The New Wave of British Heavy Metal (NWOBHM for short) was a musical movement originating in Britain (hence the name) that lasted from the late 1970's to the early 1980's that is credited with the revival and reinvention of Heavy Metal as a genre. Though the movement is long over, its effects can still be felt throughout the genre.
Backstory: By the mid 70's, the genre of Heavy Metal seemed dead in the water. Black Sabbath was the only "true" metal band, and even it was in tatters from heavy drug use, and the genre had become bloated with many unoriginal and derivative acts that merely tried to repeat the success of the bigger bands of the genre, and weren't really even "metal" as they seem to be more rooted in earlier rock bands with a slight increase in volume, with little connection to later metal bands otherwise. Also, a new genre, Punk Rock, had appeared on the music scene. In addition to possessing metal's hardness and aggression, it was also faster and, unlike Heavy Metal, was critically well-respected. For metal, things looked grim indeed.
However, one band was about to change all that.
Judas Priest, a band from Birmingham, the same city that produced Black Sabbath and later Napalm Death, was that band. In 1978, after several high quality but Sabbath-derived albums, they released their album Stained Class. The album was dissimilar to pretty much any metal album that came before it, possessing high-speed tempoes, air-tight double-bass drumming patterns, and a level of aggression not seen outside Punk Rock. A second band at around the same time, Motörhead, combined an approach similar to that of Judas Priest and wed it to a brutal, distortion-heavy sound that was overtly punk-influenced on their albums Motörhead in 1977, and Bomber and Overkill in 1979. With the approaches of these bands in place, other bands began to copy them.
By the end of the decade, the movement was in full swing with a diversity of styles. Most bands, like Iron Maiden, Saxon, and Angel Witch, combined heavy riffing (typically featuring two lead guitarists, following the example of Thin Lizzy) with soaring, pseudo-operatic vocals, wailing guitar solos, and lyrics concerning fantasy, rebellion, and the Heavy Metal lifestyle. Others, such as Def Leppard, gravitated towards a more mainstream sound informed by Glam Rock. Others still, like Venom, chose to emulate Motorhead's aggressive style and turn it Up to Eleven, paving the way for Thrash Metal, Black Metal, and Death Metal. What united these bands was a shared sense of fashion (mostly consisting of denim jeans, leather jackets, studded metal belts and wrist bands, and band t-shirts/patches), a Punk-like aversion to the mainstream (Def Leppard being a major exception), and and enthusiasm toward the music and its attending subculture.
All things must end, and so did the NWOBHM in the early 80's due to a combination of factors. One reason was that the movement, like the bands of the 70's, eventually became bloated and stagnant, with derivative ripoffs forming left and right and contributing virtually nothing new to the movement. Also, the movement began to face competition from other genres from other countries such as Canadian Speed Metal, American Thrash Metal, and European First-Wave Black Metal. These movements, which took inspiration from the NWOBHM, took the hard, fast, and loud aesthetics of the movement and made them harder, faster and louder still. Faced with competition that was more extreme than them in every way, shape, and form, the movement petered out. However, though the movement is dead, its legacy remains in the sound, fashions, and culture of an entire genre of music.
Not to be confused with New Wave Music, despite both movements taking influences from Punk.
Bands Associated With the Genre Include:
Predecessors to the Movement (Not part of the movement itself):
- Def Leppard (1977, later switched to Glam Metal, becoming one of that genre's Trope Makers)
- Diamond Head (1977, originally hyped as one of the leaders of the movement, it never came to pass and the band dissolved. Eventually proved to be a major influence on Metallica, who famously covered their songs "Am I Evil?" and "The Prince")
- Iron Maiden (1975, Trope Codifier and the biggest and most famous band of the movement)
- Judas Priest (1969, Ur-Example and Trope Maker alongside Motörhead. Technically not a New Wave of British Heavy Metal, as they started in 1969, but didn't make it big until the NWOBHM era.)
- British Steel (1980)
- Motörhead (1975, Trope Maker alongside Judas Priest)
- Ace of Spades (1980)
- Saxon (1977, Trope Codifier for the movement alongside Iron Maiden)
- Venom (1979, a relative latecomer to the movement and one of the movement's heaviest bands. Eventually became the Ur-Example of both Thrash Metal and Black Metal, as well as the latter's Trope Namer)
- Angel Witch
- Bleak House
- Cloven Hoof
- Girlschool (one of the only all-female bands in the movement)
- Grim Reaper
- Pagan Altar (unique in that, along with Witchfinder General, they played Doom Metal rather than the more typical NWOBHM sound)
- Praying Mantis
- Samson (notable for having a young Bruce Dickinson as their frontman)
- Tokyo Blade
- Tygers of Pan-Tang
- Tyrant (Gloucester group, not to be confused with other bands named Tyrant)
- Witchfinder General (along with Pagan Altar, they were one of a handful of Doom Metal NWOBHM bands)
Tropes associated with the New Wave of British Heavy Metal include:
- Critical Dissonance: Like the 70's bands they succeeded, the bands of the NWOBHM were hated by critics, but often managed to garner a large audience both at home and internationally.
- Darker and Edgier: Strove to be this for both 70's Heavy Metal and Punk Rock.
- End of an Era: In a way, the movement served as the last time that the United Kingdom would serve as the main player in Rock Music and Heavy Metal, a position it held since The British Invasion. While the UK would later go on to host the main scenes of Oi!/Street Punk, D-Beat/Crust Punk, Grindcore (at least for a little while), and Britpop, it would never again be so central to Rock as a whole as it was in The '60s/Seventies. (One could make an argument that British bands have had a disproportionate influence on Indie Rock, but that's sort of its own thing.)
- Heavy Metal: But of course.
- Black Metal: Venom was the genre's Ur-Example and Trope Namer.
- Doom Metal: Some bands, such as Pagan Altar and Witchfinder General, are early members of the genre.
- Glam Metal: Def Leppard became its possible Trope Makers starting with Pyromania.
- Power Metal: A lot of bands (Saxon, Iron Maiden, etc.) could be considered Ur Examples of the genre.
- Progressive Metal: Again, some bands were early members of the genre, with Iron Maiden being the most notable example.
- Speed Metal: Judas Priest (one of the genre's Ur Examples), Motörhead (the genre's arguable Trope Maker), Venom, and Raven were all part of the movement. The movement as a whole could arguably be considered the genre's Trope Maker and/or Trope Codifier.
- Thrash Metal: Motörhead, Venom, and Diamond Head could all be considered Ur Examples.
- Lead Bassist: Lemmy Kilmister of Motörhead, Steve Harris of Iron Maiden, and Cronos of Venom were some of the movement's most notable examples of the trope, with Harris being types A and C, Cronos types B and C, and Lemmy types A, B, and C.
- Metal Scream: Rob Halford of Judas Priest and Bruce Dickinson of Iron Maiden are masters of the sudden, cathartic scream, and Lemmy Kilmister of Motörhead and Cronos of Venom being the Ur Examples for singers who consistently used harsh vocals as their primary singing technique.
- Mohs Scale of Rock and Metal Hardness: Ranged anywhere from a 4 (Def Leppard's Glam material, many bands' power ballads) to a low 9 (Motörhead and Venom's heaviest output), with most bands being a 6 or a 7.
- "Seinfeld" Is Unfunny: What ultimately killed the movement. By the early 80's, other bands from other places had begun to appear and take all the tropes from the NWOBHM and turn them Up to Eleven. Unable to compete, the movement slowly but surely lost its momentum and ground to a halt.
- Short-Lived Big Impact: The movement only lasted for a few years but it left a lasting impact still seen to this very day.
- Spiritual Successor: Power Metal and Melodic Death Metal, both of which take elements of the genre (soaring riffs, harmonized lead guitar, epic atmosphere, etc.) and adapt them to more modern sounds and tastes.
- Trope Maker: Judas Priest and Motörhead are jointly this for the NWOBHM.
- Trope Codifier: Iron Maiden and Angel Witch for the genre's sound; Saxon and Judas Priest for the genre's look.
- The movement as a whole served as this for Heavy Metal as a whole.
- Ur-Example: Budgie was the first band to play fast Heavy Metal, thus serving as the template for the movement. Thin Lizzy, along with Wishbone Ash, also helped popularize the twin harmonized guitar sound popular with NWOBHM bands. There's also the Queen song "Stone Cold Crazy" and the Deep Purple song "Highway Star," which served as the predecessors of Speed Metal.