Remember when Guitar Hero popularized Dragonforce and everyone treated them like some kind of novelty band playing retro music?
In reality, they’re one of probably several thousand bands belonging to the very popular (outside the U.S) subgenre of metal called “Power Metal.”
The music is over-the-top, characterized by hyperspeed tempos, neoclassical guitar shredding and operatic vocals.
The term “Power Metal” was tossed around a lot in the ’80s, often used interchangeably with “speed metal,” “heavy metal” or any number of other designations. People weren’t genre nazis yet. Slayer was sometimes called “death metal” and Mercyful Fate “Black Metal.” Metallica was called “speed metal” by some folks, instead of thrash. Just because it was fast. Slayer was called that as well. People called stuff whatever. Categorizing things wasn’t that important. Pantera had an album in 1988 called “power metal,” but it wasn’t referring to the genre of the same name that became firmly established in the ’90s. Really, the only firmly-established metallic subgenre designation in the ’80s was thrash. The rest were just kind of tossed around all over the place. No one really knew what to call Celtic Frost(one of my favorite bands, incidentally)or Possessed. The latter had a song called Death Metal, but there was no firmly established subgenre called that at the time. It was just, “We’re playing death metal.” So it was with the term power metal. It was simply used as an expression of enthusiasm for a band that played loud and fast.
Younger metalheads would shit themselves nowadays if you talked like that, but in those days nobody knew what the hell to call anything.
Of all the bands that provided the blueprint for modern(90s forward) Power Metal, Germany’s Helloween is definitely at the forefront, alongside Manowar. The former really sped things up and came with the ultra-high vocals, and the latter had album covers with a guy that looked like Conan the Barbarian. The songs were always about things like battle, glory, pride and metal itself.
You take these two bands, mix them together and bam, you’ve got Power Metal.
The line between traditional heavy metal bands like Judas Priest and power metal is pretty blurry, but if I were to pin down the difference it’s that power metal is often faster, more upbeat, and tends to place a lot of focus on fantasy with songs of swords, kings, dragons, etc. Manowar and Helloween were all about that. Ironically I’ve never been a huge fan of either, but I certainly recognize their profound influence.
PM often doesn’t contain any fantasy elements, though. It’s not a prerequisite. It can be about anything. The one thing virtually all of these bands have in common is that they unashamedly embody what jaded, know-it-all Americans call “cheese.”
And to me, that’s not a bad thing at all.
See, power metal isn’t as popular in America as it is in the rest of the world, to put it lightly. Sure, it’s more popular than it was when no one over here but me seemed to give a shit about it, but still, Americans like metal to be super serious, unless it’s intentional joke metal like Steel Panther, who rednecks love. Ugh, anyway…
In the early 2000s, Americans were going around listening to Mudvayne and Linkin Park, wearing Jncos and talking about “This is what metal is now, get used to it.”
“Aw, bless your hearts,” said Europe, who kept making true metal of all kinds (black, death, power, thrash, doom, etc) throughout the ’90s and 2000s. I loved it all, because I’m metal to the bone and I can’t get enough of it.
The American underground produced tons of legendary death metal albums throughout the ’90s, but barely any power metal, by comparison.
Mainstream America thought power metal’s epic, uplifting songs about self-empowerment by way of fantasy metaphors was cheesy and that people who played guitar solos were “trying too hard” or something. America was anti-solo for a long time. Don’t try to gaslight me, I remember.
And the metal underground likewise disliked the “cheese” aspect, or the “happy” nature of it. Idk. I just know a lot of people I knew disliked it and it still seems to get shit on here quite a bit.🤷🏻♂️
See, what you call cheese, though, I call amazing. Who the hell wants to hear nothing but songs with some mopey dude whining about depression? I want the musical equivalent of He-Man’s “By the power of Grayskull.” I want to bang my head and pump my fist in the air to songs that make me feel empowered and ready to take on the world. I get legit emotional about a song like this.
That’s why Americans think cheese is bad. They don’t like open, unashamed expressions of joy. They’re too jaded from living around ugly tan box buildings to understand how people who live in forested regions with snow capped mountains, surrounded by thousands of years of historical structures might feel some pride about it, or connection to it. These European countries have castles and cathedrals from the Middle Ages still standing. America’s like “That new Chick-fil-et they put up looks nice.”
And sure, America’s got its unique regional sounds. New Orleans comes to mind. New York, San Fran Cisco, Texas, Florida, etc. But none of these scenes last long. It’s always “What’s next?” Power Metal sounds exactly the same today as it did in the early ’80s, albeit with modern production values.
So it’s no surprise that with America’s love of all things trendy and disposable, that something as solid and unwavering as power metal never fully took off here.
I, however, love it. It gets me pumped up and feeling good about life. I may listen to death and thrash more often, but sometimes nothing hits the spot like power metal.
I’ve compiled a playlist with every power metal band I could think of, to listen to while packing for my big move next week. Check it out HERE.