What Is This Speed Metal You Speak Of?
What is this speed metal you speak of
In a metal scene overloaded with genres, one genre appears to have been forgotten to the sands of time. This is speed metal, a genre with murky origins in the early 1980s.
One reason Speed metal may be forgotten is that very often the Metal community is not quite sure how to define Speed metal. In my travels I have seen everything from AC/DC and Motörhead to Iron Maiden and Accept to more traditional ones like Helloween, Running Wild and Grave Digger listed as speed metal.
The problem is the defining features of speed metal are not straight forward unlike, say, death metal or symphonic black metal. And in some ways the genre's scope is extremely narrow. Slight adjustments to the sound can turn a band from speed metal to thrash metal or power metal or even just plain old heavy metal.
And the other problem is that some of the main originators of the genre are better known for helping invent power metal (Helloween) or were known for their more traditional heavy metal output ala Accept. And in many instances there is overlap between thrash and speed metal bands. In fact Anthrax's first album could be argued to better fit into the speed metal category than thrash metal.
And the other spanner in the speed metal works is the adoption of thrash metal as the default heavy metal genre from the mid-1980s onwards. Indeed speed metal's heyday was very short and it was completely overshadowed by thrash. In some ways it was an intermediate genre between heavy metal and thrash metal.
The concrete facts about speed metal are that it originates in the early 1980s and its primary defining feature is speed. This isn't speed as in grindcore levels of blast beat driven insanity but rather faster versions of late 1970s and early 1980s heavy metal.
The other key thing is that a lot of early speed metal came in the form of individual songs found on otherwise traditional or NWOBHM albums. There was no definitive speed metal album that cemented the genre. There was no Kill Em All or Scream Bloody Gore or Death Crush to state "This is speed metal" in 1978-83. Indeed it wasn't until 1983 that speed metal had a more definitive album in the form of Exciter's Heavy Metal Maniac and even that could be argued to be a thrash metal album!
Instead established heavy metal bands simply played fast songs. Motörhead at times played very fast even though their sound was more rooted in hard rock and punk than heavy metal. Judas Priest had songs like "Exciter" or later "Screaming For Vengeance" that ramped up the pace.
The New Wave Of British Heavy Metal featured many bands that either wrote songs that could be described as speed metal (e.g. Iron Maiden's "Sanctuary" or Saxon's "Heavy Metal Thunder") or the punky Venom who simply played fast most of the time.
Genre definition wasn't so important in these days either. The New Wave Of British Heavy Metal was not a genre but rather a geographically defined scene similar to development of the Seattle "Grunge" scene in the late 1980s. NWOBHM had bands that were fast ala Venom or Iron Maiden, more traditional bands ala Diamond Head, and slower bands ala Witchfinder General. Very often bands called themselves something just to try to set themselves apart - hence Metallica were power metal, Venom and Running Wild were black metal etc.
One of the first uses of the death metal moniker was a 1984 split album featuring Helloween, Running Wild, Hellhammer and Dark Avenger! Even Mille from Kreator said they used the thrash metal tag to differentiate themselves from the glammier heavy metal bands originating out of the United States. Hence the genre tags were somewhat useless until the late-1980s when the genres started becoming more solidly defined.
A great example of the somewhat confused relationship between thrash and speed was Metal Hammer's 1986 video, US Speed Metal Attack. This video featured Anthrax, Overkill and Agent Steel.
In any case, there was an obvious speed arms race, in which new bands were trying to play faster than their predecessors. Genre titles mattered little as long as you were faster and nastier than the last guys. Whilst speed metal bands were common enough globally, the genre's main developments occurred in Germany and North America.
Born in the USA…and Canada?!?
Both the USA and Canada had reasonably sized Speed metal band scenes. Indeed, some of the most notable thrash acts of the era started off playing what one could term Speed metal. A great example is Anthrax's Fistful of Metal.
However, the North American speed metal bands started their journey a lot earlier than the proto-thrash titans. The journey also started in Canada and not the USA.
Toronto's Anvil played fast and heavy but were just as happy playing slow monsters ala "Metal On Metal."
But Canada's great contribution to speed (and thrash) metal was Ottawa's Exciter. Named after a Judas Priest song, Exciter were one of the fastest bands of the earlier 1980s. Formed in 1978 as Hell Razor, and renamed in 1980 to Exciter, the band released the furious Heavy Metal Maniac in 1983. This album was not only the seminal speed metal album but also went on to influence the related thrash metal scene. Indeed drummer-vocalist Dan Beehler's vocals come across far more thrashier than even many of the later thrash vocalists.
In the United States established bands such as Virgin Steele also got faster, such as on 1983's Guardians of the Flame and, influenced by their northern neighbors, the American speed arms race started.
By 1983 the scene was in full swing with a whole range of faster bands springing throughout the US: Anthrax, Overkill, Agent Steel, Jag Panzer, Helstar as well as the pioneers of thrash like Slayer and Metallica. Many of these are semi-forgotten but nonetheless produced some fine examples of speed metal such as Jag Panzer's Ample Destruction, Helstar's Burning Star as well as Metal Church's excellent self titled and The Dark albums which crossed over into thrash metal territory at times.
It wasn't until 1987 that the United States produced its own answer to Walls of Jericho in the from of Agent Steel's 1987 album Unstoppable Force.
However, like in Germany, developments in thrash metal as well as a bubbling death metal scene meant that by 1986 speed metal was becoming obsolete. This did not stop confused rock journalists from referring to thrash metal bands as speed metal or vice versa though. Some thrash bands such as Flotsam & Jetsam retained speed metal leanings with their more traditional vocal styles.
Speed metal ist gut, ja?
Not surprisingly, it seems the Germans embraced speed metal with gusto. This was not surprising as a well established German heavy metal band, Accept, had already been toying with faster songs for a bit. This included the bizarrely titled "Fast As A Shark" from 1982's Reckless and Wild.
Other established bands also started getting faster and more aggressive, like Running Wild and Rage. Running Wild formed in 1976 but it was not until 1984 that they released the speed metal album Gates to Purgatory. In the same year Grave Digger released Heavy Metal Breakdown.
The peak of German speed metal came in the mid-1980s with newcomers Helloween releasing the Helloween extended play in 1984 and following it up with the seminal Walls of Jericho in 1985. 1985 also saw Rage release Prayers of Steel, albeit as Avenger.
Blind Guardian was around in this period as Lucifer's Heritage. As Blind Guardian they released the unoriginal yet fun Battalions of Fear in 1988 and continued to play speed metal right up to and including Tales of the Twilight World in 1990 at which point they started incorporating more power metal elements.
However, like in the USA, speed metal was taken over by thrash metal bands of varying degrees of heaviness. A lot of speed metal bands or pioneers like Helloween, Blind Guardian and Kai Hansen's new Gamma Ray developed the genre further into power metal which layered speed metal with more melody and symphonic components. A strange exception was Angel Dust, whose second album To Dust You Will Decay switched from pure thrash to incorporate both speed and power metal components.
German speed metal emerged a lot more unscathed from the thrash revolution of the 1980s and the collapse of commercial metal in the 1990s than the USA. Bands such as Running Wild and the reformed Grave Digger have kept the speed metal flag flying whilst Accept have put out some furious slabs of speed metal since reforming for 2010s' Blood of the Nations.
Furthermore, German speed metal can be argued to provide the blueprint for speed metal. Albums such as Walls of Jericho, Gates To Purgatory and Heavy Metal Breakdown provide a far more defined version of speed metal than North American bands which were often far more fluid in terms of adherence to genre style "rules." Not surprising, given the German penchant for precision engineering!
Differences between speed and thrash metal
Whilst thrash is associated with speed, it differentiates from speed metal in a number of significant ways. Most obvious is vocal style. Thrash metal vocalists are often harsher and influenced by hardcore punk, whereas speed metal vocalists utilize traditional, higher pitched clean vocals. Thrash bands also often have a far grittier and denser sound.
Speed metal was also more likely to incorporate traditional heavy metal structures, and relied less on the rhythmic riffs of thrash metal.
To put it simply, speed metal sounds more like heavy metal than thrash metal.
Differences between speed and power metal
And whilst speed metal arguably laid the foundations for power metal, there are a number of major differences here. Power metal tends to be more melodic and focuses on multilayering of tracks, whilst speed metal is more straightforward and simplistic.
Speed metal is generally rawer and "less clean" than power metal. The best example of these differences can be seen in the early evolution of well known German metallers, Helloween.
Their first two releases, Walls of Jericho and Helloween, are the epitome of speed metal. They are fast, but sound far less dense than contemporary thrash acts such as Metallica or Slayer, and with traditional heavy metal, "near-operatic," vocal styles.
The shift to power metal came with the two Keeper of the Seven Keys albums. Speed metal elements are present but the focus is on melody. The guitars are far more layered with lots of emphasis on melody and leads and less emphasis on rhythm guitar and riffs. The vocals are also higher and cleaner than on previous albums (obviously a change in vocalists helped).
Finally, the overall power metal sound is far cleaner and less frantic and gritty than speed metal. It can sometimes get very confusing, as many power metal bands are still quite fast.
Differences between speed and heavy metal
Erm, speed metal is faster than heavy metal?
The faster pace does require certain modification to the traditional heavy metal sound. Guitar riffs are often more rhythmic, without as many obvious hooks, and drummers are more willing to use double kick techniques to maintain speed.
Of course these differences often fall down as traditional heavy metal bands occasionally get faster or speed metal bands slow down.
Playing the devil's advocate
Of course, one could argue there is no such thing as speed metal. This is a perfectly acceptable viewpoint when one takes into account the circumstances at the time of its development.
As already stated, speed metal never really seems to have matured properly. A lot of the original speed metal was either traditional heavy metal bands playing faster or bands that later developed into full fledged thrash or power metal bands.
However, taking speed metal out of the occasion makes it difficult to classify other forms of metal. For example, where does heavy metal become thrash metal or power metal?
The biggest problem is that of power metal. Calling Helloween or Blind Guardian's early work power metal is inaccurate as they lack the symphonic and melodic emphasis that the genre is known for. Power metal's evolution has been towards the symphonic and progressive as well as being progressively less heavy. Expanding power metal to include the faster 1980s bands also means power metal starts intruding on traditional heavy metal territory.
Of course, one could argue that this is indeed the case, as US power metal bands are usually less symphonic and far more rooted in traditional heavy metal. But then one could argue that US power metal is not really a genre but rather just a catch all phrase for American heavy and speed metal bands that couldn't fit into the burgeoning thrash metal and glam metal scenes.
Speed metal today
One doesn't hear the term "speed metal" much today. What could be defined as speed metal lives on in power metal and traditional heavy metal albums as well as the odd, completely underground bands like Skullfist. It's still mainly the older bands who are producing excellent examples of speed metal: Running Wild, Grave Digger and Accept, even though in many instances these albums as a whole could be defined as traditional heavy metal.
Clear as mud?
So in this article we have managed to review the whole history and some of the defining stylistic features of speed metal. And we are probably no wiser as to whether the genre did indeed exist or whether it was just a sped up form of heavy metal that lead to the development of thrash and power metal.
What cannot be disputed is that there are some mighty fine and often forgotten metal albums out there.
Guest article disclaimer:
This is a guest article, which means it does not necessarily represent the point of view of the MS Staff.
This is a guest article, which means it does not necessarily represent the point of view of the MS Staff.
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