Non-extreme, traditional heavy metal is a curious beast in that it relies on a mix of accessible musicality and recognizable vocal-lyrical patterns to communicate feeling. But even while doing so, it doesn’t quite degenerate into what is commonly thought of as pop music; it might showcase all the surface signs of conventional verse-chorus rock, it might place obvious hooks at strategic intervals, but through it all some indefinable thing carries it through to a higher plane than simple good-time music. There is ambition here, and an innocent, burning desire to shape a better world. This isn’t just empty idealism; the words to these songs bear this out amply but even if they didn’t, hear the music with eyes closed and see if it doesn’t stir something vital inside.
Queensryche – Revolution Calling
Got no love for politicians
Or that crazy scene in D.C.
It’s just a power mad town
But the time is ripe for changes
There’s a growing feeling
That taking a chance on a new kind of vision is due
Operation: Mindcrime is as pertinent today as it was twenty-five years ago and perhaps it is destined to stay so forever. It’s a depressing thought and the concept album itself is a tragic drama, but it begins on one of the more vehement notes in heavy metal, sure to sweep along disenchanted listeners in its wake. The star of this timeless song is of course Geoff Tate who delivers one of the most passionate vocal performances in metal/rock. Incredibly fun to sing and ride along to, Revolution Calling is a stone cold classic that hasn’t aged a day.
Virgin Steele – Crown Of Glory
Bury me beside the endless sea
Raise my ashes to the wind
Remember things I conquered in my time
Quench my funeral pyre with wine
Virgin Steele were in the middle of one of the hottest, most creative streaks of any heavy metal band in the 90s when they released the second Marriage Of Heaven And Hell album. David Defeis’ lion’s roar of a voice and penchant for classically-inspired arrangements had not yet morphed into self-deluded obsession, making for an instantly accessible but always tasteful record. The opening lines to this song ostensibly capture the warrior’s longing to preserve his legacy but speak to an unconscious concern in us all that regards the past and the present with one eye fixed on posterity’s judgment.
Accept – Balls To The Wall
Being overplayed has not diluted the potency of Accept‘s signature track, a true working-class heavy metal anthem if there ever was one. One of the most classic riffs in all heavy music, styled after ACDC‘s crunch, is led through the trials of the little man’s existence in Udo Dirkschneider’s broken English. The fascinating thing about Balls To The Wall is how the simplest of premises evolves to something approaching a very real and epic state of grandeur.
Running Wild – Uaschitschun
I’m riding free
Riding free with the wind
Free as an eagle
Proud as a king
Vaguely oriental-sounding gong chords announce this most special of heavy metal songs, relating the perspective of one among the conquered Native American tribes. Exhilarating and liberating in equal measure with a vocal performance that balances masterfully between a wistful melancholy and optimism, Uaschitschun is heavy metal’s eternal ode to the unbroken human spirit.
Manilla Road – Road Of Kings
What do you see inside your mind?
Is it your dreams or just the torment of life?
Break away from your anxieties today
Don’t ever let them drag you down
Manilla Road have kept going on relentlessly but they have not come close to equaling the sheer immediacy and philosophical content of their 80s music. The band’s predominant theme during this time was that of metal as a conduit to dream beyond the constraints imposed by the cynically designed tediousness of modern life.
Uriah Heep – Time To Live
Time To Live is driving proto-metal from a band that is rarely counted among the shaping forces of the genre. Mick Box’s simple riffs and solos propel this song with an irrepressible will while the late David Byron convinces us of the power of doing the right thing, however dire the consequences. Time To Kill drips with an old attitude impossible to find today.
Omen – Don’t Fear The Night
Only a fool would try what you have done
Stood eye to eye while under the gun
On and on you run for your life
All of your fears are they only in your mind
Learn to stand learn to fight
You know the truth you’ve got the right
Learn to stand learn to fight
Speak the truth don’t fear the night
Poetic and evocative, Don’t Fear The Night is a truly great metal song that underlines all of what it means to “be metal”. Omen‘s arsenal was quite blatantly based on the galloping techniques devised by Iron Maiden but JD Kimball’s immensely physical voice injected these songs with an unparalleled passion and masculinity. Don’t Fear the Night asks us to confront our deepest beliefs and motives, to challenge them ceaselessly, and to stand by our convictions if they pass muster even in the face of ridicule and rejection.
Cirith Ungol – I’m Alive
I lost my heart, I lost my soul
By every hand betrayed
But I’ve still got strength, I’ve still got life
And that will never change
Cirith Ungol were one of the most idiosyncratic heavy metal bands from the old guard, seemingly trapped in limbo between the passing of generations. Their strangeness, however, was entirely becoming of these musicians’ personalities and could have only materialized in the specific pocket of time that Cirith Ungol occupied. To hear I’m Alive today is a positive experience to be sure for it quite literally throbs with an organic vivacity incomparable in heavy metal.
Helloween – Ride The Sky
Send me a sign, wanna leave it all behind
I’ll be leaving the hands of doom
Rearrange the master plan, take the future in my hands
To be free and not trapped anymore
Ride the sky, Ride the sky!
Give me wings to fly, ride the sky!
Power metal as a distinct genre may have been ushered along by the likes of Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, and Jag Panzer, but Walls Of Jericho stands as the definitive birth of this strain of heavy metal. Joyous is the only way to describe Ride The Sky; the joy of being young and alive, and having the strength, born of the accompanying naivete, to reimagine the world.
Riot – Bloodstreets
This task must be done – I will not run
I will not lay me down to die
This war I will win, so let it begin
Deep in my heart is a burning fire…
I can’t let it go
Alone in the night I know I must fight for my home
The more time one spends hearing the underrated Riot, the more patently evident Mark Reale’s freakish control over musicality, melodicity, and thematic development becomes. Bloodstreets is a nostalgic rallying call for passionate metalheads and never more apt than in a time when the very definition of metal is assaulted from all directions.
Judas Priest – Stained Class
Transfixed at deliverance, is this all there is?
Faithless continuum, into the abyss
Fierce is my conviction, absolute my belief
I spit at you apathy and seducer deceit
Hearing Stained Class and reading the above lyrics should be all the ammunition required to counter the “it’s just music, bro! it’s all metal!” crowd.
Manowar – Battle Hymn
By moonlight we ride
Ten thousands side by side
With swords drawn held high
Our whips and armour shine
Manowar are the ultimate Hipster Litmus Test band. Their output may have suffered greatly once the initial impetus ran out but there is no doubting the quality of their early catalog. Battle Hymn is one of the first epics penned by the band and contains none of the irony in which this band is held by smarmy hipsters. Their over-the-top image is an amplified metaphor for timeless values; that it is not to be taken literally seems lost on their detractors.