10 amazing metal albums that were too ahead of their time

Album art by Black Sabbath, Cynic, At The Gates and Black Flag
(Image credit: Press)

Sometimes, an album comes along that etches its name in the history books immediately. These are the classics that were immediately embraced by fans and critics alike, like Metallica’s Black Album being the biggest album in the world practically immediately.

Other times, it takes considerably longer for the world to cotton on to an album’s brilliance. Whether it’s a lack of critical success at the time, flying under the radar or a band bowing out before their time, there’s a slew of records later reappraised to classics. We’ve assembled a list of 10 forward-thinking masterpieces that were ahead of their time on release. 

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Black Sabbath – Black Sabbath (1970)

Though it sounds outlandish to say it now, critics at the time hated Black Sabbath’s debut album, frequently lambasting it as a crappy knock-off of Cream. Naturally, they were wrong: this bluesy, acidic, occult game-changer is not just a historical artefact, but – with such songs as NIB, Black Sabbath and Evil Woman – still essential listening. No Sabbath, no metal. 

Motörhead – Motörhead (1977)

Motörhead was a mild critical success at best when it was released in 1977. Within a decade, countless bands were aping them. With the classic lineup of Lemmy, “Fast” Eddie Clark and Philthy Animal Taylor, Motörhead launched on an unsuspecting world to not much fanfare, but try going to any rock gig now without seeing iconic mascot Snaggletooth emblazoned somewhere. 

Black Flag – Damaged (1981)

In 1981, critics and future fans largely ignored Black Flag’s debut album. In spite of the apathy, the punks kept going, and eventually the world came around to them. Damaged is now widely regarded as one of the most influential hardcore albums ever made, combining the acidic bite of punk with identifiable songs that stood them apart from their peers. 

Cynic – Focus (1993)

Cynic were once one of the Florida death metal scene’s most promising bands. On their debut album Focus, they blended extremity with jazz and Paul Masvidal’s vocoder-processed voice to create an album worlds away from what was going on at the time. Nobody got it, and Cynic broke up the following year. Thankfully, it’s now regarded as a progressive masterpiece. 

At The Gates – Slaughter Of The Soul (1995)

Here’s another one for the “How could anyone hate this?” pile. Slaughter Of The Soul was unheralded back in 1995 and At The Gates broke up the following year, only reforming 11 years later to pick up where they left off. Slaughter… is today a watershed moment, though, redefining melodeath and being a huge influence on the American metalcore scene. 

In Flames – Lunar Strain (1994)

Lunar Strain is the only In Flames album not to feature Anders Fridén on vocals, instead done by then-session musician Mikael Stanne, and it incorporates folky elements that were largely abandoned on later releases. Still, it’s now seen as one of the key albums in what became melodeath, along with releases from Dark Tranquillity and, naturally, At The Gates.

Refused – The Shape Of Punk To Come (1998)

Calling your album The Shape Of Punk To Come is bold – to then be right about it is nothing but prophetic. Except, in 1998, nobody cared. Refused broke up months after its release, with the album flying under everyone’s radar at the time. Retrospectively, it’s become a classic and is widely cited as one of the most influential albums ever. 

Cave In – Until Your Heart Stops (1998)

Massachusetts’ Cave In have amassed a cult following through their inability to stick to one singular genre, and their debut album proved from the off that they couldn’t stand still. Despite being hailed as both a masterpiece and a preeminent text in progressive metalcore today, Until Your Heart Stops was largely overlooked in 1998. Even the band pooh-pooh it, for some reason.

Human Waste Project – E-lux (1997)

Thanks to singer Aimee Echo, Human Waste Project offered a rare female voice in the late-’90s nu metal scene, though they only ever released one album, 1997’s still-overlooked E-lux. It presented a melodic and intuitive perspective on its genre, but never caught on. Then, tired of the scene’s broadly macho behaviour, Human Waste Project broke up without ever getting their flowers.

Sadist – Above The Light (1993)

Although progressive death metal was starting to take off in the US, Europe wasn’t ready for it by 1993. This sadly meant that Sadist’s debut album, which ingeniously imbued extreme metal with the jangling prog of their native Italy, never got much fanfare. Nowadays, Above The Light is hailed as an unsung classic by those in the know – and rightfully so.

Will Marshall

Will's been a metal obsessive ever since hearing Trivium’s Ascendancy way back in 2005, and it's been downhill ever since. Since joining the Metal Hammer team in 2021, he’s penned features with the likes of rising stars Lake Malice, Scowl and Drain, and symphonic legends Epica. He’s also had bylines in Stereoboard, covering everything from Avenged Sevenfold to Charli XCX.