Welcome, one and all, to a rare musical post on my part. I actually have a rather extensive CD collection, mostly comprising of bands that very few people I meet have ever heard of. The reason I rarely post about music is that … well … it just hasn’t occurred to me. To a degree, I guess that it’s difficult to find a focal point for me to write about in terms of the overall topic. You see, I tend to like most genres of music. In fact, there are very few that I’ve found where I’m yet to find a single track that I like. That being said, one particular subgenre of music has been gloriously enduring in my heart though: power metal.
If you’re not sure what power metal is, then I’d say that the Wikipedia definitions is pretty good:
‘Power Metal is a subgenre of heavy metal combining characteristics of traditional metal with speed metal, often within symphonic context. Generally, power metal is characterized by a faster, lighter and more uplifting sound, in contrast with the heaviness and dissonance prevalent for example in extreme metal.’
So, these days, what we can boil it down to is a number of recurring musical themes:
- Power Metal from a base musical standpoint tends to be very happy sounding in most cases. We’re talking soaring vocals, catchy choruses, and a ix of bouncy and heroic melodies. There are also a lot of rapid fire note deliveries on guitar, bass and keys.
- Lyrical content varies, but often encompasses fantasy themes such as dragons, warriors and heroic sacrifices. Hope also plays a major role, as does comradery. This is a generalisation though, and there are plenty of bands that focus on other themes, such Dragon Force and their video game inspired shenanigans or Kamelot and their darker opuses.
- The vocals are generally quite clean. Powerful, but thoroughly understandable. There are no cookie monsters here! Well, bar a few exceptions.
In my experience, most people still seem to equate heavy metal with a mix of growling, screaming and tuneless noise. That being the case, power metal is actually quite a good one to pull out if you’re ever frustrated with the idea that all metal sounds like The Berzerker and their ilk. But where did it come from? Well, let’s go back in time and have a look.
Though not itself an actual recognised subgenre until the mid-1980’s, power metal owes a lot to some older acts. The genre has roots in Ronnie James Dio’s run with Rainbow in the 1970’s. The high-pitched vocals and the medievally themed lyrical content certainly became mainstays for the bands that followed. Throw in the simply catchiness of Iron Maiden’s early 1980’s work and the neo-classic guitar stylings of Yngie Malmsteen and you suddenly have the ingredients for the what was coming.
So, here’s where things reach a fork in the road. Power Metal, even at its conception, was split into two different categories: American and European, each of which took a slightly different approach to the emerging subgenre. Let’s look at each of these in turn.
American Power Metal was born from traditional metal and NWOBHM (New Wave of British Heavy Metal). It’s fast, energetic, has more of a focus on riffs than its European cousin, and uses less keys as a general rule. The vocals tend to be up in the operatic range, and the sing-a-long quality is high. For examples of the early pioneers in the USA, I’d say to look to:
As the years went on though, US Power Metal started to evolve. These days, it’s not uncommon to see the genre littered with some Prog Metal influences. It’s still just as catchy, of course, and the roots remains the same What we have is a much more varied though:
European Power Metal took its cues from NWOBHM and Speed Metal, but with a focus on presenting lyrically uplifting and positive themes. As the different bands found their feet, keys became prevalent and both vocal and instrumental overdubs started to become commonplace. Historically speaking, it is generally accepted that the first true European Power Metal albums were ‘The Keeper of the Seven Keys Part I & II’ by Helloween, though plenty of different acts made their names around the same area. If we’re looking at the early successes, I’d point to:
Whereas the US scene is perhaps less prevalent now, the subgenre continues to grow in Europe with different bands adding in different elements. For example, Edguy are just plain fun, Hammerfall take things in a far more simplified way, and Rage add in some gruffness:
But what of the current state of the genre? Even with bands like Kamelot and Nightwish gaining some more mainstream success, they are both still bands that have been around a fair while. Are there any newer bands taking up the mantle? Well, yes there are: First, we have Sabaton, a Swedish band that focus their lyrics on real-life war conflicts. Then there’s the previously mentioned UK act, Dragon Force. And of course, there’s the recently formed Twilight Force, as well as both Serenity and Heavenly.
Yes, the genre is in good hands moving forward! And if the newer breed doesn’t suit you, that’s OK, because the old guard are still hanging around and putting out pretty much the same stuff that they always have.
So, there you have it. I hope you’ve enjoyed this journey through my most favourite of musical subgenres! But what about yourselves? Are you power metal fans? Do you have a favourite obscure subgenre? Let me know below.