You’d probably have to be an aficionado of the music to appreciate the differences between the musical genres called Heavy Metal and Hard Rock, and probably would have to have listened to quite a bit of the music to even begin to describe the differences between them. Many folks I know don’t hear any differences, but I think they are there, and here’s my take on it. Let me say, up front, that I love both genres and am not trying to make the point that one is better than the other.
Let me start off by naming some of what I consider representative albums in the two genres.
1. We Sold Our Souls For Rock and Roll – Black Sabbath
2. Screaming for Vengeance – Judas Priest
3. The Number of the Beast – Iron Maiden
4. Shout at the Devil – Motley Crue
5. Master of Puppets – Metallica
6. Peace Sells…But Who’s Buying – Megadeth
7. Vulgar Display of Power – Pantera
1. Highway to Hell – AC/DC
2. Machine Head – Deep Purple
3. Tres Hombres – Z Z Top
4. Free-For-All – Ted Nugent
5. Gold and Platinum – Lynyrd Skynyrd
6. Van Halen – Van Halen
7. Aerosmith – Rocks
Some folks might dispute the inclusion of Motley Crue in the Heavy Metal list. The Crue were one of the progenitors of the subgenre known as Glam Metal. But there was no such thing as the Heavy Metal subgenre explosion when the Crue put out Shout at the Devil, and it is very heavy and one of my favorite albums of all time.
In the same way, Z Z Top and Lynyrd Skynyrd are often called southern rock or blues rock rather than Hard Rock, but I think those are subgenres rather than reflecting significant differences. And while Van Halen is sometimes called Heavy Metal, they don’t quite cross the metal line as I see it.
So what is that line? What are the differences?
First, there is the sheer heaviness of the music. Put on “Leper Messiah” by Metallica and compare it to “Gimme Back My Bullets” by Lynyrd Skynyrd. Both are rocking songs, but there is a density in the Metallica song that just isn’t there in the Skynyrd. That doesn’t make it better or worse. It is different. Heavy Metal must have a denseness that Hard Rock does not require. Sometimes a Hard Rock Band will cross over that line with a song or two. “Ain’t Talking about Love” by Van Halen does that. “Saturday Night Special” by Lynyrd Skynyrd does. But the average denseness is less in Hard Rock than Heavy Metal.
Second, there is a lyrical approach to the music that is different. Hard Rock lyrics are much more about having a good time, about partying (alcohol and drugs), and about sex, than is the case with Heavy Metal. Metal lyrics are about death, about violence and war, and, more often, about historical or even current affairs. Metal lyrics are more often anti-Christian (although there are certainly exceptions), and more explicitly talk about evil. (Note that for most bands this is not because they actually worship Satan.)
Consider AC/DC’s songs like “Girls Got Rhythm, “Walk All Over You,” “Touch too Much,” “Beating around the Bush,” and “Love Hungry Man.” Although this album is entitled Highway to Hell, suggesting a more metal type of lyrics, the songs are primarily about partying and sex. Van Halen is largely the same way on their self-titled album, although there is variety in their lyrics. “Ice Cream Man” is a good example, and later Van Halen albums were even more about Hard Rocking sex than about Metal themes.
On the other hand, look at Master of Puppets, by Metallica, with songs like the title song, and “Leper Messiah,” “Sanitarium,” “Disposable Heroes,” and “The Thing That Should Not Be.”
Here’s where we could have some debate about the band Motley Crue. The Crue have many songs about sex on their Shout at the Devil album, such as “Ten Seconds to Love,” “Too Young to Fall in Love,” and “Looks that Kill.” They also, however, have songs like “Shout at the Devil,” which is pretty damn evil, as well as “Knock ‘Em Dead, Kid,” and the remake of the Beatles “Helter Skelter.” This puts it in a kind of between-land, but in my judgment the album is more metal in its lyrics than Hard Rock. I will say, though, that some of Motley Crue’s later albums really cross more into Hard Rock territory with their lyrics, especially on songs such as “Girls, Girls, Girls,” and “Dr. Feelgood.” I could see the Crue as being put into either camp and there could be good arguments either way. I think there’s much less room to argue for bands like Judas Priest and Iron Maiden on the metal side, and Z Z Top on the rock side.
There’s certainly room for debate on this issue. Ultimately, this post is about how I feel about the music I listen too. Your opinions are welcome, of course.