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.

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.

Entombed, Left Hand Path (1990)

Entombed, ‘Left Hand Path’ (1990)

By the time Entombed released their debut full-length, they had primed the nascent death-metal scene for an auspicious arrival with a series of demos under the name Nihilist. What set them apart from bands like Morbid Angel, Autopsy and Death, though, was how the band members – who were still teenagers at the time of album’s release – homed in on the floor-shaking rhythmic grooves hiding within more straightforward Nihilist songs like “Supposed to Rot” and “Abnormally Deceased,” both of which resurfaced on Left Hand Path. The band’s syncopated gait and deep, volcanic guitar distortion, now known as the “Sunlight Sound” in tribute to the studio where they recorded, showed a deeper awareness of rock & roll than their gore-and-gristle­–obsessed lyrics let on. “We were really young,” drummer and co-songwriter Nicke Andersson told Decibel of the Left Hand Path era, “and without knowing it, we did something that nobody had really done before. It never became that fun again.” Although the band’s 1993 major-label debut, Wolverine Blues, brought them to U.S. shopping malls, Left Hand Path remains the infernal northern light that inspired thousands of bands in Scandinavia and beyond. I.C.

Bathory, Under the Sign of the Black Mark (1987)

Bathory, ‘Under the Sign of the Black Mark’ (1987)

After summoning two albums of dirty, Venom-inspired punk-metal bombast, Bathory discovered high drama and a sense of subterranean evil on Under the Sign of the Black Mark. In the process of speeding up for hyper-fast “Equimanthorn” and slowing down for the regal subterranean processional “Enter the Eternal Fire,” the band inscribed the blueprints and morbid dimensions of what would come to be known as black metal. Thirty years later, bands like Emperor, Satyricon, Darkthrone and just about every other torch-bearing group of miscreants in white face paint resound the echoes of Black Mark. Bathory mainman Quorthon claimed to have arranged his shrieked vocals; blurred, repetitive guitars and drums; and eerie choral sound effects by trial and error. “We had a bit higher ambitions, making longer songs, better songs,” he told Slayer Mag. “I ended up as far away from rock & roll as possible.” Sadly, he died of heart failure in 2004 at age 38 just as a new generation was beginning to discover black metal. I.C.

Ministry, Psalm 69 (1992)

Ministry, ‘Psalm 69: The Way to Succeed and the Way to Suck Eggs’ (1992)

The New Wave–gone-industrial malcontents of Ministry improbably managed to break into the mainstream by ditching their synthesizers for guitars and crafting a dense, nightmarish sound collage for their fifth LP, Psalm 69. Beneath torrents of rapid-fire riffs, mastermind Al Jourgensen spliced sounds together the way a stock villain crafts a ransom note ­– sampling George H.W. Bush speeches in the dystopian “New World Order,” and spoken word by Beat legend William S. Burroughs, who asked to be paid in heroin before his feature on “Just One Fix.” But the album’s true MVP may have been wasted Butthole Surfers frontman Gibby Haynes. To the dismay of their label, Sire, Jourgensen and the band blew all $750,000 of the album’s budget “up [their] noses” before finishing a single song. At the last minute, Jourgensen invited Haynes to lay down vocal tracks for what became Ministry’s first hit single, “Jesus Built My Hotrod.” The frontman recalled the night in his memoir: “Gibby came in absolutely shitfaced … babbling some incoherent nonsense. ‘Bing, bang, dingy, dong, wah, wah, wah, ling, a bong …’ But I knew there was something there. If only I could extract the magic, it would be like pulling a diamond ring out of a septic tank.” The result was a manic drag race into a swampy hellmouth of thrash Americana – and it worked. Psalm 69 went platinum and peaked at Number 27 on the Billboard 200, allowing other industrial acts passage into the charts, including Marilyn Manson, Rammstein and Orgy. S.E.

At the Gates, Slaughter of the Soul (1995)

At the Gates, ‘Slaughter of the Soul’ (1995)

The relentlessly prolific Swedish death-metal scene of the late Eighties and early Nineties revolved around dueling power centers. To the east sat sleek Stockholm, with its dirty, punk-informed take on the genre, as gurgled forth by Entombed and Dismember. To the west lay the bleaker port city Gothenburg, where abiding love of Iron Maiden and classic heavy metal spawned a melodic revolution in Satan worship spearheaded by Dissection, In Flames and At the Gates. Early releases by At the Gates were more expressive and drastic, but Slaughter of the Soul was a sinister precision attack, thriving on flawless melodic muscle: Frontman Tomas Lindberg’s tortured howl soared over triumphant double-time riffs on surprisingly athletic songs like “Blinded by Fear,” “Nausea” and “Cold.” Unfortunately, the band split before its legacy could be fully reckoned. By the early 2000s, the reaping of Slaughter of the Soul‘s remains reached a fever pitch, as the album’s sound was replicated on literally millions of albums sold by American metalcore bands, particularly As I Lay Dying. “At the Gates were a big influence on us,” Lamb of God’s Mark Morton told The Quietus. “They just had ‘that’ sound.” I.C.

Voivod, Dimension Hatröss (1988)

Voivod, ‘Dimension Hatröss’ (1988)

One of metal’s most idiosyncratic bands, Voivod was the product of four fertile young imaginations from the remote reaches of Northern Quebec. Drawing equally from hardcore (Discharge), post-punk (Killing Joke) and classic prog (King Crimson, Van der Graaf Generator), the foursome made a name for themselves with a series of three ferocious, speed-riddled albums powered by sci-fi themes and the warped riffs of guitarist Denis “Piggy” D’Amour. It was on Dimension Hätross, however, where the band’s reputation as innovators truly took flight. While recording in Berlin in winter 1987, the band devoured anarcho-punk and industrial music, namely the work of avant-garde legends Einstürzende Neubauten, and hatched a dystopian concept album that shocked the metal underground the following summer. While the speed and abrasiveness remained, the band coupled these elements with a remarkable sense of discipline, making room for industrial samples, shifting time signatures and memorable vocal melodies. Led by “Tribal Convictions” and “Psychic Vacuum,” this landmark album had a profound impact on heavy metal, pointing the way for the ambitious likes of Tool, Opeth and Dream Theater. “We had discovered what industrial and electronic music could do if put together with metal,” drummer Michel “Away” Langevin told Metal Hammer in 2005. “In the process, suddenly we weren’t the thrash band of old.” A.B.

Meshuggah, Destroy, Erase, Improve (1995)

Meshuggah, ‘Destroy Erase Improve’ (1995)

The title of Swedish juggernaut Meshuggah’s second album reads like a Terminator-age manifesto, and the contents live up to the challenge. A savage combination of death-metal ferocity, thrash precision, vocalist Jens Kidman’s hoarse hardcore bark, Fredrik Thordendal’s quicksilver jazz-fusion guitar solos, and mind-melting rhythmic complexity, Destroy Erase Improve formed the template for all subsequent Meshuggah albums. From the opening alarm klaxon, mechanical gear-grinding and drummer Tomas Haake’s whiplash-inducing beat on “Future Breed Machine,” the album seldom dips in intensity. There and on the subsequent “Beneath,” fluid guitar solos complement jagged, robotic rhythms, while fittingly titled instrumental “Acrid Placidity” highlights Thordendal’s elegant flow, set against a spare, moody pulse. The band would continue to evolve with down-tuned seven- and eight-string guitars, computerized drums and album-length compositions but never strayed significantly from the signature sound it unleashed with this still-dazzling creation: the foundational text for “djent,” a new mutant strain of math-infused hypermetal. It’s no great stretch to suggest that one factor contributing to the overwhelming vitality of Meshuggah’s latest album, 2016’s The Violent Sleep of Reason, was the decision to record with all band members in the studio simultaneously for the first time since Destroy Erase Improve. S.S.


Twisted Sister, ‘Stay Hungry’ (1984)

By the early Eighties, Twisted Sister were the undisputed kings of the New York/New Jersey club circuit, and yet were unable to land anything resembling a real label deal. “We were turned down more times than a bed sheet in a whorehouse,” remarked guitarist Jay Jay French. By the time they finally did nab that elusive contract, with Atlantic Records, the band were a good 10 years into their career, and their trademark glam look had been usurped by a new crop of younger (and prettier) L.A. acts. But none of those bands had Twisted’s knack for writing insanely hooky three-minute anthems like Stay Hungry‘s “We’re Not Gonna Take It” and “I Wanna Rock.” The two songs, paired with goofy yet brilliant music videos that starred the band members, led by scenery-chewing frontman Dee Snider, in a Wile E. Coyote/Road Runner–style standoff with actor Mark Metcalf, launched Twisted Sister into the pop-culture stratosphere. The band appeared in mainstream movies like Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (performing the doom-rocking Hungry standout “Burn in Hell”) and, after “We’re Not Gonna Take It” caught the ear of the PMRC, on the United States Senate floor, where Snider, curly mane, ripped T-shirt, fangs and all, read the riot act to Al and Tipper Gore. Meanwhile, Stay Hungry’s deeper cuts – such as the menacing “Captain Howdy” section of the two-part “Horror-Teria (The Beginning),” on which Snider portrays a demented killer; and the dramatic, Dio-era-Sabbath–esque “The Beast” – flexed real heavy-metal muscle. Overexposure and infighting led to Twisted’s downfall soon after, but not before Stay Hungry sold a few million records and altered the mainstream face of hard rock – and MTV, where Snider hosted the Headbangers Ball precursor Heavy Metal Mania – for the rest of the decade. Posited Snider: “What happened? ‘We’re Not Gonna Take It’ happened, that’s what. Game changer.” R.B.

Morbid Angel, Covenant (1993)

Morbid Angel, ‘Covenant’ (1993)

With a guitarist known for slashing his arms with a razor before gigs and an overtly satanic image, Morbid Angel hardly seemed like a band destined for the big time. But music-industry legend Irving Azoff saw it differently. “They had developed a rabid grassroots following with only the resources of a smaller label,” he said in the book Choosing Death of his decision to sign the Florida death-metal outfit to his major-label imprint. “I was intrigued with what they could accomplish with the larger resources Giant had to offer.” What they accomplished was the darkest album of their career. In the hands of Metallica producer Flemming Rasmussen, the band’s churning, blasphemous attack – already fully formed on their classic 1989 debut Altars of Madness – took on a hulking new dimension, as mad-genius guitarist Trey Azagthoth’s gnarled riffs and spasmodic leads swarmed the mix, drummer Pete “Commando” Sandoval’s snare blasted with merciless speed and frontman David Vincent growled out proclamations of white-hot hatred (“Open wide the gate/Stain the world with the blood of man”). Somehow the band found a way to channel these chaotic elements into its catchiest songs to date, including the furious plea for possession “Rapture,” the dirge-paced, two-part Devil’s ode “God of Emptiness” and roiling rocker “Sworn to the Black.” Credit the Eagles’ manager for singling out Morbid Angel as the band best situated to take death metal to a fearsome next level. H.S.

Venom, Welcome to Hell (1981)

Venom, ‘Welcome to Hell’ (1981)

Forget about British punk; true musical anarchy arrived in the U.K. with the emergence of Welcome to Hell, a debauched celebration of Devil worship, drinking and wanton women by Newcastle trio Venom. Outpacing and out-trashing even the mighty Motörhead, the sweaty, shirtless trio of Conrad “Cronos” Lant, Jeffrey “Mantas” Dunn and Tony “Abaddon” Bray saturated every instant of this classic collection with filth, senseless bombast and undying charisma. Hits from hell like the title track, “Schizo” and the wildman anthem “Live Like an Angel (Die Like a Devil)” all seem to double in tempo before collapsing in a cacophony of string abuse, cymbal bashing and howls. The effect is beautiful. Worldwide, Venom remain a classic band on par with the Ramones or Motörhead, and that status owes much to Welcome to Hell, an album duly credited as a key forerunner of black metal and death metal – fringe subgenres that have since become their own musical universes. “We are a brick,” the “rabid captor of bestial malevolence,” vocalist and bass abuser Cronos told an interviewer in 1985. “You take the brick and throw it and it goes bang. That’s how Venom works.” I.C.

Scorpions, Blackout (1982)

Scorpions, ‘Blackout’ (1982)

Germany’s Scorpions spent the 1970s in relative obscurity (on these shores at least), churning out somewhat eccentric hard-rock albums that spotlighted the neo-classical/Hendrix-ian six-string work of Uli Jon Roth. It wasn’t until the end of the decade, when their lineup solidified around the guitar team of main songwriter Rudolf Schenker and new recruit Matthias Jabs, that they became, in the words of singer Klaus Meine, “more focused on the ‘Scorpions DNA,'” streamlining their sound and making a serious bid for the American metal market. Blackout, their eighth album overall, was the one where it all truly came together, its songs powered by lean, no-frills riffing, crisp production and a straightforward rhythmic thrust, with Meine’s banshee howl and Jabs’ bluesy leads adding a measure of personality and flash. Songs like the title track, “Can’t Live Without You” and the power ballad “You Give Me All I Need” were as direct and unadorned as they were insanely hook-y. And then there was “No One Like You,” which, in part due to its memorable Alcatraz-featuring video, hit Number One on Billboard‘s Mainstream Rock chart and launched the Scorpions’ golden Eighties run – while also helping to pave the way for an entire era of hard-rock hits that were both tough as nails and disarmingly melodic. R.B.

Isis, Oceanic (2002)

Isis, ‘Oceanic’ (2002)

Although its members came up in the same New England hardcore/metal hotbed that spawned Converge, Cave In and Killswitch Engage, Isis charted their own path. Fronted by singer, guitarist and conceptualist Aaron Turner, the band took its leads from Melvins, Swans and especially Neurosis, whose mix of punishing heaviness, surprising delicacy and avant-garde sound design would prove strongly influential. Oceanic, an archetypal 2002 saga about a desperate man seeking a female counterpart, was a decisive turning point, its songs endowed with atmospheres and textures so imaginative you practically could see them. The album’s front half packs an irresistible tidal surge behind Turner’s desolate howl. But the band’s sense of dynamic variety was never keener: The first half of “Carry” drifts in slow-moving stasis, trading on the sharp contrast of Turner’s and Michael Gallagher’s guitars, swelling to a massive climax as Maria Christopher’s backing vocals come into focus. Instrumental tracks, infused with Bryant Clifford Meyer’s electronics, lend a cinematic quality; on “Weight,” ghostly chants from Christopher and Ayal Naor assume the main focus. The climax comes in “From Sinking” and “Hym,” an overwhelming one-two punch of desperation and transcendence. “Oceanic was the first record that we had written with what became the permanent lineup,” Turner said in 2010. “With Oceanic people felt more comfortable with expressing their ideas and working together. That was in a lot of ways, a point of solidification for us.” A cornerstone of what would be termed post-metal, Isis and Oceanic would have a tremendous impact on a new wave of bands like Pelican and Cult of Luna. S.S.

Living Colour, Vivid (1988)

Living Colour, ‘Vivid’ (1988)

The double-platinum debut from New York’s Living Colour is one of the smartest, heaviest, most uncompromising rock records to hit pop paydirt in the pre-Nevermind Eighties, a psychedelic explosion of downtown art-funk grooves, avant-jazz-trained filigrees, furious thrash shredding and vocalist Corey Glover, who sounded like Otis Redding trying to out-shout Axl Rose. Four African-Americans bumrushing the Aqua-Net age with prog chops, punk cred and pop smarts, there was no place to easily market Living Colour, but their singular sound was so powerful, especially on the breakout hit “Cult of Personality,” it ended up everywhere from Headbangers Ball to Arsenio Hall, Art Ensemble of Chicago shows to a Rolling Stones tour, Casey Kasem’s American Top 40 to Lollapalooza. Over the effortless, off-kilter riffing of Vernon Reid, the polyglot stew of Vivid gets extra urgency with sociopolitical lyrics about racism, gentrification and consumerism. “They play with feeling and conviction,” no less an authority than Little Richard told Rolling Stone in 1990. “The same thing that started in the Fifties with me, they are taking it through the Nineties. And God bless their souls. They are keeping it alive.” C.R.W.

Death, Human (1991)

Death, ‘Human’ (1991)

Death frontman Chuck Schuldiner helped define the primal, relentless sound of death metal on early demos (under the name Mantas) and on the band’s 1987 debut, Scream Bloody Gore. But on Human, the group’s fourth LP in as many years, he threw a wild curveball, enlisting guitarist Paul Masvidal and drummer Sean Reinert, a pair of young jazz-fusion-obsessed hotshots (and co-founders of the influential band Cynic), for an album that seamlessly reconciled the intensity of early Death with prog’s chops-mad technicality. Gone were Scream‘s pet themes of zombies and bloodshed; in their place were songs that dealt with “mysteries of our life” (“Flattening of Emotions”), the power of the subconscious (“See Through Dreams”) and man’s mistreatment of the environment (“Vacant Planet”). Songs like “Secret Face” matched Schuldiner’s raspy growls with dazzlingly intricate arrangements and proudly virtuosic playing, while instrumental “Cosmic Sea” sounded like a moody film score arranged for a metal band. In later years, bands such as Gorguts, Cryptopsy and the Faceless would push death metal’s mutant complexity even further, but Human remains a shining example of how heavy music can evolve without forsaking its core principles. “People unfortunately think that if you progress as a musician you are wimpy,” Schuldiner said at the time. “I don’t get that.” H.S.

Soundgarden, Louder Than Love (1989)

Soundgarden, ‘Louder Than Love’ (1989)

Five years before Soundgarden broke into the mainstream with the moody psychedelic sound of “Black Hole Sun,” they were a nasty, flagrantly uncommercial heavy-rock band. They fused punk and metal on their earliest releases to make their own brand of primal-scream therapy (witness Chris Cornell’s three-octave caterwauling and Kim Thayil’s guitar noisemaking on “Beyond the Wheel,” from their 1988 debut Ultramega OK), but it was on Louder Than Love that they fully embraced their metal side. Standout “Gun” starts with a Sabbath-styled sludge riff that increases in speed like a freight train, as Cornell sings menacingly, “I’ve got an idea of something we can do with a gun”; there’s even a guitar solo break where Cornell, at his most metal, shouts, “Fuck it up.” There’s a perverse confrontational nature to songs like “Power Trip” and “No Wrong, No Right,” and a sick sense of humor to “Big Dumb Sex” with its full stereo “I’m gonna fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck you” chorus (later covered by sometime tourmates Guns N’ Roses) and the self-explanatory “Full on Kevin’s Mom,” which even gets a ballad-y reprise at the end of the record. But what makes the album unique in the metal canon is the pain and emotion in Cornell’s voice; he screams in unison with Thayil’s guitar on “Power Trip” and sounds possessed as he yowls, “I love you, loooove you,” on “I Awake.” The album is thrilling and scary in the way Black Sabbath had originally intended metal to be, and it also carries an importance as it inspired Metallica’s biggest hit. “Soundgarden had just put out Louder Than Love,” Kirk Hammett once said of how he wrote the main riff to “Enter Sandman.” “I was trying to capture their at­titude toward big, heavy riffs.” K.G.

Marilyn Manson, Portrait of an American Family (1994)

Marilyn Manson, ‘Portrait of an American Family’ (1994)

“I am the God of Fuck.” Has there ever been a more perfect declaration of menace than this whispered statement in the early seconds of “Cake and Sodomy,” the lead track from Marilyn Manson’s debut? And the most delicious part of the song’s blasphemous send-up of sexual hypocrisy and religion was the exquisite camp of Manson’s delivery, which never let on if he was serious or sarcastic. In his autobiography, The Long Hard Road out of Hell, Manson describes that song as a turning point in his career. “If televangelists were going to make the world seem so wicked,” he wrote, “I was going to give them something real to cry about.” Yet as head-turning as Manson’s sacrilegious smut was, it was Trent Reznor’s production (plus the assistance of various Nine Inch Nails) that ultimately put teeth behind the album’s leering smirk. Driven by the throbbing swirl of tom-tom and hi-hat, the searing, feedback-tinged slash of power chords, and the ingenious use of movie dialogue (much of it from John Waters movies), tracks like “Organ Grinder” and “Dogma” reeked of sex and social deviance, and proved irresistible to anyone with newly arrived hormones. J.D.C.

Queensrÿche, Operation: Mindcrime (1988)

Queensrÿche, ‘Operation: Mindcrime’ (1988)

Although Bellevue, Washington’s Queensrÿche wouldn’t hit mainstream pay dirt until the power ballad “Silent Lucidity” pushed their fourth album, Empire, into the Top 10, it’s the band’s third release, the ambitious concept album Operation: Mindcrime, that stands as their magnum opus. And nearly 30 years after its initial release, Mindcrime feels eerily relevant. The interstitial dialogue sections have all the grit of modern video-game cut scenes and the story line, which follows an assassin who tries to save the life of the nun he has been instructed to kill, addresses themes like opiate addiction, religious corruption and the “one percent’s” ability to misbehave with impunity. The production of Peter Collins (Rush, Alice Cooper) is tight and timeless, while the precision of the musical performances – drummer Scott Rockenfield and bassist Eddie Jackson seem to have been telepathically linked when they recorded the album’s raging title track and the string-embellished “The Mission” – is astounding. But it’s singer Geoff Tate who really steals this show, by summoning the the best of Queen’s Freddy Mercury, Judas Priest’s Rob Halford, and even Bauhaus’ Peter Murphy. From guttural growls and baritone incantations to glass-shattering high notes, the singer tirelessly plays the vast field of his vocal range, imbuing the album’s characters and storyline with an exhilarating life and engrossing depth. T.B.

Deftones, White Pony (2000)

Deftones, ‘White Pony’ (2000)

By forging an unprecedented blend of shoegaze, trip-hop and metal, Deftones’ third album would forever shift the trajectory of rock in the new millennium – just don’t call it nu-metal. With frontman Chino Moreno now complementing the steely Stephen Carpenter on guitar, and Frank Delgado enlisted full-time on turntables and synths, the band mastered an equilibrium between mayhem and melody on White Pony. Gauzy, ambient overlays gave more room for Moreno to indulge the softer end of his vocal range, careening from a guttural roar to a honeyed yet menacing sensuality in “Change (In the House of Flies).” It’s matched by the wicked lilt of Maynard James Keenan in “Passenger,” and by Rodleen Getsic’s Andalusian serenades turned to screams in the erotic bloodletting track “Knife Prty.” White Pony could have shed the rap-rock typecast entirely, had it not been for the tardy rascal anthem “Back to School (Mini Maggit)” – which Maverick Records appealed for after White Pony‘s release. “I remember them sitting me down and pointing [out that] Papa Roach and Linkin Park had sold six million albums while [White Pony] hadn’t sold a tenth of that,” Moreno said in 2010. “To me, they were saying they wanted some rap-rock, and at the time I was already way over making music like that. They kept hounding [me] so I was like, ‘Watch this.'” S.E.

Faith No More, Angel Dust (1992)

Faith No More, ‘Angel Dust’ (1992)

After 1989’s “Epic,” Faith No More could have easily eked out a few more years as alt-rock’s other resident funk-rap-metal goofballs. But they chose a different path with their fourth full-length, delivering an audacious modernist-metal masterpiece that was as gorgeous and alluring as it was confrontational and subversive. Or, as singer Mike Patton put it at the time, “I think we would all be really happy if people took this record home and went, What the hell is this?!” Like its title and album art (a resplendent white egret on the front, a cow’s head on a meat hook on the back), Angel Dust was a study in contrasts: Swelling, stately rockers (“A Small Victory,” “Everything’s Ruined”) sat next to corrosive industrial-doom freakouts (“Jizzlobber,” “Malpractice”), demented death-disco (“Crack Hitler”), country/show-tune pastiches (“RV”) and accordion-laced movie-theme covers (“Midnight Cowboy”). The rhythmic thrust of first single “Midlife Crisis,” meanwhile, was powered by a Simon & Garfunkel percussion sample, while “Be Aggressive” paired funk-rock riffing and a cheerleader-chanting chorus with lyrics about man-on-man fellatio. The result was an album that may have sold less than its “Epic”-boasting predecessor, but whose influence can be heard in the sound of practically every darkly weird metal band since, from the Deftones to System of a Down to Slipknot. R.B.

Godflesh, Streetcleaner (1989)

Godflesh, ‘Streetcleaner’ (1989)

Officially terminating metal’s historical aversion to instruments other than guitars and drums, Godflesh’s abrasive samplers and thudding drum machine gave the rapidly evolving late-Eighties metal scene a titanic and revolutionary clobbering. Like guitarist-vocalist Justin Broadrick’s prior band, Napalm Death, Godflesh drew inspiration from such caustic industrial cults as Young Gods, Big Black and New York City’s nightmare-inducing Swans. Heavy metal’s riffs, screams and guitar solos were all jettisoned to make room for punishing mechanical rhythms, percussive bass guitar and gritty monochromatic guitar scrapes. On the surface, there was almost nothing traditionally metal about Godflesh beyond the distorted guitars, yet they were a product of the same bleak Birmingham environs that had spawned Black Sabbath two decades earlier. “Godflesh was trying to communicate this sense of frustration,” Broadrick told Trebuchet, “living in urban hell in the 70s in Birmingham. My own upbringing was pretty confused and chaotic … it was all part of the process that went into making that album.” After pushing Godflesh to its logical extreme, Broadrick left the likes of Neurosis and Sunn O))) to carry on his expansive legacy as he softened his approach in the long-running post-metal project Jesu. I.C.

Sodom, Agent Orange (1989)

Sodom, ‘Agent Orange’ (1989)

At a time when Metallica were exploring proggy odysseys like “Blackened” and Slayer were plumbing the doomy nether regions south of heaven, Sodom were still thrashing like it was 1983 – maybe even harder. The German trio’s 1989 high-water mark, Agent Orange, is a taut, straight-for-the-throat masterpiece that sounds dark and dangerous in a distinctly non-American way, thanks to frontman Tom Angelripper’s seedy-sounding accent and uniquely ESL lyrics, and the viciousness of Frank Blackfire’s guitars. On standouts “Ausgebombt” and the title track, Angelripper revels in wartime suffering with odd turns of phrase (“A fire that … doesn’t … burn!”); on the plodding “Incest,” he lasciviously exalts bedding his sister with a bluntness that would make Prince blush; and on the dirty, blatantly Motörhead-like Tank cover “Don’t Walk Away,” he and his bandmates play revved-up rock & roll while he grunts about rejecting a woman’s advances. Although Sodom’s thrashing countrymen in Kreator and Destruction also put out brilliant Eighties LPs that still hold up (witness the former’s Pleasure to Kill, the latter’s Release From Agony), the sheer over-the-top, unapologetic audacity of Agent Orange, which made it into the German Top 40 at the time, makes it the best of the bunch. “[The record] changed my life in one important way,” Angelripper once said. “That album came at the right time and sold well. I was able to quit my job in the coalmine, where I had been since 1979. My dream came true to live just from the music and [spend] all my time for touring and rehearsing with the band.” K.G

Sleep, Jerusalem (1999)

Sleep, ‘Jerusalem’ (1999)

After releasing the stoner-rock landmark Sleep’s Holy Mountain in 1992, this supremely heavy Bay Area trio decided to follow it up with an album consisting entirely of one relentless, pot-exalting hour-long song. Though the concept was simple, the execution proved even more punishing than the music itself; guitarist Matt Pike would later recall that the band worked on the song “for like four years” while it steadily mutated into something even slower, trippier and more complex than they’d originally imagined. “They had names for the riffs, like ‘Blackened,’ ‘Reversed Flight,’ ‘Hotel Room,'” producer Billy Anderson explained to Willamette Week in 2015. “We’d get a version of it, we’d cross it off a dry erase board, and then I’d be like, ‘Maybe we should try an alternate version of that section,’ with a different feel or whatever. … We had at least 10 reels of 2-inch tape. Some of those reels had 10 or 15 edits in them. But then, they’re only 17 minutes long. So we didn’t actually hear it as an entire song until well after it was mixed. It was like going to math class.” Though the strain of its creation contributed to Sleep’s breakup, the album – first released in 1999 as Jerusalem, and reissued in 2003 as Dopesmoker – still serves as a fittingly weighty monument to a legendary band. D.E.

Converge, Jane Doe (2001)

Converge, ‘Jane Doe’ (2001)

New England hardcore-scene veterans Converge reached a precarious new perch on the 2001 tour de force Jane Doe. Heavy metal had always had the power, now it found the pain, via this highly charged quintet’s excursion through the emotional wringer. Unpredictable and elegant, and even – in a dirty DIY way – progressive, the album channeled the precision of Slayer to capture the caustic mood of Black Flag, creating a potent real-world counterpoint to the prevalent black-metal escapism of the times. Vocalist Jacob Bannon, who sounded like a small animal caught in a terrible machine, increasingly became an idol due to his heart-tearing vulnerability and searing anguish, while guitarist Kurt Ballou’s beefy, unadorned production perfectly complemented the breathless catharsis of songs like “Concubine” and “Heaven in Her Arms,” impressing his future recording clients such as Isis, High on Fire, Nails and Darkest Hour. “Writing Jane Doe was about the hope and desperation that I was trying to search for. I thought it would help,” said Bannon, “but it didn’t.” I.C.

Melvins, Bullhead (1991)

Melvins, ‘Bullhead’ (1991)

For much of their first decade as a band, Montesano, Washington’s Melvins replaced the antipathy and anomie of sludgier punk bands (Flipper, Fang, My War–era Blag Flag) with a Beefheartian push-pull. Their magma-toasted textures – like Black Sabbath convulsing in a warehouse space, usually in three minutes or less – would prove to be a crucial influence on the early works of buddies Nirvana. However, the band’s third full-length, Bullhead, is almost like their coming out as a metal band: The songs are longer, the feel more precise, the production not as fried. The hypnotic, bending, sloth-speed three-note riff of “Boris” would obviously inspire the Japanese band of the same name, grindcore gnashers Brutal Truth couldn’t resist covering the razor-sharp “Zodiac,” and the optimistic churn of “Your Blessened” would point the way to sludge-pop bands like Torche and Baroness. Said leader King Buzzo to Flipside in 1991: “People in Germany said it was a sell out.” C.R.W.

Napalm Death, From Enslavement to Obliteration (1988)

Napalm Death, ‘From Enslavement to Obliteration’ (1988)

When Napalm Death burst out of Birmingham, England, with a throat full of anarcho-punk polemics and a sound like a Vickers machine gun, they cemented “grindcore,” a sound marked by the comically fast drumming of Mick Harris and notoriously short songs. Second LP From Enslavement to Obliteration is the only full Napalm Death album to feature their classic lineup and classic sound: the iconic blastbeats of Harris, the crust-gnarled gurgle-bark of Lee Dorrian, the jet-engine guitars of Bill Steer, and bassist Shane Embury, who would spend the next 30 years following the band through various strains of extreme metal. Enslavement is as much a magnum opus as an album of 22 songs lasting under 30 minutes can rightfully be, a blueprint-making blur that raged for animal rights, savaged racism and skewered the patriarchy. “They just put hardcore and metal through an accelerator – no one could be sure what the results were gonna be,” Earache Records founder Digby Pearson told Spin, “and we just went for it.” C.R.W.

Life of Agony, River Runs Red (1993)

Life of Agony, ‘River Runs Red’ (1993)

Life of Agony plumbed the depths of depression for their 1993 debut, River Runs Red, which unfolds as a concept record about suicide. There are bleak odes to misanthropy (“Underground”), parental neglect (“This Time”), regret (“Bad Seed”) and killing yourself (“River Runs Red,” which begins with the line “I’ve got the razor at my wrist ’cause I can’t resist”). To make it all the more impactful, the group set the tracks, sung passionately by frontwoman Mina Caputo in her unique baritone, to a pastiche of gloom metal and hardcore punk, and they interpolated hip-hop–style theatrical skits telling the story of a man driven to take his own life, all produced by one of Type O Negative’s doommaster generals, Josh Silver. Bassist Alan Robert wrote the songs – which contain morbid one-liners like “Smiling’s just a phase and nothing can phase me” (from standout single “Through and Through”) and “Give me one good reason to live; I’ll give you three to die” (from “My Eyes”) – unsurprisingly during one of the lowest points of his life. “[It] was basically my diary,” he told Rolling Stone in 2017. The band has since seen the unifying nature of their lyrics, connecting with fans who say Life of Agony’s music helped them deal with tough times. “A lot of people go through the same struggles as us, and they have the same fears and insecurities, so our message is, ‘Come join us,'” guitarist Joey Z. once said. K.G.

Emperor, Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk (1997)

Emperor, ‘Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk’ (1997)

Three years after Emperor released their stunning debut, 1991’s hyper-speed black-metal statement In the Nightside Eclipse, the band was in a sorry state. Two members had been serving prison sentences, one for arson, the other for murder, so singer-guitarist Ihsahn had to soldier on with a new lineup until his guitar foil, founding member Samoth, was released from behind bars. Once reunited, the guitarists penned an LP that retained its predecessor’s grandiose atmosphere but added greater focus and darker textures that cast long shadows. Most impressive is how Ihsahn’s neoclassical ambitions became more apparent, with theatrical warblings about Satanism and aggressive keyboard flourishes. Ethereal atmospherics soar over “The Loss and Curse of Reverence,” enmeshing themselves with his harsh vocals and drummer Trym’s incessant blastbeats. An imperial klaxon opens “Thus Spake the Nightspirit” before Ihsahn’s vocal croak and panicked synth lines stir up a sonic snowstorm; “Ensorcelled by Khaos” kicks straight out into pure black-metal savagery before a carnival-esque melody gives way to gothic triumphalism. Each song is a journey through curious sounds and grim moods that most extreme-metal bands only hint at, and the album ultimately represented a sea change, inspiring a new generation of extreme-metal acts to experiment with classicism and cite Emperor as an influence, bringing them to a larger audience. “Some people aren’t too into our lyrics, but they enjoy the extremity of our music,” Ihsahn said around the album’s release. “So they can listen to both Machine Head and Emperor, because it is the aggression that appeals to them. There was a point in time where [we] felt that certain people didn’t deserve to listen to Black metal, but the fact is that the people who really understand the music will get the albums anyway.” K.K.

Dillinger Escape Plan, Calculating Infinity (1999)

The Dillinger Escape Plan, ‘Calculating Infinity’ (1999)

Rock bands had been experimenting with unconventional rhythms for decades – see: King Crimson’s Larks’ Tongues in Aspic (1973), to cite just one example – but it never added up to a movement until the Dillinger Escape Plan released Calculating Infinity. Maybe that’s because nobody had ever pushed the idea to such extremes before. “Calculating Infinity was us effectively ripping up the music theory book,” guitarist Ben Weinman told The Independent. “It sounded disgusting, but we did it, and maybe we finally took that to the nth degree with this album.” But the album’s greatness didn’t just stem from the lurching, spasming rhythms, or the disjointed harmonies, or the way Weinman’s guitar sometimes sounded like a circular saw cutting steel. There was an underlying logic, a sense of structure that lifted songs like the cathartic, improbably catchy “43% Burnt” to a realm above the noise and fury of everyday hardcore. Adherents called it “mathcore,” a nod to the music’s constantly changing time signatures. Yet however much Calculating Infinity defined that movement, the movement never defined the Dillinger Escape Plan, as the band continued to alter strategies and subvert music theory right up through last year’s farewell effort, Dissociation. J.D.C.

Opeth, Blackwater Park (2001)

Opeth, ‘Blackwater Park’ (2001)

Through the 1990s Swedish band Opeth had steadily built a reputation for their unique hybrid of death metal, doom and progressive rock, but it wasn’t until fifth album Blackwater Park that those elements truly coalesced. Much of the credit goes to the increasingly mature songwriting of guitarist-leader Mikael Åkerfeldt and the chemistry of the entire four-piece band, but the influence of producer Steven Wilson cannot be ignored. The mastermind behind popular prog-rock band Porcupine Tree, Wilson harnessed Åkerfeldt’s myriad influences and shaped the record into an immaculate, spellbinding whole. While there are more than enough moments of power and fury, the album’s melodic passages create a graceful ebb and flow throughout Blackwater Park‘s 67 minutes. It all makes for a haunting, labyrinthine journey, from the pastoral “Harvest” to the somber “Bleak” and the astonishing 11-minute opus “The Drapery Falls.” “I believe that if you are confined to one type of music, then you are missing out on so many worlds and colors,” Åkerfeldt told Metal Hammer in 2005. “You are depriving yourself of some great experiences, and if there is a message in Blackwater Park, then that’s what it is.” A.B.

Helmet, Meantime (1992)

Helmet, ‘Meantime’ (1992)

Meantime sliced away the excess of Eighties metal while adding a streetwise, cruelly sardonic edge. By the time of Helmet’s second album, guitarist-bandleader Page Hamilton – who had a master’s degree in jazz and an association with avant-garde composer Glenn Branca under his belt – was well situated to give the genre a radical facelift. “In the Meantime” featured a towering staccato groove and stun blasts of noise guitar, while minor MTV hit “Unsung” blended a memorable stop-start riff with Hamilton’s eerily composed croon. Even on odd-time rhythmic workouts like “Turned Out,” a track that finds Hamilton howling out the name of noted VJ Downtown Julie Brown, bassist Henry Bogdan and drummer John Stanier (later of avant-rock luminaries Tomahawk and Battles) powered through with a crisp, borderline-funky drive. Meantime‘s taut, downtuned signature sound would influence everyone from Pantera to Deftones, Bush and Linkin Park, but Hamilton always seemed uneasy about his status as a genre-bound innovator. “I think it’s really destructive to draw lines of snobbery between jazz, classical and rock,” he told Guitar World in 1992. “Guitar players should get information from every source possible, whether it’s a George Russell or Charlie Parker book, a Bartók string quartet, or a Mötley Crüe album.” H.S.

Type O Negative, Bloody Kisses (1993)

Type O Negative, ‘Bloody Kisses’ (1993)

When Type O Negative emerged from the ashes of the New York thrash band Carnivore, their sound, as manifested by the pummeling drums and reflexive sexism that riddled 1991’s Slow, Deep and Hard, wasn’t much different from its predecessor. Three years later, the band followed its debut with a radically different sound, one that wrapped the guitar crunch in gauzy synths and recast frontman Peter Steele as a deep-voiced crooner. “After Slow, Deep and Hard I realized anybody can scream their head off,” he later told Grimoire. “It takes not so much more talent, but at least more effort to attempt to sing on key and try to work out a melody that people might remember.” Some listeners took its nods to religiosity (the pipe organ on “Bloody Kisses,” the monkish vocals on “Christian Woman”) as evidence of a goth sensibility, while others pointed to the deadpan cover of Seals & Crofts’ “Summer Breeze” and “Black No. 1” – an anthemic ode to a hair-dye-obsessed girlfriend – as proof that Steele and company were simply taking the piss. Either way, pop culture hadn’t seen anything this devilishly droll since the days of the original Dark Shadows. J.D.C.

Def Leppard, Pyromania (1983)

Def Leppard, ‘Pyromania’ (1983)

“We wanted an album that sounded the way Steven Spielberg’s movies looked,” Def Leppard vocalist Joe Elliott has said of the band’s vision for Pyromania. To achieve that end, the band and uber-producer Mutt Lange (AC/DC, the Cars, Shania Twain) spent nine months and nearly a million dollars recording the Sheffield heavy-metalists’ third full-length, employing the latest synthesizers (courtesy of “She Blinded Me With Science” star Thomas Dolby), bleeding-edge recording techniques like the use of drum samples, and heavily stacked, pitch-perfect vocals to bolster the album’s unprecedentedly massive sonics. But ultimately, it was Def Leppard’s evolution from a rough-around-the-edges hard-rock band into a unit capable of seamlessly melding heavy riffs with anthemic, mainstream-friendly melodies that pushed Pyromania into the sales stratosphere. The summer of 1983 saw the album moving more than 100,000 units per week, and deservedly so: Songs like “Photograph,” “Rock of Ages” and “Foolin'” didn’t just pack one hell of a wallop; they were world-class earworms. T.B.

Carcass, Heartwork (1993)

Carcass, ‘Heartwork’ (1993)

Even now, it’s hard to summarize the quantum leap forward that Heartwork represented for Carcass. Originally a pioneering grindcore trio from Liverpool, guitarist Bill Steer, bassist-vocalist Jeff Walker and drummer Ken Owen had made a splash with raw, writhing blurts like “Genital Grinder” and “Manifestation of Verrucose Urethra,” featuring gruesome lyrics lifted from a medical dictionary. With the addition of second guitarist Michael Amott in 1990, Carcass grew more sleek and streamlined, and by 1993 complexity and gore had run their course. “On Heartwork – and this sounds embarrassing to say now – we took a stylistic cue from Metallica’s “black” [album] and Nirvana’s Nevermind,” Walker told Decibel in 2013. “We tried to make the songs more straight to the point. … I’m not trying to say we were influenced [by] or tried to sound like those bands, but we definitely wanted to cut the crap.” Factor in the band’s interest in classic and contemporary hard rock, Steer and Amott’s growing prowess with tightly wound riffs and freewheeling leads, a turn toward social commentary in Walker’s lyrics, and Colin Richardson’s stellar production, and what resulted was a collection of songs both uncompromising and instantly appealing – and an album that moved more than 80,000 units in a short-lived major label alliance with Columbia Records. S.S.

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