Top 10… Metal

I used to love sitting around, writing top ten lists – some serious, some spurious, all incredibly anal-retentive – and they often drew on my love of music, and of music’s history. You can’t write a top ten of anything and only look within one period (bar, of course, the top ten songs of the 90s etc). Bearing this in mind, I hereby kick off another occasional series of top tens with the following disclaimer: this is based on my listening, my magpie tendencies, and my eclectic yet fairly mainstream tastes. If you disagree, and I really hope you do, please let me know your additions, subtractions or downright astonishment at my lack of knowledge below the line. To note – this isn’t a ranking of #1-10 – it’s just 10 vitally important points in my metal journey.

  1. Motorhead – Ace of Spades – Ace of Spades – 1980 – this is the distillation of all that had gone before, from the possible start of metal way back in the 60s (I’ve heard all sorts of claims, from the Beatles’ ‘Helter Skelter’ to Steppenwolf) via the triumvirate of Zep-Sabbath-Purple and the new wave of Maiden and Priest and the influence of punk. Short, sharp, brutal, barely any blues, a dirty wicked solo and punishing drumming, this is breakneck killer proto-thrash. Shockingly not from Birmingham, this is London metal – stripped back, punkish and angry. From hereon in, there isn’t a metal song I can think of that doesn’t bear some debt to Lemmy – either apeing or consciously rejecting, this was the watershed moment.
  2. Iron Maiden – Fear of the Dark – Fear of the Dark/Rock in Rio – 1992/2002 – by the Nineties, Maiden were, essentially, irrelevant. Metallica and then Nirvana had seen to that – epically sprawling songs about some kind of Gothick Mythos or Coleridge, sung with an operatic scream and duelling lead guitars were shunned in favour of emotions and Americana and drug abuse (let’s face it, 70s British heavy metal was pretty much a boozy affair – main case for the defence, Bonzo Bonham). By the Nineties, Maiden were playing to their core audience – demented metalheads. Despite the claims that 1 billion people watched their concert in Rio on television, it’s a fact that 250,000 people showed up in 2002 for this gig. The recording of ‘Fear of the Dark’ shows just how important metal can be – a huge hook and riff chanted by a quarter of a million people on a beach in Brazil (how excessive, how NWOBHM), long and massive post-Blackmore solos, and Bruce Dickinson being all PT Barnum-esque, manipulating the crowd to worship at Eddie’s altar. It’s a hair-raising experience, and one that gets the old head-banging muscles working.
  3. Mastodon – Seabeast – Leviathan – 2004 – ah, Mastodon; some people absolutely hate them, as jazz drumming math-rock imposters into the world of METAL; others see them as the saviours of all that is METAL. I fall, as ever, in between the two camps. For me, their weird Southern inflections never quite work, and the sub-Ozzy singing never does as much for me as the dark and angry growling that you get in equal measure on this track. Leviathan is, without doubt, their best album – the power of Remission was harnessed to real ambition, before the concepts got too bonkers and then they gave up and made two albums that sounded like an angry Foo Fighters. Here, the White Whale of Melville’s masterpiece becomes the driving force behind some seriously powerful riff vehicles. Seabeast has, hands down, one of the best codas of a metal song. It starts with echoing arpeggios and builds into those woozy, almost sea-shanty-esque verses detailing some major plot points (where else in the entire history of music will you find Mr Queequeg in a lyric?), with some of the best examples of Brann Dailor’s bonkers jazz inflected drumming. Building in momentum through some almost-but-not-quite soloing, the song finally turns on a sixpence and explodes into some proper, old-school thrashing mayhem where all four Mastodons become one pounding locked-in metal groove machine. This is where the complexity of NWOBHM and the sheer awesome power of Lemmy find their newest expression.
  4. High on Fire – Mystery of Helm – Snakes for the Divine – 2010 – now, I know that Surrounded by Thieves is their great work; I love Blessed Black Wings; but the album that got me into HoF was the far more accessible Snakes for the Divine. I could go on about the genius of the title track’s brilliant riff, the way it goes on for 8 minutes but feels like 4, the brilliant solo &c, but really, this album belongs to the closing track. Mystery of Helm is based on the Lord of the Rings, but unlike Zeppelin, the ringwraiths will not ride in black but the entire army of evil will pummel you into submission before the brutality of Matt Pike’s almost cliched riff and solo, Jeff Matz’s ridiculously powerful bass and Des Kensel’s kit-shattering drumming. When this locks together into a powerful attack, I could be physically thrown backwards. Mastodon may have taken the Lemmification of metal and mated it with all sorts of wacky out-there time changes, but Pike took his battered copy of Ace of Spades, smoked a lot of weed, and then from the ashes of Sleep brought forth the ugly gnarled being that was HoF. Notable almost rans were Bastard Samurai, Thraft of Canaan, Silver Back and Hung, Drawn and Quatered.
  5. Metallica – Ride the Lightning – 1984 – you haven’t misread that, I haven’t left off a song title, or forgotten the album title – I’m placing the whole of Ride the Lightning down here at #5. The way this album was paced set the tone for the next two Metallica albums and, crucially, was the album that really broke them into the mainstream. Properly produced, fully free from Dave Mustaine’s take on thrash, and ready to get difficult, this isn’t for the faint-hearted. From biblical epics (Creeping Death), comments on the criminal justice system (Ride the Lightning), Lovecraftian instrumentals (the Call of Kthulu), suicidal thoughts (Fade to Black) or even the big hit, Ernest “Metal” Hemingway’s For Whom The Bell Tolls, this is perfectly paced and full of thrash classics. Clear as glass, this is Metallica discovering what they could do, and what they needed to refine on Master of Puppets. Who knew where they might have gone had Cliff Burton not tragically died? Would The Black Album even have happened? Would Metallica have gone the way of Iron Maiden? Who knows – but here, they were at their most innovative, and arguably, their best.
  6. Rage Against The Machine – Bombtrack – Rage Against The Machine – 1992 – when this blasted out ya speakers in 1992, this would have messed with so many heads. Metal had fused with rap before, most notably Run DMC hooking up with Aerosmith on Walk This Way, but this was so much more. As evinced by their covers album at the end of their career, RATM were informed equally by punk, rap, rock, pop and The Boss; encoded into their DNA is the inherent groove in a lot of good metal that fits perfectly with the older school of rapping. Zach de la Rocha will never out-rhyme Black Thought, but no band could say they wouldn’t relish having someone like Tom Morello on board – from the deceptively simple riffs, the mind-bending use of effects, and the serious chops that underpin that all, he also manages to have bucket-loads of groove. Bombtrack opens a seminal album, but also is probably the most conservatively ‘metal’ track here – it has riffs, a fairly conventional (for them) solo, and does what it says on the tin – explodes.
  7. System of a Down – Chop Suey – Toxicity – 2001 – this is not their best song (the album’s title track is so much better) but this was the song that broke them to the world, and if a 14 year old Jewish kid in a London suburb with only terrestrial TV and not many friends could hear this, then you’ve made it into the mainstream. This is absolutely bananas – Armenian aggro-nu-metal with sudden dynamic shifts and plaited beards, it caused a huge sensation. Like Rage, they are far more explicitly left wing than a lot of metal (conservatism seems to stalk the mainstream of the genre, and the more European you get, the more right-wing you often get – although spare a thought for the mad anarchists of some Norwegian black metal who thought burning churches was a good idea…) but unlike Rage, this isn’t hip-hop and righteous – it’s just crazy and weird and I love it.
  8. Black Sabbath – Paranoid – Paranoid – 1970/Led Zeppelin – Black Dog – Untitled – 1971/Deep Purple – Highway Star – Machine Head – 1972 – here are what I see as the three roots of metal, the powerful underpinnings of all that you hear in metal from 1973 onwards. Paranoid, the self-same album with Iron Man and others, was Sabbath’s first really metal statement. From the nurse in the US who died with it on her turntable, to all the ridiculous Satanist rubbish bandied around in response, this caused controversy; what’s more important than the mystical stylings are the title track’s frank confrontation of mental illness and sonically it’s prefiguring of everything that made Motorhead great. Fast-forward a year and the biggest band in the world, Led Zeppelin, were about to become even bigger because of that song. Yet, they were arguably never heavier than on the opening track of their untitled album (look at it properly – nowhere does it even say it’s a Led Zeppelin album on the LP cover or spine, just four symbols and a picture of an old man). Incidentally, this is also entitled after a colloquialism for mental illness – Chuchill, no less, coined the phrase Black Dog for his depression but this song is anything but. It’s bluesy, yes, almost rock and roll, but the guitars bite and the when you hear the live version on How The West Was Won, you wonder how audiences didn’t just start hitting each other. By 1972, there was a flowering of creativity in the land, and behold! a Purple patch (groan). Machine Head is the best album the best incarnation of Deep Purple recorded, and Highway Star is the purest expression of their style – driving riff, pointless lyrics delivered in a powerful high pitched wail, a precisely neo-classical guitar solo, complex skittering drums and a grandiose organ on top of it all. Sounds appalling, doesn’t it? Somehow, this works. Combine the three and what do you get? NWOBHM. Strip out the blooz and the booze, and what do you get? Thrash. Listen to all three albums back to back and what do you get? Neckache.
  9. Limp Bizkit – Break Stuff – Significant Other – 1999 – I hate this band now, but it represents what the late 90s and early 2000s were to metal – the dark days, commercially. You could have been the most impressive band in the world, but these Flordian fools made it to the top of the charts. Durst “rapped” in the same way that I can play guitar – far too badly to ever be heard in public. There’s a certain pavlovian response to be had to this sort of music, and I confess to owning more than one Linkin Park record – however, the growing success of bands like Mastodon and Coheed and Cambria in the following years showed how naked angst had been quietly moved aside and tricky time signatures were back in. Where are Korn now?
  10. Slayer – Angel of Death – Reign In Blood – 1986 – thrash taken to its logical conclusion. This isn’t the pure speed metal of, say, grindcore nutcases like Napalm Death, but uses the blastbeat, the microtone and the insanely fast riff to create a sonic nightmare to go along with the bravely controversial lyrics (in this case, about Josef Mengele). I don’t always feel comfortable listening to Slayer, but then considering what they are singing about, you’d have to be a Nazi to enjoy hearing this particular story. To be utterly clear, I do not think for one second that Slayer were ever or now subscribe to such doctrines – this is purely to shock and also, I hope, to inform. By the way, it marks Rick Rubin’s first really successful foray into metal, and the man really knew what he was doing. King and Hanneman absolutely nail the solos, but this really belongs, as so much metal often does, to the drummer – Dave Lombardo has a true solo in the middle of the song, and unlike any other drum solo outside of jazz, this is absolutely perfect.

There you have it – ten moments in metal that sum up the genre for me – now, over to you…

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