What Is NWOTHM? 12 Must-Hear Bands from the New Wave of Traditional Heavy Metal
Soaring vocals, rip-roaring guitar solos, and hook-heavy choruses packed into radio-friendly song structures -- the sounds of heavy metal are back.
Banished to oblivion for well over a decade, the music has not only returned with every bit as much creative integrity as it held in its early days but has enjoyed a period of sustained interest from fans that is actually on the verge of outlasting the original era.
NWOTHM stands for the New Wave of Traditional Heavy Metal. It is a throwback music genre that embraces the sounds of heavy metal, speed metal, and early forms of power metal from the 1980s and early 1990s. The name, like much of the music itself, is a reference to the New Wave of British Heavy Metal (NWOBHM) that thrived in the late '70s and into the '80s.
For older fans, it's an exhilarating break from the modern electronics, gloomy songwriting, and self-pitying lyrics that have dominated heavy music since the early '90s. It's a vibrant return to the roots of metal music, a feel-good genre perfect for drinking beers and spending time with friends.
For younger fans, it's a chance to experience a bygone era for the first time, an opportunity to step outside the complications of the present day and back to a time that feels free and easy in contrast with the complexities of the present era.
The Origins of NWOTHM
The first NWOTHM releases can be traced to the mid and late 2000s, which not coincidentally was a period that saw widespread cultural nostalgia for the 1980s and early 1990s across all forms of media, including film, television, and other genres of music such as synthwave.
This revival of traditional heavy metal followed a roughly 16-year drought from the early '90s to the late '00s during which the style vanished almost completely, with no new heavy metal bands emerging and only a handful of the more popular acts like Iron Maiden continuing to tour and play a slightly evolved form of the music. Even then, established bands were often relegated to half-empty arenas by the turn of the millennium, as metal fans' taste had shifted almost completely to newer forms of music.
For fans who lived through the drought and believed they'd never hear a new album to rival Savatage's Power of the Night or Judas Priest's Defenders of the Faith, NWOTHM is not simply a curiosity or a side note, but a life-altering shift in music evolution. The revival has provided fans with numerous albums that rival the greatest recordings from the era they emulate, and the music continues to run strong after more than a decade.
Enjoy the best old school heavy metal of the modern era in my NWOTHM playlist on Spotify.
NWOTHM has existed long enough to see some changes in its style, somewhat paradoxically shifting away from modern influences and into a more authentic, underground '80s sound.
The creations of the first generation of NWOTHM were frequently married with modern influences, notably on releases from Skull Fist, Striker, Steelwing, and White Wizzard, who brought melodic, post-millennium rock and alternative influences to their music.
By the mid-2010s, a general shift in the pattern of creative approaches had become clear, as creators turned increasingly toward a grittier, more underground style with fewer commercial aspirations. In the early 2020s, NWOTHM has settled into a thriving, underground second generation with quality creators like Manacle, Trotoar, Riot City, and Traveler joining in alongside many established bands and expanding the already-great tradition of heavy metal in the 21st century.
Notable NWOTHM Bands
The best way to experience NWOTHM is, of course, to enjoy the music, so it's worth diving into a list of notable NWOTHM acts and mentioning some of their most standout recordings.
"Best of" arguments are endless, but as with any genre, there are creators that clearly rise above similar acts for the quality of their music, the number of albums they've released, and the influence they have on other artists. Here are 12 must-hear NWOTHM bands.
Ambush's catalog includes straight-up heavy metal tracks alongside ones that push into early speed and power. The band's first full-length album, Firestorm (2014), easily rates among the best NWOTHM albums to date, while their latest, Infidel (2020), is also deeply enjoyably with many top-notch tracks. With stunning chorus hooks combined with memorably guitar riffs, energetic drumming, and world-class guitar solos, Ambush is one of the go-to examples for great NWOTHM music.
One of the earliest and most popular bands from the old school metal revival is Enforcer, whose brand of heavy/speed metal carries such enthusiasm and energy behind it that it's impossible to not feel energized by it. The group's first four recordings -- created with longtime guitarist Joseph Tholl -- include Into the Night (2008), Diamonds (2010), Death by Fire (2013), and From Beyond (2015), and are all top-notch creations that helped shape and inspire a broader revival of old school metal.
Starting life as a hard rock act with clear influences from AC/DC, Bullet has evolved on their two latest albums, Storm of Blades (2014) and Dust to Gold (2018) into a more aggressive heavy/speed metal band led by a coarse vocal style that will hit the sweet spot for fans of Accept and Running Wild. The group's Storm of Blades album is front-to-back one of the finest true heavy metal albums produced in the 21st century.
Another of the earliest acts to pay homage to heavy metal of the 1980s, Skull Fist's high-speed style brought in a commercial touch that often felt reminiscent of Mötley Crüe and tapped into a subtle but notably modern edge for a sound that captured a large audience in the group's early days. Skull Fist's debut EP, Heavier than Metal (2010), as well as their first two albums, Head öf the Pack (2011) and Chasing the Dream (2014), are all essential releases in the modern era of old school heavy metal.
Though not as well known as others on this list, Metal Inquisitor was easily one of the first bands to pick up the mantle of old school heavy metal, releasing their debut full-length The Apparition far ahead of the curve in 2002. For perspective, that was a full six years before the first releases from Enforcer and White Wizzard, and eight years before the debut releases from Skull Fist and Steelwing, bands that are often credited with kickstarting NWOTHM.
Not only was Metal Inquisitor early, but the group has also been remarkably consistent, turning out five full-length albums with almost equally high quality and craftsmanship. Any of their latest four recordings, Doomsday for the Heretic (2005), Unconditional Absolution (2010), Ultima Ratio Regis (2014) and Panopticon (2019) are easy candidates for the best from their discography, and by extension, from NWOTHM in its entirety.
A name that was widely known to NWOTHM fans in the revival's early days but has slipped into the history books since the band's break-up following 2015's Reset, Reboot, Redeem. Steelwing helped spark excitement for a revival of heavy metal at a time when the sights and sounds of the genre were a revelation for fans who had been starved for the better part of two decades.
The cover art for Steelwing's 2010 debut, Lord of the Wasteland -- created by metal icon Ed Repka -- itself helped to rekindle the magic and excitement of the past era. Many fans consider Lord of the Wasteland to be one of the best NWOTHM albums of the early era, and listening to the recording's hook-heavy songwriting style and infectious guitar riffs, it's easy to understand why.
Heavy. Metal. Tyranny.
Where many NWOTHM bands take a lighter, feel-good approach to the style, RAM brings a brooding, dark edge to their sound that is ready to destroy speakers and crush eardrums wherever it goes. Every album in RAM's discography is worth hearing, though Svbersvm (2015) and The Throne Within (2019) in particular are deeply enjoyable albums that grow better on each spin. For an added nod to the past, check out the group's excellent cover version of Kiss' "Creatures of the Night."
Many Air Raid fans will tell you that the group's first two efforts, Danger Ahead (2012) and Night of the Axe (2012) -- featuring vocalist Michael Rinakakis -- are their strongest, and while there's no denying the greatness of those recordings, their latest two full-length offerings, Point of Impact (2014) and Across the Line (2017) are also packed with high-energy heavy metal tunes with terrific guitar work. "Entering Zone Zero" features one of the finest instrumental performances on any traditional heavy metal track of the 21st century.
Another band that was pivotal to the re-emergence of heavy metal in the new millennium, and the one that arguably brought the most modern influences with them in the process, was White Wizzard. The group's early -- and now difficult to find -- releases like the full-length Over the Top (2010) were among the most prominent and notable releases to emerge in the early days of NWOTHM. While fans disagree on the authenticity of the band's sound and the quality of their recordings, White Wizzard nonetheless helped lay the foundation for hundreds of new heavy metal bands to follow.
Night Demon is one of the best-known bands from the '80s heavy metal revival, and the high-speed rock 'n' roll flavor of their music has caught the ears of many fans who aren't aware of or even necessarily interested in a broader revival. Both of the group's albums to date, Curse of the Damned (2015) and Darkness Remains (2017) offer their share of exciting and memorable tracks. Shifting from entries with a bluesy, roadhouse rock flavor to more aggressive tracks with touches of thrash, Night Demon has a little something for every old school metalhead.
Another highly visible act, Visigoth began life with strong influences of epic doom on The Revenant King (2015), but have progressively shifted into a more agile, energetic style across the full-length Conqueror's Oath (2018) and their Dark Souls-inspired EP, Bells of Awakening (2018). For epic, fantasy-minded heavy metal, it doesn't get any better in the modern era than Visigoth.
Carrying on the great tradition of German speed metal, Stallion delivers raucous, high-energy tracks loaded with electrifying guitar solos and a vocal style that swings effortlessly from a sinister snarl to an air raid siren. Each of the group's three full-length albums -- Rise and Ride (2014), From the Dead (2017), and Slaves of Time (2020) -- are well worth seeking out and blasting at high volume.