With a crash of thunder, the ringing of ominous church bells and one of the loudest guitar sounds in history, a heavy new music genre was born in earnest on a Friday the 13th early in 1970. Its roots stretch back to the late Sixties, when artists like Blue Cheer, Iron Butterfly and Led Zeppelin cranked their amps to play bluesy, shit-kicking rockers, but it wasn't until that fateful day, when Black Sabbath issued the first, front-to-back, wholly heavy-metal album – their gloomy self-titled debut – that a band had mastered the sound of the genre, one that still resonates nearly 50 years later: heavy metal.
Although Black Sabbath's members have scoffed at the metal tag over the years, their lumbering, overdriven guitar, acrobatic drumming and forceful vocals, all originally intended to be rock's equivalent to a horror movie, have been copied time and again, decade after decade. Judas Priest dressed it in denim and leather. Metallica whirled it into a breakneck blur. Korn gave it a new rhythmic oomph. And Avenged Sevenfold ornamented it with catchy, head-turning melodies. In between, it's been rejiggered for maximum extremity in underground subgenres like death metal, black metal and grindcore, and, beginning in the early Eighties, the genre as a whole had become a cultural movement capable of overtaking the pop charts.
Metal bands weren't the first to embrace dark imagery in their music – that tradition goes back to classical composers like Richard Wagner and blues artists like Robert Johnson – but they approached these subjects with a unique pomp, a hyper-masculine might that gave the genre a musical language of its own. It could be virtuosic or it could be primal, but it was always loud. That codification, combined with many bands' tough-as-nails demeanors, marked by scowls and black clothing, helped metal become a lifestyle that transcended the bands onstage.
Fans of the genre, whether you call them metalheads, headbangers or something else, are passionate, charismatic and bold, eager to debate, define and defend every nuance of their favourite bands' music to the death. Because metal has become so varied in its rich history since Black Sabbath first thrilled listeners, it's hard to please all of the headbangers all of the time.
We had to make a lot of tough, critical decisions, but ultimately we made a list that reflects metal's diversity, power and legacy. So without further ado, don your spiked gauntlets and raise your horns so we can present you with the 50 Greatest Metal Albums of All Time.
After Slipknot's self-titled debut catapulted the mask-wearing, percussion-heavy nonet from Midwest obscurity to stardom, the band nearly imploded in a maelstrom of self-destructive indulgence. Instead of the cathartic release of the first album, singer Corey Taylor told Revolver, "Doing Iowa, I wasn't letting anything go. It was just rage for the sake of rage. ... Luckily, we got a dark, brutal, amazing album out of it." For all its aural intensity – the breathlessly chugging guitars, the roiling swirls of snare and tom-tom, Taylor's throat-rending vocals – what stands out about isn't the emotional negativity but the perversely hook-heavy writing. Sometimes the two are wrapped together, like on the misanthropic chant-along "People = Shit"; sometimes they're in opposition, as when sweetly melodic vocals float through the chorus of "My Plague." It's as if the band wanted a way to make its pain palatable – even addictive.
Neurosis, a San Francisco hardcore punk band formed by singer-guitarist Scott Kelly, bassist Dave Edwardson and drummer Jason Roeder in 1985, had trended slower, heavier and deeper over the course of several successive LPs, so when they went full bore into an even weightier sound it wasn't without warning. With the arrival of keyboardist Noah Landis in 1995, the group's mature lineup jelled, and a year later, the band dropped its transformative masterpiece: a titanic mix of hardcore, industrial and sludge-metal notions and sampled soundbites, balancing oppressive heaviness, hypnotic repetition and surprising vulnerability. "This was a difficult time for people, personally, and it all led to what would become this music that was really gut-wrenching to create," guitarist and singer Steve Von Till told Decibel in 2016. "[W]e were going to take this to the deepest, darkest place we could find. And we had to live there to find it."
Unhappy with Deep Purple's increasingly funk-oriented direction, Ritchie Blackmore left his band in 1974 and formed Rainbow with Ronnie James Dio. And with Rising, Rainbow's second LP, they produced an album that rivalled (some would even say surpassed) Purple's finest work. "Everybody who's heard it thinks it's my best playing in a long time, which I suppose is a compliment," the famously testy guitarist remarked in 1976, at the time of the album's release. "Then again, what do they know?" But it didn't take a musicologist to appreciate the quasi-mystical power of "Tarot Woman" (which featured an unexpectedly futuristic-sounding synth intro from Tony Carey), the arena-ready boogie of "Starstruck," the twin Tolkein-esque epics "Stargazer" and "A Light in the Black," or the fiery, dynamic fashion in which Blackmore and Co. dished them out. Sadly, Rising would mark Rainbow's artistic peak, as Blackmore would soon steer the band in more commercially oriented directions. "He was perturbed that he wasn't being played on the radio, and decided to go a different route," bassist Jimmy Bain lamented to Classic Rock in 2014. "He didn't think we were going to get successful, because Rising was too heavy."
After Reign in Blood marked them as the fastest, most fearsomely furious band in thrash, the question facing Slayer was, "What next?" "We knew we couldn't top Reign in Blood, so we had to slow down," guitarist Jeff Hanneman recalled to Decibel. "We knew whatever we did was gonna be compared to that album, and I remember we actually discussed slowing down. It was weird – we've never done that on an album, before or since." It definitely was slower. Even when the title track shifts into double-time, its tempo seems a comfortable trot compared to the double-kick fury that was Reign in Blood's "Angel of Death." Yet the stately, sitar-like riff that opens the song is more ominously creepy than anything on its predecessor, and there's something memorably morbid about the harmonized, twin-guitar hook that opens "Mandatory Suicide." This was where Slayer proved that it was the writing, not just the band's speed and stamina, that made its music matter. That the slower tempos gave Hanneman and fellow guitarist Kerry King a platform for more varied and expressive solos was just icing on the cake.
Although their most recent album, Emperor of Sand, cracked the Top 10, a decade and a half ago progressive metallists Mastodon were still relative unknowns. On a break from the band's relentless touring regimen, drummer Brann Dailor happened to read Herman Melville's 1851 whaling epic Moby-Dick, and he was struck by the parallels between his experience and that of the novel's narrator and of the revenge-obsessed Captain Ahab. "Mastodon were like sailors as we drove around and played basements and clubs for years. We were on a quest for something that might not even be there, and we were sacrificing a lot by leaving our families and friends behind. It was a mixture of Ahab's craziness and Ishmael's lust for life and adventure," he told Modern Drummer. The idea was hatched to make Mastodon's second release a concept record about the novel, an album that would have to be big and mean enough to be worthy of the murderous white whale it celebrates. Mere seconds into Leviathan's heaving opener, "Blood and Thunder," it's clear that the group succeeded: The listener is buffeted by surging waves of guitars, guttural screams and relentless squalls of drum fills. Deeper tracks like the fully unhinged "Megalodon" and the slow-building opus "Hearts Alive" only drag us deeper into Mastodon's dark sound and vision.
If the so-called Big Four thrash bands – Metallica, Megadeth, Slayer and Anthrax – expanded to five, Exodus would complete the cadre, simply because of the way their debut, Bonded by Blood, explodes from the stereo. Frontman Paul Baloff, who, as legend has it would rip Mötley Crüe and Ratt T-shirts off fans at Exodus shows, wrapping them around his wrists as "war trophies," sounds like a man possessed by mayhem, wreaking comic-book carnage all over the record. On one song he promises to teach doubters "A Lesson in Violence"; on the title track he urges fans to bang their heads against the stage until they bleed ("Murder in the front row!"); on another, he prays to Lucifer to "Deliver Us to Evil." Meanwhile, the rest of the band – led by guitarist Gary Holt and foil Rick Hunolt (who eventually replaced Kirk Hammett after he left for Metallica in 1983) – provided melodic, tough-guy gang vocals to "And Then There Were None" and plied whiplash-inducing, breakneck-paced riffing on anthems like "Strike of the Beast" and the galloping "Piranha." Exodus were so raucous while making the LP that the owner of the studio where they recorded claims that they caused more damage there than any other band. "You get a bunch of kids together with loads of alcohol and shit, and what do you think will happen?" Holt once said. "We had a party every night, invited up our friends from the Bay Area, and there'd be some drunken brawls. ... It's great to know we made such an impact." Ultimately, Baloff's alcohol consumption became too much for the band, which kicked him out in 1986, and, even though he returned in 1997 for intermittent live performances before his death in 2002, the group never again made a record as ragged and vital as Bonded by Blood.
Two years after shaking up the Hollywood metal scene with Too Fast for Love, Mötley Crüe took on the world (and Lucifer) with Shout at the Devil. With a pentagram emblazoned on its album sleeve and an over-the-top glam-metal look that came off a bit like what would happen if the New York Dolls made it with a football team, the band went to great lengths to establish themselves as the tough, bloodthirsty new faces of metal. They also had a heavier sound. Starting with "Shout at the Devil" – a fist-banging anthem urging listeners to resist sin (something Crüe failed miserably) – and moving directly into "Looks That Kill" and "Too Young to Fall in Love" (and its overtly misogynistic "I'm killing you/See your face turning blue" couplet) the band custom-made each prospective single to be gritty enough to sit next to Judas Priest on the radio and exist in its own teased-hair universe on MTV. Elsewhere, they courted not Beatlemania but Mansonmania with a "Helter Skelter" cover, painted a gory tableau with the murderific "Bastard" and declared their own greatness on "Red Hot." "During the period that we were writing songs like 'Red Hot' and 'Shout at the Devil' and 'Bastard,' we were really frustrated," Nikki Sixx said around the time of the album's release. "It was during Too Fast for Love, and we had a lot of problems. 'Bastard' was about an old business acquaintance that really hurt us. ... Financially [he] took our tour money and ran with it." Shout at the Devil, now certified four-times platinum, was Mötley Crüe's revenge.
A crucial turning point in Judas Priest's career – and in the history of metal – 1978's Stained Class was where the British band jettisoned the last remaining vestiges of their early progressive-rock leanings, and went for the jugular with faster, tighter and more menacing songs like "Exciter," "White Heat, Red Hot" and "Invader"; even the album's lone power ballad, "Beyond the Realms of Death," sounded downright economical compared to their previous work. Although Stained Class would later be used as Exhibit A in an infamous "backwards masking" court case (brought against the band by the family of a teenager who killed himself after allegedly listening to the track "Better by You, Better Than Me"), the album put Priest on the U.S. charts for the first time, and helped steal the thunder of British punk by igniting what would become known as the New Wave of British Heavy Metal. "It was an exciting time for the band," frontman Rob Halford told Classic Rock in 2011. "There was a lot of self-belief in what we were about to do and a sense of adventure. When you think about the intensity of tracks like 'Exciter,' for example, or 'Invader' or 'Savage,' maybe it was a reaction to what was going on around us. It kind of turned the fires up under our feet: 'We're a fucking metal band, mate, and this is what we love to do. Get an earful of this.'
First issued in a plain white sleeve with no song titles, Diamond Head's debut album rode alongside the tidal wave of landmark New Wave of British Heavy Metal releases in 1980. Unique among peers like Saxon and Def Leppard, Diamond Head cleaned up hard rock's sweat and excess, trimming song lengths and providing a streamlined answer to Led Zeppelin's Page and Plant in the plaintive wails of Sean Harris and the muscular, stadium-ready guitar riffs of Brian Tatler. For Lightning to the Nations, the pair crafted intricate, almost orchestrally structured songs such as "The Prince," "Sucking My Love" and "Am I Evil?" that went through riffs like they were a dime a dozen. Although ill-fated business luck hampered their progress, fans rated them highly. Lars Ulrich has called Lightning's highly memorable collection of straightforward riff-based anthems, "some of the greatest songs of all time." Indeed, Metallica went on to cover five of the album's seven tracks, notably "Helpless" and "Am I Evil?" in the recording studio as well as stadiums worldwide for more than 30 years.
Other guitarists had reveled in deafening low-end, but Kyuss co-founder – and future Queens of the Stone Age leader – Josh Homme made the practice into something almost scientific. His guitar, tuned down and fed through a bass cabinet, delivered a sound that would best be described as the crushed velvet of fuzz guitar tones, as luxurious was it deafening. Homme's sonorous rumble may have been the cornerstone of the Kyuss sound, but the real strength of Blues for the Red Sun was the band's alchemical ability to transform old-school blues licks into hallucinogenic epics like "Freedom Run" or "Thumb," where the riffs seemed to stretch into the horizon. Driving riff workouts such as "Green Machine" rounded out the album's heady blend. Homme credited the band's songwriting chops to its early days playing "generator parties" – so called because the electricity came courtesy gas-powered generators – in the desert outside their hometown of Palm Desert, California. "There's no clubs here, so you can only play for free," he told Billboard. "If people don't like you, they'll tell you. You can't suck." And Kyuss didn't.
Has any metal album been overshadowed more by the circumstances surrounding its making than De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas, the debut LP from seminal Norwegian black-metal quartet Mayhem? Dead (Per Yngve Ohlin), vocalist during the album's gestation, committed suicide before it was recorded. And despite early claims to the contrary, you're listening to a convicted killer, bassist Count Grishnackh (Varg Vikernes, also of Burzum) playing alongside his victim, guitarist Euronymous (Øystein Aarseth). Yet despite the unthinkable causes for its notoriety, Mysteriis remains a singularly potent document, its expressions of alienation and nihilism lent an icy severity by Aarseth's lacerating guitar buzz, session vocalist Attila Csihar's arcane croak and presentation of Dead's lyrical gothic terror and the pummeling drums of Hellhammer (Jan Axel Blomberg). "We were repulsed by music about love and kindness – we just hated it," Blomberg told Rolling Stone in February, when the present Mayhem lineup was playing Mysteriis complete on tour. "We wanted to make music that was the extreme opposite of that." Mission accomplished.
Pantera bassist Rex Brown once told Rolling Stone that with Far Beyond Driven, "the record company was pushing for something like [Metallica's chart-topping] 'Black Album.'" Pantera, of course, did not comply with this request, instead coming up with a record that boasted some of their fastest (opener "Stronger Than All") heaviest (the Sabbath-y "I'm Broken") and most downright misanthropic (the utterly depraved "Good Friends and a Bottle of Pills") jams. At times – witness Dimebag Darrell's Whammy pedal abuse on "Becoming," Phil Anselmo's wretched exorcising of paternal demons on "25 Years" or Vinnie Paul's click-y bass drum sound all over the album – it seemed as if the band was attempting to inflict actual pain on the listener. And yet, shockingly, Pantera's record company did in fact get their Number One album. To this day, Far Beyond Driven stands as indisputably the most extreme effort to have reached the top spot on the Billboard 200, not to mention to have debuted in that position upon its release. Credit the album's success to Pantera's undeniable dominance of the metal landscape in the mid-Nineties, as well as, in the words of Paul, their commitment to making a "balls-out heavy-metal record with no compromising." And that they did, though with one concession – ditching the original cover art, which showed a massive drill bit penetrating an unlucky recipient straight up the ass.
By the time Iron Maiden released their landmark fifth LP, Powerslave, in 1984, the British metal group had four seminal albums under their studded belts and had become such a powerful touring force that they were already planning to record a live album – what would become the epochal Live After Death – on their next world tour. "We took what was best from [our last record, Piece of Mind] and gave it the aggressive style of [1982's] Number of the Beast," lead singer Bruce Dickinson said at the time of Powerslave's release. "We've made a high quality record ... artistically speaking, of course!" Dickinson's pride in the album is justified: The singer's stunning skill is evident throughout, as when he soars above tracks like the aerial-combat–inspired "Aces High" and the anti-war screed "Two Minutes to Midnight," as bassist Steve Harris and drummer Nicko McBrain weaponize their trademark rhythm-section gallop and guitarists Adrian Smith and Dave Murray hand each other the shred baton like Olympian relay racers. Powerslave culminates with the classic 13-minute–plus opus "Rime of the Ancient Mariner” (based on the Samuel Taylor Coleridge poem of the same name) but not before Dickinson summons his inner Egyptologist for the album’s title track, which examines the inescapable mortality of even the most exalted and revered.
Black Sabbath without Ozzy Osbourne was a nearly unimaginable thought during the first decade of the band's existence, but by 1979 the group was running out of patience with the singer's growing unreliability and chronic drug abuse (two closely related issues), so they fired him. Virtually nobody on earth was qualified to fill his shoes besides former Rainbow singer Ronnie James Dio, a diminutive man with one of the biggest voices in metal. "He could get really high and clear, but it always sounded thick and powerful," James Hetfield told Rolling Stone after Dio's death in 2010. "He sounded like he was eight feet tall even though he was quite the opposite." Dio's presence breathed new life into Black Sabbath – who had been slowly fading throughout the late Seventies – and led to incredible new tunes like the regal "Heaven and Hell," the hard-charging "Neon Knights" and the dramatic "Die Young." Dio was a lyricist, so he took some of the pressure off bassist Geezer Butler, and in the process gave the band an unprecedented grandeur. Suddenly, the group had a whole new generation of fans too young to remember the original Ozzy era in the early 1970s. "Everyone had that record," Hetfield said. "Everyone was playing the cover songs in garage bands, including me. 'Neon Knights' was like the school anthem." Black Sabbath carried on for decades more, with an endless parade of singers, but they never again quite recaptured the rejuvenated spirit of Heaven and Hell.
With a high-powered electric piano, a hearty serving of pyrotechnic guitar and David Lee Roth's lighthearted snark ("Have you seen junior's grades?") on lead track "And the Cradle Will Rock … ," Van Halen introduced an amplified take on their trademark party-metal aesthetic on Women and Children First. The band, whose Eddie Van Halen originally wanted to name the group after Black Sabbath's "Rat Salad," had first appeared as usurpers to Sabbath's throne in 1978 when they opened up for the metal progenitors on tour, nimbly going lick for lick with their forebears on heavy hitters like "Ain't Talkin' 'Bout Love" and Eddie's stunning "Eruption" solo, which inspired generations of young guitarists to shred. By 1980, they were headlining arenas with a harder, more metallic sound – without losing any of their looseness. "The music has grown and evolved but it hasn't matured," Roth said in a promotional interview for the LP. Women and Children First was Van Halen's heaviest album at the time, thanks to the tribal drumming and guitar noise of "Everybody Wants Some!!"; the bass-heavy plunder of "Fools" and interlude "Tora! Tora!"; the technical guitar chugging of "Romeo Delight" and "Loss of Control"; and Eddie's unabashed guitar expressionism on "Take Your Whiskey Home," amid a few lighter, acoustic moments. Throughout, Roth, rock's greatest jester, hoots, hollers, scats and squeals – something he'd scale back slightly on the group's next LP, the typically darker Fair Warning. It all culminates with "In a Simple Rhyme," a multi-movement track that contains the best of everything Van Halen offered in their early years – flashy guitar, softer moments and metal riffs, and Roth's brilliant narration of his everyman spirit ("Ain't love grand when you finally hit it?/I'm always a sucker for a real good time"), which perfectly set up the freewheeling ethos of mainstream metal in the Eighties.
Metallica forged a new metal subgenre in the early Eighties by combining the speed of Motörhead with the intricate arrangements of New Wave of British Heavy Metal groups like Diamond Head and Venom, making for the supremely headbangable style known as thrash. Their first LP, Kill 'Em All, is ground zero for the genre: nine shit-kicking rockers custom-designed to rattle brains, served alongside one bass solo (take one). Nearly three decades later, the million-notes-per-minute "Whiplash" still best describes just what the band was trying to achieve: "There's a feeling deep inside that drives you fucking mad ... /Adrenaline starts to flow, you're thrashing all around, acting like a maniac – whiplash!" Frontman James Hetfield and drummer Lars Ulrich had written and revised many of the songs from its early demos with original lead guitarist Dave Mustaine (now of Megadeth), and on the LP, the jagged riffs of "The Four Horsemen," stomping drums of "Jump in the Fire" and locomotive-chugging "Metal Militia" charge out of the speakers sounding fresh. These songs inspired bands like Slayer and Exodus to take thrash into rougher, faster territories. Yet Cliff Burton's imaginative, guitar-like bass lines – check out the wah-wah on "(Anesthesia) Pulling Teeth" – and Kirk Hammett's impassioned solos made Kill 'Em All more than a speed test; it was a new way of life. "It wasn't until 2013 when we played it that I realised Kill 'Em All had a cohesiveness," Lars Ulrich said in 2016. "It had its own thing with the speed, but it's simpler – the songs are longer but not quite as progressive. It's a world all its own."
After recording what was more or less their live sets in the studio for their first two records, Black Sabbath faced a unique challenge on Master of Reality: actually writing an album. As with the LP's predecessors, they teamed with producer Rodger Bain, who encouraged them to create a sound that was both nuanced and direct. Drummer Bill Ward played a timbale on the pulsating "Children of the Grave," and the song was much funkier because of it. Meanwhile, guitarist Tony Iommi toyed around with noise on the outro of that song, flute on the ballad "Solitude" and synths on "After Forever" (which incidentally may be the first Christian metal tune, courtesy of chief lyricist, bassist Geezer Butler). He also tuned his guitar down on some songs to make it easier on his digits, some of which lacked fingertips after an industrial accident early in his adult life, leading to one of metal's heaviest-ever riffs on "Into the Void." But he still managed to make a classic in standard tuning: "Sweet Leaf," the premier stoner-metal anthem, which features Ozzy Osbourne singing "Come on now, try it out" and begins with the sound of Iommi hacking up a lung while smoking a joint before giving way to a riff so massive it sounds as if it's collapsing on itself. "I was outside recording an acoustic thing, and Ozzy brought me a joint," Iommi once said. "I had a puff and nearly choked myself, and they were taping it." Peer pressure never sounded so heavy.
By the Nineties, thrash bands were straying from breakneck, double-time tempos and experimenting more with radio-friendly riffs that grooved like hard rock, but with a harder bite. Although the shadow of Metallica's game-changing Black Album loomed over the entire genre after that LP's 1991 release, Dave Mustaine and Megadeth streamlined their sound without coming across as imitators. Balancing accessibility and thrash street cred with dazzling skill, Countdown to Extinction was less complex than their previous LP, the virtuosic Rust in Peace, yet it feels like a natural progression from that record. The smash "Symphony of Destruction" remains the wickedest hook frontman Mustaine has written, a well-earned crossover success, but Megadeth's trademark blend of lurching riffs, nimble solos and precisely executed rhythms dominates the bulk of the record. As illustrated by the manic psychodrama of "Sweating Bullets," the tense "Skin O' My Teeth" and the ornate title track, Countdown was a perfect blend of mainstream-ready hooks and metal cred, and it scored the band a Number Two album on Billboard. The success led Mustaine to dabble more with writing accessible rock, something he'd later regret after making concessions on 1999's misstep Risk. "Countdown came in at Number Two on the Billboard chart, so we thought, 'Wow, this feels great,'" Mustaine once said. "'Now we're starting to get some direction. This is how you'll be great. You listen to [music-industry] people who have some credibility.' And we did, but it didn't work. And you don't realise that people that have credibility aren't always right."
Black Sabbath were in rough shape by early 1975, ravaged by substance abuse and in the midst of an arduous legal battle with their ex-manager. "We were literally in the studio, trying to record, and we'd be signing all these affidavits and everything," bassist Geezer Butler once said of the making of their inauspicious sixth LP. "That's why it's called Sabotage – because we felt that the whole process was just being totally sabotaged by all these people ripping us off." Strangely, the band's haggard, decadent state only gave their music an added psychological depth. Although it lacks the clarity of their early classics, Sabotage captured a desperation unmatched by any of their other Ozzy-era LPs. The frontman holds nothing back, shredding his throat on lumbering opener "Hole in the Sky" and perfectly embodying the mentally addled narrator of "Megalomania." Tony Iommi steps up with some of his all-time nastiest riffs on "Symptom of the Universe" – a clear thrash-metal precursor – while suite-like epics such as the synth-accented "The Thrill of It All" and litigation-inspired "The Writ" find the band putting its own demented twist on prog. In hindsight, Sabotage's weird sprawl forecasted the original Sabbath's eventual decline, but it just might be the most darkly engrossing full-length they ever made.
Although it wasn't the sort of genre-defining or landscape-changing work that 1986's Reign In Blood was, Slayer's fifth LP, 1990's Seasons in the Abyss, might actually be the most focused start-to-finish album the band has made to date. Seasons seamlessly blended the thrashy aggression of their early work with the doomy swagger of 1988's South of Heaven. Themes of violence, death and gore permeated the lyrics of tracks like "War Ensemble," "Expendable Youth," "Hallowed Point" and especially "Dead Skin Mask" – the Ed Gein–inspired meditation that remains Slayer's quintessential serial-killer song – while bassist Tom Araya, drummer Dave Lombardo, and the peerless guitar tandem of Kerry King and Jeff Hanneman matched that intensity in songs that ranged from the frenzied ("Born of Fire") and eerily atmospheric (the title track, for which the band would issue an evocative video, set at the foot of the Sphinx). "I just think we just wanted to keep being Slayer," King once said. "There were a lot of bands that had built careers by copying what we had done and we wanted to show everyone we could still do it better."
Korn helped launch the nu-metal subgenre with their 1994 self-titled debut, unwittingly paving the way for bands like Deftones, System of a Down and Limp Bizkit. The band's seamless integration of beefy, bass-y metal riffs with rap rhythms and Jonathan Davis' experimental yelps, which sound like uncontrollable spasms of anger and disenfranchisement, spoke to a generation of metalheads that dug Nirvana and Tupac as much as Metallica. "We were trying to sound like a DJ had remixed our guitars," James "Munky" Shaffer explained in an interview with Rolling Stone. Lyrically, Davis tackles tough, personal subjects, like his addiction to amphetamines ("Blind") and his experiences being sexually abused as a child ("Daddy"). They didn't play the latter song live for two decades following the album's release due to the trauma attached to its creation and only brought it back when the band began to commemorate the LP's anniversary with live shows in 2014. The type of vulnerability Davis tackled head-on is what set Korn apart from the nu-metal spawns that followed their wake, though none of them ever quite tapped the same intensity as the songs on Korn.
After years of dabbling in thrash and death metal, Sepultura broke free of rigid orthodoxy on their fifth album, Chaos A.D. This time out, they channeled slower, heavier grooves in the vein of Metallica's Black Album, tapped into rhythms from their native Brazil, experimented with operatic vocals ("Amen") and focused on the textures of their sounds, such as the sound of frontman Max Cavalera's unborn son's heartbeat before "Refuse/Resist." They also added hardcore, punk and industrial influences to the mix and went for a cleaner production, allowing the singer's sociopolitical lyrics to shine through. "You try your best to carry your life in a positive way, but there's always something or someone to fuck it all up and make you pissed," he told Thrasher in 1994. "That's where my ideas for lyrics come from." Even in Chaos A.D.'s most obtuse moments, such as former Dead Kennedys frontman Jello Biafra's zany cameo on the conspiracy theory–themed "Biotech Is Godzilla," politics make up the heart of the LP. The gut-rattling "Refuse/Resist" rails against overzealous police, the swelling "Territory" puts dictators in the crosshairs, the bass-heavy "Propaganda" carries the message "don't believe what you see" and the thrash-y "Slave New World" rages against state repression. Meanwhile, Cavalera's drummer brother Igor ratcheted up the band's grooves with tribal-sounding percussion, and the whole group explored indigenous music on the acoustic instrumental "Kaiowas," which would foreshadow their next album, 1996's daring and equally influential Roots.
The first band that frontman Tom G. Warrior and bassist Martin Ain formed, death-metal forerunners Hellhammer, was a humiliating experience. Underground zines of the time had panned their demos, saying they couldn't play their instruments. Citing a review in the zine Metal Forces in his book Only Death Is Real, Warrior wrote, "[It] was a severe blow, and we felt our pride slighted to no end." So when they put Celtic Frost together, they had to prove themselves. What they made with their debut LP, Morbid Tales, would shape extreme metal for years to come. Chunky, muscular riffs like the one in "Dethroned Emperor," which has a unique, almost Southern rock–inspired groove, would influence death-metal bands like Obituary, while the galloping rhythms and gritty guitar sound of "Into the Crypts of Rays" would inspire black-metal acts like Darkthone, whose A Blaze in the Northern Sky sounds like a black-mirror reflection of Morbid Tales. Celtic Frost never adhered to a specific genre; they played fast like thrash groups but also wrung out their riffs slowly like doom acts. "Danse Macabre" is more like a Dario Argento horror-soundtrack work than metal, and they enlisted a creepy-sounding female vocalist for the spoken invocation in "Return to the Eve." Moreover, Warrior had a personality and tough-guy singing style all his own. Between his oft-mimicked "Ugh" grunts, he wasn't afraid to get corny and ask, "Are you morbid?" in the song "Morbid Tales." The album is fun, heavy and spooky all at once, but more than that, for Warrior and Ain, it was a vindication. "To me, it’s the essence of my musical life and the essence of Celtic Frost," Warrior said of the album in 2007.
Skittish, temperamental, emotional and purposefully unhinged, System of a Down's exquisite 2001 sophomore release provided a perfect soundtrack to post-9/11 anxiety. Turn on the LP and a chunky riff drops in between drawn-out pauses before singer Serj Tankian whispers, "They're trying to build a prison." The Armenian-American band touched on everything from Charles Manson's stances on the environment ("ATWA") to the United States' faulty justice system ("Prison Song"), as each song creatively explores musical moods, variously evoking jazz, Middle Eastern and Greek music, as well as all known subgenres and mutations of hard rock. Beyond System's political statements, the ever-entertaining Tankian sang about group sex ("Bounce") and groupies ("Psycho"), but the band's unique musical spasticity (on glorious display on signature single "Chop Suey!") makes Toxicity feel like a cohesive work. "I don't understand why we have to be just one thing," Tankian told Rolling Stone in 2001. "If I write on one side of this lampshade, 'The metropolis is too dense. It causes fear,' that's a social statement. And on this side I write, 'Blow me.' And then here it says, 'I'm hungry.' And here it says, 'Gee, what a splendid day.' Now those are four different things. We're all just turning the lampshade."
Before grunge hit the mainstream, the movement owed more to metal than any other rock subgenre. The heaviness of Black Sabbath and Metallica directly informed how the leaders of the Seattle scene approached songs that tackled depression, drug addiction, death and disillusionment. While Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Soundgarden expanded beyond metal, Alice in Chains remained the grittiest and most true to the genre's influence, crafting the dark, weighty and foreboding Dirt. From the fierce, nightmarish riffing of "Them Bones" to the eerily anthemic "Would?" (released earlier in 1992 on the Singles soundtrack), the album is an intense listen, with Jerry Cantrell's steely guitar often melding with singer Layne Staley's raspy belt. Songs like "Sickman" and "God Smack" lumber forward with jarring art-metal rhythms, while hit single "Rooster" channels the album's brooding vibe into an unexpectedly poignant ballad about Staley's Vietnam-vet father. A few years later, the singer would come to regret addressing heroin use and addiction on songs like "Hate to Feel" and "Junkhead," telling Rolling Stone that the fan response to his lyrics is what caused him to rethink his approach. "I didn't think I was being unsafe or careless," he said, before noting that he felt like he was "walking through hell" in the years following his descent into addiction. "I didn't want my fans to think that heroin was cool. But then I've had fans come up to me and give me the thumbs up, telling me they're high. That's exactly what I didn't want to happen."
Metallica's first Number One album came a decade into their career. On their self-titled fifth LP – whose nearly pitch-black cover design earned it the nickname "the Black Album" – the band took a 180 from thrash metal without abandoning their core ethos. For the album that would catapult the band into the rock mainstream, they turned to producer Bob Rock, whose work on Mötley Crüe's pristine and massive Dr. Feelgood caught Metallica's attention. With Rock's help, the band members honed a slower, more contemplative sound that stretched their musical range, and though the process of recording the album was often strenuous and fraught, their perfectionism created a monster. The LP features some of Metallica's most universally recognisable hits, including the nightmarish "Enter Sandman" and its iconic central riff; powerful and brooding ballad "The Unforgiven"; "Wherever I May Roam," where guitarist Kirk Hammett utilised a sitar-like guitar tone; and perhaps most strikingly, the delicate, acoustic-guitar-led "Nothing Else Matters." "I know we're Number One completely on our own terms," drummer Lars Ulrich told Rolling Stone at the time. "This whole thing was done our way. There is an inner satisfaction about that, to give a major 'Fuck you' to the business itself and the way you're supposed to play the game and the way we dealt with all that shit up through the mid-Eighties."
Nobody was quite ready for Rage Against the Machine when they exploded onto the rock scene in 1992 with their self-titled debut, least of all their record company. "I believe it was Nirvana that convinced record companies for the first time in their history to just leave the artist alone," Tom Morello told Rolling Stone in 2012. "I'll tell you, they sure as hell didn't understand Rage Against the Machine, but they knew that if they got out of the way, it was going to be best for everybody." By getting out of the way and letting Rage fuse hip-hop with metal and punk, they unleashed a volatile force that produced instant classics like "Killing in the Name," "Bullet in the Head," "Bombtrack" and the almost Sabbath-y "Freedom," tracks that still sound stunningly powerful and potent all these years later. "I had been in a lot of bands before Rage Against the Machine, bands that had tried hard to make it, and with that band, with Rage, it just spontaneously combusted," Morello said. "It immediately connected with something in the reptilian brain of fans of rock, hip-hop, punk, metal, activists in a way that was global right off the bat."
By the time he formed his eponymous band in 1987, Glenn Danzig was already an underground hero, having spent the prior decade grinding it out with horror-punks the Misfits and gothic hard rockers Samhain. But Danzig's self-titled debut was the album that signified the frontman's arrival as a full-on metal icon, with its stark cow-skull cover art, greaser-gang-style band photo and bone-dry production by Rick Rubin, which accented the swaggering wallop of drummer Chuck Biscuits and squealing riffs of guitarist John Christ. "What he saw in the band is exactly the same things I saw in the band; the aggressiveness, the attitude, the whole deal, so it worked out very well," the singer said of working with Rubin. But what made Danzig an instant classic was the sturdiness of the songs, which definitively demonstrated that he was moving closer to the hallowed territory of idols like Elvis and Bo Diddley. The brooding parents'-worst-nightmare rallying cry "Mother," which targeted Tipper Gore, is just one highlight: Songs such as strutting death-blues opener "Twist of Cain," eerie power ballad "Soul on Fire" and the "Black Dog"–gone-biker-rock stomper "Evil Thing" – all bellowed out by Glenn like an undead Jim Morrison – signalled a brilliant new phase for this still-vital lifer.
In 1981, the rock world was dominated by Foreigner, Styx and REO Speedwagon, reliable FM hitmakers without even a hint of danger or sex appeal. The four L.A. gutter punks that stormed the Sunset Strip as Mötley Crüe that year wanted to change all that. Bassist and primary songwriter Nikki Sixx was infatuated with Seventies glam rock acts like Sweet and David Bowie, but he took their formula and added in punk energy and gallons of testosterone, yielding songs like "Live Wire," "Too Fast for Love" and "Piece of Your Action." "Too Fast for Love is my favorite album of ours because it is really raw," guitarist Mick Mars once said. "For all intents and purposes, it was just a demo for us to try and get a record deal." The LP originally came out on Lethür, the group's own label, but it attracted so much attention that Elektra picked it up and released it all over the country, inspiring an entirely new generation of sleaze rockers to flock to the Sunset Strip. The imitators would sell millions of records and wind up all over MTV, but none of them came close to capturing the startling originality and energy of Too Fast for Love.
Released in August 1988, the hotly anticipated …And Justice For All was an album of "firsts" for Metallica. The band's first double album, Justice was also their first full-length to feature new bassist Jason Newsted – though the record's mid-range–y mix rendered much of his playing less than audible – and it was their first to land in the Billboard Top 10; it also gave them their first Top 40 single, the anti-war epic "One," for which the band filmed their debut music video. The ambitiously sprawling arrangements of songs like "The Frayed Ends of Sanity," "To Live is to Die" and the nearly 10-minute title track marked both the apex of Metallica's progressive-thrash phase and its last gasp; worn out by having to reproduce the album's complex material onstage, the band would shift to a more straightforward, stripped-down approach for 1991's Metallica. "We took the Ride the Lightning and Master of Puppets concept as far as we could take it [with Justice]," drummer Lars Ulrich reflected in a 2008 interview with MTV News. "There was no place else to go with the progressive, nutty, sideways side of Metallica, and I'm so proud of the fact that, in some way, that album is kind of the epitome of that progressive side of us up through the '80s."
Thrash metal wasn't just about speed, volume and the adrenaline rush of bouncing off the walls and other fans in a mosh pit. It was also about equality. "Metal has always had this larger than life image. We're more into being real," Anthrax drummer Charlie Benante told Melody Maker. "We just try to be on the same level as our audience – except we're onstage." But what elevated the New York band's third LP, Among the Living, to a thrash classic wasn't just the way songs like "Caught in a Mosh" articulated the generational rage ("Get the hell out of my house!") that made slam-dancing a necessary form of release. It was also the way the music churned and flowed, thanks to the sudden accelerations and rhythmic shifts found on songs such as "One World." Benante and his bandmates may have been regular guys in other respects, but as musicians there was no denying the technical agility that went into each aural onslaught. Yet the album never lords that over the listener; instead, its best moments – "Efilnikufesin (N.F.L.)," "I Am the Law," "Indians" – democratize that brilliance by attaching it to some of the band's catchiest, most approachable material.
No other band from thrash's first wave combined airtight songwriting with sheer instrumental mayhem as creatively or skillfully as Megadeth did on Rust in Peace. From the rapid-fire descending lick that kicks off two-part opener "Holy Wars ... the Punishment Due" to the final staccato rhythmic churn of "Rust in Peace ... Polaris," the album is a breathless 40 minutes of Dave Mustaine's finger-twisting, labyrinthine riffage (check out "Poison Was the Cure" for just one of many bonkers examples), snarling war-and-religion obsessed lyrics – "It was a time in the world when the Cold War was still a real issue; we were pointing toward the East with our nukes out," the singer has said – and neck-snapping, shift-on-a-dime arrangements, all of it delivered with fierce, punkish intensity and an unusually nimble rhythmic swing. Rust also marked the debut of soon-to-be-christened guitar hero Marty Friedman, whose technically adroit, exotic-scale-tinged leads served as an ideal foil for Mustaine's ripping, New Wave of British Heavy Metal–style shred, as exemplified by the pyrotechnic six-string tradeoffs that highlight UFO-conspiracy-themed classic "Hangar 18." Megadeth went on to greater commercial success in the next few years, but Rust still stands as the thrash summit all chops-crazed followers aspire to scale.
By definition, metal bands are heavy musically, but Tool is also heavy in the emotional sense. The title of their second album, Ænima, although invented by the band, is meant in part to evoke Jung's concept of the "anima," or life force, and the LP is riddled with existential ruminations on why we're here and whether it's worth it. "How could this mean anything to me?" mutters Maynard James Keenan's protagonist in "Stinkfist," and his delivery is so convincingly wolrd-weary you almost don't notice that he's singing about having his arm "shoulder deep" up someone's rectum. Engaging, unrepentant creeps are a Tool specialty, and Ænima crawls with them. There's the charismatic bully of "Eulogy," the obsessed fan at the heart of "Hooker with a Penis," the misanthrope in "Ænima" who, imagining California's tumble into the sea, sneers, "Learn to swim." Keenan illuminates the joy in malevolence, while the richly detailed thunder conjured by the prog-inflected drum and guitar parts only amplifies the twisted anima at work. The enthralling blend helped Ænima go double platinum, and turned Tool from alt-metal trailblazers to one of the staple heavy bands of the past 20-plus years. "There are a lot of metaphysical, spiritual and emotional changes going on right now, and we're just trying to reflect that," Keenan told Rolling Stone in '96. "We're not that different from Tori Amos in that sense."
The first 20 seconds of Melissa – featuring crunchy, pulsing guitar riffs pierced by frontman King Diamond's impossibly high helium-voiced scream – make up one of the most captivating sequences in metal history. It hooked Metallica, who hung out in the Danish heavy metallers' rehearsal studio when recording Ride the Lightning, and bewitched Slayer, whose Kerry King had called his band's Hell Awaits "a Mercyful Fate record." At the time, the band sounded like a steroidal Judas Priest leading a black mass. On "Evil" alone, the theatrical singer, whose wild face paint made him look like Gene Simmons on bath salts and whose mic stand was made of a human skull, sings about necrophilia amid Hank Sherman's forceful, caffeinated "Eye of the Tiger"–like riffs, leading to a thrilling guitar showdown between Sherman and Michael Denner. Throughout the record, King pulls off incredible acrobatic vocal feats, thanks to his four-octave range, whether he's wailing about Halloween ("At the Sound of the Demon Bell"), inviting you into his witches' coven with a growl ("Into the Coven," one of the PMRC's "Filthy 15") or invoking ancient Egyptian voodoo ("Curse of the Pharaohs"). "I know people like to be scared just a little bit and they like that because they go watching all the horror movies," King Diamond said of his lyrical shock appeal, circa 1987. "Just take it as horror stories, that's all." Elsewhere, he hails Satan literally ("Black Funeral") and whispers creepily about a dead witch named Melissa ("Satan's Fall"), portending the spate of Norwegian black metallers who painted their faces and burnt down churches. Satan may not be real, but King Diamond is.
After establishing himself as a top-tier hard-rock vocalist via his late-Seventies/early-Eighties stints in Rainbow and Black Sabbath, Ronnie James Dio truly ascended into the metal pantheon with his 1983 solo debut. More bracingly metallic than anything he had done before – thanks in part to 20-year-old Irish guitarist Vivian Campbell, whose crunchy chords and squealing leads meshed perfectly with the paint-peeling intensity of Dio's piercing wail – Holy Diver's stirring anthems like "Stand Up and Shout," "Rainbow in the Dark" and the immortal title track found Dio planting one boot in Dungeons & Dragons–style fantasy and the other in contemporary social commentary. "My writing has always been medieval-flavored," he told Artist magazine shortly after the album's release, "but I'm concerned with what we're doing with ourselves and our environment." Although it reached only Number 56 on the Billboard 200 upon its release, Holy Diver would achieve platinum status by the end of the Eighties, and serve as an influential touchstone for everyone from Killswitch Engage to Tenacious D.
A year after proving he was still a vital musical force on his first post–Black Sabbath solo LP, 1980's Blizzard of Ozz, Ozzy Osbourne demonstrated it wasn't a one-time fluke with an album of poppy and gothic anthems like "Flying High Again" and the almost classical closing title track. Guitarist Randy Rhoads, who died in a plane crash while touring for Diary in 1982, had already proven himself a virtuoso on Blizzard; here, he worked even harder to find the rare nexus between showboat chops and clever songwriting. Trippy opener "Over the Mountain," which kicks off with a thunderous drum roll, chugs along at a furious pace, anticipating thrash metal. "Believer," with its plodding bass line, allows Rhoads to play eerie, spidery riffs, which, when combined with Osbourne's stentorian melodies, make for one of the weirdest yet catchiest songs in the singer's catalogue. "Tonight" is a beautiful ballad with a soaring solo; the rapid-paced, almost psychedelic "S.A.T.O." exudes mystery; and shadowy "Diary of a Madman," with its acoustic intro and crushing electric-guitar licks, is the ultimate Ozzy track. "When we were working on that one, Randy came to me, 'I'm not happy with the guitars,' so I said to work on it until you're happy," Osbourne once recalled. "He's in there for a couple of days and one day comes out with this big, shit-eating grin and goes, 'I think I've got it.' And when he played it, the hair on the back of my fucking neck stood up."
On their fourth album, Black Sabbath departed from the straightforward bludgeon that defined their early career and arrived at a sound that was somehow even heavier. Coked out of their minds (they even thanked their dealers in the liners), the group recorded in L.A. for the first time and allowed themselves to experiment musically. Tony Iommi had tuned his guitar lower to make it easier to play on 1971's Master of Reality, and on Vol. 4 the shift inspired drawn out, emotional riffs (the brilliant opener "Wheels of Confusion") and freewheeling hippie freak-out grooves ("Supernaut," "Cornucopia"), while making space for now iconic guitar solos ("Snowblind," an anthem to coke the way "Sweet Leaf" praised pot). They recorded their first piano ballad ("Changes," which Ozzy Osbourne revived for a live solo hit in 1993) and an acoustic guitar solo ("Laguna Sunrise"), and went full-on druggie with "FX" – 99 seconds of echoey bleeps and bloops that years later may have inspired artier bands like Neurosis to play outside the box. It was the sound of a band reborn, just two years after their debut, starting a new chapter that would inspire everyone from Trent Reznor, who covered "Supernaut" with Ministry's Al Jourgensen, to soul belter Charles Bradley, who took on "Changes." But Osbourne later said it was the "beginning of the end" of Black Sabbath. "Cocaine was the cancer of the band."
At the end of the Me Decade, the so-called New Wave of British Heavy Metal revitalized the genre with flashy use of speed, melody and aggression. One of the turning points in this upstart scene was Iron Maiden's eponymous debut. Seasoned by years of club performances, the quintet combined the gritty heavy rock of UFO with the technical dexterity of prog groups like Genesis and Wishbone Ash. Steve Harris' fleet-fingered bass lines carried the melody instead of traditionally anchoring the rhythm, while guitarists Dave Murray and Dennis Stratton alternated between abrasive riffs and intricately arranged dual harmonies. With singer Paul Di'Anno providing a swaggering growl, Iron Maiden was at the same time confrontational ("Prowler," "Running Free"), moody ("Remember Tomorrow," "Strange World"), and in the case of the Jethro Tull–esque "Phantom of the Opera," theatrical. Iron Maiden set the stage for a glorious seven-album run in the Eighties that would see the band become one of metal's biggest acts. "It was probably one of the worst-sounding albums and we weren't happy with the production," Murray once told author Martin Popoff, "but for that time, it really captured the raw energy of the band."
Just like its title suggests, Screaming for Vengeance was all about vindication, as this was where Judas Priest proved themselves once and for all as a force to be reckoned with. Where once the band hunkered in the underground, Priest were now storming the mainstream with platinum sales, an actual single on the Billboard charts (the aptly-titled "You've Got Another Thing Comin'"), and a headlining slot at the US Festival. "It was a new generation, it was a new decade," singer Rob Halford told Rolling Stone later. "Everybody suddenly looked at this music and said, 'Yeah, this is exactly what I want because I can relate to it. It talks about what I want out of life, and what I do.'" It also talks a lot about love. That love may be tinged with S&M ("Pain and Pleasure") or described in terms of human sacrifice ("Devil's Child"), but the music on Screaming for Vengeance, which begins with the one-two punch of "The Hellion" and "Electric Eye," comes from the heart. As such, it's almost a pity that "(Take These) Chains" didn't follow "You've Got Another Thing Comin'" onto the charts, because the power-ballad formula has never sounded as deliciously malevolent as it does here.
Recorded before the band had even secured a major-label recording deal, Metallica's second album remains the purest expression of the band's vision, a document of a group who has found their sound but is neither overly self-aware, nor able to spend too much time navel gazing in the studio. "I love the sound of that album and it holds up really well," guitarist Kirk Hammett told Rolling Stone in 2014. "We just bashed it out, which lead to a more natural performance. By the time we recorded our next record, Master of Puppets, the days of just bashing it out were much fewer." You can hear the pure adrenaline pumping through tracks like "Fight Fire with Fire," a grim ode to an inevitable nuclear apocalypse, and the gruesome "Creeping Death," which recounts the divine culling of Egypt's first-born sons from the Book of Exodus. Meanwhile, bleak power ballad "Fade to Black" showed off the dynamic mastery the band would explore further on later epics like "Master of Puppets" and "One," while instrumental "The Call of Ktulu" ended the record on a memorably spooky note. The immediacy of Lightning's strike is only heightened by the youthful whine of frontman James Hetfield's voice, which had yet to drop in register to the lower growl he would use to equal if more mature effect on subsequent Metallica releases.
After spending much of the Eighties as a regional Texas glam band, Pantera redefined themselves as a thrashy, proto-groove-metal outfit with 1990's Cowboys from Hell. But it was on the aptly named follow-up that they truly hit their stride. "The mindset we took on, going into Vulgar Display of Power … [was] take the money riff and fucking go," Phil Anselmo once explained, "[and] beat it into the ground." And that they did. Here, the band shed any last vestiges of their flamboyant past (gone for good was Anselmo's Rob Halford–like howl, still in evidence on CFH) and distilled their sound down to the essentials – Dimebag Darrell's serrated rhythms and squealing solos; drummer Vinnie Paul and bassist Rex Brown's lock-step pummel; Anselmo's gruff bellow – cementing the approach that they would more or less follow for the remainder of their career. Furthermore, the material itself was incontestable. From the antagonistic thrust of opener "Mouth for War" to the galloping power-thrash of "Fucking Hostile," the creepy murder balladry of "This Love" to the hulking, two-note stomp of "Walk" (later covered by everyone from Avenged Sevenfold to Disturbed), Vulgar boasts a shockingly high number of tracks that have become more or less standards of the genre. Re-spect!
Following his drunken, acrimonious exit from Black Sabbath, Ozzy's music-industry stock was so abysmally low that he had trouble getting a new record deal – and not even his biggest fans would have guessed that he was on the verge of launching a major career comeback with his first solo album. Released in the U.K. in September 1980 (and six months later in the U.S.), Blizzard of Ozz was a remarkably strong and focused record whose highlights (including "I Don't Know," "Crazy Train" and the controversial "Suicide Solution") were more modern-sounding than anything he'd done with Sabbath, yet still packed a serious metallic wallop. "The Blizzard stuff was a beautiful evolution from what was happening in the Seventies with metal to [metal in] the Eighties," shred-guitar ace Steve Vai recalled in a 2011 interview. "It had a completely different attitude." Much of the credit for that shift goes to the late guitarist Randy Rhoads, whose classically influenced fretboard acrobatics would profoundly influence an entire generation of metal guitarists. "The first album, none of us had played together," he said in 1981. "We were putting the band together, writing the songs and being in the studio at the same time ... the first album was, 'Turn it up to 10 and if it feels good, just play it.'"
Three years removed from his dismissal from Metallica, Dave Mustaine still sounds like rage incarnate on Megadeth's second LP, Peace Sells … but Who's Buying? The band had tapped into an otherworldly fury on its debut, 1985's Killing Is My Business ... and Business Is Good – which balanced thrash with lead guitarist Chris Poland's jazzy licks – but they'd blown their recording budget on drugs, leading to a shitty-sounding production. Peace Sells was their redemption: seven taut declarations of contempt for humanity and one tongue-in-cheek, extra-guitar-shreddy cover of Willie Dixon's "I Ain't Superstitious." In the months between albums, they'd matured as musicians and had the quality sound to show it. The throbbing, bass-heavy title track showcased Mustaine's mordant wit ("What do you mean I'm not kind?/I'm just not your kind"), and it was catchy enough to become MTV News' intro theme for well over a decade, mirroring the song's video, which features with a teen in the middle of the clip defying his dad by putting on a Megadeth video and saying, "This is the news." "I was living in a warehouse at the time I wrote 'Peace Sells,'" Mustaine recently told Rolling Stone. "We were homeless, and I wrote the lyrics on a wall. I didn't even have paper. And I'm sure once we moved out of there somebody probably carved that wall out and took it." The rest of the record showcases Mustaine's knack for intricate yet hard-hitting compositions and lyrical vitriol. "The Conjuring" contains a real black-magic spell in its lyrics (so says Mustaine) directed at one of the singer's would-be girlfriends, while "Wake Up Dead," with its lyrics about infidelity, explains why he may not be so good with the ladies. And musically, the classical-inspired "Good Mourning/Black Friday," "Bad Omen" and "My Last Words" explode with Wagnerian triumphalism. Throughout it all, Mustaine barks his vocals like he's going for the throat. Whatever inspired the record, this time, it was personal.
Heavy metal has never been much of a singles genre, as most of its practitioners mark their growth and development in album-length increments. But Motörhead is the exception that proves the rule. Across its 40-year history, the band – essentially singer-bassist Lemmy Kilmister and a string of guitarists and drummers – hewed to a simple formula: vocals barked over the hyperactive throb of a bass line, hell-for-leather drumming, and bar-band-basic rhythm guitar. As Lemmy told Sounds, "Chuck Berry never changed. Little Richard never changed. I'd rather be like that and stick to a formula we're happy with." It seems more fitting, then, to represent Motörhead with an anthology. No Remorse may offer 29 versions of what is essentially the same thing, yet every track is singularly amazing: the yelping, bad luck refrain to "Ace of Spades," the locomotive thunder beneath "Overkill," the live-wire guitar on "Bomber," the genius stupidity of "Killed by Death," or the amphetamine overdrive of the live "Motorhead" from No Sleep 'til Hammersmith. Sometimes, a good formula is all you really need.
Reign in Blood, the first and last word on speed metal, starts at 210 beats per minute with the song "Angel of Death," and it barely lets up for the next 29 blistering minutes. Its 10 songs are built on Kerry King and Jeff Hanneman's rigid guitar riffs and abstract-expressionistic solos – metal's equivalent to a Pollock paint splatter – all while drummer Dave Lombardo pounds out Olympic-ready tempos and singer-bassist Tom Araya hails Satan. But what set the band's third album apart from Metallica, Exciter, Venom and all the other speed demons of the era was the way producer Rick Rubin, who'd made his name in hip-hop working with the Beastie Boys and LL Cool J, stripped the album of the echoey reverb in vogue at the time for a sound that seemed to punch you in the gut. "With their super-fast articulation in a big room, the whole thing just turns into a blur," Rubin said in 2016. "So you don't get that crystal clarity. So much of what Slayer was about was this precision machinery." It's what makes whirring declarations in the name of death like "Necrophobic" and "Criminally Insane" all the more impactful and the record's final cut, "Raining Blood" – with its ominous intro – all the more terrifying. And it no doubt did them no favours with "Angel of Death," a song about Nazi doctor Josef Mengele, which has lyrics that would have been incoherent with the typical rock production of the day; its lyrics outraged Holocaust survivors and cost the LP a distribution deal with Columbia, leading it to come out on Geffen. Writer Hanneman claimed the tune was a "history lesson." Nevertheless, it solidified Slayer's legacy of controversy and their need for speed. "We were young, we were hungry, and we wanted to be faster than everybody else," Araya once said.
A few years after guitarists first started cranking their amps to eardrum-rupturing volumes and singers started wailing about Valhalla, heavy metal as we know it today was ratified in 1970 on Black Sabbath's debut. The band, which had started as a blues group in '68, drew inspiration from giallo horror movies (like 1963's Black Sabbath, featuring Boris Karloff) and figured it could deliver the same thrilling, terrifying experience through rock & roll, leading them to write "Black Sabbath." The tune, inspired by a frightening experience bassist Geezer Butler had ("I woke up in a dream world, and there was this black thing at the bottom of the bed, staring at me," he once said), featured some of Ozzy Osbourne's most ominous lyrics ("What is this that stands before me?/Figure in black which points at me," as well as "eyes of fire" and a laughing Satan), and an eerie riff courtesy of guitarist Tony Iommi that used a chord once shunned by composers, known as diabolus in musica ("the Devil in music") – the rain, thunder and bell sound effects were just grim icing. A few tracks later, on "N.I.B.," Osbourne – whose stentorian voice, with its matter-of-fact inflection, has a harsh timbre strong enough to cut through Iommi's guitar – sings about a deal with the Devil set to a stomping riff that presaged Eric Clapton's "Cocaine." And elsewhere, the group flexes its blues chops on "The Wizard," the morbid "Behind the Wall of Sleep" ("Sleeping wall of remorse/Turns your body to a corpse") and especially on "Warning," the last of which features a flashy, extended Iommi solo. And on the jazzy "Wicked World," on the U.S. edition, Osbourne sang about politicians sending people to war and others dying of diseases – topics that have since become rock cliché but at the time represented a chillingly frank worldview. "We used to do these auditions for record companies, and they'd just leave after the third song or something," Butler recalled of the days before the album came out. "I'll always remember one producer told us to go away, learn how to play and learn how to write some decent songs. We were rejected again and again by company after company." But once the album was out, Black Sabbath started a movement.
By the time Iron Maiden hit the studio with veteran producer Martin Birch to record their third LP in 1982, the English quintet had already clawed its way to the forefront of the so-called New Wave of British Heavy Metal. Having replaced gruff lead vocalist Paul Di'Anno with Bruce Dickinson, a charismatic performer with operatic pipes, the stage was set for a creative breakthrough. There was just one problem: The band had exhausted its backlog of tunes. "They'd used up all the good stuff they'd had and they'd been on the road ever since," Dickinson told biographer Mick Wall. "So it was quite good, in that way, because I wasn't going to be asked to sing words that had already been written by Paul or songs Steve [Harris, bassist and chief songwriter] had written with him in mind. … We had time to think about the songs first." Harris and his mates (including Dickinson, uncredited for contractual reasons) rose to the occasion, producing complex songs and heady lyrics that ideally suited the new singer's dramatic range. The resulting LP, recorded and mixed in just five weeks, is one of metal's all-time milestones: Galloping single "Run to the Hills" charted practically everywhere but in the U.S., where the video nonetheless became an early MTV staple; the title track remains a set-list fixture; and the closer, "Hallowed Be Thy Name," was the first of Iron Maiden's signature epics – and among the most durable.
In the Seventies, British metal – the down-tuned growl of "Iron Man," the slow grind of "Smoke on the Water" – was about strength and heaviness, the sonic equivalent of I-beams. But as the cover of British Steel shows, Judas Priest was about to change that metaphor into something that cut like a razor. "When we first entered, our albums were very involved, our songs were very pre-arranged, a bit self-indulgent with the lead breaks," guitarist Glenn Tipton told Musician. "But we shortened the length of the songs, we increased the excitement and the tempo in the songs, and we did something that everybody thought you couldn't do, that was never acceptable as heavy metal: We introduced melody to it." Despite the distorted roar of the guitars and the hectoring aggression of Rob Halford's voice, the writing on British Steel was as lean and tuneful as any pop effort, from the power-chord refrain of "Living After Midnight" to the football-club sing-along that caps "United." But the album's most astonishing moment had to be "Metal Gods," a swaggering evocation of rampaging robots driven by a drum and bass groove which can only be described as funky. For metal, slow and heavy would no longer win the race.
It begins like a Western with ominous acoustic guitars playing a triumphal, Spanish-sounding melody, but the intro to "Battery" is just a preamble to the galloping, crushing, grim and pugilistic riffs to come in the next hour. From start to finish, Master of Puppets is a masterpiece. Just two years after they introduced prettier melodies to the savage thrash they helped pioneer on Ride the Lightning, Metallica perfected the sound on Master with intricately arranged songs that ran a little longer and covered more musical ground. "Master of Puppets," a tune frontman James Hetfield wrote after becoming disgusted from seeing junkies pass out at a party, stretches to eight-and-a-half minutes and fuses thrash with hardcore sing-alongs; jazzy, lyrical soloing; and maniacal psychodrama – it remains the band's most requested and performed song at concerts. Meanwhile, "The Thing That Should Not Be" is a full-on sludge rocker, "Welcome Home (Sanitarium)" is the One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest of metal ballads and the lengthy instrumental "Orion" – which features roaring lead bass by Cliff Burton, who died while touring in support of Master in 1986 – plays out like a classical composition, so full of musical drama that lyrics would kill its effect. Meanwhile, heavy, mid-paced rocker "Leper Messiah," whose title references David Bowie's "Ziggy Stardust," foreshadowed the more groove-oriented, radio-friendly path the band would take on the Black Album in 1991. Only three years removed from Kill 'Em All, they'd even perfected the pure sound of thrash: "Battery" hurls by at 190 punishing beats per minute, closing track "Damage Inc." blindsides listeners with walloping stop-start rhythms at a death-defying pace, and "Disposable Heroes" is like a master class in thrash with its militaristic rhythms, catchy hooks and Hetfield snarling "Back to the front!" Master of Puppets is the sound of a band in top form, and it's the album that made Metallica. "When I listen to Master of Puppets now, I just sit there and go, 'What the fuck? How do you do that?'" Lars Ulrich said with a laugh in 2016. "It's very gutsy music."
It's impossible to imagine what heavy metal would have become without the iconic gloomy riff of "Iron Man," the musical thickness of "War Pigs" and the rapid-fire chugging of "Paranoid."
"Paranoid is important because it’s the blueprint for metal," Judas Priest frontman Rob Halford said in the liner notes for a 2016 reissue of the album. "It led the world into a new sound and scene." From the first track to the last, Ozzy Osbourne's cutting voice outlines any manner of topics that would feature in metal over the next few generations: imminent doom, drug casualties, nuclear war, brutality, uncaring autocrats, cosmically fated love and general disillusionment. The music is dark and gloomy with blues-inspired guitar riffs that other groups have Xeroxed into an unrecognisable oblivion. The album even has a drum solo.
The way the band members have told it over the years, they arrived at the sound of Paranoid through endless gigging before they were famous, playing several sets a night at residencies in Hamburg and Zürich to almost nonexistent audiences. They'd stretch out a tune like "Warning," the epic blues guitar showcase on Black Sabbath, to the point that it proffered the main riff of "War Pigs" – a tune whose original lyrics under the title "Walpurgis" narrated a black mass. "Rat Salad" was Bill Ward's drum solo in the early days and it could last up to 45 minutes. The ominous bass part in "Hand of Doom" by Geezer Butler, who also wrote the majority of Paranoid's bleak lyrics, came from improvising. And the funky "Fairies Wear Boots" was loosely based on a real, incredibly violent fight the band got into with a group of skinheads after a gig in the north of England (the slur "fairy" was meant to emasculate their attackers, who wore boots). Butler wrote about his own disillusionment with a sci-fi twist in the lyrics to "Iron Man" (which had nothing to do with the Marvel comic-book character).
For the bassist, who, like the rest of the band grew up in a bleak postwar environment – bombed-out Birmingham, England – it was easy for him to describe dystopias like those in "War Pigs" and "Electric Funeral." He even gave the hippie-ish love song "Planet Caravan," with its bongos and jazzy flamenco guitar line, cold, distant, fantastical lyrics about feeling lost in space. And he simply described his own depression on "Paranoid," a throwaway tune written at the last minute to fill out an LP side, with witty aplomb in turns of phrase like "Make a joke and I will sigh and you will laugh and I will cry." Yet it resounded, becoming a huge hit and one of the group's most-performed songs.
Paranoid was the sound of Black Sabbath's reality, a plea for understanding that would resonate with millions of people feeling the same disaffection, many of whom would form groups like Metallica, Pantera and Slipknot – groups that would change the face of metal, as well as the world. "Bands on Ozzfest would tell me Sabbath was their biggest influence," Osbourne once said. "I'd listen to them and go, 'What part of that did Sabbath influence?'" "It doesn't sound anything like heavy metal to me," Butler once said. "But it’s better to be called inventors rather than followers." Regardless, the album was metal's call to arms, and it's been answered loudly and passionately ever since.