The “new wave of British heavy metal” of the late 1970s and early 80s is the most important moment in the history of the genre. Not only did it launch titans such as Iron Maiden, Def Leppard and Venom, but it turned “metal” from a pejorative phrase into a generation-spanning subculture. In 1970, heavy music was a sprawl of bands mostly savaged by the press: Robert Christgau lambasted Black Sabbath’s debut as “bullshit necromancy”. A decade later, it had become a subculture so fertile that it needed its own magazine – Kerrang! – to cover it all.
Many British metalheads continue to hail this movement as the paragon of their favourite genre and as someone whose first exposure to rock music was through the bombast of Maiden, I understand why. However, to cling to such nostalgia is to blind yourself to the truth: the best time to be a British metalhead is now. While the titans of the 80s are enjoying their golden years in crammed arenas, the UK’s heavy metal underground is packed with more promising bands than ever before. Case in point: in 2022, four of Metal Hammer’s top 10 albums of the year were by British acts who debuted in the preceding decade. In 2012, that number was zero.
We can thank the Covid-19 lockdowns for affirming this resurgence of new metal bands, ironically, given they halted live music. For example, Glasgow groove metal crew Bleed from Within are now touring the US for the first time since their 2005 formation: a knock-on effect of their May 2020 album Fracture finding millions of listeners among self-isolating metalheads. Released the same year, Sheffield metalcore brutes Malevolence experienced a similar boom with The Other Side EP, and they’ve just wrapped up a European run supporting such veterans as Trivium and Obituary.
When Download festival returned after the pandemic as a government-backed pilot event in 2021, it was restricted to solely booking young, British bands. That limitation unintentionally ended up translating viral success into real-world impact. Metalcore Liverpudlians Loathe played after their shoegaze single Two-Way Mirror was endorsed by Deftones the previous year – now, they’re on their second US tour in four months. Fellow Download performers Employed to Serve have just finished levelling arenas across Europe as support to Gojira. Sleep Token were also at the festival and are now one of the biggest acts in metal: their five 2023 singles have already been streamed 32m times on Spotify and made them TikTok heart-throbs. The wave is so strong that even bands who didn’t exist during the pandemic are riding it. Heriot released their first EP just 11 months ago and are now supporting Lamb of God.
Of course, this isn’t the first time British metal has commercially thrived since the 1980s. Bullet for My Valentine shot to prominence in the mid-2000s by blending the contemporary American metalcore sound with emo singalongs. In the process, they created an audience for the similar-sounding the Dead Lay Waiting, Rise to Remain and early Bring Me the Horizon. The downside of that was, if you didn’t like metalcore (or the odd underground thrash attack by Evile or Sylosis), pickings were slim.
Metalcore remains prominent in the UK scene today, yet there was an anti-fascist black metal trio called Dawn Ray’d on the cover of Kerrang! last month. Conjurer are meshing death, sludge and post-metal to concoct some of the nastiest sounds in the world, whereas Holding Absence are making pop-rock anthems with rib-rattling drumming and mainstream appeal. Rolo Tomassi began as mathcore teenagers, yet they’ve dabbled in extreme metal and shoegaze to the point that songs such as Cloaked and Almost Always sound like the product of two different bands. Meanwhile, Palm Reader can somehow write indie ballads with doom metal riffs and make them make sense.
That isn’t to say the 80s scene wasn’t varied. While Def Leppard countered the punk movement with squeaky-clean glam, Venom embraced it to create their snarling, lo-fi “black metal”. However, nowadays, not only do young bands benefit from 40 years of influences like these, the internet has broken down borders between subcultures. If Sleep Token brought their fusion of downtuned riffs and Bon Iver choruses to the Cart and Horses pub in 1981, they’d have likely been denounced as sellouts.
That difference between generations also extends to lyrical intent. If there’s any through line between the UK of the 80s and the country as it is today, it’s that we think life is bleak. Four decades ago – even amid cold war fears, the miners strike and the proliferation of the new right – the absence of social media meant it was easier to switch off. British bands frequently retreated into fantasy to escape the bullshit: Maiden wrote about literature like The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Dune, Venom found solace in Satan, and Motörhead simply mythologised rock’n’roll.
In the 2020s, however, many young metalheads spend downtime on Twitter, where #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter have catalysed real-life action; we’re more aware of racism and how to treat people with mental health issues. Plus, politics have grown more personal: for trans people, increasingly the target of genocidal rhetoric, simply existing is now a political statement. There’s a sense that it’s not just the music that’s becoming more complex for being networked, but also the political content.
Metal has always been political – consider Black Sabbath’s ferocious anti-war screed War Pigs back in 1970 and the late-80s fury of Napalm Death – but today’s crises are voiced in metal with more collective fervour and articulacy than ever. For instance, one of the genre’s most lauded albums of the past year is They Fear Us by Ithaca, with singer Djamila Boden-Azzouz unabashedly telling patriarchs and bigots to do one: “Bow to your blood, your queen and your god!” she commands on the title track. Meanwhile, Bristol post-hardcore collective Svalbard have songs such as Listen to Someone, which relays instructions on the seemingly basic ways you can help those with depression: “Listen to someone without judgment.” Mathcore rabble Pupil Slicer lambasted the US justice system’s treatment of LGBTQ+ people on the song Panic Defense, and Brighton-based band Architects are battling the climate crisis head-on. All the while, the satirical jabs within the theatre of Maiden – who infamously put a dead Thatcher on the cover of their Sanctuary single – and wannabe law-breakers Judas Priest still have their place.
The end result of all this – the sheer number of quality bands and all the varied subgenres, demographics and messages – is that British metal has never felt like a more fertile, essential and emotionally diverse place. Back in January, I watched cameraphone footage of Malevolence turning the entire floor of the Hammersmith Apollo into a mosh pit. A month later, I saw grown men in tears as Rolo Tomassi played a shoegaze song in Camden. A couple of weeks ago, I flew to France and watched Employed to Serve get 16,000 fists pumping in a Parisian arena; when I glanced at my phone after their set, I saw Bleed from Within were igniting walls of death 5,000 miles away in Dallas. This summer, I plan on seeing Iron Maiden bring as much flamboyance as they can to the O2.
These were all powerful experiences for completely different reasons – and these are merely my experiences as a white, cishet man. Meanwhile, the likes of Pupil Slicer and Ithaca have ensured that women and trans people get to have their voices heard in a male-dominated culture. And, at the same time, on their song Cleopatra, noise-punk duo Nova Twins are announcing themselves as “blacker than the leather that’s holding our boots together”. It would be irresponsible to portray the modern metal scene as a post-prejudice utopia – racism, transphobia and misogyny persist as they do across wider society – yet the success of this new crop of bands represents hope for a fairer future.
You might not like all of these bands, but that doesn’t really matter. What’s far more important is that the scene Def Leppard and Judas Priest helped consolidate 40-plus years ago has never had this much talent, or represented as many disaffected voices, as it does today.
• Svalbard’s new single, Eternal Spirits, is now streaming. Dawn Ray’d’s new album, To Know the Light, is out on 24 March via Prosthetic. Sleep Token’s new album, Take Me Back to Eden, is out on 19 May via Spinefarm. Pupil Slicer play Download festival on 9 June. Employed to Serve play Bloodstock festival on 12 August. Ithaca play Prognosis festival, London O2 Arena, Sunday 23 April.