The story of metal is not linear. We didn’t arrive at the mayhem lurking in our Spotify playlists through a measured progression of technique, style, and genre. Rather, the evolution came in leaps and bounds, with dead ends and bursts of growth and pockets of innovation. To continue the evolutionary metaphor: the Cambrian Explosion of metal shot off in the mid 1980’s, as subgenres and geniuses and success combined into a specimen closely resembling much of modern metal. But the growth, although frantic, wasn’t instantaneous; rather, it seemed to expand exponentially from a single source, a catalyst in a chain reaction. That incipient band, the patient zero of metal as we know it today, is Iron Maiden. More precisely, the stratospheric success of The Number of the Beast, with it’s intricate compositions, transgressive lyrics, and trailblazing progressivity, diverged metal from hard rock completely and legitimized metal as a commercial viability, heralding the eruption of metal in the years to follow.
To better understand the incalculable impact of Iron Maiden, it’s useful to take a close look at metal history. There are a handful of candidates for the honor of “first metal band”, but the only one with an ironclad claim to the throne, the only band who doesn’t require the condition of “Well, it’s mostly metal” is Black Sabbath. And, facts be damned, it’s too perfect to deny. Black Sabbath opens with the rumble of a violent thunderstorm as church bells ring clear in the distance; then, without warning, Tony Iommi’s beautiful stubby fingers intone a downtuned, wavering tritone note. And Ozzy asks the question that must have been on the minds of listeners on the day the album was released, Friday the 13th of February 1970: “What is this that stands before me?” That moment was the birth of metal. Couldn’t have planned it any better if you tried. Black Sabbath was the impossible mutation, the one-in-a-billion chance that diverged from its evolutionary line so totally that they fathered their own lineage. Many of the most important elements of metal were birthed and encoded into the genome on that fateful day in February: the downtuned guitars, the tritones, the Satanic imagery. This isn’t to suggest that these themes had never been used before. But they’d never been presented together in such a powerful package so as to become defining traits of metal.
The following years, however, presented a bit of a lull in the development of metal. Although Black Sabbath had made their great leap forward, many of the innovations that would lead to metal as we know it today remained dormant. The breakneck speed and brutality of metal didn’t arise slowly after Black Sabbath; it hardly developed at all. Most of the innovation happened exclusively on the progressive side of things as bands like Yes, Pink Floyd, and Rush charged headlong into the possibilities of guitar-driven music. But despite the groundbreaking work happening in the prog scene, metal remained fairly stagnant. The only major player to firmly assert themselves into the metal scene with Black Sabbath was Judas Priest, whose high-pitched, high-energy attack carved a niche in the popular music of the time. There were a smattering of bands releasing excellent albums in the periphery of metal — bands like Budgie, who were quite fond of bread, and Scorpions, who were too wacky to be rock but too straightforward to be prog — but they don’t ring unquestionably metal like Sabbath or Priest.
So, by the close of the 1970’s, the seeds of metal had been planted for nearly a decade. But the strains containing the blueprint for unimagined genres like thrash, death, and black metal had utterly failed to germinate. As the 1980’s rolled in, however, a confluence of factors produced a particularly fecund musical scene primed to explode.
The rumblings had begun in earnest by 1979. Bands like Saxon and especially Motörhead dipped their toes into heavier and faster compositions, although Bomber and Saxon remain almost painfully fledgling attempts by modern standards. Thin Lizzy rocked stadiums with a surprisingly beefy guitar crunch. Gamma made attempts to reconcile prog leanings with metal lead guitar intensity on their debut. But for all these inroads, nothing unquestionably metal was released until 1980.
In 1980, the New Wave of British Heavy Metal made itself known. In a genre bent on redefining what “heavy metal” meant, the most aggressive releases of the year came from Diamond Head and Angel Witch. It’s proof of the incredible influence this time period carried that Lightning to the Nations is perhaps most well known for its influence on Metallica than on its own musical merits. It’s a bit of a disappointment, because Diamond Head’s leads were as fast as anyone’s, and the soaring vocal performance of Sean Harris is a treat to sing along to. Meanwhile, Angel Witch found themselves atop the metal pyramid. Their self-titled debut is a revelation; it really does sound at least two years ahead of its time. The riffs are versatile — sometimes heavy and slow, usually fast and spastically uptempo. The leads are melodic and blistering, with plenty of technicality to keep things interesting. “Angel Witch” packs about as much speed and power into three and a half minutes as band had ever achieved to that point — and on top of that, the chorus is one of the most pleasant earworms I’ve had the delight to hear.
Hot on their heels were bands like Tygers of Pan Tang and Quartz, while Ozzy Osbourne’s Blizzard of Ozz oscillated between its pop sensibilities and groundbreaking work in songs like “Mr. Crowley”. And of course, Iron Maiden released their self-titled debut in 1980. Iron Maiden wasn’t the heaviest, fastest, or best album of the year — but it was damn close in all categories. Dave Murray’s expressive leads on “Prowler”, in particular, could outspeed just about anything. Even in their first days, Maiden proved themselves a spectacularly talented and versatile band. “Remember Tomorrow” hefts doom riffing, while “Phantom of the Opera” plays at the progressive masterpieces that Maiden would come to pen.
The following year, 1981, presented an interesting snapshot. Part of the trouble of researching the early history of metal is that many of the releases labeled “metal” at the time really aren’t metal by today’s definitions. So you’ve got to listen to the albums of the time period and ask yourself: Is this hard rock? Or is this metal? This division between amped-up hard rock and the beginnings of a completely different genre began to make themselves clear in 1981. The concept of “heavy metal” been established many years prior, but it was always framed in terms of an offshoot of rock, instead of as a completely separate genre. But in 1981, the leading edge of metal became less top-heavy, as the average release labeled “metal” became heavier and faster; but at the same time, many “metal” releases existed within the Whitesnake/Motley Crue/Def Leppard glam metal realm. Although glam metal certainly has its merits, it had little to do with the evolution of metal.
The bands that did have something new to say were NWOBHM bands like Tygers of Pan Tang (who upgraded their aggression a bit with Spellbound), Raven (who played as fast and frenzied as anyone), and (go figure) Iron Maiden. But for all the speed and raw aggression on these albums, none of them could claim to be the most brutal kid on the block — not even close. A huge leap forward in their own right, Venom came out of nowhere with Welcome to Hell. It’s most innovative traits are very easy to hear. Compare ten seconds of Venom to any other song from 1981 — Venom will blow it out of the water. While the songwriting could use some help, the guitar tone was heavier and rawer than anything else by an order of magnitude, and their Satanic imagery was more brazen and sincere than ever before. Perhaps Welcome to Hell’s most important contribution, however, is in the demarcation of subgenres. In order for metal to gain legitimacy as its own genre instead of as an extension of rock, it was vital for new kinds of metal to emerge — metal that broke its own rules and diverged further and further from rock. By claiming Venom’s brand of raw speed metal as its own, metal could proclaim its own lineage, separate from rock.
So, to recap: By the end of 1981, metal was beginning to foster its own subgenres and diverge further from the rock roots that persisted in the stadium-filling glam metal bands of the day. Incredible new heights in extremity were achieved, and the average metal release was becoming heavier. But despite this, many bands still straddled the uncertain line between heavy metal and hard rock. And then came The Number of the Beast.
1982 saw several talented bands join the trailblazers of metal. Mercyful Fate shrieked their madness upon the scene with the Nuns Have No Souls EP. Virgin Steele helped define what would become power metal with their debut, and Venom again took the cake for “heaviest metal release” with Black Metal. Witchfinder General and Cloven Hoof added their names to a now endlessly growing list of promising metal bands. But the release that would come to define the year, and one of the most important releases in the history of metal, was Iron Maiden’s The Number of the Beast.
The Number of the Beast was monumental for many reasons — but mostly, it’s just an amazing album released at just the right time. Number of the Beast was more polished than any metal album had ever been. The composition, the execution, the production — it’s all perfect. The production is especially vital. It’s clean enough to avoid scaring away would-be metalheads, but it’s got enough crunch to power beefy songs like “Children of the Damned”. The bass, as always, undulates with the characteristic Iron Maiden gallop. The composition is masterful — there’s hardly a boring moment on the album, and at least four songs on the album are rightfully considered bona-fide classics, masterpieces of the genre. “Hallowed Be Thy Name” should be a case study for all aspiring songwriters. Listen to how the song builds tension. The lyrics brew a story of a man awaiting his execution. Dismal bells begin to chime and uncertain chords spell the protagonist’s anxiety. The tempo constantly changes, from the miasma of the intro to the heartbeat-staccato anxiety of the drums leading into a cry of frenzied disbelief: “When the priest comes to read me the last rites…Can’t it be that there’s some sort of error?” And then comes that part of “Hallowed Be Thy Name”, when everything gets kicked up a gear and the dueling solos of Adrian Smith and Dave Murray compete to create the most breathlessly awesome duet you’ve ever heard. It’s a great song, and it’s the kind of song that metal hadn’t seen before — not even from Maiden. Nothing this excellent and this accessible had been created before that sat staunchly on the metal side of metal.
People ate it up. The Number of the Beast shot to number 1 on the UK Albums Chart, and enjoyed Top 10 status in many countries otherwise, meriting a wildly successful world tour. The world was hardly prepared for this measure of success from a band like Iron Maiden, and metal would never be the same afterward. Some in particular weren’t ready for what Iron Maiden brought to the table — namely, the Bible-thumpers who declared The Number of the Beast obscene and Satanic, succeeding only in providing Maiden with more notoriety. Whether they liked it or not, metal was here to stay. And the runaway success of the album helped to legitimize metal as a commercial venture. Labels became much more willing to sink money into a promising metal outfit after watching Iron Maiden rake in piles of cash touring the world.
The Number of the Beast was the perfect specimen metal needed to catapult itself forward into the unknown. It was heavy enough to inspire the darker, heavier genres of metal, but accessible enough to convert a newcomer. It was complex and progressive enough to invite creative songwriting in future emulators, but straightforward and aggressive enough to keep metal grounded in riffing instead of guitar wankery. But the biggest argument for how groundbreaking The Number of the Beast is, is to simply listen to it side-by-side with its contemporaries. Compare it. It blows each and every other release of 1982 away, and it’s not even remotely close. There simply was not metal of this caliber being produced by any other band.
Then, in 1983, the fission reaction brewing in the metal underground began to destabilize. By far the most important release of the year (and another of metal’s landmark albums) was Slayer’s Show No Mercy. If there was any doubt before, there could be none now. Metal had arrived on the scene, and it was a different beast than the musical world had ever seen. It wasn’t rock. It wasn’t even metal in the way people had conceived of it. This was thrash metal, and even in this juvenile stage, it was utterly unprecedented. (Also, it fucking rocks.) Not ones to be overshadowed, 1983 is also the year that Metallica released their debut, Kill ‘em All. And the albums keep coming: Armored Saint, Manilla Road, Mercyful Fate, and Queensryche all released albums that would have stuck out like a sore thumb even a year prior. But once Iron Maiden opened the gates of hell in 1982, these bands and more were free to pursue whatever genre or style caught their fancy. The roads were being explored in every direction, and seemingly everyone was a pioneer.
I don’t mean to suggest that Iron Maiden was directly responsible for the success of all of these bands. It’s highly likely that, if Iron Maiden had never existed, metal would’ve evolved in similar paths regardless. But something happened in 1982. The Number of the Beast was something the world had never seen. But after it, metal produced handfuls of “never-before-seen” albums every single year thereafter. Look to 1984 to see how violently metal exploded: Metallica went from proto-garage thrash to take the world by storm with Ride the Lightning in a single year. Bathory was laying the groundwork for black metal in Sweden, with the help of Celtic Frost and Hellhammer. Mantas, to the notice of almost no one, was laying down the foundations of death metal already in the Death by Metal EP. Saint Vitus, Metal Church, and Voivod all released their debut albums. Blind Guardian (sorry, Lucifer’s Heritage) and Sepultura formed. In two short years, metal evolved from a curious offspring of rock into a behemoth of infinite potential. And The Number of the Beast stood at the gates, heralding all this unholy noise into the world.