Just a wall of noise. Where's the tune? Everything turned up so high you can't hear anything. They can't sing. They can't play. You can't dance to it. You can't sing along with the chorus. All that violence and devil stuff - it's just about teenagers trying to look cool. Nobody can really like that rubbish. It's just something for deluded 'rebels' and knuckle-dragging morons. How can you listen to 'that stuff'? It's just not very good. It's not really 'music'.
All the kind of stuff that heavy metal fans hear regularly when they start to talk about the kind of music they love. As you might have guessed, my purpose here is to dispel some of those myths, and try to explain something of what the music itself is all about, and how it came to be. Of course, when it comes down to basic first-principle definitions of what makes something 'Heavy Metal', it's all about the sound of the heavily distorted electric guitar. Not everyone likes that sound - that's fine, each to their own - there are sounds in music that I don't like too (the saxophone is a particular unfavourite of mine personally - nasty, rasping thing that doesn't know whether to have the power of brass or the beauty of woodwind, and ends up having nothing of either). That's 'musical taste', which is not the same thing as 'music appreciation' (I don't like the sound of a saxophone, but I can still hear when it's being played well). There's a world of difference between not being a personal fan and dismissing something as 'just rubbish' or 'not musical'. My purpose here is not really to win over new fans to heavy metal music, but simply to get people to understand what it actually is rather than thinking of it as something it isn't.
Possibly the most common starting mistake people make is in their expectations of what 'that kind of music' should be. The first thing to understand is that it really isn't a form 'Pop music' - it might have developed at the same time, and it might have appeared in the same sales charts from time to time (because, despite the almost constant lack of mainstream media attention, it's actually very popular, and does sell), and there might even be elements of crossover in some examples, but it's never really been a subset of 'Pop' at all. The essence of 'Pop Music' could perhaps be best described as 'a memorable vocal melody sung over backing music'. Perhaps you could add to that with the idea of it being something to dance to, though it isn't always necessarily that. The point is, though, it's about having a really great tune supported by an accompaniment. Some Metal does cross over and include an element of that, and 'Heavy Rock' tends to do that a lot while being classed by many as being closely related to 'Heavy Metal' (which is a fair enough link to make), if you listen to most modern Heavy Metal with that in your mind, looking for that kind of experience, you're going to be both bemused and disappointed (especially when it comes to the screams and guttural growls that often appear).
So where did this impenetrable force of sound come from, then? How did anybody start doing such awful things to their ears? Well, you can pick many starting points, but I think it's fair to say that the first 'true' heavy metal song would be 'Black Sabbath'. In the context of modern metal, it sounds pretty 'tame' now, 45 years or so on, but that was really the first song to put most of the major 'proto-metal' elements into something so distinctly 'dark' and 'eerie' sounding, with such power, to use music to create the kind of emotional reaction that heavy metal is really about. To start at that point would, in a sense, be starting at the end (or the end of the beginning, at least), though. I think you need to go much further back to really start to understand where it all comes from.
I'm going to start by suggesting that there are really two main musical 'traditions' that have developed and evolved alongside each other in 'Western' music over the last few hundred years. They have cross-fertilised each other at various times in various ways, of course, and many things contain elements of both, but they are very, very different in the way that they treat the idea of 'music'. The first is what could be called a 'Folk Tradition' - essentially that 'Pop' kind of idea of a tune plus accompaniment. A 'song', if you like - usually (but not always) a vocal melody. Something to sing along with and dance to. The other is what could be called the 'classical' tradition (the small 'c' was quite deliberate there) - music as more of a complete listening experience, be it as a background or as something more 'immersive', where you don't expect necessarily a 'tune on top', or a simple repeated structure, or a something to hum and tap along to in the same way.
Both are 'music', but they do very different jobs for the listener (and some people prefer one over the other - again, that's just a matter of personal taste). The latter tradition is much more based around the overall 'texture' of everything added together, with different bits doing different things within the structure, rather than being a memorable melody that is supported by background elements. The obvious example of the 'classical' kind of thing is obviously 'classical Music' (again, deliberate small 'c'), or orchestral music. A symphony does not necessarily have one overriding tune or instrument, but contains various elements of melody and harmony to produce an overall texture. Now of course there are many examples of cross-fertilisation throughout history between these two musical ideas - a Concerto, for example, does indeed have a lead instrument, and can often mix the idea of 'memorable tune' in with a more complex structure and texture. Likewise, 'Show Tunes' are generally of the 'Folk' type structure, but can contain also more complex structural elements as 'mood music' for different scenes - it's not about the things being entirely separate from one another, nor about either being 'superior', but just about there being two basic ideas of what music is for in terms of 'listener experience'.
To trace the beginnings of Heavy Metal, I think you can really go back to one significant movement within the 'classical' tradition that developed alongside similar ideas in literature, art, philosophy, etc. - Romanticism. The intention of art-forms to not only produce and emotional reaction, but to use ideas like the 'sublime' invoke darker and perhaps more 'primitive' emotional reactions like 'fear' and even 'anger' as part of the overall experience. I don't propose to go into the whole Romanticism movement here, but that kind of idea is vitally important for the understanding of Heavy Metal music. It's emotional in exactly the same kind of ways, while coming more from that 'immersive' musical tradition than from the 'tune and accompaniment' idea. It's supposed to be emotionally 'dark', but also supposed to be about overall texture, emotion and experience.
So to pick a real 'starting point' for what ultimately developed into Heavy Metal, I think you can represent it very effectively with one particular piece that exemplifies the idea of emotional reaction and musical texture. I would start at the opening bars of Beethoven's 5th Symphony, and continue through the whole piece. I choose the 5th rather than the 3rd or 4th specifically because of it's big, dark feel - in the context of its time, it was something of a revolutionary sound. In a sense, the Heavy Metal of its day, using the orchestra to produce a texture and listening experience quite unlike something that Bach might have written (I mention Bach specifically, since he has been such a big influence on so many heavy metal guitar players in some of his musical forms, but in themselves they didn't give the same impression or 'feel' that Beethoven created). Indeed, one could speculate that it might have gone further in those opening bars had Beethoven had access to the sound of a distorted guitar!
So, OK - we've started with the idea of a darker emotional experience, within an immersive overall musical texture, being a separate musical idea from that which ultimately created 'Pop'. How and where do the screamy/growly vocals and distorted guitars come in? Really I think you need to look at two particular forms of twentieth century music to understand how Heavy Metal itself happened - blues and jazz. Both cross over between the two musical ideas I've been describing, but it's important to note that they did. Blues is not just about the singer singing a tune - it's every bit as much about the guitar (or other instrument, in some cases, but guitar is the most relevant for metal) playing, the 'mood', and so on. It also really brings the idea of vocals not necessarily being 'clean' - the concept that being a little raspy (or whatever) adds to the overall texture of the music, and the emotional experience. Importantly it also spawned Rock and Roll, and those kind of ideas were developed further in that. Jazz developed things along similar lines, of course, but often with a more complicated instrumental structure, and it ultimately could be said to have 'split' to an extent between the 'singer' style of jazz and a musical direction of 'texture' that became ever more experimental in terms of rhythm, harmony and musical structure.
To pick an example, and one that is influenced by both of these kind of genres and their various developments, we can look at the 1956 song 'I Put A Spell On You', by Screamin' Jay Hawkins. Now you could say that it has very much a 'singer and accompaniment' structure, and you'd be right to a large extent. That misses an important point, though. Aside from the very much 'screamy' vocal delivery (clue's in the name!), that particular accompaniment is not quite the usual 'background' stuff - it's very much a part of the mood texture of the piece, almost in the way that 'the other tradition' might use. It's staccato simplicity in instrumental unison actually creates the darkness of the mood (in fact, that kind of dark musical simplicity characterises the song 'Black Sabbath' too). It's a very emotive piece of music, when viewed as a whole. And that's really the key point - it's the overall texture that is important. You couldn't listen to that song performed any other way, vocally or instrumentally, and get the same effect, whereas a purely 'Folk Tradition' type 'song' can be played and sung in a variety of ways and still essentially be the same experience of 'melody and backing' to sing and dance along to. In a sense it's a small step away from a pure 'Pop' tradition and towards more of a 'classical' tradition, of course, but it's a very important one for understanding how Heavy Metal works (and why people listen to it).
So now we're a bit more 'modern', and at the point of the 1950s, at perhaps the onset of our 'darker' textual musical elements entering the modern musical forms through blues, jazz and rock & roll. What happens next? Well in short, the 1960s! Like Romanticism, it's a musical era that changes everything, throws away much of the rule book, and lets people experiment. Now things really gather pace in developments terms, through the creation of a more 'distorted' guitar sound (notably in The Kinks 'Your Really Got Me'), and on to the experimentation phases associated with the late 60s. I'm going to have to mention drugs here, of course - they were a part of the 'self-exploration' emotional movements (as indeed they were to an extent in Romanticism), but nothing more than a vehicle that prompted such things. I really don't think it's something to dwell on. Towards the end of this period, we start to see the rise of two important associated musical forms (along with the perhaps more obviously influential guitar-led 'Heavy Rock' kind of stuff exemplified by the likes of Cream and Jimi Hendrix, and eventually Led Zeppelin) that are a big part of the foundation of Heavy Metal itself - Progressive Rock and Psychedelic Rock. These not only continued the experimentation with emotional musical experiences, but also brought in vital elements of musicality drawn from a background of Jazz and 'classical' music. The combination of these elements in the sounds of bands like Pink Floyd (in their earliest phases) and The Nice was a powerful one - it brought a new sense of 'heaviness' to music. Musical, experimental, emotional, and overall an unashamedly overwhelming 'force of nature' as a listening experience, capable of being emotionally dark and visceral as well as being intellectual in its carefully constructed musical structures. This is what really sets the wheels in motion for the beginnings of 'Heavy Metal' as a distinct musical form, and it's all very much of the more immersive musical tradition.
So finally we're back where we started, at the beginning of Heavy Metal itself, and the song 'Black Sabbath'. As I said, though, that is far from being the end point. It sounds somewhat 'tame' now, because Heavy Metal has driven on and developed as a musical form for over four decades, adapting, drawing on outside influences, and pushing its own envelopes and limits at every turn. It has done so almost regardless of other forms of modern music (and regardless of commentators from other forms stating categorically that 'Heavy Metal is Dead' every couple of years!), though it has accepted some influences and refreshed itself accordingly. It has been, though, not so much to do with that 'Pop' tradition of 'tune and accompaniment' (I guess you could say that 'Heavy Rock' has always been the main 'bridge' between the two), but continuing with that other musical type.
So what happens after 'Black Sabbath'? How do we end up where we are now? Heavy Metal essentially carried on through most of the 1970s in that darker Progressive/Psychedelic (but obviously guitar-led) manner alongside the 'Heavy Rock' kind of development, with the two things in tandem, and getting more and more grandiose and elaborate through the likes of Ritchie Blackmore (Deep Purple/Rainbow), Led Zeppelin, Uriah Heep, and Black Sabbath themselves. It didn't quite stay that way, though - as it got more self-indulgent, and social circumstances changed in the UK in particular, so a gap opened up for something built more on raw anger, and Punk was born. Punk drew on the emotional power and energy that the distorted guitar and metal offered, but stripped it right back to the the opposite musical tradition in song form. It began as a separate movement, but gradually exerted its influence over metal itself. It injected a new energy into a generation of young bands that became known as the 'New Wave of British Heavy Metal'. This was a hugely important movement, and you will see any 'History of Heavy Metal' littered with the term 'NWOBHM'. Some of the most influential bands came about in this period, but the best known is undoubtedly Iron Maiden. Although they started off with what could be called a 'Punk attitude', they still very much included that more 'Metal' musical ability, and rapidly turned their raw aggression into creating more complex and immersive 'Heavy' musical experience. Note also, although there is the element of roughness to the delivery, that vocalist Bruce Dickinson has a fine voice, and is far from 'just screaming'.
At this point I should perhaps mention something about the 'Heavy Metal Aesthetic', since Iron Maiden have been one of the great users of 'devil imagery' and the like, and bands like Venom emerged around the same period. Like Romanticism, it is almost exclusively the use of dark imagery in an emotive sense - part of generating an emotional mood alongside the music. I seem to recall Ozzy Osbourne saying something in an interview, when asked about lyrics, to the effect of 'You can't sing 'Oo, I love you baby' over the music of Black Sabbath'. As the music is an immersive experience musically, so it is emotionally with the aesthetic and lyrical images most regularly used. It is far from the negative thing it is sometimes painted - for the overwhelming majority of people it is an emotional release from the challenged and frustrations of everyday life. It is a way to used up emotional energy based on immersive emotional escapism from the world, not something to be brought in and imposed on the world. To put it another way, there are often accusations of the darkness of Heavy Metal leading people down a 'dark path' in life. The reverse is generally the case - the emotional release is what saves people from those dark paths.
From the influences of NWOBHM came 'Thrash Metal' - you could say possibly the first movement within Heavy Metal to come primarily from the USA rather than the UK, though both have always been important in the development of different sounds and styles in Heavy Metal, as have various parts of mainland Europe (Scandinavia and Germany having a particularly powerful influences in some forms). A picture is starting to emerge as we look at this timeline, though - Heavy Metal is, and always has been, very much doing its own thing. It is not subject to the fashions and trends of 'Pop'. They are not entirely 'islands' from one another, but at the same time they are definitely not part of the same thing. At this particular post-NWOBHM stage we are seeing an explosion of different sub-genres of Heavy Metal, and that is something that continues today. It's easy to point to Thrash, which was hugely important, but things like 'Death Metal', 'Doom Metal', 'Black Metal', 'Speed Metal', 'Power Metal', etc. were all emerging over the same period, each with their own sounds and ideas, and each pushing the envelopes and conventions of Heavy Metal in their own directions. And that is another vital point to understand - 'Heavy Metal' is not one single entity - it is a very broad term for a huge number of different styles and sounds, from largely common roots, and sharing the distorted electric guitar as their root and the broadly darker emotions as their feel, but that is where similarities end.
But, I digress - during the 80s, Thrash was a huge development that pushed heavy metal further, and particularly faster. The 'Big 4' of Metallica, Megadeth, Anthrax and Slayer, along with a huge group of contemporaries and influenced bands, really changed everything in terms of the 'Metal Mainstream'. Some of their songs are obviously very well known outside the Metal world (especially as Metallica crossed over into greater public popularity with a somewhat more 'Pop' structure on their 'Black album'), but they also in some cases continued to develop musically both in terms of structures and in terms of virtuosity among their players. This is something that had always been seen as a virtue in the Heavy Metal world, again perhaps in contrast with the 'Pop' world that so heavily favours the virtues of the singer singing the tune. With the speed of Thrash Metal, though, I'd argue that players increasingly really had to be able to play, and not just the guitar players. More and more bass and drums were becoming virtuoso instruments in their own right. A good example of this would be some of the work of Megadeth (their 'Rust in Peace' album in particular), but the main point here is really that this period through the later 1980s was one that saw many of the features that we think of as 'modern Metal' really came to the fore. Thrash pushed the speed and intensity to its limits as some of the darker and more 'underground' forms pushed the boundaries of vocals as a potentially visceral element of musical texture. Note the skill of the guitar players, though - genuinely skilled musicians, and far from generating 'just noise'.
Of course, other influences came and went, with new forms and new elements being drawn in. Grunge music was an influence in the 1990s, along with a somewhat unlikely-sounding crossover between Metal and Hip-Hop and Rap styles that really spawned the 'Nu Metal' movement. Another kind of experimentation - bringing in other influences to freshen up the sound and style for bands like Disturbed, Korn, Linkin Park and Papa Roach, as 'Groove Metal' bands like Pantera developed something of a more 'basic' Metal style. By the end of the 1990s, the stage was set for another explosion and expansion of sounds and styles in various directions. It would be remiss of me to not mention live performance at this point, though. Unlike 'Pop', Heavy Metal has always been very much a 'live experience' - music played live by musicians in a band on instruments, largely written by those musicians themselves, but increasingly a complete 'live experience' and 'show' for the audience to not only watch but get directly involved with.
The 'Mosh Pit' - that boiling, pulsating, apparently 'violent' (thought there are actually well-observed codes to behaviour, and it certainly isn't about fighting or hurting people) creature in the centre of any modern metal gig. It's the realise of emotion in a physical sense - visceral movement rather than structured dancing, and all a part of that overall immersive experience of, if you like, 'total freakout'. The reason I mention it here is because of one band that emerged at this time - Slipknot. A much misunderstood (outside Metal circles) band, and perhaps a common one accused of being a 'wall of noise' with an image of 'horror and violence' through their use of masks. This again, though, is an aesthetic statement - not just of 'darkness', but of 'letting out the beast within'. Again, it's really important to understand that this is all about a 'release', not any kind of 'promotion of violence in life'. Watching them live in concert is an entirely immersive experience, but like Heavy Metal in general it should be understood for what it is.
So we have reached a point musically where Heavy Metal is almost religiously independent and separate (and, of course, in a sense 'rebellious' in its independence), diverse, immersive, and expansive in its own ambitions. It can be darkly beautiful in various ways (it is by no means all 'full on' and 'wall of noise'-like at all times), it can be vehemently vicious, or savagely dark, but it is always emotional. Part of that is the vocal style. As I have said several times, it's not about 'vocal melodies' at all, but about using vocals as a part of the overall texture and emotional effect of the complete sound. Slipknot again is a good example - singer Corey Taylor ranges (often in the same song) between gutteral roars and screams, clean and clear singing, and even elements of 'Rap' (although I would say 'Rap' itself owes more to the traditions of performance poetry than music). If you listen to Slipknot expecting a nice pretty tune, you will be disappointed, but if you are listening to the whole as an immersive emotional experience and a complete texture, suddenly such vocal styles should begin to make sense. Indeed, it's not actually that far removed in essence from what happens in some parts of Grand Opera, where darker moods are required, and melody either disappears or is held on some other instrument as the voices deliver something more of a moody monotone.
Heavy Metal is still very much pushing its own boundaries, though, with sub-genres like 'Djent' increasingly using lower tuned (and extra-stringed) guitars, discord and disharmony, and even uneven rhythms and structures (the like of which are seldom heard elsewhere, except perhaps in experimental Jazz). The musicians themselves are pushing their skills to the limits too - drummers, for example, have become far more than just 'providers of background rhythms', but are a fully integrated part of the entire musical structure and sound. In these more extreme and experimental forms of Heavy Metal you will find some of the finest, most skilled and most learned musicians on the planet. It might, at first listening to an untuned ear, sound like a 'wall of noise', but it is far from that. It is the product of incredibly skilled musicians experimenting with sounds and rhythms to create an overall emotional experience.
To illustrate this, I'm going to post a video of the song 'Telos', by the band 'Between The Buried And Me'. To someone who has no knowledge of what is going on, it probably sounds a bit of a mess, frankly, and a darned noisy one at that. I'm not expecting any non-Metal fan (or even every metal fan, for that matter) to enjoy such a thing, but remember that vital difference between personal 'musical taste' and 'musical appreciation'. I'm using this video specifically because it show exactly what the musicians themselves are doing. Note the speed, dexterity and skill involved at various points. Note the way the drums interface with the other instruments to enhance what they are doing. Note the use of different rhythms, and even the sections that are more 'beautiful' than 'heavy'. Note also the fact that it is an immersive structure, and not a 'tune and accompaniment', and that it doesn't follow the 'Pop' structure of 'Verse, Chorus, etc.' at all, but is built far more like a 'classical' piece. Yes, it contains 'noise' and 'screaming', but 'just noise and screaming' it is most certainly not.
So there we have it - Heavy Metal, how it happened, what it is, and what it isn't, and why it is so commonly and widely misunderstood. I hope it answers a few questions for a few people, but in answer to the all-too-common question of how I can listen to 'stuff like that' the answer is simple - because, in its own way, it is staggeringly beautiful, and a wonderful emotional experience in music.
Obviously I've barely touched on the wide expanses of how heavy metal has grown and developed, and what it has become, here. If you want to explore further, I have a Spotify playlist of 200 songs (15 hours, if you have that time to spare!) that explores the progression and history, and expanse, of Heavy Metal in purely musical form through just some of the more important songs and bands in its development (starting from the very beginning, right through to the present day). Please feel free to explore it at your leisure:
Edited to add: Just one final example. It's a bit of fun to a large extent, obviously, but this is a group of modern Heavy Metal musicians displaying some of what modern Heavy Metal is capable of doing with an existing work in a more 'orchestral music' kind of setting. As what I'm sure will be a very familiar instrumental piece to most people, it's just a great example of how talented Heavy Metal musicians use the sounds associated with the genre. This is no simplistic rendition of the 'tune', but a really good, and broadly 'anatomically correct' version, of the piece, played in a modern Heavy Metal style. Anyone who struggled with the previous few examples of Heavy Metal in the context of understanding its complexity and musicianship (and therefore associating it with what I've been talking about) might find this both a little clearer and more 'palatable'.