How often have you heard a guy in a black shirt say about something that it’s “metal as fuck”? Probably many times and in very different contexts. Well I’m going to try and give you a clearer idea of why different sounds can all sound metal in different ways, through the lense of the popular song “Kill The King” by Rainbow. I will be starting with the original, traditional metal variant of the song. The studio version can be heard here.
Rainbow is what many people these days would consider your standard rock band, however in their hey day, they were part of the heaviest musical movement around, which became what metalheads often refer to as traditional heavy metal. Their style was heavily based in rock and roll instrumentation, mythological or fantastical lyrics, and as their name would imply, a very stage-conscious version of the hippy appearance of the 1970s. This visual style was employed by many early metal bands such as Deep Purple and Black Sabbath.
Many elements of the hillbilly and blues-influenced rock and roll from the 1950s are still very prevalent in traditional heavy metal, and consequently present in Kill The King, namely the wild vocals of singer Ronnie James Dio and the use of piano as a secondary instrument to the guitar. This vocal style was a combination of the extremely high pitched 60s blues-rock with the raspiness that started with black singers like Muddy Waters, who was a big inspiration to musicians such as Eric Clapton (Milward, J., 2013). Not only was the instrumentation similar, but the lyrical themes of oppression and at times a subsequent revolution permeate the heavy metal genre as a whole (Dunn, S. & McFadyen, S. , 2005). Traditional metal also varies from early rock and roll in it’s larger focus on bass guitar and especially lead guitar, as can be heard in the intro to the original. Such blistering guitar parts were rarely heard in earlier forms of rock and roll, with one of the exceptions being rock and roll classic Johnny B. Goode by Chuck Berry.
Traditional metal is often confused, even by fans of the genre, with heavier rock bands from the 1970s such as Cream and Led Zeppelin. A big reason for this is the simplicity of the arrangements, often through an unwavering 4/4 rhythm to the drums with the classic alternation between accented and weaker 1st and 3rd beats that come from the blues-oriented rock and roll (Everett, W., 2008). Roger Glover, bassist of Deep Purple says that a key to their sound was that they, and particularly guitarist Ritchie Blackmore, were sophisticated musicians that learnt to play simply (Dunn, S. & McFadyen, S., 2011), which is another defining trait of many metal subgenres to come. Despite this simplicity, some early metal musicians couldn’t help but show their extensive musical training in classical styles, reworking their sound to be more like rock operas than the 60s style of Chuck Berry (Walser, R., 2013). This was the origin of the larger-than-life ideal of heavy metal.
Unlike classical music, which uses piano very melodically, rock and roll and traditional heavy metal utilises the piano as more of a rhythmic, percussive instrument. This is heard all the way back to the pioneers of rock and roll such as Little Richard, Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis and serves to bring excitement to the music rather than the beauty that it brings to classical music. Rather than using your ordinary piano, many traditional heavy metal bands favor the fantastical aesthetic of the hammond organ, a stylistic choice that was pioneered by Deep Purple and their material on their In Rock album as is heard below and it has made its way into some power metal as well.
While the boundaries between traditional metal and 1970s rock music may seem blurred, it was these subtle evolutions that formed the hallmarks for the unique sound and culture of heavy metal styles to come.
Dunn, S. & McFadyen, S. (Producers/Directors). (2005). Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey [Film]. Montreal, Canada: Seville Pictures
Dunn, S. & McFadyen, S. (Writers/Directors). (2011). Metal Evolution [Television series episode]. In Dunn, S. (Creator), Early Metal Part 2: UK Division. Toronto, Canada: Tricon Films & Media
Everett, W. (2008). Foundations of Rock: From “Blue Suede Shoes” to “Suite – Judy Blue Eyes”. Oxford, MI: Oxford University Press
Milward, J. (2013). Crossroads: How the Blues Shaped Rock ‘n’ Roll (and Rock Saved the Blues). Boston, MS: Northeastern University Press
Walser, R. (2013). Music Culture: Running with the Devil: Power, Gender and Madness in Heavy Metal Music. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press