The winner’s history of American heavy metal encompasses Sunset Strip glam, Bay Area thrash, and Florida death metal, but there’s surprisingly little of what could be considered traditional heavy metal. (The same goes for its offshoots, trad doom and power metal.) That style of metal—guitar-solo-powered, with flamboyant lead vocals, often with lyrics about fantasy and science fiction—has long been a major force in Europe, but, cult fandom aside, the U.S. has never fully embraced it.
Of course, Americans have been playing the genre sometimes called “true metal” since its inception. Their patron saint is the late Ronnie James Dio, the New Hampshire-born singer who found fame with the British bands Rainbow and Black Sabbath before launching his multiplatinum solo career. Dio represents a best-case scenario for Americans playing this music; the far likelier outcome is that of Manowar or Manilla Road or Solitude Aeturnus—adored by a dedicated base, ignored by the majority of U.S. metalheads, and much, much bigger in Europe.
In the past couple of years, that tide seems to be turning. A class of bands influenced not just by Dio and the ubiquitous Iron Maiden, but by the never-quite-famous American true metal middle class, is emerging. Many of these bands have members with a background in extreme metal, punk, and hardcore. It might be that the young and angry have a tendency to age into Conan-reading heshers—or it might be that, in the time of Trump, it just feels good to sing about wizards and dragons. Whatever the reason for their existence, these bands are distinctly and meaningfully American—and they are forging a path for the next generation of traditional metal acts to follow. These 10 represent this recent movement at its best.
The Philly doom band made one of the defining documents of this wave of American trad metal with 2015’s Out of the Garden, a debut album so strong that the Dean of True Metal, Darkthrone’s Fenriz, reached out to and became pen pals with guitarist Steve Jansson. Out of the Garden’s riffs are downright regal, and vocalist Brooks Wilson sings Biblically-inspired lyrics over them in a voice that’s one part Dio, two parts enthusiastic drama camp counselor. Solitude Aeturnus pioneered this style of epic American doom, but Crypt Sermon are poised to perfect it.
“Professor” Chris Black is a deserving Chicago metal legend, and Dawnbringer is probably his best-loved project. Though they started in the mid ‘90s as a melodic death metal band, Black transformed it with 2010’s Nucleus, and he’s been on a winning streak ever since. This year’s XX EP is a bite-sized portion of everything that’s made this phase of Dawnbringer great: passionate vocals, spartan song structures, and more than a few musical references to Jake E. Lee-era Ozzy.
Compact Disc (CD), Vinyl LP
Power metal is still a tough pill to swallow for many American metalheads, but Eternal Champion infuse it with plenty of muscle, thanks in part to the fact that some of their members are also in Iron Age and Power Trip. The Armor of Ire owes a major debt to the U.S. power metal ur-texts of Manilla Road and Cirith Ungol, but it shows remarkable dexterity for a debut album, the band obviously as comfortable playing a proto-thrash ripper like the title track as they are the Lovecraftian pseudo-power ballad “Invoker.”
Compact Disc (CD)
John Cobbett should be awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his service to American heavy metal. As a member of Slough Feg, Ludicra, VHÖL, and especially Hammers of Misfortune, the guitarist brought into the world a playing style that’s entirely his own, and reshaped the Bay Area metal canon in the process. On this year’s Dead Revolution Cobbett and his Hammers bandmates are fully locked in, balancing their prog-rock influences with the singular trad metal sound they’ve perfected. Hammers of Misfortune may be older than the majority of the bands that comprise this current movement, but they prove again and again that they can still keep pace with the best of them.
With High Spirits, Chris Black fuses Iron Maiden’s classicism to the heavier side of the U.S. hair metal boom as practiced by bands like Dokken and W.A.S.P. As you might expect from a band called High Spirits, whose latest album is called Motivator, darkness and evil are out the window here. This is posi-metal, more concerned with putting a smile on your face than getting your fist pumping (though you’ll do that, too). Dawnbringer is likely Black’s more musically-accomplished project, but during this politically-fraught chapter in our history, I find myself putting on High Spirits with more frequency. “Close your eyes and let your spirits rise,” like the good professor says.
Compact Disc (CD), Vinyl LP
Khemmis’ hi-fi take on doom veers into the territory trod by more deliberately epic-sounding bands like Pallbearer and 40 Watt Sun, but they keep one foot in the halls of true metal. Hunted marks their creative high point, at times a paean to classic doom, and at others a propulsive, swaggering joyride. The exchange between clean and harsh vocals on “Three Gates” even recall another New Wave of American Heavy Metal, the one that spawned Shadows Fall and Darkest Hour. That admittedly odd curveball highlights one of the great strengths of Hunted: Khemmis will never be fully deferential to their own canon.
Every member of Magic Circle is also in at least one hardcore band, which should give you an idea of what to expect. This is traditional doom metal played heavy and mean as hell. The songs on 2015’s Journey Blind are certainly capable of building atmosphere, but they’re also downright brutal—for every guitar solo or soaring vocal embellishment, you’d damn well better believe there’s a breakdown or a chugging, detuned riff. That makes Magic Circle the perfect gateway trad metal band for punks—and thus, a national treasure.
Vinyl LP, Compact Disc (CD)
Spellcaster is the purest power metal band on this list, which means they operate the farthest outside the new American true metal movement’s echo chamber. But the U.S. has a strong tradition of gloriously cheesy power metal, and Spellcaster proudly joins the Velveeta-dripping lineage of Jag Panzer and Manowar. Night Hides the World is probably destined for a wider audience overseas, but its riffs are strong enough to keep even the most insecure power metal skeptic engaged.
On their debut album, Sumerlands have synthesized the history of American heavy metal better than perhaps any other band in this movement. For guitarist and producer Arthur Rizk and his bandmates, influences are ingredients, not deities to be worshipped. There are bits of Manilla Road, Savatage, Queensrÿche, and even Van Halen in the mix, but it’s all seamlessly incorporated into a sound that’s fresh and unique. Kudos are due to Rizk & Co. for nabbing the enigmatic former Hour of 13 singer Phil Swanson to front the band. His unmistakable voice and commanding presence bring the songs to life.
Compact Disc (CD), Other Vinyl, Vinyl LP
Wretch is technically a new doom band whose self-titled debut came out this year. But guitarist/vocalist Karl Simon’s project bears the scars of terrible tragedy and the subsequent dissolution of a band that’s legendary in Indiana metal circles, The Gates of Slumber. The final Gates album, The Wretch, featured Jason McCash on bass and J. Clyde Paradis on drums, both of whom died at young ages after its release. Wretch is the sound of Simon reckoning with mortality. Yet for all its darkness, the power of metal shines through like a beacon.