Starter Kit analyzes the ins-and-outs of some of the more obscure and niche sub-genres within the metal spectrum and offers a small group of bands that best represent the sound. Read other Starter Kit entries here.
Power metal is one of the often misunderstood sub-genres in metal. To be frank, a lot of the blame can be levied at power metal itself; its production values tend to be low, the cover art ridiculous and a lot of the music (and especially the lyrics) lazy to the point of embarrassment. However, that is not to say that plenty of great power metal exists. On the contrary, it’s perhaps one of the earliest “modern” sub-genres to have enjoyed a golden age. The 90’s were its breeding grounds, spawning numerous bands that defined, extrapolated and aggrandized the style as it is perceived today. These seminal bans are, sadly, often bundled up with some of their cheesier predecessors, stained by the low quality of what came after them.
Our goal in this post is to explore those foundations, the pillars of what later came to be a sprawling genre. As always, this post is not meant to be exhaustive; plenty of other entry points exist into this prolific sub-genre. However, it is our belief that these specific ones supply a sufficient beginning, one which can not only generate an appreciation for the sub-genre but also a sustainable thirst to learn more for yourself. Head on over the jump and bring your greatsword.
There really wasn’t any choice but to start with Blind Guardian. It can arguably be claimed that they birthed the modern iteration of the sub-genre. Blending the furious playing of Metallica with epic vocals on their first few albums (as early as 1989), they later added the galloping bass/drum lines of Iron Maiden and forged power metal therein. However, it took a few years for their style to reach its epitome: earlier albums suffer from all sort of flaws inherent in the genre as well as some atrocious production jobs (albeit influenced by the time they were recorded in). It is here, in their most ambitious concept album to date, that Blind Guardian would perfect and polish their basic sound. Nightfall in Middle Earth is early Blind Guardian at the height of their power.
The concept album follows the Silmarillion, J.R.R Tolkien’s less known book, a saga depicting the Elder’s (elves) rise and fall, among other tales of the decline of Arda, the rise of evil and the downfall of Man. Thus, the stage is set for the cliche: magic, elves, mighty swords, heroes and dragons are all very much in the lyrics of this album. But, perhaps drawing on the source material which is, to this day, one of the best fantasy books ever written, they are handled with subtlety and grace. Themes of sorrow, loss, morality, courage and cowardice are all weaved into the story. The musicianship follows suite, presented Blind Guardian as a cohesive squad. Nowhere does any instrument fall out of place.
Instead, the band moves forward together, with song structures carefully constructed to make sense of the often bewildering technicality and speed but most of all to shine a light on the band’s greatest asset, one Hansi Kursch. This is where one needs to go to find out why this man is one of the most famous and successful metal vocalists today; his voice is without parallel. His ability to convey grandeur on one passage, deceit on the other, emotion on the next and sadness throughout all, makes him a perfect fit for this album and one of its most convincing features.
Funnily enough, this album was released in the same year as Nightfall. Oceanborn however presents a very different perception of what power metal is and can perhaps be heralded as one of the birthing points of a spinoff genre, namely symphonic metal. Regardless, its approach is quite different: while intricate guitar parts exist, coupled with beautiful piano, the emphasis is not on speed or technicality. The basic emotions, namely power, grief, courage and melancholy, remain the same, but they are conveyed in very different ways. The composition relies more on atmosphere than sheer grandiose, using catchy riffs backed by piano and a deep bass to set the mood of legend. The themes are also those of the heart rather than those of fantasy: the battlefield is the mind, the soul and poetry.
Interestingly enough, the albums do meet on one point and that is the importance, and later fame, of the vocalist. Nightwish was of course fronted by Tarja Turunen, one of the most talented female vocalists in metal’s history. Her voice, unlike Hansi’s, focuses less on sheer epicness but more on operatic, classical approaches, filling the spaces above and below the music with her volume and presence. At certain points in the album, her voice is coupled with a male one to create a dialogue. This device yielded on the band’s most famous tracks, “Devil and the Deep Dark Ocean”, featuring the dialogue technique to relay the dialogue between the two main characters.
But it’s on “Gethsemane” that the genius of Nightwish on this album is first revealed. It holds one of the catchiest guitar/piano unison ever recorded, Tarja at the height of her performance and an overall production value that is grander than life and, perhaps, grander than anything else that’s been seen after it within the sub-genre. Other great tracks exist on this album but none are this powerful.
We would be remiss if we didn’t mention that power metal grew outside of the 90’s as well. The early-mid 2000’s saw power metal birth a second generation. This generation explored additional themes and ideas, perhaps bolstered by growing production abilities and money flowing into the genre. By then, power metal was a crowd pleaser, a concert-filler. Edguy might have been born in the early 90’s but the height of their career took place within this milieu. After Mandrake, arguably their magnum opus, came Hellfire Club, one of the “biggest”, most ambitious albums of the time. Its production value was so high it reached orbit, its guitar lines not only catchy but also complicated in that they were composed with intricate track structures in mind. And, again, above all was crowned Tobias Sammet, the impetus and soul behind the band.
One only needs to listen to “The Piper Never Dies” to understand what I mean; this song is simply larger than life. From the scream that ushers in Sammet, to the ten minute run time, and all through the intricate parts that play in and out of the track, this is power metal and a whole different, grander scale. The track simply takes us to more places than predecessors, taking notes from progressive metal in how it moves and breathes. The basic elements are not forgotten however: fantasy plays a great part here, and on the rest of the album, as do the motifs we listed above. Edguy however marked a new ambition in the genre, higher goals and standards. Hellfire Club is the culmination of that ambition and perhaps the band’s most successful attempt at it.
If you’re not already aware of the importance of Brazil to the metal scene, you have a gaping whole in your education. Not only have many great bands been born there, it is one of the most consistently fanatic places in regards to metal. The popularity it enjoys there is quite unparalleled. One of these bands conveniently fits into a sub-genre we really wanted to mention here. That is prog-power, the hybrid child of progressive metal and power. It is characterized by even more intricate concept albums and a higher emphasis on technicality while still maintaining the common themes of power metal.
Angra are another band that was born in the early 90’s but which reached its culmination in the early-mid 2000’s. Their 2004 album, Temple of Shadows, is masterpiece of the levels of subtlety and finesse that can be injected into the often boorish power metal. It features acoustic guitars, spoken passages and masterful writing alongside powerful passages that equal the emotions and majesty of Blind Guardian. Exploring themes of religion, god, mysticism and morality, it perhaps expands on the palette of power metal. Above all, its instruments are elevated to the center, instead of just a focus for the vocalist as might be often seen. The guitars especially are expertly played and recorded, maintaining emotions and expressiveness alongside impressive technicality.
The album structure, featuring tracks which flow into each other and reference one another, is also something unique in the power metal world. While a common theme and a concept are not rare, the ability to also compose tracks which work musically with each other is. Here, parts of tracks reoccur in future iterations and the whole thing has an inescapable feel of pre-design and careful planning. Instead of writing great tracks individually, Angra wrote a complete creation and it shows. This perhaps exemplifies the different ways in which power metal can break from its assigned place in the musical world and turns its penchant for simplicity on its head.
Kamelot – The Black Halo
Epica – The Phantom Agony
Helloween – Keeper of the Seven Keys
Gamma Ray – Somewhere Out in Space
Elvenking – The Pagan Manifesto