Metal, like any current history, is a neverending story — a songbook perpetually revising its denouement in the storm of new releases shattering our ears and expectations by the month. But as exciting as it is to experience the history unfolding before us, that work is already done by listeners and blogs like this one on a daily basis. Vitally important and critically overlooked, I think, is the history of metal — the first chapters yellowing in the forty-odd years since they were bound in black and leather. This post, then, will serve as a continuation of this article detailing the early days of metal, and particularly the incredible importance of Iron Maiden’s The Number of the Beast to the fledgling genre.
Emboldened by the success of The Number of the Beast and fortified by the sheer number of bands dipping their toes into the metal, 1983 was a year primed to explode. If you’ve been following these articles at all, you’ve probably noticed how much I’ve used this sort of “explosive” terminology to describe the growth of metal — but I swear this isn’t hyperbole. Take a look at the numbers. The Metal Archives has a wonderfully nifty Advanced Search feature — I couldn’t have done my research without it. In 1980, there were 142 metal releases (full-lengths, EPs, demos, splits). Total. By 1981, that number soared to 239; 1982 swelled them to 396. That kind of spectacular year-over-year growth (68% and 66%, respectively) might look like Ponzi scheme numbers, but 1983 emphatically proved that metal was here to stay. 684 releases flowed unstemmed from the coffers. In total, that’s a nearly 400% increase in four scant years. That’s an explosion.
Of course, this method of evaluating the proliferation of a genre is far from perfect. The Metal Archives is a great resource, but it has its flaws. It’s notoriously exclusive in its curation of what bands are considered “metal”. In their frenzy to demarcate punk from metal, important bands like Antisect get left out while similar bands like Amebix are haphazardly lumped in.
But sleek numbers are pitiful storytellers. When you break them open and spill their guts upon the blackened earth, you’ll find a fascinating history. What’s truly amazing about the years 1983 and 1984 is the escape-velocity speed at which subgenres evolved. In 1982 thrash had only just begun to stir in its coffin with the artifact-laden demos of pioneering bands like Anthrax and Sodom. And then the next year Slayer blew the coffin lid off with a perfectly produced, egregiously heavy masterpiece in Show No Mercy. In less than two years, an entirely new genre, transgressive and abrasive, had matured from fumbling attempts committed to demo tape to an inaugural jewel. We’re not in Kansas anymore, folks.
Perhaps more telling isn’t the emergence of ultra-aggressive new bands, but the marked increase in the heaviness of heavy metal/NWOBHM. Some bands displayed this over time — compare Anvil’s Hard ‘n’ Heavy to Forged in Fire for a blatantly obvious example. And some, like Savatage, entered the game in 1983 sounding tonnes heavier and an extra set of canines more aggressive than any of their peers in the same genre would have sounded only a couple years prior. This constant magnetic pull towards the heavy, the fast, and the macabre helped to further drive the wedge NWOBHM had slammed into the side of hard rock.
In addition to the development of subgenres, metal began to spread across the world as a truly global phenomenon. Circulating out from its hotbed in the UK, metal found rabid audiences in the U.S. (Saxon, Exodus, Slayer), Japan (Sabbrabells, Loudness, Earthshaker), Germany (Accept, Sodom, Tankard), and all throughout Europe.
In 1983, the metal phenomenon reached a fever pitch as stadium-filling glam bands like Def Leppard and Quiet Riot released their most successful albums. Pyromania climbed to #2 on the Billboard 200. Metal Health did one better, propelled to the top spot on the strength of “Cum on Feel the Noize”. It was the first time a metal album had ever reached the top Billboard slot.
But while these glam metal bands hogged all the commercial success, fame, and (relative) fortune, the real impact of 1983 came not from chart-topping albums like these, but from the brilliant thrash releases laying the groundwork for extreme metal. Show No Mercy was undoubtedly the best, but Metallica have got to be a close second. Kill ‘em All’s brand of high-energy garage thrash served as a counterpoint to the more carefully crafted aesthetic of Slayer. Although full-lengths were in short supply, many thrash metal mainstays released demos showing off their precocious brutality. Exodus had Die by His Hand (featuring an early version of “Creeping Death”), Znowhite proved that girls can front thrash bands before the genre even achieved proper liftoff, and Amebix provided No Sanctuary in the realm of punk, and one of the coolest albums of the year to boot. To top it off, Rat Attack released their criminally underrated debut (read all about it here). Glam may have dominated the charts, but 1983 was the year of thrash.
Proto black metal continued its odd course through metal history. As it was still a super niche genre in 1983, there wasn’t much new development; basically, Hellhammer kept Hellhammering and Venom refined the formula they’d been working on since Black Metal. 666 and Antichrist also released decent first wave black metal albums, but apparently the strain was too much for them; neither band released anything further.
With that, the year turned to 1984. Thrash, now established, catapulted itself into every direction at once. The new bands were good and the old bands got better. Dark Angel, Death Warrant, Metal Church, Voivod, and Thanatos among countless others helped form 1984’s onslaught of excellent thrash. The best example to demonstrate the maturation of thrash in such a short time span, though, is Metallica. In one measly year, Metallica went from a bunch of beer-pounding, Dave-Mustaine-riff-stealing, leather-obsessed ne-er-do-wells to a group of refined musicians capable of composing dramatic epics like “Fade to Black” and “For Whom the Bell Tolls”, all while maintaining their thrash metal ferocity. Not too bad for a bunch of dad metallers.
1983 was a weak year for proto black metal, which made the sudden arrival of Bathory in 1984 all the more exciting. Flanked by two other bands from opposite corners of the world (Vulcano in Brazil, Bulldozer in Italy), Bathory helped breathe new life into a genre that hadn’t quite caught on since its unholy nativity. Quorthon’s approach to black metal applied more of the ferocity and breakneck pace of thrash metal into black metal production, resulting in a dangerously raw sound that must have turned many shocked ears away when it first came out. The most interesting development of 1984, though, is in a new genre entirely: death metal.
It seems absurd to state that metal journeyed from NWOBHM to death metal in only two years, but that’s precisely what happened. It was a metal explosion, after all. Mantas’ appropriately titled Death by Metal was a stratospheric leap forward that opened new paths in extremity hardly dreamed about. Any fan of extreme metal is obliged to listen to the demo. Despite the poor production, the guitar tone is strikes with menacing character. The slow riffs glower with threat, and the fast sections are almost impossibly chaotic. It’s the nearly inhuman vocals of Kam Lee, however, that make Death by Metal such an important demo. Harsh vocals had been attempted in varying degrees by many vocalists before, but no one had ever hit on death growls quite so horrifically. Within Kam’s roared insanities, an entire world of extreme metal opened up. So much metal today relies upon harsh vocals that it has become the hallmark for what metal is in the collective subconscious. Ask the average person what metal sounds like, and they’ll describe fast guitars and “Cookie Monster vocals”. Well, those Cookie Monster vocals had to start somewhere, and, near as I can tell, they began in a Floridian basement in 1984.
Incredibly, Mantas was not the only band to put out a death metal release that year, either. Possessed recorded Death Metal, which, while not as insane as Death by Metal, was an excellent warm-up for next year’s legendary Seven Churches; Necrophagia did their best to make death metal with only half the talent of Mantas; Hellwitch added technical flourishes to their style of death metal with blisteringly fast guitar passages, and Death decided both that 1) Mantas was a silly name, and 2) it was time to record another killer demo.
Even doom metal was finally getting off the line in earnest, as St. Vitus thought it would be totally sweet if NWOBHM had way more bass and slowed the heck down a bit. 1984 was another exciting year smack in the middle of the metal explosion. While the 80’s obviously can’t compete with today in terms of sheer output (1984 produced 992 releases; 2016 produced 14,125), one would be hard-pressed to find a more exciting period in metal history. Check back soon for the next part of the series!