The New Wave of British Heavy Metal

Black Sabbath may have invented the stuff, but the New Wave of British Heavy Metal truly made metal the wonderful, stupid thing we all know and love. From 1979 through 1983-84, musicians in the United Kingdom – inspired by the guitar interplay of Thin Lizzy, the filthy rock ‘n’ roll of Motörhead, and (especially) the British steel of Judas Priest – formed new units to take the place of fading classic rock institutions like Sabbath, Deep Purple, and Led Zeppelin. Denim and leather, demons and wizards, dual guitar harmonies and punk snarl: all of it collided here.

Sabbath emerged from the dying working class city of Birmingham in the waning days of the 1960s. Things in Great Britain didn’t get any better over the following decade. That economic uncertainty led to a whole bunch of teenagers (admittedly mostly white and male) forming bands heavier, darker, and even more escapist than their predecessors. The proliferation of recording studios, independent labels like Neat and Ebony, and easier access to cheap instruments helped lower the bar to entry and allowed more (relatively) extreme acts access to wider audiences as well.

Musically, its proponents paid attention over the course of the decade. They absorbed the technicality and heaviness of classic hard rock and heavy metal as it evolved into acts like Uriah Heep, UFO, and Rainbow. And, as the keepers of the canon like to keep reminding us, punk rock happened. Even if punkers and longhairs were enemies at the time, the attitude and speed of that sister genre bled into the nascent metal acts. Although every band was different, they shared similar characteristics: a higher pitched vocalist, dual guitar interplay, faster tempos, raw production, fantasy or horror-themed lyrics, and, (especially in the case of Iron Maiden), very noticeable basslines. In other words, the very characteristics we associate with heavy metal to this day.

Even though the movement lasted a relatively short time, its meteoric impact birthed everything that came afterwards. Metallica – and therefore the entire thrash movement – grew out of the speed and technicality of bands like Diamond Head and Savage. Black metal got its name and the basis of its first wave sound from Venom. The commercial success of Def Leppard both coincided with the beginning of hair metal and inspired bands that came after. Iron Maiden are still one of the biggest rock bands in the world. And, of course, the current New Wave of Traditional Heavy Metal uses the NWOBHM as its Rosetta Stone. Most importantly, it gave heavy metal some of its most legendary bands – a lot of whom are still putting out shockingly great material well into the 21st century.

Welcome to Hell cover

If Motorhead were the band that killed your lawn, Venom burned down the rest of the neighborhood. Conrad “Cronos” Lant, Jeffrey “Mantas” Dunn, and Anthony “Abaddon” Bray looked at the competition, realized the only way they could stand out was to play worse, sound worse, and have dumber lyrics than everyone else – and hell if it didn’t work. “Witching Hour” and “In League with Satan” established their chaotic credentials. The title track kicked down the gates of Dis.

Wiped Out cover

Raven kicked off “Faster Than the Speed of Light” with a warning about how Einstein was wrong, and while that may seem presumptuous, these Newcastle upon Tyne natives proved with their second album that massive riffs can cause a distortion in space-time. Their “athletic rock” certainly worked out for them here. “Bring the Hammer Down” and “Live at the Inferno” helped test the theory that heads could in fact bang fast enough to tear open a wormhole.

Angel Witch cover

Confirming the awesomeness of metal songs named after the band on their eponymous debut album (see also: Black Sabbath, Iron Maiden), Angel Witch somehow turned their nonsensical moniker into a triumphant chant. It’s not even their only song that shared words with their name – see “White Witch” and “Angel of Death.” Their sinister songwriting skills make up for their lack of creativity in titling said songs, however, making this a justifiably classic entry in the New Wave of British Heavy Metal canon.

Tokyo Blade cover

Tokyo Blade did not actually come from Japan, but Asia must’ve seemed pretty exotic to five kids from Salisbury. Their song titles seemingly reference classic metal albums: “If Heaven Was Hell,” “Break the Chains,” “On Through the Night.” Whether deliberate or not, their surplus of hooks makes a case for their inclusion in the pantheon (if not quite at the same level as Black Sabbath, Dokken, or Def Leppard).

See You In Hell cover

Subject to some of Beavis and Butthead’s most hilariously savage mocking, Grim Reaper came armed with radio-ready hooks like their brethren across the ocean on the Sunset Strip, but their goofy looks and Steve Grimmett’s ceiling-scraping screech didn’t exactly endear them to the masses. Still, the title track remains one of the NWOBHM’s most durable ear-catchers, and if the rest doesn’t quite live up to that, they won’t make you leave the room to make pancakes.

Loose 'N Lethal cover

No shock that Metallica covered “Let It Loose,” the lethal leadoff of Savage’s head-cracking debut. It’s exactly the sort of raw metal assault that proves their “no life until leather” thesis. The kind of thing you’d expect to hear roaring from that 2000 A.D. extra’s death tricycle as he chases down a post-apocalyptic ice cream truck. It’s the highlight, but “Cry Wolf” and “Ain’t No Fit Place” show they had more to them. Plus the whole thing sounds like it was recorded in Lemmy’s water closet.

Rock Goddess cover

Rock Goddess’s debut rolled around towards the tail end of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, but it wasn’t exactly their fault – the Turner sisters started the band six years prior, around the very beginning of the scene, but they were only 13 and 9 at the time. For those doing the math at home, that means that these tales of “Heartache” and “Heavy Metal Rock ‘n’ Roll” excess were probably based entirely on songs and movies. Which made it all the more impressive how badass these Girlschool-worshiping schoolgirls sounded!

The Nightcomers cover

You could draw a direct line from “Johnny B. Goode” to opener “Smokin’ Valves,” sure, and it would be easy to write off Holocaust because of that. “Death or Glory” and “Heavy Metal Mania” really earned these Scots their place of honor in the New Wave of British Heavy Metal. The former creates the red clouds that the phantasmagoric riders emerge from and the latter would work as a great theme song if heavy metal were a TV series.

Filth Hounds of Hades cover

The Cerberus on the cover guards the entrance to one of the most direct links between punk rock and the New Wave of British Heavy Metal. It’s easy to forget that the two scenes were enemies at the time, but opener “Shellshock” extends an olive branch by combining heavy metal thunder with a shout-along chorus straight out of The Exploited. While the rest of it sounds like Motorhead, Lemmy certainly couldn’t argue with a manifesto called “Blood, Guts, and Beer.”

Give 'Em Hell cover

The grinning goat and (right side up?) five-pointed star on the cover probably scared parents in 1980 but Witchfynde’s satanic shtick wasn’t nearly as scary as Venom’s. Inspired more by upbeat classic and pub rock (which makes sense, since the band formed in 1973), they felt more like spiritual siblings to Saxon despite their interest in the occult. While they dove into the spooky stuff on the epic “Into the Ages of the Ages,” the jaunty rockers like “Ready to Roll” and the title track were the true ones for the ages.

Power Games cover

Gotta love on-the-nose album covers – although it begs the question of why they didn’t just stage the photo with actual game pieces. Jaguar played like they were running away from said jungle cat. While their lasting thrash-terpiece “Axe Crazy” came out as a single prior to the record (later printings included it as a bonus track), plenty of meat remains. The most prime cuts: “Dutch Connection” (a tribute to their fervent Dutch fan base) and anti-abuse anthem “Master Game.”

Demolition cover

These reckless wrecking balls were the New Wave of British Heavy Metal equivalent of the 50s girl gangs they emulated: they might seem cute but they’ll take you on a midnight ride you won’t come back from. Revved up rock ‘n’ roll originals like “Take It All Away” and “Nothing to Lose” passed their competitors, and “Race with the Devil” leaves the Gun original in the dust. Even their pals in Motörhead couldn’t make “Emergency” sound more urgent than they did. 

The Unexpected Guest cover

“Total Possession,” “Sign of a Madman,” “Beyond the Gates of Hell” – you would expect some Venom/Mercyful Fate-level darkness from Demon’s sophomore release. And you’d be disappointed. More along the lines of Michael Schenker Group, post-Dio Rainbow, or Uriah Heep, Demon displayed the more AOR side of the NWOBHM. It’s still a blast – and there’s a reason Blind Guardian covered the arena chant-worthy “Don’t Break the Circle.”

Wheels Of Steel cover

Doesn’t require three guesses to figure out where Saxon hail from. After an uneven debut (they were inventing a sound, it took some trial and error), they got their engines tuned up and dialed in and hit the pavement running on their sophomore record. Taking notes from their tourmates Motörhead helped. “Motorcycle Man” and the title track proved their mettle, but “747 (Strangers in the Night)” really allowed their balance of punk muscle and prog complexity to take flight.

Lightning to the Nations (The White Album) cover

Take out Sean Harris’s shriek, tune down and speed everything up slightly, and hit the lights: if you’re wondering where Metallica learned to Metallica, look no further. This shocking debut defined the New Wave of British Heavy Metal more than just about anything not released by Iron Maiden or Def Leppard. The two electricity-based tunes crackled with high voltage, but of course it’s “Am I Evil?”’s ruminations on inherited sins and warranted vengeance that struck hardest.

Court in the Act cover

Little did the members of Satan know that their band name would doom them to mockery upon release and their debut’s title doom them to law-related puns 30 years hence. For those who did hear it, however, Court in the Act made one hell of an impression. High-speed guitar harmonies and illegally infectious tunes like “Trial by Fire” helped them stand out from the lineup. Their 21st-century reunion albums are somehow even better!

High ‘n’ Dry cover

Already well on their way to the gajillion-selling blockbuster “-ia” era, Def Leppard’s sophomore slammer still brings the New Wave of British Heavy Metal excitement to the party. The A side contains the big hits (“Let It Go,” the title track, and hanky-clencher “Bringin’ on the Heartbreak” still represent some of their career highs), but the darkest material they ever penned lives opposite. “Lady Strange” and “Mirror Mirror (Look into My Eyes)” offer a glimpse into an alternate dimension where they opted for black mascara instead of hairspray.

The Number of the Beast cover

There are those who prefer the Paul Di’Anno era of Iron Maiden, and that’s okay – those first two records have an undeniable scrappiness they’d never achieve again. In exchange? Their third album forged the shape of metal to come and established these literary Brits as the second biggest metal band in the world. New vocalist Bruce Dickinson’s operatic vocals played a big part in that, transforming exceptional compositions like the title track, “Run to the Hills,” and “Hallowed Be Thy Name” into anthems for the ages.

Spellbound cover

These sorcerous war weapons of the Young Kingdoms owe a lot to Thin Lizzy – so much so that Lizzy themselves poached second guitarist John Sykes one album cycle later! On the poppier side of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, they still had fangs, as proven by the drive-by tommy gunning of “Gangland” and the sleaze-blues of “Hellbound.” They found the perfect middle ground between their raw earlier work and slickly commercial follow-ups here.

Death Penalty cover

While their NSFW album covers earned them the death penalty from the British censorship board, Witchfinder General’s debut provided an important steppingstone between Black Sabbath and the genre soon to be known as doom metal. Sabbath’s tritone-heavy heavy blues jams formed a key part of their foundation, but the infusion of classic metal/punk speed made them their own thing. The title track would’ve made Vincent Price proud.