The 20 greatest American metal bands ever

10. Lamb Of God

In the aftermath of the nu metal scene, metal seemed to be looking around at what would be next and at where metal would go. But no one was looking at a bunch of death metal and hardcore punk fans from Richmond, Virginia playing a savage breed of technical thrash and juddering groove metal as the future. In many ways, the success of Lamb Of God is as surprising as it is deserved. 

It’s hard to point at too many bands from the 21st century who have been as consistently sublime as LOG have been in that time. From the extreme chaotic noise of debut New American Gospel, via the Iraq war-baiting As The Palaces Burn, the hook filled Sacrament and the brutish Wrath, all the way through to where Lamb Of God currently sit, that they've become one of modern metal’s most trustworthy and beloved bands is some achievement. 

Then there's frontman Randy Blythe, who won over everyone with his bravery and his articulate, sensitive and powerful response to the tragic death of Lamb Of God fan Daniel Nosek at a gig in the Czech Republic in 2012. Randy travelled back to face manslaughter charges in 2013, and, after being acquitted, made a direct point of paying tribute to Nosek. Rather than bemoaning his treatment he showed great humility in the process. A class act fronting a world class band. 

9. Dream Theater

For the average rock band, indulgence is something to guard against at all times. But then Dream Theater are far from your average rock band, in any sense of the term. For this US-Canadian five-piece, extravagance and excess are positive watchwords.

Nearly 35 years after they formed, Dream Theater still have the capacity to surprise. And certainly surprising was the departure of drummer Mike Portnoy in September 2010. Even more unexpected was the fact that, post-Portnoy, Dream Theater have flourished. The wryly-titled A Dramatic Turn Of Events, their first album with replacement Mike Mangini, earned them their first Grammy nomination. More recently, 2016’s The Astonishing was the biggest, boldest thing they’d ever created – no small feat. 2019's Distance Over Time ably followed suit. 

With those tumultuous events behind them, the ship is steadier than ever. While the acrimony between Portnoy and his former colleagues has largely abated, the band continue to move forward. These days Dream Theater aren’t just the biggest prog-metal band around, they’re also the living, breathing manifestation of the genre’s boundaries.

8. System Of A Down

Even alongside the gang of misfits that came of age in the unruly era of nu metal, System Of A Down always stood out from their peers.

Indeed, their eccentric mix of prog, thrash, hardcore, funk, rap and Middle Eastern music took the best elements of the sub-genre – angular riffs, odd time signatures and manic vocals – and twisted them into something even more strange and compelling.

Much like Faith No More before them, the Californian alt-metal crew would go on to infiltrate the mainstream and achieve multi-platinum success, and the five albums they released between 1998 and 2005 remain some of the most groundbreaking records in modern metal. To put it into perspective, System’s Chop Suey! video has notched up close to a billion views on YouTube, despite having been released before YouTube even existed. That same track has also received more than twice as many streams on Spotify than any Slipknot song.

Like many of their peers on this list, there have been spats, disagreements and conflicting statements from SOAD's members about new material since they last released music in 2005. While various members have expressed their desire to get back in the studio, for now the hiatus looks set to continue. But if Guns N' Roses managed it after 15 years out, anything's possible.

7. Death

“Death were so far ahead of the curve that other people were playing catch-up,” says Trivium vocalist Matt Heafy. “Chuck [Schuldiner] was so ahead of his time that it became a hindrance. If Death were still around, they’d be massive.”

Formed by the late, great Chuck Schuldiner in 1983, Florida metallers Death pushed thrash to its extreme. Chuck’s guttural vocals and complex guitar riffs, alongside debut album Scream Bloody Gore's insanely fast drumming, took metal to a whole new level of heavy and helped pioneer a new genre: death metal.

Chuck was never one to rest on his laurels, experimenting further into the realms of progressive metal and melodeath. With fourth album Human, Chuck enlisted Cynic’s Sean Reinert and Paul Masvidal to help him evolve the very genre he'd given rise to, driving his virtuoso skills to the limit, while moving away from gore-based lyrics and delving deep into the psyche. The result? One of the earliest examples of technical death metal. 

Against hard drugs and the showy rock star life of excess, in a cruel turn of events, Chuck’s life was cut short when he was diagnosed with a brain tumour on his 32nd birthday. On December 13 2001, Chuck passed away age 34. Two decades later, Death remains his legacy, a timeless reminder of Chuck’s unparalleled ingenuity.

6. Megadeth

Such is the breadth of his career and back catalogue, there is a compelling argument to be made that Dave Mustaine is the single most influential individual in modern metal. 

The teenage tearaway that was so integral to that early incarnation of Metallica (and who wrote the riff to The Four Horsemen as you will doubtless be aware) has turned his frustration at being kicked out of the biggest metal band of all time into a stunning career that should not be underplayed by anyone. 

Megadeth have had a uniquely brilliant career, taking thrash metal and making it angrier, snottier, more technical and more focused. They have been an influence on any band that wanted to take metal to its most rhythmically challenging areas, sold millions of records in the process, released genuine classic metal albums such as 1986’s Peace Sells... But Who’s Buying? and career high point Rust In Peace in 1990. 

It’s not all been great; 1999’s Risk remains a confusing mis-step. But the fact that Mustaine has overcome not one, but two, potentially career threatening incidents – namely the radial neuropathy that left his arm paralysed in 2002 and the throat cancer that he has just overcome recently – is proof of the iron will the man possesses. The ultimate underdog success story.

5. Tool

Cult-like devotion surrounds Tool. It’s insulated them from a fluctuating music industry and allowed them to retain complete creative control over their unique, progressive metal output.

Formed by talismanic frontman Maynard James Keenan in LA, they landed a record deal after only seven shows, and released 1992’s Opiate EP and 1993 debut album Undertow in quick succession, followed by 1996’s triple-platinum Aenima. Their musicianship was impressive from the off, with Danny Carey’s intricate drumming underpinning hefty riffs and angry vocals. As the music evolved through more nuanced peaks and troughs, so too did Maynard’s tone and lyrics, covering everything from the Fibonacci sequence (Lateralus, 2001) to his mother’s death (10,000 Days, 2006).

Then there are the legendary visuals; the harrowing, stop-motion Prison Sex video received a nomination at 1994’s MTV Awards. When they released Fear Inoculum in 2019 after a 13-year album hiatus, the only physical copy available was a CD package with an HD screen that showed a video based on the artwork of longtime collaborator Alex Grey. 

That return also saw them knock Taylor Swift off the US charts. And what a return it was – all precise polyrhythms, elegant restraint, and slow-building atmospherics. It’s easy to see why their followers remain in thrall.

4. Slayer

Taking their cues from NWOBHM – in particular the satanic stylings of Venom and the studded jackets of Judas Priest – and the punk rock energy of the Dead Kennedys and Black Flag, Slayer pushed thrash into a deeper, darker territory than any of their Big Four brothers. 

Kerry King, Jeff Hanneman, Dave Lombardo and Tom Araya have battled bans, lawsuits and criticism galore thanks to the taboo subjects – such as satanism, nazism, murder, torture, racism and war – approached in the band’s lyrics and artwork. Slayer’s third album, 1986’s Reign In Blood saw the band reach a mainstream audience and had an unprecedented impact on heavy music as we knew it. Its graphic, violent lyrics, down-tuned rhythms and rapid fire riffage had a direct influence on emerging thrash bands and one particular sub-genre in its infancy at the time: death metal.

Slayer have toured relentlessly since the 1980s, being one of the mainstays of global festival circuits, and bring their devilish rain of metaphorical blood to every continent, even after the death of founding member and songwriter Jeff Hanneman in 2013. 

In 2019, after almost 40 years of blood, guts and glory, Slayer finally called it quits, much to the dismay of metalheads worldwide. But their hard-hitting, incendiary thrash metal continues to rip hard and fast through their countless extreme metal disciples.

3. Pantera

The old adage is that the 90s was a bad time for metal. It patently wasn’t, but even those who do subscribe to that view tend to throw in the added clarification “apart from Pantera”. 

Much has been written about the Texan groove metallers' journey: from the early glam years, which gave way to the brutally hostile yet undeniably catchy glory years that saw them carry the torch for metal and score a Billboard number one album, to the drug-addled and bitter break up, the tragic murder of guitar genius Dimebag Darrell and the racist posturing that drove Phil Anselmo's fall from grace.

Because of this, it’s easy to often just trot out well-worn cliches and take for granted how incredible a band Pantera actually were. But they were. Listen today and it’s hard to imagine how a band with four such clear, distinct and disparate personalities were able to come together to make such a cohesive noise. 

Their back catalogue is incredible. Cowboys From Hell’s blueprint for the future, Vulgar Display Of Power’s perfecting of that style, Far Beyond Driven’s beautifully bizarre and deliberate commercial suicide, The Great Southern Trendkill’s wild, nearly extreme metal sonic boom and Reinventing The Steel’s old school homage to heavy metal legend. Not a duff moment in sight, but the real legend of Pantera is the jaw dropping live shows and the sense of community they fostered in the metal scene, keeping metal true, real and relevant during the genres most testing of times. What a shame, then, that their legacy ended in the way it did. 

2. Slipknot

If there has been one band in the 21st century that has grabbed the baton created by Black Sabbath and ran with by the likes of Metallica and Iron Maiden, then that band is surely Slipknot

In 2020 they are very much part of heavy metal folklore; a huge, stadium and festival headlining behemoth with a set chocked full of undisputed anthems. If you’d have told the nine unhinged Iowan weirdos that stared back at you from the cover of their groundbreaking self-titled album in 1999 that this was going to be the case, the chances are neither they – nor anybody else – would have believed you. 

Slipknot were created to self-destruct. They were a seething, frothing, uncontainable ball of pent up aggression and spite let loose on the world. The look of the masks and boiler suits, not to mention the stories of ritualistic face punching and backstage vomiting and pre-show, were enough to grab everyone’s attention. Their music was what kept it. The debut album ripped a hole in the by now artistically moribund nu-metal scene, showing every other band up as irrelevant. They followed it with a UK number one record in 2001's IOWA, which made good on everything from their debut but ramped up the heaviness and the unchecked nihilism. 

At this point you’d have every right to expect that the Slipknot story could do no more than fizzle out. The reality was far from it. Four more records have followed, each of which have added a new element and a new exploration of sound to the band's canon. They have overcome the tragedy of losing bassist Paul Gray, who wrote so much of their best material, and parting ways with iconic drummer Joey Jordison.

Still the Slipknot juggernaut continues to move. After scoring another number one album, this time on both sides of the Atlantic, with 2019’s We Are Not Your Kind they are arguably bigger than ever. 

1. Metallica

Say the words ‘heavy metal’ to anyone in the world, no matter their age, location or musical taste, and the first band to come from the majority of people’s mouths would be Metallica. The San Franciscan quartet are a year away from celebrating their 40th anniversary as a band, and the fact that they do so as the biggest metal band of all time – and with no one looking even remotely, vaguely close to troubling that fact – says it all. 

Metallica are icons. Gods. Whatever hyperbole you wish to insert here, the shoe fits. An omnipresent, monolithic presence on the metal scene, it’s often worth reminding yourself exactly why this has happened to Metallica, rather than the temptation, when discussing their unwieldy career, to focus on their various missteps. 

Metallica changed the face of heavy metal in the early 80s. Essentially the first thrash metal band – and, okay, if not the first, then certainly the one that perfected the style the quickest – they oversaw a sea change from what metal was thought as, and where people thought it came from. Pre-Metallica metal was bombast from Britain. Metallica turned it into brutality from the USA. 

They ushered in an era in which we still reside, where metal is predominately thought of as an American genre. They took the speed and technicality of NWOBHM and injected it with US hardcore’s fury, but remembered to keep its classical roots as well. From thrash, death metal, grindcore, black metal and every other extreme metal genre was spawned. Could it have happened without Kill ‘Em All in 1983? Would metal bands have been so daring, so progressive and so sonically rich, whilst still remaining heavy without Master Of Puppets in 1986? Would metal ever have managed to find a place on MTV and rock radio without the pitch black, hard rock blueprint of 1991’s The Black Album

It’s hard to say. What certainly is true is that Metallica, at the very least, sped that process up. Most likely, they were the act that bashed all of those doors down for everyone else. Endless fantastic bands have rushed through those doors ever since, but still we go back to Metallica. Still we flock to stadiums every other year to hear those classic songs. No matter what motormouth drummer Lars Ulrich has recently said to piss, you still stick on Ride The Lightning and bang your head. 

When you remember how disastrous Lulu, their 2011 collaboration with Lou Reed, was, you watch the video for One and forgive them everything. For most bands, a failed Grammy performance with Lady Gaga, a box office flop of a movie, a battle with their own fans over illegal downloading, the sound of that fucking snare on St Anger would be enough to kill their career stone dead. 

That is the power of Metallica, and that is why they are still the biggest heavy metal band of all time. Even when they get it wrong, you forgive them, because when they get it right, they get it more right than metal has ever been. 

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