There was a brief window in the early-mid 1980s, between the NWOBHM and thrash booms, when a slew of het-up young kids started picking up instruments with the primary mission to make heavy metal really fast. A mixtape of inciting inspirations might include Deep Purple’s Fireball, Speed King, Highway Star and Burn, Queen’s Stone Cold Crazy, Rainbow’s Kill The King, Motörhead’s Overkill, Judas Priest’s Exciter, Accept’s Fast As A Shark, and numerous NWOBHM neck-wreckers - especially by the rowdy likes of Raven, Jaguar and Venom.
In the early days - as on the mid-80s Speed Kills compilations - the ‘speed metal’ tag was often used interchangeably with thrash, power, death, HM and hardcore. But the subcategory remained a handy way to distinguish those musicians who retained the melodies, themes and clean vocals of trad metal while accelerating its pace and energy, from the more radical, rhythmic, hardcore-inflected intensity of pure thrash. Here are five albums that best explain the speed metal concept.
Exciter - Heavy Metal Maniac (1983)
More than one contemporary zine used the term “skull-crushing” to describe Exciter’s seminal debut, and although the raw, tinny production blunts some of the edge, you can still feel the ferocious intent of this bullish Ontario trio roaring out of the speakers after 40 years. Unleashed the same summer as Kill ‘Em All, Heavy Metal Maniac was among the first records supercharging metal’s energy and aggression for a new generation who wanted their music faster and harder. Mid-paced plodders Iron Dogs and Black Witch act largely as rest stops amid Exciter’s frantic, propulsive assault, ending on a high note of wild intensity with full-force metal anthem Cry Of The Banshee.
Acid - Maniac (1983)
As with those other first responders from the Belgian scene, Killer and Crossfire, Acid’s low-budget, high-velocity transport café metal possesses a sweet rickety charm that makes Maniac effortlessly playable. A prime example of a speed metal sound that’s worlds away from the technical bludgeon of thrash, Acid zip along at a basic rollicking pace while keeping one foot in ‘70s rock and maintaining an amiable warmth, thanks partly to the pioneering vocals of Kate De Lombaert - “the toughest, gutsiest female involved with HM, bar none” according to US zine Metal Mania in 1983. Again, the fastest, hardest tune is the closer, an infectious alcoholic rampage facetiously entitled Bottoms Up.
Helloween - Walls Of Jericho (1985)
Germany was an early speed metal stronghold, producing many enduring exemplars: Running Wild, Grave Digger, Rage, Angel Dust, Holy Moses, and most importantly of all, much-loved Hamburg hellions Helloween. They’d go on to invent and nail the epic power metal rulebook too, but this irresistible debut is the epitome of speed metal’s ‘Iron Maiden at 500mph’ ethos to a tee. Catching this rambunctious and ravenous line-up’s lightning in a bottle was producer Harris Johns, who quickly became the go-to sound man for ripping Teutonic metal power, such is the effervescent, adrenalized clatter of future classics like Ride The Sky, Guardians, Metal Invaders and definitive anthem Heavy Metal (Is The Law).
Agent Steel - Skeptics Apocalypse (1985)
These LA loons are perhaps the greatest example of a band who simultaneously combined power, thrash and speed metal, and thus tend to fall unjustly down the cracks between subgenres. The monstrous weight and complexity were very thrashy, while the astonishing shrieks of John Cyriis - like King Diamond and Rob Halford being abducted and gene-spliced by mad aliens - align more with power metal. However, their sheer obsessive velocity places Agent Steel at the glittering pinnacle of the speed metal mountain. After a millennial reunion without Cyriis, the enigmatic frontman (who sang for Megadeth in 1984 before Mustaine took the mic) reformed Agent Steel with new members in 2018.
Enforcer - Into The Night (2008)
These Swedish throwbacks have released stronger records since, but this uproarious debut struck like a bolt from the blue, the baby-faced quartet’s exuberant joie de vivre and loving devotion to speed metal’s OG rulebook uniting misty-eyed codgers and wide-eyed newcomers alike. Inspiring a younger generation to hop aboard their high-octane spandex time machine, Into The Night was an influential key text confirming the potency of a New Wave Of Traditional Heavy Metal that quickly gathered new momentum as a result of Enforcer’s infectious call to arms. Each song was dispatched with that peachy-keen, overcharged attack that characterises the best speed metal, setting Enforcer up for a long and distinguished career.