We know who coined the term 'blast beat' or 'blastbeat', but which group was the first to employ the technique now synonymous with extreme metal drumming? Now that is a question I bet even a TakeLessons drum teacher wouldn't be able to answer. Was it grindcore legends Napalm Death? Was it crossover heroes D.R.I.? Or was Vehicle City originators Repulsion? How about Kam Lee’s demo blasting for Death? Or even The Beastie Boys pre-ill? None of the above apparently. A quick look up on J. Bennett’s Interhole seems to point to Jazz drummer Tony Williams as the first sticksman to play it quickity quick-like. Indeed, Williams’ fast syncopated hits on the snare could very well be the first blast set to extreme music, but it seems like Jazz—particularly Ayler—is a bit removed from a banger’s point of view. A diagram connecting Mick Harris or Dave 'Grave' Hollingshead to Williams would probably just as confounding as a diagram connecting David Vincent or Karl Willets to Mongolian throat singers.
My stinking opinion on the first blast beat in rock music—which of course is the precursor to heavy metal—comes from none other than Billy ‘Uptown Girl’ Joel. See, back in 1969 Joel had formed Attila with drummer Jon Small. The duo only recorded one album, 1970’s Attila, but had Small blasted his way to obscurity and infamy on the album’s final track “Brain Invasion”. Small may’ve picked up on the panicked percussion style from Williams or one of many great and intrepid Jazz drummers of the times (‘60s, ‘70s), but it’s hard to dispute Small’s expeditious patter.
Although Attila’s sole effort has been strongly criticized—even by Joel himself—a quick run-through of the album’s eight tracks reveals the doomed project—Joel supposedly ran away with Small’s wife!—is not just the first rock record with blast beats, but it’s also the first rock record with video game music before there was video game music. So, Napalm Death, D.R.I., Repulsion, and, by extension, Dragonforce, Powerglove, and, uh, MegaDriver… You may be extreme, but you’ll never be as extreme as Billy Joel when he was in Attila.