Sing-along melodies, fast double bass drums, high pitched vocals, virtuosic solos, rich arrangements and classical variations... Dragons, warriors, swords, mysteries, fantasy landscapes and magical rings and keys... It's grandiose, it's pompous - and it's just so damn catchy.... It's power metal!
The origin of the term power metal is a bit complicated. It was actually first used to describe the early forms of what was later labelled thrash metal. In the beginning of their career even Metallica called their music power metal. Later the term was used to describe a sound that was an American version of NWOBHM and traditional metal but that was generally faster and more aggressive. One might also explain this style as a lighter version of thrash metal. Early works by Queensrÿche, Savatage and Jag Panzer are good examples of what often later have been called American power metal.
Adding to the confusion the founders of groove metal Pantera released an album called "Power Metal" in 1988 - an album that was later "deleted" from their official catalogue.
Today, the concept of power metal is most often used about the distinct European style of heavy metal described in the introduction.
The inspiration for the European power metal came from various sources, such as:
NWOBHM and classic heavy metal
American power metal
Tolkien's wonderful universe
Ronnie James Dio's fantasy lyrics
The virtuosity of Ritche Blackmore and Jon Lord in Deep Purple
The solo duels of Yngwie Malmsteen and Jens Johansson in the 80's
The German band Helloween is considered the true godfathers of power metal. With their two classic "Keeper of the Seven Keys"-albums in 1987 and 1988 the bannd laid the framework for the genre with songs like "Eagle Fly Free", "March of Time" and the epic title track.
Before those two groundbreaking albums Helloween played a faster and more aggressive style of music often called speed metal. Interestingly enough several European power metal bands started out playing speed metal. Those two subgenres share common genes through the fast tempos and sense of melody and has since been more or less merged.
In the 80's the American band Manowar built a tentative bridge between the American and European power metal with their fast paced songs and anthems based on mythological true metal lyrics.
The real breakthrough and establishment of power metal as a distinct subgenre, however, came in the mid 1990's. This "second wave" was a reaction to grunge and alternative metal. Even though the genre was still underground in terms of media exposure the bands grew more popular towards the end of the decade - and much the same as progressive metal, power metal represented an "alternative to the alternative". It was a return to basic elements of heavy metal that many metal fans were longing for. Influential and important bands in this period were Gamma Ray, Blind Guardian, Stratovarius, Rhapsody of Fire and Hammerfall.
Just as with other metal subgenres power metal bands moved in somehow different directions. Some bands brought in a lot of the mentioned progressive metal (such as Symphony X) while others focused on symphonic elements (Rhapsody). Quite often those were two sides of the same story (Kamelot). Also, the early speed metal influences were revised by a band like Dragonforce both in their extreme song tempos and in the solos.
Today power metal is well established as a vital part of the metal community with bands being an integrated part of metal festivals and label roosters alongside bands from all the other branches of the metal tree.
Check out the short playlist below to get a short historic introduction this great and creative subgenre:
Check out this cool playlist from Gathering Storm for a great mix of classic and new power metal bands: