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The 50 best metal bands of all time

20. Lamb Of God

(Image credit: TRAVIS SHINN)

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. 

Watch: Lamb Of God - Redneck

19. Dream Theater

(Image credit: InsideOut Music)

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.

Watch: Dream Theater - Another Day

18. System Of A Down

System Of A Down in 2005

(Image credit: Paul Natkin)

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.

Watch: System Of A Down - Chop Suey!

17. Death

 Chuck Schuldiner of the band Death

(Image credit: Catherine McGann/Getty Images)

“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.

Watch: Death - The Philosopher

16. Motörhead

Motorhead in 1978

(Image credit: Estate Of Keith Morris/Getty Images)

In the beginning, there was a bassist thrown out of space rockers Hawkwind because he enjoyed too many trips into orbit. So the myth and legend of Ian ‘Lemmy’ Kilmister was born. And – as with Ozzy Osbourne a few years later, after he was ejected from Black Sabbath – many believed that Lemmy wouldn’t have much of a career away from the mothership. But they were wrong.

Motörhead were rock’n’roll, but like nothing anyone had heard before. By the time Lemmy was joined by guitarist ‘Fast’ Eddie Clarke and drummer Phil ‘Philthy’ Taylor, the trio were so high on speed (in more than one sense) that they left even the sharpest of the punks puking in their wake. They appealed to anyone who enjoyed hearing riffs being torn apart by a band who were thrash long before anyone had thought of that term in a musical aspect. Lemmy’s capacity for alcohol and drugs belied a brain that worked an articulate sensibility. But it was Motörhead’s appetite for ever more virulent, violent melodies lashed to a sarcastic humour that got them chart-topping albums and hit singles.

Clark left in 1982, and many will argue that the band never reached the same heights as that "classic trio" achieved. A revolving door of members saw turns from Thin Lizzy man Brian Robertson, ex-Saxon drummer Pete Gill and guitarist Wurzel before Lemmy settled on the "second classic" line-up of himself, Phil Campbell and Mikkey Dee, who too showed a certain degree of consistency in their later years. 

In 2015 it all came to an end when Lemmy passed away, but his legacy will live on through the music forever.

Watch: Motörhead - Ace Of Spades

15. Rammstein


(Image credit: Universal)

There isn't another story like Rammstein's. They're a band who grew up under a political regime where the most popular artists recorded for a state-owned record label. A band whose frontman represented East Germany as a swimmer, before going on to work as a peat cutter and a basket weaver. And a band whose live shows literally climax as that frontman rides a phallic cannon, pumping soapy discharge into sold-out stadiums.

With grinding, repetitive, deliciously childish riffs and singer Till Lindemann's unique bass voice, Rammstein have built a career that's high on fire and low on compromise. They've built the world's most spectacular stage show – a pyrotechnic circus of spectacular set pieces and mind-boggling ambition – and successfully taken it to countries where German isn't spoken. They've made a series of albums whose songs cover subjects like sadomasochism and necrophilia, but also environmental disaster and German patriotism.

25 years and only seven albums into their career, it's possible Rammstein are still getting better. 2019's untitled album went double-platinum in Germany and prompted their biggest shows yet, while high-budget videos for Deutschland, Radio and Ausländer created as much confusion and they did controversy. A quarter of a century in, Rammstein are still a baffling, monstrous, flame-ridden work of art. 

Watch: Rammstein - Du Hast

14. Burgerkill

Burgerkill at the 2013 Golden Globes

(Image credit: Future)

It's quite possible that Burgerkill's impressive placing on this list will be a surprise to a few of you, but it really shouldn't be. Since the Indonesian metallers formed in the religiously conservative suburb of Ujung Berung in Bandung 25 years ago, the band have developed a huge homegrown following. 

That following went global when the band picked up a Metal As Fuck Golden Globe award in 2013 and started picking up festival bookings across Europe in 2015. Since then, they've become a legitimate cult concern. 

Veterans of a community that’s survived against the odds, Burgerkill have become a talisman for not just Indonesia, but the world’s entire heavy music scene, representing the hard slog needed to spread the word on a global scale. The band began as the aspirant brainchild of guitarist and founder Ebenz, who has led them through two decades and counting amid social circumstances that would surely have put an end to any equivalent enterprise here in the pampered West.

From the untimely death of original frontman Ivan Scumbag in 2006 – days after the release of their third album, Beyond Coma And Despair – to dealing with cancelled gigs and threats of censure by radical Islamists and an often unsympathetic police force, this band have hardly had it easy. But never underestimate the inspirational power of heavy music: if you've slept on this band, it's time to wake up and take notice.

Watch: Burgerkill - Under The Scars

13. Megadeth

(Image credit: Jeremy Saffer)

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.

Watch: Megadeth - Holy Wars...The Punishment Due

12. Opeth


(Image credit: Nuclear Blast)

Emerging from the brutally exuberant Stockholm death metal scene of the early 90s, Opeth stood apart from the start. While their peers were inspired by Morbid Angel and Death, singer/guitarist Mikael Åkerfeldt’s crew had clearly been listening to old prog records from the 70s. 

Their naïve but fervently exploratory debut album, Orchid, released in 1995, was a revelation for open-minded death metal fans, but even the band’s most devoted admirers won’t have anticipated the extraordinary musical journey that Opeth have taken over the past 25 years. 

After a steady stream of critically acclaimed albums that thrilled the metal underground, Opeth’s first major breakthrough came with 2001’s Blackwater Park: a majestic new blueprint for progressive metal, still emitting echoes of Opeth’s extreme metal hinterland but melodic to its expansive core. 

At this stage, Opeth’s appeal lies as much in their versatility as in their adherence to a particular sound. From the acoustic elegance of 2004’s Damnation and the multi-faceted, Beatles-saluting sprawl of 2005’s Ghost Reveries, to the dark, dissonant churn of 2008’s Watershed, the Swedes refused to repeat themselves. As demonstrated on newest album In Cauda Venenum, the current line-up of Åkerfeldt, guitarist Fredrik Åkesson, bassist Martín Méndez, drummer Martin Axenrot and keyboard player Joakim Svalberg have gelled magnificently. 

No longer tethered to a metal scene that was never quite prepared to embrace Opeth’s weirder indulgences, they are proof that music can be adventurous and successful. 

Watch: Opeth - Sorceress 

11. Tool

Tool press shot

(Image credit: Travis Shinn)

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.

Watch: Tool - Fear Inoculum