Tape Wyrm XXI: USPM Tape Wyrm XXI: USPM

United States Power Metal during the 1980’s

Power metal normally conjures images of falsetto singers screeching about a penultimate battle waged between the forces of darkness and light. There are usually dragons and wizards involved in narratives set to a blistering tempo of ridiculous. During power metal’s inception however things were different. In power metal’s formative years, falsetto singers usually sung about wars between the forces of darkness and light, between dragons and wizards. Alright, fuck it, nevermind then.

Before the Europeans took the style and added a healthy amount of keyboard melodies, power metal was raised in the United States on a diet of speed and masculine aggression. The style’s preoccupation with fantasy was borrowed from 1970’s heavy metal but modified to reach a smaller audience. Before Helloween, Blind Guardian, and Rhapsody of Fire was a group of bands continuing the glory days of the late 70’s. While the 1980s saw the splintering of underground extreme varieties, power metal carried the torch of speed, clean singing, and songs about winning — against dragons and wizards.

There are many things I enjoy about United States Power Metal (USPM) during the 1980s. First was the fact that the bands were doing nothing different than playing at the speed of set by The New Wave of British Heavy Metal (NWOBHM) with the dramatics of traditional metal. They were unassuming and unaware that their embracing of fantasy elements and tempo would spawn an entire genre which would go unappreciated in their home country. Second, I enjoy this style because it overlaps with both the beginning of progressive metal and the end of traditional heavy metal. It is a style caught between larger genres. 1987 is usually credited as the proper beginning for power metal with the release of Keeper of the Seven Keys Part 1 by German act Helloween. It is not like USPM is a forgotten piece of history or unknown by a large majority of the metal community. Rather, power metal’s formation is somewhat obscured by its later, more European, pioneers.

It is not a secret why I enjoy this style of music. This period in heavy metal gave us some of the greatest album covers of all time. Inspired by the pulp fantasy work of magazines like Heavy Metal (first US publication – 1977), the covers for USPM contain lavish fantasy illustrations depicting conflict, intrigue, darkness, and wonder. Collecting USPM yields a portfolio of amazing artwork from high profile illustrators long past recognized for their ability to depict fire breathing robotic dragons.

Initially, I wanted to wait and release this article for July 4th thus celebrating America’s contribution to 1980’s heavy metal. However, I have decided to release it in tandem with the Seasons of Metal Series. Around 5 years ago, I spent the Spring of 2007 researching European power metal for the first time. It was a period which gave me Stratovarious, Gamma Ray, and Avantasia. Today, I feel the need not to celebrate but unearth another time period connected with power metal. Perhaps, there will be more areas to explore and other crypts to discover. Tonight, my small apartment will come alive with speed, fantasy, and vibrant American aggression.




Manowar – Hail To England (1984)

Alright, in all honesty I could write 6 articles about Manowar’s 6 records which came out for 6 years in the mid 80’s. Manowar, for me, has become something else entirely. It is a band which lies at the intersection between reverence and irony. Hail To England is considered the band’s finest triumph during the 1980s. This is because it reserves itself from becoming too ridiculous. There is no hyper masculine posturing or songs about motorcycles. There are no self referential odes to how awesome they are or misogynistic sex fantasies. While some of those things make Manowar so amazing, Hail to England is the band’s most focused record. Divided between 8 long tracks, the band turns its attention, unsurprisingly, to the triumphs of war. Rooted in unhealthy optimism and light fantasy, Hail to England is a well rounded metal record and contains some of Manowar’s less famous yet most successful tracks. It is a battle call to shout in the parking lot of your workplace. It may also be your first of many Manowar records.


Fates Warning – The Spectre Within (1985)

Well, this escalated quickly didn’t it? Before one gets into Fates Warning they must realize the band, along with Queensryche and Psychotic Waltz, is also apart of progressive metal’s formation. Fates Warning, however, owes much of its sound not to early progressive bands like Yes and King Crimson but rather to Iron Maiden. Fates Warning took Maiden’s aggressive riffs and added less anthemic yet more operatic vocals. The band also threw themselves headfirst into dark fantasy with occult undertones. The twin guitarwork from Victor Arduini and Jim Matheos is exquisite in offering an early artifact of power metal solos. Overall, Fates Warning lasts to this day because of their unique style which stands above the rest of USPM. The albums released in the mid 80’s (The Spectre Within / Awaken the Guardian / No Exit) have a uniquely dark character which stands out from the rest of USPM. To be quite honest, where else are you going to find a record about dragon hunting pirates and spellcasting fortune tellers? The answer is probably only here but I can never be sure.


Manilla Road – Mark of the Beast (1981)

If one is reading this without any prior knowledge of USPM, Manilla Road comes best after a warm up. Manilla Road is a classic band, though their status still hovers around cult-like. This can be attributed to the strong yet sometimes odd vocals by Mark “The Shark” Shelton. Shetlon’s voice is registered lower than most heavy metal vocalist and at points sound like he is orating a speech rather than singing. Manilla Road’s content ultimately works because of Shelton’s delivery. Originally, and up until publication, this spot was reserved for the 1983 record Crystal Logic. Crystal Logic is still an important album to experience. Mark of the Beast, however, was originally intended as a 1981 release but was eventually shelved until 2002. It represents a landmark album which never came to fruition. Even with the masters being raw and unpolished, Mark of the Beast is still incredibly powerful. In fact, the lo-fi atmosphere allows primal aggression to float over tendrils of smoke. It feels like the greatest jam played in an undisclosed basement. Mark of the Beast opens with three long opuses which take up nearly half of the record. Even with some of the middle portions being weaker than the beginning and the end, there should be no reason why you don’t already own this album. Sometimes, I lie awake at night thinking about whether or not my Pinpoint coworkers have this record and the eventual discussion which will come when I find out they don’t.


Liege Lord – Master Control (1988)

Nope. I don’t care what is on this record because I know it is amazing by the cover. Just look at that fucking thing. It has Robots! And Guns! I wonder if there will ever be a time when I am not immediately sold on something with space shit on the front. Liege Lord was originally a Judas Priest cover band. This fact is stated on almost every biographical account either because of the strong speed metal influence or because there is little other history on the band. Perhaps both. Liege Lord is intense and seemed to be firing on all cylinders for all of their three records. Master Control was the final release from Liege Lord which acted as one final flung grenade from the hands of an underrated metal band. I did mention the robots right?


Helstar – Nosferatu (1989)

PEEERCHAAAAANCE TOOOO SCREEEEEAM. I love Helstar and it is not because they are super proficient and super self indulgent. Well maybe. A long time ago, a ten year old boy wished for a band which combined technical prowess with the speed of thrash and the theatrics of opera. In the early 80’s, a magic genie created Helstar. Nosferatu was released at the close of the 1980s and well after the establishment of European power metal. Helstar has little to do with the development of USPM as they do with being one of its shining products. Nosferatu was the last record before a 6 year silence and inevitable decline. It is also all about Dracula. What? You want me to stop? I thought I had you at vampires? Helstar’s dramatic nature and ability to fill every cobwebbed catacomb with a guitar solo is amazing. Ridiculous but still amazing. Helstar has a long list of great albums but Nosferatu should be the starting point for any interested party.


Omen – Battle Cry (1984)

Now that you have completely fell in love with Helstar, it is time to move on to Omen. Omen, at first glance is not that memorable. The instrumentation is competent but there are few distinguishable traits in terms of vocal work. From all accounts, Omen is another fantasy driven heavy metal band with a penchant for speed and sometimes gritty vocals. Personally, it took me a while to get into Omen, but after much time, I am happy to report Omen is amazing. The qualities exhibited by the band rests in their subtlety and structure. JD Kimball’s voice, while never soaring high in on eagle’s wings, is varied and does tremendous work in medium ranges. Kimball is tender at moments and fierce at others. Battle Cry is very much a speed metal record which gallops on a mystic steed. Alright, I lied, it is a unicorn and a damn awesome one at that. Omen produced four records in the 1980’s with somewhat declining quality. Their debut, Battle Cry, still stands as the highest point and a record full of subtle charm. Somewhere, JD Kimball is looking down at us and urging us to ride with joyful abandon.


Savatage – Hall Of the Mountain King (1987)

Choosing one Savatage record was difficult. First and foremost, the bands two early records, (Sirens / Dungeons Are Calling) are fantastic and pay tribute to raw speed metal. Hall of The Mountain King came after a long line of slightly terrible attempts at a mainstream sound. Savatage succeeded in 1987 with a record that is more complex and dense than other previous attempts. The band also succeeded in creating a disastrously memorable video for the title track which was circulated on MTV’s Headbangers Ball. Ohh, I am sorry, I am waiting for you to go watch the video and then come back. Hall of The Mountain King would be be the band’s last record before doing a swan dive into progressive metal and Phantom of the Opera inspired concept records. For a moment in time, however brief, Savatage accomplished all of their goals with flying colors.


Attacker – Battle at Helms Deep (1985)

Readers, it has been nice discussing music with you for so many years but it is time for me to leave. I have found the album I will be listening to until the end of time. From here to eternity, it will be me, Attacker, and a pile of fantasy comics. Jesus God, look at that cover. It looks like a twice rejected animated short sponsored by Heavy Metal magazine. I can almost see the horrible audio dub and awkward animation. What Attacker lacks in production and presentation they make up for in deep fantasy obsession. Attacker’s embrace of Tolkien themes came long before Led Zepplin made it cool, years before black metal made it evil, and decades before it would enter the mainstream with the film adaptations. Lord of the Rings was geeky and Attacker fits right in the same universe. This, of course, has already sold me but Battle At Helms Deep is a competent and successful metal record. The conversation between Pat Marinelli and Vicent Mooney construct a narrative which runs through battle fields and enchanted woods. It is time to grab your battle axe and join me at dawn.


Queensryche – the Warning (1984)

Queensryche lives to this day — mostly because of one album. 1988’s Operation: Mindcrime was a dense concept album detailing a political assassin under the influence of brainwashing by the hands of a fringe revolutionary cell. This record is dramatic, overwrought, and unfortunately fantastic. Operation: Mindcrime gave enough motivation for every prog metal band and musical fan to create their own concept album with excruciating detail. Before the band would go full tilt into progressive concept records, they were just a budding heavy metal band. The Warning was the band’s groundwork debuting a combination of rich vocals and even more impressive instrumentation from classic era titans Michael Wilton and Chris DeGarmo. The Warning is an excellent record to start before Operation: Mindcrime. It gives context to a final wave directed to the old days of heavy metal before turning on heels for the future.


Sacred Oath – A Crystal Vision (1987)

Before I continue, I’d like you to count the number of records Sacred Oath made in the 1980’s. That is right, the correct answer is one. One record released in 1987 before a near 20 year silence. Fuck, and what a record for introductions and heartfelt goodbyes. Sacred Oath’s fate can be attributed to their record label, Mercenary Records who went bankrupt in 1989. Given the right alternate timeline, Sacred Oath’s records, made in the 1990’s could have struck metal gold. Maybe. We do have a time machine right? A Crystal Vision is riddled with highlights and memorable moments. Whether or not it is the commanding leads by Glen Cruciani or the wail of Rob Thorne, Sacred Oath has everything one could possibly desire. The production on A Crystal Vision is laughably poor but given the right alternative timeline, it is a perfect rough debut before a long line of masterpieces. Someday gentleman, you and I will go back and make our own history.


Virgin Steele – Guardians of the Flame (1983)

I feel that Virgin Steele is apt for a near closing statement. If one wanted a condensed version of this article in one record, it could be Guardians of The Flame. With operatic vocals, speed, aggression, and an open relationship with fantasy elements, Guardians of the Flame operates on a level 20,000 feet above the rest of the world. Singer, producer, and mastermind David is always five steps beyond the world, with enough confidence to rival all the members of Manowar. Perhaps, I could arrange a battle between the two. A common thread in this article has been “the album before….” Guardians of the Flame is the album before Virgin Steele silently and unknowingly detonated the world with rock operas. If any one person needed a clue to where the band would eventually go, listen to the keyboard solo in “Redeemer.” Guardians of the Flame, though presented at the end, is a wonderful introduction to USPM. Its hooks are deep and production near spotless. The fantasy elements are kept to a respectable level and nothing overburdens the rest. There is a jubulent attitude which runs through Guardians of the Flame. I can not help myself from grinning like a goddamn idiot when listening, or dancing, to this record.


Slauter Xstroyes – Winter Kill (1985)

Really? I had no idea this existed until 2012? What a Shame. Slauter Xstroyes deserves to be on this list for, if nothing else, the vocal antics of John Stewart. If it helps, Stewart went on to front a short lived Chicago band called Energy Vampires during the early 90s. For Slauter Xstroyes…Jesus Christ, I cannot even type that name much less pronounce it; for Slauter Xstroyes, the mid 80’s were a playground for odd structures and mind blowing operatics. Winter Kill was the first and last record before a failed attempt at a follow up. The record recieved a hilariously small distribution before succumbing to obscurity. Slauter Xstroyes’ intended second record, Free the Beast was finally released in 1999 by the wishes of 3 Slauter Xstroyes fans and the members’ grandparents. The band’s history borders on the somewhat sad and all the way hilarious. According to last accounts, Slauter Xstroyes has reformed and are at work on a third record. This reunion only came after the band members found Stewart in Las Vegas breeding Bengal cats. I wish I could make this shit up.


Cirith Ungol – King Of the Dead (1984)

I save Cirith Ungol for the ending because I have to make a confession. At first, I disliked this band — immensely. Some of you maybe scoffing because Cirith Ungol incorporates a ridiculous amount of fantasy and dramatics over the slow dirge of traditional doom. Jesus Christ, their album covers were painted by fantasy artist Michael Whelean who also contributed art for Moorcock’s Elric of Melniboné, Burroughs’ Barsoom Series, and Magic the Gathering. I mean, shit, this band seemed to be created by some trans-dimensional power metal elf specifically for my personal enjoyment. In all honesty, it was the vocals. The distinctive untrained screech of Tim Baker was enough turn me away for a short period. This is, of course, until I finally understood. Everything which I have come to love about old heavy metal rests in Cirith Ungol. These bands were not gods nor ethereal spirits creating records on top of a mystic mountain. I would like to think so but this list of bands were men living out their existence for the momentary escape in heavy metal. The mortal and sometimes flawed character of these records contributes to their charm. Cirith Ungol played sometimes regardless of how it sounded. Their enthusiasm triumphs and will eventually save us all. This realization came during one of the many guitar solos in “Master of the Pit” within that 7 minute journey, I finally understood that Cirith Ungol is my redemption and King of the Dead is my Avalon.


USPM existed while everything around it was changing. During the high points of USPM, glam metal was gaining recognition for an eventual overthrow of the mainstream. At the close of the 1980’s, the face of heavy metal had changed drastically. USPM’s reach and world wide recognition still skirts on the borders of obscure and forgotten. It hasn’t been until recently where these albums are seeing speakers once again. Though I discussed my thirteen favorite records, mention also belongs to Crimson Glory, Heir Apparent, Jag Panzer, Metal Church, Riot, Tyrant, and Warlord. Perhaps, someday we will all gather in the halls of an American Valhalla to dine once more.

Again, it looks like you have made it to the bottom of this page to see any comments. I sure hope there are some. Except for that one right below me. I do not know what they were thinking. Tape Wyrm has a Facebook page where I update with videos and musings regarding heavy metal. Also If you would like to hear me discuss metal and other genres via recorded audio, I host a weekly podcast called Champions of the Universe. We also have a Facebook page but are working on updating our Xanga site. I am going to fucking love it when that joke becomes painfully outdated.

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