.Editorial - A Brief Run Through Power Metal (in 3 1/2 stages)

Release year: 2021
Reviewed by Ben

Me and Power Metal have had a long, torrid, erotically charged, and now slightly missive relationship. While not my first love when it comes to The Metal, (that would be good ol American Thrash) Power Metal did burn the brightest and got me the most involved out of everything I've listened to. This expose here is to try and point out what I consider the timeline of Power Metal:

1. The First Wave - The beginning, circa (1983 - 1989)

1.a - Going Underground aka wombat mode, circa (1990 - 1995)

2. The Second Wave - Resurgence, circa (1996 -2008)

3. The Commercialization - total tonal shift, precursor to modern Power Metal (circa 2010 - current)

First off, what IS Power Metal? Well, to this old and jaded reviewer, Power Metal is fast, aggressive, hard to play but not super techy, great singing, and melodically structured guitar solos, usually double harmony solos on top of that. It was kinda like a very close relative to thrash. Basically, since I came to Power Metal after my thrash dayz, Power Metal I got into had the same energy, the same intensity, but just with better singers and more melody. That's it! I wasn't looking for catchy hooks, happy sing along choruses, slow whole note power chords, or costumes to dress up in. Again, there's nothing wrong with that if that's your thing, but somehow these new aesthetics have overwhelmed and enveloped Power Metal and the landscape has definitely changed from what it once was. Think NYC pre-1998 to when it got all cleaned up and fancified.

So, let's go back, back, back, to the old days. Back to the time when metal genres weren't so black and white. Well, except for LA glam and other metal. Anyway, alot of people like to point to Dio, Rainbow or other early bands for the Power Metal blueprint. That's great and all, but to me, one of the very first songs that sounds exactly like something off Helloween's first EP (albeit slightly slower) but predates it is Back To Back by the band Pretty Maids from the 1984 album Red, Hot And Heavy. Now, Pretty Maids are monster mega hard rock stars in their own right, but for one solitary, yet defining song, they played sweet and exquisite Power Metal. Sorta like with Fast As A Shark helping to influence so many thrash bands even if it's the only song remotely like that in Accept's catalog. Now, the next several years would probably be called the golden years and it's just a smorgasbord of greatness. Both USA and European bands are pumping out first wave Power Metal and it is glorious. Fates Warning, Helloween, Omen, Jag Panzer, Running Wild, Scanner, Grave Digger, Blind Guardian I mean damn man, you can basically choose whoever you want. During this time frame Exodus, Anthrax, and Helloween toured the USA together, Sodom and Rage were constant collaborators at shows and on tours, and Celtic Frost was on the same label as Helloween and Scanner. There wasn't quite the linear separation between genres that exists today. Fast, aggressive, and melodic had rehearsal rooms right next to fast, aggressive, extreme and both worlds got along.

We all know what happened by the mid-nineties to heavy metal and there's no need to list the vast amount of "keeping up with the times" shittty wannabe grunge-lite albums that were made by metal bands trying to stay relevant. Everyone that wasn't part of the new sounds so to speak, from Poison to Dokken to Motley Crue to Helloween put out at least one horrid nineties album. Even thrash bands changed gears to more groove ish metal and some fared decent and some crashed and burned in a pretty second hand embarrassing kind of way. American Power Metal was essentially all but exterminated. Small pockets sprung up across the world though such as Angra coming out of Brazil with Angel's Cry in 1993. Workhorse bands such as Blind Guardian and Gamma Ray released classic albums in 1995. Helloween bounced back after a huge "experimental" blunder called Chameleon and the late nineties rejuvenated them and brought them back to life. Virgin Steele put out some very complex concept albums in this time frame with their new "barbaric romanticism" spin on US Power Metal. But, by and large, there weren't many new bands releasing debut albums from 1993 - 1995 that harkened back to the traditional, pre-grunge sounds. This would change pretty quickly in 1997.

Looking back at the timeframe now, while alot of people "blamed" Hammerfall for the Power Metal resurgence that began in 1997 with their debut Glory To The Brave, I counter that 1997 was a landmark year in general and Hammerfall represented one of the most commercially successful aspects. So successful in fact that a Power Metal parody band lifted the Hammerfall mascot from the album art and made him the singer of their own band. Whose name is also prominently made up of "hammer." And they are one of the most popular bands in the genre today. First off in 1997, Stratovarius changed the sound of Finnish Power Metal forever with their record Visions. And while Nightwish and Children Of Bodom had debuts that came out in 1997, they would undergo themselves a major sound renovation due to the influence of Visions and then go on to be highly influential in their own right. Little did Rhapsody know that they'd be A. so influential to the super thematic and sometimes cringey aspects of Power Metal and B. sued by Best Buy when they released their own debut in 1997. To be fair though, alot of the flack for their super nerd shit comes from that awful narrator they used for the first four or five albums. And alot of other things, but I'm trying to be nice here. Rhapsody also started the trend of using a drum machine and pretending to now know what you're talking about when asked about it. But at least they were fast. Edguy also released a fairly raw debut album, and singer Tobias Sammet would eventually go on to give the world Avantasia which brought Michael Kiske back to metal if anything.

The years from 1997 - 2008 were really something. Hell, this very website popped up in 2000 and back then its extreme lean towards melodic metal made me a reader for a few months before I became a contributor. If you can remember, there were exactly zero Power Metallish tours that took place in the USA from like, ever until 2004. The very first lengthy, Power Metal esque tour the US saw was in 2004 with Iced Earth, Evergrey, and Children Of Bodom. Before this you had little opening slots for bands such as Hammerfall touring with Death or Nevermore playing some show somewhere. The Prog Power USA festival was a major turning point as well in the US. The first several Prog Powers had first time North American performances by so many legends. While Prog Power III (my first, yay!) had Gamma Ray, Blind Guardian, Edguy, Angra, Threshold, Silent Force, Devin Townsend and more, Prog Power II had fucking Angel Dust, Steel Prophet, Balance Of Power (with Lance King), and Ark. *sigh* Keep in mind that many of the bands performing at the fest did not have US distribution for their albums at the time. When they came to Atlanta and people were asking them to sign shitloads of albums that have not been issued in the country, they were amazed. Slowly, labels like Century Media and Nuclear Blast began reissuing back catalogs. When A Night At The Opera was released in 2002, the only Blind Guardian albums you could get in the US were Tales From Twilight World, Imaginations From The Other Side, Nightfall In Middle Earth, and then A Night At The Opera and its pre-release single. It wasn't until after Prog Power III and the band's first US tour that their back catalog became available as non imports. While they avoided Texas, other bands such as Nightwish and Kamelot came over to the US on the backs of their breakout albums, Once and The Black Halo. By 2009, a Power Metal tour was as normal as a shitty local show.

As is the case when one gets older, I probably (no shit) have a preference for the things I discovered as a younger person but at least I'm aware of that. That is to say, that in my opinion, Power Metal has undergone a significant change in the past ten years, which actually isn't surprising since it's been kicking around for a very long time now. I believe that two huge factors have contributed to the change in sound in Power Metal these days. The first one is simply the changing times and technology and the music industry in general. Home studios, home recording, the utilization of programmed drums as the norm, so many first timers acting as producers, these things have changed the process of making and selling albums. For one, I much prefer the sound of real drums, so right away that's an issue that irks me with the majority of current Power Metal. When someone releases a "professional" album where the drums are literally the realistic sound engine in Guitar Pro 5, I'm not too pleased. Speaking of Guitar Pro, it's video game cousin Guitar Hero launched DragonForce in the US. In 2006, many people's first impression of Power Metal came from DragonForce and their Guitar Hero song. It's so well known, you can just call it that, their Guitar Hero song and people know instantly what you're talking about. Now, I don't have anything against the band or any real bad things to say about them, but it should be noted that most people's first impressions of a genre were based off something that was purposefully so over the top it practically was a parody. But I don't think most first timers realized this and they believed that the super cliched lyrics, the extremely indulgent solos, and the super happy feel were played dead serious. That this is how an entire musical genre sounds like and not just a very niche band. For reals, before the Guitar Hero song, DragonForce and their first two albums were extremely niche.

The other aspect that has changed the sound of Power Metal has been the large influence from Finland and Sweden to this genre. These two countries have always been hugely influential to the genre and any trends that go on in these two countries when it comes to Power Metal are scrutinized. In 2006 the seed was planted when Lordi won the Eurovision song contest. Lordi look crazier than GWAR but are much, much more tame. They sound like KISS despite looking like something from a goregrind album cover. When a band like Lordi got thrust (ugh) into the spotlight like that, they spawned many many imitators in both the visual sector and the simple, commercial, sing along music. In Finland, bands like Nightwish became bigger than Lady GaGa and their neo folk melodies became intertwined with Finnish music being exported.

The other big country that impacted Power Metal here is Sweden although not in the way you might think. It is fairly common knowledge that Swedish songwriters have been pumping out hits for American pop music for the past ten plus years. Stretching back even to Katy Perry's breakout album from 2008 to now with Ava Max, Swedes have been providing us with our pop music. I believe that alot of "behind the scenes" things went on here, and people in the industry are aware of talent and others in the industry that those not involved have no idea about. Again, everyone wants to be a bit more successful this week than last week and these pop melodies and sensibilities began to creep into Power Metal. Why Power Metal? Over the years Power Metal began to embrace some very commercial aspects. Topical modern pop rockers Beast In Black are an ideal example of this commercialized aspect of current Power Metal. When Power Metal is essentially the same as pop music in places like Finland and Sweden and it takes up the same amount of press as Bradley Cooper or Blake Shelton and Gwen Stefani do in the US, those countries export those sounds outwards. And just like fashionistas devouring the new trends from the established designers, fans devour the new trends from the established Power Metal country strongholds. In embracing the commercialization of the metal, emphasis has shifted from music that is fast and aggressive, yet melodic, to mid tempo at best financially driven riff rock that lacks any kind of aggression at all. Today more than ever before it's more common than not to have very obviously planned wardrobe choices. Now, looking not like shit isn't a sin However,as well as Power Metal having seemingly aligned itself with a very thematic presentation, it has also become a sea of pseudo-intellectualism. While not quite as insufferable as hardcore Prog / Tech fans, many Power Metal fans pride themselves on the big brain energy they think they emanates from showing someone some dickhead on guitar wanking away in the harmonic minor / major scale while babbling on about "classical influences." Woo hoo. Something like Blind Guardian circa 1992 would not even be considered in the genre these days because they play fast and aggressive, and wear t shirts and jeans, sports jerseys and shorts. I guess this is what it is today because for the life of me, it's hard to find fast and aggressive Power Metal. The most aggressive Power Metal was in the first wave when it was close to thrash. The second wave lost some of that edge but didn't abandon it completely. Nowadays, Power Metal is more aligned with Pop music, mainly in European countries, and as such, there isn't any aggression because aggression does not = sales, and speed is down tremendously because that way the music is easier to digest and be palatable to more listeners.

Of course that isn't to say that there are zero new bands that are attracted to the old school sound of Power Metal, but they are definitely in the minority now. At least I can be honest with myself and admit that a large part of me not being a fan of current Power Metal comes from the way most music is made today in general. When I can find someone in 2021 that still uses real drums, I get so excited. That can't be blamed on any specific genre however to deny that there is a huge difference between say, GloryHammer and Tales From Twilight World would be pretty dense. But one can also say that there is also quite difference between say Arrows Fly from Edguy and The Apparition by Fates Warning. Anyways, that's it.

Killing Songs :
Ben quoted
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