In Defense of Their Good Name is a column where we rise to the defense of bands or albums, or in this case genres, that are often criticized in the metal scene.
Although directly influenced by some of the biggest and most well respected names in heavy metal history, power metal is one of the most misunderstood and unknown heavy metal subgenres in the US. Having personally been a big fan of power metal since I first discovered Hammerfall back in my freshman year of high school, I was immediately hooked because it defied what I knew about metal at the time; the music was upbeat and uplifting, it could pump you up all the while taking you to a whole new world for a fantastic adventure. Needless to say, the sci-fi/fantasy geek inside me was pleased with my discovery.
Power metal is still something most people don’t know about, and even for those that do know about it, it falls under frequent scrutiny. It’s usually accused of being over-the-top, cheesy, and clichéd, but that’s one of the beauties that always attracted me to it, it embraced the clichés. The bands dawned the leather and studs in homage to their heroes and weren’t afraid to be a little cheesy. Metal Crypt describes it like this:
Power Metal, in its usual form, consists of fast songs with an emphasis on melody, often accentuated with keyboards. Vocals are melodic and usually high-pitched, and the use of the double-bass drum kick is practically mandatory. As a style, Power Metal tends to use the guitar as a melodic, rather than a rhythm instrument, though there are exceptions. Lyrical themes are largely fantasy based and are often accused of being too ‘Happy.’
Power Metal is almost entirely European, and all the biggest bands are from some part of the EU. Modern Power Metal owes a tremendous amount to innovators like Gamma Ray, HammerFall, Blind Guardian and Edguy. (HammerFall are seen as largely responsible for the modern popularity of the style, though they are much more a Traditional Metal band). Each country has their own regional variations on the basic Power Metal style, and as several of these scenes have become significant
I usually like to point people towards the Sam Dunn/Banger Films documentary series Metal Evolution episode “Power Metal” for when they are new to the genre. Even though it’s a brief overview of a spanning genre, it does a fairly good job at hitting the key points of the history. They describe four specific artists with archetypal qualities that influenced the genre the most, Ronnie James Dio for his lyrical subject matter, Judas Priest’s dueling guitars and the vocal delivery style of Rob Halford, and Iron Maiden’s melodic, epic compositions with a sing-along quality, and Yngwie Malmsteen for classical influenced, dueling guitar and keyboard playing. Dio used his lyrics to create a world of fantasy; he himself was inspired by fantasy and science fiction literature and wanted to bring this to heavy metal music with tales of knights and kings, mysticism and fantasy, magic and lore. Judas Priest’s dueling guitar work of Glenn Tipton and K.K. Downing gave the fast and heavy sound that allowed for harmonization and speed. The vocal delivery style of Rob Halford, the high pitched, soaring vocals are almost a necessity to power metal bands. Yngwie, with the help of keyboardist Jens Johansson (Stratovarius), brother of Hammerfall drummer Anders, paved the way with their classically inspired interplay of shredding guitar and keyboard. However those are really just base characteristics, the genre is not limited to any one of those and has only grown exponentially.
The story telling aspect of the music is, in my opinion, the largest aspect of what makes power metal what it is. Many of the songs focus on fantastical adventures, folk-lore, war, national culture and history, and in the most cheese-tastic of instances, heavy metal itself. What makes power metal such a European thing is the ties to their history; Viking warrior and mythological creatures, King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, and other lore are brought together with a blend of heavy metal and classical/folk music.
Some of the most notable names in power metal:
Widely considered to be one of the first bands to release what is now considered “traditional power metal” albums is German metal band Helloween with The Keeper of the Seven Keys Pt I & II. Helloween brought together all the influences of Dio, Priest, Maiden and sped everything up to form something fast and melodic, often described “Iron Maiden on speed.” They paved the way for such bands like Hammerfall, Gamma Ray, and Blind Guardian. Hammerfall was one of the first bands in the 90’s to bring back the leather and studs, embracing the heavy metal traditions in the face of the grunge anti-rocker movement.
One of the most prominent current acts is the female fronted, opera influenced symphonic metal band Nightwish from Finland. As one of the top selling Finnish acts worldwide, Nightwish is one of the few power metal bands to have garnered mainstream success, even being one of the more well-known power metal bands in the US. Lately I’ve been captivated with their recent live DVD release Showtime, Storytime that was recorded at Wacken Open Air 2013, and also was their first performance with new vocalist Floor Jansen (ReVamp) as a permanent member.
I’m going to show my bias here and talk about my personal favorite band Avantasia, who fall under the symphonic power metal umbrella, like Nightiwish. Avantasia is a project led by Edguy singer/songwriter Tobias Sammet. They began as a one off project with the albums The Metal Opera Pt. I and Pt. II, and seeing how well received the albums were, Tobias brought the project back for The Scarecrow trilogy, and more recently The Mystery of Time; I personally recommend starting with The Scarecrow. Having brought various singers to play different characters (Like Klaus Meine), The Metal Opera, and subsequent releases, are what a rock opera would be with the gain turned up to 11 with intricate concepts spanning multiple albums.
I feel like I must also address the elephant in the room, Dragonforce. Yes, they are power metal, yes, they are a giant stereotype, and yes, I think they are awesome. They were never the greatest power metal band, but I think they catch more flak than they deserve simply because they gained some mainstream success because of the video gameGuitar Hero III. As a band, they were not afraid to write long and epic songs about magic and adventures even after they got successful, and they gave no apologies for writing four minute dueling guitar and keyboard solos. They are also still around and releasing music, they recently just released the new song “The Game” which features Matt Heafy of Trivium.
As far as modern power metal goes, it has taken some unique turns lately, usually branching off into even more obscure sub-categories with some of my favorites being Voyager (prog-power), Amaranthe (melodic power metalcore), Machinae Supremacy (chiptune power metal), and more traditional power metal artists like Damnations Angels and their singer’s solo work, PelleK. A rising force in the scene, and in my opinions one of the most powerful voices to ever grace the genre, I was lucky enough to speak with PelleK a few weeks ago and if you would like to read the full interview, it is available here.
Although it may be my personal music love, power metal certainly is not without its faults. Power metal is very rarely angry music, and for those looking for something to rage out to or down-tune their guitars for the more hardcore sound, this is definitely not the music route to follow. There is also a fine line between being epic and being really cheesy, and although it’s definitely not everyone’s cup of tea, I think that somehow both epic and cheesy can be very awesome in their own right.
One of the cheesiest power metal bands out there is Sweden’s Dream Evil, one of the first power metal bands I got into. They are every bit as cheesy as you would expect in the wildest stereotype, and they embraced that from the very beginning, even going so far to name their debut album Dragonslayer. To understand their unique level of cheesiness, you don’t need to look any further than some of their song titles— “H.M.J. (Heavy metal Jesus),” “The Book Of Heavy Metal (March of Metallions),” “Kill, Burn, Be Evil,” and be damned if I forget to mention the power ballad “The Ballad.”
Power metal is about being happy and inspired, you don’t have to know the words if you can follow the melodies. It’s “beer hall” music that you can sing along with and be merry; you really don’t even have to know the words because singing along with the guitars and keyboards is more than acceptable most times! Its may be clichéd and over-the-top, but it is completely unapologetic about it, and that is what makes it great!
And let us not forget that once upon a time, in a land not too far from here, this actually happened…
For further reading, check out Metal Storm’s 101 Rules of Power Metal, and although it really begins to lose steam in the mid 40’s it is still funny.