The History of Heavy Metal Part I: The Difference Between Metal and Heavy Metal

Heavy metal is likely the most misunderstood and misrepresented form of music in Western culture. From the widespread misuse of the term to the insistence by fans and critics that bands playing in seemingly hundreds of different musical styles be included under its canopy, heavy metal causes confusion almost everywhere it goes. Despite common conception, it is not correct or justifiable to use the names “heavy metal” and “metal” interchangeably, and it has not been for nearly 30 years.

In the shortest terms possible, metal is a genre of music, and heavy metal is a specific subgenre of metal. In other words, if metal music were a pizza, heavy metal would be one slice of it, just like thrash metal or death metal. It makes no more sense to call all forms of metal “heavy metal” than it does to call them all “black metal,” yet the confusion and misuse persists. There is a reasonable historical precedent for this, which is that heavy metal was the first form of metal music, but the rampant misuse of the label should have been resolved long ago. Hundreds of heavy metal albums have been produced in the past several decades, including groundbreaking entries from bands like Iron Maiden and Judas Priest that remain influential to modern artists playing a diverse range of music. Using the term “heavy metal” to describe dissimilar and even unrelated musical styles overlooks these meaningful contributions by obscuring understanding of the music and causing unnecessary confusion in conversations.

In order to fully understand the characteristics and sound of heavy metal, it is necessary to go over some facts and common sense observations about the early history of the metal genre and its relationship with rock music, particularly the years from 1970 to 1990. Through this process, it must be emphasized that musical genres and subgenres shift rapidly when they are new and grow increasingly rigid over time as a greater volume of music is created in and around them. The following commentary therefore benefits tremendously from hindsight and broadly surveys metal and rock music with decades worth of contributions in mind. Additionally, the decision about a song or album’s classification must ultimately be made in relation to the music around it. Boundary lines between genres and subgenres are formed in response to the density and saturation of each style, and specific songs are classified based on their nearness to the center of each one.

For example, in the diagram below, there is a slight musical overlap between hard rock and heavy metal. Outside of that overlap, there is a moderate amount of music within hard rock that is musically very close to metal. It would be an easy mistake to classify that music as metal given its proximity to the genre. However, when rock and metal genres are considered in their entirety, it is clear the music lands closer to the center of all rock than the center of all metal and must be classified accordingly. Specific examples of this will be provided later.

genre diagram 1
A sample diagram of heavy metal and closely related musical styles. It is impossible to completely and accurately classify music in this way, and the diagram is therefore meant as a visualization tool and not a concrete classification system. Use this glossary for more information on genres and subgenres.

Since the point in question is the name “heavy metal” and its usage, the logical starting point of this discussion is the etymology of the term. In the late 1960s, the words “heavy,” and very occasionally, “heavy metal,” began to be tossed around in song lyrics and descriptions of music, especially in hard rock. When Black Sabbath’s 1970 self-titled debut was released, it became a magnet for the terms due to the band’s uniquely ponderous sound. However, the newness of Sabbath’s playing style and the still very loose definition of the developing genre caused writers and fans to commonly use “heavy metal” interchangeably with “rock” and “hard rock” to describe bands throughout the ‘70s. From a historical perspective, this proves to be a justifiable bit of ambiguity, as the majority of Sabbath’s songs, especially those released between 1973 and 1978, fell much closer to acid rock and bluesy hard rock than later forms of metal.

Most other ‘70s bands saddled with the “heavy metal” tag were even closer stylistically to the heart of rock music than Sabbath was, such as Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, Rush, and Aerosmith. For example, Led Zeppelin had a milder, bluesier sound with elements of American folk music. Deep Purple had a feel-good roadhouse rock vibe that was often too soft to even be classified as hard rock. Aerosmith played a strong mix of blues and hard rock that was an immediate evolution of ’60s rock acts like The Rolling Stones. Although these bands were each making significant contributions to music history, their styles fall within the scope of rock music and therefore need no new genres to classify them.

As a result of the contrast between Sabbath and other bands of the early ‘70s, it is roughly accurate to say Sabbath was the first metal band. However, doing so is a massive oversimplification of the various evolutions of the band and their music, as well as their role in the development of the metal genre. Prior to 1969, Black Sabbath had played a brand of bluesy hard rock with a deeply distorted guitar sound under the band name Earth, and before that as an even less rock-oriented incarnation as the Polka Tulk Blues Band. In 1969, the band overhauled their sound, as well as their conceptual themes, under the Black Sabbath moniker, choosing to focus on instrumental distortion and the grinding, leaden sound they had recently developed. Importantly, this early incarnation of Black Sabbath was not heavy metal.

With the benefit of hindsight, Sabbath’s first four efforts, 1970’s Black Sabbath and Paranoid, 1971’s Master of Reality, and 1972’s Vol. 4, were clearly more formative to doom metal than to heavy metal. The achingly downtempo, trudging delivery of tracks like “Black Sabbath” and “Electric Funeral” bear virtually no resemblance to the heavy metal bands that emerged a decade later. However, their influence can be heard prominently in the songs of ‘80s doom pioneers Pentagram and Candlemass, such as on Pentagram’s “When the Screams Come,” as well as in the romantic death-doom of early ‘90s Paradise Lost songs like “Rotting Misery” and “The Painless.” In this sense, it is arguable that doom was the original form of metal music, although true doom metal would not emerge until well after heavy metal had proliferated in the early ‘80s.

On a side note, the fact that doom metal was the innovative form of music developed by Black Sabbath in the ‘70s, not heavy metal, is a case in point of the senselessness of applying the name “heavy metal” to the entire metal genre. At the risk of redundancy, it is worth pointing out that the term “doom metal,” which was conceived later, is no less fitting for all forms of metal music than “heavy metal,” and it is only the sequence of the origin of these terms that causes one to be applied to the entire genre and not the other. Music fans, historians, and musicians therefore need to apply the same retroactive logic and understanding to heavy metal as they do for doom and other metal subgenres in order to recognize heavy metal as the distinctive form of music it is.

Sabbath’s next two releases, 1973’s Sabbath Bloody Sabbath and 1975’s Sabotage, notably backed off the group’s signature gloomy style for a more fanciful, acid-washed rock sound with experimental use of synthesizers and a return to bluesy, jam-style instrumental sections. Black Sabbath continued the decade with an even greater regression, delivering playful, Beatles-esque rock music on 1976’s Technical Ecstasy that was almost unrecognizable from their debut. 1978’s Never Say Die! revived some of Sabbath’s grittiness and leaned slightly toward the nascent heavy metal sound, though the music frequently fell into soft, dreamy spaces and was missing much of the attitude and aggression of other albums from the same year. This move away from Sabbath’s trademark heavy sound further complicated discussions about heavy metal and led to an understandable, if utterly mistaken, jump in logic: if Black Sabbath was considered a heavy metal band, yet played lighthearted rock music like “Looking for Today” and “A Hard Road,” then bands like Deep Purple and Heart should be classified as heavy metal, as well.

Although Black Sabbath had mostly abandoned their construction of a new genre by the late ‘70s, a handful of other bands picked up where the innovators left off and began paving the foundation for a new style of metal music that was distinct from Sabbath’s pre-doom tracks. Foremost among these are Rainbow and Judas Priest. Rainbow’s 1976 album Rising and 1978 follow-up Long Live Rock ‘n’ Roll, as well as Judas Priest’s final two releases of the decade, 1978’s Stained Class and Killing Machine (later released as Hell Bent for Leather), are among the first true progenitors of the heavy metal sound. Other significant hard rock efforts from the late ‘70s include Scorpions’ 1979 album Lovedrive and Saxon’s self-titled debut from the same year, both of which are direct and immediate precursors to heavy metal. Incidentally, with the exception of Judas Priest, each of these bands would regress into a lighter, hard rock style in the ‘80s, effectively turning over the job of constructing heavy metal once again to other artists.

Despite the clear evolutions that were taking place on the edges of hard rock music, the ironic truth is this: there were no metal bands or albums in the ‘70s. The late-decade releases from Rainbow, Judas Priest, and Saxon, as well as Sabbath’s early recordings, represent a fringe style that exists, from a modern perspective, within and at the edges of hard rock. A handful of songs among these, especially those from Rainbow and Judas Priest, might be roughly classified as metal, though they are outliers in contrast to the body of music that came later and they collectively land outside the genre.

Returning to the diagram from earlier, it is possible to see where Sabbath’s Paranoid and several late ‘70s albums land in the broad scope of rock and metal. In the case of Rainbow’s Long Live Rock ‘n’ Roll and Judas Priest’s Hell Bent for Leather, their similarities to heavy metal are so strong that their classification outside metal music may feel like splitting hairs, though the relative sparsity of music on this edge of hard rock creates a conspicuous gap in playing styles that causes it to be the fault line between hard rock and heavy metal, and more broadly, rock and metal. However, because albums like Judas Priest’s late ‘70s efforts have a stylistic ambiguity to them, it is often relevant to refer to them as “heavy rock.”

genre diagram 2

Although the term “heavy metal” had been in use for over a decade, it did not have a consistent or concrete musical style to attach itself to, and the term remained more or less undefined throughout the ‘70s. Through the lens of history, many of the albums that received the label during the decade are clearly hard rock bands, even if they are still precursors to heavy metal. However, the seeds of the metal genre, first planted by Black Sabbath and nurtured by a handful of other acts, were on the verge of sprouting into the first true metal creations.

1980 is the pivotal historical moment in this discussion, when the ideas percolating around heavy music coalesced and solidified into a recognizably new form of music. This effort was spearheaded by three seminal recordings: Black Sabbath’s Heaven and Hell, Judas Priest’s British Steel, and Iron Maiden’s Iron Maiden. These recordings established a bold sound for heavy metal that effectively hacked away at the hard rock roots and all but severed ties with the blues. As with the final years of the ‘70s, 1980 saw a small number of other releases that contained traces of this new heavy metal sound, although their songs remained predominately outside the style. Two notable examples in this latter group are Saxon’s Strong Arm of the Law and Accept’s I’m a Rebel.

Each of the 1980 albums from Sabbath, Priest, and Maiden is remarkable for the trajectory of music it followed and the precedent it established. Black Sabbath had recently fired Ozzy Osbourne and set out to redefine themselves with a new and improved singer in Rainbow’s Ronnie James Dio. The revamped sound they revealed on Heaven and Hell was strikingly different from the loose, softhearted rock on the band’s last two albums and nearly as different from the rest of their discography.

Where Ozzy droned, Dio soared, and Heaven and Hell‘s displayed an element of imagination and mysticism rarely heard from the band previously. It borrowed heavily from Rainbow’s musical delivery and the new songwriting was cleaner, tighter, faster, and significantly more deliberate. Notably, the sound production was also thicker and heavier than on albums from Rainbow and other hard rock acts of the ‘70s. Gone were Sabbath’s expressive jam sessions packed with bluesy guitar work. Gone were the trudging, downtempo pieces that pounded away through their duration like the players were literally men of iron. In their stead were serious-minded, carefully composed pieces with well orchestrated breaks and guitar solos. Fluid, uptempo tracks like “Neon Knights” and “Die Young” remain archetypal examples of true heavy metal.

Judas Priest made a similarly dramatic shift in style, coming from a romantic, occasionally progressive sound on their mid-‘70s releases Rocka Rolla and Sad Wings of Destiny to steadily forge a new and heavier style of music with each release through the ‘70s. They eventually landed on the grounded and rough-hewn song structures of the impossibly influential British Steel, which notably featured more dense, rugged sound production than any of their previous recordings.

Iron Maiden, the youngest band of the three, and the only one without a formal release to their name, unquestionably brought with them the most energy and speed, quickly attracting a following from the disenchanted fans roaming a fractured British punk music scene. Of the three pivotal contributions made in 1980, Iron Maiden’s self-titled debut had the lightest sound, though the energy and attitude of the music was clearly distinct from hard rock, and it contained virtually no traces of the blues. It was not until the band’s 1982 release, The Number of the Beast, that they would cement themselves as a true heavy metal band, though their first two recordings remain pivotal creations at the dawn of the new musical style.

Although the term New Wave of British Heavy Metal (NWOBHM) had been loosely attributed to hard rock bands like Def Leppard, Whitesnake, and AC/DC, the unmistakable demarcation line established in 1980 redefined heavy metal and the NWOBHM style. In a single year, the term “heavy metal” that had floated around in a nebulous state for an entire decade had found its proper home. Three musically distinct, yet ideologically congruent, albums represented a lucid new form of music that stood apart from nearly everything that had come before them, and they would establish the foundation for all true metal releases to follow. The bold sound of these recordings, along with their immediate follow-ups from all three bands in 1981, helped ignite a rapid proliferation and diversification of metal in the early ‘80s.

The heavy metal sound was represented on hundreds of albums throughout the decade from bands around the world. Some artists, like Armored Saint, Savatage, and Queensrÿche, signed to major labels and produced polished recordings with commercial appeal. Many more released their records independently or through small record labels, opting for gritty sound production with harsh, dungeon-like sound quality. In many cases, these unrecognized bands only produced one or two albums before disbanding or moving on to more profitable musical endeavors. Early releases from Steel Vengeance, Running Wild, Stormwitch, and Warlock represent this underground sound well. These independent artists frequently blended their sound with more aggressive styles like thrash and speed metal, and collectively their music forms the ironclad, uncompromising sound of ‘80s underground metal that remains the primordial soup and spiritual heart of all metal music.

As heavy metal flourished over the next few years, it began to evolve quickly at the edges, creating strikingly new forms of music. Because the splinter styles were fundamentally rooted in heavy metal, they adopted similar names: thrash metal, death metal, power metal, etc. Each year of the ‘80s introduced music with more aggressive, more technical, and more extreme sounds, and suddenly the term “heavy metal” that loosely applied to early outgrowths was no longer relevant to a significant number of new bands.

An accessible example of this evolution comes in the form of Slayer’s first three full-length recordings. It was not inconceivable to classify Slayer’s 1983 debut Show No Mercy as heavy metal given that Tom Araya’s high-pitched wails and the group’s articulate riffing and rhythms still held notable similarities to NWOBHM and especially the emerging speed metal sound, which itself was a more subtle outgrowth of heavy metal. By 1985, and the band’s follow-up Hell Awaits, the term was stretched to its breaking point. One short year after that, “heavy metal” proved to be a useless label to describe the raucous, frenetic style exhibited on Reign in Blood. The album was undeniably distinct from the heavy metal records that preceded it. It was thrash metal. Another look at the diagram shows several evolutions of metal through albums released during the ‘80s.

genre diagram 3

By 1990, the metal genre had expanded to include music that exhibited dramatic evolutions of those pivotal 1980 releases, such as Morbid Angel’s Altars of Madness and Megadeth’s Rust in Peace. It became increasingly common to refer to the music collectively as simply “metal.” This made sense, as all the subgenres of the newly expanded metal genre had their respective adjectives, and because they still retained variously identifiable earmarks of those seminal 1980 albums, even on the most aggressive recordings, they were still metal. However, the term “heavy metal” continued to be used by some for all outgrowths of the original style despite the fact it only applied to the songwriting approach of a slice of the now immense and immensely popular metal genre, not to mention the fact it was redundant with the newly conceived subgenre names.

Just as it would be ignorant to say that Iron Maiden played thrash metal or death metal, it was confusing and inaccurate to refer to acts like Kreator and Carcass as heavy metal bands. Yet people persisted. There is a certain amount of laziness and lack of imagination to blame for this, though the swift rate of musical evolution within metal music was the primary culprit for the rampant misunderstanding and misuse of terms. However, that excuse is a limited one. By the time metal in the US yielded to several types of magma during the ‘90s, it became particularly embarrassing for fans, writers, and TV personalities to associate new, non-metal bands who held no stylistic connections to the genre with heavy metal. No one had insisted on calling bands like Death and Obituary hard rock, yet mystifyingly, acts like Slipknot and Machine Head received the “heavy metal” label.

In the 2010s, the persistent misuse of terms and pervasive misconceptions about heavy metal is a source of incredulousness for fans of the subgenre and of true metal in general, and it is therefore necessary to establish some definitions and offer examples of heavy metal in order to extricate the music from the needless ambiguity in which it is mired.

Heavy metal is a style of music played almost exclusively with drums, electric guitars, and electric bass. Synthesizers and acoustic guitars are historically prevalent and therefore acceptable accompaniments. Heavy metal clearly exhibits elements of hard rock in its foundation but is more aggressive in its delivery, featuring greater guitar distortion and a more robust sound. It also frequently has a darker, more solemn tone than hard rock. To a much lesser extent, elements of the blues and punk music may be present. Blues influences are commonly heard in the guitar riffs and solos, while punk music reveals its influence in the speed of the songs and the rebellious, sometimes violent attitude of the music.

Heavy metal is typified by soaring, clean vocals, though numerous instances of coarse baritones also exist. Importantly, heavy metal is also melodic, and on a structural level, is a form of pop music. Songs follow an ABABCBB format in which A is the verse, B is the chorus, and C is a bridge or, almost always, a guitar solo. Like pop music, the songs feature memorable chorus hooks and prominent, recurring instrumental melodies.

Examples of music at the very core of true heavy metal include Armored Saint’s 1984 album March of the Saint and 1987’s Raising Fear. Shok Paris’ 1987 album Steel and Starlight and Savatage’s 1985 album Power of the Night are similarly excellent examples of heavy metal. In fact, if there is a single song that could accurately represent the sound of heavy metal, it is Savatage’s “Power of the Night.” This Traditional Heavy Metal playlist is a highly comprehensive list of heavy metal music available on Spotify, and it focuses on music with mid to high production values. All albums and songs within the playlist can be accurately described as heavy metal, even if they contain influences of other subgenres like thrash metal or American power metal, and the playlist is a valuable resource and crash course for the uninitiated.

Although the heart of each metal subgenre is often conspicuous, it is useful to note there are few clean breaks between each style. It is entirely possible to line up songs and albums to form a continuous musical spectrum from one style into another, such as heavy-power-thrash-death-black. The boundaries of heavy metal blur significantly as the music moves toward nearby metal subgenres. The greatest gray area is between heavy metal and speed metal, including acts like Liege Lord and Running Wild, as well as American power metal, including bands like Vicious Rumors and Chastain. Because many speed metal and American power metal releases display only small and subtle evolutions, they can often be classified within the boundaries of heavy metal.

Additionally, heavy metal overlaps in considerable amounts with doom, thrash metal, European power metal, and early progressive metal. There is also a small but historically significant connection between heavy metal and black metal. For this reason, many albums can be classified in multiple metal subgenres or described with hybrid terms. An excellent example of this is Sanctuary’s 1988 album Refuge Denied, which displays a roughly equal mix of heavy metal, thrash metal, and American power metal. Also, although the vast majority of bands in history fall cleanly within the boundaries of either hard rock or heavy metal, a small gray area persisted from the ‘70s into metal’s heyday. Along with previously mentioned examples like Rainbow and Saxon, a handful of early and mid-‘80s releases from bands including Y&T and Pretty Maids exist more or less precisely on the borderline between heavy metal and hard rock.

Despite the elitism that some mistakenly perceive in the term, “true heavy metal” is a useful descriptor for separating bands that play near the center of the subgenre from acts with a hybrid or evolved sound. This is often relevant even within a single band’s discography. For example, Black Sabbath’s 1981 album Mob Rules is a true heavy metal album, while their 2013 album 13 is a blend of heavy doom. It is not necessarily inaccurate to call the latter heavy metal, but it exists outside the nucleus of the style. “True heavy metal,” and the synonymous and slightly less provocative term, “traditional heavy metal,” are also necessary and relevant labels for separating actual heavy metal from the legions of bands erroneously labeled as such by uninformed fans, musicians, and critics.

Equally important to the understanding of what is heavy metal is the understanding of what is not heavy metal. Anything released prior to 1980 is not heavy metal, and that includes all of Black Sabbath’s releases. There were also very few heavy metal albums produced from 1993 through 2007. If there are any doubts about a recording from the ‘90s and ‘00s, it is safe to assume it is not heavy metal.

Heavy metal does not use symphonies nor a synthesizer’s approximation thereof. It does not contain influences from classical music, nor does it include operatic vocals. Heavy metal does not feature Latin rhythms nor percussion using folk instruments from South America. It does not employ any type of musical sampling nor turntables. Heavy metal does not use hip-hop vocal deliveries, nor does it include coarse, strident singing like the kinds found in death metal, black metal, and some thrash metal.

30 years after the widespread proliferation of metal music and the development of clear distinctions between its largest subgenres, there are no reasonable justifications for calling bands in diverse styles like Arch Enemy, Slipknot, and Fleshgod Apocalypse “heavy metal.” Without getting into the conversation of whether those bands are metal at all (that deserves its own topic and will come in The History of Heavy Metal Part II), it is enough to say that, from the standpoints of history and musical progression, they are not heavy metal.

Music evolves and demands unique descriptors to recognize artists’ efforts to create new and engaging styles of music. In the 21st century, “metal” is the only acceptable term for talking broadly about the metal genre. Only laziness, stubbornness, and lack of music literacy cause the continued abuse and misuse of the name “heavy metal,” and it is well past time the label was reserved solely for bands who play in a style similar to those pivotal albums from the early 1980s. To use it otherwise is akin to saying BB King performed African spirituals or that Led Zeppelin was a country folk act. The misuse of the term is not only incorrect, but a slight to the hundreds of excellent heavy metal bands who have contributed to the massive and influential style of music. Heavy metal is the first and foremost form of metal music, and there should be no ambiguity about its characteristics or its valuable role in music history.