Best heavy-metal bands
These bands pushed the limits of rock 'n' roll with intense guitar riffs and
hard-hitting lyrics. » The list
The 25 Best Heavy Metal Bands
Judas Priest are clearly one of heavy metal's most notable bands if only because
in true metal spirit they never die. But the most enjoyable aspect of heavy
metal isn't the power or the loudness, it's the endless, fruitless discussion
over what actually constitutes "heavy metal."
First, there was the dubious distinction between "hard rock" and "heavy metal,"
then, of course, "punk" vs. "metal," then we had "crossover" bands who polluted
the waters still. Now, with grindcore, screamo and other sub-varieties that make
you wonder where are the "Log Cabin Metallists," it's to the point where you
could argue that Cher and Ween should qualify somehow.
Well, I didn't have quite as cynical a take. But I did notice that I was
favoring the old vs. the new. Maybe because everything is fresher the first time
around. And while every single bio I receive on a new metal band tells me how
UNLIKE ALL THE OTHER BANDS this one is, somehow, it isn't true. I'm not accusing
anyone of lying, I just think that most bands and their supporters have what
could be called "Parental Vision." That's where the only person who really
believes you're beautiful is your mom or dad. These people want to believe their
band doesn't sound like all the others and to highly trained ears--senior
metallists, that is--the distinctions are obvious and concrete. To normal folks
who are just looking to turn the radio up when they hear something they like,
well, let's just say it's become pretty obvious why most metal has become part
of a hardcore subgenre and not the mainstream phenomenon it once was.
Now for 25 performing outfits who have made Heavy Metal what it is.
25) Meshuggah: Swedish metal bands prefer to make things difficult for
themselves. First off, they're in Sweden, not exactly a prime lift-off point for
World Domination, unless you're IKEA. Top that with the fact that these guys
refuse to play in standard time signatures, standard key signatures or do
anything that could be considered standard. They sometimes don't even make the
standard "evil" faces. They try. But it always looks like they're about to
laugh. The music really is like shoving your head into an industrial fan.
24) Mercyful Fate: A Danish metal band fronted by a guy in slightly wrong Gene
Simmons make-up, a screech that sends chills up your spine and a goofy fun-lovin'
name like King Diamond. Yet, for all that, the guitar playing, the relentless
rhythms and the obsession with Satanic gobblygook make them sureshots in my
book. Slightly more entertaining than Venom, who were number 26 and therefore
left off this list.
23) Alice In Chains: Some people might choose Soundgarden and I might too, on a
different day. But Alice In Chains were heavier and weirder, bluesier and more
decadent. They pre-dated grunge and uncomfortably jammed themselves onto the
Seattle tugboat as it sailed into the Pearl Jam nation. To anyone who says "Hey,
they're not metal," I remind you that heavy metal began with a very strong blues
influence and Alice In Chains were far bluesier than many bands who have since
come to define metal.
22) Uriah Heep: The roots of Spinal Tap? Albums such as Very ‘Eavy...Very
‘umble, Look at Yourself, The Magician's Birthday and High And Mighty sure seem
to have conceptually influenced a strain of "mock metal," yet Uriah Heep with
the amazing singing of David Byron, one of the originators of the heavy metal
vibrato-laden moan, and the brooding organ of Ken Hensley jammed together as
many styles as they could sneak past customs. Sometimes it was peanut butter and
jelly, sometimes Rum & Coke and sometimes bananas and bar-b-que sauce. At least
21) Pantera: Phil Anselmo is one scary dude. And I wouldn't want to meet any of
these guys in a dark alley. But on a stage, gainfully employed, Pantera were in
their element. While their hard and heavy ways made them heroes to their devoted
following, one misguided member of that devoted following took things to the
point of indescribable horror when he shot and killed guitarist "Dimebag"
Darrell (among others) while Darrell was playing in his post-Pantera group
Damageplan. Being in a band has its job hazards; this should NOT be one of them.
20) Thin Lizzy: You'll see that I'm partial to bands who can write songs. Play
as many notes as you like. Scream your lungs out. Tell me the world isn't fair.
Hail Satan, if you must. Tell me more about how you're going to "rock me." Or
tell me all about the people in a faraway galaxy who will one day communicate
through the electric guitar. But I'll still take someone who can write:
"Jailbreak," "Cold Sweat," "Whiskey In The Jar" and "The Boys Are Back In Town."
19) Kyuss: Who to blame for Stoner Rock? Why not these California desert dudes?
These days people know about Queens of the Stone Age, who excel at shifting
their line-up on a monthly basis, but once upon a time in the early 90s, Josh
Homme and his then buddies stayed together on a fairly consistent basis (well,
bass players come and go... and the drummer got switched up in the end, but for
these guys that is consistency) and cranked out albums and looked to be going
somewhere. Then, of course, before they could really be considered successful,
they broke up. Which is what stoners do.
18) Guns N' Roses: With sides of punk and glam, Guns N' Roses coasted into the
heavy metal mainstream with catchy tunes and a harder edge than their nerf-metal
counterparts. There seem to be two kinds of heavy metal groups: ones that can't
stay together and ones that never quit. Funny how everyone but Axl seems to be
able to play nice with each other. They say money changes everything, but
apparently not everything.
17) Kiss: They may never get the respect they crave. But they've got the sales
they always wanted. If any band can be said to be a retail industry, it's Kiss.
While so many bemoan the fate of the music business since music is so often
distributed free these days, Kiss were already making merchandise a key monetary
hub in their organization while others were busy building up their reputations
with critics. Now grab your Kiss lunchbox and set it down on your Ace Frehley
dinette set with those Peter Criss utensils to nicely cut up that Gene Simmons
Bologna and Paul Stanley Liverwurst. I don't even own this paragraph. Gene
16) Dio: Ronnie James Dio is what we call a lifer. A Heavy Metal Zelig, always
somewhere in the mix, whether it's with Ritchie Blackmore's Rainbow, Black
Sabbath, Elf or his own self-titled Dio. One of the originators of that
vibrato-heavy metallic moan, Dio not only qualifies for a lifetime achievement
award for his contributions to furthering the cause of Metal throughout the
world but for Medicare in this country. And they credit him with that funny hand
15) Robin Trower: Ah, who? You know the guy from Procol Harum? Ok, that doesn't
help. Well, ask a heavy metal guitarist sometime who's among their favorite
players and nearly every time you'll hear people bring up the name Robin Trower,
whose solo albums from the early ‘70s are pretty damn staggering in their
sludgy-blues heaviness. This is back when the music didn't mind bringing you
down. Which just goes to show what a good Quaalude can do. Start with Bridge Of
14) Rush: Rush took a severe beating at the hands of critics for being a tad
humorless about their high concepts. But they never whimpered and headed home.
Nope. They had too many kids waiting for them in the stadiums who liked their
high seriousness and looked forward to living in a future they would never
actually live to see. 2112 is still a long ways away...They did it with guitars
and they did it with synthesizers and they did it with a drummer who owned way
too many drums. But to be fair, he uses all those drums. They're not just for
show, like with some people.
13) Spinal Tap: Everyone says they weren't real. Yet I will put them on every
Heavy Metal list possible, since their material--you know, the songs--are every
bit as good as the "real" thing. And even if they never really did record an
album called Intravenus DeMilo, they should've. And if the budget had been
there, they just might've. And who's to say Shark Sandwich isn't just the victim
of a clever two word put-down review? Maybe someone should go back and
re-evaluate this band's imaginary oeuvre.
12) Deep Purple: While Sabbath and Zeppelin have gone on to be immortalized,
Deep Purple have fallen dangerously behind. Ritchie Blackmore deserves better
than to be lumped in with the "Where Were They Then?" pile. "Smoke On The Water"
may be obvious, but "Space Truckin'" and the rest of Machine Head should be
textbook cases for all aspiring young hard rockers. And they were purple when
only hippies were ruining the color and not dinosaurs and Prince.
11) Slayer: Slayer redefined "heavy" back in the 1980s by speeding things up to
the point of hardcore punk but with intricate riffs and shout-outs to Satan that
made them obvious followers of the Metal church. With such a volatile sound and
temperament, who would've thought they'd still be hanging together this many
10) Iron Maiden: Just caught a live concert of theirs from 1985 on--where
else?--a sports network. Great, since the music networks can't be bothered. And
boy did these guys look kind of funny with all that billowing smoke and weird
prancing around--and those spandex tights. In some respects, almost as good as
Spinal Tap, and in some ways better since they were serious. "Rime Of The
Ancient Mariner" is ponderous, but the hoof-beating gallop of "The Trooper" and
just about anything from The Number Of The Beast makes up for their inherent
9) Motorhead: By never swerving from their ideals, Motorhead managed to win the
hearts and souls of metal loyalists everywhere while simultaneously gathering
punks and critics (same thing?) for their cause. Playing louder than others
proved to be a key strategic move. Writing "Ace Of Spades" proved to be the
8) Aerosmith: There are those who will swear they aren't heavy metal. Yeah, I
know. They were once considered a Rolling Stones ripoff because Steven Tyler had
big lips like Jagger and Joe Perry was the sullen shadow playing the role of
Keith Richards. But this bluesy, R&B-based hard rock band wrote stuff like "Toys
In The Attic," "Back In The Saddle" and "Draw The Line" before crashing, burning
and reforming in the ‘80s to further a more commercialized rock sound that sure
sounded like a lot of heavy metal at the time.
7) Judas Priest: Their songs were always pretty catchy for a metal band, but I
always preferred singer Rob Halford's between song banter. Very brief and always
spoken in the same punctuated strain that he uses for the climax of their best
tunes. In other words, he never lets up the intensity or drops the mask. He is
the dominator on that stage and with two guys--K.K. Downing and Glenn Tipton--on
guitars who virtually defined the overused trope "twin-guitar attack"--how much
more definitive do you need?
6) Metallica: Whether their new album this Fall brings them back up a few pegs
remains to be seen, but before they started a virtual war with their fans over
$$ (weird, coming from a band who'd already raked in more than most bands would
see in a lifetime) and put out St. Anger, the album that made people think that
maybe Load was worse than they originally rationalized, Metallica were once the
lords of a new generation. Master Of Puppets remains one of the sacred treaties
and the self-titled Black Album is that one metal album that non-metal people
own and pull out to prove they "like" heavy metal.
5) Jimi Hendrix Experience: Hendrix was far more than some heavy metal
guitarist. Putting his music in any box is useless because it always sneaks out.
But from the opening notes of "Purple Haze," it's obvious that Jimi was
interested in being louder than the other boys. While it's an obvious shame that
he didn't live through the ensuing decades, it's a blessing that he came of age
at a time when musicians relied on band chemistry and not Pro-Tools to make
their magic. Because as good as Hendrix was, he also knew how to pick the right
4) Van Halen: Some metallists say these guys aren't metal because they like
girls and to party and they cover the Kinks, Roy Orbison and Motown. But have
you heard Eddie's tone? He re-taught the guitar for an entire decade and while
they lose points for employing Sammy Hagar (whose band Montrose, you'll note, is
absent from this list), they did once bring us that ultimate, premium, all
natural ham of hams, the great David Lee Roth.
3) AC/DC: Chords on top of chords, hooks on top of hooks and two singers--Bon
Scott and Brian Johnson--who combined for a serious number of knockout punches.
AC/DC knew how to flirt with radio without losing the crunch. And how Angus
manages to bang his head and hop around the stage to this day remains one of
metal's unsolved mysteries.
2) Led Zeppelin: Zep never stayed in one place too long and while Jimmy Page had
an arsenal of riffs for aspiring young guitarists to emulate, the band coasted
off into acoustic Hobbit tributes and art-rock when they got bored. But their
complete demolition of the blues was damn impressive, whether it was Bonzo's
beating the drums into submission or Bob Plant screeching for another inch of
1) Black Sabbath: The lords of darkness who were always trying to find the
sunshine but couldn't find the energy to lift the blinds. By keeping it simple
and focusing on the most elemental elements, Black Sabbath mastered the art of
the powerchord and the downward spiral. Killing themselves to live, never saying
die and fighting the war pigs! What a legacy!