The New Wave of British Heavy Metal was the simultaneous, sudden emergence of hundreds of heavy metal bands in the United Kingdom in the late 1970s and early eighties. The NWOBHM was prompted by the collapse en masse of earlier hard rock bands and heavy metal originators. Led Zeppelin and other blues-based riff rock bands had collapsed into meandering stadium rock with only a couple listenable songs per record at best (“Achilles Last Stand” on Presence). Black Sabbath fell flat on their faces after Sabotage, making the meandering duo of Technical Ecstasy and Never Say Die. Punk declined from almost-progressive works as the The Stooges’ Fun House to boy bands such as the Sex Pistols playing radio pop. Deep Purple regressed to playing what their former guitarist Ritchie Blackmore termed “Shoeshine music.”
The New Wave of British Heavy Metal would sweep all of these blights under the rug. Spurred by Judas Priest, the genre consisted of Black Sabbath influenced heavy metal riffing but made static, revolving around a single power chord like a rock ‘n’ roll song and played to a distinctive galloping rhythm that came to define the genre. Judas Priest placed these static, twin galloping metal riffs into verse-chorus-verse song rock song structures with Thin Lizzy influenced, dueling harmonized sweep-picked leads that progressed forward into a culminating lead or solo. These leads were often classically-influence courtesy of Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow and had operatic vocals (Rob Halford had one of the greatest vocal ranges in popular music history) that sang along with the guitars like Black Sabbath or around them like Led Zeppelin. This was the basic NWOBHM formula.
Hundreds of bands emerged trying to follow Priest’s template and most of them failed miserably. Those wannabes generally played vocally-driven bar rock that merely used one or two static heavy metal riffs as a backdrop for the frontman to sing about how long his penis was, how fast he could drive a sports car, or how bad ass he felt to go larping as a viking warrior. That is when these bums weren’t just directly copying AC/DC as a certain crappy band named Def Leppard did, even hiring AC/DC’s producer Mutt Lange. Most NWOBHM bands were not even close to instrumentally proficient enough musicians to copy Thin Lizzy or Judas Priest.
The glut of scenester bands overpraised by the mainstream media (read Malc MacMillan’s legendary N.W.O.B.H.M. Encyclopedia for everything and then some) caused the NWOBHM to collapse on itself. Most of the more promising bands only managed to get demos or one studio album out before imploding on themselves as financial rewards were impossible in an oversaturated market while the desire to become MTV rockstars by glamming up their sound in the early 80s was all too great. The movement deserved to crash and burn. So it did.
1980 was the peak seeing the release of Iron Maiden‘s debut, Angel Witch‘s self-titled, and Diamond Head‘s Lightning to the Nations, and Motorhead‘s Ace of Spades. Judas Priests career had culminated artistically and compositionally a year earlier with the Unleashed in the East live album, featuring sped up versions of most of their best tracks along with a few excellent cover renditions of seventies rock standards. Priest would sell out in 1980 as the movement peaked with British Steel tailor-made for singalong MTV videos to be played alongside Van Halen and Ozzy Osbourne’s solo career. Over the next few years, most of the significant bands broke up or followed Priest into glam rock excess: Diamond Head, Witchfinder General, Tank, Tokyo Blade, etc. Judas Priest never regained their composure to produce a fully-listenable record again, failing at being Motley Crue, Metallica, and “progressive” new millennium Iron Maiden. The NWOBHM was too rock to survive.
The following is not a list of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal’s best releases but of five bands who chose not to suckle on the stripperific glam rock music video teats or who broke up and later managed to comeback, creating artistically successful and competent heavy metal. These groups transcended the beer-fueled NWOBHM and cocaine days of MTV:
After their Angel Witch – Angel Witch – “Angel Witch” self titled triumph, Angel Witch imploded along with the others. Guitarist and vocalist Kevin Heybourne reformed the group with an all new lineup in 1985 to release the meandering, mid-paced Screaming ‘n’ Bleeding. He tried more successfully over twenty years later with 2012’s As Above, So Below, which while not as great as the best work on Angel Witch, successfully and smoothly blended influences from Manowar and late 80s power metal (Blind Guardian) into Angel Witch’s New Wave of British Heavy Metal formula.
Heavy metal founders Black Sabbath emerged reinvigorated by the NWOBHM movement while not adopting the riffing or song structure styles themselves, just superficial production aesthetics and operatic vocals courtesy of Deep Purple and Iron Maiden producer Martin Birch and former Rainbow vocalist Ronnie James Dio. Tony Iommi regained on his profoundity on Heaven and Hell and Mob Rules.
Iron Maiden fired their original vocalist and convicted felon Paul Di’Anno and snatched Bruce Dickinson from Samson. Their initial attempt at becoming the Beatles of heavy metal on The Number of the Beast was incredibly grating and bone-headed but Maiden clawed their way back to form with the highlights amidst the occasional sing-along idiocy (“Sun and Steel”) on Piece of Mind. “The Trooper” and “To Tame a Land” paved the way for the more even Powerslave and the progressive rock explored on Somewhere in Time and Seventh Son of a Seventh Son. Afterwards exhausted of creative energy, Maiden reverted to playing the hits live with new albums made up of occasional competency, retreads, virtuoso instrumental wankery, and stadium sing-alongs. Nevertheless, Iron Maiden remains a potent touring force today.
Motorhead was the most influential band of the NWOBHM movement to future metal groups. Composing most of their material under the influence of amphetamines, they brought a formulaic but progressive song structures, melody, and chord progressions to heavy metal. Massive use of amphetamines surely resulted in high speed, repetitive mental cycles that kept Motorhead on track for their entire career even if all of their albums consist of three basic song structures made from heavy metal rhythm riffs played on Lemmy’s bass-less bass and chopped-up, minor key melodic leads: Hank Williams Sr. on meth ballads, heavy metal songs with rhythm riffs made of powerchord progressions, and thrashy e-string triplet bangers. Motorhead remain the most formative pre Slayer structural influence on death and black metal.
Satan took the New Wave of British Heavy Metal formula as far as it could go on the immortal Court in the Act. The blend of speed metal e-string triplet rhythm riffs pioneered on Black Sabbath’s “Children of the Grave” off Master of Reatity and Motorhead‘s “The Hammer” from Ace of Spades in with the NWOBHM gallops, harmonized sweep picked lead riffs paired perfectly to the rhythm riffs, and well written compositions contributed to a sense of artistic sublimity uncommon in the genre. The fixed, riff rock song structures of the NWOBHM kept Satan from meandering about, keeping their drive focused. Unfortunately Satan imploded, ditching vocalist Brian Ross, changing their name to Blind Fury, and losing the aggression in an attempt at appeal to glam rock audiences ready to suck on Whitesnake. Satan has reformed a few times with the NWOBHM structured record Life Sentence much more consistent than the technical speed metal “techno thrash” of Suspended Sentence and Atom by Atom which sounded like unrefined attempts at Coroner or Rust in Peace era Megadeth. Satan proved unable to string riffs together progressively like Mercyful Fate and Slayer; the band were never able to successfully move beyond songs composed of sets of verse and chorus riff pairs. These simplified song song structures do not hinder Satan’s excellent heavy metal material; rather they show just how far the NWOBHM sub-genre could be taken musically and artistically.