10 metal compilations that changed the world

Among the 40th anniversaries celebrated in metal this year, there’s one you may have missed. It was in 1980 that heavy metal really took shape as a codified genre, and for all the classic albums released in those 12 months, perhaps the key development was the first batch of devotedly metallic compilation records hitting the market. 

There was no more hoicking the needle over five inches of pop, new wave and MOR to catch a Rainbow, Purple or Sabbath hit – at last, a new generation of headbangers could get their greasy mitts on a batch of budget-priced samplers piled wall-to-wall with long hair and loud guitars. Seminal titles such as EMI’s Metal For Muthas, MCA’s Brute Force and the BBC’s Metal Explosion showcased the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal at its apex, and was followed by a dizzying worldwide glut of ‘Various Artist’ releases, providing crucial exposure for burgeoning scenes and emerging subgenres over the next 20 years. 

The USA grew to dominate the market; Metal Blade honcho Brian Slagel concedes that Shrapnel Records’ first US Metal comp emerged a few months before his famous, long-running Metal Massacre series launched in 1982, but with this key title the artform exploded. Killer regional metal samplers were popping up everywhere, from Sweden’s Scandinavian Metal Attack to Brazil’s Warfare Noise, from Canada’s Moose Molten Metal to South Korea’s estimable Friday Afternoon series.

In an era of iTunes, Spotify, YouTube and SoundCloud, the humble compilation might seem like a sweet, musty relic of metal’s analogue past. But while algorithms can shuffle us recommended playlists into infinity, there’s an undeniably warm, human magic about the focus and craft of a great compilation. Here, we salute those cornerstones of the form – those horizon-broadening thrill-rides that often define their era every bit as powerfully as any one band’s studio album.

Axe Attack (K-Tel, 1980)


“Warning! This album is LOUD and HEAVY!” snarled British rock DJ Tommy Vance in the TV ad for this UK Top 20 LP. Bringing together the biggest names defining heavy metal as the 80s dawned, it was eagerly snapped up by a generation of headbangers with budgets confined to Woolworths’ bargain bin. The songs sold it: Paranoid, Breaking The Law, Highway To Hell, Bomber, Doctor Doctor. Weirdly, the first pressing featured a demo version of Running Free by mistake, the track remaining an exclusive Iron Maiden rarity for decades. Girlschool were the only other NWOBHM kids on display, rounded out with classic rock royalty Rainbow, Scorpions, Whitesnake, Aerosmith and Ian Gillan.

Metal Massacre (Metal Blade, 1982)


It’s hard to pick just one compilation from a 14-disc series spanning 30+ years, but Metal Blade’s first release was a bona fide music history game-changer. Californian metal hopefuls Malice, Bitch, Cirith Ungol and Ratt displayed bucketloads of promise, while the crazy am-dram horror of Demon Flight’s Dead Of The Night stuck in people’s heads for eternity. But the killer blow came right at the end, when a hasty assortment of LA teens stuffed firecrackers up the arse of their NWOBHM influences on righteous neck-wrecker Hit The Lights, and the world got its first (misspelt) taste of ‘Mettallica’. 

Speed Kills (Music For Nations, 1985)


More Metallica, plus Slayer, Megadeth, Exodus, Voivod, Celtic Frost, Destruction, Possessed, an exclusive new recording of Venom’s Black Metal… With a tracklist still capable of flooring jaws, this Music For Nations sampler was crucial in getting some of the most visionary, state-of-the-art bands from the burgeoning thrash scene heard by a wider audience, acting as a one-stop shop for awestruck discovery of this vital new metallic force. So new, the ‘thrash’ tag was not yet set in stone; Speed Kills was “the very best in speed metal”, as defined in 1985, but presaging both death and black metal with its focused savagery. 

Sub Pop 200 (Sub Pop, 1988)


Just a quirky Seattle indie putting out a sampler of local bar bands – among them promising hopefuls like Nirvana, Soundgarden, Mudhoney, Screaming Trees, Green River and Tad. But within three years, the fuzzily raucous sounds on this limited edition triple-LP box set were changing music history. Fifteen of the 20 songs were recorded by Jack Endino in Seattle’s Reciprocal studio, so were charged with that loose, raw, sweaty garage vibe. This was a heavy metallic genre in embryo, all caveman intensity and head-caving chords, with the grime and groove of early Sabbath all over it. 

At Death’s Door (Roadrunner, 1990)


Dan Seagrave’s magnificent sleeve betokened an LP that acted as a similar hellish portal, opening up new realms of musical horror to a generation of wide-eyed youths only just cottoning onto heavy shit. Sepultura’s astounding Mass Hypnosis acted as gatekeeper, raising a bar of intensity that barely wavered over 12 songs from some of the most precociously adept units pushing boundaries in 1990: Floridian royalty Death, Obituary, Deicide, Malevolent Creation, Dutch masters Pestilence, plus killer cuts by German unsung heroes Morgoth and Atrocity. A few songs don’t fully qualify for “a collection of brutal death metal”, but it’s all good.

Dark Passages (Rise Above, 1991)


It’s amazing how much Cathedral did to codify doom metal. An unfashionable, niche micro-scene as the 90s began, it soon mushroomed to glory in myriad directions. Label founder Lee Dorrian zeroed into the essence of true doom with these seven artists, savvily including two demo tracks by his own new band – Cathedral’s first vinyl outing. They stand out as monumentally harsh against more traditionally Sabbathian, working-man downer tunes from Stillborn, Penance, Revelation and Count Raven. Saint Vitus’s classic I Bleed Black is equally visceral and disturbing, while Texan prodigies Solitude Aeturnus arguably trump the lot for sheer epic power skills.

Grind Crusher – The Ultimate Earache (Earache, 1991)


This seminal Nottingham imprint Earache already dropped a ton of uranium-weight death/grind with 1989’s original Grind Crusher, featuring the same unmissable hits by Morbid Angel, Carcass, Repulsion, Godflesh and Terrorizer. The reissue in 1991 added new Napalm Death and Bolt Thrower’s colossal World Eater plus 11 more bands, including the synth-haunted Floridian prog-death of Nocturnus, Heresy’s frantic UKHC, thrash jesters Lawnmower Deth and the cream of Swedish DM, Entombed and Carnage. Meanwhile, the nightmare jazz-grind of John Zorn’s Naked City, Spazztic Blurr’s absurdist volatility, a techno/house/metal mix by Mighty Force, and whatever Sore Throat were doing, represent the most abstruse of Earache’s mind-bending impulses.

Peaceville – Volume 4 (Peaceville, 1992)


Opening a collection of cutting-edge experimental extremity in 1992 with an impossibly groovy 70s rock song from a forgotten 80s Pentagram record? This much-loved Yorkshire label flew their freak-flag high on this beyond essential smorgasbord of transgressive ingenuity, sequenced like an illicit radio broadcast. Peaceville’s bulging roster of genre pioneers brought highly singular twists to the strands of metal that they were shaping, but alongside legends-in-waiting like Pentagram, Darkthrone, Autopsy, Paradise Lost, My Dying Bride, Anathema, At The Gates, Vital Remains and The Gathering, even spookier frequencies were tapped by the dystopian mechanical terror of G.G.F.H., Kong and Sonic Violence.

Nordic Metal – A Tribute To Euronymous (Necropolis, 1995)


Conceived by Mayhem guitarist Euronymous and Paul ‘Typhon’ of US label Necropolis as a sampler of new elite black metal, its future became uncertain after Euronymous’s murder. However, Paul resolved to complete the LP in tribute, encouraged by the wealth of talent who owed the Norwegian scene figurehead a debt of gratitude (Emperor, Marduk, Enslaved, Arcturus, Dissection). Consequently Nordic Metal encapsulated its time and place like no other comp, its deceased honouree’s highly discerning, eccentric tastes reflected in the harsh alien atmospheres of exclusive, ultra-cult cuts from Abruptum, Mysticum, Thorns and Mortiis, as well as Mayhem’s definitive 1991 song Freezing Moon.

Burn One Up! Music For Stoners (Roadrunner, 1997)


Ahh, the 90s - a halcyon window of freedom and optimism between the USSR’s collapse and 9/11, yet the dominant soundtrack was either moody introspection or dystopian aggression. By ’97, unruffled longhairs were finding solace in their dads’ 70s record collections – and marijuana – and these dudes just wanted to rock. Making their first appearance on record, Queens Of The Stone Age contributed a scorching exclusive opener, plus there was Fu Manchu’s definitive liquid groove in Asphalt Risin’, heavy Sleep trip Aquarian, a killer weird Cathedral rarity, Acrimony’s blissed-out Bud Song and a further class raft of retro-riff rock, forming a versatile but cohesive scene summation. 

Chris Chantler

Chris has been writing about heavy metal since 2000, specialising in true/cult/epic/power/trad/NWOBHM and doom metal at now-defunct extreme music magazine Terrorizer. Since joining the Metal Hammer famileh in 2010 he developed a parallel career in kids' TV, winning a Writer's Guild of Great Britain Award for BBC1 series Little Howard's Big Question as well as writing episodes of Danger Mouse, Horrible Histories, Dennis & Gnasher Unleashed and The Furchester Hotel. His hobbies include drumming (slowly), exploring ancient woodland and watching ancient sitcoms.