It might be metal's most mocked subgenre, but with DragonForce leading the way, power metal has become, well, almost cool. The style traces its roots back to anything heavy, classical-music-based, and fantasy-obsessed from the Seventies and, from there, to NWOBHM bright knights like Judas Priest and Iron Maiden. But it was Ronnie James Dio, emerging from the muck of post-Ozzy Sabbath in 1983 with a solo record called Holy Diver, who truly kicked off power metal proper. And fittingly, that album kicks off our mini-library of Middle Earthen must-haves.
(Warner Bros., 1983)
RJD flirted with fantasy in his pre-Sabbath outfit Rainbow, but once he'd gone solo, the wizards, virgins, and demons stepped out of the dark and took center stage. Equally epic-minded, drummer Vinnie Appice laid down the ultimate medieval backbeat, o'er which Ronnie admonished all disbelievers with his unholy vocals and devil-horned salute.
With records like Marching Out, swift Swede Yngwie Malmsteen was soon regarded as power metal's central figure, his jaw-dropping classical runs and racing renaissance riffery becoming a signature part of the genre's sound. And Malmsteen brought the attitude as well: "I Am a Viking" contains more chest-beating bravado than Manowar's first three albums combined.
These Germans' two Keeper albums (the second of which is their crowning achievement) offered the world tons of Teutonic shredding, relentless double bass, ringing castrati-style vocals (courtesy of Michael Kiske), and an anthemic "happy metal" enthusiasm that has since become one of power metal's trademarks.
(Century Media, 1995)
You don't get more power metal than repeatedly basing your records on the Lord of the Rings saga. And that's just what vocalist Hansi Kürsch and his affable German hobbits did throughout the Nineties (the peak years of ridicule for their genre), setting fantastical Tolkien-inspired tales to equally fantastical fretwork on albums such as this, their finest hour.
For the haters, fleet Finns Stratovarius—led by guitarist-songwriter Timo Tolkki—represent power metal gone too clean, too cheerful, too keyboardy. But in truth, they pulled off their accessible alloy with aplomb, selling boatloads of records (none better than Visions) to rabid fans eager to holler along with every one of their stadium-sized songs.
(Nuclear Blast, 1997)
Sweden's Hammerfall are metal as hell. And don't just take our word for it—take the band's. This, the Swedes' debut, features brash proclamations of their proud and pure metal status, claims confirmed by Hammerfall's early post–Armored Saint stage attire, sword-and-sorcery cover art, and chalice-hoisting riffage.
(Century Media, 1998)
Iced Earth guitarist, mastermind, and military-history buff Jon Schaffer toiled away at his hard-edged, death- and thrash-influenced post-Maiden sound for nigh on a decade before creating this superhero-themed concept classic, the album most beloved by his worldwide (OK, Greek) fan base—and rightly so.
Symphony X guitarist Michael Romeo and vocalist Russell Allen are two of the most well-respected figures on the U.S. power-metal scene, and The Odyssey is their impossibly progressive major statement, proving their band to be as complex, convoluted, and conceptual as their prog-metal forbearers: Queensrÿche, Fates Warning, and Dream Theater.
(Metal Blade, 2003)
Brainstorm led a sub-pack of power purveyors (such as Falconer, Edguy, and Masterplan) that reach for a slightly more mature plane, injecting their intricate, proggy arrangements with just enough irony and self-awareness so no one takes it too seriously. As a result, the brisk, action-packed Soul Temptation sounds engagingly casual and almost humorous.
Outdoing even fellow countrymen the Darkness, the U.K.'s DragonForce take pop-meta-metal excess to a new level, creating impeccably produced, keyboard-sweet shred-head anthems that, like Hammerfall's songs, are all about being "metal" (usually on fire), and like Stratovarius', soar joyously on saccharine melody—all the way to the bank.