After the initial explosion of Death metal, metal had finally made the breach into untapped territory. Gone were the tropes of previous influences and the race to reach new summits of musical expression had begun. On the sidelines the speed metal bands saw themselves pushed into irrelevance; hardcore had now evolved into Grindcore and heavy metal heroes had now degenerated into more commercial sounds in order to expand their fanbase in a world that had left them behind. The European power metal bands found escape in Tolkienesque fantasy and escapism. In America, the USPM movement was not interested in the more flowery interpretation of European power metal. Some of these artists recognized the power of the early Death metal moved by Slayer and sought to integrate it into their own music for greater effect. Here we shall omit the failures of bands that attempted such experiments like Satan’s Host or Iron Cross.
Iced Earth started rehearsing in the same storage space as notable death metal luminaries Morbid Angel and Nocturnus. Though from the Tampa Bay area, Iced Earth did not play Death metal and felt that the genre was an easy cash grab for the labels at the time signing bands in large quantities to make quick money. Though the band were desperate to prove that Florida produced good power metal, death metal influences easily crept into the sound and more importantly the arrangements of the music. Most of the songs in their earlier incarnations refused to fall into the extended intro, verse, chorus, interlude and chorus structure of most power metal bands. The band would, in their own words, choose to take the listener from “Pink Floyd to Slayer and beyond.” This revealed the band’s intentions of making narrative music like their death metal peers but kept within a traditional metal framework.
The band would rely on simple motifs that would progress either through Maidenesque harmonies, Priest-like riffs and rapid speed metal riffs. At times Iced Earth use choruses but never do they make them the center piece of their songs instead using them as conclusions or to release accumulated tension. On Burnt Offerings (1995) which contains their most malicious compositions sees occasional death growls behind the more traditional gruff vocals adding power that sung vocals could not. The faster speed metal riffs are very adapt at flowing into each other in the style of Death/Speed metal bands like Sadus before breaking off into long harmonized sequences. The first three Iced Earth records saw a band take the new compositions emerging at the time and distilling them into their own brand of Power metal and allowing Iced Earth to gallop to the top of the 90s USPM scene.
Helstar achieved their peak on their album Nosferatu (1989). Chief composer and inventor of the Barragan scale, Larry Barragan, wanted to take the aggression and darkness of underground metal but wanted his music to remain epic. The album is centered around Dracula with other songs dealing with madness and a search for truth. The Barragan scale being a version of the minor scale but with an added chromatic note allowed the band to maintain their sense of melodicism but also to exploit dissonance in small doses which the band did on many fast tremolo picked sections that allowed such motifs to be pushed to their full potential. The arrangements retain the extended pop structures but with a Slayer influence in that a verse is comprised of multiple riffs and motifs instead of one overbearing melody.
The band are able to transition from one motif to another by the use of a chromatic leap in the long tremolo sections. The sense of melody here wishes to combine traditional metal with horror music which is what a lot of death metal bands did but by eschewing heavy metal influences for hardcore punk and speed metal. The band managed to take nascent underground metal and draw just enough influence from it to increase their compositional repertoire to the point where they could make sense of their unique voice and incredible technical skill without falling into reverence for past works or self-indulgence. The band would never discover narrative arrangements but with their ability to use simple riff mazes they ascended to the top and outclassed most of their peers.
Nevermore were born from Sanctuary that displayed some select death metal influences in a more conventional USPM format. Nevermore openly embraced multiple modern genres with various degrees of success. The band juggled with rock, djent and death metal influences on their albums and when the band let their death metal instincts take control one could see a band full of destructive intent to themselves and to others. Warrel Dane used a very developed voice and could modulate between a wide range of notes fairly easily. Rather than rely on good vocal technique to carry the songs forward, Dane opted to go for an emotional delivery that was often off key and jarring yet controlled due to the various harmonies that would accompany such moments. A willingness to sound more like a prophet rather than a typical heavy metal would allow him to sing over chromatic riffs more suitable for a death metal singer.
Nevermore would operate within the extended verse-chorus and never deviate from that but would draw inspiration from Death metal on note selection and fast tremolo riffs played with fluidity. On “Born” from This Godless Endeavor (2005) a part from the speed metal chugging embellishments and the simple arrangements, the isolated riffs can be attributed to some of the more technically proficient Floridian bands like Monstrosity. A riff will be built upon one of the modes of the major scale and then will either clash with surrounding chromatic notes or fluidly lead unto the following melody. The band definitely possesses an ear for how chromatic sequences can be juxtaposed as is demonstrated on many tracks like “Born,” “My Acid Words,” “The politics of Ecstasy” and many more but all these spoiled by the bands insistence to follow modern metal tropes of melodic choruses, chugs and strict song formats. The band definitely shines and succeeds in crushing the hordes of modern bands that emerged during the same time period when combining their brand of power metal with an excellent understanding of Death metal but fail to rise to the top of the genre as they are held back by the sheer variety of their influences.
Death metal’s influence on power metal is incredibly large and has given new life to a genre that was obsessed on reliving the glory of perennial Iron Maiden and Judas Priest and had forgotten that what made metal so great was the passion for musical expression and discovery and not the rock n’ roll-isms of yesteryear. The revival of the genre through these darker compositional techniques did not create a younger generation of Hessians willing to push this experimentation to the limit but just enough for the select few to grasp onto the magic that would see them crush their peers in a genre that was too quickly growing stale.