The explosion of music that came out of heavy metal in the late 1970s and early 80s – centred around (but not exclusive to) the UK – became something of an outcast genre amongst modern metal fans. Despite defining the sound most civilians would conjure up in their minds when the word ‘metal’ is mentioned (outside of a Port Talbot context), the style itself hasn’t really evolved and endured in the same way that other subgenres that emerged just a few years later did. Iron Maiden tours aside, new bands, new ideas, younger interest, all remain elusive. Despite many of its traits being absorbed into more contemporary movements, pure heavy metal is still something of the past, archaic. The closest offshoot arguably being power metal, a marmite genre that denotes a trip to the bar for most of us when perusing festival line-ups.
There are many reasons for this. If we consider that the new wave of British heavy metal was metal’s first big leap away from rock after the groundwork had been laid down by Black Sabbath and Judas Priest, this also meant that many of the original NWOBHM artists were more easily absorbed into radio friendly Def Leppard-rock once the initial creative impetuous waned. It could also be looked at from a generational perspective. The New Wave of British Heavy Metal was the last boomer genre of metal, before gen X took the reigns in the late 1980s. Despite the age distinction becoming an arbitrary line if looked at too closely, the experience of growing up in the 80s was wildly different to the late 1960s and 70s. It led to different outlooks and attitudes. Such was the shift in Western lifestyle and culture throughout the Thatcher and Reagan era that kids growing up in the 90s and beyond looked on the 70s as an entirely different world when compared to the more familiar 80s. The music and culture of this time was something they couldn’t relate to in the same way, beyond historical curiosity. 90s kids are personally invested in the fates of Slayer and Metallica, whilst the likes of Diamond Head and Saxon remain situated in the distance of academic history.
For anyone familiar with ‘The Story of Anvil’ we hardly need to introduce this artist. But let’s take a look at their beloved ‘Metal on Metal’ LP of 1982 in the light of the era that it was released into. And in that context it’s clear that ‘Metal on Metal’ – and Anvil themselves – were the right act at the wrong time. Metal was trying to transcend its rock routes, and this is exemplified across this album, with the heavy march of the title track and the epic bombast of ‘Mothra’ contrasted with rock numbers such as ‘Stop Me’ and ‘Tag Team’. Too ridiculous to be placed in the canon of more ‘mature’ album rock classics of the 1970s, yet outshined in intensity just a few years later by thrash metal. The problem isn’t that younger thrash artists ripped Anvil off, the problem is that Anvil didn’t do quite enough to move metal forward artistically when they had the chance. This is an undeniably heavy album, and relatively technical in places, but they lose momentum too often. Which is maybe why this album didn’t endure beyond its time, and its appeal is now limited to historians interested in the story of metal throughout the 80s.
Maybe it’s the story of Anvil as individuals, or maybe it’s the story of heavy metal at this time, but it appears conflicted. It is reaching for a new form of expression and wonder not seen in contemporary music at the time (on tracks like ‘March of the Crabs’ for instance), but shackled by the past and unsure of what the next step should be. There’s no denying (despite what Steve Harris says) that punk revitalised this music and reacquainted it with the virtues of speed and aggression, but it was left to later artists to work out how to direct this newfound energy. On ‘Metal on Metal’ Anvil were certainly trying. The solos were becoming more complex. The drumming was more intricate and technical. The vocals were becoming harsher, straining at the vocal cords as boisterous energy sought a means of escape. But there is a clear duality to the album that separates the heavy rock tracks from the metal tracks. At the immediate level this means that the album is somewhat disjointed and lacking in flow. But historically it speaks to the time and environment this album was written in; by musicians eager to pay homage to their influences and unwilling to shed these traits, despite having a clear direction and character that shines forth; for half the album at least.
Newcastle’s Raven are proudly working-class stalwarts of NWOBHM, which remains at its core an artefact of the English working class. Prog rock was too snooty, arty, the product of Oxbridge grads and children of the leisurely classes. Punk by contrast, was too basic, too real world, too grounded and ultimately limiting for many of an outsider persuasion. Heavy metal walked that line between the two, it was accessible to young kids looking to play in pub bands, but it also offered seemingly (at the time) endless vistas of creative space to move into. Raven’s second LP ‘Wiped Out’ embodies a lot of these competing pushes and pulls perfectly. It’s a playful, fun album with a garage band quality to the production, a vibe that is furthered by the various interludes featuring the band members dicking around between tracks. Much of the music borrows from the roadhouse rock of early Motorhead, made up not just of speed, but a frantic quality, as one riff trips over another to fall out of the speakers. Drums are consistently fast, but broken up by frequent mini fills and accents that add a shuffle like quality to many of the rhythms. A lot of the solos are made up of blues noodling but harder and faster, augmented by lyrics fixated on intensity, the desire for more, going further, revealing a deep dissatisfaction with everyday life as it was for young kids in northern England at the time.
But out of the good clean fun of a working band playing local gigs between holding down a job, a more serious and philosophical beast is attempting to emerge. Beginning with the track ‘To the Limit/To the Top’ we are introduced to Raven’s ambitions towards the epic, and elements more familiar to the heavy metal ear. Not only is the structure more complex, with an extended intro and an expansive mid-section, but the riffs move away from blues, the vocals are now falsetto, the demands of a verse/chorus structure are being re-prioritised for the sake of allowing the riffs to determine the direction that that the music takes. And as this realisation takes place song lengths extend out, dictated by ambitious narrative structures.
It should be noted that for all this talk of metal’s newfound sophistication, at this point it was still highly accessible from a technical point of view. A certain level of endurance was required to maintain the speeds required for a post Motorhead world, but the playing itself could be as technically intricate as the musician pleased. What mattered more was the character required to string together compositions of a more complex and epic nature than hi-fidelity shredding. Hence why, for many, metal was the perfect outlet for youth alienated by the intellectualism of prog yet dissatisfied with the limitations of punk. In 1982 no one knew the true staying power and potential of this music. But for Raven at least, this dichotomy between the old and the new played out in fun and imaginative ways throughout the course of ‘Wiped Out’.
What else is there to say about these two albums? Barely a year later Slayer and Metallica would put out their legendary debut albums, later Quorthon would release Bathory’s self-titled debut and begin a chain of events that would lead to black metal, Celtic Frost would release ‘Morbid Tales’, under the Hellhammer banner already smashing the bar of extremity by this time. Music of a new and very different generation would supplant the heavy metal of the older Anvil and Raven forever. Besides a few choice artists, heavy metal would remain very much of its time, left out in the cold by the chaos to come. This is not just a story of timing but one of style. Both these albums demonstrate a duality of purpose and intent, as these musicians attempted to shed the blues legacy of the 1970s once and for all and meld this with a new age of intensity and artistic ambition. And both undoubtedly succeeded to a degree. But to modern ears – and through no fault of their own – it remains boomer music, dad metal, of its time to ears accustomed to a post ‘Altars of Madness’ world. In terms of this week’s pick it’s going to be Raven’s ‘Wiped Out’. Both albums have many merits that should be celebrated. But ‘Metal on Metal’, despite offering some of the best and influential metal released in 1982, feels more like a collection of songs thrown together on a compilation as opposed to an album with a unified message. Raven do a better job of working their duality of purpose into an integrated, and therefore more rewarding, experience.