Happy birthday, heavy metal!
On February 13th 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 genre of music, but a lifestyle.
I’m not here to offer a new history. Ian Christie, Jon Wiederhorn & Katherine Turman and anthropologist 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 have compiled a list of my favorite bands.
- Death Angel, the most improved thrash metal band from the 1980s, they have released a few really good albums this century, most notably “The Dream Calls for Blood” in 2013;
- Korn, probably my favorite heavy band to rise to prominence in the 1990s. Few acts combine so many unique sounds from each instrument;
- Lamb of God, backed by great songwriting and drums, this is the most that growling vocals had ever appealed to me … until last year;
- Megadeth, founded and pushed forward by the man credited by some as the inventor of thrash guitar, Dave Mustaine;
- Obituary, the death metal band I’ve been looking for. If I had discovered them earlier, they’d be in the top ten;
- Ozzy, the man who gave metal it’s personality. “Bark at the Moon” was one of the first metal tunes I ever heard;
- Pantera, Texas metal at its finest;
- Ratt, my first favorite band. I still listen to, and play some of their stuff today;
- Tool, a prime example of a band who does what they want, when they want, both live and on record. “Aenima” was part of my regular rotation for years;
#10 – Chevelle:
Not many bands have near-flawless records to their credit. I have a few: Megadeth’s “Rust in Piece,” Stone Temple Pilots’ “Core,” AC/DC’s “Back in Black,” Guns N Roses’ “Appetite for Destruction,” etc.
Chevelle is the only band with three in my collection.
I first heard them the same time as most everyone else did, when “The Red” and “Send the Pain Below” hit the airwaves. When I bought the album, “Wonder What’s Next (WWN),” I quickly found out those two didn’t even rank in its top half!
It’s possible though, that I was easy to please at the time.
The hard rock and metal that I grew up with was only starting to emerge from the ashes of the 1990s. Lamb of God and Slipknot et al were in the early stages of their respective ascents, and I was relegated to terrestrial radio, where so-called nu-metal was prominent (not to diminish the likes of System of a Down or Godsmack).
Fast-forward a dozen years.
I have SiriusXM’s Liquid Metal and Ozzy’s Boneyard’s “hard and heavy classics”, and metal is back in full swing. Chevelle had faded from my sights, having put out a couple of middling albums. Then they released “La Gorgola” in 2014.
To this day I’m blown away by the endless stream of great songs on that album. They never stop and then all of a sudden, I’m at the end of the record. They followed that up a couple years later with “The North Corridor,” which is every bit as good as WWN.
There’s undeniably an emotional angle here for me, as LG was released when I was going through the early stages of my divorce. That album kept me company during the time I was not under the same roof as my daughters. One of their shows would also prove to be the first concert my future wife and I attended.
Nevertheless, while that turbulent time has given way to the sublime, Chevelle’s music has not relinquished a regular spot in my rotation.
# 9 – Hatebreed:
It wasn’t until 1991 that cable, MTV and the Headbangers Ball reached my parents’ house out in the country, and with it, greater access to the music that was taking over my CD collection. Then the industry changed, and by the time I left home for Dallas, most all I heard on the radio was grunge (much of which was good) and alternative.
Metal had gone back underground. It would be another fifteen years before I regained a steady supply.
Somehow during that time, I discovered Hatebreed and their 2002 album “Perseverance.”
Most bands on this list easily clear a minimum criterion of qualities: thundering drums, crunching guitars, wailing but precise solos, the thick bass holding it all together, and raging vocals. What sets Hatebreed apart is that, couched within those sounds are inspirational lyrics, encouragement and positive vibes with which they try to pump up the listener.
“I was born, to bleed, fighting to succeed/Built to endure what this world throws at me”
“Start from nothing, stop at nothing/NO SLEEP/NO REST/Must do what it takes to be the best”
“No limit to what can be achieved/MIND OVER ALL/Power that has yet to be seen/MIND OVER ALL”
Metalheads don’t get a lot of credit for their intellect, what with the headbanging, the moshing and whatnot, but watch a concert (clip) and tell me that fans mouthing the following 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 to his main gig as guitarist and songwriter of Exodus.
I knew of them when I was a kid, primarily from seeing “Toxic Waltz” on MTV’s Headbangers Ball. I didn’t thoroughly check them out however, until Holt joined Slayer to fill in for the ailing Jeff Hanneman.
Boy was I missing out!
For the first time, Megadeth’s Dave Mustaine had serious competition for my favorite guitarist in the form of Holt’s chainsaw-sounding 6-string. Awesome as their music is, their lyrics stand out just as much.
Few other acts so successfully channel the anger that stems from what goes on around us. From the destruction wrought by the Catholic Church abuse scandal in “Altered Boy,” to the karma visited upon perpetrators of domestic abuse in “Sealed with a Fist,” to the self-explanatory “Burn, Hollywood, Burn.”
Their songs exemplify the frustration many of us feel from a world that has left many “desensitized” and “rendered … ****ing numb.” They resolve these feelings by volunteering “for this disease, I am the cure, the punishment will be swift and sure” and imploring everyone to “rise up and revolt, reduce the halls of power to ruin and to ash.”
While such vigilantism and anarchy expressed on the big screen can be cause for how-did-we-get-here reflection, listening to it elicits a cathartic release for those paying attention WHILE the mess is in progress.
A couple years ago, during a Q&A at a New York City bookstore, Anthrax’s Scott Ian made clear that it’s just as easy to write angry lyrics now as it was when he was younger, especially if you have children. Nobody does that better than Exodus.
#7 – Testament:
My sister didn’t care for much of what I started listening to after I first heard Metallica, expect when it came to Testament.
Testament was there at the beginning, along with Exodus, planting the seeds to what would become the Bay Area thrash scene. Their videos, along with those of Megadeth, were some of the earliest I remember seeing whenever I could get over to a friend or relatives who had cable.
“Over the Wall,” from their first record, 1987’s “The Legacy,” was fascinating. Based on the controversy I’d been hearing, it felt a bit risky, like I could get in trouble for watching (way to go, PMRC!).
Then they put out their catchy third album “Practice What You Preach” in 1989, which included a song that may shed light on why they appealed to my sister. It was called “The Ballad,” and it sounded like the name implies.
As good as they were/are when they go heavy and/or fast, they are unmatched in metal when it comes to slowing things way down. Every time they do, it’s worth these ears’ attention without even mildly rolling these eyes.
When the industry turned on the genre in the early 1990s though, is when they really proved their mettle (pardon the pun).
While some bands closed up shop altogether, others tinkered with their sound. After experimenting with the latter, Testament forcefully banged a U-turn going heavier than ever, incorporating vocals more commonly found in death metal, most notably on 1997’s “Demonic.” Only Pantera rivaled this trajectory.
That set them up for a diverse third stage of their career, when they welcomed lead guitarist Alex Skolnick back into the fold, he being just one of the exceptional players to record with them.
Having laid down tracks with both Slayer drummers Dave Lombardo and Paul Bostaph, as well as original Lamb of God stickman Chris Adler, the “Atomic Clock” Gene Hoglan is poised to be featured on his fourth Testament album (last three consecutive) in April. Pairing up a second time with Hoglan as the rhythm section is highly regarded bassist Steve DiGiorgio.
They have since released my favorite Testament record, 2012’s “Dark Roots of the Earth,” on which is one of the best metal tunes of this century, “True American Hate.”
The determination of one of the best vocalists in the business, Chuck Billy, and rhythm guitarist and chief songwriter Eric Peterson, makes it an easy decision for such extraordinary musicians to return to a top-notch enterprise and do great things.
#6 – Black Sabbath:
Mum knows best.
Before committing himself to music full-time to his new band The Birds & The Bees, guitarist Tony Iommi had one more day at his welding job. Understandably anxious to make the transition, he decided to skip the afternoon shift. His mom however, instructed him to “finish the job properly.”
While working a metal press machine with which he was unfamiliar, he accidentally chopped off the tips of his middle fingers on his right hand. After the shock subsided, he outfitted the new tips with plastic thimbles, and downtuned his guitar to “ease the tension” on them.
And with that, a new musical genre was born.
I knew Ozzy Osbourne and Ronnie James Dio better than I knew Black Sabbath when I was teenager. I became more aware of them when they reunited for Ozzfest performances, and morphed into Heaven & Hell with Dio.
I’ve been in awe ever since I bought the complete Ozzy and Dio catalogues.
When asked his favorite albums, for the sake of ease Anthrax’s Ian usually says “the first five Sabbath albums.” It’s hard to dispute such an expert, but I have to go with #6, 1975’s “Sabotage,” with “The Writ” particularly hitting a chord with me.
It’s a testament to the quality that I put all their Ozzy/Dio stuff on shuffle just as sure as I do Slayer, Iron Maiden, Obituary, etc. It fits right in with any other metal I listen to, which makes sense. After all, I believe it was late Pantera/Hellyeah drummer Vinnie Paul who once said “every riff you hear now was played first by Black Sabbath.”
#5 – Alice in Chains (AiC):
Every so often I become mesmerized by music from my younger days, mostly the stuff I heard on the radio before I was able to flip the dial myself. First, it was disco when left home for the big city. Later on it was 1970s pop-rock (thanks for that “Boogie Nights” and “El Camino/Breaking Bad”).
More recently, since they released their last album, 2018’s “Rainier Fog (RF),” it has been Alice in Chains.
It’s unmistakable who’s playing when you hear that songwriting brought to life by Sean Kinney’s freewheeling drums and, especially, Layne Staley’s vocals.
While they forged their reputation with their first three albums, what set them apart was the 1994 acoustic EP “Jar of Flies.”
Despite being largely stripped of an electric sound, it managed to have at least as much impact as any of their LPs. It was a beautiful piece of work, even before adding Staley’s incomparable voice.
They went their separate ways musically as the decade wound down, recording only a couple songs for an AiC box-set. Then, in 2002, Staley died of a drug overdose.
I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who thought I’d heard the last of AiC. Frontmen are the voice and face of a band. Layne Staley was even more than that. His pipes were as prominent a part of AiC as any other singer of any other band, if not moreso.
One imagines it took the sheer force of will of Sean Kinney and guitarist/songwriter Jerry Cantrell to attempt to resurrect the band given the massive void. But that they did. Incidentally enough, the foundation for a rebirth had been laid with the growing vocal contribution Cantrell made when Staley was alive.
It allowed William DuVall to ease into the “co-lead” vocalist role. No one could ever fully replace Layne Staley, but DuVall is the perfect fit for this incarnation of AiC. When you hear them now, you know it’s Alice in Chains.
The music feels like a natural progression, including the DuVall-penned “So Far Under” off RF, while the similarity in vocal harmonization between AiC 1.0 and AiC 2.0 is nothing short of striking.
2013’s “The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here” and RF have arguably made me a bigger AiC fan than I was before. If they maintain this course, I’m liable to learn to play another album’s worth of Mike Starr and Mike Inez bass lines.
#4 – Anthrax:
One of my earliest memories of my first first cousin was bouncing her on my knees while Anthrax played on the boombox. Somewhere there’s a picture of it, which my aunt and uncle may have mercifully buried it: I had “Anthrax” trimmed into my leg hairs.
Of all the bands that fed my burgeoning infatuation with thrash metal, Anthrax was the most unique.
They injected fun into the sub-genre. Metal, for the most part, is a serious endeavor, and it’s part of the reason I was drawn to it. But it’s also OK to have a goofy-looking mascot (the Not Man), wear jams shorts, and sport mullets (well … maybe not the mullets).
Co-founder and rhythm guitarist Scott Ian’s lyrics also made this teenager think.
My first two Anthrax albums, 1987’s flawless “Among the Living,” and its follow-up the next year “State of Euphoria,” are replete with brain food: the pro-Native American “Indians,” the plea against ignoring the homeless in “Who Cares Wins,” the anti-Cold War arms race “One World” and ripping on televangelists in “Make Me Laugh.”
These are interspersed amongst songs based on comics and Stephen King works, all delivered by one of music’s truest singers, Joey Belladonna.
Most of his peers, including favorites of mine like Mark Osegueda of Death Angel, are what I call ragers. But as he has proven, particularly in his second stint with the band (sandwiched around the very good John Bush-era, former and current Armored Saint frontman), Joey makes them who they are. He propels them skyward.
Throw in a lead-guitar-playing, songwriting drummer Charlie Benante, and a second impeccable record late in their career (2016’s “For All Kings”), and their spot high on my list was a no-brainer.
#3 – Iron Maiden:
By the time a buddy handed 1988’s “Seventh Son of a Seventh Son (SSoaSS)” to me, I’d heard enough to claim “Wasted Years,” from its 1986 predecessor “Somewhere in Time,” as my favorite Maiden jam.
Despite Geraldo Rivera’s warnings that they were one of those bands that would turn me into a devil worshipper, I heard less than a handful of such references. What I heard of lot of was storytelling about history, mythology, war, classic fiction, etc. And it was brought forth with an unrivaled quality and style that few, if any, have matched.
Bruce Dickinson’s singing makes them soar just like the engines on Ed Force One, on which he pilots them from show to show. The dueling solos of Dave Murray and Adrian Smith (and Janick Gers in later years) have no peer.
The genius of Iron Maiden however, starts with Steve Harris, widely regarded as one of the very best bassists in metal. If you ever hear anyone in Maiden mimicked, it’s him … by guitarists. Those galloping bass lines were a notable part of early thrash.
And they still bring it live, stopping in town seemingly every other year, whether promoting a new album or coming up with some pretext to play all classics, bringing with them metal’s most famous mascot Eddie regardless.
No one puts on a show like Maiden!
When I was first making my way to metal, I asked some kids who were a couple steps ahead of me, if they liked much of the less-aggressive stuff, the not-as-fast but showier stuff. “Just Iron Maiden” was the response I got.
If you’ve made it this far in your metal, or rock, or just music experience without adequate exposure to Iron Maiden, you have studying 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 Slayer guitarist/songwriter Jeff Hanneman when a record label executive asked them to “mainstream” their sound for just one song for 1994’s “Divine Intervention (DI).”
I first listened to them when a teammate handed to me their fourth album, “South of Heaven,” on the way back from a football game in high school.
The opening riff was eerie, the album was fast at times, the lyrics left little to the imagination, and one song seemed to bleed into another (granted, I might have been nodding off). It was more intense than Metallica and Anthrax.
Though guitarist and songwriter Kerry King once said he believes that the sound that lasted until their recent retirement was cemented with their next effort, 1990’s “Seasons in the Abyss,” my thoughts go back to DI.
I have never been one to fault their peers for changing their respective sounds, trying something new, indulging other creative fancies in the early 1990s. Some of those records were good for what they were, and I still listen to them today.
I remember however, a curious apprehension coming over me when I picked up DI … and then I heard the lead single, “Dittohead.” Nothing had changed. The speed was still there, as were the controversial topics filtered through typically graphic lyrics.
DI was arguably when the legend started taking shape.
“(W)e’re the thrash metal AC/DC. I like (them) because they sound like what I like about them. That’s why people like us,” said King once.
They were one of the few bands that kept up the aggression through the 1990s, and were there to welcome back reunited and resuscitated bands, not to mention guide new acts, as the new century began.
With original “godfather of double bass” Dave Lombardo back behind the kit, they arguably peeked between playing their seminal classic “Reign in Blood” live in its entirety while being doused by a faux-bloody rain-storm, and the release of their 2009 record “World Painted Blood (WPB),” their best album since DI.
Then the foundation started cracking.
Soon after WPB was released, years of unrelenting headbanging caught up with bassist/vocalist Tom Araya, forcing him into neck surgery that would bring that habit to a screeching halt.
After taking part in a triumphant series of “Big 4” shows with Metallica, Megadeth and Anthrax in 2010, Hanneman was felled by a flesh-eating disease contracted from a spider bite. Lombardo was fired in early 2013 after a financial dispute with the band, and a few months later, Hanneman’s affinity for beer manifested itself in the cirrhosis that claimed his life.
They would carry on for a few more years with Exodus guitarist Gary Holt playing opposite King, but their days were numbered.
“Leave it all on the road living on the stage.
“This is my life where I kill it everyday.
“So take your shot, bottom's up, this is no lie.
“I'll be beating this guitar 'til the day I die.”
That was Slayer, from the day they formed in 1981, to the time they walked off the stage for good.
They triggered the thin-skinned because they wrote about the dark side of life, people’s worst impulses, society’s hypocrisies, imagining the bad guy’s point of view, and they brought it forth in a way that sounded “like the world’s going to end.”
They never apologized, and they never had to.
#1 – Metallica:
“If you came here to see spandex, eye makeup, and the words ‘Ooh baby’ in every **ckin’ song, this ain’t the **ckin’ band.” (frontman James Hetfield is reported to have said at Castle Donington Monsters of Rock in 1985)
After Quiet Riot’s “Bang Your Head (Metal Health)” grabbed me by the throat in 1983, I gravitated to Ratt and Motley Crue. Then in 1986 or 1987, a friend said “listen to this.”
It started with an acoustic guitar, then another one, and a couple more before BAM! “Battery,” the lead tune on Metallica’s perfect third album, 1986’s “Master of Puppets,” started a galloping riff that unalterably changed the course of my music experience.
They were different in almost every way from the glitzy acts, and if you wanted to see them, you had to go to a concert, as they didn’t make a music video until “One,” off 1988’s “… And Justice for All.”
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.
Though few could dispute Anthrax’s Scott Ian’s declaration that that album is “metal; I will fight you!” the same couldn’t be said for the “Load” albums of the mid-1990s.
Even so, they had good stuff: from the groovy (“2X4”), to the upbeat (“Wasting My Hate”), to the mid-tempo (“Devil’s Dance”), to a country-ish (“Mama Said”). Taken for what they were/are, if you love music, you liked those albums.
The naysayers had barely tossed out those albums before the band returned to where their bread will always be buttered, this time in the form of a covers album, 1998’s “Garage Inc.” More than half of the record was comprised of totally metal takes on their original inspirations: Black Sabbath, Mercyful Fate, Misfits, and the oft-honored Diamond Head.
Moreover, a perusal of their set lists this century shows they play only one, maybe two selections from the “Load” albums at any given concert. Though that is certainly attributable to the time they give to their first five albums, it’s also due to the fact that they have ramped back up the aggression and speed on their last two offerings, 2008’s “Death Magnetic” and 2015’s “Hardwired … to Self-Destruct,” the latter of which nevertheless bears the characteristic of a good amalgamation of their entire career.
History will show that Metallica, not Nirvana, led the charge in saving the music world from drowning in a tsunami of blush, hairspray and colorful stretchy pants. Some of their peers followed their lead of experimentation. 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)
I honestly never thought, when I first started listening to some of these bands, that I’d still be going to see them live today. When I looked at my 67-year-old grandparents as a kid, one thing I certainly did not imagine was them playing drums like Maiden’s Nicko McBrain.
Yet there he was, here in San Antonio 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 pioneers are an inspiration. Even Ozzy is still recording and touring! They’re why newer acts like Judiciary and Power Trip (from Texas, but nevermind) are on the ascent. They’re why Slipknot and Lamb of God probably have another couple of decades in the tank.
We headbangers, young and old, will keep going to see these bands. And if we do right by them and buy their albums, the bond with them will strengthen.
In the end, it will make Jim Breuer’s “wheelchair mosh pit hour” in nursing homes bit look prescient.