These days, metal has more subgenres than you can shake a stick at. As the form continues to splinter and hybridize in a million different directions, the old ways are being kept alive by a rising vanguard of true believers: The classic blues-based riffs and distorted guitars; the soaring melodic vocals and fantasy or sci-fi based lyrics; the occasional galloping bass line. You’ll probably even hear a twin guitar harmony or ten.
Originally known as simply “heavy metal,” the origins of traditional metal can be traced back to early masters like Rainbow, Iron Maiden and Judas Priest. These pioneers spawned a generation of brawny classicists like Dio, Manowar and Manilla Road, who in turn begat modern chalice hoisters like Grand Magus. They are the keepers of the flame, the guardians of a grand tradition. And though there are a slew of young trad-metal warriors worthy of your attention — Magic Circle, Spirit Adrift and Visigoth come to mind — we’re focusing on these five today.
The brainchild of Beastmaker guitarist-vocalist Trevor Church, Haunt started out as a NWOBHM-styled solo project on the 2017 EP, Luminous Eyes. With the release of their excellent 2018 full-length Burst Into Flame, Haunt has transitioned into a full-on band that includes Church’s fellow Beastmaker guitarist John Tucker amongst its ranks. As Church readily admits, the Fresno, CA-based duo deliver the type of killer twin leads and harmonized vocals that can only come from years of Maiden, Priest and Thin Lizzy worship. “What attracts me to traditional metal is the guitar work and melodic vocal delivery,” he says. “Bands like Thin Lizzy, Scorpions and Iron Maiden had amazing dual lead guitar riffs. I love when two guitarists get to share their personal touch on solos. Vocally, I love the fact you can deliver a sensible memorable melody with backup vocals incorporated.” Fun fact: Church is the son of bassist Bill Church, formerly of 70s rockers Montrose, which featured a young Sammy Hagar on vocals.
When Sumerlands’ self-titled debut dropped in 2016, the Philly-based group quickly became one of this writer’s favorite bands. Led by guitarist-producer Arthur Rizk and vocalist Phil Swanson, Sumerlands take what Rizk describes as a more “depressive, gothic type approach to guitar playing” while Swanson’s preternatural wail maintains a distinct Ozzy timbre. In fact, Rizk points to Black Sabbath’s 1978 tipping point Never Say Die! — their last album with Ozzy until 2013 — as a key influence. Ozzy’s first two post–Randy Rhoads solo records are other crucial reference points. “It’s kind of obvious that I worship Jake E. Lee’s guitar style,” Rizk says. “He has more of a vocal approach to guitar than most heavy metal guitar players, which I’ve always loved and tried to pay respects to.”
As it turns out, Sumerlands isn’t Arthur Rizk’s only trad-metal outfit. The guitarist and producer also plays drums in Eternal Champion, who take their name from a recurring character in Michael Moorcock’s popular fantasy novels. And Rizk isn’t the only Eternal Champion member pulling double duty: Guitarist Blake “Rossover” Ibanez also plays in Dallas thrash kings Power Trip while guitarist John “Nujon” Powers plays alongside Rizk in — you guessed it — Sumerlands. Unlike Sumerlands, however, Eternal Champion bask in swords n’ sorcery themes on their 2016 Rizk-produced full-length, The Armor of Ire. “In Eternal Champion, the writing is approached from less of a melodic place and more of a driving, ass-stomping place,” Rizk explains. “The songs are about epic fantasy where a lot of killing and sword worship is the topic, so it only feels right that most of the songs are approached musically as a movement towards war and doom.”
If this new wave of traditional metal has a renaissance man, it’s Jarvis Leatherby. Not only is he the vocalist-bassist in Southern California power trio Night Demon; he also plays bass in newly reformed trad-metal legends Cirith Ungol and fronts the latest incarnation of NWOBHM vets Jaguar. Did we mention that he manages Salt Lake City trad phenoms Visigoth and reinvigorated NWOBHM heroes Satan? Or that he’s the founder of the annual Frost & Fire Festival, which hosts trad bands from around the globe in Ventura, CA? Well, he totally does — and is. But Night Demon is where he can most fully express his love of the form, as heard on their 2017 fist-pumper, Darkness Remains. “The approach Night Demon takes is a very honest one,” Leatherby says. “We do realize it’s 2018 and that sometimes when a band steps out onstage playing music that sounds like it was written from 1979 to 1983, and also wears the fashion from that time — although they weren’t around for it, or maybe weren’t even born yet — it can seem a bit novel and not be taken seriously. We avoid that as much as we can and just play what naturally comes out of us. Traditional metal is just in our DNA as lifelong fans, listeners, and supporters of the genre.”
Like Night Demon, Blade Killer hails from Southern California. But they’re a five-piece as opposed to a trio. The band’s full-length debut, High Risk, recalls the strident gallop of early Maiden fused with the melodic riffage of NWOBHM standouts Angel Witch and Tokyo Blade. “Venturing out into other genres of metal such as thrash or death, as well as playing in bands in these different styles, I always found myself coming back to traditional metal,” bassist Kelsey Wilson tells Revolver. “Although I enjoyed them, I guess I didn’t quite get that same inspiration, ambition and fire listening to those other styles. A loyalty and dedication formed and it became something that I not only listened to, but a way of life.” Such is Wilson’s commitment that she’s got a Judas Priest tattoo sleeve on her left arm, which includes images from the covers of British Steel, Defenders of The Faith and Screaming for Vengeance.