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Heavy metal music

Heavy metal is an evolutionary product of pop, blues and "classical" music with a generally accepted life cycle of 20 years, from approximately 1970 to 1990. Its first wave, between 1967 and 1974, was a product of pop and blues, while the classical element came to the fore in 1978.

In music, heavy metal is progenitor of the "Metal-family" (for example, heavy metal, black metal, death metal...). Metal derives directly from blues and rock, even if in some sub-genres there is an evident influence of classical music. So, even if heavy metal and black metal belong to the same family, there is an effective difference between them. Heavy metal is mainly blues-based, with pentatonic scales and a blues-like song structure; black metal is based on classical music, even if at a first glance it seems to be only distorted guitars playing very fast a repeating melody.

Rock historians tend to find that the influence of White pop gives heavy metal its escape-from-reality fantasy side ("...I got a new girl now...") while African-American blues gives heavy metal its naked reality side ("...since my baby left me..."), Weinstein, 11. For many, heavy metal crystallizes in the British bands Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath in 1970, an idea strongly supported Walser, 10. In fact, the history of heavy metal (from its precursors to the last branch before the crystallization of thrash/speed/death metal in the late 1980s), is pushed forward by three main British waves: The Beatles & The Rolling Stones in the 60s; Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Judas Priest and Deep Purple in the 70s; and Iron Maiden and Judas Priest in the 80s (from which sprouted thrash and its mutations eg Metallica, Slayer) and Def Leppard (from which sprouted "glam" metal eg Mötley Crüe, Ratt etc.).

As the original expression of Sabbath/Zeppelin-influenced heavy metal distorted into punk or seceded to disco in the mid to late 1970s, an appropriation of "classical" music would fuel the development towards heavy metal maturity, most fully developed in the work of Eddie Van Halen, and Randy Rhoads' work with Ozzy Osbourne.

Heavy metal got a push from an intellectual and artistic curiosity when musicians started to exploit the opportunities of the electrically amplified guitar to produce a louder, more discordant sound. The origin of the term Heavy metal is uncertain.

According to one version, it was coined by a critic for Rolling Stone Magazine, who in 1967 said that the music of Jimi Hendrix was "like heavy metal falling from the sky". Others references have been the words "heavy metal thunder" in the Steppenwolf song "Born to be Wild", or the William S. Burroughs story "The Heavy Metal Kid".

Regardless of its origin, the term may have been used as a jibe initially but was quickly adopted by its adherents. Bands such as Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple and Black Sabbath specialised in a "stripped down" sound in which the Blues inheritance was reduced. In addition, the influence of Hendrix should not be discounted: acting both as a bridge between black American music and white European rockers. and as an innovator in the technical capabilities of the electric guitar (although some of the original heavy metal-ers joked that their simplified sound was more the result of limited ability than of innovation. See power trio).

Some people say The Beatles started to ignite the metal music movement with Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, and the song "Helter Skelter" from The Beatles. Among the many bands to "cover" this song, Mötley Crüe's version very strongly brings to the fore the heavy metal undertones that the Beatles original song implied but failed to explore in their time. This opinion, however, is open for debate. The earliest song that is clearly identifiable as prototype heavy metal appears to be "You Really Got Me" by The Kinks.

The American band Grand Funk Railroad epitomised early heavy metal, and set an alternative benchmark in which the volume of the music was seen as the important factor rather than its musical qualities. Douglas Adams neatly satirised this propensity for excessive volume in The Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy with the fictional rock band Disaster Area - creators of the loudest sound in the known universe. It should be noted however, that Adams was satirising Pink Floyd stage shows specifically - rather than metal in general.

Heavy metal, as an art form, is more than just music. It is as much visual as it is audible. Album covers and stage shows are almost as important to the presentation of the material as the music itself. Thus, through heavy metal, many artists collaborate to produce a menu of experiences in each piece, offering a wider range of experiences to the audience. In this respect, heavy metal becomes perhaps "more" of an art than any single form. Whereas a painting is experienced visually, while a symphony is an audible experience, a band's "image" and the common theme that binds all their music is expressed in the artwork on the album, the set of the stage, the tone of the lyrics, and the sound of the music.

If the audio/thematic components of heavy metal are predominantly blues-influenced reality, then the visual component is predominantly pop-influenced fantasy. The themes of darkness, evil, power, and apocalyptic are fantastic language components for addressing the reality of life's problems. Further, in reaction to the "peace and love" of the 1960s, heavy metal develops as a counterpoint culture, where light is supplanted by darkness, and the "happy ending" nature of pop is ripped away and replaced by the naked reality that things don't always work out in this world. But truly, the medium of darkness is not the message, although critics would seize upon the medium and accuse heavy metal artists of spreading a message of darkness.

Glitter rock[?], a short-lived era in the mid-1970s, is the extreme exploration of the fantasy-side of the reality-fantasy parents of heavy metal. Iggy Pop, Ziggy Stardust, Alice Cooper and Kiss are among the more popular standard examples of this sub-genre. Punk rock was a more significant branch that explored the very politically charged reality-side of the reality-fantasy parents of heavy metal. The Sex Pistols are the standard example of this sub-genre.

Heavy metal themes are more grave than the "let's go to the hop" fluff of the 1950s, when rock and roll came into being. Commentary on war, nuclear annihilation, environmental issues, political and religious propaganda and such are standard in heavy metal. Black Sabbath's War Pigs ("...in the fields a body's burning, as the war machine keeps turning..."), Ozzy Osbourne's Killer of Giants ("...if none of us believed in war, then can you tell me what the weapons' for?/Listen to me everyone, if the button gets pushed there'll be no where to run...") are just two of many serious contributions to the discussion of the state of affairs. Granted, the commentary tends to become over-simplified, but then, the fantastic poetic vocabulary of heavy metal deals primarily with very clear dichotomies of light/dark, hope/dispair, good/evil which don't make much room for complex shades of gray.

As heavy metal gave in to the dark, hopeless dispair of "real life," it evolved into heavier, more brooding forms -- thrash metal, speed metal, death metal...

The energetic and vitalised music soon found an audience and rapidly spread to the United States through extended touring. American musicians swiftly absorbed the agitated style and began to restore a more technically refined element as well as the Blues element.

An element to be pointed out is that heavy metal is considered by many to be white/European, in opposition to the blues-based rock, which derives from Afro-American music. This only means that the majority of the audience and the players seem to be white. There are, if one chooses to look, several examples of bands that have disproved this stereotype and the audiences can be quite mixed--Thin Lizzy's Phil Lynott[?] and Living Colour are good examples.

The appropriation of classical music is "...specific and consistent: Bach, not Mozart; Paganini rather than Liszt..." such that "we must ask: if we don't understand his influence on the music of Ozzy Osbourne or Bon Jovi, do we really understand Bach as well as we thought we did?" [Walser, 63]. Thus, heavy metal enters the discourse on the enduring nature of music.

Two talents of Bach stand out as significant in the discussion of heavy metal, and his influence upon it. "The significance of Bach's music is due in large part to the scope of his intellect... He was able to understand and use every resource of musical language that was available in the baroque era," [Encarta]. Jimi Hendrix experimented with the sounds and effects that amplifier distortion offered, Led Zeppelin used violins and cellos in their music, and the legacy of Bach lives on. Heavy metal's experimentation with different instruments, sounds and technologies is directly descended from his approach. In the spirit of a pioneering Bach, who greatly expanded the range of music by using his thumbs at the keyboard, Eddie Van Halen expanded the range of the guitar, and heavy metal music, by his innovative "hammer-on" method, using the pick hand to "tap" on the fretboard.

Also, "...when a text was associated with the music, Bach could write musical equivalents of verbal ideas," [Encarta]. Especially as heavy metal uses themes of apocalyptic and images of power and darkness, the ability to translate verbal ideas into musical ideas that successfully convey the ideas of the words is critical to heavy metal authenticity and credibility. An excellent example of this is the theme album Powerslave, by Iron Maiden. The cover is of a dramatic Egyptian pyramid scene, and many of the songs on the album have subject matter that requires a sound suggestive of life and death, including a song entitled [[The Rime of the Ancient Mariner]], based on the poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Pop music is unable to do this, for pop by its nature can't be all that serious, while heavy metal can deal with lighter subjects as well as the serious ones.

Thus, heavy metal has a broader scope and capacity to address more of the human experience, sharing the range of emotional expression that we hear in the work of such composers as Tchaikovsky or Grieg. Ultimately, we see clearly that, to be successful in this critical component of the heavy metal code, technical and artistic insights are paramount.

The explosion of guitar virtuosity founded in the leadership of pioneer Jimi Hendrix a music generation earlier was ushered to the fore by Eddie Van Halen, and many consider his 1978 solo appropriately called Eruption as the significant new dawn in heavy metal history. Ritchie Blackmore (formerly of pioneer Deep Purple), Randy Rhodes (w/ pioneer Ozzy Osbourne formerly of Black Sabbath) and Yngwie Malmsteen would solidify this explosion. All of a sudden, classical guitars, even nylon-stringed guitars, were commonplace at heavy metal concerts, and classical icons such as Liona Boyd[?] became associated with the heavy metal stars as peers in a newly diverse guitar fraternity where conservative and aggressive guitarists could come together to "trade licks" (recently MP3.com featured a collection of Ms. Boyd's music which featured her collaboration with such rock stars as Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour and the great Eric Clapton, as further evidence of the "open" associations that cross musical genre divisions among the respective leaders).

This explosion would cool down in the music of Ronnie James Dio (who himself had a tenure at lead vocals with the legendary Black Sabbath) and continue to settle towards Iron Maiden, who may be the final and complete consummation of "pure" heavy metal in the lineage of the "grandfathers" - Hendrix, Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple. After Maiden, metal would push the limits of aggressive loudness in thrash metal, speed metal, black metal and death metal, and return full circle through the vanity of the Los Angeles scene's "glam" or pop metal lead by Mötley Crüe, to a popish romantic metal of Bon Jovi, before its energy dissipated altogether and "alternative" (or "grunge") evolved out of Seattle in the work of Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Soundgarden.

Some might differentiate by observing that pure heavy metal doesn't sing about love, while many glam metal song titles include the word "love" - compare the entire song list of Iron Maiden's many albums which will offer not one use of the word to the knowledge of this contributor, while Mötley Crüe's first hit was a song entitled Too Young to Fall in Love, immediately positioning the band as a commercially-driven glam act, rather than having anything substantial to "say". In some respects, one might argue that the glam metal scene of the '80s was the child of the glitter movement in the '70s, and the visual similarities between the two, with the make-up and faciful costumes, makes the argument more compelling. Ultimately, "pure" heavy metal would position itself at the periphery of pop culture, never quite at center, and metal denizens will contend that the move towards the center was a commercialism that compromised both the artistic integrity of the form and the opportunity for messages to be taken seriously.

The influence of classical music on Van Halen and Randy Rhoads helped heavy metal adopt "...a new professionalism, with theory, analysis, pedagogy, and technical rigor acquiring new importance," [Walser, 84].

In the early 80s the New Wave of British Heavy Metal made metal music very popular (especially in Europe) with Bands like Iron Maiden, Judas Priest and Motörhead. This period influenced all metal sub-genres and can be considered as their common roots. Sub-genres of heavy metal are numerous:

  • Black Metal: A precise definition for this style is very hard to give. One approach is strictly based on the lyrics, which are Satanic and otherwise occult. Bands: Mayhem[?], Darkthrone and Venom[?] (early black metal).

  • Epic Metal[?] lies somehow in between Doom Metal and classical US Heavy Metal with a balance between slow and solemn hymns and the occasional outburst into powerful mid-tempos. While epic and some fantasy are common themes for the lyrics, they're not the only one, and lighter themes like bikes, women, and an healty amount of self-apology are just as frequent. Bands include (early) Manowar, (early) Virgin Steele[?], Cirith Ungol Omen and Medieval Steel[?] from the US, some Bathory (the Viking themed albums) from Sweden and more recently DoomSword[?] from Italy.

  • Neo-Classical Metal[?]: The most renowned artist is the Swedish axeman Yngwie J. Malmsteen. In neo-classical metal, the traditional toolbox of metal song-writing is used, but with a twist: all of it takes place in a structure that is heavily influenced by baroque music. The chord progressions, arpeggios, broken chords, and speedy scale runs of neo-classical metal are borrowed for the most part from Johann Sebastian Bach, Antonio Vivaldi and Niccolo Paganini. Although Malmsteen is the most well-known proponent of this branch of metal, classical elements used in heavy metal and hard rock date back to Ritchie Blackmore of Deep Purple and Eddie Van Halen's innovations in the late 1970s.

  • Christian metal: A range of styles based on many of the genres above but with explicitly Christian lyrics (rather than anti-Christian or merely explicit lyrics!).

The most used lineup for metal is: a drummer, sometimes using a double bass-drum; a bass guitar; a rhythm guitar; a lead guitar; a singer; sometimes a keyboard player can be found. Guitar playing is very important in heavy metal. Intricate solos and riffs are a big part of heavy metal music. Guitarists use sweep-picking, tapping and similar techniques to obtain amazing fast playing. Heavy metal is not limited, however, to the standard outfit of guitars and drums. The Finnish cello quartet, Apocalyptica[?], has created their own version of heavy metal, difficult to categorize but leaning towards the darker side of metal. They apply various familiar effects to their sounds such as the all-familiar distortion, chorusing, flanging, etc. to create their style, which has fallen under a mixed assortment of applause and criticism due to their deviance.

There is a great variety of ways that heavy metal singers sing, from clean vocals to a high-pitched wail to a deep growl. The black and death metal scene tend to use distorted and guttural voices (for example try to listen to some songs of the Florida band Deicide). Generally it's hard to understand what the singer is "singing". Often, the text is considered to be too crude to be spoken out clearly (try to listen to Cannibal Corpse), but there are some bands that will have very good lyrics obscured by the style of the singing.

Studies have shown that the average metal fan may know the lyrics, but not understand or be able to explain the meaning of the lyrics. Indeed, for many, "...we can thus identify with a song?because it is the voice [tone], not the lyrics, to which we immediately respond". As a comparison, consider the abstract brush strokes of Barnett Newman and others that don't necessarily represent "something" but evoke emotional response in the viewer. Thus, we may suggest that heavy metal music has translated abstract visuals into abstract sound. Nirvana's Smells Like Teen Spirit is an excellent example of a lyric that is obscured by the angst-ridden tone, yet it is precisely that tone that evokes the emotional response to the song.

Some heavy metal performers include:

Anthrax - Black Sabbath - Blue Oyster Cult - Budgie[?] - Burzum - The Cult - Children of bodom - Corrosion Of Conformity[?] - Deep Purple - Deicide - Danzig - Darkthrone - Dokken - Down - Extreme - Fear Factory - Frankenshred - Godsmack - Greg Howe - Guns N' Roses - Infectious Grooves[?] - Iron Maiden - Judas Priest - King's X - Led Zeppelin - Living Colour - Yngwie J. Malmsteen - Marilyn Manson - Megadeth - Metallica - Mötley Crüe - Motorhead - Nightwish - Obituary - Ozzy Osbourne - Pacifier - Prong - Puddle Of Mudd - Queensryche - Queens Of The Stone Age - Saxon - Slash's Snakepit - Slayer - Skid Row - Static-X - Stryper - Suicidal Tendencies - Tool - UFO - WASP - Y&T

See also:

The excesses and immaturities of heavy metal were parodied in the movie This is Spinal Tap. See also heavy metal umlaut.



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