Epic heavy metal is a micro-genre branching from traditional heavy metal. It isn’t strictly defined and there’s no set rules on what qualifies as epic heavy metal and what doesn’t, but after you hear dozens of bands that most would consider fitting of the genre tag then some common unifying themes can be identified. In this guide, I will do my best at explaining what epic heavy metal is as I personally define it and understand it. As a disclaimer, each person’s definition of the genre will be a little different and albums I consider essentials may not be considered essential by others.
Below you will find part I of an extensive and detailed guide to epic heavy metal. Starting with its earliest examples, I trace the genre’s foundation and its history before diving into the essential albums and regional scenes. To make sure that all the bases are covered, I’ve included interviews with some of the genre’s premiere musicians from across the world to hear their take on the genre. You’ll get a taste of what their music is all about and how they define it.
This is part I of the guide – an introduction and definition of epic heavy metal. The next 3 installments will come on a weekly basis starting next Thursday and will later be listed here as additional points of reference. The next installments of the guide will focus on the various regional scenes:
What is “Epic Heavy Metal”?
Musically, epic heavy metal lies at the crossroads of classic heavy metal, power metal, and doom metal. Bands that fall under the epic heavy tag usually exhibit elements from all three of those sub-genres, but with a lean towards one of the styles. For example, bands like Atlantean Kodex and Solstice tilt more heavily in the direction of doom metal, while bands like Domine and Battleroar fall closer to the realm of power metal. In addition to being a mix of genres, the song structures of epic heavy metal don’t typically follow standard conventions. The structures are looser and more sprawling in nature and the riffs themselves are typically more mid-tempo in their pacing.
More than just a blending of styles, the glue that holds epic heavy metal together is atmosphere. As can be deduced from the name, there’s a certain epic emotion to the music that often melds together with triumph, grandeur, or melancholy. There’s an intangible quality about epic heavy metal responsible for separating it from the rest of metal. There’s a mix of factors contributing to that, but a big part of it stems from the lyrical content and vocal delivery. While lyrics don’t strictly define a music genre; swords & sorcery, mythology, and epic battles are as closely tied to epic heavy metal as satanism is to black metal or gore to death metal. These themes work in tandem with a vocal delivery style that usually places emphasis on storytelling in order to evoke that epic feeling from the listener.
Note: This guide will not discuss bands that strictly fall into the realm of epic doom metal. While the genre is very much related and tangential, it is distinctly different. This means that bands like Candlemass, Solitude Aeternus, and Scald will be excluded from discussion here (not for a lack of quality of course!). However, bands that blur the line, up the pace, and push towards epic heavy territory such as Atlantean Kodex and DoomSword will be included.
Defining Examples of Epic Heavy Metal
It’s one thing to describe a music genre, but to really grasp what epic metal is all about, it’s important to immerse yourself in it. I will discuss and list a plethora of bands in this series to help you on your journey through epic heavy metal. To start off, I’ve listed just a few examples below to help give a frame of reference. These bands and releases are among the best that epic heavy metal has to offer, but more importantly they really help to set the tone by clearly putting into perspective what the atmosphere of the genre feels like.
Manowar are typically known for their ridiculous lyrics, bass solos, and general antics, but the Kings of Metal are masters of slow burn epics. There is no clearer example of epic heavy metal than their song “Secret of Steel” from their Into Glory Ride album. In fact, this particular release is so mighty that both this site and article owe their name to it. Into Glory Ride represents the continuation and refinement of the epic style that Manowar first explored with the eponymous closing track to their 1982 debut album Battle Hymns. Fully embracing the epic direction we got glimpses of on Battle Hymns, the songs on Into Glory Ride are mid-paced and crushing with an emphasis on the atmosphere.
After Into Glory Ride, Manowar dialed back the epic a notch and returned to the template of their debut. The epic atmosphere was no longer prevalent through their albums, but tracks like “Bridge of Death” and “Guyana (Cult of the Damned)” are nearly as genre defining as “Secret of Steel”. At the end of the day, Manowar would go on to be one of the most influential bands to the development of epic heavy metal and you’ll find many bands that are discussed in later segments of this series cite Manowar as a critical influence.
Dubbing their music as “Anglo-Saxon battle metal”, Isen Torr pick up the pace compared to Manowar, but they very much embody what it means to be epic. Isen Torr was effectively a supergroup with members from bands like Solstice (UK), Ritual Steel, Destiny’s End, and Twisted Tower Dire. The band was formed with the intent to record three EPs in total, but ultimately they managed only one; Mighty & Superior. Despite just having two songs spanning under 20 minutes total, the EP certainly lives up to its name and Isen Torr stand as the epitome of epic heavy metal. The guitar tone is heavy, the riffs never stop, the melodies are superb, and the vocals, equal parts triumphant and uplifting, are simply perfect. The music is at such a quality that it really speaks for itself.
Recommended listening: Mighty & Superior
I would be remiss not to include Medieval Steel in a section meant to define the epic heavy metal sound. Their eponymous track off their self titled 1984 EP stands alongside Manowar’s “Secret of Steel” as perhaps one of the most clear examples of what epic heavy metal sounds like. While the rest of their catalog doesn’t exactly fit the epic heavy moniker, this song more than makes up for that fact. It’s a mid-paced, vocal driven anthem that really places the emphasis on atmosphere and storytelling. It’s an unforgettable track that is sure to be imprinted in your mind after listening. The live video of this track at Keep it True 2013 still remains as one of the most legendary moments in that festival’s long and storied history.
Recommended listening: Medieval Steel EP
The First Songs
In the first section of this guide I explained and defined epic heavy metal. The releases listed above serve as fantastic representations of the genre, but they certainly weren’t the first. Songs that would form the blueprints of epic heavy metal date as far back as the mid 70s and below you’ll find prime examples of them.
Rainbow – “Stargazer“
Rainbow’s “Stargazer” from their landmark 1976 album Rising is the first definite example of epic heavy metal. They really hit their stride with this album which features some of the very best of both Ritchie Blackmore and Ronnie James Dio. The riffs in “Stargazer” are mid-paced and incredibly heavy with a big emphasis on the rhythm section. The song’s composition in general is dense, with several tracks layered on top of each other at once, creating a huge sound. Synths are used throughout the song, but in a manner that accents the instrumentation and sets the atmosphere. Everything is pieced together in such a way to allow Dio’s epic vocals to carry the song with one of his mightiest vocal performances.
Words do little justice to just how immense “Stargazer” and Rising as a whole were for their time. The level of songwriting and vocal prowess on display, especially for 1976, is simply mind boggling. “The Gates of Babylon” (editor’s note: this is my personal favorite song of all time in any genre of music) and “Kill the King” from 1978’s Long Live Rock ‘n’ Roll also serve as fantastic early examples of epic heavy metal and further cemented Rainbow’s position as a pioneering force in power and epic metal.
Scorpions – “The Sails of Charon“
Scorpions are recognized world wide for their hit “Rock You Like a Hurricane”, but anyone who has listened to them beyond that knows that they have far more to offer than just a single hit. They have a number of important albums, but for the sake of this article we are going to focus on 1977’s Taken by Force. This album stands out among Scorpions’ discography not only for its incredible quality, but for the fact that it has much darker undertones than anything else they’ve written. “Sails of Charon” in particular is a masterpiece that manages to distinguish itself despite the incredibly high bar of the album overall. It’s an ominous track carried by a powerful rhythm and some of Uli’s best leads ever. With fantasy lyrics delivered by one of Klaus’s finest vocal performances, “The Sails of Charon” laid down a blue-print that stands alongside Rainbow’s “Stargazer” as one of the first true examples of epic heavy metal.
Legend (US) – “The Destroyer“
Legend (US) are a band that arrived at epic heavy metal completely by accident in 1979 with the release of Fröm the Fjörds. They considered themselves a prog-rock outfit and for all intents and purposes they were. Legend took the sprawling and experimental nature of progressive rock, but they took it to the next level with just that little bit of a metallic edge. Although uneven in terms of song quality, Fröm the Fjörds gave us a number of excellent tracks featuring catchy melodies, epic vocals, a driving bass, varied drums, and so much more. However, what really helped differentiate Legend from the pack was their use of Viking themed lyrics. When you put the whole package together, you have a band that was so considerably ahead of their time that it’s difficult to understand how they even managed to arrive at this sound.
Black Sabbath – “Heaven and Hell”
Black Sabbath are the progenitors of the music that we love so dearly. When it comes to impact and influence, they are the alpha and the omega. Black Sabbath’s legend, influence, and reputation clearly precedes them. Tony Iommi is the undisputed master of the riff and along with the rest of Sabbath, he was able to keep their sound fresh from release to release. For many, Black Sabbath’s sound is intimately tied to Ozzy Osbourne, but Dio-era Black Sabbath brought a very different feeling to the music.
Heaven and Hell was the first album with Black Sabbath to feature Dio on vocals. Released in 1980, it came shortly after Ronnie’s stint with Rainbow and he brought with him the same magic and intensity. The riffs, song compositions, and overall sound of Black Sabbath became brighter and more epic to match Dio’s style and looking at the title track of Heaven and Hell, we have a clear early example of epic heavy metal. There’s still the same doom-laden atmosphere and active rhythm section from the early Ozzy era, but the songs are a bit faster and give ample space for Dio to do what he does best – deliver pure passion. The sound on Heaven and Hell would later serve as the blueprint for Manowar. In fact, founding members Joey DeMaio and Ross the Boss met while working as stage techs for Black Sabbath’s Heaven and Hell tour!
Note: This song was added to the guide as an addendum on July 26th.
Heavy Load – “Heathens from the North“
Heavy Load were one of the first prominent metal bands out of Sweden and were a driving force in their early heavy metal scene, sometimes referred to as the F.V.A.S.H.M (Första Vågen Av Svensk Heavy Meta) aka the First Wave of Swedish Heavy Metal. (F.W.O.S.H.M.). They debuted in 1978 with Full Speed at High Level, but it wouldn’t be until 3 years later with the release of 1981’s Metal Conquest EP where they really began to hit their creative stride. Full Speed… was a rock influenced early metal affair, but Metal Conquest moved in a heavier, more melodic, and more epic direction. The EP closes with one of Heavy Load’s mightiest tracks – “Heathens from the North”. Starting off with a smooth set of chorus vocals, this anthemic song quickly moves to crushing, mid-paced riffs with incredibly powerful and gruff vocals. Exploring their deep Viking roots, Heavy Load channel a primordial energy into this track that’s difficult to replicate and in doing so, provided us with a prime example of epic heavy metal in 1981. Heavy Load’s next two albums, Death or Glory and Stronger than Evil, continued to explore a more melodic and epic direction, but with a more up-beat tone to it all.
US Power Metal: The Early Pioneers
While there were a number of songs sprinkled here and there throughout the 70s and early 80s that could be considered early examples of epic heavy metal, it wouldn’t be until the mid 80s with the development of the US power metal scene that bands really began embracing a more epic sound.
Most metal fans are familiar with the New Wave of British Heavy Metal or NWOBHM. This was one of metal’s most defining and popular scenes with numerous iconic bands like Iron Maiden, Diamond Head, and Angel Witch that would go on to influence generations. There were a number of scenes that arose globally as a reaction to the NWOBHM and one of these scenes was the American power metal scene that kicked off right around the time the NWOBHM died down. United States Power Metal or USPM was an umbrella term used to refer to American bands that took the NWOBHM sound, stripped down its blues roots, and infused it with power. Bands took the sound to the next level, whether it be in the form of more aggressive riffs, prominent emphasis on melody, a progressive touch, or in the case we’ll be discussing – epic undertones. Below you’ll find a handful of the early pioneers of epic heavy metal that arose as a part of the US Power metal movement
Warlord were founded in 1980 by guitar master William J Tsamis. The band’s first proper offering came a few years later in the form of 1983’s Deliver Us, a brilliant EP that runs just under 30 minutes. With a prominent emphasis on melody and tasteful use of keyboards, this landmark release is one of the first true examples of what many would consider to be power metal. Tsamis’s sense of melody is nearly unparalleled in metal and when combined with dense song structures and strong religious undertones, Deliver Us also presented a prime example of epic heavy metal. This particular style of power/epic metal would go on to be a major influence in the modern bands hailing from Greece and Italy that will be discussed in later segments.
To put it in the simplest terms, Cirith Ungol are one of metal’s weirdest and most unique bands. Unlike most of the bands here, the formed all the way back in the early 70s (1972 to be precise). They toiled away for nearly a decade before arriving at their debut album Frost and Fire in 1981. This album gave us a mix of 70s rock leads and early metal riffs and it was Ungol’s attempt at some commercial airplay that unfortunately never panned out for the band. Realizing they would never be commercial, Cirith Ungol took off the fetters and unleashed everything they had for their magnum opus, 1984’s King of the Dead, which stands as not only a crowning achievement for the band, but as one of metal’s finest albums.
The songs on King of the Dead are ambitious in nature, the riffs are absolutely massive, the bass and drums are thunderous, and Baker’s shrill vocals are simply out of this world. Cirith Ungol took their music in a much more epic direction with grand compositions and a doom-laden atmosphere all while still retaining their amazing guitar leads and unique vocals. There have been many imitators since and while some get close, there will never be another band that can genuinely replicate Cirith Ungol’s signature sound.
As prominent early pioneers in both power and epic metal, Omen took their music in a notably different direction than most bands presented here. Their sound was inherently gruffer and more aggressive than the rest of their peers, but they still had that immense “off to battle” atmosphere. Omen debuted in 1984 with Battle Cry and had a run of 3 fantastic records in just 3 years with the same dynamic four piece line-up. Each member of Omen’s classic line-up contributed greatly to their iconic sound.
Omen was formed by guitarist Kenny Powell after his departure from Savage Grace and he brought with him his iconic fast-paced, “bouncing” style of riffage from that band. Powell’s approach to guitars worked perfectly in tandem with the gruff, “pack-a-day smoker” vocal style of J.D. Kimball to deliver Omen’s unique sound. Putting this dynamic duo together with the consistent and driving rhythm section of Jody Henry and Steve Wittig, the end result is a perfect back drop for a march into battle.
Like the previous bands mentioned here, Brocas Helm are yet another example of a group that stays true to themselves. They first debuted onto the scene in 1984 with Into Battle, the first real glimpse into what the band could offer. Much like Omen, Brocas Helm songs were a bit on the faster side (notably more so than Omen) and featured that “bouncing” style of riffs. There were a few factors though that really separated Brocas Helm from the rest of the pack; a more raw and buried production, prominent use of bass (including some solos), and a very charismatic and unique vocal style. Vocalist Bobby Wright opted for a more story telling approach to his vocals and when put together with the raw production and frantic pacing of the music, it created the feeling of being caught in the middle of the musical epic yourself. Into Battle was just the start for Brocas Helm. They would later refine their style and sound with the release of 1988’s Black Death, which still stands as one of the finest offerings in the genre.
Manilla Road: The Genre Cornerstone
There have been a number of bands already discussed in this first installment of the series, but there is one band that stands clearly above the cut when it comes to influence in epic heavy metal: Manilla Road. They stand alongside only Manowar in terms of impact on the continued development of the underground epic heavy metal scene. Virtually every single non-80s band that we will talk about in the upcoming segments of this series cite Manilla Road as not just an influence on their music, but the primary influence.
The Manilla Road Sound
The signature Manilla Road brand of epic heavy metal blended elements of traditional metal, US power metal, and doom metal with the loose and lengthy song structures of space rock. This approach to music, along with Mark Shelton’s unique, sorcerer like vocals and his unparalleled ability to craft fantasy worlds via lyrics, distinguished the band from the rest of the pack. Manilla Road also had the uncanny knack to always adapt over time and take in new influences with none of their 18 studio records sounding exactly like another.
Manilla Road’s lengthy 18 album career dates all the way back to 1977 when the late and great Mark “The Shark” Shelton decided he wanted to put together a rock band with his high school buddies. The Road’s first output came in the form of 1979’s Underground demo with their debut album, Invasion, coming just one year later in 1980. Manilla Road also recorded another album in 1981 called Mark of the Beast, but this would remain shelved until the band decided to finally let it see the light of day in 2002.
This early period of Manilla Road was characterized by a blending of space rock and very early heavy metal. However, with the release of 1982’s aptly titled album Metal, Manilla Road were ready to embrace a more metal oriented sound. From here, they would really begin refining their metallic craft and the release of Crystal Logic marked the band’s first true foray into the realm of epic metal. The rest is history. Each of the band’s subsequent albums would build on the epic sound brought forth by Crystal Logic. Never content, Manilla Road always incorporated new sounds and influences with each new record and the results speak for themselves.
Recommended listening: Crystal Logic, The Deluge
Note: We wrote a feature specifically intended to help people navigate Manilla Road’s expansive discography, take a look at that for more detail about Manilla Road‘s amazing career.
Interview with Randy “Thrasher” Foxe
Nicknamed “Thrasher” for his incredibly aggressive, fill-oriented style of drumming, Randy Foxe is a former drummer of Manilla Road. His run with the band started in 1984 with Open the Gates and lasted through 1990, ending his career with the band with The Courts of Chaos. He played the drums on some of the band’s most recognizable albums and was a key part in defining Manilla Road’s sound in that classic era.
Since the advent of the internet, we’ve seen bands like Cirith Ungol and Manilla Road receive a second wind of sorts with a resurgence in popularity in recent years. How do you feel about this? Why do you think people are more drawn to these bands now than they were before?
Back when the band had started, and well into its time, everything was “word of mouth”. If you met someone and found they had similar music interests, you would talk about the bands that you both enjoyed and recommended bands the other had not heard. The internet allowed people who had never met, and might never meet in person, to group together and discuss interests they shared. During discussions of bands they had in common, they would recommend music to each other. Of course, bands that had already gained wide exposure would benefit less as they were already well known. But some of the more obscure bands began to get a wider exposure as fans convinced others to listen.
How did Manilla Road arrive at that signature epic metal style that they became known for? Did you intentionally go for this more epic approach to music or was it a natural result of the songwriting process?
I can only speak for my time with the band. We never intentionally tried for any style. A lot of the music came from long improvisations, or “jams”. Songs were sometimes very carefully crafted. I can tell you that I sometimes tried to convey specific ideas with my parts, such as Dementia’s rhythms trying to convey the lyrical content or resting the heel of my left foot on the snare at the end of The Deluge to give it a muffled, underwater sound. There are more. But we never set out to have a certain sound. We were having fun but we took the music quite seriously.
In addition to being the defining epic metal band of the underground, Manilla Road are known for having a very dynamic catalogue that constantly incorporated new sounds and evolved over time. What kind of influences did Manilla Road incorporate? How did the band always manage to make each album so different from the last?
Mark’s chosen direction was metal though he had a wide musical background. Scott would have musically followed Mark anywhere. Again, on this, I can really only speak for my input. My favorite music was usually something dramatic. While I tended towards heavy music, I think drama was a larger influence. Metal and hard rock tend to be dramatic. Of course, progressive rock is usually very dramatic. Much later, I heard the term “pomp rock” and found that many of my favorite bands fit that. I think I brought a lot of drama into the music. At least, that’s what I was trying to do.
Each album was different because we were constantly pushing each other musically. And we were practicing usually five nights a week. It was easy to get bored with songs and want to move on to something new. Something new could be a new song. But we were always trying new sounds. One such sound that only occurred in live shows and rehearsals was massive. I had a mini keyboard mounted to a tom high on my right. It was a 16″ tom so there was plenty of room to mount the keyboard out of the way. But that put it very near one of Mark’s amplifier stacks. This keyboard could take samples, which are small, digital recordings, at the press of a button. When Mark would let a note just go into feedback, if I was quick enough I could press the button and capture that sound. Then I could play four notes of that sound with my right hand while I played drums with my left. Add Scott’s huge bass tone and it sounded something like an apocalypse orchestra behind Mark’s soloing. So these experiments in pushing ourselves, each other, and our instruments just kept evolving the sound.
Your drumming style is often described as aggressive, earning you the nickname “thrasher”. The period of Manilla Road that you were a part of is also aptly recognized as the band’s most aggressive. How did you approach drumming for these albums? Were you actively involved in steering Manilla Road in that more aggressive direction?
I only had about four weeks to learn the songs before we recorded “Open the Gates”. We actually only used three weeks to rehearse the songs then we booked a week playing a popular bar in town, “The Echo Chamber”. The idea was to see how an audience liked the music. Some of my parts actually changed based on that week in front of an audience. The next week we went into the studio to record and mix for eight days.
During the rehearsals, I was conscious that a simpler style was typically used in the more popular bands. So some of the parts had been written to be very simple. But I saw people reacting to the more elaborate parts. Those are much more fun for me to play. So I was modifying my parts a bit during the week. Even during the recording, some of parts changed. For instance, Open the Gates was a very, very basic drum part. But part way in, as we were recording, I got a bit bored and took off.
By the time we were working on The Deluge, I had decided to try to play something original as often as possible. There were a couple of drum fills that occurred in two different songs on Open the Gates and that bothered me. I feel that, while songs evolve over time, they should be unique from other songs and the parts should be confined to individual songs.
Mark rarely suggested anything for the drums. Sometimes, after an improvisation, he would say that he really liked something I’d done, as I also told him, and we would try to develop those ideas.
I’ve always played aggressively. I’ve tried to play lightly but it doesn’t feel right. Also, I think the drums sound better when they are hit solidly. I really have no patience to find “the ultimate tone” on any instrument. I grab an instrument and I just want to play immediately. And, with drums, I found that a greatly tuned drum and a quickly tuned drum don’t sound terribly different if you really smack it.
Manilla Road’s lyrics touch on a wide variety of subject matter, but literature and fantasy were typically the main central themes at play. How did Manilla Road write lyrics during your time with the band? How important do you think literature by authors like Edgar Allen Poe and H.P. Lovecraft are to metal?
Mark wrote all of the lyrics. At the time I joined, he was in a period of saying that only “swords and sorcery” lyrics were metal. I never agreed with that especially as it would mean that many classic metal bands weren’t metal at all.
He later changed his stance on that. He became more open to other subjects, such as horror. Several people surrounding the band, Mark and myself included, were fans of Lovecraft and Poe and he took inspiration from there. Around the time of recording Mystification, he’d seen me reading Clive Barker’s “Books of Blood” series and showed an interest. He read “Midnight Meat Train” but stopped there. I tried to get him to read more but I think he believed none of the other stories could equal it. We occasionally discussed the lyrics but it was his vision, the entire time I was there.
You played the drums, keyboard, and even guitar as a part of the recent tribute to Mark Shelton at Keep it True 2019. How did this all come together? What was it like for you, as a former bandmate of Mark’s, to be involved in this?
Bryan asked if I would take part in the tribute. Of course I said yes. Then he and Phil started organizing who would play which songs. I asked if they would consider letting me play guitar on a song and I told them that I believed I could do justice to Necropolis. I even offered to audition to prove myself. Then Rick and Phil asked if I’d like to rehearse Necropolis with them. That turned into rehearsing the five songs that Rick was going to play. But for the show, I needed some time to get a drum kit ready for my songs so I couldn’t play more than the first song.
The day of the show, I asked the other guitarists if I could also play on Heavy Metal to the World and they gave me a spot for that too. That was the very last song. It was a very busy day. I forgot to tell Bryan. He was very surprised to see me come out for that. Incidentally, I’d never played that song on guitar. I used to do a very silly version on acoustic piano, though, so I knew the chords.
Seeing all the different, amazing musicians that span generations at that tribute really makes it clear how influential Manilla Road have been for the scene. How does it make you feel to look back at the band’s legacy and impact?
It’s true that much of that tribute can be attributed to the music. But a lot of it can be attributed to Mark and how much everyone loved and respected him.