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The 100 greatest metal songs of the 21st century

Mastodon

(Image credit: Press)

6. Mastodon – Blood And Thunder (2004)

‘WHITE! WHALE! HOLY! GRAIL!’ Only Mastodon could pull off a song about Moby-Dick and his nemesis, imbuing the tale with all the danger of the high seas via their roiling prog metal. The song was built around a simple riff from drummer/singer Brann Dailor: “I knew it was catchy, know what I mean? I knew that when the drums came in and everything hit, that it gave me that feeling.” And while guitarist Bill Kelliher has described it as being like “Mary Had A Little Lamb on guitar”, even he could see the appeal.

Troy Sanders’ vocals were thunderous enough, but Clutch’s Neil Fallon blew him out of the water in the bridge, declaring: ‘Split your lungs with blood and thunder / When you see the white whale / Break your backs and crack your oars, men / If you wish to prevail…’ However, Brann had initially been too scared to ask him to sing.

“Neil nailed it,” says Brann. “He’s such an Ahab character. When I’d written that part, I thought, ‘It’s almost like this is like a quote or something, it can’t be the same person singing that’s been singing. It can’t be Troy, it has to be somebody else.’ We were on tour with Clutch at that moment in time. I remember writing those lyrics sitting in the passenger seat of the van. I was like, ‘I wonder if Neil would do this,’ you know? I was just too nervous to ask him, for fear of being denied.”

Buoyed by Neurosis man Scott Kelly agreeing to sing on Aqua Dementia, Brann finally worked up the courage and Neil said yes. Mastodon were staying in a motel while they recorded second album Leviathan; they gave one room to Neil, and huddled up together in another. “We had each independently bought him a bottle of Jack Daniel’s to say thank you, without asking each other. We didn’t have any money to pay him, so we gave him booze and a place to stay. He was in the next room, like, ‘You guys don’t have to be over there, you can come over here, y’know!’ We were all nervous!”

Despite its literary and aquatic themes, when it was released as a single, Blood And Thunder was accompanied by a video depicting the band as clowns – one of Brann’s obsessions. The huge face behind his kit is now in his hallway. The song quickly became Leviathan’s standout track, drawing in a slew of new listeners who have stuck by these eccentric Atlantans ever since. “I knew that there was something to it, but I wouldn’t have called it that it would have been as popular as it was, and that it was gonna be the catalyst for a whole new crop of fans,” marvels Brann. “I owe a sense of gratitude to that song.”


5. Trivium – Pull Harder On The Strings Of Your Martyr (2005)

Trivium may have been lazily thrown into the metalcore club by those who didn’t understand them, but make no mistake about it: Pull Harder On The Strings Of Your Martyr was the best pure-blooded, no-holds-barred heavy metal song of a whole generation. It made Trivium the hottest metal band on the planet; three months after the single was released, the Floridian youngsters got bumped up to the main stage of that year’s Download festival, producing one of the most memorable sets in Donington history. Not bad work for a song written by a band that, at the time, were still teenagers.

“I remember writing that riff when I was still living at my parents’ house when I was about 17 years old,” says Trivs frontman Matt Heafy. “I was sitting with the guitar on my couch. I started strumming that intro riff, and at our band practice the next day I said to Travis [Smith, former Trivium drummer] that I wanted to play him this part. He said, ‘Well, that’s funny. I have this drum part in my head I wanted to show you.’ And so we agreed to play the parts that we had come up with at the same time the night before to each other there and then, he counts in four, and it just fit. That’s how we came up with the beginning of the song.”

The lyrics, based around a tyrannical ruler wreaking havoc upon his own people, set the agenda for what Trivium would become known for: kickass metal songs steeped in rich storytelling - but that had relevance to the world around us today.

“The lyrics are about a dictator, and it can be applied to anything – the things that happen in your life, or the things that you see around you in society, it can be about present times or ancient times,” says Matt. “It’s not quite first-person perspective, more like a third person that has to suffer at the hands of a dictator. That could be a person, a gang, an army. It’s trying to tackle what I think is the curse of modern mankind – that we allow these people to do these evil things to so many people.” 

The song launched Trivium as the faces of the next generation of metal, uniting old-school metalheads and young rock fans across all kinds of different tribes.

“We were the right age to soak up all of this great music – metal, metalcore, emo, punk, melodic death metal,” notes Matt. “And the song has bits of all of that – melodic vocals, metal riffing, that kinda open-stringed Roots-y riff that Sepultura, Machine Head and Slipknot were famous for, which is quite different for us. So it could get kids into so many different styles of music.” 

While Pull Harder… is now rightly regarded as an all-time classic, at the time Trivium weren’t even mega-confident it was the obvious choice for a single; in fact, it was actually the second single released from Ascendancy (the first was the similarly ace but perhaps not quite as iconic Like Light To The Flies).

“The record company were telling us that this would be a single, and of course I remember doing that Download show and the crowd singing about 25% of the lyrics without me, but we didn’t know why it was that song that resonated. It didn’t even have the title in the chorus! We thought Dying In Your Arms would be the big smash. But it always got the biggest reaction, and it remained that way until In Waves came out. Only that song gets more of a reaction than Pull Harder…, even today.” 

Trivium have, of course, gone on to become one of 21st century metal’s most celebrated bands, and they’ve hit numerous peaks since Pull Harder… first put them on the world stage (including last year’s career-best What The Dead Men Say). In 2021, they’re bigger and better than ever, but in terms of pure hype, they’ve perhaps never been quite as white-hot as on that epic Ascendancy run. Especially right here in the UK, where they quickly became adopted hometown heroes. As it happens, there were a shit-ton of killer young UK metal bands in waiting that were paying attention.

“I look at the bands that are coming out of the UK right now, like Architects, Bring Me The Horizon and Bury Tomorrow, that are so amazing, and I think of our relationship with the UK,” Matt says. “To think that we played a part in inspiring those bands is really incredible. [The Ascendancy era] was a really important time for metal, and when I speak to people like Austin Dickinson from As Lions and he tells me he wanted to start a band because of seeing us at that time… it’s the most incredible feeling.”


4. Ghost – Square Hammer (2016)

Trying to pick just one Ghost track for any ‘greatest song’ list feels like a serious mission - in the decade-plus we’ve had them in our world, Tobias Forge’s spooky crew have quite literally made a career from crafting catchy-as-hell, deceptively subversive rock anthems. Even on the band’s ‘heaviest’ album to date - 2010’s Mercyful Fate-meets-Blue Öyster Cult debut, Opus Eponymous - there were rock club screamers-in-waiting in the form of tracks like Stand By Him and the immense Ritual

Ultimately, though, it was in the autumn of 2016 that Ghost would unveil their finest moment yet. Initially, the release from which it came seemed poised as little more than a fun stopgap EP. Titled Popestar, it featured a clutch of covers of surprising song choices including classics by 80s pop heroes Eurythmics and EDM-indie duo Simian Mobile Disco. Leading it, though, was a new composition, Square Hammer - a song with a riff so instantaneous, a hook so insanely catchy and a chorus so singable that it seized possession of any brain it entered and stayed there for the rest of the year. 

“The riff was the thing that originated the song,” Tobias told Loudwire in 2019. “Actually, I nicked it from one of my previous songs! The writing of the song went very quick after that.”

Even though it arrived halfway through the Meliora cycle, it reinvigorated Ghost’s setlist for the remainder of that tour, chiefly thanks to its capacity to be the perfect party-starter.

Square Hammer was definitely me thinking that we need a big opener,” Tobias added. “[We needed a] 2 Minutes To Midnight, a straight rocker. This was halfway through the Meliora cycle, and I just decided, ‘Well, I have this song, that is gonna be our new opener.’ It served as a really good opener, and now it serves as a really good closer!”

The track was a smash hit, eventually reaching the No.1 spot on the Billboard Mainstream Rock chart - the first song by a Swedish band to do so. A few months after its release, Square Hammer would also be used as the theme song for a major WWE show, NXT Takeover: San Antonio, even being used to soundtrack the ‘hype video’ for that pay-per-view’s headline match. It was yet more evidence that Ghost had not only perfected the formula of merging heavy metal evilness with irresistible pop hooks, but had started to properly infiltrate the mainstream.

The video for Square Hammer was another typical instance of evil-imagery-meets-daft-fun. Paying homage to iconic 1922 horror flick Nosferatu, it sees Papa Emeritus III (in ‘Dapper Papa’ mode) and the Ghouls watching a movie starring, er, Papa Emeritus III (in ‘Pope Papa’ mode). Soon, strange things are afoot, and a giant Papa is let loose upon an unsuspecting city. It remains Ghost’s most-watched video. The song that bore it remains their most streamed single. Hardly surprising: if you want the perfect example of how to craft a succinct, simple heavy metal instant classic, look no further than Square Hammer