Theoretically Speaking S3 | E8: What Makes Heavy Metal, Heavy Metal ? Part 2

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Bill Bois’ Music Theory For Non-Musicians


…if there was ever an art where breaking the rules is one of the rules, it’s music.

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S3:E8 – What Makes Heavy Metal, Heavy Metal ?
Part 2

As I mentioned last time in Part 1, Deep Purple went through four lineup changes, known as Marks I through IV. When Ritchie Blackmore left at the end of Mark III, he started a new band called Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow, which later shortened to just Rainbow.

Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow, Mark III.
That’s our guess, anyway.

Blackmore hired four members of Deep Purple’s opening act, an American band called Elf, though he soon fired three of them and kept singer Ronnie James Dio.

Dio would prove influential in heavy metal’s lyrical content, and would give us a hand gesture that symbolizes rock.

As a lyricist, Dio shared Black Sabbath’s interest in the underworld and used it as his starting point. Religion, and the light it shines on the good and evil within each of us, became one of his main subjects. Later bands would turn to Satanism, either seriously or as a joke or just to be part of the trend, but Dio looked at it as a metaphor.

We can choose the evil in us or we can choose the good, and Dio set those very human choices in a fantasy world to more starkly show the distinction. While outsiders don’t quite get metal’s fascination with castles and wizards and holy divers, fans know that these are morality tales. They’re warnings. We can learn from the bad choices of fictional characters.

So given his subject matter, it’s not entirely coincidental that Dio ended up in Black Sabbath after he left Rainbow and Ozzy Osborne left Sabbath. They were the right band for him, he was the right singer for them.

Ozzy had been known for raising both arms and displaying the peace symbol.

Dio wanted something of his own, so he took a gesture that his Italian grandmother used to ward off the malocchio, or the evil eye,

Raising an index finger and a pinkie has become known as the “devil’s horns.”

It went from meaning heavy metal to meaning rock, and then to meaning any enthusiastic approval. I’ve seen people put up the devil’s horns at business meetings.

“And, before we wrap:
A big shoutout to Anne, on hitting her KPI !”

Symbolism like this is important in rock music. A band’s image defines it nearly as much as its music. When you see a picture of a band in cowboy hats and denim shirts, you get the idea that they don’t sound much like bands wearing neon leotards.

Glam rock was as much about fashion as it was about music.

Marc Bolan of T. Rex is seen as glam’s progenitor, playing bluesy hard rock and wearing eyeliner, leopard print, and a lot of satin.

Glam’s heyday was through the early 1970s. And while its music was more pop-rock than metal, its flamboyant fashions would reappear in the late 1980s Los Angeles metal bands. We’ll get to them in a future article. That gives you time to get your spandex dry cleaned.

“Really, Mr. 58, it’s fine. We never judge.”

Bands like T. Rex, Sweet, and Mott The Hoople played hard rock with pop overtones and are known for their eye make up and extravagant clothes. David Bowie was considered part of glam, but he transformed himself so many times it’s hard to think of him as part of any single movement. Still, he was big in glam at the time.

And then KISS took it to another level.

KISS is one of those bands (Aerosmith is another example) who made their careers through touring rather than record sales.

The word of mouth about them was all about spectacle: the costumes, the make up, the pyrotechnics, and spitting fake blood.

Alice Cooper had the same sort of word of mouth but, in my subjective opinion, had better songs.

KISS was rejected by label after label until they were signed by the newly formed Casablanca Records, which would later become the leader in disco. The major labels thought KISS was a cartoon band, but kids like cartoons and were sure to see the band whenever they came to town. Their 1975 live album Alive! and its back cover showing a packed arena changed some minds. 

(We found out later that the live album used a lot of studio overdubs, including the audience’s reactions. That’s a completely different story.) 

Musically though, we have to include KISS in the heavy metal of the time. Songs like Strutter, Strange Ways, and Hotter Than Hell are riff-based metal bordering on hard rock. Musically, they’re not all that different from AC/DC or Ted Nugent.

The emergence of punk rock in the mid-1970s is usually seen as a reaction to the excesses of progressive rock bands like Emerson, Lake and Palmer, but it was also a reaction to the excesses of histrionic stage shows like KISS’s. Punk replaced the elaborate costumes and guitar gods with ripped t-shirts and pure rock and roll energy.

One band combined that punk energy with the ethos of metal.

Motȍrhead started in London in 1975, went through several lineup changes, but ultimately settled into loud, fast, no nonsense heavy metal.

They had metal fans and punk fans, a consensus few other bands could pull together.

Motȍrhead also introduced the double bass drum set to heavy metal. It’s pretty much required these days. See their video in Suggested Listening below.

A London club called The Bandwagon Heavy Metal Soundhouse was managed by a DJ who would only play hard rock and heavy metal.

With a name like that, they weren’t going to play disco.

The DJ, Neal Kay, was given a demo of a song called Prowler and he liked it well enough to add to his rotation.

Like Motȍrhead, it mixed punk’s speed with metal’s power, though Steve Harris, the band’s leader, hated punk. He still hates punk. He’ll tell anyone who will listen that he hates punk.

The band was called Iron Maiden and Prowler’s popularity at The Bandwagon helped spread the word. The song became the lead off track on their self-titled, debut album in 1978. They’ve released 17 studio albums, the most recent in September 2021, and are one of the biggest live acts in the world. That first Iron Maiden album is very important in metal’s development.

However, the album that made all the difference to heavy metal didn’t come out until 1980, and part of that was a new fashion statement. The back cover of British Steel by Birmingham band Judas Priest showed them in black leather and chrome studs. They gave heavy metal its own look.

British Steel’s cover and the music it contained certified that Judas Priest could no longer be confused as a British blues or glam rock band, unlike some of their previous albums.

They were now proudly metal and wore it on their, well, not sleeves, but studded wrist cuffs.

Not only did Iron Maiden and British Steel help define heavy metal as a genre unto itself, they mark the start of the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal.

Often abbreviated as NWOBHM and pronounced “neh-WOB-um,” it includes bands like Diamond Head, Saxon, and Tygers Of Pan Tang. NWOBHM’s songs tend to be short and fast like punk rock, but deal with dark topics like earlier heavy metal.

All the blues and jazz elements were gone, replaced by the intricacies of classical and prog rock. Most bands had two guitarists, not necessarily to take turns soloing, but to play precisely arranged parts together. They filled the same roles as the first violins and second violins in an orchestra.

The twin guitar harmony sound was first developed by the Irish group Thin Lizzy.

They are sometimes considered a metal band and the metal story isn’t complete without them, but they were simply a hard rock band.

A very, very, good hard rock band.

It’s no wonder that NWOBHM became very popular in Europe as it stripped metal down to only its rock, punk, prog, and classical attributes. The subject matter was similar to Beowulf, Nordic folklore, and tales from Germanic heroic legend. All the characteristics of African American music were gone. 

Like classical music before it, and to put it indelicately: heavy metal is our whitest music from our whitest continent.


Metal continues to be more popular in Europe than anywhere else, notably in Scandinavia. There are sizable followings in North America, Oceania, and, to a lesser extent, South America. Still, there are more metal bands per capita in Greenland than in the United States.

That’s not to say heavy metal is racist, though there are some underground nationalist elements here and there just like in the rest of society.

And it’s not really sexist either, though the audience is mostly male and the music’s aggression is something of a statement of masculinity. It did, however, have undercurrents of homophobia, which made Rob Halford’s coming out in 1998 all the more shocking.

The singer of Judas Priest? Gay? It was mind-boggling at the time.

Now, the general consensus seems to be a collective shrug.

As long as he can still sing and ride a motorcycle on to the stage, let’s rock. Maybe the subculture is growing like the rest of society. 

NWOBHM lyrics are rarely political. Though some songs pine for the weekend and mention the broken economy of late 70s Britain, metal songs are more likely to talk about cars, motorcycles, dragons and hellfire.

So we have a nearly all white and nearly all male subculture that doesn’t appear to be racist or sexist or political.

How does that work ?

My theory is that metal is escapism.

No one really believes in dragons, but such ideas are a distraction from the larger culture.

It’s a good way to forget about your terrible boss and the unlikelihood of earning a better place in society.

Musical and societal theorist Bill “Virgindog” Bois

As I said in the very first Theoretically Speaking, the first instrument was the voice, followed by percussion. The act of banging sticks or rocks together is at least a little violent, and you know one caveman or another got carried away and smashed his sticks into splinters.

Probably Trorck. That guy had no sense of decorum at all.

Trorck, always with the attitude.
And no, we are not jealous.

From Trorck’s broken sticks to Wagner’s bombast to Mastodon’s aural assault, there’s always been aggression in music. We currently think of heavy metal as the most aggressive genre, and rightly so, but we must remember:

That most of its fans are absolute pussycats.

Which begs the question:

Does aggressive music help release aggression, so that it doesn’t manifest itself in more destructive ways?

The answer is: yes

Dr. Laurel Trainor, director of the McMaster Institute for Music and the Mind, says that heavy metal allows for the release of aggression in a safe environment.

“The sound intensity and the distortion tend to turn off conscious thought, so you’re turning off inhibition.”

Dr. Laurel Trainor, Director: McMaster Institute for Music and the Mind

That allows listeners to headbang, mosh, scream, and generally blow off steam throughout an entire concert.”

And when they’re done, they go home content and can become pussycats again.

Come back next week for Part 3. We’ll pick up sometime in the mid-1980s.


Suggested Listening

Metal Guru
T. Rex

1972

Ballroom Blitz
Sweet
1973

Strange Ways
KISS
1974

Wild One
Thin Lizzy
1975

Prowler
Iron Maiden
1978

Overkill
Motorhead
1979

Wasted
Def Leppard
1979

Heaven And Hell
Black Sabbath
1980

Breaking The Law
Judas Priest
1980

Am I Evil?
Diamond Head
1980

Don’t Touch Me There
Tygers Of Pan Tang
1980

Race With The Devil
Girlschool
1980

Loser
Angel Witch
1981

Lightning Strikes
Aerosmith
1982

Break The Chain
Raven
1983

Holy Diver
Dio

1983

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Bill Bois

Bill Bois - bassist, pie fan, aging gentleman punk, keeper of the TNOCS spreadsheet:
https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/138BvuV84ZH7ugcwR1HVtH6HmOHiZIDAGMIegPPAXc-I/edit#gid=0

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thegue
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January 13, 2023 10:02 am

Great as always, V!

  1. I hope that RJ313 is dropping in to read this synopsis. I really did enjoy his enthusiastic coverage of all things heavy metal, even when I didn’t understand half of it.
  2. Shocked to see Sweet here.
  3. The first kid I met on my street when I moved in March of 1974 was Sean, and we’re still friends today. He introduced me to KISS and Iron Maiden – I rejected the first, but loved the second.
  4. I know nothing of NWOBHM, other than what you and RJ have shared. I’ll have to give it a listen, though my tastes are decidedly different than what they were in the early 80s, when I couldn’t get enough of Maiden, AC/DC, Quiet Riot and my disco/synth bands.

Have a great weekend!

Pauly Steyreen
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January 13, 2023 11:17 am
Reply to  thegue

I was thinking the same thing… we need to bring RJ1313 into this discussion.

mt58
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January 13, 2023 11:22 am
Reply to  Pauly Steyreen

Time for my obligatory, “It’s not proper for me to do, but if anyone wants to post a link over at SG, that would be greatly appreciated.”

Pauly Steyreen
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January 13, 2023 12:18 pm
Reply to  mt58

Done 😉

mt58
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mt58
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January 13, 2023 1:08 pm
Reply to  Pauly Steyreen

1,313 thanks to the ever-awesome @Pauly Steyreen.  🙏 

lovethisconcept
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January 13, 2023 2:37 pm
Reply to  mt58

Coincidentally, I just posted a link to the first article in this series in the conversation on Ferrante & Teicher. It fit there, really, it did.

RJ1313
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January 14, 2023 1:47 am
Reply to  Pauly Steyreen

Hey guys! Strange coincidence as I’ve been keeping up with Toms column (with nose turned up in the air at a lot of terrible mainstream R&B) but have been too busy (with good and bad things) to really dive into the comments. But the first time I scroll to the comments in a long time I see my name. So I’ve gone and registered here.

Anyways, great column. Covered most things. Impressive!

A few things I’d add. All of this my opinion of course.

Black Sabbath? Definitely metal.

That said, the idea of Priest excising all the other influences and crystallizing their sound to 100% pure heavy metal is bang on. Except I’d argue that it happened in 1976 with Sad Wings of Destiny. By Stained Class in 1978 you’ve already got the seeds of thrash and death metal riffing. That one is a desert island disc for me – a sublime album.

Huge ups for recommending an Angel Witch song…that’s a band that isn’t super well known but again a lot of the early seeds of extreme metal were planted with their 1980 s/t.

One also shouldn’t sleep on mainland Europe, specifically Germany. The early Accept records are quite heavy but the main one here is Scorpions. Taken By Force (1977) is an absolute ripper for the time and again a massive influence.

Hope everyone is doing well. Sad to have lost the thread on the metal stuff over at stereo gum but not due to lack of interest – I keep up with tons of current metal but just didn’t have the time due to some tough family stuff. Too bad as that late 90s/early 00s underground stuff is one of my favorite eras of heavy music.

RJ1313
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January 14, 2023 1:50 am
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Oh yea and Saxon. One of the best NWOBHM bands and probably the biggest of the ones that didn’t actually get big.

Pauly Steyreen
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January 14, 2023 2:42 am
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RJ!!! What’s up??? Nice to see you, and glad you saw the bat signal.

I just watched this self help movie called The Subtle Art of Not Giving a %@!&. It talked fairly extensively about Dave Mustaine’s departure from early Metallica. How he was so successful with his own band Megadeth, but he couldn’t enjoy it because he they never got to Metallica levels of fame.

Not sure if the movie made more hay from this than necessary. I’d say Dave’s done just fine for himself (though I like the Iron Maiden mono better than the Megadeth one).

mt58
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January 14, 2023 4:57 am
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Delighted that you took the time to visit and join in, ! We hope that things will be OK with your family.

It’s exactly what you might expect around here: great old friends, and great new ones as well. We look forward to you hanging with us!

dutchg8r
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January 14, 2023 9:27 am
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Squeeeee!!! It’s RJ1313!!!!

[Waves like a dolt at RJ]

Phylum of Alexandria
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January 13, 2023 10:22 am

It is interesting to think about the socio-political colorings that certain genres can have.

I think that like any good horror movie (which every metal fans surely also loves) heavy metal invokes dread and darkness in a way that is inherently conservative. Meaning, they horrify in order to instill a sense of caution, or to make clear what it is we value and want to protect.

Not for nothing did Lester Bangs said this about Black Sabbath:

“They are probably the first truly Catholic rock group, or the first group to completely immerse themselves in the in the Fall and the Redemption: the traditional Christian dualism which asserts that if you don’t walk in the light of the Lord then Satan is certainly pulling your strings, and a bad end can be expected, is even imminent.”

“They may deny all this…It really doesn’t make any difference how conscious they may be of what they’re saying, though. The message is there for anyone with ears, and it’s unmistakable. The themes are perdition, destruction, and redemption, and their basic search for justice and harmony in a night-world becomes more explicitly social all the time.”

However, I don’t think Lester gets the entire infatuation with Satan. As early as 1790, William Blake argued that when Milton portrayed Satan’s rebellion in Paradise Lost, Milton was of the devil’s party and he didn’t know it.

Blake made the case in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell that Jesus and Satan both reflect something important about human nature. Jesus represents our reasoning and striving for beautific harmony and perfection, while Satan represents our individual will, a life force that rises up when trapped and bottled.

A similar conception of Satan was espoused by Eliphas Levi in the mid 1800s, who created the “Baphomet” symbol that modern day LaVeyan Satanists use to this day.

I think heavy metal music can be used as both “horror warning music” and cathartic embodiments of the rebellious libidinal will.

Maybe the more one leans in the former direction, the more politically conservative one tends to be? Maybe not, but it’s a thought.

Speaking of right wing metal, will you be venturing into black metal? That one can certainly veer into creepy racist terrain, or at least it used to.

Anyways, speaking of Judas Priest, I love their early stuff. This is my favorite song from Sad Wings of Destiny, from 76:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X_ZsERw4pWo

Another great post!

mt58
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January 13, 2023 11:20 am
Reply to  Virgindog

I remember catching a ton of flack from my mother when we were checking out in line at the grocery store, and she saw that I was about to “waste 75 cents” on this.

Reading Lester Bangs in Creem was always a hoot.

Boy Howdy, Les. RIP.

creem.png
Phylum of Alexandria
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January 13, 2023 11:27 am
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Three would be pretty Catholic.  😄 

cappiethedog
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January 13, 2023 3:19 pm

In The Gate, a 1987 film that stars Stephen Dorff, if I’m remembering this correctly, heavy metal helps open up a portal to hell in the backyard of a suburban home.

Phylum of Alexandria
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January 13, 2023 5:30 pm
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I dunno, I imagine some lounge tunes could open up a gate to my own personal hell…

cstolliver
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January 14, 2023 3:28 pm

And with Michael Bolton, you get a little bit of all of it.

JJ Live At Leeds
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January 13, 2023 12:51 pm

You kept me waiting, I was beginning to doubt myself that I had the Birmingham band reference correct from last week but sure enough Judas Priest showed up.

I remember the Rob Halford coming out furore. In retrospect, it doesn’t seem so unlikely given their outfits in the photo suggest they were auditioning to replace Glenn Hughes in The Village People.

While Phil Lynott looks effortlessly cool in both of those photos. Scratch that, every photo I’ve ever seen of him.

And for contrast Motorhead look like they’ll break into your home, ransack the drinks cabinet and do unspeakable things with the soft furnishings. That Lemmy lived to be 70 is some kind of miracle.

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thegue
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January 13, 2023 1:47 pm

I was a big fan of Samantha Fox in the 1980s (not musically), and it seems that she did some studio work with Lemmy. Blows my mind.

Pauly Steyreen
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January 13, 2023 3:16 pm
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Before she made any music, I knew about Samantha Fox from the poster on the ceiling over my friend’s bed.

lovethisconcept
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January 13, 2023 2:41 pm

Effortlessly cool is a great description of Phil Lynott. Would have been great to see if he maintained it as he aged. I’m betting that he would have found a way.

cappiethedog
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January 13, 2023 3:15 pm

“Thin Lizzy is from Ireland?”

Me, watching Once for the first time.

RJ1313
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January 16, 2023 2:55 pm
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Some classic stage banter from Live and Dangerous

‘Anyone here with a little Irish in em?
Any of the girls here want a little more Irish in em?’

DanceFever
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January 14, 2023 12:20 am

Thought of the groups after your second installment, but where do Iron Butterfly (In a Gadda Da Vida, probably the best example of early heavy metal) and Vanilla Fudge (“You Keep Me Hanging On”) fit into your narrative?

dutchg8r
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January 14, 2023 12:54 am

Woo-hoo, rock n roll!

Love it VDog. I’ve always found metal’s journey to be one of the more fascinating tales, like rap. MrDutch’s favorite band was Dio; he still to this day thinks Holy Diver is the greatest album – but he also laments the fact he just can’t listen to metal and rock anymore, it hurts his head. Kinda like how we love video games, but had to return an XBox after a couple weeks because we realized we’re too old to be trying to play those games (gave us motion sickness, lol)

“Breakin’ the Law, Breakin’ the Law” is another one of those random phrases I still toss out to this day. Cause I’m obnoxious like that.

Heavy Metal really is good therapy. It provides an outlet to get your rage out, or to scream your pain out. Totally agree with that 100%.

And ‘Wasted’ is an awesome Def Lep deep cut. 😀

cuzittt
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January 14, 2023 11:57 am

I’m a little late and RJ has already stolen my thunder (i.e., I’m fine with saying Judas Priest boiled all the brew that was happening into something that is distinctly metal… but going with British Steel which is an album where they are showing a more commercial side seems a poor choice. Besides, there is a reason it was called the New Wave of British Heavy Metal and that is to say it is a progression from Black Sabbath and Deep Purple/Rainbow and Led Zeppelin and, yes, Judas Priest.)

So… I’ll posit about another part of the article… Why do I listen to metal? Besides the fact that I grew up listening to what my older brother was listening to (lots of Ozzy (Randy Rhoades was his idol), Priest, Maiden, AC/DC… and then eventually Motley Crue, Ratt, Dokken and a lot of the harder variety of the hair band continuum)… and that itself may be the only thing that was necessary… but it was (and continues to be) a catharsis. There is a way to let your anger be transferred via the music and make you a lot more calm. And, it helps when the lyrics speak your language (and, in this case, I mean I listened to a lot of Helloween’s I Want Out).

But, while I am biased, I also consider myself a fairly well adjusted adult. And, some of that is through listening to music and adjusting my mood through listening to music.

Apropos of nothing, I do wish you had linked to a Girlschool song in your rundown here. Yes, the general lack of females in Metal at this moment (and, frankly, currently unless you happen to be into the specific sub-genre of music that I am really into), there were females that did venture into this very male dominated strata. And, Emergency is a great tune.

Apropos of nothing part 2, I just pulled out 9 CDs for the car (yes, I still listen to CDs because I have a lot of them) and 6 of them are Metal. Of course, I am pulling from the ME section of my collection which may have something to do with it. [Metallica, Megadeth, Metal Church, Meliah Rage, Mercenery, and Mezerkabul are the 6 metal CDs. Menswe@r and Pat Metheny are two of the other three (I don’t remember the third at this moment).

As for future columns, I look forward to your further thoughts. When you get to the inevitable Japanese Kawaii Metal column, I’ll give you some artists to look at. There is some amazing variety in that very small subgenere.

cuzittt
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January 14, 2023 12:07 pm
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As for NWOBHM, there was an album released in 1990 curated by Lars Ulrich that is a fantastic overview of the scene. How easy it is to find… I have no idea and I have no clue if it is on any of the streaming services… but, here is a wiki link to show the full multitude of bands that were part of that scene. Because, you are not often going to find Def Leppard and Venom linked.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_Wave_of_British_Heavy_Metal_%2779_Revisited

cuzittt
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January 16, 2023 11:51 am
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I obviously missed the Girlschool song when I scrolled. Still, I’ll shout out their importance continually.

As for which Priest album to choose… I don’t think you choose poorly. Its a matter of perspective. British Steel is a massively important album with great songs and great popularity. It is a touchstone.

But, from a musical evolution perspective, even something like Killing Floor/Hell Bent For Leather probably was more influential (let alone Sad Wings of Destiny or Stained Class).

In any case, I look forward to your next master class.

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January 16, 2023 2:53 pm
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I’ll also point out that I am totally just nitpicking…I found myself nodding my head through most of the article. Well done.

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January 16, 2023 2:51 pm
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Mezarkabul! Metal Church! Meliah Rage! Goddamn Mercenary! 11 Dreams!!! Love it. For me Mezarkabul’s ‘Unspoken’ is a forgotten power/folk/prog classic. ‘Lions in a Cage’ is just such a great song.

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January 17, 2023 11:32 am

I know OF numerous songs in your suggested list, but the only one that I’ve heard is “Breaking the Law”. So far from my wheelhouse, but still super interesting.

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January 17, 2023 4:23 pm

This series continues to totally……… wait for it…… ROCK!!  🤘 

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