This month fifty years ago, Black Sabbath released their eponymous debut album, the moment widely regarded as the day Geezer Butler, Tony Iommi, Ozzy Osbourne and Bill Ward created not only a music genre, but a lifestyle.
I’m not offering a new history. Ian Christie, Jon Wiederhorn & Katherine Turman and Sam Dunn have thoroughly covered that ground, not to mention more focused works by the likes of Joel McIver, Mick Wall, and many of the musicians themselves.
I’m just regular dude from a normal upbringing who became enthralled by the power, aggression and seriousness of metal. In its honor, I offer up a top ten list.
#10 – Chevelle:
I may have been easy to please when I discovered Chevelle’s great “Wonder What’s Next (WWN).” Metal was only starting to emerge from the ashes of the 1990s, while Lamb of God, Slipknot et al were in the early stages of their respective ascents.
Fast forward a dozen years. Metal was back, and Chevelle had faded from my sights a bit with a few middling albums. Then they released “La Gorgola.”
I’m still blown away by the endless stream of great songs on that album. They followed that up “The North Corridor,” which is every bit as good as WWN.
No other band has three nearly-flawless records in my personal collection. That guarantees them a spot here.
#9 – Hatebreed:
Most bands on this list easily clear a minimum criterion of qualities: thundering drums, crunching guitars, precise solos, thick bass, and raging vocals. What sets Hatebreed apart is that, couched within those sounds are inspirational lyrics, positive vibes with which they try to pump up the listener.
Metalheads don’t get a lot of credit for our intellect, but watch any concert (clip) and tell me that fans mouthing these words isn’t a net-good:
“You’re just sliding painfully back/If you’re not striving forward.
“Some think they know where your devotion ends/Let them swallow their words.
“Make your stand/Burn the bridge/Burn the bridge to the place where your fear lives.
“Fists up/Head high/We own the ****ing world tonight/One flame can light a million.”
#8 – Exodus:
The one good thing about Slayer’s recent retirement is that Gary Holt can return full-time to his gig as guitarist/songwriter of Exodus.
As crushing as their music is, their lyrics are fiercely incisive, channeling the frustration that stems from the worst that goes on around us.
From the destruction wrought by the Catholic Church abuse scandal in “Altered Boy,” to the karma visited upon domestic abusers in “Sealed with a Fist,” to the self-explanatory “Burn, Hollywood, Burn.”
While such outrage depicted in movies can be cause for reflection, listening to it elicits a cathartic purge of anger.
A couple years ago, Anthrax’s Scott Ian made clear that it’s just as easy to write angry lyrics now as it was when he was younger. Few do that better than Exodus.
#7 – Testament:
Testament was there at the beginning (along with Exodus) of what would become the Bay Area thrash scene. They proved their mettle however, when the music industry left the genre for dead.
After dialing back the aggression somewhat on 1992’s “The Ritual,” they abruptly banged a U-turn and went heavier than ever, incorporating vocals more commonly found in death metal, most notably on 1997’s “Demonic.” Only Pantera rivaled this trajectory.
The stubborn perseverance of one of the best vocalists in the business, Chuck Billy, and rhythm guitarist/songwriter Eric Peterson has set them up for a diverse, successful third stage of their career.
#6 – Black Sabbath:
There’s always been debate about the origins of the moniker “heavy metal.” But when so many metalheads coalesce around Black Sabbath as the first purveyors of the sound, it’s hard not to zero in on the metal press machine that claimed the tips of Tony Iommi’s middle fingers on his right hand.
After outfitting the new tips with plastic thimbles, he had to down-tune his guitar to “ease the tension” on them.
I believe it was late Pantera/Hellyeah drummer Vinnie Paul who once said that every riff we hear was played first by Sabbath. It’s where it all came from after all, and it’s why they’re as likely to pop up in my shuffle as any other act.
Black Sabbath transcends time.
#5 – Alice in Chains (AiC):
I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who thought I’d heard the last of AiC when Layne Staley died.
His pipes were as prominent a part of their sound as any other singer, if not moreso. The growing vocal contribution guitarist/songwriter Jerry Cantrell made when he was alive however, made the rebirth possible.
It allowed William DuVall to ease into the “co-lead” vocalist role. He has turned out to be the perfect fit for this incarnation of AiC. When you hear them, you know it’s Alice in Chains.
The music feels like a natural progression, while the similarity in vocal harmonization between AiC 1.0 and AiC 2.0 is striking.
I am arguably a bigger fan now than I was before.
#4 – Anthrax:
Anthrax injected fun into metal, employing a goofy-looking mascot, wearing jams shorts, and pioneering the fusion of rap and metal.
Rhythm guitarist Scott Ian’s lyrics also made this teenager think, with the pro-Native American “Indians,” lamenting the plight of the homeless in “Who Cares Wins,” and ripping racists in “Keep It in the Family.”
These are interspersed amongst songs based on comics and Stephen King works, all delivered by one of music’s truest singers, Joey Belladonna. He propels them skyward.
Releasing quality stuff in the 1990s with former and current Armored Saint frontman John Bush, and producing their best work a few years ago (2016’s “For All Kings”) made their place here a no-brainer.
#3 – Iron Maiden:
Despite Geraldo Rivera’s warnings that they would turn me into a devil worshipper, most of what I heard from Maiden was storytelling about history, mythology, dreams, classic fiction, etc., brought forth with an unrivaled quality and style.
Bruce Dickinson’s singing makes them soar, the dueling solos of Dave Murray and Adrian Smith (and later Janick Gers) have no peer, and the genius of bassist Steve Harris is undeniable.
And they still bring it live, whether stopping in town to promote a new record, or passing through to play all classics, bringing with them metal’s most famous mascot Eddie every time.
If you’ve made it this far in your music experience without adequate exposure to Iron Maiden, you have homework to do.
#2 – Slayer:
“We’re making a Slayer record here, and if you can get it on the radio, great. And if you can’t, **ck it.”
So responded late guitarist/songwriter Jeff Hanneman when a record label executive asked them to “mainstream” their sound for just one song on 1994’s “Divine Intervention (DI).”
Slayer triggered the thin-skinned by writing about the dark side of life, people’s worst impulses, society’s hypocrisies, imagining the bad guy’s point of view, and they delivered it in a way that sounded “like the world’s going to end,” as guitarist/songwriter Kerry King once said.
When DI proved Hanneman’s sentiment, the legend started taking shape, and it only grew for the next quarter century until they walked off the stage for the last time.
#1 – Metallica:
Hearing Metallica’s perfect third album “Master of Puppets (MoP)” opened my eyes. Devouring MoP’s immediate predecessors and successors unalterably changed the course of my music experience.
After leading the Big 4 (Slayer, Anthrax and Megadeth) in establishing thrash as a prominent sub-genre, they injected a couple of its core elements into, and coated the basic structure of rock with a definitive metal sound. The result was the so-called “black” album.
Upon taking it to the masses, it became one of the most successful records of all time.
Some of their peers followed this lead. Some did not. Regardless, all have benefitted from the gateway drug it became to other sub-genres (including the rest of their own catalogue), and the influence it provided to future generations.
Metal is the force it is today because of Metallica.
“Metal fans love it forever. No one ever goes ‘yeah I was really big into Slayer one summer.’” (Rob Zombie, 2004)
When I was a kid, I honestly never thought I’d be going to see these bands live today. When I looked at my 67-year-old grandparents, I never imagined them playing drums like Maiden’s Nicko McBrain.
Yet there he was last September, backing up a 61 year-old singer … who’d recently whipped cancer … of the throat!
It’s no wonder metal is as strong as ever. The bands I grew up with are an inspiration. Younger outfits like Judiciary and Power Trip see there’s a future in it. Veterans like Slipknot and Lamb of God know they can keep chugging for a couple more decades. And if we do right by them and buy their albums, our bond will strengthen.
In the end, it’ll make Jim Breuer’s “wheelchair mosh pit hour”-in-nursing-homes bit look prophetic.