By Martin Popoff
Metal’s first discernible movement, our first codified army of punters, air guitarists, headbangers, denim and leather… such is the glory of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, an explosion of heavy metal bands and LPs and indie 45s emerging from all over the U.K. from roughly 1980 to 1983. Here’s a batch of the best, gamely ranked, a tight 25 metal masterpieces to match the tightness of the time frame from whence they sprang. Up the irons!
1. Angel Witch / Angel Witch
No record signified doom and gloom and egregious, resolute metal-forging like this evil debut from Kevin Heybourne and his small band of witch music-makers. An infernal album cover forged in the depths of hell provides the perfect visual accompaniment to the band’s skillful Sabbatherian churn, not all of it slow, some of it as erudite as Priest circa ’76 through ’78.
2. Savage / Loose ‘n Lethal
Lathered up with buzzed electricity, “Loose ’n Lethal” is a canny concoction of songs that sit between under-written and aptly written, but then delivered with such alcoholic power that the unsuspecting punter is bowled over and headbanging hard before he knows what hit him in the pit. This energy is cogently captured upon the cover art (R.I.P. Garry Sharpe-Young). Oh, yeah, and there’s never been a better riff written than “Cry Wolf.”
3. Iron Maiden / Iron Maiden
Iron Maiden’s frantic debut was a dark, loose-bolted affair dripping in vibe, its note-dense attack evoking Priest at their most sincerely pioneering but roughed up by a punk ethic. It sounds like metal aching to be made, white-knuckled as the guys resign themselves to a life of sleeping in lorries and celebrating identity with pub-doomed metal minions. Given that things turned out sunnier is neither here nor there.
4. Quartz / Stand Up And Fight
A mere three studio albums and all vastly different from each other, Quartz was visually stuck in the ’70s and thus probably doomed to obscurity, despite the blinding professionalism of this high-fidelity record of a proposed stadium metal still 100 percent forged in fire.
5. More / Blood & Thunder
With a new singer in Mick Stratton for this band’s second and last album, all of a sudden we’ve got a flash band with Def Leppard- and Whitesnake-like potential, yet with a sound that is all molten riffs, Zeppelin swagger and howling AC/DC-proud power. Maiden should have been a hard sell compared with the direct socket-injecting Stratton and guitarist Kenny Cox, who cook up on tracks like “Traitors Gate” and “Rock And Roll.”
6. Iron Maiden / Killers
Totally different record from the charming, gritty debut, “Killers” bullied Maiden’s quickly assembling legions to keep up with the band’s virulent strain of proto-thrash riffing and prog-metal quick changes. Production was much improved, as well, and a discernible canniness with respect to pacing, variety and sequencing pointed the way toward inevitable fame and fortune.
7. Raven / All For One
Frustrating band, Raven (both before this record and exasperatingly long after) being irritatingly thin and yelpy. But forsooth, “Wiped Out” is a speed metal classic, and then its follow-up, “All For One,” found the band anchoring its power-trio mania in the stomping production values of Michael Wagener. Killer grooves and money riffs everywhere, “All For One” loomed large enough to garner the band a major-label deal, which it famously fumbled with bad material and even worse image choices.
8. Saxon / Power & The Glory
Up to this point, let’s face it: Saxon occasionally stumbled upon an anthem, but for the most part, the group luckily was allowed a handicap or a few paces’ head start, sorta like the way we deal with Kiss or The Rolling Stones. Then a shocking transformation takes place, and Saxon gets beside itself with manic metal. Drummer Nigel Glockler has a lot to do with it (traps to cannons), as does producer Jeff Glixman, who unwittingly takes a page from the Ebony Records heavy-metal handbook.
9. Gillan / Glory Road
Oh, sure, I could reverently place all six Gillan albums within my Top 25 NWOBHM (possibly my favorite band of all time), but I will act responsibly, ’cos, in fact, the looped chemistry that is Ian Gillan’s frantic NWOBHM incubator is admittedly an acquired taste. So I’ll propose one, the third, “Glory Road,” being a hugely inspired and energetic spot of Purple punk endlessly dimensional and human.
10. Witchfinder General / Friends Of Hell
(Heavy Metal 1983)
No less than the band that invented doom metal, Witchfinder General crunched its way somberly through bleak songs of loss, impossibly turgid, charmingly loose and guileless. A mere two records, Witchfinder General nonetheless gave the NWOBHM its leaden anchor, staking claim, proposing that metal, logically, was supposed to weigh down body and soul.
11. Grim Reaper / See You In Hell
The allure of “See You In Hell” is that it is very much evil metal seducing through hook and melody, much of the reach inside the soul occurring through the emotive vocal holler of one Steve Grimmett. If a band can sound underground, barroom and anthemic all at once, this magical collective is it, even if the exotic, mysterious atmosphere of “See You In Hell” was never to be repeated.
12. Diamond Head / Lightning To The Nations
(Happy Face 1980)
The third great hope from the NWOBHM free-for-all, Diamond Head never lived up to the promise of Tatler’s dependable, connective, emotive riffs and Sean Harris’ rock-star good looks and better pipes. Strange franchise though. I mean, there is so much wrong — almost everything wrong — with this record, and even more so “Borrowed Time,” yet the listener feels he’s in the presence of greatness.
13. Fastway / Fastway
Doesn’t quite feel like a NWOBHM album, but hey, Fast Eddie is from Motorhead and Dave King is barely into his 20s, Irish and unknown. Fastway sounds American, though, which nonetheless is a nice break from the dodgy proto-speed metal and fantasy themes somewhat branding the genre and causing its appeal to be limited.
14. Def Leppard / High ‘N’ Dry
Def Leppard squarely fit the NWOBHM bill through its singles as well as their aggressive “On Through The Night” debut. The sound begins to shift with “High ’n’ Dry,” which is nonetheless considered by many to be the band’s best album, given its handshake between young, roustabout metal and a certain AC/DC-ish stadium-rock swagger, an atmosphere of spaces and pregnant pauses masterminded by producer Mutt Lange.
15. Tank / The Power Of The Hunter
The metal armies have always considered Tank the baby Motorhead, but I’d add that Tank’s also a smarter, more entertaining, more event-minded version of Motorhead. Plus, Algy was in The Damned, a fist held high around these parts. And, yes, it’s a certain modest, miniature, DIY-punk vibe that is the charm of this plucky trio. ’Eads down, ’meet you at the end.
16. Samson / Shock Tactics
(Grand Slamm 1981)
Bruce Dickinson’s last record with Paul Samson, “Shock Tactics” is a huge step up on the amateur crap that came before. The album is an appealing mix of rootsy, traditional metal riffing and performances and production that are bold and insistent and enthusiastic about this kind of music taking back the public consciousness for however long it lasts. That right there is the proselytizing power of Dickinson.
17. Iron Maiden / The Number Of The Beast
Third record for Maiden of four commendably very different from each other, “The Number Of The Beast” is a punkier, faster, more urgent album that the considered “Killers,” more like the debut but with an immense upshot in songwriting ideas. Still think there are three bad songs on it, which would be blasphemy to Metal Blade founder Brian Slagel, who has consistently called this the greatest record of all time.
18. Motorhead / Another Perfect Day
Yes, I know, Motorhead pioneered this stuff through five hugely influential previous records (OK, maybe two of them are vastly lauded), but true usefulness in the life of this writer doesn’t happen until Brian “Robbo” Robertson arrives and cleans up the sound a bit. In tandem, Lemmy writes some of his most artful words of wisdom.
19. Tygers Of Pan Tang / Crazy Nights
Second record with the operatic and rock godly Jon Deverill at the mic finds the band greatly improving on the thin production of “Spellbound,” cranking it into the red. The band’s songs remain squared-off and hooky, based on meat-and-potatoes power chords, but the result is an earthy, pleasing rock headbang not unlike that of simplistic Whitesnake circa 1981-84.
20. Samson / Before The Storm
The Nicky Moore era of Samson was received with mixed feelings, given the commercial, almost southern-rock vibe the big man brought to the band. Still, the songs were strong and the production even stronger, making for a “guilty pleasure” album in “Before The Storm,” followed by “Don’t Get Mad Get Even,” which was a bit more flash and thus less brave in actuality.
21. Holocaust / The Nightcomers
The joys of this record leap from the incongruously evil cover art and then land saddled with the idea that Holocaust is a bunch of Scottish bumpkin punks newly and thoroughly juiced by the joys of discovering metal. Angus and Malcolm meet Saxon for a holler-along down at the pub.
22. Quartz / Against All Odds
(Heavy Metal 1983)
Off MCA and downgraded to Witchfinder General’s label for their last deflated kick at the cat, Quartz turns in a completely different record from its flash second. “Against All Odds” got panned by critics, but there’s something malevolent, depressive, defeated and tragically obsessed with metal about this album, the end result essentially sounding like Tygers, Fist or Holocaust tinctured by doom.
23. Tygers Of Pan Tang / Wild Cat
The only Tygers album featuring the katz klaw vocal grit of future Neat Records boss Jess Cox, “Wild Cat” was an early biker-metal classic exuding all the boisterous charm one would expect from a bunch of young kids excitedly helping build a scene. An appealing cross between the smart riffs of Maiden and the roughshod delivery of Tank.
24. Various Artists / Metal For Muthas Volume II
Sure, the first one sparked something, EMI admirably got on board with this new metal thing in a driver’s seat position (MCA deserves praise as well). But the track list of “Metal For Muthas” didn’t quite reflect the plot. Onto the second installment and it’s all mischievous indies waving their arms and jumping up and down, best of course being Trespass, who get on twice but then never manage to get one over.
25. Raven / Wiped Out
The most metal pride and excitement we felt as young punters gathering around this NWOBHM music was arguably generated by the first Maiden album and this second Raven album, “Wiped Out.” Also arguably, Raven invented speed metal, Raven was the band that the term OTT (over the top) was invented for, and Raven was the most frantic, energetic and uncontainable kids crafting this new brand of metal. “Wiped Out” doesn’t hold up like “All For One,” but its fearlessness and inventiveness need to be applauded.