Trademarks such as death-growl vocals and vicious blast beat drumming have caused the term "heavy metal" to be associated in 2011 with the most guttural sounds that can be produced by mankind. It's very easy to forget that prior to the mid-1980s emergence of subgenres like death metal, black metal, and grindcore, the phrase "heavy metal" mainly was used to describe bands that were still very much grounded in traditional rock music, but focused more on a fascination with the dark side. The heavy doom of Ozzy-era Black Sabbath, science fiction-influenced lyrics of Blue Oyster Cult, and epic soaring melodies of Iron Maiden were examples of what often came to mind when you mentioned that early genre.
This year has seen a strong resurgence in metal bands that throw back to the pre-blast beat, pre-death vocal era. It is very easy to simply rehash the sounds of those eras, but the following five bands rise above and are shining examples of a movement bringing rock back to metal.
Sweden's In Solitude harkens back to the early 1980's thrash-rock sound of Melissa-era Mercyful Fate. Vocalist Pelle "Hornper" Ahman gives listeners a peek at what King Diamond would sound like if he never went into falsetto vocals (to us, that's a good thing). But In Solitude is not simply a Mercyful Fate tribute. They also pepper their newest album, The World. The Flesh. The Devil, with touches of classic NWOBHM (New Wave of British Heavy Metal).
4. The Devil's Blood
Dutch rockers The Devil's Blood bring to mind what Jefferson Airplane's sound would have been if they abandoned their love of psychedelic drugs for good old-fashioned Satanism. A very warm sound has marked every release by the band so far, allowing full justice to be done to the haunting vocals of the woman known only as "F." The band's upcoming release, The Thousandfold Epicentre, is one of few hotly-anticipated metal releases remaining on the 2011 calendar.
You could place Graveyard's newest album Hisingen Blues on shuffle with authentic '70s albums from bands like Deep Purple and Atomic Rooster, and the listener that never heard Graveyard before would be none the wiser if you tried to pass them off as an obscure band from that era. Preaching to the "strictly analog" choir, their Satanic jam-rock is at home on both metal festival stages and the Bonnaroo stage (which hosted their one American appearance so far in 2011).
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Vocalist Papa Emeritus dresses like an evil pope and leads a backing band of Nameless Ghouls as they play incredibly catchy dark-rock on their debut album, Opus Eponymous. Much has been made of the Swedish band's image, but in the end no one would care if the music wasn't as good as it is. Hooks and melodies that stay with you for days make this an easy pill to swallow. Los Angeles metal fans were abuzz when it was announced they would open for Norwegian progressive-black metallers Enslaved on their fall tour. Visa issues kept Ghost from making the trip over, but we are hoping they will resolve them and spread their mystic gospel in 2012.
Opeth has made their fifteen-year career about playing death metal layered with progressive tendencies. Their last few albums have seen an increase in the progressive elements, culminating in their newest, Heritage. The band has gone full-on '70s jazzy prog-rock on this one, completely cutting out the death metal passages from their sound. The album is more than worthy of being blasted through one of those giant old-school hi-fi cabinet stereos. There are some longtime fans that are bummed by rumors that the band is doing only songs with clean vocals on their current tour, which hits The Mayan Theatre in downtown L.A. tomorrow night, and The Fox Theatre in Pomona on Friday night. But we are looking forward to it.