From a contemporary perspective it seems strange to consider that for a time in the 1990s, ‘heavy metal’ had become something of a dirty word.
Of course, heavy music was still in abundance during the post-grunge years and both veteran and newer acts were still doing good business. Indeed Ozzfest, featuring Black Sabbath reunited with Ozzy Osbourne together with Type O Negative, Fear Factory and Machine Head among others, was the highest grossing stadium tour in the US during 1997.
At the same time, perhaps in part because of the continued evolution of the genre and the multiplicity of influential sub-genres that flourished in the period – black metal, nu-metal, gothic metal, and so on – for some there was a sense that ‘traditional’ heavy metal had become passé. That is, bands such as Iron Maiden and Judas Priest that had reinvigorated the genre (and arguably did the most to unambiguously embrace the term ‘heavy metal’) during the late 1970s and early 80s with their emphasis on clean, soaring vocals, hook-laden choruses and dazzling guitar solos seemed out of fashion.
The issue is illustrated most strikingly by the story of the formation of a band that would become Godfathers of a movement that has grown during the last three decades. Sweden’s Wolf formed in the mid-1990s as an act that wanted to sound like Number of the Beast era Iron Maiden. However, as founding member Niklas Stålvind told Friday 13th Zine in a recent interview they struggled to find a singer because during the mid-1990s “no one” wanted to sound like that.
The movement that Wolf helped to spearhead is now most aptly referred to as the New Wave of Traditional Heavy Metal (although some prefer replacing ‘traditional’ with ‘true’). NWOTHM acts have risen steadily especially since the mid-to-late 2000s when bands such as Skull Fist, Enforcer, Metal Inquisitor and White Wizzard released albums that unapologetically reclaimed the classic sounds of bands like Maiden, Priest, and Saxon.
The 2010s onwards saw a plethora of NWOTHM acts rise to prominence with records chock full of memorable hooks, soaring vocals and guitar sounds that no longer only drew upon prominent New Wave of British Heavy Metal (NWOBHM) influences. This newer generation of axe wielders are channelling 80s’ commercial acts like Dokken, Dio, Ozzy Osbourne and Ratt, as well as darker entities such as Tank, Manilla Road and Mercyful Fate.
Like many of the synthwave acts that emerged in the same period, NWOTHM bands are often too young to have actually witnessed the acts that they idolize in their 1980s prime. Furthermore, as is the case with synthwave, the best of these bands are not simply dealers in nostalgia. Rather, they incorporate the tones and textures of 80s’ acts into their creative palettes to forge fresh-sounding material.
Prominent examples of this include Sumerlands who blend Jake E Lee era Ozzy with mystical themes and a little dash of doom, or Kryptos whose searing thrash-influenced vocal delivery is fused with the chugging guitar riffs of classic Dokken and the fury of Headless Children era W.A.S.P.
Yet, despite the burgeoning growth of NWOTHM bands in countries like Sweden, Canada, India, and the US, it is striking that this movement has received rather less prominence in the UK. That is not to say that the home of the NWOBHM does not feature several kick-ass exponents. Indeed, like the original new wave, there are a range of acts flying the flag for classic sounding metal in good old blighty. From the melancholy hard rock of Wytch Hazel to the high-octane Maiden worship of Eliminator to the prog-tinged power metal of Seven Sisters, there’s plenty of bands delivering the goods.
The latest British act to fly the NWOTHM flag with pride and gusto is Tailgunner. Bursting onto the scene with their debut single in 2021, the band have had a memorable 2022 so far with packed shows during the first and second leg of their Hell’s Vagabonds tour and an enthusiastic response to their singles.
With their latest single, White Death, recently released on all good streaming services, we caught up with bassist and founder Thomas Hewson to get the lowdown on a band who seem to be on a mission to firmly put classic British heavy metal back on the international map.
Detailing Tailgunner’s inception, Hewson explained that: “I’ve always had this idea of what the ultimate heavy metal bands should be in my head, since I was a kid. Tailgunner really is the realisation of that, and I was lucky enough that for the four other guys in the band we all shared the same vision without realising it.”
That vision was of what Hewson calls “true uncompromising heavy metal, no holds barred unapologetic in-your-face, 1000 miles an hour, big guitar solos, big hooks, big choruses.”
New single, White Death, is a good illustration of this approach. A real pedal-to-the metal tempo that rarely lets up is combined with fretboard melting solos, while retaining a suitable emphasis on strong riffs and a memorable chorus.
When I suggest that this style of playing for some may seem very much like a throwback and is not always seen as ‘on trend’ or ‘in vogue’ for a UK metal scene that perhaps overemphasizes more extreme styles, Hewson is unapologetic. “For us it’s never a choice to play ‘old school’ metal – that’s the way it’s supposed to sound, there was never anything else for us. When I got into music and the same for the other guys, we didn’t necessarily listen to anything current, from 11-12 years old it was Dio, Maiden, Twisted Sister, Motörhead – that’s the way it’s supposed to be done.”
Strikingly, what came across strongly during our conversation was Hewson’s desire to reclaim Britain’s heavy metal heritage. “In terms of British heavy metal, we kind of developed it up until the NWOBHM and then America went and did thrash and death metal, and then you had Scandinavia come up with black metal. But that’s why it’s so important [now] that we do what we do and that there’s other bands certainly in England that want to push this music forward because it’s our fucking music, we came up with it y’know. So now, we need some new bands.”
With their debut album due to be released in the not-too-distant future and plans afoot for festival dates and more tours in 2023, Tailgunner are firmly placed to be at the forefront of the UK’s efforts to reclaim classic metal. Metal’s coming home.
Five of the best New Wave of Traditional Heavy Metal bands
With new album Dreamkiller set to drop imminently, Sumerlands look poised to take their irresistible blend of Ultimate Sin era Ozzy combined with a dash of gloomy AOR to the next level. With guitarist/keyboard player/producer Arthur Rizk at the helm and spellbinding new vocalist Brendan Radigan in tow, they are surely NWOTHM’s brightest stars.
If there was ever a band that embodied the notion of ‘turn it up to eleven’ then Canada’s Riot City are it. One of Tailgunner’s favourite bands, Thomas Hewson told us that “I’ll write stuff and then I’ll hear what they’re doing and I’m like ‘oh fuck.’” Riot City raised the bar for vocal histrionics and blazing speed metal-tinged hooks on their debut album Burn the Night and they are set to return with their sophomore album, Electric Elite in October.
Another big influence on Tailgunner (vocalist Olof Wikstrand engineered their forthcoming album), Sweden’s Enforcer are veterans of the NWOTHM scene having released their debut album Into the Night back in 2008. As with Riot City, these guys rarely drop the pace and channel classic Judas Priest in a way that compels the listener to raise their fists and yell.
Fronted by the prolific Trevor William Church (previously with Beastmaker), Haunt burst onto the NWOTHM scene in 2017 and have been releasing stellar albums at a rate of knots ever since. An intoxicating amalgam of classic NWOBHM with dashes of US hard rock and spacey synths, the pick of their many releases is probably 2020’s Mind Freeze, but this is a band that rarely put a foot wrong.
Fantasy-derived NWOTHM is not short in supply but arguably nobody does it better than Eternal Champion. Debut album The Armor of Ire (again featuring the prodigious talents of producer Arthur Rizk) remains one of the high points for metal in recent years and follow-up, Ravening Iron, was the main metal antidote for the shit-sandwich of a year that was 2020.