STRICTLY SPEAKING, heavy metal is just hard rock with clanging power-chords in the style of such pre-metal rockers as the early Kinks and the Yardbirds. In the wake of '70s metallists like Black Sabbath, though, many metal bands have adopted horror-movie themes and ghoulish names. Like, for instance, Grim Reaper, Armored Saint and Helloween.

Of the three, England's Grim Reaper seems the most vehement on its current record, "Rock You to Hell," which is packed with pounding angry-young-man anthems like "Rock Me 'Till I Die" and the title song. Turns out that the Reapers are not just peeved 'cause Dad wouldn't let them use the car: They've just extricated themselves from a recording contract. When you realize that songs like "You'll Wish You Were Never Born" and "Lust for Freedom" are about lawyers, they take on a universality that hardcore metal seldom achieves.

On "Raising Fear," California's Armored Saint offers no-compromises headbanging-metal much like Grim Reaper's, but with a bit more variety. In addition to such full-speed ravers as "Frozen Will/Legacy," the quartet writes metal ballads like "Isolation," which with glossier production wouldn't sound out of place on a Heart album. The only song with a memorable melody, though, is a cover of Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Saturday Night Special."

Helloween lead singer Michael Kiske howls in English, but it comes as no surprise to learn that this quintet hails from the land of Wagner: "Keeper of the Seven Keys, Part I" is the most operatic of these records. It's a suite of sorts, with the 13-minute-long "Halloween" the centerpiece. The overdrive "leadguitars" of Kai Hansen and Michael Weikath will satisfy metal purists, but this band also owes a major debt to early-'70s English art-rockers like King Crimson and Yes. GRIM REAPER --

"Rock You to Hell" (RCA 6250-4-R).

ARMORED SAINT --

"Raising Fear" (Chrysalis BVT 41601).

HELLOWEEN --

"Keeper of the Seven Keys, Part I" (RCA 6399-1-R).

All appearing Friday at the Warner Theater.