February 21, 2010

[Since this piece was originally posted I have written some alternate blogs that are a bit more thorough regarding metal: The 30 Greatest Metal Records of All Time: Part I , The 30 Best Metal Albums of All Time: Part II, part III is forthcoming. Also see: Metal! Addendum : Iron Maiden and 2010  I loved heavy metal music in middle school. I moved onto other phases throughout high-school and college, but always kept a few favorite metal artists and albums in rotation, but haven’t really listened to much of it in years. About a year ago I began to get back into it quite a lot, for whatever reasons. I can never exclusively listen to just it for long periods of time, about an hour at a time is sufficient. Yet I really enjoy it on an album by album basis or in a good mix now. Without further ado, here are ten of the most important and entertaining metal acts of all time (in my opinion), and they’re ordered chronologically.

1) Led Zeppelin

In the last years of the 1960s, Led Zeppelin took the blues riffs that every rock band in the world had been recycling for 15 years and added layers of distortion to amp it up “to 11” (to quote Spinal Tap). They used these cacophonies of sound to tell stories of “misty magic mountains,” and all other manner of nerd-centric interests, with nods to excess and partying so as to bring in their other target audience. Their numerically titled first four albums are spotless. “Stairway to Heaven” may have been thrown through the ringer on classic rock radio enough to almost kill it but it resiliently survives as the first and best epic metal ballad (don’t fault it for its poor imitators). “Dazed and Confused,” “Communication Breakdown,” “Immigrant Song,” “The Battle of Evermore,” “Heartbreaker,” “Black Dog”…classic song after classic song, incendiary live performances, mythic debauchery filled urban legends and truths, hated then but embraced by the  music press now, accused of witchcraft and satanism (as if they had the time between drugs and gigs)…if it’s related to metal’s history it started with Zep. The albums that followed those first 4 were no slouchers either…they really never released an album that wasn’t classic or very close.

2) Black Sabbath

Black Sabbath ARE heavy metal. There were bands playing close to this style before and concurrently with them, and Zeppelin should always get credit for kicking things in the direction that Sabbath propelled their work from, but it was in Sabbath’s first six records, released between 1970 and 1976 that metal got its first cannon with albums like “Paranoid” and “Master of Reality” and a slew of songs that are metal’s signature numbers: “Iron Man,” “War Pigs,” “Paranoid,” “Black Sabbath,” “Supernaut,” “Evil Woman,” “Lord of this World,” Snow Blind,” “Sweet Leaf”…Tony Iommi’s down-tuned and murky guitar riffs became the metal riff groundwork the same way Chuck Berry’s chords did in early rock and roll. Combined with Geezer Butler’s thundering bass, Bill Ward’s apocalyptic drumming and Ozzy’s signature howl, Sabbath made the music replete with dark fantasy and horror lyrics of wizards, magic, demons and Armageddon that the genre nodded to forever after.  Buried under these were the occasional social commentary and world observation—such as anti-war statements in “War Pigs” and the not-too-celebratory look at drug addiction in “Snow Blind.” Sabbath would go on to make some lousy records, lose Ozzy and then make two great records with the finest metal singer of all time–Ronny James Dio.

3)  Queen

Queen’s first three records (“Queen,” “Queen II,” and “Sheer Heart Attack”) pushed towards what they became with their 1975 metal classic “A Night at the Opera.” Loathed by much of the music press, selling millions of albums and becoming second only to the Beatles popularity in England, Queen brought theatricality, rock-opera, dense and layered production, showmanship and sheer excess to the arena. Lambasted when Punk arrived to shred everything down to the basics again, Queen is irreplaceable in the history of metal as an iconic and entertainingly classic group. Freddie Mercury was arguably the finest showman a hard rock or metal act has ever had. It’s certainly apparent that Queen is sometimes like a polar opposite of Sabbath in immediate impression—they’re metal without the apocalypse-come-hence doom sound that thundered from every Sabbath riff—but really, following Sabbath they are the next most important metal band. Taking Queen and Sabbath as the tent-poles of the genre, it’s clear what ground metal can cover– sonically, lyrically, and emotionally. Many bands would weld together facets of these two bands, often mixing Sabbath’s doom with Queen’s operatics; concept albums are a metal staple and it’s hard to imagine them without Queen paving the way. “Tie Your Mother Down,” “Keep Yourself Alive,” “Bohemian Rhapsody,” “We Will Rock You,” “Death on Two Legs,” “Seven Seas of Rhye,” “The Prophet’s Song,”—these songs gave metal some growing room (and some glammy attire).

4) Dio

Ronnie James Dio is about 5 feet tall but his voice is about 20 feet tall—it’s huge. It’s good too, he can hit the highest of high notes without causing you to raise a pencil and point it to your eardrums once. He’s maybe the best metal vocalist of all time, and the band he assembled to back him on his self titled project packed the chords and energy to match it. Dio sang on two great Sabbath records after Ozzy’s departure—“Heaven and Hell” and “The Mob Rules”—and no disrespect to the craftsmanship of Iommi and the rest of the Sabbath guys, but those great records may as well have been filed as Dio records. There’s an obvious shift in gears from the Ozzy years to the Dio years of Sabbath. But if you want to include those records with the band at number 2 on this list, Dio’s embark with 1983’s “Holy Diver” is reason enough to slot him at 4 on this list. The rest of the Dio albums in the eighties were quality metal too, though, especially “Dream Evil,” in 1987. Dio’s an important phase on this list because there was a distinctive era in metal that lasted for the first portion of the eighties until thrash, hardcore and black metal stormed the gates. The only other band to adequately signify the time-period and its sound would be Iron Maiden, and I’ll take Dio over those guys any day of the week. Even non-metal fans with an open mind and a love for high octane thrills and a sprinkling of cheese will thrill to the title track of “Holy Diver”—and hopefully stick around for great rock songs like “Straight Through the Heart” and “Rainbow in the Dark.”

5) Slayer

This is where things got really intense and really friggin’ hardcore. Not everyone can stomach Slayer—and those that can might spill past shock and go straight to laughing at the utter over-the-top qualities of their music. I was four years old in 1986 when “Reign in Blood” was released, and so I don’t have any recollection or memories of what it was like to hear that psychotic speed the first time when nothing quite like it had come before, especially to not know much about the band and how much of this darkness was for real. I’ve read plenty of rock journalism in my time though, including one truly hilarious piece I read in journalism school about a reporter doing a story on the band—in it the writer witnesses lead singer Tom Araya getting chewed out by his dad for not painting the house and for smelling pot smoke in his son’s trailer. The same interview displayed the guys to be normal, middle class, suburban teens and early twenty-somethings who pulled out all of the shocks to gain an audience and who privately espoused close to patriotic views. But to hear “Reign in Blood, in 1986 with songs like “Angel of Death,” “Criminally Insane,” and the title track, it must have been terrifying for some people and absolutely electrifying for a lot of teenage boys. Slayer had built to the sound over some albums that veered very similar in style to Maiden and the like, only beginning to hint at their unique sound with RIB’s predecessor “Hell Awaits.” They sped things up drastically with RIB, though. The debates continue to this day as to which is the best thrash/speed metal record of all time—RIB, Metallica’s “Master of Puppets” or Megadeth’s “Peace Sells, But Who’s Buying.”

But no metal fan doubts RIB’s place in the debate, and most come down on its behalf. Allegations of Satanism, Nazism and every other –ism plagued the band forevermore (and probably gained them crowds and sells), but if anyone can take a terrifying song like “Angel of Death” or “Altar of Sacrifice” as a call-to-arms and not realize the qualities that are so tongue in cheek in it, they’re more than a little damaged already. Araya had admitted that lyrically he writes songs to fit the sound—not much in the way of hearts and flowers could fit with the pounding aggression and manic speed that pours through their work. Even on slightly-slowed down albums like “South of Heaven” or “Seasons in the Abyss,” there’s an overwhelming doom mixed with testosterone and schtick. Occasionally the band drops the ball, occasionally they shock just for shocking’s sake and become unpalatable (as on “Christ Illusion” and it’s ill-thought out cover), but there’s no mistaking their place in metal’s history.

6) Metallica

The first real and pure metal band to be inducted in the rock and roll hall of fame, the most loved and most hated metal band by metal and pop fans, Metallica is remarkably consistent and enjoyable. “Ride the Lightning” paved the way for the excellent speed metal classic “Master of Puppets.” They followed that with “…And Justice For All” which featured one of the first real metal crossover hits, “One.” Then they angered every drooling metal-only fan by mixing a lot of melody in and getting massively popular with their self-title “Black Album.” Everyone who’s listened to rock in the past 20 years has heard “Enter Sandman” or “Unforgiven,” and despite some sort-of generic and uninspired lyrics, it’s still one of the greatest metal albums of all time. To make even more metal-only fans angry, Metallica had the audacity to OMG!—cut their hair! Yes, they cut their hair and possibly bathed before releasing “Load,” a truly great and accessible metal album that found the band simply being an authentic and unique band (it probably hurt some peoples feelings to hear an actual country song on Load–“Mama Said”). “ReLoad” was good and then Metallica released “St. Anger” after publically documented feuds and years of bad press for fighting with Napster and “losing relevance” with their younger fans. “St. Anger” is probably their most coolly received work, but I feel it’s their most under-rated one as well. It adds speed back to the mix, sounding closer to “MoP” than ever before, yet while also retaining chunks of melody and sensibility to the metal sounds of the time in which it was recorded and released. “The Unnamed Feeling” the title track, and “All Within My Hands” rank as some of their best songs. Last year the group released “Death Magnetic” and really zoned in on their eighties sound, which seems to have went over well with most of their fans and critics other than a debate over the quality of the sound mix that spilled out into a music-press discussion about modern CD and MP3 mix quality in general.

7) Cradle of Filth

Cradle of Filth is a ridiculously amazing metal act. In all honesty, they’re a band that do everything to push away any sensible music fan. The average listener will never come near them and if they do, they’ll never get past the theatricality, occasionally offensive album cover and almost always offensive concert t-shirts or the blistering, dense, seemingly indistinguishable sound of noise. Yet if you enjoy metal and you slip on a pair of headphones and just listen to this band’s work, it won’t take long to hook you. Start with their classic “Dusk and Her Embrace” and listen to it, start to finish. Then listen to it again; the songs will start to take form. Hear the underlying classical music tendencies present in most of the heaviest forms of metal (after much of metal jumped away from blues-based riffs in the mid-eighties)—hone in on those underpinnings and get lost in the complex, intricate song structures. Then listen to the keyboards that pop in, often with a female voice singing in character for a portion of a chapter of the album’s unfolding story, really enjoy that unexpected melody. Then wait for an excellent, power chord melody followed by a thundering almost punk-like one. Hear the twists and turns in lead singer Dani Filth’s vocals—from cookie-monster argh to shrill pig-poked-with-a-stick eardrum piercers, to bass baritone rumbles. Then on a third listen just try to pick out some of the narrative pulling the album together. CoF is truly addictive; which doesn’t mean they’re high-art or that they won’t disappoint you by doing something inanely silly or pointlessly offensive for the sheer sake of offense. Yet at their heart, they’re seriously talented musicians with a great sense of showmanship. Albums like “Dusk and Her Embrace,” “Damnation and a Day,” and “Nympetamine” unfold like magnificent, spooky, thrilling horror films backed by a classical orchestra and a maniac metal groove. People that only listen to metal complain that the band’s drifted too commercial and bark asininely on about CoF not being pure “black metal”; mainstream audiences won’t touch them with a ten foot poll for fears of satanism. Eternal teenagers refusing to fully grow up can take them for what they are—seriously fun, enjoyable, heavy metal music- makers. The offense is sheerly for attention and may as well be taken with a grain of salt. And nothing will remove your fear quicker than watching a concert DVD of the group, seeing them lighting fire crackers with skateboarder Bam Margera and slugging mountain dew backstage before storming the stage in Europe with costumed gargoyles “springing to life” and prancing around the stage. No, throw on “Godspeed on the Devil’s Thunder” instead, their 2008 record that tales the story of Gilles de Rais, the partner of Joan of Arc turned murderer and occultist, and be scared…and entertained.

8 ) Nine Inch Nails

NIN is Trent Reznor, the man behind the industrial metal springboard he used throughout the nineties and 2000s to express himself. Probably the only real industrial band to cut into the mainstream, NIN albums incorporated aspects of everything alternative and metal to craft a definitive sound. “Pretty Hate Machine” was a dance-pop merging of goth, metal and disco with which Reznor captured his every anger, doubt and thought at the age of 24  in regards to a failed romance, religion and society. “The Downward Spiral,” brought MTV and mainstream attention, especially “Closer.” TDS is an unrepentantly dark album, a concept record about a man who strips away every human aspect of himself in an attempt to stop feeling pain—society, religion, faith, relationships and eventually emotions. He then commits an unforgivable act and kills himself, wishing he could “start again, a million miles away,” in a song poignantly covered by Johnny Cash years later (“Hurt”). Luckily for Nails fans, Reznor didn’t stop with that work but came back with an ambitious and progressive record, “The Fragile.” Parts of hope and lightness begin to emerge lyrically, and sonically there’s a much larger palette of strings, guitars and ambience, all poured through Reznor’s computer. “With Teeth” proved Reznor could make a pretty straightforward hard rock record, and his last album to be released as a Nine Inch Nails record in a physical medium first (or for his label) came in 2007,  “Year Zero.” “Year Zero” was remarkable because it tapped into two things Reznor does great—anger and concept. He brought back his intelligent rage, this time aimed out from himself and onto systems of oppression and hypocrisy. He structured the album around a story, telling a tale of a future America under fascist control. Then Trent decided he could give away his albums and still be successful, as “Ghosts” and “The Slip” came around in digital version first, “The Slip” completely free. Nine Inch Nails are no more, according to Reznor. He will probably do more music, but he hasn’t said what. NIN were always great on album and great in concert; no matter how dense and technical an album was when engineered almost entirely by Reznor, he was always able to assemble a terrific band to take those tunes out on the road and recreate them live with full instrumentation in a truly great metal show.

9) Tool

Tool is proggy and they often release dense, multi-part, 10 minute plus song suites. They have a flair for a type of avant garde metal, they’re very devoted to the album as a whole and united work (I’ve never seen their music available from any authorized download service). A lot of these factors lead most bands to slip into sheer unpalatable cheese. Not Tool, they’re actually intelligent rather than just pretending to be intelligent. “Undertow” is perhaps the most straightforward metal record they’ve ever released, and it’s pretty amazing, but “Aenima” which followed three years later (1996) was really their breakthrough, commercially and critically. Which is odd, because it’s far from straightforward. Art-rock was mainlined into “Aenima,” and the results are revelatory. There’s a lot on it that won’t click on the first few spins, but gradually the entire record begins to piece together with further spins. The title track and the “Eulogy” for the late great stand-up Bill Hicks are highlights, but all of the music works. With “Aenima,” Tool developed their signature sound. The tight playing and extended metal jam sequences hold their next records together and mark them at unquestionably the product of Tool, but they never get stale or slow to experiment. Maynard James Keenan truly might have the best vocals in modern metal based on sheer sonic quality and range. “Lateralus” was five years in the making after “Aenima,” but delivered strongly, and then it was a full 5 additional years before 2006’s “10,000 Days.” You may have to wait awhile to hear work from these guys, but what they produce is always worth the wait. “Wings for Marie pt. 2” might be the most intensely personal emotional song in metal’s history. The entire album focuses on Keenan’s struggle to come to grips with his relationship with his mother and her death, and “Marie pt. 2” is the best summation of that search.

10) System of a Down

System of a Down began at a time not really ready for them– it sounds pretentious, but it’s true. The metal scene they arrived on was thick and profitable, pouring into high-schools and out of jeep speakers more often that it had in the previous ten years. The metal that was popular in the late nineties and early 2000s was grouped together as “nu-metal” and thanks to “purveyors” of it like Limp Bizkit and Korn, it was “macho,” aggressive, mixed with rap (and the rhymes came from very unfit for hip hop flows) and overwhelmingly dumb. The sound mixed thick layers of industrial sludge and computer “wizardry.” Amidst all of that soon to die crap, a few bands in the metal scene came along with creativity, unique vision and sound, and something new to say: Tool, The Deftones, to a certain extent Slipknot, and last and boldest of all, System of a Down. SOAD worked in punk and frenzied protesting activism in their lyrics and sound more than any metal band since Rage Against the Machine (the only band to ever successfully and excellently merge metal and rap). SOAD mixed in such abstract and codification in the lyrics (so much so that message boards still debate what some of their songs were really talking about) that the message was sometimes lost; sometimes they pulled back the curtain and railed it, though, like in “Prison Song,” “BYOB,” or “War?” The energy in their music is unbeatable. The debut album bristles to this day—“Suite Pea,” “Sugar, “War?” “Know,” every song builds on the last and at times it seemed impossible to do so. Their music takes on everything from food additives and poor sugar substitutes to fad religions, war and genocide to reality television and fast food politics. The average nu-metal high-school fan didn’t absorb much of this—they just banged their head. That’s okay, though. SOAD has always done a consistently good job of throwing world music influence into their metal, to unexpectedly toss out a ballad and a string of melody, to shift tone, meter and riff, to do things metal has never done right before throwing the gear into some of the heaviest modes it’s ever done on the regular. Good, good metal music at a time that first arrived at a time the genre seemed depleted. They haven’t delivered a bad album yet, and they haven’t copied their own formula or lost inspiration either.

Now, a few influential and important (but by no means exhaustive) moments in the history of metal by artists that didn’t make the top 10 list. “Songs” are in quotation marks, Albums are in italics.

AC/DC – Highway to Hell; Back in Black; Blue Oyster Cult – “Don’t Fear the Reaper”; Thin Lizzy – Jailbreak; Kiss – Alive; Destroyer; Love Gun; Alice Cooper – “Schools Out,” “Welcome to My Nightmare,” “Billion Dollar Babies,” ; Motorhead – “Ace of Spades”; Iron Maiden – The Number of the Beast; Motley Crue – Shout at the Devil; Venom – Black Metal; Judas Priest – British Steel; Megadeth – Peace Sells, but Who’s Buyin?; Anthrax – Among the Living; Pantera- Far Beyond Driven; Meshuggah – Erase, Destroy, Replace; Rage Against the Machine – Rage Against the Machine, “Bulls on Parade,” The Battle for Los Angelos; Slipknot – Iowa; Marilyn Manson – Portrait of an American Family, “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of These)”, “The Beautiful People”; White Zombie – Astro Creep 2000


5 Responses to “METAL!”

  1. I do appreciate your opinion, and that’s is exactly what it is ‘your opinion’ and any discussion about music is subjective of course. Your list for ‘Metal’ (a genre that I love myself) starts off very strong, with two awesome ground breaking Heavy Metal bands, Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath, perfect. And then ‘Queen’ metal? I love their first album and ‘Queen II’ and ‘Shear Heart Attack’ are decent, but I could never list Queen in the Metal category. But of course, that’s just my opinion.

    Rock on!


  2. dmhamby2 said

    Thanks for the feedback and I checked out your blog as well, which looks truly amazing. As for Queen, I can easily see how they don’t appear metal anymore, but I feel that for their time and for the things they did that were quickly absorbed into metal in the years to follow, they’re irreplaceable to the history of metal in many ways. It’s hard to see them as metal if you listen to them directly after Sabbath, but I think taking those two bands as the extremes shows the variety that is possible within the genre. But, like you said, it’s just an opinion–there’s no science to music criticism!

  3. […] 29, 2010 In keeping with the thread that included my Hip Hop^, METAL!, and Country. articles, I decided to do one that focused on a decade rather than a genre. I think […]

  4. dmhamby2 said

    There is an addendum to this article in which I attempt to make up for some of its shorcomings:

  5. […] as an expanded correction of my METAL! article going further than my Addendum yet not redundantly producing a somewhat revised list of […]

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