Opening with the pounding, guitar-lead laden “Steel and Silver,” Visigoth’s second album Conqueror’s Oath is a perfect encapsulation of traditional heavy metal. Aided by big choruses, vocalist Jake Rogers’ commanding wail soars above the instrumentation as dual guitars weave throughout. Unlike their debut The Revenant King  , where songs regularly cross over the six-minute mark, this album is full of quicker, more bombastic punches. “Outlive Them All,” “Hammerforged,” and “Blades in the Night” all hover around four minutes; each contains a wicked verse and chorus.
“It seems like a lot of metal bands are embarrassed to admit that we are writing pop songs at their fundamental core,” says guitarist Jamison Palmer, who formed Visigoth in 2010 alongside Rogers and second guitarist Leeland Campana. “It started with rock 'n roll and blues; this is not a classical structure. Some metal does fit that classical structure—but not Judas Priest! If you don’t have hooks in pop, what do you have? You shouldn’t be ashamed of a good chorus.”
“Hooks” damn near encapsulate traditional metal, the genre Visigoth resides so neatly within. Once one starts splitting hairs and becoming immersed in genre history, you’ll notice a lengthy (and often ramshackle) musical lineage dubbed "United States power metal" (known to fans as USPM). Despite its rich history, the movement has been largely overlooked in the written history of metal, overshadowed by glitzier and more straightforward movements in thrash metal and then hair metal. Even online, little information exists beyond active Reddit threads where fans enthusiastically share bands that fall under the ill-defined umbrella.
“We are ourselves, deeply in debt to U.S. power metal and U.S. epic metal,” says Rogers.
Although it’s still obscure, there is a massive American power metal resurgence currently underway in the United States. Seen as a new wave of American traditional metal, by fans, bands, and metal media alike, the scene and its adherents draw from multiple musical lineages, and seek to emulate a certain feel, rather than adhering strict genre demarcations.
It’s not just Visigoth who is indebted to this lineage; other current American bands like Eternal Champion, Night Demon, Substratum, Crypt Sermon, High Spirits, Savage Master, and Sumerlands are all cut from a similar cloth. Relatively new American festivals like Ventura, CA’s Frost and Fire, Chicago’s Legions of Metal Festival, and Seattle’s Northwest Metalfest have emerged as champions of the scene, and more underground prospects Demon Bitch, Haunt, Ice Sword, Legendry, Seax, Lady Beast, Chalice, Professor Emeritus, Leathürbitch, and Hessian are also making their mark.
Distilling this massive, largely underground musical movement into a decipherable primer is a complex task. To contextualize, one must acknowledge its historical precedent.
Back in the formative days of heavy metal, acts like Arthur Brown, Grand Funk Railroad, Blue Öyster Cult, KISS, Aerosmith, Blue Cheer, and Sir Lord Baltimore emerged, helping pave the way for a uniquely American version of the genre. As the mid- to late 70s produced guitar hero acts like Van Halen, a massive surge of bands from the Sunset Strip, including Mötley Crüe, Ratt, and Quiet Riot, created a genre eventually known as hair metal. While the West Coast scene often revealed in sky-high hair and make-up coated excess, a new sound was emerging in direct contrast to its sticky veneer.
Its influences included the stentorian wails of emerging American legend Ronnie James Dio and his band Rainbow, combined with the hard rock that paved the way for new wave of British heavy metal (NWOBHM), with its epic choruses and fist pumping bravado. Armed with these sounds, bands like Manilla Road and Riot became the impetus for the nascent USPM movement.
“I would have to say Riot would be our biggest U.S influence,” says Jarvis Leatherby, the vocalist and bassist for Ventura based trad metal band Night Demon. Leatherby is also the creator of the Frost and Fire festival, and manages Cirith Ungol (their 1981 debut album is the festival namesake) as well as serving as their current bassist. “[Riot] were once known as an honorary NWOBHM band back in their early days. It can also be said that they were pioneers of the USPM movement."
On the heels of that late 70s bubble came an early 80s tidal wave of both USPM and traditional metal: Jag Panzer, Fates Warning, Manowar, Queensrÿche, Omen, Chastain, Savatage, Fifth Angel, Helstar, Metal Church, Crimson Glory, Virgin Steele, Savage Grace, Liege Lord, Agent Steel, Warlord, and Brocas Helm emerged. Nearly simultaneously, the sister genre of thrash metal (which took NWOBM influences and merged them with punk rather than guitar and vocal histrionics) was also exploding.
In contrast, UPSM featured powerful, soaring vocals, driving guitar leads, and muscular riffs alongside clean production, and added hundreds of classic albums to the American metal lexicon. Today, these classics are enjoying a much-deserved moment in the sun as backwards-looking fans dig into antiquity.
“When I think of power metal, and USPM in general, Queensrÿche stands out to me solely because they are from Seattle, and I have to celebrate my hometown heroes,” says Amy Lee Carlson, the vocalist and lyricist of the infectiously fun Substratum. She joined in 2015; they’ve since released a demo, two splits, and two albums, including a recently-released full-length, Permission to Rock.
Like her colleague Leatherby, Carlson is also a festival organizer who works on Northwest Metalfest, whose inaugural edition takes place from March 9-11, 2019 at Seattle's El Corazon. Those gracing the stage include cult names like Coven, Cruella, Glacier, Gatekeeper, Skelator and more.
“We want to celebrate the rich history of heavy metal and thrash metal that still persists here,” she says.“I absolutely think we are a part of a much larger revival in the metal scene, with the reunions and reissues of many classic 80s bands and albums there's a lot of inspiration to take advantage of, even down to aesthetics and production style.”
Although classic 80s bands provided plenty of inspiration for future band mining, the genre still existed in the 90s, albeit with much lower visibility. According to Leatherby, "Twisted Tower Dire and Slough Feg are two of the best American metal bands to come after the 80s." Both bands continue to operate to this day, and are amongst the few acts that formed and operated in the decade alongside Cauldron Born, Skullview, Unholy Cadaver [later Hammers of Misfortune], and Solitude Aeternus.
Interest began picking up again throughout the 2000s as bands began shape shifting the USPM and classic metal genres, adding doom, thrash and speed metal into the melting pot. Bolstered by the bevy of musical riches found on the Internet, in the extremely cyclical world of heavy metal, a resurgence of classic genres began.
“As far as newer bands, I think we can look back to the resurgence of thrash metal on the West Coast which came in really strong around 2008,” Leatherby adds. Shortly on the heels of (and even overlapping) the thrash resurgence came a renewed interest in doom metal and speed metal, genres with a lot of historical and sonic overlap. Although dates are difficult to define due to the cyclical nature of music trends, the resurgence of these genres roughly lasted from 2005 until 2015; some pockets continue to enjoy renewed visibility to this date. The resurgence of traditional metal owes its roots to these similarly related genres, and began breaking through the American popular consciousness around 2016.
“A lot of these new traditional wave bands sounds like U.S. power metal, they just aren’t using that phrase,” Rogers says.“Our sound is very indebted to that style, even if it doesn’t always sound like it, it’s in the subtext of the sound. But it’s always there. In the words of Grand Funk Railroad, 'We’re An American Band.' We’re going to have traces of that sound. We’re not reaching for the Euro power metal band, that’s not where our strength lies. USPM is more direct, a little heavier, it’s more rooted in the roots of heavy metal.”
Perhaps that's why many of these new bands are so hesitant to identify as straight up power metal. They aren’t all power metal bands, to be sure, but they are traditional metal-leaning and are helping to sustain a unique and triumphant metal lineage that deserves more glory.
“I'm careful not adopt ‘movement’ because it seems like movements have a shared direction or goal, maybe a philosophy, but I don't think we can say that for Eternal Champion and the modern traditional heavy metal scene, and I'm glad for that,” says Jason Tarpey, vocalist and lyricist for Texas act Eternal Champion, as well as Graven Rite and Iron Age. When he isn’t crafting rich thematic concepts based around Michael Moorcock’s eternal warrior Elric of Melniboné or writing his first novella, he works as a blacksmith in “a small town in Texas Hill Country.”
Eternal Champion put out 2016’s hugely celebrated The Armor of Ire, and has been cited as figureheads in this new wave of metal, despite not necessarily identifying with the terminology. “We say 'epic heavy metal' so it gives people an idea what they're in for,” clarifies Tarpey. “I can't say we play power metal because I simply do not have the chops [and] 'traditional heavy metal' is not precise enough because I don't want people thinking we sing about staying up all night, rocking or whatever.”
Regardless of how band’s self-identify, there is no denying that this new wave is deeply rooted in the broader history of American metal, and that it's only going to get stronger, thanks to its numerous promising bands, festival and industry support, and most importantly, a rabid fanbase eagerly gulping it down.
“I think whatever specific sub-genre a band is in, we can safely say that they should all fall under the umbrella of American traditional heavy metal,” says Leatherby. “Thrash, doom, power metal, it’s all an American tradition.”
Sarah Kitteringham is screaming along to her massive collection of the weirder side of USPM on Instagram.