Heavy Metal, as a genre of rock music, developed mostly in the UK and USA in the late 1960s and early 1970s. It is also referred to as just Metal.
The roots of Heavy Metal are in blues rock and psychedelic rock; it is characterized by a massive, thick sound, extended guitar solos with highly amplified distortion, insistent beats and overall loudness. Its performance and lyrics are usually associated with machismo and masculinity.
Loudness, described as an “onslaught of sound”, is considered essential in live heavy metal performances, and heavy metal concerts have even been equated with “the sensory equivalent of war”. Jimi Hendrix, The Who and Cream set the lead in new benchmarks for volume in the early heavy metal concerts; “All we knew was we wanted more power” was how Dick Peterson put it.
A review of a Motorhead concert in 1977 noted how excessive volume figured in the band’s impact. Just as rhythm is the main element in house music and melody is the focus of pop, volume, timbre and powerful sound are heavy metal’s key elements. The loudness is meant to provide a shot of youthful vitality and to sweep the listener into the world of heavy metal sound.
As regards the themes of heavy metal lyrics, many of them have focused on depressing and dark subject matter to a much greater extent than other forms of pop music. As an example, Sabbath album ‘Paranoid’ (1970) had songs describing personal trauma … ‘Paranoid’ and ‘Fairies wear boots’ – the latter dealing with the unsavory effects of drug taking, and other songs dealing with wider issues such as ‘Hand of Doom’ and ‘War Pigs’.
Death, too is a pervasive theme and appears routinely in the lyrics of such widely different bands as W.A.S.P and Slayer. Iron Maiden’s “Two Minutes to Midnight” and Ozzy Osbourne’s “Killer of Giants” have addressed the theme of nuclear annihilation.
Another important topic is sex, in common with the genre’s roots in blues music; it is a thread that runs from the suggestive lyrics of Led Zeppelin to more explicit references in the lyrics of the Nu Metal and Glam bands. Other standard themes are romantic tragedy, teenage angst often including fantasy inspired, outlandish lyrics, giving them an escapist quality.
Heavy Metal themes have been a consistent target of criticism, with music critics describing the lyrics as banal and juvenile.
However, since the 1980’s onwards, songs such as Metallicas’s “And justice for all” and Megadeth’s “Peace sells” metal lyrics have infused socio-political commentary, and genres such as progressive metal and black metal explore philosophical subjects.