For Britons fond of middle-aged men in short trousers belting out double entendres, there is joyful news. AC/DC flew in this week for five dates taking in London, Dublin, Manchester and the home of heavy metal itself, Birmingham.
For some, AC/DC are the ultimate heavy metal act, their 1980 album Back in Black a high watermark of the genre; there is even an exhibition in London at the moment charting their formative years. But for others, AC/DC aren’t a heavy metal act at all, they’re a classic rock band — and calling them heavy metal is an act of treachery. In the age of economic and environmental meltdown, it’s good to know some people still feel strongly about these things.
AC/DC may have remained impervious to trends over their 36 years together, but heavy metal itself now consists of so many offshoots and technical terms, it can feel as if there’s a grindcore gig going off inside your head. Grindcore? Well, that’s an extreme form of death metal. Death metal? Well, that’s the next step on from thrash. Thrash? Well — look, you get the picture.
For non-metallers who have never ridden the lightning or reigned in blood, the world of heavy metal can seem impenetrable. Clearly some kind of idiot’s guide is needed, if only to help people distinguish shredding and cymbal chokes.
BACH: THE FIRST HEADBANGER
Black Sabbath are often hailed as the first heavy metal act, although you will meet smart-asses who claim that Led Zeppelin’s Whole Lotta Love (1969), the Beatles’ Helter Skelter (1968) or Jimi Hendrix’s Purple Haze (1967) was the first heavy metal track. Skip them all and say: “Actually, much of the virtuoso playing is inspired by classical artists, which makes Bach the world’s first headbanger.” From then on, heavy metal just got louder. And faster. Then louder and faster still. This reached a peak with death metal, where rhythms could hit 350bpm before anyone in the band had time to say: “Why?”
HAIR IS EVERYTHING
Bloggers have plotted a link between Metallica’s hair lengths and the quality of their rock over the duration of their career. Clearly, hair is crucial. If it isn’t long, you may as well sound like James Blunt. Classic metal fashion sticks to boots, denim and a tattoo — of a skull, a weird beast, or even the skull of a weird beast. Other styles can involve piercings, corpsepaint (for that been-dead-a-year look) and looking like you’ve just escaped from Middle Earth.
AND FINALLY …
So there you have it. Next time you find yourself in a room full of hardened rockers with Pantera lyrics tattooed down their necks, simply raise your devil horns, growl a bit of grindcore and recite your favorite (and only) Judas Priest fact. And when they start grilling you on the finer points of Stormtroopers of Death’s back catalogue … just run away. Fast.
• Headbanging: There are 17 types, according to Wikipedia, from the “circular swing” and “drunk style” to “the whiplash” and the “two-up-two-down.” Our advice? Just shake your head a bit. You’re bound to land on one of them.
• Shredding: Playing mind-bogglingly difficult guitar solos at a frankly ridiculous, breakneck speed (without needing surgery to sew your fingers back together).
• Blast beat technique: Used by extreme metal bands like Napalm Death, whereby kick drum, snare and cymbals are played at a frankly ridiculous, breakneck speed (you may sense a pattern emerging).