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Metal Nationalities and Traits: England

Hello folks, and welcome to the second installment of “Metal Nationalities and Traits.” I pondered for a bit over which nation to do next, as there are so many fine choices. I finally settled on England, a place I can closely relate to, having spent almost every summer of my life there. Therefore, finding England’s musical mark wasn’t too difficult. There are several themes which have dominated English history (which we’ll get to later) but only one prevails in its metal. This characteristic is present in almost every single English metal band out there (and there are quite a few of them). What is it? No, no, it has nothing to do with tea-time or cricket – quite the opposite actually. Almost all metal music that has come out of England possesses a very gritty and down-to-earth quality.

Now how could this gritty feeling possibly have developed in English metal? Isn’t England the land of pomp and ceremony, the land of knights and nobles, the land of the great British Empire? How in the world did such gritty and common music arise out of such a high-class nation? Well, unfortunately our history books often emphasize this aspect of English history at the expense of that of the everyday man. For the last 1,000 years the majority of the English population has lived in poverty. Not extreme starvation-like poverty, but rather in a state of permanent penury. After the Norman William the Conqueror defeated King Harold at the Battle of Hastings in 1066 and became king, the system of feudalism that had recently developed on the continent was implanted in England. Feudalism was a sort of all-encompassing system that controlled the political, social, and economic aspects of a nation. What’s important for our purposes here is serfdom – the concept of a peasant being bound to a tract of land, not free to live. He provided his lord (the landowner) with labor and produce and in turn received protection. He had to provide food and shelter for himself and his family with what little he had. The majority of the English people during the Middle Ages were either serfs or free peasants who were still very poor. Feudalism slowly withered away and the bonds of the serfs were thrown off, but the demon of poverty was not. Up until the 18th century most Englishmen were poor farmers with only a little bit of land. If they wanted to eat, they would have to work at a tireless pace from sunup to sundown six or even seven days a week.

During the late 1700’s to the mid 1800’s, several things occurred that would seemingly alter the status of the common man, but in reality did little but relocate him. First of all, several acts were passed in the English parliament that greatly changed the dynamic of country life. Instead of villages sharing common areas of land for the growing of certain crops and the grazing of livestock, the land was ordered to be fenced off and divided up amongst people. These laws damaged the economy of the English countryside and made the life of a common farmer much more difficult. In addition, new inventions and methods for producing goods were being devised at a surprisingly rapid rate. As a result, job openings sprung up in the new factories of the cities. Since the life of the farmer was as hard as ever and opportunities abounded in urban areas, there was a massive population shift from the country to the cities over the course of the 1800s. But instead of providing a better way of life for the English peasants, these developments merely transformed them into an urban proletariat, or working class. They were still poor, and they still had to work long, hard hours. Dirt-smudged faces of farmers were replaced by soot-covered faces of factory workers. England was a country controlled by a relatively small elite, but driven by a large working class.

I’m done lecturing; now let’s get to some heavy metal. It’s arguable that England is the birthplace of our favorite style of music, with bands such as Judas Priest and Black Sabbath pioneering the genre in the 1970s. These two bands have had great influence over others and also arguable created the sub-genres of power and doom metal, respectively. These guys brought their working-class backgrounds with them to the studio and the stage, and it can be seen in the attitude of their music. Obviously, since these guys were the first to do what they were doing, the music is already going to be a bit rough around the edges, which it was at first. But I also think a lot of this comes from their working class backgrounds and attitudes. Ironically, this applied itself literally when Tommy Iommi lost parts of his fingers in a dockyard accident. A few years later, Motorhead stepped onto the scene. Here’s the first band that REALLY displays what I’m trying to show. Motorhead played (and still play) some of the grittiest, down-to-earth music out there. Not to mention the fact that they set the stage for the NWOBHM movement.

All of a sudden in the 80s tons of bands sprung up playing this new style. It’s sort of a mixture of power and trash elements – something that applies exactly to my theory. Power metal as we know it today is all nice and melodic and happy – but back in the day it was heavier, grittier, and with a slightly tougher attitude. New Wave of British Heavy Metal bands epitomize the spirit of English heavy metal – and that of the poor souls whose sweat and toil kept the country going over the past century. Bands like Saxon, Iron Maiden, and Venom (who may or may not have started the black metal movement) left their mark with some tough, no-nonsense music. Even when high-pitched clean vocals are used, like in Maiden’s case, there is no lapse into epic melodies or excessive keyboards. Rather, their music is straightforward and to the point (ok, there are also some amazing solos, but let’s not get off track) just like their English forefathers would’ve had it. Def Leppard was there with the Pyromania videos right when MTV was a growing toddler. Not to mention Diamond Head, another NWOBHM band, who had great influence over American bands such as Metallica (who did numerous covers). In a way, via Metallica, they helped transport the British heavy metal attitude and style across the Atlantic. Move forward into the 90s and we come across Skyclad, the founders of folk metal. They basically took NWOBHM and combined it with short and simple (albeit amazing) violin melodies to create a sound that was truly unique. Vocalist Martin Walkyier’s spit-fire delivery style added a great edge to their songs, making them sound as down-to-earth as possible. Their lyrics often deal with social problems of historical topics – in doing this they succeed in addressing the history that I was talking about before.

As England moves into the 21st century a more diverse crop of bands are beginning to emerge – even (gasp!) a few anomalies to my theory. Of course, there are always going to be bands that don’t fit the “mold” of others from their country. DragonForce, for example, play a very melodic style of Euro-power metal usually found on the continent and not the British Isles. Most English bands that derive anything from power metal usually go the path of Judas Priest – they hold on to the tough attitude and edge that makes Priest so noteworthy. Others, like Anaal Nathrakh are making some more brutal music, in their case, black metal. However, they refuse to follow the rawer and less heavy path of Scandinavian black metal. Rather, their music is very loud and VERY brutal. Once again we see and English band going the heavier, tougher way instead of taking the path towards melody and clarity.

So I hope I’ve made England’s mark clear. In no other country is there such a presence of grittiness and a balls to the wall attitude when to making heavy metal. This definetley has something to do with its history and the fact that it was more or less the birthplace of metal. Maybe next time I’ll delve into Germany or a Scandinavian country, but until then, feel free to email me with any thoughts or comments, veritas@maximummetal.com.

--Veritas 07.07.05






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