Metal, what is it? A short guide to six decades of fury

METAL FADE (2/5) Born in the same diabolical crucible as the blues, heavy rock cut all ties in the 1980s. It has since created its own mythology. For this second part of our series, a little enlightened guide to metalheads.

“If an alien, landed on Earth, wanted to understand what heavy metal is, we could spend hours trying to explain to him, or simply make him listen Hallowed Be Your Namefrom Iron Maiden, suggests Alex Petridis, the English daily’s expert The Guardian. This piece concludes Number of the Beast (1982), the third album from the indestructible British band. Is he the archetype of what is generically called metal? In many ways – its infernal pace, its theme, its brutality and its relative virtuosity – certainly. Because it symbolizes the breaking point, at the dawn of the 1980s, when hard rock freed itself from rock by digging a parallel furrow, with its own codes.

Metal brings together, even in its extremes, a brotherhood of musicians and fans united by their adhesion to a variant, powerful, sometimes violent, of the rock’n’roll of the origins, which the miscreant often associates with an abominable racket in the service of heartbreaking cliches. A popular genre around the world, but virtually absent from the airwaves and mainstream media. And of all the musical categories, it is probably the most coherent, for its detractors as for its aficionados. Because the rejection it provokes in some contributes largely to its attraction in others.

What then is metal? A brief history is necessary to understand the very nature of the beast, how the genre stood out by forging a separate identity, to the point of forming a sprawling family with multiple ramifications, but whose contours are quite clearly delimited. Originally, there was the meeting of the blues, hitherto acoustic, with the electric guitar. The primitive emotion, expressing the suffering of the deprived blacks in the United States, is gradually eclipsed in favor of the amplification which privileges the sound volume and the domination of the riff. The story of emotional or financial misery gives way to alarmist visions where horror, evil and sex, always very present, take center stage.

The Led Zeppelin Earthquake

Since it takes a pioneer, let’s talk about Link Wray and his Rumble, from 1958, minimal instrumental, with its three powerful guitar chords, with a saturated sound recording. It is still by the riff king that distinguish themselves, a few years later in Great Britain, the Kinks and the Who with their first dazzling singles. You Really Got Me (1964), Kinks led by Ray Davies, with its five repetitive chords on which an addictive refrain is modeled, is even considered by many to be the first piece of hard rock. Then come the Pretty Things, the Troggs or the Yardbirds, with pop coloring.

The latter have seen a succession of Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page. In other words, the three guitar heroes who laid the foundations of heavy rock. Clapton founded Cream in 1966, the first supergroup and standard meter of any power trio to come, combining power and excellence. Jeff Beck drives the point home by pushing the sliders further with the group that bears his name: stronger, heavier, more suffocating. After years of honing his skills as a studio musician, Jimmy Page only had to transform the essay, creating Led Zeppelin in 1968. The official start of a new era for rock: harder, more aggressive, more virtuoso too… Except that Led Zeppelin may well remain, by its telluric force, the paragon of heavy rock, its supreme screamer Robert Plant never misses an opportunity to proclaim his contempt for a genre that he considers as reductive as it is limited.

It was therefore necessary to wait until the twilight of the 60’s for a black sheep emerging from the mists of Birmingham, Black Sabbath, to lay the aesthetic milestones of the genre. The quartet’s first album, released in 1970, is the absolute bible for metal fans. With a cover with a perfume as occult as the opening title (Black Sabbath) heavy and disturbing. Ideal to stand out from the competition. Horror appeals to the cinema, why not to music?, they say to themselves. As the “peace and love” line of pop and psychedelia collides with a world shaken by the Vietnam War, the musical journey to the end of hell proposed by singer Ozzy Osbourne and his band is timely for a young to lost illusions for whom this music reflects the horrors of the planet.

While bands like Aerosmith merely shape a heavier version of Stone’s rock, others, more radical ones, cut the cord with the blues to plunge headlong into the cauldron of dread. The singing becomes more piercing, the sustained rhythm turns into a cavalcade, the guitar solos become more and more frenetic, like Judas Priest, in the mid-70s, whose music and lyrics ooze suffering, leather and damnation. At the same time, Lemmy Kilmister, the bassist of Hawkwind who was ejected for his excessive consumption of speed, embodies with Motörhead the biker and hard counterpart of the punk explosion. Thanks to Judas Priest, Motörhead and the new wave ideology which imposes its broke and independent culture, heavy metal, then seriously outdated, is ripe for its revolution: the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, a popular and provincial movement attached to rituals and the expertise of seniors. Its spearheads are Saxon, Def Leppard and Iron Maiden. The latter, with his infamous zombie-like mascot Eddie, triggers a thousand vocations, especially across the Atlantic.

In the early 1980s, in the United States, mainstream heavy rock emerged, propelled by FM and then MTV. From Mötley Crüe to Poison, hair metal triumphs with heavy-pop and consensual power ballads, extravagant hairstyles and ultra-tight outfits. This phenomenally successful fashion, spouting all the clichés of sexism, drugs and rock’n’roll, fuels the rage of hard-core proponents – the furious, radical and militant punk-rock of the Bad Brains, Cro-Mags or Black Flag , where all moves are allowed. Ditto for the purist craftsmen of thrash metal, a more raw, faster and anti-glamorous form of which Metallica becomes the figurehead, ahead of Slayer and Megadeth. The common enemy – hair metal – ended up uniting the two other camps, fiercely opposed at the start. This feeling of common belonging is confirmed by the advent of grunge at the beginning of the 90’s, when Nirvana definitely blurs the tracks by crossing existential rage and electrified firepower.

From there, even the most die-hard variants, developed in an escalation of velocity and morbidity, take their place at the end of the table. Ever faster, darker, more blasphemous death metal, born in Florida with Morbid Angel, Cannibal Corpse, Obituary, is gaining a growing following. Black metal, inspired by another even more outrageous trend, promoted by Venom in England, is spreading in Scandinavia. Sordid miscellaneous facts leading to the suicide of Death then the assassination of Euronymous, the Swedish founders of Mayhem, breathe a smell of sulfur into a sub-genre which cultivates its references in the afterlife and in Viking mythology. In addition to their provocative names – God Seed, Satanic Slaughter, Vomitary… – these black metal bands adorn themselves with ritual, black and white, frightening, bloodstained makeup.

Metal has also broadened its scope by joining forces with other music, such as rap, with nu metal, which incorporates hip-hop scansions and electronic sounds (from Korn to Slipknot) into its supersonic rock. Nine Inch Nails, Ministry, Type O Negative draw on gothic or industrial influences. It doesn’t matter the form, as long as you have bleeding ears and delicious thrills. Because metal is above all a well-honed grand-guignolesque ritual. In short, an immense release, the aim of which is to register en masse in opposition to the dominant tastes. “These men will eat your brains out, blow your skulls apart, reduce you to quivering and pleading debris…” This profession of faith, we owe it to Motörhead. Everything is said, supported wink understood.

On June 21st, third part of our series “Metal Melts”: from Led Zeppelin to Megadeth, when lead turns into lace.
Find here the first episode: Hellfest: the infernal story of a small festival become giant

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Metal, what is it? A short guide to six decades of fury

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