10 of the best metal bands from California

Slayer (Image credit: Getty)

Its western coastline runs for 900 uninterrupted miles, it boasts the world’s sixth largest economy and it enjoys peerless status as the capital of US heavy metal. Sorry, east coast, but when it comes to American metal, the west is the best. From Bay Area thrash to the sleazy mayhem of the Sunset Strip, to the ferocious hardcore-influenced battlefields of Orange County, the bands of California have created, shaped and inspired some of the most vital moments in heavy metal, from the genre’s very birth straight through to the present day. Here are ten of the biggest metal bands to emerge from The Golden State.

Blue Cheer

Long after planet Earth has been blown into a splintery cloud of ice dust, intelligent beings in the universe will continue to debate who created heavy metal. Black Sabbath? Led Zeppelin? Any discussion of metal’s origin must include San Francisco’s Blue Cheer, whose majestic 1968 debut, Vincebus Eruptum, is credited by many as the first metal album and which was described at the time as “the loudest record ever made.” The sound they cultivated for the follow-up, Outsideinside, proved too massive to record in a studio, requiring the band to record bits outdoors. Visionary, brutal and bludgeoning live, Blue Cheer eluded commercial success in their prime but history has established that they weren’t out of step – they were just miles ahead of their time.


A koan is a tool for meditation that asks one to focus on an unsolvable riddle, such as, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” or “How would metal sound today without Slayer?” The influence of the legendary Huntington Park quartet can never be overstated – from black metal’s frozen north to the burgeoning scenes erupting in South America and the far east, Slayer have inspired legions of bands and musicians across time and space, upending notions of traditional metal with a blood-soaked blueprint for something harder, faster and more aggressive than anything ever heard. SLAYYAARRRRRRGHHH!!!!!


Formed in Los Angeles in 1990, Tool showed no desire to fit into any known genre, instead conjuring an utterly pulverising mix that couched thick, fuzzed-out riffage within spirals of mesmerising polyrhythms, setting prog metal off on a dark and dizzying new course. Even as they seemed to brazenly shun commercial attentions, their full-length debut, Undertow, went platinum, as have all three of their subsequent studio outings. As rumours of their new album swirl, 2017 is poised to be an orgasmic year for Tool fans.

Avenged Sevenfold

Storming onto the early-noughties metalcore scene from Orange County, Avenged Sevenfold have evolved into one of metal’s most commercially-successful outfits of the last twenty years. While their unapologetic mainstream appeal will always alienate certain factions, the band’s arena-friendly barrage of metal and hard rock continues to inspire feverish global adoration and their seventh studio outing, The Stage, has cemented their status among metal’s newest generation of vanguards.

Mötley Crüe

These hard-charging sleaze merchants from the Sunset Strip have not only orchestrated some of glam metal’s most timeless riffs, but their prolific commercial ascension in the mid-to-late ‘80s dragged guitar-driven music back into the mainstream. Mötley Crüe’s 1981 debut, Too Fast For Love, served up a slate of grimy, lo-fi riffs that set the stage for the rise of glam metal and their unapologetic appropriation of leather, pentagrams and face-paint dovetailed perfectly with the metal scenes congealing at the turn of the decade. They remain the glam metal gold standard and one of the most successful bands in modern music.


With their resinous, down-tuned riffage, sprawling psychedelic voyaging, and blazing thrash tempos, Kyuss emerged from California’s painted, mystical desert in the ‘90s and bestowed upon the world the sticky-sweet gift of stoner metal. Though eluding the commercial appeal of their contemporaries, Kyuss inspired not simply a new sound but an entire scene, and while their studio output is frustratingly scarce, their panoptic influence endures well into the current day.


After one of the most brutal dismissals in music history, Dave Mustaine founded Megadeth as both a creative outlet for his jaw-dropping fretboard virtuosity and a hard-hitting payback for the guys in Metallica, who had so unceremoniously kicked him to the curb in 1983. While Metallica reign commercially supreme, Megadeth have earned every ounce of their legendary status through an anthem-rich catalogue that includes offerings like Peace Sells…But Who’s Buying and their 1990 masterpiece, Rust In Peace. Megadeth remain one of metal’s most important institutions and this year’s Dystopia reveals that the band have plenty of petrol left in the tank.


Dodging the derivative pitfalls of their mid-‘90s contemporaries, Northern California’s Deftones sidestepped tedious alt-metal cliches in favour of a sharp, captivating sound that cast Chino Moreno’s hushed, transfixing vocals against skull-powdering walls of hardened metal riffage. Through progressively more ambitious outings like White Pony, Koi No Yokan and this year’s Gore, Deftones have affirmed their enduring commitment to evolution and experimentation, and their crossover appeal continues to attract both critical accolades and legions of horn-throwing new acolytes.

Machine Head

For over 25 years, the NorCal metallers have released one blistering, riff-powered campaign after another, fusing the full-throttle tempos of Slayer with bold flourishes of death, symphonic and NWOBHM-inspired metal for a sound that boasts astonishing depth. While Burn My Eyes (1994), The Burning Red (1999) and Through The Ashes Of Empires (2003), established Machine Head as extreme metal icons, they would release their true tour de force – The Blackening – thirteen years into their career. Following that record up with a pair of modern classics (Unto The Locust and Bloodstone & Diamonds), Machine Head display zero signs of creative atrophy or slowing down anytime soon.


The hysterically-celebrated release of their latest studio outing, Hardwired… To Self Destruct, has only confirmed Metallica’s status as the biggest band in the world. Period. Founded in Los Angeles in 1981, Metallica have transcended all labels and genres and they have emerged as a bona fide pop culture institution, appearing on The Simpsons and South Park, getting name-checked on Seinfeld and receiving their own official day from the city of San Francisco. After moving to the Bay Area in 1983, James Hetfield, Kirk Hammett, Cliff Burton and Lars Ulrich co-authored the thrash revolution behind monsters like Kill ‘Em All and Ride The Lightning. To date they’ve sold over one hundred million albums worldwide and you can hardly get through a few minutes of an professional football, hockey or baseball game without hearing something from the Black Album. They are everywhere and we’re absolutely fine with that.

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Joe Daly

Hailing from San Diego, California, Joe Daly is an award-winning music journalist with over thirty years experience. Since 2010, Joe has been a regular contributor for Metal Hammer, penning cover features, news stories, album reviews and other content. Joe also writes for Classic Rock, Bass Player, Men’s Health and Outburn magazines. He has served as Music Editor for several online outlets and he has been a contributor for SPIN, the BBC and a frequent guest on several podcasts. When he’s not serenading his neighbours with black metal, Joe enjoys playing hockey, beating on his bass and fawning over his dogs.