Metal Music

Heavy Metal

Influenced by the heavier-sounding blues-based rock bands such as Cream, Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple and Iron Butterfly, Black Sabbath put a ‘doomier’ spin on this sound to reflect the working class conditions of industrial Birmingham. This resulted in their eponymous debut album that is widely regarded as the starting point of metal music from which many subgenres spawned. In Britain, this developed into the New Wave of British Heavy Metal (NWOBHM) which was a retaliation to 70’s popular music such as Elton John and the Bee Gees. It infused the influence of heavy metal with the energy of punk and incorporated a greater emphasis on musicianship and technicality. Later in America, Eddie Van Halen took this foundation and paved a new path with his guitar pyrotechnics that would change the future of guitar solos. Classic ‘heavy metal’ music was most prominent in the 70s and 80s and it exemplifies the characteristics that form the basis of all metal. ‘Heavy’ riffs utilising power chords are played on loud distorted guitars. Songs also feature hard and powerful drum patterns at fast tempi, extended guitar solos and a dense guitar/bass sound.

Notable artists:

Black Sabbath


Ozzy Osbourne

Iron Maiden

Judas Priest

Van Halen

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Glam Metal

Combining elements of 70s glam rock and heavy metal, this subgenre took off in the 80s. Taking from the influence of major artists such as KISS, Van Halen and Alice Cooper, glam metal borrowed musical elements from classic metal and infused them with rebellious attitude, long hair, make-up, garish outfits and a lifestyle to match. Mötley Crüe headlined a new upsurge of glam metal in Los Angeles, achieving widespread success with Shout at the Devil in 1983 and in the same year Quiet Riot released Metal Health. The music is most similar to hard rock styles with lots of ballads containing softer vocals, as well as anthemic choruses, catchy riffs, and shred guitar solos. The songs cover the more popular themes of ‘Drugs, Sex and Rock and Roll’ and the bands often sing about women.

Notable artists:

Mötley Crüe


Quiet Riot

Twisted Sister

Bon Jovi

Def Leppard

Thrash Metal

In 1981, Southern California, James Hetfield met Lars Ulrich and formed, alongside guitarist Dave Mustaine who upon later leaving the band would form Megadeth, Metallica. Also in Southern California that same year, with a similar musical vision but a much greater emphasis on the occult and sataism, Slayer was founded by Jeff Hanneman and Kerry King. Over on the East Coast, Scott Ian and Dan Lilker formed Anthrax and these four bands would go on to be known as the ‘Big Four’. These bands were instrumental in cementing thrash as metal’s most popular ‘extreme’ subgenre with Metallica being one of the best-selling artists to date and they were also the first band to play on all seven continents. Taking influence from the energy and speed of NWOBHM, these bands upped the aggression in every way to form thrash metal, one of the earliest extreme metal subgenres. Songs are typically at a very fast tempo with complex, aggressively picked and palm-muted guitar riffs, and chaotic shred guitar solos. The vocals cover dark subject matter such as death, torture and war and are delivered in a harsher, shouting tone. The drum parts are also more aggressive and utilise double bass.

Notable artists:






Black Metal

The first wave of black metal emerged in the 80s with bands such as Venom, Bathory and Hellhammer. This initial wave focused on combing a faster paced music with occult, paganistic imagery as introduced by Black Sabbath, whilst still maintaining a dark, brooding atmosphere. In the early 1990s, a second wave resulted from a slew of Norwegian bands (Mayhem, Emperor, Burzum) aiming to push the limits of extreme music. The riffs became fiercer, and the bands became more dedicated to the occultist theme. In some cases, this dedication to brutality extended beyond the music and led to infamous events such as Christian church burnings and even murders. The guitarist of Mayhem, known as ‘Euronymous’ photographed the suicide of the band’s singer and released it as a bootleg cover of the album, Dawn of the Black Hearts. Euronymous was also later murdered by Varg Vikernes, founder of the music project Burzum. The music maintains an emphasis on atmosphere and dark imagery but includes brutal tremolo picked guitar riffs as well as dissonant chords and notably low production quality. The growling vocals are harsh and often high in pitch.

Notable artists:







Death Metal

Taking the most extreme elements of bands such as Venom and Slayer, a new movement emerged in Florida in the mid-1980s, headed by Chuck Schuldiner. This new wave of metal aimed to be brutally heavy whilst still maintaining a high level of technicality and musicianship. Early death metal emulated the blistering pace, heavy riffs and intensity of thrash metal but expanded on the macabre imagery of thrash and black metal by focusing on satanism, death and gore. Throughout the 80s, Florida continued to be the epicentre of the subgenre, producing influential bands such as Obituary, Morbid Angel and Deicide. The musical style is characterised by incredibly fast double bass and blast beat drum patterns, accompanied by heavily distorted guitars utilising palm muting and tremolo picking. These are combined to create technical, chaotic riffs and the solos are highly virtuosic. Most distinctive is the vocal delivery which often employs low ‘death growls’ on themes of horror, violence and occultism.

Notable artists:


Morbid Angel



Cannibal Corpse



Grunge emerged from the Seattle underground music scene in the mid-1980s. Grunge combined elements of punk and metal by borrowing from the DIY punk ethos but staying musical aligned with metal. Grunge grew in the underground, aided by the label Sub Pop which, in 1988, released the Sub Pop 100 compilation. Grunge exploded into the mainstream in 1991 with Nirvana’s release of Nevermind. The single Smells Like Teen Spirit garnered widespread attention due to a large presence on MTV. This completely rocked the world of commercial heavy music which had, up to this point, been dominated by glam metal. This change in direction indicated positive reception to the raw, stripped back grunge style over the garish theatrics of the glam style. Grunge music can commonly be identified by heavily distorted guitars playing simple power chord riffs over straightforward drum patterns. There is a notable absence of guitar solos in grunge, and the lyrics, often sung in an angsty tone, cover dark, introspective themes.

Notable artists:



Pearl Jam

Alice in Chains


Metalcore derives its name and musical style from the combination of elements present in extreme metal styles and hardcore punk music. Laying down roots in the 80s with bands such as Suicidal Tendencies, it wasn’t until the 2000s that metalcore burst into the mainstream and achieved success. One of the most prominent bands to achieve this was Killswitch Engage with Alive or Just Breathing (2002) and two years later, The End of Heartache. The records signify a greater injection of metal influence into the subgenre and demonstrate some of the core characteristics of metalcore that have persevered, making metalcore one of the most popular current metal subgenres. Pounding guitar riffs alternate with catchy, melodic choruses and guitar solos. Within this subgenre there is a massive emphasis on crushing breakdowns that are heavily rhythmic. Metalcore also contains a great amount of vocal variety, including anything from clean singing, low-pitched growls and pitched screaming.

Notable artists:

Avenged Sevenfold

Killswitch Engage


As I Lay Dying

Bullet for My Valentine