Pillars of Metal – A Short Essay by Otto Schwarzmiller
If some one were to ask you “what is metal music?” how do you respond? Do you claim it to be the only right and true form of music on earth? Do you analyze the sounds and assign them into subgenres for them? Do you attempt to describe the culture of the metal scene? Or do you stammer on about how this band sucks and that band is good and underground is the only thing really worth listening to?
Well in thinking about this hypothetical question, I figure the only way to describe what metal is, is to have them listen to it. Just like any other genre of music, be it classical, country, jazz or hip hop, there is far more to it than what you hear coming out of a Hot Topic on a Saturday afternoon.
So where to start? Well I start with the band that opened the flood gates, Judas Priest. More specifically, 1980’s “British Steel.” Now this wasn’t the first metal album, or even the first from Judas Priest, but this is what gave us the idea of what metal is. The leather, the spikes, the riding crops and motor cycles, it just screams metal. Looking back, it’s amazing that most people didn’t realize that Rob Halford was in the closet as he was practically wearing the uniform of the gay man. But JP transformed that into the uniform of the mealhead for years to come. Breaking the Law, Living After Midnight, and Grinder, set great templates for others to model from in terms of song writing and execution. This was a visceral album, from that cover with the hand holding the razor blade, to the spike studded band members; it was edgy in a way that many bands had not yet gone in. And while not the heaviest or fastest album, even at the time, it was accessible in a way that metal had not been before.
Our tour of metal stays in Brittan for my next album. Where Judas Priest felt very street level, Iron Maiden felt bigger than life. And for me, “Number of the Beast” is the album that signifies it the most. On the surface it checks many metal boxes. Song about Satan, check. Fast song, check. Ballad, check. But the album has so much more thought in it than (what are now) the standard clichés. The cover with the first appearance of Eddie, the IM mascot, using the devil as a puppet while he in turn uses a man as a puppet, is not only a wicked poster, but also subtly says “We are bigger than the devil himself.” It is a lot for a band to proclaim on their sophomore album. While not a concept album, it has many closely tied themes. Humanity’s struggle with vices, war, freedom and life itself are all presented here, it just takes a little time to stop head banging and really listen to find. “Number of the Beast” gave metal a way to be thoughtful and grand without being obtuse or pretentious. It planted seeds in many a person’s head that would grow as they set out to make their own metal masterpieces.
One of those bands that took some serious notes while listening to the New Wave of Britsh Heavy Metal (NWBHM) was a little group from San Francisco named Metallica. By 1985 Metallica had 2 solid albums under their belt and they set out to create their 3. Master of Puppets would become on of the most influential records in heavy metal, and to many, the greatest heavy metal album of all time. From the explosive opening, Battery, through to the crushing finale of Damage Inc., MoP defines heavy metal. Heavy, fast, epic, punishing, technical, graceful, how many more adjectives can I use?
MoP works not only as a pinnacle, but also a gateway. This accessibility is derived from the progressive elements that tone down the abusive nature of this album and give it plenty of breathing room to express its sounds. A song like Orion is a respite near the end of the album, but it does not let up on the technical beauty that the album excels in. All in all, the album is something that everyone can appreciate in many aspects, and should not just be in collections of heavy metal fans, but everyone who enjoys music.
As the 80’s wore on and “Hair Metal” began to dominate popular music, there were still those keeping metal heavy hard and fast. Slayer, Megadeth, and Anthrax joined Metallica in producing career defining albums. The rise of Gun’s & Roses began. Extreme metal begat the birth of Death Metal and fostered a new underground. Then the 80’s became the 90’s and Hair Metal died in the wake of Grunge and the alt rock scene. Metal took a big hit in both popularity and quality. But one band wasn’t taking any of that shit. Pantera had formed as a hair band in the 80’s but with the addition of Phil Anselmo they took on a much heavier vibe. Taking influences from hardcore, punk, speed metal and a good ol’ heaping pile of southern rock, Pantera set out to make their own mark with “groove metal.” And boy did they hit that mark with 1992’s Vulgar Display of Power. This was fast and heavy, but always maintains the ability to be perfectly head bangable. Vulgar took Pantera’s song writing and musical ability to the next level. It was also in direct contrast to the rising influence of the alt rock on the air waves. It can be seen as a defiant stance for metal in an otherwise fairly bleak time for the genre.
For me, Vulgar Display of Power is the best release from Pantera. As they released more albums, they seemed to lose that groove metal spark in the interest of faster and heavier and more disjointed approaches. Metal overall saw dark times in the 90’s with the Big 4 all having some of the lowest points creatively in their careers and only a few shining metal moments from other bands. The rise and fall of the Nu-Metal scene did help spark interest in metal in general during the early 00’s and helped a new group of metallers to get their blood wings. Then the –core and –emo bands finally brought new hungry young blood into the spot light. Metalcore, Deathcore, Screamo, post-nu-hard-revival-scream-core, the list goes on. And while my personal preference of this is on the lower side, it is undeniable that this new blood was needed. It brought new fans in and more importantly, it gave the old guard a swift kick in the ass.
The first band to really bring heavy metal back in a shining light (for me) was Machine Head with The Blackening in 2007. Never a band to repeat a previous album, MH had seen some great highs and some awful lows in their time. But coming out of a make or break situation proved they had the gravitas to create one of the all time best metal albums ever. The Blackening is a scathingly heavy album accomplished in just 7 tracks. It uses not only traditional inspiration of war, politics and religion but also bigotry, questions of life and death, and personal loss. Not only had Machine Head learned from past bands, but also their own experience. They crafted an epic that, while new, stands head to head with all the classics. It is a brutal assault, carried out with surgical precision and deserved of all acclaim.
There it is, the five albums that every metalhead should own and share with others. 30 years of metal that form the basis of just about everything we love in the genre. I hope this inspires you to check out one of these albums if you haven’t. Or if you have, I hope you go back and take a listen to them. Either way, we all win