Far From Light – The Taxonomy of The Traditional Metal Revival

Welcome back to our Taxonomy series, where we break down umbrella genres like progressive metal, post rock and doom metal and outline all of the progressions and sub-genres that have

6 years ago

Welcome back to our Taxonomy series, where we break down umbrella genres like progressive metal, post rock and doom metal and outline all of the progressions and sub-genres that have matriculated over the past few decades. This installment in the series is going to be a bit different, since we’re going to be looking at phenomenon or movement instead of a long running genre. In a way though, the traditional metal revival is tied inherently to the longest running genre of metal. Heavy metal is where metal was born and is sometimes even called “classical” or “traditional” metal, to signify the fact that it lies in the root of what has become one of the most fragmented styles of music out there (and that’s a good thing, don’t get us wrong). Since this revival began with heavy metal, it is inherently tied to it but also goes beyond it, working its way through the roots of metal and its genesis.

Now, at the other end of myriad proliferation and mutations, the past few years have seen a host of bands reach back into the origins of metal for their inspiration. More than a “retro” movement, since it more recreates than works from its heavy metal influences, the “traditional metal revival” movement focuses on making metal under the auspices of the galloping bass riff, the fantastical themes and the epic flair, all of which made metal stir itself from the proverbial soup of modern music. When we say it recreates the style rather than work from it, we mean that (most) of the bands that can be considered part of the movement don’t make music influenced by traditional heavy (and power) metal but rather simply make heavy metal the way it used to be made. For them, traditional metal is not a departure point but rather something to revive, to bring back to the here and now. But traditional metal was never one thing but rather consisted of three distinct styles: heavy, power and doom metal.

Keep in mind that, like all such retrospective analysis, your mileage may vary; plenty disagree with this analysis and there’s no clear cut answer. But these three genres, the latter emerging from the first, were certainly around in the dawning of metal and it would be hard to argue against that fact. From the days of Black Sabbath and Lep Zeppelin, through bands like Iron Maiden, Cirith Ungol, Candlemass, Helloween and more, was metal given a huge chunk of its life force and sound. This taxonomy therefore will focus on those three “primordial” denominations; we’ll open with the revival of heavy metal, move on to power metal and end with doom metal. Our aim is less to wax nostalgic for the past but rather shine a light on one of the most vital and quickly growing movements in modern day metal which is none other than the revival of traditional metal. Let’s get started.

Timelashed – The Reawakening of Classic Heavy Metal

In keeping with the time-honored tradition of organizing things chronologically, we begin with heavy metal. Perhaps the most rock-adjacent genre of metal (with the possible exception of stoner metal), heavy metal depends on the oldest parts of the genre writ large for its power. Here, we find loud and bold instrumentation, charismatic vocal performances, and somewhat “dark” melodic structures that depend on tritones and distorted guitars for their emphasis. As metal subgenres go, it’s a relatively straightforward and easy classification, and it’s pretty likely that one can tell heavy metal when they hear it right away. It’s also, in a sense, the “classic” metal subgenre: heavy metal subsumes the acid rock of Black Sabbath, the proto-power metal of Iron Maiden, and the flamboyant hard-edged rock of Judas Priest.

Point is, heavy metal has a long and storied lineage, and it persists as a genre today, albeit not in its classic forms as much. Some of the old guard still persist, but by and large, the genre’s been updated and gone through a handful of movements that have allowed it to evolve over time. Enter Sumerlands, a band resurrecting the classic sound of heavy metal with thick, hazy production, shining guitars, and strong, reverberating vocals. Their debut album, a self-titled record released in 2016, is a half-hour exercise in extracting everything that can be mined from heavy metal’s heyday, albeit with a greatly increased emphasis on technicality and moments of flashy instrumentation. Not that there were no such moments for the classics – they certainly knew their way around their instruments – but the winding, tempestuous moments of counterpoint melody and time-signature-fuckery that appear across Sumerlands’ tracks is far beyond what those bands were doing. There’s a sense of worship here, but also a sense of rivalry: Sumerlands is a necessary addition to the heavy metal canon because it shows that there’s still plenty to do with the genre’s classic tropes.

High Spirits has no such desire to update the sound of heavy metal. Across their three full-length LPs and a handful of demo tapes, these guys play unabashedly classic heavy metal in the spirit of the American greats. Each track is an invocation to the muse that inspired the genre’s best, combining emphatic, heavy-hitting hard rock with the sound of States-side heavy metal for an energetic and potent sound. Think KISS, Van Halen, Def Leppard, and other classic groups that straddled that line between hard rock and heavy metal in the glam/”cock rock” scene; High Spirits worships at their altar and brings their sound to life again with the charisma that’s nigh impossible to achieve for the now-aged old guard. Therein lies their importance – the youthful energy required for this genre simply fades after time, and while there are ways to circumvent or delay this unfortunate phenomenon, there’s nothing that can prevent it from happening. Life, and its continuance, makes High Spirits a necessary influx of new blood for this genre.

Last, but not least, we come to Visigoth, one of the best bands in the new wave of traditional metal. They make timeless, classic traditional heavy metal infused with the sounds of doom and power metal; they throw plenty of influences into their music but heavy metal remains their bedrock. It’s this crucible of all traditional metal subsets that makes their music so powerful: the thunderous march of heavy metal meets the storm and fury of power metal and the riff-focused songwriting of doom metal for an intoxicating combination of sounds that’s invigorating to the core. Their newest album, February 9th’s Conqueror’s Oath, is a masterclass in writing traditional metal. Instead of pulling from one source of material, they take the elements that define “classic metal” in general and use the best parts of all sounds involved to create the perfect invocation of what made traditional metal’s heyday so bracing and memorable.

What all these bands, and plenty more revivalists – Argus, Medevil, and Legionnaire, to name a few – have in common is a veneration for what can rightly be considered the original, defining sound of metal as a whole. The tense, explosive energy, the emphasis on bravado and strong performances, and the classic aesthetic choices, they’re all here, but they’ve been pulled forward in time to reignite the fire of classic metal. These bands all play to the genre’s strengths while understanding the failings of their predecessors, strengthening and uplifting heavy metal as a whole. While their more contemporary counterparts help heavy metal evolve into entirely new forms, these bands take everything that’s been great about the genre from the get-go and bring them into modernity.

Call On the Storm – The Dual Revival of Power Metal

Power metal has always been a split genre living under one house. At the basis of the genre lies a common fondness for speed; where thrash took heavy metal and played it fast and loud, power metal took heavy metal and played it fast and bright. It’s no wonder then that the biggest power metal band of all time, Blind Guardian, started as a thrash band. The two genres share a lot. In the common base though, in the basic leaning on heavy metal, also lies the split that exists in power metal itself. You see, when one style of power metal followed in the footsteps of Blind Guardian and focused on the grandiose elements of power metal (a focus which would later spawn bands like Rhapsody, Edguy and DragonForce), another style doubled down on the emotional tapestry and vintage roots of heavy metal to create a style more deeply rooted in the bass gallop than the furious riff (that’s how you get power metal bands like early Iced Earth and Gamma Ray).

Thus, when power metal comes to be revived, the split between these two styles is well maintained. Some of the newer line of bands would rather channel the speed and grandiose styling wielded by Helloween and Blind Guardian, choosing insane riffs and shred solos as their main modus operandi. On the vocal front, these bands usually look up to Hansi Kürsch by adopting a thick and rounded voice on the verses which can also explode into high notes on the chorus. The idea is to take the original formula of this style of power metal and deliver it to its fullest, creating powerful and catchy metal. Nowadays, these bands can enjoy the power of modern production to give this style even more impact, highlighting every blistering riffs and vocal high.

A perfect example of this style is a band we’ll be reviewing in just a few hours. Novareign, founded in 2010 and hailing from Southern California, mean business and wear their influences on their sleeve. Not to spoil Eden’s review too much but the very first track, “Call On the Storm” from their upcoming Legends, is everything you need to understand why they belong in the revival of this style of power metal. The first riff is all impossible speed nor does it slow down throughout the track and, indeed, the album. The vocals are delivered with exactly the same powerful timbre which made the genre work in the beginning, focusing both on depth and on range. Further down the line, shredding takes over completely as the lead guitar moves the track from the first chorus and back to the second verse. Later on the album, like on the obviously DragonForce influenced “Beyond the Cold”, the speed and intensity get raised even further, doubling down on the power metal essentials.

The atmosphere created is one of the insurmountable heights, of an epic canvas filled with mighty heroes and glorious deeds. Novareign make all of this happen with a decidedly modern sound; the drums are very much present in the mix (burying the drums underneath the guitars was a notorious hallmark of traditional power metal), every instrument has its own presence in place and the mix overall is high on impact and clarity. The combination of these things, the dedication to the classic trappings of the style working alongside modern sensibilities, is what lends Novareign and this entire revival style its unmistakable power. It’s a dream come true for fans of the genre who always wished it would sound just a little bit better and more present without sacrificing the sheer amount of things happening.

Which is where we can perfectly pivot into the other style of power metal and its revival. As we mentioned above, this second style of power metal relies more on the interaction between the groove section and the guitars rather than on endless shredding and over the top themes. As such, there’s a different production question being asked; rather than aiming at sleek modernity and flawless delivery, bands attempting to revive this style instead lean back on ideas born from the limitations of the day and age in which this style was spawned. Bands like Eternal Champion and Spellcaster (whose categorization into heavy metal instead of power metal is very much up to debate) channel the original sounds of classic albums from the mid 80’s and up to the early 90’s; the guitars are loud, the drums are resounding and the vocals are, sometimes achingly, front and center.

But no band has gone as far with their revival tendencies as Lunar Shadow. On their Far From Light, one of 2017’s best albums, they go to extreme efforts to sound almost exactly like the bands of yore. Playing “They That Walk The Night”, for example, and not immediately thinking about Cirith Ungol is pretty much impossible; the guitar tones, the off kilter volume levels, the jarring prominence of the vocals, are all sounds that defined the early days of heavy and power metal. Instead of cast them off, Lunar Shadow lean into them and the result is an outstanding album. Of course, this only works because the writing behind the sounds is impeccable. Every riff on Far From Light is carefully measured to deliver that kind of power metal, the one only a shade apart from classic heavy metal. This allows Lunar Shadow to wield immense effectiveness and impact, creating a rich tapestry of sounds that’s at first hard to come to terms with.

But the unmistakable result of both styles of revival is a resurrection of what gave metal it’s first appeal. There’s a reason Iron Maiden sold out stadiums and became one of the most successful bands of all time; there’s a reason people still cling to the idea of Cirith Ungol or that Gamma Ray are legendary. Something about stripping down metal to its core, to the fast riffs and childish aggression which first made it tick, something about that still have the power to move us. As such, it should be no surprise that power metal is an intrinsic part of this revival; where else does this immediate aggression receive as much free rein as it does within this sub-genre?

Journeying Blind – Doom Metal’s Turn Back To Classicism

The mid/late-2000’s saw the reign of a specific variety of sludgy, doomy, stoner-y metal bands like Kylesa, Red Fang, and Baroness that fell under the humorous and slightly derogatory moniker of “beard metal.” Personally, I’m a huge fan of the style; I think one needs look no far than simply the Georgian scene to recognize how many classic albums we got from the beard metal wave. However, nothing golden and/or hairy can stay, and as other styles overtook the evolving metal zeitgeist, doom metal had somewhat of a dry spell. That isn’t to say that we didn’t get good albums between then and now, but with the exception of a few bands, there hasn’t been nearly the amount of stellar doom metal that the trad revival and its new wave of bands have brought around.

Pallbearer is certainly one of those new bands. Their first two albums, Sorrow and Extinction and Foundations of Burden, were exercises in melancholic but straightforward traditional doom metal, but it’s on their newest, Heartless, that their classic influences were elevated through progressive tendencies and a masterful grasp of mood (as well as one of the best vocal performances metal has seen in years). We’ve talked a lot about this album in the past, so I’ll keep it short and sweet when it comes to these guys: the inspiration that Heartless takes from the traditional crop of doom metal greats is one of the best examples of writing new music in an old style that one could hope to find. The power of revivalism in music comes from its ability to apply newer developments in the ongoing narrative of art – whether that be production techniques, recent stylistic and aesthetic choices, or simply influence from newer bands – to older genres, and Pallbearer is a prime example of this sort of revivalism. The thick, robust fullness of the production and tendencies towards progressive rock-style songwriting are unmistakably modern, but they’re only a lens through which classic doom metal is filtered. This is the album right now for doom metal fans in search of the perfect “update” to the traditional doom metal style.

Our next band, though, acts as a complete counterweight to the sort of doom “update” that Pallbearer acts as. Magic Circle is absolutely classic doom metal, through and through. (Interestingly, the collective pedigree of the band showcases one of the trad revival’s most interesting trends: pretty much every member of Magic Circle has spent time in at least one hardcore, sludge metal, or powerviolence band.) Their newest album, 2015’s Journey Blind, is a stunningly classic take on the sounds of St. Vitus, Candlemass, Cirith Ungol, and the myriad of other traditional doom metal bands. Vocals stay high and soaring, with an almost nasally timbre to them, the guitars have that same thin electric crackle of their ’80s peers, and the songs are written are riffs and the moments of truly epic grandeur that defined the previous generation of doom metal bands. Magic Circle is pure, unadulterated revivalism, thriving on exactly what the old guard of doom metal did and imitating their style to a T in our moment.

Of course, most bands in the traditional doom metal wave aren’t doing what either Pallbearer or Magic Circle are doing; that is to say, they’re neither making classic doom in our moment or merely resurrecting the spirit of the old guard. Bands like Atlantean Kodex, Spirit Adrift, and Dawnbringer are fusing modernity with the classics to create music that feels as though it belongs in both moments in time. The combination of modern production techniques, selectively pulling from the old texts of doom metal, and employing more contemporary and experimental sounds – take, for instance, the loud, layered, brick-walled production of Atlantean Kodex and their use of stacked synthesizers, vocals, and veritable arrays of instrumentation, or the modern thrash and New Wave of American Heavy Metal influences that appear in Spirit Adrift’s songwriting – allows them to powerfully fuse what’s great about current metal with what’s great about the metal these bands are reviving.

At its core, that’s what this movement is about: emulation is a large part of the revivalism, make no mistake, but this is far more than merely copying the greats. From heavy metal, to power metal, to doom metal, these bands aren’t just recreating the sounds of their predecessors, they’re pulling these genres as a whole into the modern day. These aren’t genres that the bands are pulling from, they’re genres, full stop. Like when Virgil revived Homeric tradition in The Aeneid, or Milton and Dante did the same over a thousand years later, the emulation is merely a factor in their artistic choice to pursue older styles: it’s about employing a combination of modern and classic techniques, ideas, and paradigms to achieve maximum effect in the worlds of both old and new. The traditional metal revival may end up being merely another wave in the continuing history of metal as a whole, but it’s doing some of the most important and classic things that art can do. In the end, why bother deciding between old and new when the best of both can be fused into something timeless?

Heavy Blog

Published 6 years ago