Root Heavy Metal
Root heavy metal or traditional metal is the root sound of all the subgenres of heavy metal. It is the stripped down metal sound that got this whole huge genre of music started. The sound is based off of the blues scale, much like 1960’s hard rock bands including Led Zeppelin and Blue Cheer. Root metal would take this hard blues sound and move it ten steps further adding more mid to fast-tempo riffs, emphasized heavy bass lines, extended and more complex guitar solos, and usually high pitched vocals. There are some bands that would come later, like Black Label Society, that would use this blues root sound, but relied more on deeper clean vocals. This category contains the bands that most lay people or casual metal fans first think of when someone mentions heavy metal.
While the long hair was present, the style of the bands also differed greatly from hard rock. Root metal band members moved away from the tight pants and open shirts that made Robert Plant a sex symbol. Instead they favored a more hard and dirty look with jeans, dark leather jackets, leather pants, boots, sneakers, chains, and studs.
Most people recognize England’s Black Sabbath as the first true heavy metal band. People will argue for Led Zeppelin, but Zeppelin lacked the dark and heavy sound and the clothing style that would define heavy metal. Even Led Zeppelin will not categorize themselves as a metal band. Ozzy Osbourne, Tony Iommi, Geezer Butler, and Bill Ward formed Black Sabbath in Birmingham in 1969 as more of a blues rock band. It was not until the release of their self-titled debut in 1970 that they began experimenting with a heavier down tuned doom inducing sound that would birth heavy metal. Later on in 1970 while continuing to experiment, Black Sabbath would release the most quintessential heavy metal album of all time, Paranoid. This contains all the songs that people most associate with the heavy metal sound including “Paranoid”, “Iron Man”, and “War Pigs”. This album would help to define a new genre of music and continues to influence most every metal band to this day. Sabbath was the main influence on the birth of doom metal in the late 1970’s. Black Sabbath released a few more albums in the 1970’s that met with some success. In 1979 Ozzy Osbourne was fired from Sabbath and went on to pursue a solo career. He would help define the root metal sound of the 1980’s. He was replaced by Ronnie James Dio who would also be a major influence in the 1980’s metal scene. Osbourne would again begin touring with Black Sabbath in 1997 bringing the roots of metal to a whole new generation.
Artists like Ozzy Osbourne, Dio, Scorpions, Accept, and W.A.S.P. were the main bands that would define root metal in the early 1980’s. The dark heavy blues based sound continued, but with some added pop and glam influences strewn throughout the songs. This is the major reason that some of these bands mentioned also get miscategorized as glam metal. Make no mistake about it, this was still very heavy metal with musicians that were far superior to those in glam metal bands. During this time iconic metal albums like Holy Diver, Blizzard of Ozz, Fatal Portrait, and Blackout were released. Artists and albums like this helped to influence the creation of thrash, death metal, black metal, and power metal in the 1980’s. Later on in the decade a young upstart band from Los Angeles would build on the root metal sound.
Guns N’ Roses was formed in Los Angeles in 1985. Once again this is a band that is often miscategorized as being glam because of the way they looked. However, this was a much heavier and more polished sound than any of the glam bands were able to produce. With the release of their debut album, Appetite for Destruction, in 1987 Guns brought even more of a blues element into metal music with Slash’s soaring blues scale solos and Duff’s perfect over emphasized bass play. They would mix this heavy root metal sound with punk rock elements and the dynamic high pitched vocals of Axl Rose creating blues metal that sounded like a mash up of Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin, Iron Maiden, and the Sex Pistols. This sound would influence Motley Crue’s change from glam to more traditional metal and the birth of Skid Row who mixed root metal with punk/thrash. Guns N’ Roses would continue experimenting with their idea of the root metal sound helping to create the epic metal albums Use Your Illusion I and II in 1991. At this time elements like pianos and keyboards would be added that created an even more unique blues metal sound. Root metal bands, like Black Label Society, still use pianos today. Shortly after the release of these albums, Guns N’ Roses would disband in 1994. Axl Rose would resurrect the band in 1999 without any of the other original members. He would finally release their next album, Chinese Democracy, in 2008 continuing with their signature root metal sound. Guns N’ Roses have been cited as a major influence by many industrial, nu metal, metalcore, and alternative metal bands.
Essential Root Metal Albums:
- Black Sabbath (Black Sabbath)
- Paranoid (Black Sabbath)
- Machine Head (Deep Purple)
- Blizzard of Ozz (Ozzy Osbourne)
- Diary of a Madman (Ozzy Osbourne)
- Blackout (Scorpions)
- Holy Diver (Dio)
- Fatal Portrait (King Diamond)
- Appetite for Destruction (Guns N’ Roses)
- Use Your Illusion I (Guns N’ Roses)
- Use Your Illusion II (Guns N’ Roses)
- Metallica (Metallica)
- Sound of White Noise (Anthrax)
- Youthanasia (Megadeth)
- Mafia (Black Label Society)
- British Steel (Judas Priest)
- The Number of the Beast (Iron Maiden)
- Skid Row (Skid Row)
- Balls to the Wall (Accept)
- Dr. Feelgood (Motley Crue)
During the 1990’s because of the mainstream success of metal artists like Guns N’ Roses and Ozzy Osbourne, many bands in other metal subgenres would move to a more traditional metal sound helping to create a huge wave of popularity for metal. Metallica moved away from the thrash sound in favor of root metal with the release of The Black Album in 1991 helping to make them the most successful and well known metal band of all time. They would not use thrash sounds again until the release of Death Magnetic in 2008. Anthrax also followed suit when they dumped lead singer Joey Belladonna and replaced him with John Bush from root metal band, Armored Saint. They would release their most commercially successful album, Sound of White Noise, in 1993. They stayed this way until 2011 when Belladonna would return and the band released the thrash album, Worship Music. Other bands like Megadeth would also soon follow and would only return to their more aggressive sounds when the 1990’s metal boom began to die down.
In the 2000’s original heavy metal took a back seat in favor of the more commercially friendly and younger sounding metalcore subgenre. Artists like Black Sabbath, Dio, and Ozzy Osbourne would remain hugely popular, but there were not many metal bands adopting the traditional root metal sound. That is until the popularity of the Ozzfest tour created an opening for Ozzy Osbourne’s guitarist, Zakk Wylde, to feature his band Black Label Society prominently year in and year out. BLS brought metal back to the days of Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, and Ozzy with complicated bluesy song structures, amazing heavy guitar solos, and deep doom inspired vocals. Zakk also added the piano element that Guns N’ Roses made popular to some tracks. He mixed all the darkness and gloomy sounds of root metal with more of a party type attitude that really spoke to the young metal generation at that time. Ozzfest and Black Label Society helped to open the nu metal and metalcore fans’ eyes to the originators of heavy metal. During this time there would be a resurgence in popularity for bands like Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, Deep Purple, and King Diamond. The resurgence not only met with favor from fans, but from other rock artists as well. Because of the nostalgia that was created by the return of original metal, Dave Grohl decided to create the side project Probot where he worked with many long forgotten metal artists.
Root metal will always continue to be a factor because it was the beginning of the whole heavy metal movement. If you are new to metal, a contemporary fan of metal, or a fan of only one or two specific metal categories make sure you listen back to these artists because without them your metal music would not exist. They are the reason that metal was born and they influenced every single category of heavy metal in some way. This heavy distorted blues scale music will always be the underlying root sound of every heavy metal band no matter how heavy or extreme they are.