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Heavy metal (often referred to simply as metal) is a genre of rock music that developed in the late 1960s and early 1970s, largely in the United Kingdom and in the United States. With roots in blues rock and psychedelic rock, the bands that created heavy metal developed a thick, massive sound, characterized by highly amplified distortion, extended guitar solos, emphatic beats, and overall loudness. Heavy metal lyrics and performance styles are generally associated with masculinity and machismo.

The first heavy metal bands such as Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath and Deep Purple attracted large audiences, though they were often critically reviled, a status common throughout the history of the genre. In the mid-1970s Judas Priest helped spur the genre's evolution by discarding much of its blues influence; Motörhead introduced a punk rock sensibility and an increasing emphasis on speed. Bands in the New Wave of British Heavy Metal such as Iron Maiden followed in a similar vein. Before the end of the decade, heavy metal fans became known as "metalheads" or "headbangers".

During the 1980s, glam metal became a commercial force with groups like Mötley Crüe and Poison. Underground scenes produced an array of more extreme, aggressive styles: thrash metal broke into the mainstream with bands such as Metallica, Megadeth, Slayer, and Anthrax, while other styles of the most extreme subgenres of metal like death metal and black metal remain subcultural phenomena. Since the mid-1990s, popular styles such as nu metal, which often incorporates elements of grunge and hip hop; and metalcore, which blends extreme metal with hardcore punk, have further expanded the definition of the genre.

Characteristics

Heavy metal is traditionally characterized by loud distorted guitars, emphatic rhythms, dense bass-and-drum sound, and vigorous vocals. Metal subgenres variously emphasize, alter, or omit one or more of these attributes. New York Times critic Jon Pareles writes, "In the taxonomy of popular music, heavy metal is a major subspecies of hard-rock—the breed with less syncopation, less blues, more showmanship and more brute force." The typical band lineup includes a drummer, a bassist, a rhythm guitarist, a lead guitarist, and a singer, who may or may not be an instrumentalist. Keyboard instruments are sometimes used to enhance the fullness of the sound.

The electric guitar and the sonic power that it projects through amplification has historically been the key element in heavy metal. The lead role of the guitar in heavy metal often collides with the traditional "frontman" or bandleader role of the vocalist, creating a musical tension as the two "contend for dominance" in a spirit of "affectionate rivalry". Heavy metal "demands the subordination of the voice" to the overall sound of the band. Reflecting metal's roots in the 1960s counterculture, an "explicit display of emotion" is required from the vocals as a sign of authenticity.

Critic Simon Frith claims that the metal singer's "tone of voice" is more important than the lyrics. Metal vocals vary widely in style, from the multioctave, theatrical approach of Judas Priest's Rob Halford and Iron Maiden's Bruce Dickinson, to the gruff style of Motörhead's Lemmy and Metallica's James Hetfield, to the growling of many death metal performers, and to the harsh screams of black metal.

The prominent role of the bass is also key to the metal sound, and the interplay of bass and guitar is a central element. The bass guitar provides the low-end sound crucial to making the music "heavy". Metal basslines vary widely in complexity, from holding down a low pedal point as a foundation to doubling complex riffs and licks along with the lead and/or rhythm guitars. Some bands feature the bass as a lead instrument, an approach popularized by Metallica's Cliff Burton in the early 1980s.

The essence of metal drumming is creating a loud, constant beat for the band using the "trifecta of speed, power, and precision". Metal drumming "requires an exceptional amount of endurance", and drummers have to develop "considerable speed, coordination, and dexterity...to play the intricate patterns" used in metal. A characteristic metal drumming technique is the cymbal choke, which consists of striking a cymbal and then immediately silencing it by grabbing it with the other hand (or, in some cases, the same striking hand), producing a burst of sound. The metal drum setup is generally much larger than those employed in other forms of rock music.

In live performance, loudness—an "onslaught of sound," in sociologist Deena Weinstein's description—is considered vital. In his book Metalheads, psychologist Jeffrey Arnett refers to heavy metal concerts as "the sensory equivalent of war." Following the lead set by Jimi Hendrix, Cream and The Who, early heavy metal acts such as Blue Cheer set new benchmarks for volume. As Blue Cheer's Dick Peterson put it, "All we knew was we wanted more power." A 1977 review of a Motörhead concert noted how "excessive volume in particular figured into the band’s impact." Weinstein makes the case that in the same way that melody is the main element of pop and rhythm is the main focus of house music, powerful sound, timbre, and volume are the key elements of metal. She argues that the loudness is designed to "sweep the listener into the sound" and to provide a "shot of youthful vitality."

Lyrical themes

Black Sabbath and the many metal bands they inspired have concentrated lyrically "on dark and depressing subject matter to an extent hitherto unprecedented in any form of pop music," according to scholars David Hatch and Stephen Millward. They take as an example Sabbath's second album Paranoid (1970), which "included songs dealing with personal trauma—'Paranoid' and 'Fairies Wear Boots' (which described the unsavoury side effects of drug-taking) —as well as those confronting wider issues, such as the self-explanatory 'War Pigs' and 'Hand of Doom.'"

Nuclear annihilation was addressed in later metal songs such as Black Sabbath's "Electric Funeral", Iron Maiden's "2 Minutes to Midnight", Ozzy Osbourne's "Killer of Giants", Megadeth's "Rust in Peace... Polaris", and Metallica's "Fight Fire with Fire". Death is a predominant theme in heavy metal, routinely featuring in the lyrics of bands as otherwise widely different as Slayer and W.A.S.P. The more extreme forms of death metal and grindcore tend to have aggressive and gory lyrics.

Deriving from the genre's roots in blues music, sex is another important topic—a thread running from Led Zeppelin's suggestive lyrics to the more explicit references of glam and nu metal bands.[33] Romantic tragedy is a standard theme of gothic and doom metal, as well as of nu metal, where teenage angst is another central topic. Heavy metal songs often feature outlandish, fantasy-inspired lyrics, lending them an escapist quality. Iron Maiden's songs, for instance, were frequently inspired by mythology, fiction, and poetry, such as Iron Maiden's "Rime of the Ancient Mariner", based on the Samuel Taylor Coleridge poem.

Led Zeppelin lyrics often reference Lord of the Rings as well as other mythology and folklore, such as in the songs "The Battle of Evermore", "Immigrant Song", "Ramble On", "No Quarter", and "Achilles Last Stand". Other examples include Black Sabbath's "The Wizard", Megadeth's "The Conjuring" and "Five Magics", and Judas Priest's "Dreamer Deceiver". Since the 1980s, with the rise of thrash metal and songs such as Metallica's "...And Justice for All" and Megadeth's "Peace Sells", more metal lyrics have included sociopolitical commentary. Genres such as melodic death metal, progressive metal, and black metal often explore philosophical themes.

The thematic content of heavy metal has long been a target of criticism. According to Jon Pareles, "Heavy metal's main subject matter is simple and virtually universal. With grunts, moans and subliterary lyrics, it celebrates...a party without limits.... [T]he bulk of the music is stylized and formulaic." Music critics have often deemed metal lyrics juvenile and banal, and others have objected to what they see as advocacy of misogyny and the occult. During the 1980s, the Parents Music Resource Center petitioned the U.S. Congress to regulate the popular music industry due to what the group asserted were objectionable lyrics, particularly those in heavy metal songs.

In 1990, Judas Priest was sued in American court by the parents of two young men who had shot themselves five years earlier, allegedly after hearing the subliminal statement "do it" in a Priest song. While the case attracted a great deal of media attention, it was ultimately dismissed. In some predominantly Muslim countries, heavy metal has been officially denounced as a threat to traditional values. In countries such as Morocco, Egypt, Lebanon, and Malaysia, there have been incidents of heavy metal musicians and fans being arrested and incarcerated.

Image and fashion

For certain artists and bands, visual imagery plays a large role in heavy metal. In addition to its sound and lyrics, a heavy metal band's "image" is expressed in album sleeve art, logos, stage sets, clothing, and music videos. Some heavy metal acts such as Alice Cooper, Kiss, Lordi and Gwar have outrageous performance personas and stage shows.

Down-the-back long hair, according to Weinstein, is the "most crucial distinguishing feature of metal fashion." Originally adopted from the hippie subculture, by the 1980s and 1990s heavy metal hair "symbolised the hate, angst and disenchantment of a generation that seemingly never felt at home," according to journalist Nader Rahman. Long hair gave members of the metal community "the power they needed to rebel against nothing in general."

The classic uniform of heavy metal fans consists of "blue jeans, black T-shirts, boots and black leather or jeans jackets.... T-shirts are generally emblazoned with the logos or other visual representations of favorite metal bands." Metal fans also "appropriated elements from the S&M community (chains, metal studs, skulls, leather and crosses)." In the 1980s, a range of sources, from punk and goth music to horror films, influenced metal fashion. Many metal performers of the 1970s and 1980s used radically shaped and brightly colored instruments to enhance their stage appearance.

Fashion and personal style was especially important for glam metal bands of the era. Performers typically wore long, dyed, hairspray-teased hair (hence the nickname, "hair metal"); makeup such as lipstick and eyeliner; gaudy clothing, including leopard-skin-printed shirts or vests and tight denim, leather, or spandex pants; and accessories such as headbands and jewelry. Pioneered by the heavy metal act X Japan in the late 1980s, bands in the Japanese movement known as visual kei—which includes many nonmetal groups—emphasize elaborate costumes, hair, and makeup.

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