Metal Curmudgeons: The Golden Age of Heavy Metal
by MetalMike & Sargon the Terrible
There are plenty of absolutes in Heavy Metal. It is the best kind of music, for instance. But for every absolute, there are thousands of "shades of gray" or "varying degrees." As "elder statesmen" of The Metal Crypt community, Sargon and I have been around the scene for a long time (with over 60 years of headbanging between us) and thought we'd take up a few of those "gray areas" and see if we can thrash out an answer one way or another. As we're both opinionated, often with several degrees of separation, we each grabbed a side and proceeded to extol its virtues. What you have below is a pair of "Metal Curmudgeons" coming down on either side of one of the greatest unanswerable topics in Heavy Metal; were the 80s the Golden Age of Heavy Metal? Read on and we'll open a thread on the board so you can share your opinion. If you like what we've done, maybe we'll even do another one.
A lot of people refer to the years 1980 through 1989 (the "80s") as the Golden Age of Metal. The question today is whether or not that is true. I'm here to say it is. Not since the early days of Rock and Roll in the mid-50s has there been a proliferation of music that changed and evolved on a seemingly daily basis yet still retained a core sound that was easily identifiable and distinctive. The ripples of that proliferation are still being felt today but never again will we see another event in the same size and scope.
The genesis of what would become the Golden Age took place with the "heavy music" of the late 60s and 70s. Hendrix distorted the shit out of his guitar, Led Zeppelin combined heavy riffs with melodic rock music and Sabbath showed that while singing about getting chicks was timeless nothing was a damn cool as singing about the devil. Other bands of the 70s contributed, too. Deep Purple added keyboards without sacrificing heaviness, Motörhead brought in the speed and aggression of Punk and Judas Priest started experimenting with dual guitar harmonies and outrageously high-pitched vocals.
Then, around 1979, these "old" British "heavy rock" bands gave way a new group of musicians in England and the New Wave of British Heavy Metal saw the scene go supernova. Nearly the same time in the United States frustrated hard rock bands saw what was happening overseas and decided to become heavier and released independent albums that at least initially refused to cater to label and public pressures. Hundreds, if not thousands of bands, popped up on both sides of the Atlantic. Some were great (Iron Maiden, Saxon, the first albums by Motley Crue, W.A.S.P., Armored Saint, etc.) and most were terrible but the sheer volume of music to choose from was mind-boggling.
Shortly, bands started branching out and exploring the limits of this new style that fused the melody and power of the old heavy rock bands, the anger and aggression of Punk and fantasy/horror/social lyrics. Bands like Metallica, Anthrax, Venom and Slayer became faster and more aggressive and gave rise to Thrash, one of the first new "sub-genres" of Metal to go along with "Heavy" and "Doom." Megadeth, Nuclear Assault and the like put the pedal all the way to floor and we got Speed Metal. Queensryche and later Dream Theater added keyboards and technically challenging playing and songwriting giving rise to Progressive Metal.
By the middle of the 80s these genres were getting well established and in response to more and more public acceptance Metal continued to adapt and stay ahead of trends that were getting too popular. By the late 80s Thrash bands decided you didn't need a clear voice and began croaking out their lyrics while ramping up the horrific subject matter in an effort to both show the band members' affinity for slasher movies and weed out those with weak constitutions. Enter Death Metal. At about the same time, in response to an increasing religious backlash against the sexual and often blasphemous lyrics and look of many Heavy Metal bands, a "second wave" of groups, mostly from Scandinavia, adopted the early satanic imagery of Venom, Slayer, Mercyful Fate and others and took it to a near-cartoonish level complete with tortured, rasping vocals, drumming that was so fast it was almost just a buzz and faces painted to look like corpses and Black Metal came into its own. Within each genre fans had nearly unlimited options and each genre produced several high-quality releases.
The question of what "killed" Heavy Metal in the early 90s or if anything actually killed it at all is a subject for another time. Whatever the cause, Heavy Metal's unprecedented rise, proliferation and diversification came to a halt almost overnight. Since then there have been good bands, even some great ones, and bands from the 80s continued as best they could or packed it in (many would later resurface when the climate was more favorable). In the late 90s, Heavy Metal of all genres experiences a resurgence and all are vibrantly displayed today around the world but something is missing. Much of today's music can be easily traced back to the 80s either directly or as a combination of pre-existing genres. Not even relative newcomers like Gothic or Symphonic Metal are all that original (and I love both so I mean no disrespect) and are basically Power Metal with various female vocals (an oversimplification but at the core, true).
There's still an air of discovery within Heavy Metal today but everything is so well defined you can basically pick up anything new and have a pretty good idea of what it will sound like based on the name, style of logo or cover art. Ed Repka artwork? Thrash. Undecipherable logo? Black Metal. Name with the word "steel" in it? Traditional. In the 80s you had no idea what a new band was going to sound like and that was so damn exciting! That is what is missing from today's scene.
There's plenty of good music being created today and no one is happier about it than me. This is the music I live for. But for me the 80s will always be the Golden Age, a time when every trip to the record store could produce a new band, a new sound, something I'd never heard before. It's been a long time since I've been able to truthfully say that and I don't know as I ever will again.
The storied 80s are usually harked back to as the best era in the history of metal, and from a broad standpoint that may seem to be true - certainly metal as a musical form first became widely known in the period, and there was a sense of exploration and invention that still draws rosy glasses over the eyes of reviewers and fans alike to this day. As with most popular notions, this idea is rubbish. We are living metal's Golden Age right now.
So: the 80s. The origins of metal have been well-mapped, and they emerge largely from the 60s and 70s, it was the advent of the NWOBHM sound in the early 80s that really signaled the arrival of the new genre in the popular consciousness. Most metal fans of my age first caught the bug in the 80s when they were teenagers, looking for identity and rebellion. We are fortunate that our chosen form actually has the substance and depth to stand up as a form once you remove the adolescent hormones. Fans of pop music cannot say the same thing.
However, just because the form holds up, does not mean the examples of it still do. We tend to view the 80s nostalgically because the best bands and their best works have survived, and the rest have fallen by the wayside. We like to think there were not a shit-ton of crap bands back in the day, when there absolutely were. This is the same reason musical movements look better in retrospect - we cling to the good, and choose to overlook or forget the bad. And of course if you cull any musical genre for the best a given period has to offer, you will get a collection of good albums that is not necessarily representative of the period at all.
Now the 80s were a time of innovation, and many of the subgenres we have today trace their roots to the decade. But innovation does not equal quality. And innovation is never driven strictly by artistic impulse, but rather by the desire to stand out from the crowd, to get noticed and signed. Today, with the recording and distribution of music easier and cheaper than ever, we are actually living in a time far more fertile for invention and experiment.
Metal's strength has always been in its underground, anti-commercial ethos. This is one of the tenets upon which it is built. This is not music for the popular kids, the beautiful people, the happy, or the content. It is music for the outcasts, the unloved, the ugly, the strange. It is easy to forget that in the 80s the stigma against metal was much stronger, and it was actually very difficult to be a fan back then. There were no websites or mp3s or YouTube. You read reviews in ratty magazines if you could find them, you got news that was months old if you found any at all, you heard of bands but could not buy their albums. Metal fans were forced to live by mail-order and tape-trading. I suppose if you lived in New York or San Francisco you could go to shows and get all the zines you wanted, but elsewhere it was like living in a desert.
I remember my collection was an anemic pile of cassette tapes that grew very slowly. That I bought a lot of things blindly because they were what was there, and I never got to buy things I wanted because they were nowhere to be found. I went to very few shows, because there were very few to go to. There were not so many live DVDs, or online videos of concerts. We often forget the live movies are produced not for those who want to remember the show or complete their collections, but for those fans who have not and will not get to see the bands play live.
We live in the Golden Age right now. There are more bands than ever, playing more styles and shades and subgenres than ever before. It is easier to make your music how you want, and get it out there in front of people than it ever has been. Metal can be even more underground than it was before, and yet still be interconnected in a way the fans of the 80s could not dream of. And yes, that means a change. It means there are more crap bands than before, more bad music - the proportions stay the same, after all - and there will never be a shortage of that. Faster news cycles make us hungry for info, more easily distracted, quicker to turn on bands that fail, slower to forgive.
But there is a reason we are having this conversation here, isn't there? As an older fan I remember when the scene died in the 90s. There were still some bands, but the news dried up. The network of fans and zines and labels was fragile, and when it turned on us and died out, we were left with nothing - no way to reconnect - until the Internet came along. How many of us came back to metal because the Internet showed us the way? Because the underground was destroyed and then had to rebuild itself here?
The 80s were an era of innovation, and every genre needs that, but saying it was the greatest era not only denigrates the whole genre by implying it has nowhere to go, but it also glosses over the very real problems with the time and the misfires and bullshit that have been erased from the collective mind by the years. The modern age has flaws, and they are magnified by being right here in our faces, but the benefits outweigh them.
Today is the Golden Age? Let me start with what I agree with before going back to why it isn't.
There were absolutely plenty of crap bands back in the 80s. I threw a lot of good money after bad buying cassettes that ultimately sucked just because they looked cool (anyone want a copy of Raven's The Pack is Back, lightly played?) With the advent of the Internet and easy access to both information and a network of like-minded individuals all over the world, it has never been easier to BE a fan of Heavy Metal and still enjoy a musical form that is "underground."
Your point about the immediacy granted by the Internet is well taken and underscores the issues of today's Heavy Metal scene. Too many bands today crank out too much stuff and the quality suffers. Look how many musicians divide their time between multiple bands. I know they do it because making a living in Metal today is challenging to say the least but material is often spread over many different projects as opposed to being focused on one band and one album at a time.
And why is that? Because the very same Internet that allows us to connect has made it too easy to download an album risk-free, decide if it is shitty and dump the files or if it is good and share it with others. The joy of the hunt is diminished greatly, if not altogether, and in response the market is flooded, often with inferior product, because artists need that next new thing to be in our faces or we'll move on to something else.
I don't blame the artists or even the fans necessarily; it is just the way things are today. And I'm not whining "why can't we go back to the way it used to be?" I'm not THAT old yet. But today's scene will never be the equal of the 80s because many of the participants are simply not as invested as they were 30 years ago. New released and obscure gems aren't sought out with zeal and treasured when they are found. They are called up on the Internet and far too easily shuffled to the recycle bin when something new comes along.
Well, those are some seriously spurious points. It's too easy to be a fan? This is a bad thing? I do not believe that we have to engage in the ridiculous practice of gatekeeping when it comes to fans. Do we have to keep poser bands out? Hell yes. But not fans, because today's poser can be tomorrow's true metalhead. It takes time to learn what is really good, to break through the crust of accessible, overhyped mainstream bands and get down into the good stuff. The advantage now is that it takes a lot less time than it used to. My experience as a fan is not devalued by there being more fans. More fans means more music, more albums and tickets sold, more for my chosen genre. And because so many fans are online, they don't have to struggle through the metal desert like I did when I was a kid. I had to come to my tastes through painful, rigorous trial and error. Kids today don't have to do that, and I don't grudge that. There's no reason they have to suffer just because I did.
So yes, it's easier to be a fan, and that's a good thing. It was terribly hard being a fan back in the 80s, and there is nothing noble about that, it sucked. I'm glad it's changed. And yes, we can go through so much more music now - culling through YouTube and torrents for stuff we want, discarding what we don't. That is a benefit, not a bug. There's no reason to give bad bands any of your time, and now the worst you have to suffer through is half a video or a wasted download, not money spent and a crappy album to resell for a buck. I only spend money on music I already know I love, and that is an excellent thing.
If artists are dividing their time, producing poorer work, I have not noticed it. There is more good metal around now than ever before. Metal-Archives lists over 100,000 bands, active, split-up, on hold, shitty - whatever. That is an insane number, and it's growing every day. Labels have less control over what we hear, magazines are vanishing, and there are fewer and fewer barriers between the musicians and their fans. The fans drive the underground more than they ever did. I see nothing wrong with that at all.
"Joy of the hunt" is not a valid reason to wish for fewer bands, fewer albums, or fewer fans, that's sheer nostalgia and foolishness talking. There are probably as many quality bands in metal now as there were bands period back in the 80s, and claiming that somehow diminishes the genre is ridiculous.
I never said it was too easy to be a fan. If it weren't for things like the Internet, I probably wouldn't be into Metal the way I am today. I said it is too easy for someone to download an album, listen once and then trash it, most likely publicly on one Internet board or another. And that IS a problem in my opinion. It is also what I mean by being invested. If I spend hard-earned money and time searching for something I'm going to give it a fair shot before I chuck the baby out with the bath water.
Speaking of someone who has been through both times I have fonder memories of finding Helloween's Walls of Jericho in a record store that I had to take a train to get to than I do of surfing the web and finding Soulitude's Destroy All Humans for free download on the band's site. Both albums have their positive qualities but part of the "experience" of the Helloween album will always include the hunt that led to it. We still get posts on the Metal Crypt boards with excited news of some long sought after release someone found in the last place they ever thought they'd find it. No one posts "hey found Nuclear Assault's Game Over on a torrent site last night."
Arguing over whether music is better now or back in the 80s is pointless as there is plenty of good music today and plenty of shit from the 80s and I don't begrudge new fans (I was there once) or the number of fans. I don't wish for fewer bands, either. More is better. I call the 80s the Golden Age simply because I think it was more fun to BE a fan at that time.
Well, I think it is more fun to be a fan now. If you are talking about the experience of tracking down albums, then that is much more of a collector's impulse, and that has little to do with being a fan of music. That is about being a fan of albums and collecting albums - a related but different enthusiasm. I'm talking about being a fan of music, enjoying new bands and the works of old favorites, going to shows when you can, just being immersed in this subculture we call home and all its little crevices - the scenesters, the band feuds, the collectors, the vinyl snobs, nihilists, heshers, bikers, pagans - all of us wrapped up in our own little corners. Being a fan is more fun than ever, simply because the community is so much bigger and more connected.
Back in the 80s this site would not exist, and I would never have had the chance to be even an amateur-hour music critic or journalist. That kind of thing was reserved for people who lived in New York or LA. I think we forget what a desert the middle of the country was for fans back in those days - I mean an almost literal desert. It sucked. Now you don't have to have the advantage of location to be a part of the scene, to keep up with news, get albums, or interact with your favorite bands and musicians.
And so what if people download an album, trash it and move on? That's a shitty way to be, but there have always been people like that. Back in the day, a wrongheaded or dismissive review made much more of a dent, as there was no easy way to get other views, other opinions. This era requires more critical thought. You have to learn what a reviewer likes and doesn't like, what ways they can be trusted and not, and then have a grasp of what their opinion means. Or even easier - just go over to YouTube and listen for yourself. The modern age is making reviews for music almost irrelevant, as we do more to call attention to good stuff than to serve as a way to try before you buy - there are plenty of easier ways to do that now. There's so much stuff coming out that no reviewer could keep up anyway. We just try for the sake of the scene, and the community. Or at least I do, because I remember when there was nothing.
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