The 100 Greatest Metal Albums of All Time – Rolling Stone
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The 100 Greatest Metal Albums of All Time

The most headbangable records ever, from Metallica’s Black Album to Black Sabbath’s ‘Paranoid’

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 favorite 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.

So when Rolling Stone began picking the 100 Greatest Heavy Metal Albums, we set some ground rules. Although the genre’s late-Sixties and early-Seventies forebears – not just giants like Cream, Zeppelin and Deep Purple, but also less iconic yet equally heavy bands such as Mountain, Captain Beyond and Sir Lord Baltimore – created some truly unruly metal moments, their LPs often made folky, bluesy detours away from the maximalism that later marked the genre, so we ruled them out. We did the same with bands that specialize more in hypercharged rock & roll, like AC/DC and Guns N’ Roses, but are missing the X factor that separates their music from metal. Similarly, some bands that Rolling Stone deemed metal in the Seventies (sometimes as a pejorative) and made classic albums, like Kiss, Alice Cooper and Grand Funk Railroad, in retrospect sound more like hard rock than the genuine article and are absent here. Lastly, because we sought out only the most consistently perfect metal albums, genre signposts like Skid Row, Testament’s Practice What You Preach and even the first metal album to top Billboard, Quiet Riot’s Metal Health, didn’t make the cut because their track lists fizzle past the hits – making room for more great LPs. (We learned quickly that 100 is a small number.)

We had to make a lot of tough, critical decisions, and even polled some metal royalty, including Ozzy Osbourne, Rob Halford, Lars Ulrich and Corey Taylor, whose top picks we will be publishing separately, but ultimately we made a list that reflects metal’s diversity, power and legacy. It places skull-rattling records by the genre’s mightiest masters alongside ones by a face-painted Norwegian duo (Darkthrone), some Brits who made the Guinness Book of Records for the world’s shortest song (Napalm Death) and Americans who fused Pink Floyd with Mayhem for their own unique sound (Deafheaven). It also contains a few records Rolling Stone either smeared in the review section in years past or outright overlooked, making this list a mea culpa.

So without further ado, don your spiked gauntlets and raise your horns so we can present you with the 100 Greatest Metal Albums of All Time.

Avenged Sevenfold, City of Evil (2005)

Avenged Sevenfold, ‘City of Evil’ (2005)

Avenged Sevenfold’s third full-length was an intentional move away from their OC metalcore roots, and yet nothing about it sounded forced or calculated. Rather, the band’s decision to embrace classic metal tropes resulted in the most fun and freewheeling effort of their career. Leadoff track “Beast and the Harlot,” a goth-glam-speed-power-metal romp replete with ridiculously over-the-top imagery and a singsong-y chorus ornamented with pop-classical guitar arpeggios, was the standout, but the entire album was a blast from beginning to end, all rollercoaster riffing, tumbling drums and warp-speed shredding. And there was nary a scream from frontman M. Shadows, who took that whole “lead singer” thing literally. At the time, this sort of wholehearted celebration of bombastic metal conventions was a musical taboo. Now, it’s not hard to notice Avenged Sevenfold’s look and sound in scores of proudly glammed-up, guitar-shredding modern melodo-metal acts like Black Veil Brides. As for Avenged themselves, City of Evil became the first in what would be a string of platinum-selling efforts. But back in 2005 that success was hardly a certainty. “Some people thought we sold out, but more people liked it,” Shadows recalled. “But you know what? If the record had failed, we still would have been happy with it because it’s exactly what we wanted to do.” R.B.

Evanescence, Fallen

Evanescence, ‘Fallen’ (2003)

From the moment the haunting, moody and cinematic “Bring Me to Life” broke into the mainstream via the Daredevil soundtrack, Evanescence became the new face of the gothic metal movement and also one of the biggest bands in the world. With Amy Lee’s operatic voice piercing through the band’s heavy crunch, the group brought theatrics and a much-needed femininity to the hard-rock boys’ club of the early 2000s. With themes of alienation, depression, suicide and death, Fallen still managed to become one of 2003’s best-selling albums, going on to move 17 million copies worldwide. Lee and co-writer Ben Moody found a perfect niche, crafting a horror-movie-level ambience that was as chilling as it was campy, as on album opener “Going Under,” where Lee shifts from a deeper register to her piercing soprano above bracing nu-metal riffs. Nearly 15 years out, Fallen is an unlikely classic, capturing the ever-evolving idea of what heavy metal could sound like without sacrificing the band’s more theatrical aspirations. B.S.

Sunn O))), Monoliths and Dimensions (2009)

Sunn O))), ‘Monoliths & Dimensions’ (2009)

“I would never claim that Sunn O))) is a jazz band, but I think there are elements of jazz, if it’s not the tone, it’s the theories and the openness,” Sunn O)))’s Greg Anderson told The Wire. While no one will confuse Dave Brubeck with Sunn O)))’s signature roar – wall-rumbling slabs of drumless, heavily amplified electric-guitar drone – the open-ended platform allows the avant-metal duo to collaborate and experiment with ease. Over the years they’ve teamed with indie-rock violinist Petra Haden, shoegaze-metal stalwarts Boris, noise artist Merzbow and a parade of black-metal vocalists. Inspired by the free-form/longform work of Miles Davis’ electric era, sixth album Monoliths & Dimensions is their most expansive to date. Here, the band opens their dark drones up to string, brass and choir arrangements courtesy of Seattle composer Eyvind Kang, giving their long-held notes cinematic drama. For album closer “Alice,” a 16-minute sun-dappled meditation that stands as the band’s best song, John Coltrane/Duke Ellington trombonist Julian Priester adds a gorgeous coda as the heavy-metal textures fade into mellow ambient twinkle. “I literally almost cried when I heard it,” said Anderson. “It’s so moving. I was so blown away.” C.R.W.

Gojira, From Mars to Sirius (2005)

Gojira, ‘From Mars to Sirius’ (2005)

Gojira emerged in the early 2000s – a time dominated by black-metal purists and emo-metal crossover scenesters – with a guts-meets-brains combo of rock, thrash and death metal. The group was based around brothers Joe Duplantier on vocals and guitar and Mario on drums. The pair drew inspiration from early Sepultura (and its Cavalera brothers), and the band crafted a sound that owed a debt to the sludge and string scraping of later Morbid Angel. Their third album, From Mars to Sirius, also had a message as heavy as its music: “Ocean Planet” and “Flying Whales” address ecology, and sea metaphors and themes of marine-mammal preservation rounded out the band’s massive, natural sound. An immediate hit in their native France, the band soon became spokespeople for environmental causes and Joe became the country’s first bona fide guitar hero in decades. Their success led Gojira to the world stage: The band has become a frequent stadium opening act for Metallica and cracked the Top 40 of the U.S. albums chart with their recent releases. “I cannot imagine the career of the band without this album,” Joe Duplantier told EQPTV of From Mars to Sirius. “It would be science fiction, almost.” I.C.

Kvelertak, Meir (2013)

Kvelertak, ‘Meir’ (2013)

Metal in the 2010s is almost absurdly balkanized, a sea of disconnected subscenes. Think of Kvelertak as the genre’s loutish, lovable unifiers, smashing through metal’s stylistic barriers, Kool-Aid Man–style, and bringing the fun back. These hard-touring Norwegians – whose name means “Stranglehold” – started strong with their self-titled 2010 debut, but their second LP, Meir (“More”), felt like a benchmark for contemporary metal as a whole, an album that playfully, raucously muddied lingering distinctions between mainstream and underground styles. Throughout the record, vocalist Erlend Hjelvik screams and bellows exclusively in Norwegian, but the band’s riffs speak a universal language: “Spring Fra Livet” (“Run From Life”) juggles rough-and-tumble boogie rawk and hurtling tremolo-picked black metal, while “Bruane Brenn” (“Burning Bridges”) charges ahead like a bruising, midtempo hardcore pit-starter before making way for a shamelessly bombastic hair-metal guitar breakdown. It all culminates in closing track “Kvelertak,” a slab of stomping scuzz rock delivered with Twisted Sister–level abandon. “Our guitarist [Bjarte Lund Rolland], who is the guy who pretty much makes all of the music, is a living music library,” Hjelvik said in 2013. “He listens to everything from Marvin Gaye to Beach Boys to Darkthrone to Rush. He cherry-picks all the good parts and puts it in our music. That approach seems to be working so far.” He’s right: Despite the singer’s unwaveringly raw delivery, Meir topped the Norwegian charts and earned the band a Spellemann award (Norway’s equivalent to a Grammy) for best metal album. H.S.

Dream Theater, Images and Words (1991)

Dream Theater, ‘Images and Words’ (1992)

By 1992 Dream Theater had already hit a low point in their young career, losing their label deal and their original singer. So the act of releasing a prog-metal opus, replete with virtuosic guitar acrobatics, Yes-like keyboard filigrees and quasi-operatic vocals, at the height of Nirvana-mania would seem a good way to pound the final nail into the coffin. And yet, Images and Words (on new label Atco, and with new singer James LaBrie), did quite the opposite. Dream Theater’s commercial breakthrough, the disc became their first – and only – gold-selling record, largely on the strength of an unlikely hit single, the hard-rocking, Hamlet-referencing “Pull Me Under.” Elsewhere, Images laid out the various sides of the band’s musical personality, from anthemic prog rock (“Take the Time”) to racing, metal-tinged workouts (“Under a Glass Moon”) and New Age–y power balladry (“Another Day”). But it was with gonzo epics like “Metropolis – Part I: ‘The Miracle and the Sleeper'” and the 10-minute-plus closer “Learning to Live” that Dream Theater fully flexed their musical muscle, demonstrating an awesome instrumental facility and power. The band carried the prog torch through the Nineties, and these days their influence can be heard in a new wave of guitar-geek acts like Periphery and Between the Buried and Me. But as guitarist John Petrucci recalled, at the time of Images and Words, “There were no guitar solos anymore and we kinda had this feeling like, ‘Oh, we’re too late.’ But somehow the album stood out and we broke through.” R.B.

Deafheaven, Sunbather (2013)

Deafheaven, ‘Sunbather’ (2013)

Deafheaven guitarist Kerry McCoy and singer George Clarke grew up together in Modesto, California – they met in high school when McCoy spotted Clarke wearing a Slayer T-shirt, while Clarke noticed McCoy was wearing a Dead Kennedys patch. Naturally, they had to start a band. That blend of influences has made Deafheaven one of the most polarizing and controversial metal bands of recent years. As McCoy put it, they claim “this triangle of extreme music, experimental music and very sad indie rock. That’s what we were into.” The San Francisco band blew up with their second album Sunbather, the 2013 breakthrough that defined their expansive style of black metal. In fiercely emotional tracks like “Dream House” and “The Pecan Tree,” they weave in elements of post-punk indie noise bands like Mogwai, along with shoegaze elders like My Bloody Valentine or Slowdive. “Sunbather musically and lyrically sums up what we were thinking; it’s very hopeful and bright and fast and energetic,” McCoy said. “Lyrically, it’s very yearning.” And it sounds like nothing else, though Deafheaven make no apologies for that. As McCoy told Rolling Stone, “That mixture of influences has kind of always been our thing, much to some people’s annoyance.” R.S.

White Zombie, La Sexorcisto (1992)

White Zombie, ‘La Sexorcisto: Devil Music Volume One’ (1992)

According to legend, Black Sabbath borrowed their name from a horror film that was playing across the street from the band’s rehearsal hall. Taking that a few steps further, White Zombie nabbed their aesthetic and even some of their sound from horror movies, sprinkling their songs with choice snippets of dialogue and a few well-chosen screams. But the net effect isn’t one of unearthly dread; instead, White Zombie played the gore for giggles, interspersing their riffs with soundbites from sexploitation flicks like Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! The band’s masterstroke, though, was the music. Instead of pummeling the listener with metallic fury, White Zombie went for the sort of groove that evoked go-go dancers in the disco of the damned. Not only did tracks like “Thunder Kiss ’65” or “Spiderbaby (Yeah-Yeah-Yeah)” have a pronounced shimmy, but Rob Zombie’s semi-sung vocals put more emphasis on the beat than on anything resembling a melody. You could headbang to it, but somehow your hips kept wanting in on the action. It may not have been standard metal, but it was loud, creepy fun. As Zombie told The Baltimore Sun, “Metal kids will listen to anything as long as they think it’s cool.” J.D.C.

Eyehategod, Take as Needed for Pain (1993)

Eyehategod, ‘Take as Needed for Pain’ (1993)

There’s always been a darkness underlying the jubilation of New Orleans music, but it took a band of drug-crazed outcasts to elevate the Big Easy bummer vibe to mythic proportions. Weaned on Black Sabbath and Melvins’ lumbering 1987 debut, Gluey Porch Treatments, the band initially set out to “play as slow and aggravating as possible and just destroy people,” as vocalist Mike Williams put it in Decibel. Their second full-length retained that raw, confrontational M.O. while refining their punk-blues bludgeon into something almost stylish. Standouts, such as “Blank” and the title track, hammer the listener with turbulent riffs before downshifting into heaving swing rhythms that drive home the band’s fluency in the funkier aspects of NOLA’s musical culture. “Sister Fucker (Pt. 1),” meanwhile, marries vile imagery with hip-shaking boogie rock. The band found the perfect foil in engineer Robinson Mills, whose warm, no-frills tones complemented Williams’ acrid screech, the menacing swells of feedback on tracks like “30$ Bag” and unsettling police-scanner-inspired noise piece “Disturbance.” While bands such as Crowbar and the Southern supergroup Down (which featured Eyehategod guitarist Jimmy Bower behind the drums) would also serve as able ambassadors for New Orleans metal, none of them would capture the city’s seedy rebel spirit quite as effectively as Eyehategod did here. Eventually, these one-time pariahs became local legends, even winding up with a cameo on Treme. H.S.

Naked City, Torture Garden (1990)

Naked City, ‘Torture Garden’ (1990)

Iconoclastic jazz rebel John Zorn has always embraced any influence, no matter how extreme: In the Seventies and Eighties, he could often be found honking through a duck call, sowing dizzying chaos through “game”-based improvisation or channeling the turn-on-a-dime schizophrenia of Carl Stalling’s Warner Bros. cartoon music. His most notorious project, Naked City, followed a love affair with the furious grindcore blastbeats spilling from England (score sketches had things like “NAPALM BLAST” scrawled on them) and the chaotic noise-punk gargling from Japan. For an album of 26 grind-length songs (longest track, 79 seconds), Zorn’s pained sax, a crew of seasoned downtown jazzers and Boredoms vocalist Yamatsuka Eye screech, gurgle and spray through heavily composed, ADD freakouts. Zorn concocted a blend of extreme metal and out-jazz that was as rigorously structured as contemporary classical music, resulting in brutally disorienting, genre-defying bursts that can make Dillinger Escape Plan sound like disco. Describing the 52-second “Speed Freaks” to NPR, Zorn said, “I think there’s something like 30 or 40 different styles of music in less than a minute. Each one is one bar long.” Zorn’s deranged, often perversely loony, switches of time and mood can still be felt across the high-minded, no-holds-barred slice-and-dice of avant-metal’s composer class: Mike Patton, Kayo Dot, Yakuza and others. C.R.W.

Body Count, Body Count (1992)

Body Count, ‘Body Count’ (1992)

The triumph of Ice-T’s metal group Body Count was one-upping the mediated and vicarious experience of Eighties thrash, a genre built on the novels of Lovecraft and King, the atrocities of history and the dispatches of TV news. Instead, Body Count presented street-level reportage, showing life in contemporary South Central Los Angeles as a house of horrors: nights erupting with the sound of gang warfare (“Body Count”), a prison system devouring black males (“Bowels of the Devil”), friends ravaged by crack cocaine (“The Winner Loses”) – not to mention venom directed at the “stupid, dumb, dick-sucking, bum politicians” blind to it all. Plus, guitarist Ernie C.’s Iommi-esque riff to “There Goes the Neighborhood” is one of the best of the Nineties – instantly classic enough to be chanted by Beavis and Butt-Head. Most notoriously, “Cop Killer” – “dedicated to some personal friends of mine, the LAPD” – appeared in the wake of the Rodney King video, turning the very real threat of police brutality into a bloody revenge fantasy. The record was decried by the likes of President George Bush, Vice President Dan Quayle, New York governor Mario Cuomo and 60 members of Congress in a letter to Warner Bros. “It’s a protest song,” said Ice. “I told a group of reporters, ‘I’m singing in the first person as a character who is fed up with police brutality. … If you believe I’m a cop killer, you believe David Bowie is an astronaut.'” C.R.W.

Nightwish, Once (2004)

Nightwish, ‘Once’ (2004)

A direct descendant of the power metal pioneered by Eighties heavyweights Helloween, Savatage and Blind Guardian, the subgenre of symphonic metal juxtaposed explosive sing-along hooks with lavish orchestration, whether produced via synthesizer or, in the case of a lucky few like Nightwish, full-scale orchestras. Fronted by classically trained soprano Tarja Turunen, the Finnish band embraced metal’s operatic side, and their contrast of arias and power chords turned out to be a popular one. But on their fifth album, Once, the band achieved their most pristinely balanced blend of force and melody. Backed by a full symphony, Turunen and lead songwriter and keyboardist Tuomas Holopainen indulged their classical and pop sides with equal success: “The Siren” and “Ghost Love Score” soar with Wagnerian power, while the gorgeous “Nemo” shows how accessible this music could be in expert hands. “I have obviously listened to my Panteras and Metallicas and you can hear it in the riffs of Once,” Holopainen stated in the band’s official biography, Once Upon a Nightwish, “but it wasn’t premeditated. I look for new ideas mainly from movie scores.” A.B.

Pig Destroyer, Terrifyer (2004)

Pig Destroyer, ‘Terrifyer’ (2004)

Other grindcore records have come faster, noisier, more precise and far gorier – but there may never have been one as savage as Pig Destroyer’s third LP. The Virginia band, then a raw trio, harnessed the blur of blastbeats and hyperspeed riffs, but those elements were blown through the gnash and gnarl of Nineties alt-metal bands like Helmet and Unsane. “On a sheer sonic level, Pig Destroyer tries to create a lot of fast and dirty head dirt,” guitarist Scott Hull told CMJ New Music Report in 2003. “Not clean, not polished, but fast enough to make you irritated and dirty enough to make you want to take a shower.” Part of that resides in the lyrics of vocalist J.R. Hayes, inspired by transgressive authors like William S. Burroughs and Dennis Cooper, and shadow-lurking songwriters like Leonard Cohen and Nick Cave. But Terrifyer pummels with dynamic range, breaking up the bulldozer with noise-punk (“Thumbsucker”), Melvins-style churgle (“Gravedancer”), a hardcore breakdown (“Restraining Order Blues”), triumphant doom (“Crippled Horses”) and a bonus disc featuring 37 minutes of sludgy metal and ambient noise. C.R.W.

Manowar, Hail to England (1984)

Manowar, ‘Hail to England’ (1984)

After cutting his teeth with Bronx junk-culture punks the Dictators, guitarist Ross “The Boss” Friedman made a surprising stylistic U-turn when he co-founded one of the most self-serious and gloriously over-the-top acts in metal history. Formed in tandem with one-time Black Sabbath bass tech Joey DeMaio, Manowar began life as an upstate-New York free-livin’ and -lovin’ biker-metal outfit dedicated to “ridin’ on two wheels” and “giv[ing] some square the finger.” But by the time of this, their third album, they had evolved fully into the loin-cloth-wearing, sword-wielding, “death to false metal”–proclaiming band they’re known as to this day. With songs like the towering, Wagnerian call-to-arms “Blood of My Enemies” and the fan-hailing “Army of the Immortals” (“We were brought together/’Cause we’ve got the balls!”), Hail to England set the template for Manowar – if not the then-nascent power-metal genre as a whole – going forward. It’s all ridiculously over the top, but also incredibly focused and undeniably catchy – the title cut in particular packs excessively epic gestures into an airtight, hook-filled arrangement. An ex-member these days, Friedman once said of Manowar, with characteristic bare-chested bravado, “All our records have been cited as influential.” But, he added, “Basically, I thought that the version of the band that played on Hail to England was one of the best metal units of all time – period.” R.B.

Lamb of God, As the Palaces Burn (2003)

Lamb of God, ‘As the Palaces Burn’ (2003)

After two raw but promising albums (one released under the name Burn the Priest), Virginia’s Lamb of God took their sound to the next level with 2003’s As the Palaces Burn. Devin Townsend’s production helped sharpen Mark Morton and Willie Adler’s razor-wire guitar riffs on tracks like “Ruin,” “11th Hour” and “Vigil,” while drummer Chris Adler pushed the music like a coachman whipping a team of hysterical horses, and vocalist Randy Blythe simply roared bloody murder into the maelstrom. Groove-oriented and jacked up to the extreme, this was thrash metal for a new generation, though a guest solo by former Megadeth guitarist Chris Poland on “Purified” also underscored the band’s debt to the style’s originators. “A lot of these songs really pushed the limitations on what we were capable of,” Chris Adler recalled to Revolver in 2003. “Once we got into the first couple tunes, we realized that this is not an easy record; there’s not gonna be kids playing this [on guitar] the week it comes out, you know? But at the same time it was pretty thrilling. Because once you got through the part that was just driving you crazy, when you went back and checked it out, it was just like, ‘Oh man, that is everything we wanted it to be, and more!'” D.E.

Darkthrone, Transilvanian Hunger

Darkthrone, ‘Transilvanian Hunger’ (1994)

To the ears of Darkthrone’s Fenriz, who performed the guitar, bass and drums on the group’s fourth LP, Transilvanian Hunger, the record is “die-hard monotony.” “It’s for those who are really fucked up,” he told Decibel in 2009, “’cause there’s not really any entertainment there.” But there’s a depth to the LP, which also features the growls of his bandmate, frontman Nocturno Culto. Fenriz built its atmosphere with cold, almost classical riffs, played through fuzzy distortion, at a constant, methodical mid-tempo, giving it a hypnotic quality. The paper-thin production, shredded by Fenriz’s youthful inexperience and low-quality equipment (he recorded it on a 4-track in the band’s own studio) makes it so the guitars sound tinny, the drums muffled, as if under frozen soil, and the bass is an elusive question mark. Transilvanian Hunger’s raw, slapdash aesthetic subsequently served as ground zero for a legion of black-metal bands who copied the record’s lo-fi approach, aiming to sound “grim.” But the LP also courted controversy. Convicted murderer and Burzum frontman Varg Vikernes contributed some lyrics and cast a shadow over the record, which also initially bore the slogan “Norsk Arisk Black Metal” (“Norwegian Aryan black metal”) before pressure from distributors led to its removal; the band later disavowed their earlier statements, calling them “disgusting.” Conversation about the album has since reverted to being about the music. “Transilvanian Hunger [is] so fucking cold,” Fenriz said in another interview. “The sound was fucking perfect.” K.K.

High on Fire, Blessed Black Wings (2005)

High on Fire, ‘Blessed Black Wings’ (2005)

Hailed by Dave Grohl as “the most brutal metal album I’ve heard in years” upon its release in 2005, High on Fire’s third full-length marked a major step forward for Sleep frontman Matt Pike’s stoner/sludge spinoff. The involvement of former Melvins/Sunn O))) bassist Joe Preston (on what would be his only album with High on Fire) and Steve Albini (whose mid-range–y production gave Des Kensel’s pummeling drums a serious tribal/industrial whomp) was certainly part of the equation: “We wanted a little more of a live, upfront, in-your-face sound, instead of like we’re playing in a canyon with a big low-end rumble,” Pike told the East Bay Express in 2005. But the album also found Pike pushing himself further as a guitarist, vocalist and lyricist, especially on tracks like Lovecraft-influenced “The Face of Oblivion,” the Motörhead-indebted “Cometh Down Hessian” and the epic “Crossing the Bridge,” which was far more self-analytical than your usual stoner fare. “I was going through really weird times when I was wandering around homeless and on a drunk binge,” Pike reflected at the time. “I just felt like I had fallen, and when I say [on ‘Crossing the Bridge’] ‘The warrior’s chains are self-inflicted,’ well, that’s me keeping myself down.” D.E.

Baroness, The Red Album (2007)

Baroness, ‘The Red Album’ (2007)

Baroness had already released a handful of EPs by the time The Red Album appeared in the fall of 2007, but this full-length debut was what really put the Savannah band on the map, effectively serving notice that Mastodon and Kylesa (whose leader Phillip Cope produced the album) weren’t the only Peach State purveyors of contemporary progressive-metal brilliance. Expertly arranged tracks like “Rays on Pinion,” “Wailing Wintry Wind” and “Wanderlust” belied the band’s sludgy rep, utilizing nimbly twisting riffs, melodic guitar harmonies and dreamy, almost Pink Floyd–ian instrumental explorations that made the songs’ heavier passages – and John Baizley’s hoarse holler – sound that much more striking in contrast. “People’s reactions to The Red Album were pretty drastic compared to our earlier EPs,” Baizley reflected in 2008. “The thing is, though, at the core of it we’re not doing anything different. We’ve just logged more hours on stage so our writing faculties have broadened.” Baroness would further broaden their reach on subsequent color-coded records, but The Red Album remains a stunning testament to their original vision. D.E.