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10 metal bands that went out on an absolute high

Metal Bands Went Out on high
(Image credit: Daniel Boczarski/Redferns/Press/Nigel Crane/Redferns)

The longevity of some of metal’s biggest bands is consistently impressive. Iron Maiden, Metallica, Megadeth – they’ve all notched up decades-long careers and managed to stay relevant throughout (OK, let’s forget about The X-Factor, St Anger and Cryptic Writings, shall we?). But there’s something to be said for quitting while you’re ahead. It’s a special kind of band who is self-aware enough to know that they’ve hit their peak, and choose to bow out before things head south. It doesn’t happen often, but there are a handful of legendary bands who, by refusing to outstay their welcome, left use wanting more instead.

Metal Hammer line break

Black Sabbath

A forty-year-plus career and we’re saying that Black Sabbath went away too soon? Given that they are the originators of heavy metal and still the source of everything that we hold dear, we’re saying it anyway. Sabbath finally said goodbye for absolutely the last time on February 4, 2017, with a hometown show in Birmingham, leaving a massive void. Sure, the three remaining original members may have had a cumulative age of more than 200, but they could still kick out those immortal songs as perfectly as they ever did. The occasional rumour that they’ll reunite springs up from time to time, but thankfully they’ve resisted it.


Slayer

OK, you could argue that Slayer’s true highpoint was in the late 80s, but bowing out then would have deprived us of another three decades of brilliance. After weathering the death of original guitarist Jeff Hanneman in 2013, they carried on with replacement Gary Holt until 2019, even serving up a late-career classic with 2015’s Repentless. Their farewell tour was both an emotional farewell and an incredible celebration of one of metal’s greatest bands.


Kyuss

Cult Californians Kyuss released three landmark albums between 1992 and 1995, pretty much laying down the boundaries of stoner rock and garnering tons of “Next Big Thing”-type plaudits. But following 1995’s …And The Circus Leaves Town, guitarist Josh Homme unexpectedly folded the band. He later told MTV: “I'd been in that band since I was 14 years old; that was only thing I knew how to do. So I just had to quit...I'd rather have Kyuss be something where people say, 'That was the coolest shit ever.'” Three-quarters of the band’s classic line-up reformed in 2010 under the Kyuss Lives! banner, but Homme wasn’t involved, so it doesn’t count.


The Dillinger Escape Plan

Anyone who saw The Dillinger Escape Plan around the time of their fearsome debut album, 2000’s Calculating Infinity, would have been surprised if they’d made it until the end of the year, let alone carried on machine-gunning out intense, borderline psychotic mathcore for another decade and a half. But that’s what happened, at least until 2016 when Dillinger announced they were done. Their swansong album, Dissociation, turned out to be among their best, while the subsequent farewell tour was equal parts chaos and catharsis.


Death

Chuck Schuldiner changed the course of metal more than once with his band Death. Their debut album, Scream Bloody Gore, was a cornerstone of the entire death metal genre, but their singer and guitarist rapidly became bored of the scene’s limitations, and his music became gradually more intricate (helped by an ever-shifting line-up). 1995’s Symbolic and 1998’s The Sound Of Perseverance were technical death metal landmarks, though the latter proved to their swan song, with Chuck splitting the band to focus on his more melodic other outfit, Control Denied. His death in 2001 means that a proper Death reunion will never happen.  


Minor Threat

Early 80s Washington DC hardcore legends Minor Threat’s lifespan (three years) is in inverse proportion to their influence (immeasurable). Not only did they lay the groundwork for modern hardcore; they were also responsible for the Straight Edge movement. Best of all? They didn’t stick around to ruin it. Being held up as the mouthpiece for a generation didn’t sit comfortably with frontman Ian McKaye, nor did the punk scene’s increasing violence. And so he did what any principled punk rock figurehead would do and split the band up shortly after their one and only album, 1983’s Out Of Step, never to reunite. Bonus points: MacKaye subsequently went on to form Fugazi.


Big Black

Most bands don’t announce they’re splitting before they make a new album, but then most bands aren’t influential Chicago noise terrorists Big Black. Formed by future Pixies/Nirvana producer Steve Albini, a man with a zero-tolerance approach to bullshit, their 1986 debut album Atomizer was a slab of abrasive industrial-rock that saw them crowned darlings of the US underground. Except Albini was having none of it – his innate allergy to success combined with escalating internal tensions prompted him to split the band, announcing that the record they were about to start recording, the bluntly-titled Songs About Fucking, would be their last. Lo and behold, the record was released in September 1987, a month after Big Black played their last show. Now that’s how you make an exit.


Letlive

Letlive were a blast of fresh air amid the early 2010s post-hardcore scene. The LA band released four albums that smashed together punk with hip hop, soul and funk in an utterly unique fashion, while their spellbinding live shows were wilder than anyone else’s, thanks in large to live wire frontman Jason Aalon Butler. And then, unexpectedly, a post appeared on their website in 2017 announcing that they were splitting. The full story has never been revealed, and no one has truly replaced them – not even Butler’s subsequent band, Fever333.


Botch

When Tacoma, Washington hardcore heavyweights Botch called it a day in 2002, most people wouldn’t have been able to identify them in a police line-up. 1999’s We Are The Romans album was a stone-cold masterpiece – so good, in fact, that some of the band felt they’d never be able to follow it up. And so it proved – they bowed out with an explosive show in Seattle and the posthumous Anthology Of Dead Ends EP, leaving a slim but perfect legacy.


Strapping Young Lad

These days Devin Townsend is officially The Hardest Working Man In Showbiz, releasing an average of 3072 albums per year. But we’re still thirsty for the brilliantly manic Strapping Young Lad, a band who went out on top not once but twice – first following 1997’s brilliant City and then after 2006’s absurdly heavy The New Black. Their main stage performance at Download 2006 has gone down in legend, but two months later they were done, Devin exhausted by the sheer intensity of it. He subsequently said that SYL were “a big middle finger… but I don’t think it needs to go any further than this.” He’s kept his word ever since.

Since blagging his way onto the Hammer team a decade ago, Stephen has written countless features and reviews for the magazine, usually specialising in punk, hardcore and 90s metal, and still holds out the faint hope of one day getting his beloved U2 into the pages of the mag. He also regularly spouts his opinions on the Metal Hammer Podcast.