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Remembering The Old New Wave Of American Heavy Metal

Hammer recently celebrated ten years since the heyday of the New Wave Of American Heavy Metal. That means it's a decade since a generation of grizzled headbangers started pointing out that there had already been a full-scale NWOAHM circa 1982-85, when a new generation of American teenagers set about roughening and toughening the Priest/Maiden blueprint, adding loads more Dungeons & Dragons and distilling a purified strain of true cult epic heavy power speed metal. Here are ten of the best from this underestimated underground.

MANOWAR – Dark Avenger (Battle Hymns, 1982)

The epic centrepiece of Manowar’s debut is this almighty thunderstorm of brooding doom and galloping fury – and between them, legendary Hollywood auteur Orson Welles booms out thrilling oratory about a sword “forged in brimstone and tempered by the woeful tears of the unavenged.” The most potent musical evocation of the New Yorkers’ Conan The Barbarian aesthetic, and a full-force spearhead of the original NWOAHM.

VIRGIN STEELE – Virgin Steele (Virgin Steele, 1982)

More pioneering power from New York, Virgin Steele daubed ‘NWAHM’ on the sleeve art of their ramshackle party-metal debut that only fully bursts into life on this cracking self-titled closing song. It’s got the hardest riffs, the spunkiest delivery and the most arcane subject matter, plus unorthodox keyboard flourishes from flamboyant frontman David DeFeis.

MANILLA ROAD – Flaming Metal Systems (Crystal Logic, 1983)

First appearing on 1983’s seminal scene sampler US Metal III, Flaming Metal Systems is an intense blast of rampaging bloody steel, neatly showcasing this extraordinary Kansas trio’s blend of mystical grandeur and skull-crushing aggression, with the valorous nasal refrains and exuberant guitar genius of bona fide metal legend Mark ‘The Shark’ Shelton.

SAVATAGE – Sirens (Sirens, 1983)

This Floridian foursome went on to corner the market in neo-classical prog-pomp operas, but their early work was earthy, rocking, riff-heavy US power metal, albeit by clearly technically adept and imaginative musicians. This is their mid-paced debut opener: spooky horror soundtrack intro, futuristic staccato stomp-riff, wild expressive vocals and a dark aura of gloom and mystery.

CIRITH UNGOL – Black Machine (King Of The Dead, 1984)

Majestically mad vocals from Tim Baker, whose bloodcurdling screams sound like Axl Rose being swallowed by an Atlantean beast. Californian foursome Cirith Ungol were criminally unappreciated in their prime – their debut was once dubbed “the worst heavy metal album of all time” – but Black Machine is a snarling biker-doom classic with cosmic guitar heroism from the much-missed Jerry Fogle.

MEDIEVAL STEEL – Medieval Steel (Medieval Steel, 1984)

Teenage metalheads in small-town USA were obsessed with medieval England in 1984. Alongside Brocas Helm, Liege Lord and Dark Knight were Tennessee’s ultra-cult Medieval Steel, whose self-pressed 1984 EP was their sole release until a 2014 comeback album. This emotional and windswept eponymous anthem has been known to reduce grown men to tears, even when their heads are banging.

BLACK DEATH – Scream Of The Iron Messiah (Black Death, 1984)

The world’s first all-African-American heavy metal band – from Cleveland, Ohio of all places – Black Death formed as early as 1977, and this delirious attack of savagely heavy and raw punk metal with OTT loony vox and ripping acid guitar, shot through with an infectious, wistful lead melody, is a screaming cast-iron messianic classic.

OMEN – The Axeman (Battle Cry, 1984)

From an irresistible Spinal Tappish intro to the budget-Maiden duelling guitar harmonies and a chorus exalting a “hooded figure of mortal fear”, The Axeman is archetypal 80s medieval power metal by Bud-swilling leather-boys from LA, somehow assisted to glory by an endearingly unrefined raucousness reflected in the triumphantly juvenile sleeve art.

SLAUTER XSTROYES – The Stage (Winter Kill, 1985)

Containing some of the most magnificently deranged vocals of an era crowded with nutty singing, Chicago quartet Slauter Xstroyes operated at such an uncompromisingly abstruse, deep-underground cult level that they even named themselves Slauter Xstroyes. The giddy, slashing riffs, raw percussive force and possessed vocal spasms make this a truly unique unheralded gem.

ATTACKER – The Wrath Of Nevermore (Battle At Helm’s Deep, 1985)

Tolkien-obsessed hi-jinx from this blue-collar New Jersey five-piece, another class act who never got enough attention. This is an artful, dramatic, virtually progressive highlight from the band’s killer Metal Blade debut, with a triumphant fanfare-style intro riff and stately cascade of serene guitar notes lurching into clattering passages of red-blooded battle-metal dexterity.

Read all about the early noughties wave of American heavy metal.

Chris Chantler

Chris has been writing about heavy metal since 2000, specialising in true/cult/epic/power/trad/NWOBHM and doom metal at now-defunct extreme music magazine Terrorizer. Since joining the Metal Hammer famileh in 2010 he developed a parallel career in kids' TV, winning a Writer's Guild of Great Britain Award for BBC1 series Little Howard's Big Question as well as writing episodes of Danger Mouse, Horrible Histories, Dennis & Gnasher Unleashed and The Furchester Hotel. His hobbies include drumming (slowly), exploring ancient woodland and watching ancient sitcoms.