The New Wave of European Heavy Metal
by Bryan Reesman
Since the ascension of grunge and indie rock, heavy metal has become less hip to the musical masses -- at least in the United States, where pop culture tastes are as fickle as fashion trends. But during the past decade, the popularity of metal has not waned much overseas. In fact, Europe has become a continual breeding ground for new talent. While classic British bands are not en vogue in the States, they are still popular in the European and Japanese markets. In fact, American bands like Virgin Steele, Shadow Gallery, and Manowar are currently finding more receptive audiences overseas. While the festival scene Stateside seems limited to OzzFest and Lollapalooza, across the Atlantic there are a variety of annual or semi-annual events: in England, there's Castle Donington; in Holland, they have Dynamo; in Greece, the Metal Invader Festival; in Italy, Monsters of Rock; and in Germany, there's Withful Force, the Wacken Open Air Festival, and the Bang Your Head Festival, among others.
All of the above proves the dedication of both European fans and musicians in the wake of changing media and mainstream interests. As metal has gone back underground in many areas of the world, it has brought with it a new breed of musicians less concerned about commercial success and more focused on quality music. It's a natural progression given the history of the genre, but in order to understand this New Wave of European Heavy Metal, one must go back through history.
The first appearance of the term "heavy metal" has been debated by many people. Steppenwolf used it (and are considered to have coined it) in their 1968 anthem "Born To Be Wild" to describe riding on a desert highway in Southern California. But various rock critics also used the term to describe the playing of Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, and Black Sabbath; in each case it's appropriate, even if the exact inception date of the term is uncertain. What is certain is that from the heavy rock stylings of Zeppelin, the Who, Hendrix, and Cream in the latter half of the '60s emerged several British bands to catapult hard rock to the next level. Late '60s American acid rock bands like Steppenwolf, Blue Cheer, and Iron Butterfly are also considered predecessors, although it is the influence of many of the following bands which would truly shape and define the music from the '70s on.
Originally a merger of hard psychedelia and blues, metal sprouted up in many forms. In 1970, Black Sabbath (arguably the first Gothic rock band) released their eponymous debut, bringing a darker, gloomy aesthetic to rock music. That same year, Deep Purple's In Rock established that group as a hard rocking force to reckon with - notably the musical pyrotechnics of guitarist Ritchie Blackmore and keyboardist Jon Lord - and Uriah Heep, known for their early '70s hit "Easy Livin'," also began their extensive recording career, although after early Stateside success their fortunes were to lie in Europe. By the mid-'70s, Judas Priest, the Scorpions, AC/DC, and Motorhead would all unleash their debuts. Motorhead and Priest would provide the foundation for the speed metal movement of the following decade.
By the beginning of the '80s, the mainstream was beginning to accept this heavy, aggressive form of rock music. Singer Ozzy Osbourne began a lucrative solo career while his old band began to see their fortunes diminish. In fact, Sabbath successor Ronnie James Dio soon left to found his own band and discover prosperity with albums like Holy Diver. Deep Purple reformed their most famous line-up and reminded people where much of this music came from. After years of releasing records, AC/DC broke through in a major way with Back In Black, as did the Scorpions with Blackout and the highly successful Love At First Sting. Accessible bands like Van Halen, Twisted Sister, and Quiet Riot all achieved multi-million sales at one point or another, although Van Halen would be the only to continue doing so, essentially because their music became very slick pop. Heavyweights Judas Priest began making a major mainstream mark with such important albums as British Steel and Screaming For Vengeance, and were instrumental in paving the way for the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, which included (lightweights) Def Leppard, Diamond Head, Grim Reaper, Iron Maiden (who became huge), Raven, Saxon, Tank, Tygers of Pan Tang, and Venom. These younger bands were generally not into three-minute power-pop anthems (as Kiss had made its fortunes from in the '70s), but album-oriented rock which skirted the boundaries of mainstream pop music. The highly influential Maiden continued on to major worldwide success, and Saxon continue to maintain a loyal European following.
It was during the '80s that they many subdivisions of metal began to sprout up. Early power metal was exemplified by Manowar, Helloween, Warlord, and by the late '80s, Pantera. The progressive side was championed by Queensryche, Crimson Glory, Fates Warning, and later by Dream Theater. On the gloom and doom side of things were Mercyful Fate and frontman King Diamond, Celtic Frost, Candlemass, St. Vitus, and Trouble. Speed metal became the edict of Metallica, Anthrax, Megadeth, Slayer, Exciter, Running Wild, Voi Vod, and numerous others. The shock rock side was lead by Twisted Sister and W.A.S.P. (and their sensitive single "Animal (F**k Like A Beast)"). Finally, there was just good old-fashioned heavy metal, whose gazillion practitioners included Accept, Armored Saint, Loudness, Racer X, and Savatage. Many will argue who they think are more important in the universal scheme of things, but the wealth of bands both then and now prove the long-lasting appeal of the genre in all its forms.
Trouble came about with the rise of hair metal. Rather than utilize the darker and more aggressive tendencies of the classic British metal bands or the new American and European undergrounds, these pop-based acts made their mark through power ballads, radio-oriented records, and a frequently glam-oriented image defined by loads of hairspray and makeup, big hair, and tight spandex. Group after group of pop crossover acts received their turn in the spotlight -- Ratt, Motley Crue, Warrant, Poison...the roster goes on and on. While mainstream audiences enjoyed these bands, they essentially undid the work of real metal bands by turning the genre into a glitzy, teenybopper showcase defined by upbeat anthems and "sensitive" power ballads. While some of the bands proved to have long-lasting appeal, many vanished from the public eye despite continuing to cut albums, proving that they were indeed a passing fancy. Recent attempts at revivals by many of these bands have proved fruitless, although Cleopatra Records is putting out numerous greatest hits throughout 1999 from the likes of Great White, Cinderella, White Lion, and many more, so perhaps a resurgence is coming. The effect of the movement has not been forgotten -- ask your average pop fan who they associate with heavy metal, and you will most likely hear the name of any of the aforementioned hair bands.
Perhaps this latest wave of European bands, which continues the pioneering traditions of early metal bands, is a reaction to the Hollywood excesses of the '80s hair metal scene, not to mention a continuation of the underground spirit of that same decade. It seems that despite the change in mainstream tastes, the audience thirsting for original metal music has only grown. An irony here is that many established and long-running acts -- Priest, Maiden, Saxon, and Virgin Steele among them -- have been dormant either in terms of output or (more often than not) domestic releases, so as the floodgates open once again for metal, many audiences may discover them for the first time. Either way, while the American scene has been stagnating with third-rate funk-metal, death metal, and stale hip-hop or rap crossovers, the European scene has been flourishing. That's not to downgrade American metal, but let's face it, as former Judas Priest and current Two vocalist Rob Halford once remarked to Kerrang! magazine: "America might have invented rock 'n' roll, but Britain invented heavy metal." It only seems fitting that after we took British and European influences and reshaped them that they should do the same and toss the ball back in our court.
Following is a breakdown of important categories as well as artists which standout from the European metal pack.
Gothic And Ethereal Metal
The use of the gothic tag is often redundant in metal - given its darker nature to begin with - but since there are so many subdivisions, this is a natural one to select, especially if you link it to the ethereal side of rock, which is popular in the Goth community. The key element here is atmosphere, whether it be the Gothic rock stylings of Paradise Lost, the romantic beauty of the Gathering, or the black metal-meets-ethereal sounds of Theatre of Tragedy. Like the Gothic genre itself, these metal bands frequently emphasize the tragic and romantic, themes of salvation and damnation, as well as the dark side of life, and they certainly play on conventions established by many of the early British bands and some of the '80s black metal outfits. That said, bands like the Gathering and Tiamat tend to prefer spacey overtones rather than a somber approach, but there is enough angst there to capture the same audience.
Europe's popular goth-metal ensemble have begun to transform their sound with their latest album One Second. Whereas earlier works were more epic in scale and less pop-oriented, such as the well-received Draconian Times, the newer version of the band focuses on shorter, catchier tunes which flirt with a techno influence. But don't fear, they still maintain their dark edge, although now it's balanced by a little more light. The makeover works well - the anguish is just a bit more energized.
Draconian Times, (Relativity/Combat/Ruthless, 1995)
One Second, (Music For Nations, 1997)
Hailing from Portugal, this somber sextet revel in dark tunes and lycanthropic lyrics. Frontman Fernando Ribiero appropriately possesses a deep, theatrical voice - at times he's very lively and at others sounds like an angry Count Chocula, although this seems more confined to their
first album. The vocals mature on each record, not to mention the music. Ambient and techno influences have begun to insinuate themselves into their sound with the new Sin/Pecado, and they sound good. Moonspell do write some catchy riffs, and I'm a sucker for their dramatic keyboard swells.
Wolfheart, (Century Media, 1995)
Irreligious, (Century Media, 1996)
Sin/Pecado, (Century Media, 1998)
THEATRE OF TRAGEDY
Reportedly known for stage shows which reflect the aesthetic of the shoegazing contingency (Cocteau Twins, My Bloody Valentine), Theatre of Tragedy utilize male black metal growls and female ethereal Gothic singing within its gloomy rock sound. The guitars possess a bit of a black metal crunch, but the songs don't favor the outrageous tempos of that subgenre. Their latest effort actually strips away some of their metallic sound and veers them in a decidely more Goth direction, but the results are just as effective.
Velvet Darkness They Fear, (Century Media, 1997)
Aegis, (Century Media, 1998)
Heavy rockers the Gathering are unique given their ethereal nature and atmospheric tunes offer a parallel sensibility. Lead by the powerful voice of Anneke van Giersbergen, their slow and medium-tempo songs are simple yet dramatic, with Anneke's voice soaring majestically
over them. Her frequently hopeful lyrics explore less common metal themes like love and the wonder of nature, and the band play very specific melodies and chord sequences, preferring not to embellish too much on the music but make very purposeful musical statements. Both their albums offer softer moments augmented by delicate keyboards. The Gathering are working on their fifth album (their third with Anneke on vocals), and it promises to be a bit less heavy than past works but equally engaging. The album will be a double-CD release.
Mandylion, (Century Media, 1995)
Nighttime Birds, (Century Media, 1997)
OTHER SOMBER METALLIONS: Candlemass, Cathedral, My Dying Bride, Tiamat, The 3rd and the Mortal
This subgenre has gone through quite a transformation since its arrival in the early '80s via the likes of Venom and Bathory. Early black metal (the term coined through a Venom album title) was about fast riffs, minimal melody, harsh growls, and Satanic lyrics. However, black metal in the early '80s was in its infancy. Danish rockers Mercyful Fate - a band who favored progressive structures, tempo changes, powerful hooks, and Gothic atmospheres - were also considered a part of the scene then, as were future thrashers Slayer, whose debut Show No Mercy featured a mixture of tempos but maintained the cartoonishly menacing imagery common to such bands at the time.
In the 90’s, the new breed of black metallers have chosen to go to folk and classical music for inspiration, many choosing to add in keyboards and strange chants to offset their overriding atonality. Such attempts at "accessibility" have produced quality music from a few bands. Another development is the increasingly diverse use of double-bass drumming. Many thrash, speed, and black metal drummers are not merely keeping time with high velocity 16th notes anymore. Often times the kick drums will gallop along with the guitars or are used to work against the main rhythm.
While the politics and spirituality of black metal (particularly those of the Norwegian scene) may turn many people off, the music has grown up. Less forward thinking bands still favor an ultra-fast, anti-melodic approach - or at least one with commonly recycled motifs - but it is the more musically mature groups which are advancing black metal, like the ones below. (Many bands listed in the list at the end are not as keyboard-heavy, but some are related to these artists.)
This manic entourage spearhead the controversial Norwegian black metal scene, which is known not only for their Satanic beliefs but the fact that members of various bands (including every original member of Emperor) have been incarcerated for crimes including assault, church burning, and murder. Such events have been well-chronicled in the American media, garnering the scene quite a bit of press. But it all comes down to music (and whether one wants to support such ideologies, even indirectly), and Emperor, beliefs aside, are a solid unit who enjoy faster-than-light aural assaults and also mid-tempo songs which contain the band's fury and allow the neo-classical elements to breathe. The band recorded their latest effort in the Memorial Hall of Edvard Grieg, which is either a testament to that composer's inspiration or their own conceit. Take your pick.
Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk, (Century Media, 1997)
Arcturus - whose first album features members of Mayhem, Ulver, Ved Buens Ende, and Tritonus - are the most effective of the black metal set because their classical flourishes feel more natural and their striking compositions have crossover potential with fans of less cacophonous music (not that we're talking Top 40 here). They treat keyboards and guitars as equals, and keyboardist Sverd not only plays well, but he varies his textures and ambiences throughout the record. The potency of Arcturus' music comes from their marriage of melodic sophistication and aggressive metal technique. Both albums listed below have many brilliant moments, and the latter sounds decidely more gothic and even flirts with techno in a couple of spots.
Aspera hiems symfonia, (Century Media, 1996)
La Masquerade Infernale, (Music For Nations/Misanthropy, 1997)
Fellow Norwegians Dimmu Borgir rejoice in heavy playing yet also have a taste for simple yet dramatic synth arpeggios and melodies. Still, the guitars and howling vocals reign in this band. It's kind of a bummer that when Stian-Aarstad gets to race across his keyboards on the opening cut of Enthrone Darkness Triumphant, his bandmates drown him out. But his keyboards rise above the din in other spots, and the ensemble's energy and enthusiasm translate into some satisfying excursions into darkness. They're worth keeping an eye on. By the way, their recent EP features a cover of Accept's "Metal Heart"!
Enthrone Darkness Triumphant, (Nuclear Blast America, 1997)
Godless Savage Garden EP, (Nuclear Blast America, 1998)
CRADLE OF FILTH
The most controversial - and the most successful - of the current black metallers hail from England. Lead by howler Dani Filth - who comes off a little like Blackie Lawless from W.A.S.P., for some reason - Cradle of Filth espouse the neo-classical black metal of their Scandanavian counterparts, but their sound is a bit more melodic (a la Arcturus) and certainly a lot slicker, and their lyrics tend to lean more in the direction of the "darkly erotic," given such lyrical subject matter as vampires and Lady Bathory. Cradle are also known for controversial T-shirt slogans like "Jesus Is A C**t". Start off with Dusk and her Embrace, which has some intense moments and even a catchy number in "Malice Through The Looking Glass."
Dusk and her Embrace, (Fierce/Mayhem, 1997)
Cruelty and the Beast, (Fierce/Mayhem, 1998)
OTHER BLACK METAL PRACTITIONERS: Covenant, Enslaved, In Flames, Old Man's Child
Good old-fashioned power metal is really another term for classic metal. But since genres like metal, Goth, and techno have created so many subdivisions, their original meanings change. Power metal bands could care less about cheesy ballads and three-minute pop ditties - they're all about commanding chords, stirring choruses, and a heavy rhythm section. (In fact, this is the credo of numerous German bands past and present.) American metallers Manowar have proven to be very popular among European audiences, particularly Germany and Poland, and have no doubt influenced younger bands with their grandiose (and sometimes pompous) epics of power, glory, and honor.
This Swedish quintet do not break new ground with their music, but their passion and intensity shine on their debut Glory to the Brave, an album defined by crunching riffs and majestic refrains. Their two guitarists are pretty much used to sustain their electric attack rather than play off of one another, but Hammerfall keep the energy level high throughout, often implementing speed metal tactics. They get points for covering Warlord's long-lost "Child of the Damned." Their new release, Legacy Of Kings, is disappointing, as it doesn't expand upon their debut at all, although traditional metallers may still enjoy it.
Glory to the Brave, (Nuclear Blast America, 1997)
While they are a heavy metal group, the Finnish folk and Middle Eastern influences which creep into their music make them uneasy to patly categorize. Then add the fact that reportedly in their earlier incarnation they were a death metal band, and that now many of the vocals are in that style while their keyboard textures recall Deep Purple and Genesis, and things get even more eclectic. (Then there's that techno break in "Cares" from Elegy...) All this is fine, particularly because Amorphis know how to rock out with their chosen influences.
Elegy, (Relapse, 1996)
My Kantele EP, (Relapse, 1997)
Formed in 1981 in Long Island, Virgin Steele have enjoyed quite a lengthy career, evolving into one of the best metal outfits in the world. While they have been neglected at home, audiences in Europe, Japan, and South America have embraced their Romantic, symphonic-based sounds. (Which is why they are being included here.) While they are known in Europe as a power metal unit, the band's recent releases have shown them getting more progressive in their songwriting and musicianship, which places them neatly in both categories. Lead by the intense growls, high-pitched crescendos, and classically-flavored keyboard work of David DeFeis, Virgin Steele also include talented axeman Edward Pursino, bassist Rob DeMartino, and skinbeater Frank Girlchriest. Their musical prowess is impressive and intoxicating, and the epic The Marriage of Heaven & Hell Pt. 2 is practically perfect. It features the beautiful yet tragic elegy "Emalaith," a stirring ten-minute ode to a lost love. The new Invictus is also a mighty powerful musical force that will blow you away.
Noble Savage, (T&T, 1985, re-released 1996)
Age Of Consent, (T&T, 1988, re-released 1997)
The Marriage of Heaven & Hell Part 2, (T&T, 1996)
Invictus, (T&T, 1998)
POWER METAL BRETHREN: Gamma Ray, Helloween, Running Wild
The term "progressive" seems to scare off many listeners if for no other reason than it implies musical sophistication. While prog rock has always been accused of technical excesses, it has produced many talented bands, and the new generation of prog metal bands - many of whom are following in the footsteps of Queensryche and Dream Theater, not to mention '70s prog rockers like Yes and ELP - are proving that metal artists can take their strong chops and apply them to elaborately structured works full of emotional resonance. Of all the forms of metal that are growing, this is one which has been expanding all over the world. Many American bands are exploring this area and are the most ground-breaking of the Stateside metallers at the moment.
This Dutch quintet come off as second generation Queensryche, and in this context, that's not a bad thing. The main differences here are epic songs, an agile keyboardist, and an affinity for odd meters. While the vocals are a bit hard to make out (lyrics are provided), the band's impassioned playing packs a strong emotional punch. It's also rather cool that their drummer writes the lyrics.
Insights, (Magna Carta, 1996)
Yet another band who like to use conventions from different subgenres to fashion their own sound. In Opeth's case, they have a penchant for epic, Maidenesque songwriting whilst integrating black metal vocals and progressive aesthetics. The average Opeth song runs a bit long (some are ten minutes or more!), but the group offer their own special trademark: a common use of acoustic guitar passages which bring more light and shade to the proceedings. They're not just using them in the intros or outros but throughout their songs, and they are a very distinctive touch which will keep you listening. Their newest album is their most mature to date, maintaining their heaviness while integrating some folk influences and a touch of jazz drumming on one song.
Orchid, (Century Media, 1995)
Morningrise, (Century Media, 1997)
My Arms, Your Hearse, (Century Media, 1998)
On album, Royal Hunt capture a larger-than-life sound which has been delighting fans in Europe. A rough comparison would be Dream Theater-meets-ELP, for the band utilize the metallic crunch of the former with the grandiose classical aspirations of the latter. Like Moving Target, the recent Paradox (their first American release after several overseas) contains many rousing songs which possess a very "big" '80s sound, but their music could only come about in the genre-mixing 90’s. They are among the best of the numerous talented prog bands on the ever-growing Magna Carta label.
Moving Target, (reissued on Magna Carta, 1998)
Paradox, (Magna Carta, 1997, newest album)
This is the band which truly should been titled Amorphis. One listen to their recent album should be proof of that - A'arab Zaraq Lucid Dreaming features original metal tunes, symphonic music written by guitarist Christofer Johnsson for an independent film, metal versions of those neo-classical pieces, not to mention covers of Judas Priest, the Scorpions, Iron Maiden, and Running Wild. Like many metal artists-turned-composer (ex-Emperor member Mortiis among them), the soundtrack pieces tend to cycle more than develop, but the results are pretty decent. Ultimately, this is not an official release but a compilation celebrating the band's 10-year anniversary. But it suits their eclectic history, transforming from death metal to symphonic metal ensemble in that time span. The new Vovin is an impressive, stirring serving of classical-metal, as Johnsson cleverly integrates a string orchestra and chorus within his metal epics. It's truly an inspired record.
Theli, (Nuclear Blast America, 1996)
A'arab Zaraq Lucid Dreaming, (Nuclear Blast America, 1997)
Vovin, (Nuclear Blast America, 1998)
NORTH AND SOUTH AMERICAN PROG COMPATRIOTS: Angra, Altura, Braindance, Enchant, Shadow Gallery