The range of metal tracks to emerge from New Zealand over the last four decades makes it hard to capture the breadth of styles in a short list. So maybe it’s better to see the 10 tracks that follow as the starting point for a conversation about the evolution of local metal. The artists below certainly show that New Zealanders aren’t shy of screaming out their lyrics, turning their guitars up to 11, and pounding the drums hard enough to blow the PA speakers out.
The Human Instinct – Jug-a-jug
When did the first stirrings of metal reach our shores? You can certainly hear some of metal’s essential elements on early albums by The Human Instinct (in particular, Stoned Guitar,1970, and Pins In It, 1971). Consider the track ‘Jug-a-jug’ which begins with the wild riffing of Hendrix-inspired guitarist Billy TK before settling into a heavy chug, underpinned by the busy pounding of singer/drummer Maurice Greer. Over the decade that followed, other prog and hard rock acts would release the odd song that prepared the way forward – ‘Smashing!!!’ by Highway and ‘Rippoff’ by Think come to mind – but it was a long while before any band sounded as heavy as The Human Instinct.
The metal scene worldwide was enlivened around the turn of the 1980s by the arrival of the “new wave of British heavy metal”, which brought us bands like Motörhead, Iron Maiden and Judas Priest. New Zealand was no exception and suddenly you began to see local acts such as Knightshade, Strikemaster and Tokyo mining similar territory. All three appeared on the same bill in Wellington in 1984 and had a song each filmed for Radio With Pictures, which presented the burgeoning scene to a national audience (a few years later RWP filmed Knightshade with another key act, Stonehenge). Knightshade already had a solid fanbase in their home area of the Waikato and soon made inroads into the Bay of Plenty, Auckland, and Wellington. This groundwork saw their first EP chart at No.26 in 1986. More chart hits would follow, though there were as many ballads as hard rocking tracks (a trend of the era). Nonetheless, the band expanded the audience for Kiwi metal, supporting Guns N’Roses and touring Australia, before deciding to call it quits in 1996. There were reunion shows from 2014-2016; vocalist Wayne Elliott died in December 2018. These days Knightshade might be characterised as “hard rock” rather than metal, but this is probably more an indication of how much heavier bands would get in the years to come. Certainly the finger-tapping on this track sounds like classic metal guitar soloing of its era.
Shihad – Derail
Given Shihad’s eventual success as a chart-topping rock act, it’s easy to forget they were full-throttle thrash metallers when they first started. Their EP Devolve even featured an adrenaline-fuelled version of ‘The Wizard’ by Black Sabbath. This made them stand out at a time when glam metal was having a brief flowering (Push Push got to No.1 with ‘Trippin’), though there were others like Anigma in the play-as-fast-as-you-can camp. After the EP, Shihad signed to Wildside Records along with other metal-influenced bands such as HLAH and Dead Flowers. The style of all three bands would change rapidly with the arrival of grunge and alternative rock. However, Shihad did record one album while still in full metal-mode, Churn (1993). The producer was Jaz Coleman from Killing Joke, who pushed them towards an industrial metal sound – the result was nine tracks of pounding, robotic intensity.
Blindspott – S.U.I.T.
The 90s were an odd time for New Zealand metal. To a large degree it went underground and evolved away from the light of day with the emergence of some long lasting and hugely influential local acts that explored new styles, among them Malevolence (grind), Sinistrous Diabolus (doom/death metal), and Vassafor (black metal). Meanwhile, elements of metal were being integrated with hardcore and hip hop to create new hybrid forms. Blindspott were a product of this blend and a song like the one below seems to bounce around from style to style in each subsequent section. There are undoubtedly metal elements like the stabbing distorted guitars and screamed vocals, but also rapped verses and melodic sung vocals too. While some metal purists were no doubt scoffing from the sidelines, Blindspott burst across into the mainstream and sent two albums to No.1.
8 Foot Sativa – 8 Foot Sativa
When 8 Foot Sativa’s debut album (Hate Made Me, 2002) reached the NZ Top 10 and was certified gold, it provided a warning sign that the extreme metal scene in New Zealand was set to re-emerge. It helped that they were named after a giant marijuana plant and had a cartoon character based on this imagery that featured in their artwork and music videos. The band was also long lasting, starting in 1998 and surpassing a couple of decades, with band members often brought in from other legendary local acts such as Sinate and Ulcerate to fill out the ranks. During this time, they toured overseas and recorded two of their albums in Sweden. They became more formidable as they went on, but it seems fitting to look back at the self-titled single which broke them.
Dawn of Azazel – Strike First, Strike Hard, Strike Often
Dawn of Azazel have an odd claim to fame. In 2005, the Sunday Star-Times ran a story questioning whether their lead singer could be trusted to carry out his day job as a police officer, given his band’s death metal sound and brutal lyrics, which supported a “survival of the fittest” philosophy. This was followed up by pieces on television show Nightline and even a slot on the evening news, though the police department investigated the matter and stood behind him. What Dawn of Azazel should more rightly be known for is being at the forefront of extreme metal’s recovery in New Zealand during the early 2000s. The arrival of the internet meant local bands no longer had to rely on tape trading and zines to get their music out to the world. Dawn of Azazel had an international focus from the start, releasing their first EP (Bloodforged Abdication) on Italy’s Hellflame Records, their debut album (The Law Of The Strong, 2003) on Poland’s Agonia Records, and their follow-up (Sedition, 2005) on Ibex Moon in the US. They also gained a strong fanbase in Australia and repeatedly toured Europe. This track – off a more recent album (The Tides of Damocles, 2015) – shows the band at the height of their powers.
Ulcerate – Abrogation
Dawn of Azazel weren’t the only New Zealand metallers to have an overseas impact since the turn of the new millennium: Witchrist’s album Beheaded Ouroboros (2010) was rated 9.2/10 by influential site Heavy Metal Tribune and Diocletian’s album Gesundrian (2014) was named at No.14 on Pitchfork’s best metal albums of the year. New Zealand even has a connection with power metal superstars Dragonforce, since UK-born guitarist Sam Totman started his music career while living here as a youth in Wellington band Demoniac (the early years of the latter band are best forgotten, given the horrible racist and homophobic lyrics they employed to shock audiences). Leaving Totman aside, the biggest international success story to come from our metal scene is undoubtedly Ulcerate. They’re essentially a death metal band, but this undersells the precise, uncompromising musicianship that runs through their work. Pitchfork named their album The Destroyers of All the third-best metal album of 2011 and not long after this they were signed to one of the biggest metal labels in the world, Relapse Records. The following track ‘Abrogation’ is taken off the second album they did with Relapse (Shrines of Paralysis, 2016). This live version shows why drummer Jamie Saint Merat is one of the best that New Zealand has ever produced.
Devilskin – Little Pills
Devilskin may be one of the most divisive acts named in this list, though there may be a little sexism in the dismissal they get from some quarters (Jennie Skulander is the only female musician on this list) or maybe it’s those dyed red goatee beards! Yet it would be ridiculous to leave them off this list, given that they can sell out large venues like The Powerstation and their album We Rise (2015) went to No.1. The album went on to sell platinum, which is a remarkable feat in the streaming era and shows that physical sales within metal continue to be higher than within other genres. The success of the band was helped by the decades of experience of the band’s bass player, Paul Martin, who’d spent two years as the guitarist in Knightshade (as well as being a member of Tyrant and Blackjack) and started the legendary radio show, The Axe Attack. Looking at the metal scene in the 2010s more generally, it seems a healthy sign that at one end of the spectrum you could have a commercially successful band like Devilskin with catchy choruses and traditionally structured songs, while at the other extreme you could have a cult act like Vassafor whose songs could extended past 15 minutes with dozens of unique sections that go from atmospheric noise to full-on blast beats. ‘Little Pills’ provides a good example of Devilskin’s classic metal sound, with operatic vocals, chugging rhythms, and the lead guitarist unleashing the odd harmonic scream for good measure.
Beastwars – Damn The Sky
The musicians from Beastwars largely came from the alternative rock scene, but took their time creating their own sludge metal sound – spending three years in the practice room before playing their first gig. Their live shows soon found them fans, who were enthralled by shamanic performance style of singer Matt Hyde. A couple of years later they finally got their huge sound down on record and matched it with mind-bending artwork by painter Nik Keller (who also did their later albums, making their vinyl releases especially popular). The band’s debut hit No.15 on the New Zealand charts and the following two made the top five. An astounding achievement for such a left-field music act. Their song ‘Damn The Sky’ shows that they knew what sound they were after from the first track of their very first album.
Alien Weaponry – Kai Tangata
Just when you thought New Zealand metal had explored every possible avenue, along came Alien Weaponry to open a whole new path. Many of their most popular tracks are sung in te reo Māori and focus on areas of Māori mythology and history. This gained them interest overseas, where they signed a deal with Napalm Records and their subsequent tour of Europe was filmed by RNZ for a documentary. Their classic-thrash inspired sound is captured well on the track ‘Kai Tangata’, though who knows what direction the band will take in future, given the band members were still only teenagers when they wrote it.
Craig Hayes’ RNZ documentary about the extreme metal scene in New Zealand, in two parts: