Why was NWOBHM so important? + 5 albums you need to listen to

Rock Crowd
Photo by Senad Palic on Unsplash

NWOBHM, otherwise known as the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, is an important part of rock history, but one that doesn’t get talked about as much as it should.

Lasting just a handful of years, it marked a change of mood on the heavy rock scene. Not only that, it also shaped the destiny of rock for the next 40 years, influencing many modern bands we know and love.

This article covers the rise of NWOBHM, and why its most important albums are worth listening to again and again.

The rise of NWOBHM

The end of the 1970s was a turning point for heavy metal. After the huge commercial success of the likes of Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath – which we still see reflected in everything from embarrassing TV adverts to popular rockstar images in online casino games – there was a need for more underground acts to satisfy the appetite of rock fans.

On top of this, a time of social unrest in the UK, including the Winter of Discontent and the government’s ongoing war against the mining industry, gave rise to many new angry voices from the country’s working class.

The New Wave of British Heavy Metal was a term first used by journalist Geoff Barton to describe this stream of new acts that started to take the country by storm. Drawing on the rock of the 70s and infusing it with elements of the fading punk movements, the NWOBHM encapsulated the raw emotion of the time.

Songs typically involved escapist themes, such as fantasy, horror, and mythology. Iron Maiden were born from this movement, as were many other bands that were set to shape the rock scene for years to come.

Yet while Maiden’s songs are known to every rock fan, here are five NWOBHM albums that might have escaped your attention.

Diamond Head – Lightning to the Nations (1980)

It might seem hard to believe but one of the chief inspirations for Lars Ulrich came from a small West Midlands town of Stourbridge. Just down the road from where rock greats Robert Plant and Ozzy Osbourne were born, a quartet by the name of Diamond Head released their debut album in 1980 – and the effect on the rock scene was huge.

In fact, Ulrich even stated that It’s Electric, a song from the record, made him want to be in a band. He described himself as ‘hooked’ the moment the needle hit the record: ‘it seemed so right, so fresh’ he said.

The album’s seven tracks do have a crisp sound to them, even today. This is true in particular for the opening track, which combines a Plant-esque howl with riffs from the Sabbath playbook to create a new sound that still resonates today.

Angel Witch – Angel Witch (1980)

Angel Witch often get overlooked when it comes to 80s metal, but there’s no denying their huge legacy.

Their self-titled debut album, released around the same time as Lightning to the Nations, features several characteristics of the NWOBHM sound with its infectious riffs and doomy atmosphere.

Despite the cult following the band accumulated through this record, the trio sadly faded into obscurity a few years later, as their London-based peers Iron Maiden went on to world domination.

Venom – Welcome to Hell (1981)

When it comes to ground-breaking metal albums, Welcome to Hell is right up there. Venom’s debut had the heavy industrial sound and fire that paved the way for the later thrash metal sound.

The band’s power trio of Cronos, Mantas and Abaddon saw their extreme creation dismissed at first by stunned critics, who had difficulty working out what was going on. However, the record inspired a new generation of younger bands, including the legendary Slayer, to take up the mantle.

Venom are recognized as one of the legends of NWOBHM today: hell, their follow-up album even had a metal subgenre named after it – its name? Black Metal.

Raven – Rock Until You Drop (1981)

For metal fans, there’s only one set of legendary Gallagher brothers in British music. Mark and John may not be as famous as Liam and Noel, but their metal legacy is still huge.

From the same city as Venom, Newcastle, the band released Rock Until You Drop in 1981, and showcased the band’s breakneck style, powerful lyrics, and tight play. The record has stood the test of time impressively well, with songs such as Lambs to the Slaughter and Hell Patrol still exuding that thrilling live sound that the band is famous for.

Def Leppard – High ‘n’ Dry (1981)

Although 1981’s High ‘n’ Dry can be a bit of an afterthought for some rock critics, its impact on the NWOBHM scene was huge.

Jam-packed with awesome tunes, from the riff-filled Another Hit and Run to power ballad Bringin’ On the Heartbreak, this record has pretty much everything. It tells us of a time when Leppard had more than just an airbrushed sound tailormade for mainstream audiences, of a band that had just emerged from their native Sheffield – the Steel City – and had something to scream about.