During the late 1970s, when London was ruled by pierced and motley droogs known as punks, a few long-haired headbangers sweated it out in the club scene trenches in order to keep British heavy metal alive. But rather than just repeat Judas Priest's caterwauls or Sabbath’s satanic riffs, a new crop of bands borrowed punk rock’s speed, energy, and streetwise attitude and injected traditional metal muscle flexing (guitar riffs, a thick rhythm section, a singer with actual range) in order to create something fresh.
In the spring of 1979, this Frankenstein monster finally got a name. After Sounds journalist Geoff Barton caught a concert featuring Iron Maiden, Samson, and Angel Witch at London’s Bandwagon (which at the time was lorded over by metal DJ Neal Kay, who called it the Heavy Metal Soundhouse), he ran to his typewriter and at some point wrote the words “New Wave of British Heavy Metal.”
Now, armed with a fancy title and a less-than-pronounceable acronym, NWOBHM began to make in-roads into the British hard rock scene. Some of these bands managed to make it big. Iron Maiden, Def Leppard, and Motörhead are more or less household names, even in homes that don’t typically piss off the neighbors with loud volumes. NWOBHM also helped to revitalize aging acts (Judas Priest), while at the same time it put down the groundwork for more extreme sub-genres such as thrash metal and black metal, which began in the wake of NWOBHM’s problem child—Venom.
As with any important movement, the big, golden idols of NWOBHM frequently overshadow the less luxurious totems. Even when the smaller names get thrown peanuts, as when Metallica covers Diamond Head with the frequency of two-dollar taco night bowel movements, whole armies of other NWOBHM acts are forgotten. Well, this list is an attempt to give a couple huzzahs! for NWOBHM’s overlooked and under appreciation bands. You may agree or disagree. To paraphrase Colin Quinn, frankly, my dear, I don’t give a care.
Demon’s Night of the Demon not only has one of the greatest album covers of all time, but its opening chant of “Rise, Rise, Rise” is spooky-ooky metal at near-perfection. From Leek, Staffordshire, England, Demon never left behind their classic rock roots, thus even before going full space rock sometime in the mid-80s, Demon always sort of sounded like a ‘70s metal act. No issue here; Demon’s first two albums are horns worthy.
Best Banger: “Don’t Break the Circle” from The Unexpected Guest
Like Demon, Witchfynde’s imagery didn’t necessarily match up with its music. Take for example 1980’s Give ‘Em Hell. Based on the album’s cover alone, which features a slightly drunk Goat of Mendes in front of a pentagram, one would assume that Witchfynde was proto-black metal before the term even existed. Wrong. That said, Witchfynde did pump out satisfying hard rock with metal edges. Plus, we should never forget lead singer Luther Beltz’s cat-eyed demon look.
Best Banger: “The Divine Victim” from Give ‘Em Hell
8.) Witchfinder General
Keeping with the witchcraft theme, we now have Stourbridge’s own Witchfinder General. Taking their name from a 1968 horror film starring Vincent Price about a sadistic and corrupt witchhunter named Matthew Hopkins, Witchfinder General turned up the volume and upped the sleaze factor on records that contain traces of early doom. Even today, the best Witchfinder General tracks will make your clenched fists want to pump in the air, while something else might happen if you focus too long on their salacious album covers, which feature bare-chested and buxom glamour models in precarious positions.
Best Banger: “Burning a Sinner” from Death Penalty
7.) Grim Reaper
Ah yes, most might remember Grim Reaper for their appearance on Beavis & Butt-head. Despite being called a “suck band” by the couch-bound duo, Grim Reaper actually managed to crank out a good song or two. 1984’s See You in Hell remains a titan of over-the-top NWOBHM cheese, which should be a staple of any anti-social diet. Chow down, friends.
Best Banger: “See You in Hell,” from…uh…See You in Hell
Of all the bands on this list, Tank holds a special place in my heart. Why? Because I was called a kook too often by so-called metal fans who disagreed with my assessment of Filth Hounds of Hades, which I consider to be one of the greatest metal records ever produced. Speaking of producers, Tank’s debut masterpiece was overseen by none other than Motörhead’s very own “Fast” Eddie Clarke. If that doesn’t immediately grab your guts, then you should move to Atlanta with the rest of the zombies.
Best Banger: “Turn Your Head Around” from Filth Hounds of Hades
5.) Pagan Altar
Like Witchfinder General, Pagan Altar were outsiders in an outsider type of scene. While speed was Rule #1 for NWOBHM, Pagan Altar played slow, moody, doom metal that was as chilling as the moors at midnight. During the height of NWOBHM, the only thing they managed to release was a self-titled, self-produced demo cassette than barely went into circulation. This is the practical answer for why Pagan Altar went unnoticed during the ‘80s. Nowadays, there’s no excuse, especially since Pagan Altar committed to wax one of the greatest metal riffs ever.
Best Banger: “Judgement of the Dead” from Pagan Altar
4.) Tokyo Blade
Japan was all the rage in the ‘80s. Maybe it was the red hot economy or something else, but a lot of Westerners were certainly gaga for Japan during the Reagan-Thatcher years. As evidence, look no further than Tokyo Blade—a British band from the same town as Stonehenge. Armed with ghostly samurais and plenty of rising suns, Tokyo Blade crafted hard-driving metal at the right time. Apparently, this was about all they got right, for the band’s list of past members is frighteningly long.
Best Banger: “If Heaven is Hell” from Tokyo Blade
3.) Cloven Hoof
Besides having one of the radest names in existence, Wolverhampton’s Cloven Hoof got the whole demonic, devil worshipping metal band thing down early. With songs like “Gates of Gehenna” and “Nightstalker,” the band’s self-titled debut stands out as particularly diabolic in comparison to the less-than-monstrous NWOBHM mainstream. Sadly, Cloven Hoof went more towards sci-fi power metal in the late ‘80s, and thus fell off the face of the Earth.
Best Banger: “Laying Down the Law” from Cloven Hoof
An older act from Sabbath’s hometown of Birmingham, Quartz straddled the line between hard rock and heavy metal for many years. No matter—Quartz wrote songs muscular enough to appeal to both audiences. And with album covers ripped from Frank Frazetta, what’s not to like?
Best Banger: “Rock n’ Roll Child” from Stand Up and Fight
Call Gavin Baddeley, we’ve got Old Scratch on our hands here. Storming out of Newcastle in the late ‘70s under original names Blind Fury and Pariah, Satan quickly established themselves as one of the fastest and most thrash-y NWOHM bands. Their debut, Court in the Act, is melodic Bay Area speed metal before that scene was even remotely famous. Intricate guitar leads, caffeinated drums, and singing so seductive it could charm a black cat—this is Satan’s brew.
Best Banger: “Blades of Steel” by Court in the Act