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The History, Sounds And Politics Of Heavy Metal

The definitive history of heavy metal and what it’s always been about.

A metal fan crowd surfs in a mosh pit during the heavy metal festival Wacken Open Air in Germany. (Philipp Guelland, DAPD/AP)

A metal fan crowd surfs in a mosh pit during the heavy metal festival Wacken Open Air in Germany. (Philipp Guelland, DAPD/AP)

Heavy metal — rock’s dark side — tends to draw a bright line through music fans, through any crowd.

People run to it, or they run away from it.  Fans hear majesty and hard, dark truth.  Un-fans hear rage and noise.  Fans hear nuance — power metal, thrash metal, black metal, nu metal.  Un-fans hear menace.  Well, they should.  To a point.

Up next On Point: A big new oral history works through the roots and meaning of heavy metal music.

– Tom Ashbrook


Jon Wiederhorn and Katherine Turman, authors of "Louder Than Hell: The Definitive Oral History Of Metal." (Greg Cristman/HarperCollins)

Jon Wiederhorn and Katherine Turman, authors of “Louder Than Hell.” (Greg Cristman/HarperCollins)

Jon Wiederhorn, co-author of “Louder Than Hell: The Definitive Oral History Of Metal.” He’s senior writer at the rock and heavy metal magazine Revolver. (@LouderThanHell)

Katherine Turman, co-author of “Louder Than Hell: The Definitive Oral History Of Metal.” She’s a music journalist and producer for “Nights With Alice Cooper.” (@KatherineTurman)

Robb Flynn, lead vocalist and guitarist for the heavy metal band Machine Head. (@TheGeneralMH)

A Conversation With Machine Head’s Robb Flynn

Flynn described Machine Head’s typical audience, saying, “They were just there to vent their anger in a healthy way, and we were there to give them a soundtrack to do it.”

Flynn also revealed the tragic story behind the song “Aesthetics Of Hate,” which he wrote after the on-stage murder of Pantera’s guitarist:

Book Excerpt

Excerpted from “Louder Than Hell: The Definitive Oral History Of Metal” by Jon Wiederhorn and Katherine Turman with permission from It Books / HarperCollins Publisher.


Advisory: The following songs contain explicit content.

Tweets From During The Show

From Tom’s Reading List

Definitive Metal Family Tree

NPR: China’s Artist Provocateur Explores New Medium: Heavy Metal — “The man ArtReview magazine named the most powerful artist in the world is trying his hand at rock stardom. In 2011, the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei spent 81 days in detention. He was later let go and charged with tax evasion. Now, he has released his first heavy metal song, based on his time in police detention.”

The Guardian: Rocking On: When One Heavy-Metal Frontman Is As Good As Any Other – It is hardly a high-risk strategy to replace one incredibly famous singer with another, but there must surely be an element of defiance in the move, as if the remaining Pilots are saying: “Well, the last thing we need is another preening berk with a hot temper. Let’s go for someone utterly inoffensive this time.” Whether or not this new collaboration works and leads to more commercial success for the hardy grunge survivors is another matter, but at least Bennington won’t be guzzling heroin and thumping people for looking at him a bit funny.”

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  • Expanded_Consciousness


    Metal! It has always been about the sounds of war and the industrial age. Hendrix had been in Vietnam, and jumped out of airplanes. The clashing and overwhelming sounds he created reflect that. Loud and radical, metal is the sound of outer and inner conflict. Long live metal!

    • geraldfnord

      Great[est?] electric guitarist, but never left the States whilst in the Army—no shame there, many never did.

  • geraldfnord

    Heavy Metal always sounds to me like some of Hendrix’s stuff with all the African taken out of it…often great technical competence with nothing I can identify as ‘soul’, no rhythms more interesting than a high-school band’s, and not one like Question AMrk and the Mysterians or The Sonics.

    I think I first noticed this when, stationed in the whitest place I had ever lived, Naperville, Il., I saw that the local {record store}/hangout was plastered with fliers for heavy metal bands, had the thought that parents tolerated it because even though the music were at times violent or demonic or doom-laden, at least it weren’t _black_—they had their priorities straight.

    Still, «Á chacun son goût»…enjoy if you can, there certainly seems to be a lot of it… (My favourite Metal song? ‘And When He Falleth’, Theatre of Tragedy, cookie-monster-meets-Galadriel vocals and samples of Vincent Price chewing Corman’s scenery.)

    • Acnestes

      A lot of it is northern European based – no blues involved. Long, dark, cold winters.  Vikings.  Hordes and swords!  Glorious victorious!

  • twenty_niner

    No Rush on the playlist? Even after the Rock and Roll Hall of Shame had to bite their tongues and let them in?


    • adks12020

      I’ve always thought of Rush more as prog-rock than metal. Maybe that’s just me though.

      • Acnestes

        In a recent documentary they were classified as prog-metal. :-)

      • twenty_niner

        ’76 – ’79 was their most prog-metal phase with “2112″, “A Farewell to Kings”, and “Hemispheres”.

  • DrewInGeorgia

    To me Metal has always been the embodiment of one ideal;

  • Acnestes

    And a shout out to the Iron Man, Tony Iommi!  I hope he stays with us for a long time to come

  • DrewInGeorgia

    Killswitch Engage Tom. Not that I like them…

  • J__o__h__n
  • Michiganjf

    In that early evolution of the “metal” sound, do you find a spot for King Crimson or Iron Butterfly?

    • 1Brett1

      Of course they were. Crimson was also one of a handful of bands who laid a foundation for “Prog Rock.” But those are all related. How about the band Blue Cheer? Or what about Steppenwolf? In fact, their ‘Born to be Wild’ is where I first heard the phrase “heavy metal,”  although that was in reference to large motorcycles.

      I doubt that there would be a “Metal” genre as it is known without the early Hard Rock bands, Psychedelic Rock, or Progressive Rock. Electric Blues also played a role, a very important one, in all of those genres.

      • tagubajones

         Blue Cheer? Awesome. There’s so much of that early Detroit rock that was proto-metal, proto-punk, proto-etc. MC5, for obvious starters…

        • 1Brett1

          As I remember, they were touted as the LOUDEST band around. I never saw them live but saw them on one of the variety shows on TV…There was an amplifier created based on their sound (and I’m working completely off of memory, here, which might owe at least something to “fuzziness”). The company called its amp “The Tiny Tim.” It was a large stacked-speaker deal with a separate head. A music store where I got my gear had one, and even turned up half way one could feel the air from the sheer power of the thing push you back if you were standing right in front of it.

  • Eartha

    I take exception with Jon’s first statement that basically there are blue collar people who enjoy metal and then..intelligent people. Please correct this and give a shout-out to all the intelligent blue collar folks in your listening audience! You don’t have to be rich and entitled to be smart. I’m sure that a great angst-filled metal song could be written about just that. 

  • adks12020

    I was really into bands like Snapcase, Hatebreed, Deftones, Metallica, Pantera, etc. as a teen but as I’ve gotten older those kind bands have gradually fallen out of my rotation.  I still go back to them occasionally but I’m just not that into it anymore.

    Maybe it was the teen angst and hormones disappearing or something but I’m just not drawn to metal anymore.  I still like a lot of heavier rock but only listen to metal on occasion now.

  • Belmyriel

    All metal is not based on anger. A lot of it is based on literature, classical music, and classical epic poetry. I find it hard to think that Blind Guardian and Symphony X were “angry” when they wrote about the Fall of Troy and Odysseus’ return to Ithaca.

    • http://www.facebook.com/jason.martin.33821 Jason Martin

      See also Metallica’s obvious literature-inspired songs, Cthulhu and For Whom The Bell Tolls

  • http://www.facebook.com/cale.switzer Cale Switzer

    I am hearing too much about rebellion, angst and anger. I got into metal because of the melody, upbeat rhythm and fantasy of power metal. Bands like Blind Guardian, Dragonforce and yes even “Fairyland.” I also love the folk metal that comes out of the scandinavian region incorporating folk instruments and/or melodies into their music. Not a fan of generalizing all the metal into a position of anger!

    • DrewInGeorgia

      Ever listen to Fates Warning? They were one of my favorites along those lines.

    • Phyllo_Genetics

      I’m guessing you know of Eluvitie, who play folk instruments (hurdy gurdy!) and write lyrics in ancient Gaulish.

      Since you mention Scandinavia, I’ll add that one sub-genre that wasn’t mentioned but addresses some of the issues about female participation is symphonic or operatic metal, which tend to have female lead singers. Examples range from Evanescence to Nemesea, Within Temptation, Nightwish, Delain, Epica, Amberian Dawn, and Lacuna Coil, to name just a few. Many of these come from Europe, especially Scandinavia. There’s more to metal than cookie monster vocals and 200 beats per minute! :)

  • http://www.facebook.com/arana.fireheart Arana Fireheart

    I would love to hear some comments about Ministry, Skinny Puppy and their cohorts. I still think that Al Jorgensen is God!

    • vinny

      none of that is metal.

  • Mick_Riffs

    Alternative Music focuses on Marketing of Bands with little actual skill in playing their instruments.  Pop music simply does not allow the players to show what they can do.  Metal players are artisans that have studied for years to finely develope their craft.  They are virtuosos that put in the hard work instead of just being pretty boys with nice headshots that cannot play.  Record Companies have abandonned trying to find good music to promote and focus only on what amounts to fashion models posing as musicians or bands.  that is why the music business is in decline.  It is not because of the internet or downloads.  It is because Record Companies have chosen poorly in the music they promote and people don’t like this Alternative/Hip-Hop/Pop garbage they are pushing while ignoring real music!

  • DanMoran666

    Heavy Metal is the modern musical heir of Romanticism. It’s anout sweeping emotions, grand scope, intensity of feeling, and a focus on the darker and grimmer. Wagner was a forerunner of metal. The writings of Byron, Baudelaire, Novalis, and the visual art of Gustave Dore and Caspar David Friedrich, all highlight themes and styles still employed by metal.

    • jefe68

      That sounds more like Goth to me.

  • madnomad554

    Judas Priest


    • DrewInGeorgia


      Hell Awaits…
      Scary huh? lol

  • jefe68
  • http://www.facebook.com/jesse.r.pearson.3 Jesse Ryan Pearson

    As a big time metal/hardcore fan, I can relate to what Tom Morello said.  I’m 37, I’m from a small town in Ohio, where more often than not, life was hard growing up and what I do know, is that where there is struggle, there is great art.  Along with my fellow metal head friends growing up, there were a number of things we all had in common.  We were smart, passionate, lovers of music, angry as hell, yet we all had great hearts.  Deep down we were good kids.  Metal and hardcore may contain violent lyrics sometimes, but in reality, it’s not violent at all.  It may portray violent imagery and lyrics from time to time, but that’s part of the attraction.  Take Obituary’s song “Chopped In Half” as an example.  It’s not that their fans really support chopping people in half, but it’s rather what could be more brutal and awesome for that matter, than naming a song Chopped In Half?

  • DrewInGeorgia

    I love the way that many Metal bands have used an album to tell a story. The most cohesive that comes to mind is Queensryche’s Operation Mindcrime. Not too crazy about their other work but Mindcrime has got to be one the greatest stories ever told in progressive metal.

    • Phyllo_Genetics

      It’s amazing how many themes from the Occupy movement were in Operation Mindcrime (1988), before a lot of Occupy kids were even born. 

      “Fighting fire with empty words 

      While the banks get fat 

      And the poor stay poor 

      And the rich get rich 

      And the cops get paid 

      To look away 

      As the one percent rules America”

      • DrewInGeorgia

        “Religion and sex are power plays
        Manipulate the people for the money they pay
        Selling skin, selling God, the numbers look the same on the credit cards”

        Spreading the Disease~Queensryche

        And both our comments are small tidbits from one song. Like I said, brilliant.

  • Mick_Riffs

    There is a market for Hard Rock music.  Heavy Metal is getting more aggressive because it is so underground.  Musicians have alot of angst due to the fact that they have taken lessons and studied for many years only to be ignored in favor of hacks and posers.  It is called the Music Business.  It has become the Fashion Music Business.  Let’s get back to finding bands that Rock and bringing them to the masses instead of creating media sensations with artificial Marketing and Publicity.  This era of popular music is going to be forgotten.  Most Rock Radio stations only play older music because of the large chasm.  Modern Pop songs are very simplistic and without quality in musicianship or songwriting.  Most Modern Metal is too aggressive for the mainstream.  Lets hope we can find some middle ground before it’s too late and all music is created by computers.

  • Jasoturner

    How does Moistboyz fit in the pantheon?  I am not a metal fan, but was surprised to learn that Dean Ween (a.k.a. Mickey Melchiondo) was into it and had a separate band.  Are they any good?  Ween is a great alt/pop/rock band for sure.

  • Mick_Riffs

    Listening to the next show on NPR, Ray Manzarek 1998 interview explains how Light My Fire intro was based on a Bach style Circle of Fifths and the rest was based on John Coltrane Jazz.  Now that’s music.  Heavy Metal players have knowledge of these things and are real musicians with professional training.  Alternative and Rap are ruining the music business.  Rap is not even music.  It has no Melody or Harmony and therefore does not meet the criteria to be called music. 

    • tagubajones

       And thank you, Mick, for telling the rest of us what music is and is not.

  • Galvy

    I couldn’t believe it when the male guest commented about metal having primarily a blue collar fan base, *but* there also are a lot of “truly intelligent people” who are into metal. Hmm, you learn something new every day. I wasn’t aware that blue collar status and intelligence are mutually exclusive. I guess those blue collar metal fans have some justification for their sense of societal alienation.

    Speaking of effete, it seems almost oxymoronic (or maybe just moronic) to dissect metal in this cultural tourist kind of way. One could almost hear the white, middle class nose holding (or ear plugging). The big, popular and successful metal bands that the first half of the show talked about really don’t represent what is most authentic and vigorous about the many flavors of metal. In my experience as a rocker (with two scientific doctoral degrees, by the way) and the mother of two sons in hardcore and metalcore bands, the various subtypes and local cultures of metal are all about community, musicianship, and authenticity. Kids are still playing shows and throwing down in garages, for crying out loud. How much more authentic can you get than that?


  • kevnorth

    I had metal forced upon me by my college roommate. While I never really ended up liking it, I came to appreciate the level of skill that the musicians bring to the genre. Anyone who thinks that metal is just banging and screaming is sorely mistaken. Well…. they may have a point about the screaming. 

  • 1Brett1

    I have a lot of respect for Metal; so much of Rock and Roll is at its foundation, for one thing. And, as you say (and especially compared to Alternative Rock), many Metal musicians can really, truly, play their instruments, and some are even virtuosic in their abilities.

    I also think the theatrical aspects of Metal are important to the music and are a valid artistic element. Metal also has a great capacity for humor, especially in poking fun at itself. Which, Alternative Rock might use humor in a song, but it would never parody itself or make fun of itself in any way.

    I don’t, however, think the musicianship comparisons, particularly with respect to soloing, are fair. Metal has a solo component that is inherent to its structure; Alternative stuff just doesn’t have that, and it’s not necessarily because Alternative Rock players can’t play. And, as far as soloing goes, there are an awful lot of gimmicks in Metal (e.g., speed emphasized for the sake of speed; trills; showy hammer-ons; mindless scale gobbling without saying anything musically, etc.), which could be argued turns the virtuosic elements into a kind of athletic prowess more so than a form of artistic expression.

    There might also be a legitimate argument that the two genres shouldn’t even be compared; it would be like comparing literary fiction to pulp fiction, for example.

    I am not a fan; I don’t subscribe to a particular genre or sub-genre of music to think of as being in a hierarchy of what is better than something else. I was a teenager in the late ’60s and early ’70s, so I saw, first-hand, the bands that influenced Metal. For this reason (and because some Metal bands can really play and are plain straight up great) I will always think of Metal as being just as legitimate as any other genre of music, no more, no less.

  • 1Brett1

    Sam Dunn’s documentary “Metal Evolution” is also a very thorough history of Metal music.

  • ExcellentNews

    !!! Rammstein !!!

    It is not about anger, it is about *** POWER ***

    • Phyllo_Genetics

      Absolutely, as well as social critique in general – see the video for Rammstein’s ‘Amerika’, for example.

  • vinny

    I love how leftists try to adopt metal….LOL. Trying to fit it into your politics doesn’t work. As my liberal sister calls metal “Angry white guy music”. (Killswitch Engine! LMAO) 

  • Gij

    I am vegan and female, 46 and British and I looooooooooooooove metal! WHEN will someone mention RONNIE JAMES DIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO?  I love Rainbow, Sabbath, old Whitesnake, Priest and headbanging, HA HA HA!  Amazing show, THANK YOU!

  • Gij

    Ronnie James Dio foreeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeever!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100001607911693 Christopher B. Sommers

    I typically enjoy NPR programming, however AM drive time ~ mid-morning seems an inappropriate time for NPR stations to take a quantum detour into gothic Heavy Metal sound.  Frankly, I could not believe my ears.  Is that “Black Sabbath” on NPR?  Afternoon drive would seem to have been better suited for the aggressive-loud sound of Heavy Metal.  I’m thankful that I have a strong heart!   

  • http://www.facebook.com/jason.martin.33821 Jason Martin

    Thanks for the great show! I primarily listen to metal in the gym…Demon Hunter, Metallica, Fear Factory, Pantera. Don’t forget the return of Black Sabbath soon!

  • Guest

    I’m really surprised at Tom for doing this segment. It is obviously not music he likes. He did not make any effort to challenge the half-baked attempts to apply intellectual rigor to the genre. Nothing the guests said changed my view that heavy metal,in its current forms, is basically adult white men producing a horror-movie-soundtrack expression of the angst-ridden emotional life of teenage outcasts,and cynically selling it back to the kids and whoever else relates to it. This music is the very definition of pretentious, regardless of the skill level required. To even have this listed on the same page as Burt Bacharach approaches the absurd. 

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