A Short History of Underground Punk and Metal Music

April 1, 2013 –

the_ancient_history_of_heavy_metalWe can only know the present by knowing the past. In the case of heavy metal, it is a murky past obscured by both the grandiose rockstar dreams of individuals and the manipulative fingers of a voracious industry.

Metal arose through a complicated narrative worthy of a lost empire, and by knowing this history, we can know more of the music we enjoy today.

Specifically of interest are a number of threads that interweave throughout the history of the genre, both as outside influences and later as internal habits, which influence its twisting path from something a lot like rock to a genre entirely separate.

This story then is a tale of how many became one, or how they found something in common among themselves, and how it has taken years of creative people hammering on the parts to meld them into one single thing, known as heavy metal.

However, no one really likes a lengthy essay. Instead, here’s metal’s history the best way it can be experienced: by listening to it.

1968-1970 — the origins

Three threads ran alongside each other: punk, proto-metal and progressive rock. All three are on the edge of being metal, since the type of progressive rock in question is raw and disturbing and not of the “everybody be happy love friends” hippie style. This is music that thinks our society is disturbed, and that therefore many of the values we reject are worth a closer look. Some is fatalist-nihilist, like the self-destructive tendencies of punk, where progressive rock is more clinical, and metal more epic (looking for meaning in the ancients, in nature, the occult and conflict).

Iggy and the Stooges – Raw Power

Black Sabbath – Black Sabbath

King Crimson – In the Court of the Crimson King

1971-1981 — maturation

A lot happened here, but basically, metal became more like its ancestors (hard rock), progressive rock faded out, and punk got more rock-music-like. The punk from this era is more like normal rock music than the outsider stuff it originally was, but also gains some aggression from Motorhead, who may technically be metal but were born of a progressive rock band (Hawkwind) and sounded very punk and inspired the next generation of punks to be louder, lewder, etc.

PUNK

Punk music arose from the earlier work by Iggy and the Stooges, but formalized itself into a pop genre that used guitars more like keyboards than like the guitar fireworks of conventional guitar-intense bands like Cream and The Who.

Ramones – Ramones

Misfits – Static Age

NWOBHM

An exception to the metal of the period was NWOBHM (New Wave of British Heavy Metal). DIY and extreme for the day, it left behind the Led Zeppelin-styled “hard rock” vein of metal and got away from Sabbath’s detuned doom and gloom to make energetic, mythological but also somewhat excited-about-life metal.

Motorhead – Motorhead

Satan – Court in the Act

Angel Witch – Angel Witch

Iron Maiden – Killers

Judas Priest – Sin After Sin

1982-1987 — the peak

Punk got its act together, in part inspired by the more commercial bands like Ramones and Sex Pistols. This is where hardcore punk really happened. That in turn spurred a revolution because music had finally left rock behind, and by mating the nihilistic (no inherent rules) composition of punk with the longer-phrase riffs of metal (derived from horror movie soundtracks), the riff styles of death metal and black metal were born, and the progressive song structures of speed metal evolved. At the same time, essentialist movements in punk hybrids (thrash) and metal (doom) emerged, sending many back to the roots of these subgenres.

HARDCORE PUNK

Discharge – Hear Nothing, See Nothing, Say Nothing

The Exploited – Death Before Dishonour

Amebix – Arise!

A second generation arose in the USA (all of the above bands are UK):

Cro – Mags – The Age of Quarrel

Black Flag – Damaged

Minor Threat – Discography

1983 — the big branching: speed, thrash and death/black

1983 is a crucial year, and so it gets its own entry. Metal and punk cross-influenced each other. The result was a lot more metal. If you’re familiar with nu-metal or more radio style metal, start with speed metal, as it’s the most like really violent rock music with influences from progressive rock in song structure. If you like messy punk (!!!) try some thrash. And if you’ve already given your soul to Satan, try death/black. With death/black, there’s also some influences from progressive rock, although they’re balanced with punk technique which makes for a chaotic spawn.

SPEED METAL

Speed metal took the complex song forms of progressive rock, the muted-strum guitar riffing of the NWOBHM bands like Blitzkrieg, and added to it the high energy of punk hardcore and came up with songs that kept getting faster and faster. This shocked people of the day, and was the primary reason speed metal bands were different from the NWOBHM that came before them, hence it was dubbed “speed metal.”

Metallica – Kill ‘Em All

Nuclear Assault – Game Over

Megadeth – Rust in Peace

Testament – The New Order

THRASH

Thrash is a hybrid genre that takes punk songs and puts metal riffs in them. Its name arises from “thrasher,” or skater, and those were the people who embraced this style of music that was more extreme than metal or hardcore at the time. While it leans toward punk, it used metal riffs, and wrote short songs that in the punk style lambasted society but in the metal style tended to mythologize the resulting conflict.

DRI – Dirty Rotten LP

Cryptic Slaughter – Convicted

Corrosion of Conformity – Animosity

GRINDCORE

Like thrash, this was a hybrid of metal and punk that leaned toward the punk side for song structures, and the metal side for riffs.

Napalm Death – Scum

Terrorizer – World Downfall

Repulsion – Horrified

Carcass – Reek of Putrefaction

PROTO-DEATH/BLACK METAL

In 1983, these bands contributed just about equally to the new sound. In the largest part inspired by NWOBHM like Venom and Motorhead filtered through aggro-hardcore like GBH and Discharge, the unholy triad invented underground metal to come.

Bathory – The Return

Hellhammer – Apocalyptic Raids

Slayer – Show No Mercy

DEATH METAL

Once proto-death/black metal had occurred, people began to expand on the formula. One side decided to make it more technical, and riffy, and taking after Hellhammer’s “Triumph of Death” and the increasingly mind-bending riffing of Slayer, made it use mazes of mostly chromatic phrasal riffs. On the other side, some wanted to preserve the atmosphere of the simpler songs that Bathory and Hellhammer had to offer, but injected melody and loosened up the drums to keep it from being as clear and rigid as death metal. While that latter group went off to figure out black metal, the death metal team experienced a boom of creativity and excess during 1985-1995.

Possessed – Seven Churches

Sepultura – Morbid Visions/Bestial Devastation

Necrovore – Divus Te Mortuus

Morbid Angel – Abominations of Desolation

PROTO-BLACK METAL

While death metal was just starting up, other bands were trying to figure out how to make melodic ambient metal, structured equally after early melodic metal and free-floating songs like Slayer’s “Necrophiliac.” The result had chaotic drums, deliberately bad sound quality to avoid becoming a trend or something which could be imitated, and high shrieking vocals to death metal’s guttural growl. Taking a cue from Bathory, Slayer and Hellhammer, it also embraced the occult and esoteric and rejected conventional social norms and religions.

Sarcofago – INRI

Blasphemy – Fallen Angel of Doom

Merciless – The Awakening

BLACK METAL

As black metal matured, it moved into Norway, possibly inspired by the previous generation of melodic Swedish death metal bands who used high sustain through heavy distortion to make melodic songs which featured less constant riff-changing than the bigger bands from overseas.

Immortal – Diabolical Full Moon Mysticism

Mayhem – De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas

Darkthrone – Under a Funeral Moon

Burzum – Burzum

Emperor – Wrath of the Tyrant

Gorgoroth – Pentagram

Enslaved – Vikinglgr Veldi

This is just the beginning; there’s a lot more after this in all of the genres, which kept developing in their own ways. This is only an introduction to the history of it all, and is not designed to be comprehensive…

Interview with Satan

March 31, 2013 –

satan-band_photo

Satan‘s Life Sentence is going to hit a lot of best of lists for this year because it is the root of the most lastingly popular metal genre ever created.

In the early 1980s, speed metal bands like Metallica popularized the style, but acknowledged their debt to NWOBHM including Motorhead, Diamond Head and Blitzkrieg. These bands were from the far side of NWOBHM as it incorporated more punk influences and as a way of differentiating itself from the earlier versions, got harder, heavier, riffier and generally more aggressive.

Back in those times, Satan’s Court in the Act was considered one of the fore-runners of speed metal. With the advantage of 30 years of wisdom, Satan re-assembled — now with experience spent in bands like Blitzkrieg and Skyclad — and restored its vision of the past with an album that is harder, faster and heavier than their earlier works.

Life Sentence however also includes the best aspects of NWOBHM, which includes the melodic vocals and melodic guitar-based songwriting, with technical chops that aren’t overstated, and a good sense of developing theme. It makes many of the post-Metallica imitators of speed metal seem like two-note template-based song construction, and shows metal a way to renovate its own flagging fortunes: improve songwriting.

It won’t be hard to convince people to enjoy this album. As we pointed out in our review, it’s a winner with metalheads who like musicality with their speed thrills. We were fortunate to be able to talk with guitarist Steve Ramsey.

Back in the 1980s, when asked about the origins of speed metal (Metallica, Exodus, Anthrax, Testament, Megadeth) many people pointed me toward Court in the Act, and others mentioned the “Into the Fire” demo you released in 1982. What do you think your contributions were toward inventing this new style? Do you think it was widely recognised?

I think on the underground it was recognised that the album had some significance. Unfortunately it didn’t seem so to us at the time, hence the name and direction change. We knew we were pushing boundaries in our own way.

What floors me about Life Sentence is how you mix melodic guitar playing with aggressive and fast riffing. Do you get a lot of comparisons to Judas Priest’s Painkiller? How do you think this album is different from your past works?

We were heavily influenced by early Priest, especially the Unleashed in the East live album and the older material on that album. No one has mentioned this until now. Their earlier material in he seventies was very progressive, unlike some of the stuff that made them popular in the eighties. We tried to create what we think would have been our second album had the lineup stayed in tact. We had a few rules we made and stuck to. For instance, we didn’t think we would have written much in odd time signatures.

The term “power metal” popped up a lot in the late 1990s to refer to bands that were melodic in composition but used the more aggressive riff styles of speed metal and death metal, like Helstar and Stratovarius. However, Satan was doing all of this back in 1982. Do you think the community caught up to you, and do you think that your first album would be received differently today?

If the reaction to the new album is anything to go by then yes, I think the album would have fared better now. Aggressive melodic speed metal is a term that could be used to describe a lot of what we are in to writing and performing as a band.

Life Sentence is a remarkably complete album in that every song seems to fit and there’s not a dull moment. What’s your songwriting and quality control process? How do you start writing a song — with an idea, an image, a riff, a melody, or what? — and how do you determine what goes on the album?

It’s strange really, we didn’t have any left overs. Everything we put together is on the album. Russ is the main writer of the music along with myself, but a lot of the stuff is a collaboration between us and the other members adding their bits and pieces to the general picture and overall performance. It’s a true team effort.

Members have gone on to other bands, including Skyclad which claimed your guitarist and bassist for some time. How is Skyclad different from Satan? It is famous for mixing folk music in with metal. Is this a natural progression from what you did with Satan?

Not at all. That was a concept perceived by our ex-singer Martin and myself. We started off playing a more thrashy form of music and gradually added more of the folk element as we went on. Sabbat were a thrash band that Martin was in previous to Skyclad. His vocal style determined what we were able to do too.

How do you see yourself as different from death metal? In the Metal Forces interview, you say Satan changed the name in part to avoid being seen as being like Venom and Slayer. Musically and artistically, how do you see yourselves as different from these bands? In an interview with Snakepit magazine, you mentioned that Satan chose its path before black metal and death metal. What do you think of these movements which have built on what you’ve created?

When we formed the band Russ and I were 15 and still at school together. We thought Satan was a true heavy metal name for a band and of course we’d come up with a fantastic logo. We were into Black Sabbath but they weren’t branded by their name with everyone thinking they were into the occult or whatever. This happened later to the music scene. In the eighties we had some towns trying to ban us from playing and Christians demonstrating outside shows because of the name. We tired of this and having to explain that we weren’t preachers of evil etc.

I think nowadays it’s taken a little more tongue-in-cheek what a band decides to call itself. I like aggressive music and we write songs about the evil things that happen in the world but we have nothing to do with devil worship and all of that stuff and dont want to be associated with it. The forms black and death metal weren’t the issue, it was the message that some of these bands were tring to deliver. Slayer are one of my favourite bands.

In the German TV interview posted on your website, you mention how metal audiences are too trend-orientated. How do you think this has helped you or hurt you over the years? You mention in the context of Skyclad, that not being popular isn’t a judgment on musical quality. Can you tell us more about this?

This is especially what happens in the UK. The popular press lead the fans into liking the music made by the major labels, and of course those labels are the ones that fund the magazines through advertising. We’ve had situations in the past with press in Germany too where you’ll get an album review but no feature because your label aren’t paying for a big full colour advertisement in that mag. This makes it more difficult to be heard if you’re trying to create someting new on a small independent label. It’s really not the audience’s fault, they get into what they get to hear and that goes for mainstream too. This has changed a lot since I made that statement due to the internet and fans being able to find what they like themselves.

In the Snakepit interview, you say that your first gig involved playing covers by Black Sabbath, Motorhead and the Ramones. How much influence did punk have on your music? Where did the Motorhead influence come in? Was it balanced by another influence, that sounds more like traditional NWOBHM and guitar-oriented rock?

We listened to a lot of punk stuff in the seventies and wanted to involve that raw energy in our music. Motorhead were one of the first metal bands to do that for us. Also we played punk stuff because it was easy to play and people would identify with it at school where our first gig was! We were also listening to Deep Purple, Rainbow, Priest and Rush but couldn’t play that yet. We would play a lot of Priest songs from Unleashed in The East, “Kill the King” by Rainbow, “The Trees” by Rush and others later on in our early days.

How is it that people confuse writing about evil, with suggesting that evil is a good idea? Does this reveal something about them? I’m thinking of your comments (Steve and Graeme) in the German TV interview on the Satan page about how people would boycott Satan without knowing anything about the music.

Yes, it is a little naive. Unfortunately there are people out there who make assumptions without listening. There were bands promoting it through their lyrics too though and that didn’t help with us being called Satan.

In an interview with Metal Forces magazine, you said you wanted to get away from darker themes and “all this black death, killing people and devils. We want to get some life into metal. Music isn’t about death, it’s about life.” — is there a way for bands to be about life even with dark themes, or are the two mutually exclusive? Do you think many metal bands are going about this the wrong way?

I think what I was trying to say was that some bands try to deliver a message through their lyrics and sometimes it’s not good. We certainly did that with Skyclad and still do but Satan was never about that. We want people to enjoy listening to the band and the dark lyrical themes suit the music we make but were not trying to deliver any kind of opinion or message with them. There are also a lot of bands that share the same attitude.

You’ve now played a number of festivals, and come out with what I think will be a strong contender for album of the year, and you’ve got a powerful lineup ready to go. Are you going to tour more, or focus on recording more material?

Thanks for that accolade. Everything is very much up in the air and in the lap of the gods! If you’d asked us a couple of years ago are we going to make an album we probably would have laughed. The interest in what we do is leading us. This album went so well that there have been whispers in the camp about maybe doing another. We take the shows we get offered and we have some good ones coming up.

Thank you very much for the great review Brett. It’s great to know there are people out there who really get what were doing and appreciate it and that really came across when we read it.

Satan – Life Sentence

March 11, 2013 –

satan-life_sentenceBack in the 1980s, the wisdom was that Satan had something to do with the founding of speed metal, along with Blitzkrieg and a few others who got into the choppier, more muted strum side of NWOBHM.

Having two members go on to avant-progressive speed metal act Skyclad did not hurt the legend. Thirty years later, Satan return with Life Sentence, an album that is musical enough for power metallers but uses the same efficient mix of speed and classic riffing that made Judas Priests’s Painkiller such an enduring favorite.

In addition, this band has internal quality control, which is something that seemed to go out the window with the rise of MP3s. This album fits together as an album, not as a concept album but as enough and varied interpretations of a style to make a consistent but not repetitive package.

Riffs on Life Sentence are of known general types but are not recognizably derived from anything else, and while they are generally used in pop-style song structures, tend to illustrate the theme of each song in sound. In addition, Satan use riffs as archetypes and vary them for fills or changes in song direction. This distinguishes them from many of the more template-based heavy metal bands.

The strong underpinning of riffs supports a subtly jazz-influenced percussion that mimics the guitar while trying to stay as much in the background as possible until it is time for a strategically interesting fill, at which point it explodes. Over this the melodic vocals of Brian Ross, who also sang in Blitzkrieg, surge in both full operatic style and a more surly half-chant.

Lead guitar fireworks are minimized but like everything else on this album, appear when it helps push the song along. However, songwriting on its own is strong, with each song having a clear theme that is played out in the tension between verse and chorus riffs. Nothing sounds hasty or ill-thought; it all fits together and moves as one.

For metalheads who like musicality but might want something more aggressive than your average power metal band, Satan offer a powerful competitor that does not fall into excesses, but keeps its own spirit alive. Life Sentence does not sound like it came out in the 1980s, but also, evokes much of the strength and beauty of the music of that era. This should be a major contender for the thinking metalhead vote in 2013.

Judas Priest – Stained Class

November 5, 2010 –
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Stylistically and in terms of execution, this is perhaps the most important album that Judas Priest made. Some will argue that the Sad Wings Of Destiny album from 1976 was the record that encapsulated this, though the reviewer picks Stained Class on the basis that it shapes and crafts the periphery of what was yet to come from a still young musical form. The origins of extreme metal are hinted at in pieces such as ‘Exciter’, which elaborates further on the quintet’s advancement towards more aggressive techniques and motifs, heavy on palm muted rhythmic guitar riffs and rapid fire double bass pedals, overlaid with Rob Halford’s banshee-like falsetto and lead guitars which although in terms of patterns and scales are not yet free of the restraints of rock music from previous decades, clearly set a benchmark for the revival of neoclassical technique in the metal genre. This is additionally showcased in both the follow up piece ‘White Heat, Red Hot’  the title track and ‘Saints In Hell’, more adherent to mid-paced tempos though in terms of form, the same development is obvious.

‘Invader’, ‘Savage’, and ‘Better By You, Better Than Me’ are all anthemic, semi-melodic numbers that are more standardized than anything else on this album, and is easily of the quality of the best material that permeated the disappointing predecessor Sin After Sin. As is with much work within earlier NWOBHM, this creates a solid base that allows for the most joyous segments of this album to thrive so well. ‘Beyond The Realms Of Death’ which is by many seen to be a seminal piece for this band, is an excellent piece of balladry, to which a clear lineage of the more subtle, ‘slow burning’ work of Iron Maiden (“Children Of The Damned”), Manowar (“Valhalla”, “Bridge Of Death”), Bathory (“One Rode To Asa Bay”, “Twilight Of The Gods”), Metallica (“Sanitarium”, “Fade To Black”) can trace a root. With the exception of perhaps their triumphant Painkiller opus, this remains their most consistent and advanced work, and shows an act at their most vital and relentless. Metal was forged here.

 -Pearson-

Satan – Court in the Act

July 6, 2010 –
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Hailing from Newcastle, the same turf as fellow Geordies Venom, Satan’s debut album offers a more finely executed and grandiose vision of the NWOBHM, and on Court In The Act they deliver a masterwork that arguably represents the peak of the style. Each composition is defined by intricate rhythm and lead guitar work, and a pacy ryththm section that has all the momentum of an up-tempo take on Stained Class by Judas Priest. A very well tamed vocal retains a mostly mid-range croon throughout songs, unleashing semi-operatic falsettos wherever necessary to give greater punctuality to the conclusions of riff cycles. On repeat listens Court In The Act can bring about various comparisons, with the proto-speed metal gallop of Judas Priest, the melodic noodling of Iron Maiden and an anthemic niche shared by Angel Witch. Witchfinder General also comes to mind, albeit lacking the Black Sabbath influence that informed said act.

Melody and song structure here is flawless, and unlike many albums of the NWOBHM there is no real incohesion or disruption halting the flow of compositional prowess. Quite an archaic use of notation that makes great use of pentatonics, yet moderates the restraints of blues and R&B music, has something more in common with European music of centuries past. If one were to imagine listening and removing the aesthetics of the modern band-set up, and replacing the electrical distortions of the guitars with perhaps harpsichord or sole acoustic guitar in it’s place a bridge can more or less be established as an imaginative transition to a modern form of music. One of the absolute best releases of traditional metal, this is highly overlooked and highly recommended.

-Pearson-