenge. Rather than a family tree, I built a timeline that traces the basic “flow” and evolution of the musical style known as heavy metal. Many of the explanatory nuggets below are cut-and-pasted from various sources I scoured over multiple days of internet research. I make no claim to originality for any of it. The descriptions below are largely borrowed from other journalists, painstakingly culled and condensed by yours truly. What IS original is my curating and arranging of the material in this fashion.
I dare say you won’t find a more concise, clear, accessible introduction to heavy metal anywhere else! Which may lead to a comment thread full of arguments over the generalizations I’ve made and the additional nuance that may be needed. And I’ll be the first to welcome your input. But remember: we’re trying to put the cookies on the bottom shelf. Feel free to suggest whatever additions, subtractions, or amendments you think may be needed in the comment thread.
1968: HEAVY METAL IS BORN
Three genre-defining bands formed in 1968: Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, & Deep Purple. Also in 1968, Steppenwolf recorded the lyric “heavy metal thunder!” in their song “Born to Be Wild,” which christened a de facto name for the budding new genre.
- Heavy metal is a departure from standard blues-based rock; it’s influenced by 1960s drug culture (LSD, acid rock) and by rebellious/transgressive/counter-cultural sensibilities.
- Black Sabbath’s guitarist Tony Iommi suffered an industrial accident and was unable to play normally; he had to to tune his guitar down for easier fretting and rely on power chords with their relatively simple fingering. This defined Black Sabbath’s heavy, chugging, metallic sound, and the sound of heavy metal in general.
- Defining Features: prominent bass riffs, heavy and emphatic drumming, and the “heavy metal guitar sound” – high volume & heavy distortion.
- Fashion: frayed blue jeans, black T-shirts, boots, and denim jackets; also down-the-back long hair.
- A Characteristic Song: “Smoke on the Water” by Deep Purple (1973)
- Bands Representative of the Category: Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, Kiss, Judas Priest, Alice Cooper
- By the mid-1970s, the three pioneer bands of heavy metal – Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, and Deep Purple – were disbanding. As a consequence, the whole movement lost much of its momentum and media interest, giving way to punk-rock.
1976: THE RISE OF PUNK ROCK
- “Punk” was originally a derogatory term; but it was claimed as a badge of honor by misfits and outsiders who felt they didn’t fit in mainstream culture (or who consciously wanted to reject it). Thus, punk music has always had an “outsider” vibe.
- Punk was primarily a British phenomenon. It had a strong DIY ethic: simple home-grown recording, straightforward garage-band sounds, a rejection of commercialized music.
Punk also rejected hippie culture; it was more anti-authoritarian and rebellious. Its goal was to “outrage and shock the mainstream.”
- Defining Features: simple guitar riffs; uncomplicated bass lines; generally 4/4 time signature (some bands would shout “1-2-3-4” at the beginning of every song)
- Fashion: Mohawk haircut; dyed hair; t-shirts; leather jackets; ripped jeans; boots
- A Characteristic Song: “Blitzkrieg Bop” by the Ramones (1976)
- Bands Representative of the Category: Ramones, the Clash, Sex Pistols, David Bowie
- Quickly after its founding, the punk movement splintered into new wave (more popular) and hardcore punk (more grassroots).
1977: NEW WAVE
- “New wave” was a poppy, mainstream style of punk-influenced music. It was essentially an “Americanized” sort of punk; music promoters used the name “new wave” to avoid the bad publicity that went with British punk’s anti-establishment vibe.
- Defining Features: New wave blended the mainstream hooks and polished production of pop music with the sardonic, ironic attitude of punk. It also incorporated themes from disco and electronic music. This was the music style that defined the beginnings of MTV.
- Fashion: commonly, a “nerdy” look (big glasses, button-down shirts, suits & ties)
- A Characteristic Song: “My Sharona” by The Knack (Billboard #1 song in 1979)
- Bands Representative of the Category: Blondie, the Police, the Cars, the B-52s
1979: NWOBHM (NEW WAVE OF BRITISH HEAVY METAL)
- Basically this genre competed with punk in Britain in 1979-1980 – you were either a punk rocker or a metalhead. NWOBHM resurrected the heavy metal sound of the earlier 1970s, infusing it with the intensity of punk rock to produce fast and aggressive songs. Like punk rock, NWOBHM had a DIY attitude, leading to raw-sounding, self-produced recordings and a proliferation of independent record labels.
- Defining Features: shorter songs with fast tempos; loud guitars featuring power chords; vocals ranging from high pitched wails to low growls.
- Fashion: long hair and jeans, black or white T-shirts with band logos and cover art and leather jackets or denim vests adorned with patches; metallic studs and ornaments; military elements such as bullet belts and insignias.
- A Characteristic Song: “Ace of Spades” by Motorhead (1980)
- Bands Representative of the Category: Iron Maiden, Motorhead, early Def Leppard
- Post-punk was a more artsy, avant-garde, philosophical type of music than new wave or traditional punk. “Inspired by punk’s energy and DIY ethic but determined to break from rock cliches, artists experimented with sources including electronic music and black styles like dub, funk, and disco… and ideas from art and politics, including critical theory, modernist art, cinema and literature” (Wikipedia).
Defining Features: punk-rock foundations with electronic/dance influences (synth-heavy); lyrics and fashion marked by artistic, avant-garde sensibilities.
- Fashion: see New Wave
- A Characteristic Song: “Burning Down the House” by Talking Heads (1983)
- Bands Representative of the Category: Talking Heads, The Cure, Depeche Mode, New Model Army, New Order, Violent Femmes
1981: HARDCORE PUNK
- Hardcore has been called a “faster, meaner genre” of punk; a “rebellion against a rebellion.” If new-wave took a more commercial and broadly accepted path, hardcore went the opposite direction.
- Defining Features: Shouted vocals; louder, harder, faster music (every instrument sounds like it’s competing for the highest volume); moshing or slam dancing.
- Fashion: a dressed-down style of T-shirts, jeans, combat boots or sneakers and crewcut-style haircuts.
- A Characteristic Song: “Attitude” by Bad Brains (1982)
- Bands Representative of the Category: Bad Brains, Dead Kennedys, the Misfits, early Beastie Boys
1983: GLAM METAL aka POP METAL aka HAIR METAL
- Def Leppard began as a NWOBHM band; but the release of their third album Pyromania in 1983 corresponded to the advent of glam-metal. Also in 1983, Quiet Riot’s album Metal Health reached number one in the Billboard
- Once this genre began to decline in the 1990s, “hair metal” became a
derogatory term used to refer to the bands of this era.
- Defining Features: the aggression and sonic power of classic heavy metal; the fashion and image of 1970s glam rock; and the hooky guitar riffs and vocal melodies of pop music. The mid-1980s glam metal bands perfected the “metal ballad” – a slowly building rock ballad, frequently focused on love-song themes, that eventually broke into powerful, high-energy guitar-driven heavy metal.
- Fashion: very long backcombed hair; use of hair spray & make-up; tight denim or leather jeans; spandex; headbands.
- A Characteristic Song: “Photograph” by Def Leppard (1983)
- Bands Representative of the Category: Van Halen, Quiet Riot, Motley Crue, Poison, Bon Jovi, Guns N Roses, later Def Leppard
1983: THRASH METAL aka SPEED METAL aka POWER METAL
- The band Metallica formed in 1983, making that year a defining moment for the thrash metal genre. This genre emerged as musicians began fusing the double bass drumming and complex guitar stylings of the new wave of British heavy metal (NWOBHM) with the speed and aggression of hardcore punk.
- Philosophically, thrash metal developed as a backlash against the pop-influenced, widely accessible sub-genre of glam metal. Thrash metal was also an inspiration for subsequent extreme metal genres such as death metal and black metal.
- Defining Features: fast tempos; harsh vocal and guitar timbre; technically demanding guitar solos played at high speed and characterized by shredding.
- Fashion: see NWOBHM
- A Characteristic Song: “For Whom the Bell Tolls” by Metallica (1984)
- Bands Representative of the Category: early Metallica, Megadeth, Slayer, Anthrax (the “Big 4” of thrash metal)
- Subcategory: DEATH METAL – A subgenre spawned by Slayer, whose music was more violent than their thrash metal contemporaries. Death metal’s defining musical characteristic is “death growl” vocals, along with violent and extreme lyrics that explore dark and sadistic topics like psychopathy, delirium, mutilation, exorcism, torture, rape, and cannibalism. Death metal in turn spawned multiple dark and morally questionable sub-genres: war metal, deathcore, grindcore, etc.
1988: “ALTERNATIVE ROCK”
- Growing out of the punk scene, bands like R.E.M. and The Replacements pioneered a more melodic, mainstream sound that took the late 1980s and early 1990s by storm.
- This music was “alternative” because it was outside the mainstream; it had the DIY, non-commercial sensibilities of punk, and tended to be released on independent labels. It was sometimes called “college rock” due to airplay on college radio stations.
- In 1988, Billboard created the “Alternative Songs” chart, indicating that this style of music was growing in popularity.
- The designation “alternative rock” is probably unhelpfully broad; it encompasses a diverse set of styles unified by their debt to punk rock and post-punk, and their origins outside of the musical mainstream.
- A Characteristic Song: “It’s the End of the World As We Know It” by R.E.M. (1987)
- Bands Representative of the Category: 10,000 Maniacs, R.E.M., Pearl Jam, Red Hot Chili Peppers
1991: THE SEATTLE INVASION aka “GRUNGE”
- 1991 marked the first Lollapalooza music festival, conceived by Jane’s Addiction frontman Perry Farrell, and also the release of Nirvana’s first album “Nevermind.” These two events would change the trajectory of popular music in America. Music journalist Michael Azerrad asserted that Nevermind marked “a sea-change in rock music.” Alternative music, which until now had truly been alternative, suddenly entered the mainstream.
- The early grunge movement revolved around Seattle’s independent record label Sub Pop. The owners of Sub Pop marketed Northwestern punk rock shrewdly and the media was encouraged to describe it as “grunge”, which came to mean a punk + metal hybrid.
- Defining Features: the “Seattle Sound.” Seattle music journalist Charles R. Cross defines grunge as distortion-filled, down-tuned and riff-based rock that uses loud electric guitar feedback and heavy, “ponderous” bass lines to support its song melodies. Grunge guitarists rejected the virtuoso guitar solos that had become the centerpiece of heavy metal songs, instead opting for melodic, blues-inspired solos – focusing on the song, not the guitar solo.
- Fashion: loose-fitting thrift store flannel shirts, jeans, and boots
- A Characteristic Song: “Smells Like Teen Spirit” by Nirvana (1991)
- Bands Representative of the Category: Nirvana, Stone Temple Pilots, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden
1990: ALTERNATIVE METAL
- Metallica’s self-titled “Black Album,” released in 1991, was arguably a defining moment for this genre (and a pivot point for the band). The “alt-metal” label was applied to a wide spectrum of bands that fused metal with different styles: punk, funk, hip hop, progressive rock, and industrial. Alternative metal artists, though they did not represent a cohesive scene, were united by 1) their willingness to experiment with the metal genre and 2) their rejection of glam metal aesthetics.
- Houston Press described the alt-metal genre as being a “compromise for people for whom Nirvana was not heavy enough but Metallica was too heavy.”
- A Characteristic Song: “Nothing Else Matters” by Metallica (1991)
- Bands Representative of the Category: Alice in Chains, Tool, Jane’s Addiction, Nine Inch Nails, post-1990 Metallica, Faith No More
1993: NU METAL
- Korn, a band formed in 1993, released their self-titled debut album the following year; it is widely considered to be the first nu metal release.
- Stereogum claimed that nu metal was a “weird outgrowth of the Lollapalooza-era alt-metal scene.” During the late 1990s and early 2000s, nu metal was prevalent in the mainstream. It became more popular than alternative metal, and resulted in a more standardized sound.
- Defining Features: elements of hip hop, often including DJs and turntables and rap-style vocals. Many nu metal guitarists use seven-string guitars that are down-tuned to play a heavier sound; the genre is heavily syncopated and based on guitar riffs.
- Fashion: tracksuits; sports team tanks; baseball caps; hoodies.
- A Characteristic Song: “In The End” by Linkin Park (2000)
- Bands Representative of the Category: Slipknot, Linkin Park, Limp Bizkit, Papa Roach, P.O.D., Korn, Kid Rock
- Editorial Note: in retrospect, nu metal is disrespected and panned by many, similar to 80’s glam metal. It was seen as a musical refuge for suburban kids with dysfunctional families; it’s sometimes been referred to as “mallcore” or “whinecore.”
- The tragic suicide of Nirvana frontman and musical pioneer Kurt Cobain in 1994 brought the grunge movement to an abrupt end. In its place arose a genre called post-grunge, which was essentially a more polished, pop-influenced style of music with grunge sensibilities. The moniker “post-grunge” was originally a term of disdain for bands that seemed to be mimicking the grunge sound in order to capitalize off its success, but the term came to define a broad swath of rock music in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
- Defining Features: a high-production, polished, radio-friendly sound; mainstream lyrics and song themes. (Grunge lyrics tended to focus on social alienation, angst, addiction, and hypocrisy; post-grunge lyrics are much more likely to focus on romance, relationships, and belonging.)
- Fashion: see Grunge
- A Characteristic Song: “Push” by Matchbox Twenty (1996)
- Bands Representative of the Category: Foo Fighters, Live, Creed, Matchbox Twenty, Bush
- If Seattle was the epicenter of music in the early 1990s, the focus shifted to California in the mid- to late-1990s. As grunge began to decline, a new strain of punk rock was coming to the forefront, rooted in California’s punk scene and headlined by bands like Weezer and Green Day.
- Defining Features: bright, catchy pop vocals over standard punk-rock guitar and bass lines; a “slacker” vibe. (If punk had an anarchist/misfit feel, and grunge a brooding/angsty feel, pop-punk had more of a “who cares” feel.)
- Fashion: skateboard fashion
- A Characteristic Song: “When I Come Around” by Green Day (1994)
- Bands Representative of the Category: Weezer, Green Day, Blink-182, The Offspring
ADDITIONAL HEAVY METAL SUB-GENRES
- Anarcho-punk = punk rock that explicitly promotes anarchy
- Crust punk = English punk rock + extreme metal; pessimistic social/political lyrics
- Thrashcore = a faster, more intense style of hardcore punk, associated with skateboard culture
- Grindcore = fusion of heavy metal and hardcore punk; noise-filled and abrasive
- Metalcore = a fusion of extreme metal and hardcore
- Mathcore = rhythmically complicated metal; uses odd time signatures
- Deathcore = metalcore + death metal
- And dozens of other sub-genres that only matter to those who really care