Initially, ‘power metal’ was just one of several interchangeable labels hanging around the early 80s underground to describe the intensification of metal beyond its 70s roots, towards a rougher, tougher, distilled strain of metal that reached for epic and fantastical themes.
We can trace a line of inspiration back to the bespoke mythology of early Queen, Led Zeppelin’s Achilles Last Stand, Uriah Heep’s Demons & Wizards, Scorpions’ Taken By Force, Judas Priest circa Stained Class and Dio-era Sabbath, but it’s surely 1976’s Rainbow Rising that most prominently sired the medieval fixation, virtuoso musicianship and classical influences that became so key to the sound.
Key to its look was the Sword and Sorcery theme, enjoying a glorious pop-cultural boom with films like Dragonslayer, Excalibur and Conan The Barbarian, role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons, Fighting Fantasy books and He-Man.
Manowar were the most visibly heroic of a mighty USPM wave circa 1982-85, and a German scene was emerging in parallel, with Helloween, Grave Digger, Rage and Running Wild ratcheting up their New Wave Of British Heavy Metal influence.
Meanwhile, Swedish neo-classical sensation Yngwie Malmsteen was setting new templates for young six-string obsessives.
For half of the 90s, the genre was shamed into hiding, while grunge, groove, alternative and death/black metal trends reigned. These were hard times for any who yearned for high-pitched vocal melodies about eagles and wizards.
But with pride, skill, persistence and conviction, champions like Blind Guardian, Gamma Ray, Iced Earth and Stratovarius wrestled the genre back into the limelight. Their hard work paid off; when HammerFall, Rhapsody and Nightwish released debuts in 1997, the scene exploded.
We celebrate 25 of the noblest artefacts in this or any other realm (though, in the name of bringing balance to said realm, only one album per band was allowed).
With Avantasia, multi-instrumentalist, vocalist and creative mastermind Tobias Sammet took the best speedy melodic metal from his main band Edguy and allied it to a more atmospheric, intricate musical soundscape (“maybe a little more bombastic”, Tobias admits in the liner notes) on this fantastical concept album.
It’s less facetious than Edguy - despite the preponderance of elves, dwarves and evil popes (given voice by a stellar cast of guests from Stratovarius, Gamma Ray, Helloween, Virgin Steele, Angra and Within Temptation) - but Tobias retained the knack for a gleaming singalong chorus, and kept the brooding interludes to a strict minimum.
“Cloven Hoof brew a foaming flagon of astro-physical metal that flies on wings of steel,” wrote the brilliant Chris Welch in Metal Hammer in October ’89, reviewing the third LP by these ambitious British underdogs.
He got it, but although Cloven Hoof’s metal was smack-bang in the sweet spot between 80s USPM and European sounds, the luckless Wolverhampton foursome ended up marginalised by the prevailing trends of thrash, glam and grunge.
A Sultan’s Ransom was to be their last LP for 17 years, yet the record still sounds vigorous and full of life, like it’s booting British metal into the 90s.
Embracing a more melancholic, war-weary, mud-caked strain of barbarian power-doom, these solemn Italian heavyweights repudiated the imperial glory of their Roman forebears in favour of marauding Norsemen.
This concept album about the Viking siege of York in 866 is augmented with sounds of clashing swords, hooves and sea-spray.
DoomSword conjure the epic from the earthy like no other band, making dead-simple chords chugged over lyrics like ‘Burn England to the ground!’ sound ineffably mighty and commanding.
The inverse of Rhapsody’s florid, upbeat ‘Hollywood metal’ bombast, DoomSword are a sorrowful trudge through rain-lashed battlefields, surrounded by the corpses of brave friends.
A symphonic, melodic power-prog band from Florida, with a Norwegian-Thai singer, tackling the German legend of Faust with such unorthodox instruments as the West African djembe and the South American bandoneon… Kamelot were never more anomalous than on this definitive work, opening with their best song, the glittering thrill-ride Center Of The Universe.
Roy Khan’s stunning voice expertly strides the line between rousing metallic conviction and emotive, Andrew Lloyd Webberish theatricality, while guitarist Thomas Youngblood overflows with so many great ideas, the concept rolled over onto the next album. Dutch symphonic metallers Epica were moved to take the name shortly after its release.
Unimaginatively written off by the UK press as Maiden copyists, cult London quintet Elixir arrived too late to catch the NWOBHM’s heyday, but their metal was too epic to be confined by that scene.
Honing a very British strain of rugged power metal on this rollicking debut, Elixir also incorporated prog and thrash influences into their spunky twin-guitar anthems.
With lyrics about Greek and Norse mythology, Satanic ritual, space travel, medieval skulduggery and hunting buried treasure, The Son Of Odin is a righteous compendium of ripping yarns, and Dio himself was a big fan of the LP’s addictive single, Treachery.
Quadruple platinum in their homeland - released in both English and Swedish language editions - Sabaton here rose to the challenge
of soundtracking the rise and fall of the Swedish Empire, with particular emphasis on their military leader, King Charles XII.
This focus, and their closeness to the history, clinched the boys their most triumphant platter, both creatively and commercially, the regal subject matter reflected in elegant, stately arrangements, grandiose choirs and Joakim Brodén’s proud, declamatory diction.
Behind the epic sweep, the importance of directness and simplicity to Sabaton’s MO wasn’t forgotten in resounding neck-snappers The Lion From The North and Killing Ground.
With The Odyssey, New Jersey’s neo-classical sensation Symphony X achieved two things. One was to plant their flag firmly in the very heavy metal camp, getting dense and raucous with Dimebag-damaged staccato riffage and tech-thrash chops.
Russell Allen added growls to his powerful vocal range and solos reined in the widdly excess, sharpening the songwriting and cementing their credentials among rivetheads.
The other was to deliriously nail the whole ethos of epic, symphonic neo-classical power-prog in 25 minutes, with the momentous, Technicolor title track - an enthralling experience retelling Homer’s Odyssey via guitar, bass, drums, synths and voice.
This is where everything really came together for the sainted Finns, the first band to fully grasp the genre’s expressive operatic capabilities. Almost every tune was a beautifully crafted nugget of infectious Lloyd Webber Metal ear-candy, all incisive hooks and magical theatrical choruses.
Majestic closing epic FantasMic, named after a Disneyland fireworks display, expresses Tuomas Holopainen’s profound Disney-love, which is exactly the sort of thing only Nightwish have the balls to do. Symphonic PM was never the same again; walking around Wacken 2019, it was striking how many songs owe debts to Wishmaster’s stirring title track.
The fifth LP in a career that stretches back to the mid-70s, Death Or Glory nailed this much-loved Hamburg quartet’s pirate metal madness.
It boasted a glorious swagger, a heavy-as-hell sound and a set of euphoric killer tunes, each one an involving tales of ye olde historical derring-do (except anti-Nazi single Bad To The Bone), given life by Rock’n’Rolf’s committed snarl and huge, ripping guitar.
Running Wild reached a piratical pinnacle of energy and attitude, finding the optimum tone and pace for their swashbuckling power metal on an album that’s both wildly OTT and, somehow, oddly classy.
Circa 1984, American metalheads were hooked on medieval England. LA’s Omen joined the fray with this spirited Metal Blade debut neatly encapsulated by the amateurish charm of its hand-drawn artwork.
Roughening and toughening the NWOBHM blueprint with heaps more swords, sorcery, dungeons, dragons, studs and chains, Omen were key players honing the potent blend of epic and earthy that came to define the best USPM of the era, with the ripping guitars of Kenny Powell and the commanding voice of much-missed frontman JD Kimball pushing manly anthems like The Axeman and Dragon’s Breath towards the legendary end of cult status.
Angra’s fourth LP was a triumphant literal rebirth for the Brazilian scene leaders. Flamboyant guitar duo Kiko Loureiro and Rafael Bittencourt had to replace their singer, drummer and bassist before the recording, yet the fluidity, cohesiveness and dynamism of this stakes-raising album suggest a band bonded with indecent speed.
Alternating some of Angra’s fastest, heaviest headbangers (Nova Era, Acid Rain, Running Alone) with more sedate, reflective melodic yearnings (culminating in Kiko’s closing rearrangement of a Chopin opus), Rebirth also incorporates moments of balladic delicacy, symphonic bombast, dense progressive textures and Latin grooves and rhythms, the whole distinguished by a permeating atmosphere of joy.
These Tolkien-indebted Californians formed as early as 1971, embracing the 80s metal revolution on versatile 1981 debut Frost & Fire. However, when this material was rejected by their local rock station for being ‘too heavy’, the band resolved to crank up the power:
“We decided that if our commercial songs were too heavy, then on our next album we’d really pull out all the stops and play what we really wanted to, the heaviest metal known to man!” recalls drummer Rob Garven. “The result was King Of The Dead, a Churning Maelstrom of Metal Chaos Descending!” Well put, sir.
Before conquering the mainstream with Operation: Mindcrime, Seattle’s prog-metal pioneers had a precociously firm grasp on their own brand of high-tech, visionary power metal, evident in the bravura dramatics of Geoff Tate’s voice and the dark, pensive arrangements.
The orchestral prog touches are discreet on Queensrÿche’s full-length debut, but the high harmony choruses, stately riffs and galloping Maiden-esque twin guitars mark it out as a very metal beast.
The band soon fled their USPM roots for platinum-selling stadium rock glory, but The Warning’s influence on the more progressive, cerebral, melodic strains of the genre remains of crucial importance.
Subtitled ‘A Barbaric-Romantic Opera’ - and actually staged as musical theatre (in Germany) - the New Yorkers’ 10th album is the conclusion of their retelling of Aeschylus’s Greek tragedies, a monument to total conviction and obsessive zeal.
Flamboyant frontman David DeFeis brings a lightness to his voice, but the tenderness of the melodies is counterpointed by his vengeful growls and rugged shrieks, as well as scything riffs, propulsive tempos and an epic narrative thrust.
Iced Earth’s first four albums were more complex, but Jon Schaffer’s tech-thrash chops and Matt Barlow’s dramatic pipes reach their pinnacle on this more direct offering.
The Floridians laid down a versatile set of moods, tugging the heartstrings with Watching Over Me and Melancholy (Holy Martyr) while pulling the neck muscles with lean, visceral ragers Disciples Of The Lie and Stand Alone.
But the full epic power source is resoundingly tapped by the compulsive closing Something Wicked Trilogy (Prophecy/Birth Of The Wicked/The Coming Curse), arguably still the greatest piece of music Iced Earth ever recorded.