Shooting to internet fame with their video for Gimme Chocolate, Babymetal divided the metal scene. Wearing black-and-red tutus, the cutesy Su-metal, Moametal and Yuimetal twirled and sang their way through catchy songs backed by the anonymous but technically impressive Kami Band. To some, they were a Japanese idol band co-opting metal’s tropes in a cynical cash grab. To others, they were a bona fide addition to metal’s creative canon.
The waters were soon tested when they made their live UK debut at Sonisphere 2014, drawing massive crowds. A Star Wars-style intro video explained they were governed by a mysterious overlord: the Fox God. In fact, the mastermind behind the band was Kobametal – a metal enthusiast who worked in media promotions, and never missed the opportunity for the girls to snap selfies with metal royalty like Metallica.
The following year, Metal Hammer shadowed them for a weekend as they played a secret set at Download with Dragonforce, followed by a repeat performance at the Golden God awards. The mania, even backstage, was Kardashian level.
There was a triumphant Wembley Arena show in support of 2016’s Metal Resistance, and they exploded back home, playing venues such as the legendary, 55,000-capacity Tokyo Dome. They even starred in a comicbook.
But in 2018, Babymetal hit a bump: the departure of much-loved member Yuimetal. They continued with a stand-in dancer chosen from a revolving team of ‘Avengers’, released the global-metal-influenced Metal Galaxy, and are playing their first headline tours, establishing themselves as a long-term prospect. Rest assured, the Fox God knows exactly what he’s doing.
9. Judas Priest
Arguably the greatest, purest, most important metal band ever, the Judas Priest story begins in a world where man has only just walked on the moon, Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin are storming the Woodstock Festival, and the highest-grossing film at the UK box office is Carry On Camping. Meanwhile, from the back-street jam-rooms of West Bromwich in Britain’s industrial Black Country, something heavy is stirring.
Sure, Black Sabbath came first. Iron Maiden and Metallica are bigger. But if there is one band, above all others, that defines the sound and aesthetic of heavy metal, it is Judas Priest. “Metal is a very special kind of music,” says the band’s singer Rob Halford. And what this band has represented, for 50 years, is metal in its purest form: the screaming lead vocals, the duelling guitarists, the bludgeoning riffs, the leather and studs, the songs about death and destruction and motorcycles and, yes, heavy metal itself.
The nascent Priest recorded their debut album, Rocka Rolla, in 1974, but it was two years later, with Sad Wings Of Destiny, that the band found their signature sound. In the 1980s Priest became one of the biggest metal bands in the world, with hit albums including British Steel and Screaming For Vengeance, their singular vision and missionary zeal proclaimed in the title of 1984 album Defenders Of The Faith. In the 90s there were darker days: first, when a lawsuit was filed against the band following the deaths of two young fans from Nevada in a suicide pact allegedly inspired by Priest’s music; then when Halford quit to form a new band, Fight, and was replaced by Ohio-born singer Tim ‘Ripper’ Owens, poached from a Priest tribute act.
But in 2003 Halford returned to his rightful place as Priest’s master of ceremonies. And although Downing retired from the band in 2011, they've continued with Londoner Richie Faulkner as Tipton’s foil.
Priest are not just any heavy metal band, they’re the most ‘heavy metal’ heavy metal band of them all.
Watch: Judas Priest - Painkiller
Rural France, perhaps unsurprisingly, had never produced a metal band of any note during metal’s first three decades. So, that an underground death metal band from the French city of Bayonne, in the country's South West region – a place more famous for being the birthplace of World Cup winning captain Didier Deschamps than anything musical – should rise to a place where they're legitimately spoken about as potential future festival headliners seems somewhat surprising.
But it’s very much the situation we find ourselves in when considering Gojira. The band have taken their extreme metal roots and twisted them into a series of different sonic shapes over the last fifteen years. The Duplantier brothers, vocalist/guitarist Joe and drummer Mario, are responsible for an almost telepathic connection, where brutal riffs and oceanic rhythms cascade together in the most dizzying way.
2005’s breakthrough album From Mars To Sirius was a tsunami of huge riffs and destruction, all influenced through the prism of a group concerned by humanity's loss of connection to nature and the environment, but subsequent releases have broadened out the scope and vision of what Gojira are. The culmination of that progression was 2016’s staggering, personal and poignant Magma, which added more melody, intricacy and immediacy to their already bludgeoning attack.
A true one off in sound, worldview and cultural touchpoints, Gojira have been fighting against stagnancy in the metal world almost single-handedly for nearly two decades. The upward curve shows no signs of stopping.
Watch: Gojira - Stranded
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.
Watch: Slayer - Raining Blood
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 in the process, to the drug-addled and bitter break up, and the tragic murder of guitar genius Dimebag Darrell in its aftermath.
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.
Watch: Pantera - Walk
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.
Watch: Slipknot - Duality
It's October 1978. AC/DC's Powerage tour finds its way to the University of Essex in Colchester, and The BBC sends its cameras along to capture the show for its Rock Goes To College series. Joining the set during a frantic Live Wire, the first thing the viewer sees is 23-year-old guitarist Angus Young, that curious, leg-pumping, head-jerking, peacock shuffle already in place. He's wearing the familiar school uniform and satchel.
More than 40 years on, there's rumours of a new AC/DC album. Angus Young is 64, and despite tragedy carving a steady course through the band over the years – losing Bon Scott and Malcolm Young would be more than enough for most – you know that the album will almost certainly be business as usual.
When the group formed in the Sydney suburb of Burwood in 1973, progressive rock was the career of choice for the serious guitarist, but AC/DC's approach was considerably more lo-brow; a wilfully juvenile world where boys were forever 15 and girls only existed between the pages of well-thumbed adult magazines. Since then, they've resolutely ploughed the same furrow, untouched by punk and everything that's followed, never leaving the bubble that might expose them to other influences and leave them open to alternative ways of plying their trade. And yet, somehow, they've become one of the best-selling acts in the world.
AC/DC are not a metal band and have never claimed to be. They're rock'n'roll, pure and simple. But to not feature them in this list would seem perverse, if not stupid. For they're the band who invented many of the tropes the metal has embraced. Picture a stage. There's a wall of Marshalls, with a guitarist chopping out rock-hard riffs that prompt an entire room to bounce. That's metal, sure. But it's also AC/DC.
Watch: AC/DC - Thunderstruck
3. Black Sabbath
Is there a band more influential in our universe than Black Sabbath? Widely credited as the originators of heavy metal, there’s no doubting their impact on heavy music.
“Black Sabbath are the forefathers of heavy metal,” said producer Rick Rubin in 2013. “They may well be the heaviest band of all time. And I don’t know of a more influential band other than The Beatles.” Sure, they might not be quite the heaviest band of all time, there is no denying their importance.
The story began in 1968, in the bleak, post-industrial landscape of Aston, Birmingham, where four local musicians, unbeknownst to them, were about to change the course of music history forever. In the early days, they considered themselves an underground “blues-rock” band. In fact, they have never necessarily accepted the 'metal' tag, but their signature riff-laden songwriting approach, ear-splitting volume and occult subject matter birthed something new nonetheless.
One day in 1969, after Geezer Butler approached the members with a ghostly idea drawn from his dabblings in horror films, novels and the black arts, the group threw lyrics, devil’s intervals and chilling atmospheres into a great big musical cauldron. The result was an eerie track called Black Sabbath – named after the 1963 eponymous horror film. Realising that they had stumbled onto something uniquely powerful and terrifying, they shifted their sound and their name to reflect their new sound.
In a career spanning over half a century, much of Sabbath’s remarkable reputation was built upon their first six studio albums. Many will still argue that this is the only period worth taking notice of when listening to the band.
Everything else, some argue, is something of a mixed bag. Lineup changes, the brief departure of Ozzy Osbourne, to be replaced by Ronnie James Dio until 1979, and an upswing in musical experimentation came together to muddy the waters at points during their career. But every album has been shaped by the work of guitarist Tony Iommi, the band’s one and only constant.
Perhaps it was the apparition that visited Butler one night in ‘69, or the misery built into the brickwork of Birmingham, but what we do know is that Black Sabbath remain to this day one of the most influential bands in contemporary music. The act to which we owe so much of our scene, Sabbath are more than deserving of the legacy they will leave behind.
Watch: Black Sabbath - Paranoid
2. Iron Maiden
Take a stroll down the pedestrianised shopping centre of any English town and, among the proliferation of Burberry, faceless shops and dog eggs, you’ll find a number of youngsters sporting Iron Maiden togs.
In fact, the face of Eddie – the band’s illustrated mascot – seems to become more widespread with every passing year. Maiden’s renaissance from NWOBHM mainstays to modern metal heroes is complete.
Spooling back the best part of three decades, the concept of what would become one of the biggest bands ever was born from the ashes of just one of many also-rans that litter rock’s highway. The band was Gypsy’s Kiss and their bassist had just left in order to write his own songs. His name was Steve Harris and, as current drummer Nicko McBrain succinctly states on the 2004 Early Days DVD release: “It’s his dream and we’re all living it with him”.
From the kinetic 1980 debut onwards, Maiden’s inexorable climb to the very top was, from a outsider’s view at least, totally predictable. Fans who’d see the band maybe three times every year wouldn’t really perceive that they were ever off the road – and when they were, they were recording. For any artist, regardless of medium, to produce a genuine classic each year for a decade, as Maiden did during the 80s, beggars belief. And it was no coincidence that, once guitarist Adrian Smith and, even worse, vocalist Bruce Dickinson had jumped ship, things were going to change.
With new guitarist Janick Gers and the likeable but ultimately hapless Blaze Bayley
at the mic, Maiden were reduced from a great band to merely a good one, yet they still didn’t stop. Of course, with Dickinson and Smith back in the fold and Brave New World selling like cold beer on a hot day, it was business as usual: the magic had been reinstated.
In any list of metal’s greatest hits, Iron Maiden will appear on a regular basis and, unlike the majority of their contemporaries, they are still operating at a huge level, selling out enormo-gigs in a matter of hours and nabbing headline spots at the world's biggest rock festivals.
As the aforementioned abundance of Maiden hoodies illustrates, they’re bigger than ever. If a band continues to build on a base of solid gold, not even the sky is the limit.
Watch: Iron Maiden - The Wicker Man
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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