The UK took its time to provide a world-class power metal scene leader. After Judas Priest’s Painkiller gave trad metal a kick up the arse in 1990, other Brits seemed to concede defeat.
UKPM sat out the 90s altogether, only regaining momentum in early 2000, when the internet was in the process of revolutionising and democratising the music business.
The website mp3.com reported half a million downloads of a demo called Valley Of The Damned, an uproarious call-to-arms by London-based sextet Dragonheart.
A CD-R followed, this heart-fluttering five-tracker landing like a spandex thunderbolt, energising British metal-heads who’d yearned for a homegrown contender to the power metal elite.
We wanted a British band not just to rival European scene royalty, but take the genre and push it further, shake it up, hoist it to its giddiest zenith, then spray a six-pack of lager all over it and punch it in the face.
So thank the Lord for Dragonforce - shrewdly renamed after the discovery of a Brazilian power metal band called Dragonheart, but the emphasis on ‘force’ was well-placed.
All of the songs were written by early 2001, but it took another two years before the Valley Of The Damned LP came out, the savvy self-managed band holding out for the best record contract.
“I was handling the deal,” guitarist Herman Li told ultimate-guitar.com in 2009, “and thought, ‘Why would you sign your life away straight away?’ You have to be careful, because if you just rush in, the terms of the record deal could make a big difference.”
By the time the debut emerged in February 2003 on Rod Smallwood’s Sanctuary Records imprint, some UK power metal thunder had been stolen: Dragonheart off-shoot band Power Quest and Guildford prog-power whizz-kids Shadowkeep were already deep into recording careers.
However, after the shit-hot demo and a spreading word-of-mouth reputation for their high-energy live show, Dragonforce’s debut was all the more powerful for the wait. As soon as it dropped, the band took their place among the cream of the genre, representing its wildest excesses, where they proudly remain - more visibly than ever since Guitar Hero shot their profile into the stratosphere.
Given the English stereotype of emotional restraint, perhaps it seemed odd for an English band (albeit one with a South African singer, Hong Kong-born guitarist, Ukrainian keyboardist and French drummer) to provide power metal with a ton of its most nakedly emotional melodies, all whizzing by in an electrifying rush, but it’s still a keenly anticipated centrepiece of their live set.
With its building succession of jubilant vocal melodies, its malfunctioning-Nintendo tempo taking the BPM beyond previous genre boundaries, and the hungry attack of Herman Li (twice-Golden God winner for Best Shredder, 2005/09) and Sam Totman’s twin-axe magic, Valley Of The Damned damn-near nails everything straight off the bat, yet energy and excitement levels somehow maintain high for 52 minutes.
Even the ballad, Starfire, is a first-attempt gold medal winner in affectingly emotional songcraft, yet the lyrics remain metal as fuck, firmly rooted in heroic martial fantasy. Dragonforce’s production and performance have since grown more sophisticated, but for its hammering impact and the audacious, open-hearted joy of the songs, Valley… triumphs.
HammerFall’s 1997 debut, Glory To The Brave, signalled a new golden age of power metal, the medieval Swedes breaking through at just the right time in an austere and abrasive decade for metal. Dragonslaying was firmly back on the agenda, and we could wear our old Helloween, Accept and Manowar patches with pride again at last.
The impact was profound, but with their second LP HammerFall proved they had the songwriting chops to rival their own influences, in an era when Iron Maiden and Judas Priest were in the creative doldrums. Uncomplicated and direct, but with a majestic bearing, HammerFall hit the nail on the metal head.
After their stunning 1983 debut, Sirens, these wayward Floridian pioneers dropped the ball on two disappointing records.
Apparently heading for commercial oblivion, the quartet recalibrated and marshalled their strengths, tightening, maturing and progressing the dark, atmospheric, twisty-turny power metal of the debut - a sound they’d never revisit after lucratively venturing down the rock opera rabbit hole with 1989’s Gutter Ballet.
They could scarcely improve on the slashing grandiosity of Hall Of The Mountain King; certainly not after the tragic death of ace guitarist Criss Oliva in 1993, whose wild, fluid neoclassical solos deck the Hall with regal finery.
Their seventh album, Destiny, was the culmination of this Finnish quintet’s first decade of wizardly development, bringing their sharpest skills to bear on a set of sweet pop-metal nuggets, killer trad Euro-bangers, impassioned power ballads and dizzying progressive epics.
And what skills! Jens Johansson had honed his triumphant orchestral synth manouevres with Yngwie Malmsteen and Dio; Jorg Michael thumped tubs for Grave Digger and Running Wild; and the two Timos, guitarist Tolkki and singer Kotipelto, here reach their height of form in composition and performance.
Led by the valorous nasal storytelling and fiery guitar of much-missed cult metal icon Mark ‘The Shark’ Shelton, Manilla Road were at the gleaming edge of metal’s journey to power in the 80s, releasing at least three albums with a claim on this list.
Their fourth LP, Open The Gates, is right in the purple patch, laying down a full house of forceful, lurid metal anthems and mystical doomy epics laden with weird bardic atmospheres.
Aptly named drummer Randy ‘Thrasher’ Fox makes his debut, ramping up the pace and attack, and the power trio finally got artwork befitting their creative quality.
Having lost estimable vocalist Ralf Scheepers (who applied to audition as Halford’s replacement in Priest before forming the excellent Primal Fear), pioneering firebrand guitarist Kai Hansen returned to the microphone - but with far stronger results than his scrappy early Helloween vocals.
He refocused Gamma Ray’s sound towards the high-energy blend of Teutonic melody and gritty intensity that has defined them since. The mid-90s were a tough time for ‘proper metal’, but with Land Of The Free alongside Blind Guardian’s 1995 album Imaginations From The Other Side, Germany was working hard to restore pride and kick new life into this beleaguered form. Job done.
It was murder choosing one Manowar LP to rule them all. At least five of the New York City true metal legion’s records are in contention, but after much agony and ecstasy, at the 11th hour it had to come down to Hail To England, because tracklist.
Thunderous opener Blood Of My Enemies, setting an intense new template for Viking metal; Each Dawn I Die, a brooding occult death march with Eric Adams proudly proclaiming ‘I wear the cat-skin gloves’; the slashing breakneck fury of Kill With Power (lovingly covered by Arch Enemy in 2003); stirring, anthemic love song to the fans Army Of The Immortals, Manowar doing more than any band to exalt and unite the global brotherhood of metal at this time; and epic closing doom hymn Bridge Of Death, where a possessed Eric spits out some of the era’s most outrageously Satanic lyrics (‘Impale me on the horns of death, cut off my head release all my evil / Lucifer is King, praise Satan!’) before collapsing in evil laughter.
Each song is a textbook exemplar of USPM at its hardest, purest and manliest, Eric Adams’ colossal voice brimming with conviction and resolve, Joey DeMaio’s roving basslines flapping like power cables in a storm, new boy Scott Columbus laying down his hammer-of-the-
gods kit demolition.
“I heard [Hail To England] at a friend’s place and we were both shocked because it was so aggressive!” JB from Grand Magus told Metal Hammer in 2016.
“I’d obviously heard Venom around then too, but they were never as ferocious as that Manowar album. Also, the sound was not booming; it was very sharp, and I hadn’t heard anything like that before, so we were both fascinated and a bit scared when we heard them! It made a huge impression. It sounded really extreme to me.”
Then there’s the majestic title track, a touching homage to the country where Manowar formed (in Newcastle City Hall, 1980, when Joey DeMaio was Black Sabbath’s bass tech and Ross The Boss was the support band’s guitarist).
Strange as it may seem for a band who went on to be so huge in Germany, Sweden and Greece, we English were the first responders to Manowar’s global call to arms.
“The reason we called the album Hail To England is because we’re with the people who are with us,” explained Joey DeMaio in 1984.
“When [1982 debut] Battle Hymns was released, we suddenly found ourselves dropped by the idiots at the label in America who had no idea how to market us. We were left for dead, and probably would have folded had it not been for the support we got from England.
"The press over there kept us going. We owe our existence to English heavy metal fans and this is our way of saying ‘thank you’ to them all… England is like our spiritual home. And this is the one country in the world that’s taken us to their hearts.”
Of the album itself, Joey declared: “We believe in certain values and won’t compromise on them to any extent. Manowar are trying to create six- to 10-minute symphonies that are technically stretching and give the fans something to hold onto beyond simple riffs.”
Guitarist Ross The Boss was more succinct with his assessment, and even more unequivocal, telling ultimate-guitar.com in 2009: “I thought that the version of the band that played on Hail To England was one of the best metal units of all time. Period.”
1998’s Nightfall In Middle Earth was an equally immersive masterwork, but it’s easy to rule when you’re cribbing Tolkien.
Imaginations From The Other Side created its own abstruse, metaphysical concept about a boy glimpsing other dimensions, cementing these German veterans (who formed in 1984 as Lucifer’s Heritage) as more restlessly creative and cerebral than the average headbanging fare.
Make no mistake, the likes of Script For My Requiem or Born In A Mourning Hall are as vicious and breakneck as any power metal, but there are ingenious melodic ideas pinging everywhere, like sparks from a Catherine Wheel.
These venerable Italian stallions addressed a criticism of their mighty OTT ‘Hollywood metal’ sound on their dazzling third album by cranking up the guitars and restraining the symphonic synths (slightly) to assert the rampaging attack of energetic epics such as Holy Thunderforce, Triumph For My Magic Steel and Dargor, Shadowlord Of The Black Mountain.
The white-knuckle turning point of the Emerald Sword Saga - Rhapsody’s madly Tolkienesque narrative concept underpinning their first five albums - this is where the story takes on a sense of dynamic momentum and fully fledged worldbuilding, while the band’s bubbling interplay and sheer virtuosic force still floors jaws.