Heavy metal’s subgenres sometime feel like stops on a subway map of some massive city you’ve been to only once before. Sure, you can get on the Death Metal line, but do you want to get off at Brutal Technical Death Metal or Brutal Melodic Death Metal? And what the fuck are those three stops between those two? As such, trying to lock down ‘heavy metal’ as a genre sometimes feels like a fool’s errand, and is more often than not an invitation to long, annoying conversations which become the verbal equivalent of picking olives out of your salad.
But somehow, heavy metal proper has survived. Even now, a class of bands are out there playing traditional heavy metal, with all the gallops, choruses, and wheedlie-deedlies everyone secretly craves. And while plenty of these acts make music solely in tribute to the bands they loved frowin, right down to the shitty production, there are plenty more who are making this old-school music in ways that sound beautifully new and fresh today.
Here are 10 trad-metal bands whose music rules as hard now as it would in ’84…
What sets Brooklyn’s Shadowland apart from the leather pants-clad pack is their vocals and tone. Frontperson Tanya Finder (also the band’s album artist) adds a reedy gothiness to the otherwise ultra-trad act’s vibe, providing a sharp left turn that keep them from feeling typical. Of course, the outfit’s bitching riffs and stampeding rhythms don’t hurt in the slightest, but Finder adds the finishing touch with her witchy commands. Sometimes, a falsetto is nothing compared to the burja’s croon.
Sweden’s Enforcer have solidly become most metalheads’ favorite throwback band. So much of this is their complete dedication to classic metal attitude and lyrics, unafraid as they are to go total cheese with things. Big singles like “Undying Evil” and “Die for the Devil” don’t get steeped in metaphor and suggestion, they just provide huge-ass choruses about monsters and demons — you know, the kind of stuff that brought us here in the first place. Subtext is for the weak.
Time-travel to 1998 and tell your average Ozzfest attendee that Roadrunner just signed a traditional heavy metal band with goth overtones, and they’d laugh you out of the parking lot. But with this year’s Strength, Portland’s Unto Others proved that nu-metal’s patron label is still looking to the future. Even after having to change their name, the shadowy four-piece neer missed a step, with tracks like “When Will Gods Work Be Done” and “Instinct” showcasing a solid mixture of shadow and steel. The soundtrack to a descent into the alleys.
An all-female heavy metal band making music about witchcraft that’s produced by Destruction frontman Schmier? Sounds too good to be true, but Burning Witches are very real, and loud as hell. The band’s 2021 album The Witch of the North might have gone wintry in its sonic magic, but the record’s thick riffs and furious hooks are still hot as hell to the touch. Sometimes you just want to raise a claw and draw down the moon, and if so, play this band while doing that.
There’s a reason Haunt have seen so much hype in the past couple of years. The California band, led by guitarist/vocalist Trevor William Church (also the dude behind Beastmaker), have a shred momentum that makes them instantly compelling to both classic and modern metal fans. That coupled with Church’s single-minded vision has vaulted them high above other bands just trying to tip their hats to Maiden. Warning: this music might cause you to burst into flames.
It’s a shame that Holy Grail have been on such an extended hiatus. The last we heard from Pasadena shredders was 2016’s Times of Pride and Peril, which saw the band adding some interesting nuance to their furious trad-metal sound. But five years later, these dudes remain one of the more exciting-sounding bands to champion a genre that outsiders believe to be long gone. Put on Crisis In Utopia on and enjoy your speeding tickets.
Without question the thrashiest band on this list, Stälker play speed metal in the classic tradition of acts like Exciter and Raven. While fast and harsh, the band’s riffs never go full distortion, reveling in classic metal rather than punk and hardcore. That’s a good thing, too, because this year’s Black Majik Terror is pure entertainment from beginning to end without getting caught up in retro thrash worship. Who knew a place as beautiful as New Zealand could produce music this fucking nuts?
Lots of old-school metal bands take their cues from Sabbath or Iron Maiden. But Chicago’s High Spirits? Early Priest and Van Halen. There’s a wily, laser-like quality to the band’s riffs that make them feel both retro and surprisingly modern. On top of that, so many of their songs are about city lights, neon, and walking around dealing with big emotions, topics which too many bands forget about in favor of Tolkien references. If you want some awesome tunes for that moment when the subway comes above ground and you can see the skyline in all its glory, these are the guys to go to.
More than their charging riffs or their soaring vocals, what makes Spellcaster feel old-school is their guitar tone. Something about the band’s guitars sounds lush and welcoming, reminding one of the days when metal acts weren’t desperate to have their guitars sound like roaring monsters. As such, they’re an easy band to listen to, making one feel as though they’ve finally returned to the metal party they’ve always dreamed of. Welcome back.
Definitely on the gnarlier side of this list’s spectrum, German speed-freaks Vulture are straddling that hard line between classic and thrash metal, and they’re humping it to death. The band’s music basically sounds like a front-row frenzy in a sweaty club, channeling Bonded By Blood-era Exodus right down to their Baloffian vocals. As such, these dudes come off less like a throwback and more like, well, just a killer metal act, the kind of band who’d get you moving no matter what era you’re in. Only haters will see any cheese here; the rest of us will just wish our pants were tighter.
Words by Chris Krovatin