About 4 years ago I wrote a couple of primers introducing people to the basics of the United States Power Metal movement, or USPM, for short. I shared these primers on websites like Reddit’s metal section and ultimate guitar’s metal forum. If this post looks familiar, you likely saw a previous iteration referenced from one of those sites or someone adapted parts of it.
This is a rewrite of those primers and will have updated information that should make it easier to read and more comprehensive. Enjoy!
Let’s start with a refresher! (Skip this if you’re familiar with USPM)
What is USPM and what does it sound like?
USPM stands for United States Power Metal – an evolution of traditional metal that took place in the US starting around the early-mid 80’s. Most people are familiar with the European Style of power metal – USPM is nothing like that. To lift from my first primer, USPM has a very distinct sound and grit to it. The very core of USPM is influenced by the early NWOBHM movement. The pioneers of the USPM movement took the NWOBHM and made it into something entirely their own. They sped it up. They made it more energetic. They increased the number of solos. The vocals were intensified. They added POWER.
There were two distinct styles that emerged within USPM – I’ll refer to them as “aggressive” and “progressive”. “Aggressive USPM” is more speed metal oriented in nature, often times flirting with thrash as well. “Progressive USPM” has a focus on melodies and bigger vocals while usually incorporating more complex song structures. I use the term progressive here but not every album features those complex song structures – rather I’m using that term to broadly describe bands that really don’t fit under that speedy, thrashy aggressive variety. It just happens that most of these bands featured progressive song structures! These distinctions aren’t hard and fast (many bands blur the line in between), but rather they should serve as general guidelines.
The following releases in my humble opinion serve as fantastic gateways to exploring the genre. They consist of some of the best releases in USPM and act as wonderful representatives of the various sounds found in the genre.
Aggressive Starter Kit:
- Helstar – Nosferatu
- Jag Panzer – Ample Destruction
- Liege Lord – Master Control
- Manowar: Into Glory Ride
- Omen – Battle Cry
Progressive Starter Kit:
- Crimson Glory- Crimson Glory
- Fates Warning – Awaken the Guardian
- Savatage: Sirens
- Queensryche: The Warning
- Warlord – And the Cannons of Destruction Have Begun…
Genre Essentials (80’s – Early 90’s)
Once you’ve gotten your feet wet and decided that you enjoy this type of music, it’s time to start hitting the essentials! Essential albums here are defined by 3 key attributes: popularity, influence, and quality. The albums listed below meet all of the criteria to varying degrees.
- Agent Steel: Skeptics Apocalypse, Unstoppable Force
- Attacker: Battle at Helm’s Deep, The Second Coming
- Griffin: Flight of the Griffin
- Helstar: Nosferatu, Burning Star, A Distant Thunder, Remnants of War
- Hexx: Under the Spell
- Jag Panzer: Ample Destruction, Tyrants EP
- Liege Lord: Burn to my Touch, Freedom’s Rise, Master Control
- Manowar: Battle Hymns, Into Glory Ride
- Metal Church: Metal Church, The Dark, Blessing in Disguise
- Omen: Battle Cry, Warning of Danger
- Riot: Thundersteel
- Sanctuary: Refuge Denied
- Savage Grace: Masters of Disguise, After the Fall from Grace
- Tyrant: Legions of the Dead, Too Late to Pray
- Vicious Rumors: Digital Dictators, Soldiers of the Night
- Chastain: Ruler of the Wasteland, The 7th of Never, Voice of the Cult
- Crimson Glory: Crimson Glory, Transcendence
- Fates Warning: The Spectre Within, Awaken The Guardian
- Fifth Angel: Fifth Angel
- Heir Apparent: Graceful Inheritance
- Lizzy Borden: Love You to Pieces, Visual Lies
- Lords of the Crimson Alliance: Lords of the Crimson Alliance
- Savatage: The Dungeons are Calling, Sirens, Hall of the Mountain King
- Shok Paris: Steel and Starlight
- Screamer: Target: Earth
- Queensryche: Self titled EP, The Warning
- Warlord: Deliver Us EP, And the Cannons of Destruction Have Begun…
There were a few bands that released material around this type that are related to USPM but don’t quite fit the moniker. These bands are undoubtedly high quality and at times certainly flirted with the USPM sound (some a lot more than others). Both the quality and influence of this bands cannot be understated and for those reasons I believe they deserve a special mention here.
- Brocas Helm: Into Battle, Black Death
- Cirith Ungol: King of the Dead, One Foot in Hell
- Manilla Road: Crystal Logic, The Deluge, Open the Gates, Mystification
- Slough Feg: Traveller, Down Among the Deadmen, Twilight of the Idols, Hardworlder, Atavism, Animal Spirits, Ape Uprising
Modern Champions (Mid 90’s – Current)
By the time the 90s rolled around USPM had already begun to die out. With that said, plenty of bands still carried the torch throughout the 90s and more recent years have seen a revitalization with many new bands playing this type of style. I’ve listed below some of the higher quality releases from the 90s up to the current year. Unlike the previous essentials listed for the 80s, influence and popularity are not considered for the below.
- Archetype: Dawning
- Armored Saint: Symbol of Salvation
- Attacker: Giants of Canaan, Sins of the World
- Axehammer: Windrider
- Axiom: Vicious Circle
- Ballistic: Ballistic
- Batallion: Runaway
- Borrowed Time: Borrowed Time
- Catharsis: Pathways to Wholeness
- Cauldron Born: Born of the Cauldron, And Rome Shall Fall
- Commandment: Engraved in Stone
- Crescent Shield: The Last of My Kind, The Stars of Never Seen
- Demon Bitch: Hellfriends, Death is Hanging
- Destiny’s End: Breathe Deep the Dark
- Dofka: Toxic Wasteland
- Eternal Champion: The Armor of Ire
- Fireaxe: Lovecraftian Nightmares
- Gothic Knights: Kingdom of the Knights
- Helstar: Vampiro
- Iced Earth: Night of the Stormrider, Burnt Offerings
- Ironflame: Lightning Strikes the Crown
- Lethal: Programmed
- Miles Beyond: Miles Beyond
- New Eden: Stagnant Progression
- Onward: Evermoving
- Overlorde: Return of the Snow Giant
- Powersurge: MCMXCI
- Phantom: Cyberchrist
- Pharaoh: The Longest Night, Bury the Light
- Recon: Behind Enemy Lines
- Satan’s Hallow: Satan’s Hallow
- Skullview: Legends of Valor
- Spirit Web: Spirit Web
- Steel Angel: Inquiete
- Steel Assassin: War of the Eight Saints
- Steel Prophet: The Godless Principle
- Sumerlands: Sumerlands
- Twisted Tower Dire: Curse of the Twisted Tower, Isle of Hydra, Crest of the Martyrs, Netherworlds, Make it Dark
- Verscythe: A Time Will Come
- Virgin Steele: Invictus, Marriage of Heaven and Hell Part 1,Marriage of Heaven and Hell part 2
- Visigoth: The Revenant King
- Widow: Carved in Stone
- Winter’s Bane: Heart of a Killer
Editor’s Choice – Full Length Albums
In this section I’ll describe the releases I personally feel are the absolutely most distinguished. I’ll break it out by full length and EPs. For this section, I’ll refrain from repeating bands since the list is short and I’ll omit bands from the “special mentions” section above – otherwise I’ll essentially be left with a list full of Manilla Road and Cirith Ungol.
Remember, this is just my personal opinion so feel free to totally disagree!
Honorable mention) Cauldron Born – Born of the Cauldron
A true masterpiece of 90s metal that is equal parts Fates Warning and Helstar. It’s a mix of both the progressive and aggressive elements of USPM brought together in a perfect harmony by Howie Bentley’s twisted mind. Complex riffs, epic song structures, and catchy vocal melodies – it’s all there. The end result is a highly unique and top-notch album that you just have to experience for yourself.
5) Fates Warning – Awaken the Guardian
Fates Warning, the popularizers of progressive/power metal, delivered a ridiculous 1-2 punch in the mid 80s having released Spectre Within in 1985 and then Awaken the Guardian in 1986. Legions of bands have since tried to imitate what they’ve done on those two records to varying degrees of success. Both Spectre and Awaken the Guardian are landmark USPM albums but I believe Awaken personally takes the cake. This album has the same masterful song structures and riffing as Spectre but is overall more accessible. John Arch’s vocals are definitely unique and take some getting used to for folks, but once you get past that the band’s musical prowess really shines through.
Absolutely essential listening.
4) Riot – Thundersteel
Thundersteel is just one of those albums that touches me to the very core. It has absolutely everything I could ever want in a power metal album from blistering solos to banging riffs to beautiful, melodic vocals. I come back to it time and time and time again without ever getting bored. It’s just perfect all the way through.
3) Crimson Glory – Crimson Glory
Classy, powerful, and majestic, Crimson glory’s self titled debut delivers everything I could possibly ask for in a USPM release. The songwriting is simple but the riffs are extremely memorable. The album is carried by Midnight’s transcendent vocals – there are plenty of moments where I just think to myself “How is he even able to fucking do that?”. Overall, the Crimson Glory ST is an astounding album with a remarkable almost intangible quality to it that has me constantly replaying it throughout the years.
2) Jag Panzer – Ample Destruction
Aggressive, ballsy, and uncompromising. If Crimson Glory’s debut is everything I look for in a progressive USPM album, then Jag Panzer is everything I look for in the aggressive variety. This album has always been my go to recommendation for first time listeners to USPM. The aggressive and uncompromising nature of Henry “The Tyrant” Conklin and co. grab you by the throat and never let go. Ample Destruction is the hallmark USPM album and demonstrates the stark contrast found between USPM and their European cousins.
1) Tyrant – Too Late to Pray
Paragon – “a person or thing regarded as a perfect example of a particular quality”.
This is my personal metal paragon. Not just USPM – this album possesses all the qualities I could possibly ask for in a release. Powerful mid-paced riffing that balances aggression, doom, and epicness topped off with testosterone filled vocals. The production is unique and heavy and when combined with the music creates an atmosphere of Armageddon unlike anything else out there. I’ve spent the last 10 years since I found this album looking for anything remotely similar to no avail. I could spend hours talking about how this album has changed how I view metal and music as a whole, but that wouldn’t do it justice.
Too Late to Pray is a unique album that really just needs to be experienced. If there’s anything you take from my primers, just listen to this album at least once.
Editor’s Choice – EPs
5) Medieval Steel – Medieval Steel
MEDIEVAL STEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEL! IT CUTS YOU LIKE A KNIFE!!
Medieval steel play a slow to mid paced brand of USPM that is focused very heavily on the vocals. The result is a grand, epic sound that is reminiscent of Manowar’s slower, more grandiose moments found on releases like Into Glory Ride. This band’s self titled EP, and song more specifically, have become cult classics for their anthem-worthy pace and choruses. Essential listening if only for the title track.
4) Dark Age – Dark Age
Dark Age’s self titled EP is one of the first releases I discovered and found myself really getting into after scratching the surface USPM. There’s a magical uplifting energy coming from the vocals and riffs that make it very clear this band was having an absolute blast putting together this release. Every song is unique and has its own little character and story around it from the faster paced bangers such as “Metal Axe” and “Warrior” to the slow and epic “Tales of Medusa”. This EP has gained a status of reverence and worship in trad circles for its superior quality. The music here is so good that legendary cult band Tales of Medusa named themselves after one of the songs here – in fact, I’d be willing to say that their sound is extremely influenced by the style and structure of this song in particular.
This little EP has become one of my most listened to USPM releases since discovering the genre. It is really a shame that we didn’t any more material out of this band.
3) Savatage – The Dungeons are Calling
Savatage’s Dungeons are Calling EP came right after the band’s remarkable debut Sirens. Stylistically, it serves as an effective continuation of Sirens but with a slightly more aggressive edge. Every song on this EP is 100% killer and 0% filler. After listening to this album, you too will feel captured by the grace of the witch because I sure as hell am with every listen.
2) Queensryche – Queensryche
Queensryche – the legendary power progressive band – started out far simpler than whatever they became later in their career. Their self titled EP was their first major release and it provides us with a very straight forward 17 minute slab of metal. Queenryche’s relatively simple approach on this EP doesn’t take anything away from the music at all, in fact it does the exact opposite. The 1983 release of this EP set the foundation for what the progressive side of USPM would start to sound like. Queen of the Reich and The Lady Wore Black, both found here on this EP, became some of the most recognizable songs out of the USPM movement. The legendary Queensryche at their best.
1) Warlord – Deliver Us
Warlord’s first major release is incredibly varied and complex from the dark and slower “Black Mass” to the more aggressive and in your face “Child of the Damned”. The vocals, riffing, song structures – everything is tight on this EP. Each song on here is a classic, it’s truly astounding.