The Heavy Metal Music Genre

This article is a collaborative effort, crafted and edited by a team of dedicated professionals.

Contributors: Andranick Tanguiane, Fred Lerdahl,

An in-depth look at the history of heavy metal music, its rise to popularity, and its influence on pop culture.


Heavy metal is a genre of rock music that developed in the late 1960s and early 1970s, largely in the United Kingdom and the United States. With roots in blues rock and psychedelic rock, the bands that created heavy metal developed a thick, massive sound, characterized by highly amplified distortion, extended guitar solos, emphatic beats, and overall loudness. The genre’s lyrics and performance styles are sometimes associated with aggression and machismo.

Metalcore is a fusion genre of extreme metal and hardcore punk. Metalcore features clean singing or shouting alongside heavy metal instrumentation. It emerged as a commercialized fusion of early hardcore punk with elements of death metal around 1993–1994. Metalcore bands sometimes breakdown their musical phrasing further by using “breakdown” riffs or rhythms.

The Origins of Heavy Metal

Heavy metal is a genre of rock music that developed in the late 1960s and early 1970s. It has its roots in blues rock and psychedelic rock, and is often characterized by a forceful, aggressive sound, characterized by distorted electric guitars, bass guitar, and drums, sometimes accompanied by vocals.

Metal Bands of the Early 1970s

As the 1970s wore on, many of the bands from the previous decade began to move away from the blues-based sound that defined early heavy metal. This new sound was characterized by longer songs, complex arrangements, and a heavier, louder guitar sound. This shift in sound was epitomized by bands such as Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, and Led Zeppelin. Other bands like Judas Priest and UFO began to emerge in this new heavy metal sound. However, it wasn’t until the release of Judas Priest’s 1974 album ‘Sad Wings of Destiny’ that heavy metal really began to take hold. This album featured the song ‘Victim of Changes,’ which is often considered to be one of the first true heavy metal songs.

The late 1970s saw the rise of a new breed of heavy metal band that would come to dominate the genre for the next two decades. These bands, such as Iron Maiden, Motörhead, and Saxon, were influenced by the New Wave of British Heavy Metal (NWOBHM), a movement that had begun in the early 1970s with bands like Diamond Head and Witchfynde. The NWOBHM band Venom is often credited with creating the black metal subgenre with their 1981 album ‘Welcome to Hell.’ The popularity of these bands helped spur the development of a new style of heavy metal known as speed metal. This style was characterized by fast tempos, screaming vocals, and shredding guitar solos. Bands like Metallica and Megadeth would take this style and change it even further in the 1980s

The New Wave of British Heavy Metal

The New Wave of British Heavy Metal was a musical movement that started in the late 1970s, and reached its height during the early 1980s. The movement developed as a reaction to the declining state of the heavy metal genre, particularly in the UK.

Heavy metal had become increasingly diluted by the presence of hard rock bands and stadium rock bands, and was no longer seen as dangerous or exciting. This resulted in a number of metal fans looking for something heavier and more extreme.

The New Wave of British Heavy Metal emerged from this desire for a return to the roots of heavy metal.NWOBHM bands were heavier and more aggressive than what had come before, and they often had a more working-class sensibility. This contrasted sharply with the more middle-class hard rock and stadium rock bands that were popular at the time.

The NWOBHM also helped to revitalize interest in live music, as many young fans were now eager to see their favorite bands in concert. This led to an increase in venue bookings and fanzine publications, which further helped to spread the word about this new type of metal music.

While the NWOBHM did not have a lasting impact on mainstream music, it was highly influential on subsequent heavy metal genres such as black metal, death metal, and thrash metal. It also helped to launch the careers of many successful metal bands, including Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, Def Leppard, and Motorhead.

The Development of Heavy Metal in the Late 1970s and Early 1980s

Heavy metal is a genre of rock music that developed in the late 1960s and early 1970s. It is characterized by a thick, massive sound, heavy use of distorted guitars, bass guitar, drums, and vocals. Heavy metal lyrics often deal with topics such as death, violence, war, and other dark topics.

The American Scene

The American heavy metal scene developed in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Bands such as Blue Cheer and Black Sabbath popularized the use of distorted guitars, drums, and vocals. In the early 1970s, Black Sabbath’s Paranoid popularized the riff-based song structures that would become a staple of heavy metal.

In 1973, Deep Purple’s Smoke on the Water became one of the first heavy metal songs to receive significant airplay on radio and television. In 1974, Kiss released their self-titled debut album, which featured a heavier sound than most pop/rock bands of the time. Also in 1974, Queen released their album Sheer Heart Attack, which featured the song “Killer Queen”.

In 1975, Aerosmith released their album Toys in the Attic, which featured the song “Walk This Way”. Led Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti was also released in 1975 and included the song “Kashmir”, which is often considered to be one of the first examples of progressive metal.

In 1976, Judas Priest released their album Sad Wings of Destiny, which is considered to be one of the first examples of power metal. Iron Maiden’s self-titled debut album was also released in 1976 and included the song “Running Free”.

In 1977, Rainbow released their album Rising, which featured guitarist Ritchie Blackmore exploring different soundscapes with his use of synthesizers. Rainbow’s follow-up album Long Live Rock ‘n’ Roll was released in 1978 and featured the song “Kill the King”.

In 1979, Iron Maiden released their second album entitled Killers, which featured the song “Wrathchild”. Also in 1979, Cheap Trick released their breakthrough album Heaven Tonight, which featured the song “I Want You To Want Me”.

The European Scene

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, a number of bands created a heavy, distorted, and amplified sound. Led by Black Sabbath and Deep Purple, these bands became known as heavy metal. With its loud volume and aggressive lyrics, early heavy metal was often criticized by parents and conservative critics. By the late 1970s, however, the music had found a large audience among young people.

In the UK, Judas Priest helped to pioneer the sound of British heavy metal with their 1974 album Rocka Rolla. Motörhead also helped to popularize the sound with their 1975 album Ace of Spades. These bands were followed by a wave of British heavy metal groups such as Iron Maiden, Diamond Head, Saxon, and Def Leppard.

On the other side of the Atlantic, a number of US bands were also playing heavy metal music. These included KISS, Blue Öyster Cult, Aerosmith, Van Halen, and Quiet Riot. In 1981, these bands were joined by Mötley Crüe and Ratt who helped to create the subgenre of glam metal. Glam metal was characterized by its use of make-up, tight clothes, and big hair!

The Consolidation of Heavy Metal in the Mid-1980s

The heavy metal genre of music emerged in the late 1960s and early 1970s. It was a consolidation of various music styles including blues rock, psychedelic rock, and hard rock. The genre is characterized by electric guitars, bass guitar, drums, and vocals.

The American Scene

In the mid-1980s, the American heavy metal scene consolidated around a number of regional hotbeds: Los Angeles (where bands such as Mötley Crüe, Quiet Riot, and Ratt reigned), New York City (with bands like Anthrax, Overkill, and Nuclear Assault), the San Francisco Bay Area (with bands like Metallica and Testament), and Dallas/Fort Worth (with bands like Pantera and Dokken). Labels such as Metal Blade, Megaforce, Combat, and Roadrunner were launched during this period with the intention of focusing exclusively on heavy metal. The influential Metallica albums Ride the Lightning (1984) and Master of Puppets (1986) signalled not only Metallica’s own progress from New Wave of British Heavy Metal (“NWOBHM”) band to international stars but also that heavy metal had reached a new level of technical proficiency and artistic ambition.

The European Scene

In the mid-1980s, the New Wave of British Heavy Metal was in full swing and exerting a powerful influence on the European heavy metal scene. The raw, unpolished sound of NWOBHM bands such as Venom, Diamond Head, and Saxon was a refreshing antidote to the increasingly slick and polished sounds coming out of Hollywood. Young metalheads in Continental Europe were quick to embrace this new sound, and soon a thriving underground metal scene had developed.

In Germany, the leading lights of this scene were the so-called Teutonic Four: Kreator, Sodom, Destruction, and Tankard. These bands combined the NWOBHM sound with elements of thrash metal to create a uniquely aggressive style of music that would come to be known as death/thrash. Their music was fast, furious, and often very technical; it was also marketed almost exclusively to teenage boys.

The Teutonic Four were hugely successful in Germany and helped to spark a major revival in heavy metal’s popularity. By the early 1990s, they were playing arenas and headlining festivals; today, they are still going strong and are widely considered to be among the godfathers of modern German metal.

The Decline of Heavy Metal in the Late 1980s and Early 1990s

Though metal was on the decline in the late 1980s and early 1990s, there were still a few stand-out bands and albums that metalheads could cling to. But by the mid-90s, metal was all but dead, with grunge, alternative, and pop music ruling the airwaves. So what happened? Let’s take a look at the decline of heavy metal in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

The American Scene

By the late 1980s, thrash metal was beginning to gain traction in the United States with bands such as Metallica, Slayer, Anthrax, and Megadeth. These “Big Four” bands were responsible for helping to bring heavy metal back into the mainstream consciousness. However, by the early 1990s, grunge had begun to supplant heavy metal as the leading genre of rock music. Grunge bands such as Nirvana and Pearl Jam rose to prominence and began to dominate radio airplay. As a result, heavy metal fell out of favor with mainstream audiences.

The European Scene

In contrast to the American metal scene, European heavy metal continued to experience strong growth throughout the late 1980s. By the early 1990s, however, the European scene was beginning to experience some of the same problems that American metal was encountering. Record companies were more interested in signing “commercial” bands that would have mass appeal, rather than cult favourites. In addition, the increased popularity of alternative rock and grunge music in the early 1990s led to a decrease in interest in heavy metal. This decline was most noticeable in Scandinavia, which had been a stronghold of European metal throughout the 1980s. As a result of these factors, many European metal bands disbanded or broke up during the early 1990s.

The Resurgence of Heavy Metal in the Late 1990s and Early 2000s

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the heavy metal music genre saw a resurgence in popularity. This was due in part to the popularity of bands such as Metallica and Linkin Park, as well as the release of some successful metal albums. The genre had been declining in popularity since the early 1990s, but this resurgence led to a new wave of metal bands and fans.

The American Scene

In the United States, metalcore was a major driving force in the re-emergence of heavy metal during the late 1990s and early 2000s. This resurgence was led by bands such as Killswitch Engage, Shadows Fall, and Atreyu. Bands that were influenced by hardcore punk and post-hardcore began to experiment with elements of extreme metal, resulting in a new subgenre that combined death metal with hardcore punk, which was aptly named “deathcore”.

In the early 2000s, a new breed of American bands began to mix the sounds of Swedish death metal and American hardcore punk. This new sound would come to be known as “metalcore”. These bands would go on to pioneer a new era in American heavy metal music.

The European Scene

Europe had always been at the forefront of the metal scene, with bands such as Metallica, Iron Maiden, and Slayer leading the way in the 1980s. But by the early 1990s, metal was on the decline in Europe as grunge and alternative rock took over. However, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, metal made a huge comeback in Europe.

Bands such as Children of Bodom, In Flames, and Soilwork led the way in what was known as the “melodic death metal” movement. This new style of metal combined the heaviness of death metal with the melodic elements of power metal, creating a sound that was both brutal and catchy. These bands found a sizable audience in Europe, where metal never really went away.

In addition to melodic death metal, another subgenre that experienced a resurgence in Europe was black metal. Black metal is characterized by its extreme satanic or anti-Christian lyrical themes, and its raw, unpolished sound. One of the most well-known black metal bands is Norway’s Mayhem, whose bassist (and satanic high priest) Varg Vikernes committed one of the most infamous murders in heavy metal history when he killed guitarist Oystein Aarseth (aka Euronymous) in 1993.

The late 1990s and early 2000s were a great time for heavy metal fans in Europe. With a new wave of talented bands revitalizing old styles, there was something for everyone. From melodic death metal to black metal, Europeanmetal was on fire.


The heavy metal music genre is typically characterized by its aggressive, dark, and sometimes abrasive sound. Heavy metal bands often use distorted guitars and drums to create a powerful and punishing sound that can be both exciting and cathartic for fans. Many heavy metal songs also feature dark or violent lyrics that explore dark themes such as death, loss, and despair.

Despite its often negative reputation, the heavy metal music genre has produced some of the most iconic and influential bands of all time. Bands like Metallica, Slayer, and Black Sabbath have helped to shape the sound and style of heavy metal music, and their songs continue to inspire new generations of metal fans. If you’re a fan of heavy metal music, there’s a lot to love about this genre – so don’t be afraid to headbang your way to the nearest mosh pit!

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