From Black Sabbath to Pig Destroyer: our guide to the best Metal
How about that \m/, huh?
Most of us here at Norman just pretend we’re into metal so that we can wear longsleeves with indecipherable fonts. The truth, though, is that if you asked us to pinpoint our hallmarks of metal we’d all shoot off in different directions, in turns describing the genre’s heavy old-school, or its stoner jams, or that good grindcore blastbeat content. Some of us will even swear by tech death; that’s how lost we are.
Our foray into rock ‘n’ roll’s most extreme derivation has proved the genre can be both super goofy and real intense. Between the silly riffs, the super-fast thrash and the transgressive themes we’ve got some serious metal masterpieces to contend with. In the past couple of years we’ve seen bands like Bell Witch take the template laid out by the first doom metal bands and turn it into high-concept art. We’ve seen bands like Deafheaven popularise the fiercely guarded and thornily secretive world of black metal. And we’ve all reminded ourselves that Deftones ruled. It’s okay: we’re all friends here.
It’s nearly impossible to sum up a genre with more sub-genres than there are problems with Lars Ulrich, so we’re gonna lay down the bare essentials and hope you agree with us. Or you can call us names, if you want. Just don’t talk to us about Dream Theater. Please.
Best metal bands
Thrash badboys Slayer stand for the two things you probably associate metal with most: death and satanism.
If naming a record South of Heaven wasn’t too on the nose for you, how does Reign in Blood sound? With their unapologetically raw and gleefully fast approach to making records, they seemed to design a template for thrash metal, contributing the darkest and dirtiest corner of a genre that counts Megadeth and Anthrax amongst its ranks. Phew.
The extremity of Slayer’s sound has been celebrated and blamed for the rise of death metal, and rightly so: few metal bands made music quite so claustrophobic and cacophonous. Maybe this is what hell actually does sound like?
Sleep made one of doom metal’s most epic records -- from the sofa, with a bong.
Stoners ‘til their final day on this cursed earth, the San Jose group made the sixty-minute tune Dopesmoker entirely out of riffs, creating a dirged-up environment for their aphoristic, sermonising guitars to preach from. It’s about weed, of course; what else? From the day they came into this world they’ve been advancing the hazy, high blueprint of doom metal, whether through plagiarizing artwork from Black Sabbath or naming tunes "Marijuanaut's Theme".
Slow and heavy, but mostly totally out of it, they describe their process of making music as “riff immersion”, collecting the ones that sound sick and coming back when they’re ready, as they did after fifteen years with The Sciences. God bless and god blaze.
Also known as ‘Tallica, Lou Reed’s Metallica and Napster United, Metallica are perhaps heavy metal’s most legendary name.
Figureheads and multi-multi-multi-millionaires, they achieved the kind of crossover appeal most could only dream of. Led by James Hetfield and Lars Ulrich, they ripped through three classics of ‘80s metal in Kill ‘Em All, Ride the Lightning and Master of Puppets, honing the coveted guitar solo via enthusiastic guitarist Kirk Hammett.
Yup, Metallica once made the sheer force and speed thrash metal seem like the most universal thing out there. As time’s gone on the quality has declined, but we still heartily recommend watching Some Kind of Monster, a documentary that details the band recording the woeful and hilarious St. Anger -- a low point in cultural experience, it at least led to them hiring Robert Trujillo and letting go of themselves, as they would go on to record the bizarre Lulu with Velvets icon Lou Reed.
A band that grew from their late ‘80s babysteps into one of metal’s greatest legacy acts, Cathedral more or less galvanised the doom metal we know and love today.
Goofy and self-serious in one riff, their slow doom opus Forest of Equilibrium is only one of their many shadow shades. Cathedral kept looking out their stained glass windows, choosing to incorporate metal taboos such as disco alongside their progressive and psychedelic fancies.
Through these myriad misdirections Cathedral became a heavy metal band in a different way -- anticipating them was impossible, and for a doom metal band, that’s quite the feat.
Everyone can party with Melvins. Their mix of overgrown hair metal, old soul blues, dissonant noise rock and tasteless stoner groove has proved them one of our most beloved slow jammers, whether you’re a ‘head or not.
You might already know the basics: Kurt Cobain was a fan of their quixotic approach to metal, and the genre-hopping Boris named themselves after one of their tunes. Melvins let their chugging, churning chords, stuck-in-the-mud drums and brooding vocals speak for themselves, their records named things like Stag and Bullhead and Houdini so you didn’t have to think too much about the hole you were crawling into.
But hidden in their dense, inescapable sound is a total rewriting of the rock ‘n’ roll textbook, their songs languishing a little longer and breaking on purpose.
To newcomers, they are the genre’s door in, their riffs all things callous, uncaring and… catchy? And how! Their opus is Phantom Limb and it stands as a masterclass in turning an otherwise silly and irreverent genre into something stoic; through fifteen belligerent tunes of blastbeats and breakdowns they gave the genre its own mythos.
While continuing to galvanise grindcore with their own special brand of filth, they’ve also become masters of drone metal, releasing thirty-minute sludge-fests in which the chords come thick and not at all fast. Raise a goblet to them, but drink it like it’s a shot.
Neurosis started out as a crust punk band, and an impatient one at that: they wanted to get you to the noise and get you there fast.
It was only a matter of time ‘til they’d venture out of the filth, bringing in synths and samplers to become avant-noise botherers. And then they started to cross over: the thrash flowed, the sludge stagnated, and Souls at Zero was born, a record attempting to imbibe as many variants of metal as possible and coming out the other end as a cult classic.
With their industrial aesthetics, their post-metal dynamics and their reach-for-the-stars progressive attitude, Neurosis have become a guiding influence on bands like ISIS and Russian Circles, offering a kind of omniscient and aspirational version of metal that isn’t all about wallowing in the dirt. Records through the nineties and noughties became marked by a post-hardcore influence and gave up production duties to Steve Albini, regaining the crisp and charred edges of their early days.
They’re somehow still experimenting to this day, considering the wealth of riches to be had in doom and folk metal. Unstoppable heavy nerds, this lot.
I’m finding it hard to process the fact that Converge have been around 28 years. Firstly, that means the band are three years older than me, and secondly it means their seismic brand of metalcore has been around for nigh on three decades.
Mad, really: they sound so fresh, so of the now, their super-fast sensory assaults only feeling more vital as time passes us by. Jacob Bannon and Kurt Ballou have created some of metal’s most iconic moments in Jane Doe alone, a record whose snarling broth of thrash and punk scared me off for years. Their sound has only gotten more expansive, taking on sludgy disquiet in You Fail Me, grindcore influence in Axe to Fall and the old-school of death metal in All We Love We Leave Behind.
Long may they give me the fear; here’s to another twenty eight years of it.
Honestly, you listen to “Blood and Thunder” and you know: Mastodon slay.
They are lightning hitting with precision. The whole of Leviathan may well be the catchiest, most rip-roaring metal record of our modern era, the Atlantan band pitching the perfect middle-ground between heaviness and hooks.
Since making their classic, Mastodon have been, well, tinkering, changing up how they want metal to both look and sound; The Hunter favoured no frills harshness overall, while Once More ‘Round the Sun was metal as seen through a psychedelic tint. Their most recent record, Emperor of Sand, is an all-out progressive romp, a record so exhilarating it suggested Mastodon get born again every time they release an album.
The dark world of black metal counts Darkthrone chief among its canon.
With Nocturno Culto and the now-politician Fenriz at its core, the band made some of the most gruesome, lo-fi records available to the public, offering up their oscillating riffs and unstoppable blastbeats for the repulsion of all.
Black metal doesn’t want to let you in; records like A Blaze in the Northern Sky and Under a Funeral Moon stand as the highest proof of that. The pure speed and structural homogeneity of these records is typical of the early Norwegian metal scene, but look deeper and you could see Darkthrone were into all sorts: their debut, Soulside Journey, was rich in death metal influence, offering a little experimental ripple in the history of a band who have been steadfast in their dedication to making nearly-indecipherable black metal opuses.
We’re not really sure we need to tell you what’s what about Black Sabbath.
I’m sure you already know about Ozzy Osborne’s legendary rock band, but if not: they’re the reason metal exists. Their early, rifftastic classics Paranoid and Master of Reality gave the next generation of slugelords something to look up to -- enough kids of metal have gone on to make records that homage (or just plain rip off) this mix of tasty riffs, howling-at-the-moon singing and precise drum slumber.
Look, we were all kids once. Nu-metal was our jam. I know people knocking on their thirties who still want to start a System of a Down tribute band.
It’s fine; maybe nu-metal was cool all along? Or not, but the amazing Deftones still feel like a fresh prospect. Their classic record White Pony was a behemoth for the genre, Chino Moreno, Chi Cheng and co. combining synths and shoegaze into a record of thrashing teenage melodrama.
Despite coming out of a much bemoaned subgenre, Deftones have become one of metal’s most experimental bands, investigating texture and dynamics on emotive outpourings like Saturday Night Wrist and the recent alt rock schisms of Gore. Few bands can reinvent and stay the same at the same time; Deftones are one of them. Go back to school with them.
Greg Anderson and Stephen O’Malley started Sunn O))) primarily as an excuse to wear warlock robes.
Inspired by Earth’s efforts to make heavy metal about texture and nothing else, the band formed a tribute band of sorts, taking the idea of gritty droning guitars and making it their own. Their records became insurmountable slogs for only the most patiently brutal, sustaining one moment of a funeral procession for twenty minutes at a time.
Early records often included folkloric vocals, such as the poem that forms much of White1, while they also experimented with sonorous tones on Monoliths & Dimensions, and made the weirdest crossover record of our generation in Soused, a collaboration with baroque pop weirdo Scott Walker. In doing much less, they’re so much more than simply a doom metal band.
Mike Scheidt’s YOB have made a real saga out of doom metal.
It might be his vocal performance that does it: sometimes bellicose, often sanguine, it’s always theatrical, his clear, emotive style resonating on an ethereal level that contradicted his bandmates scorched-earth style. I hope you like sixty minute metal odysseys, ‘cos that’s what you’re gonna get with these guys: since The Great Cessation they’ve been making records whose riffs pour out like an endless stream of tears, their super-emotional brand of heavy giving metal newfound meaning.
Their most recent record, Our Raw Heart, matches melody with discordance, describing the wave of emotions Scheidt faced from a near-death health problem. The catharsis the record offers is, well, pretty metal.
The newest entrant to this list deserves props for keeping metal the way it should be: high-concept, lovably ludicrous, as over the top as humanly possible.
A drum ‘n’ bass duo in the least traditional of ways, Bell Witch eschewed common doom metal practice by doing away with the guitar, making for a raw, cacophonous sound with little interest in respite. Initially formed by Dylan Desmond and Adrian Guerra, the band crafted twenty-minute onslaughts, pulverising with slow thrash and feral vocals on the mythic Four Phantoms.
The tragic passing of Adrian Guerra saw Jesse Schreibman take over behind the kit, the band fashioning a monolithic tribute to their late friend in Mirror Reaper. An eighty-minute song, it’s metal’s own renaissance composition, lamenting and loving and as impassioned as heavy metal can possibly be.
What genre of metal do you reckon Death play? Really hard to tell, isn’t it?
We have a massive soft spot for these Floridians and it’s easy to see why: with Scream Bloody Gore they literally invented death metal, screaming and screeching through forty minutes of extreme sounds that exaggerated the transgressions of b-movie horror soundtracks. It was rawly recorded and brutally delivered, leading to a legion of bands who wanted to keep it simple and stark.
Death would occasionally venture into the world of melody and clarity, but only if it served what they wanted to say: Spiritual Healing took the fight to television preaching and other political protests, the band meddling death metal with reality the way few other bands were willing to. On their classic record Human they pioneered a sub-subgenre and birthed technical death metal. Chuck Schuldiner: he was a bit of a genius, that man.
Best metal albums
We want to talk about Ride the Lightning because of course we do. The world’s most death-obsessed band made two of thrash metal’s most meticulously crafted artifacts, binging on unhinged speed, gruesome imagery and masterclass guitar solos. Has Master of Puppets aged a day? No it has not; that eight-minute classic still belongs at the top of metal’s pantheon and you’d have to say guitarist Kirk Hammett played his part in that one. Progressive and compositional in approach, you’re almost reminded of Rush before this record throws you back to the floor.
All Sleep are really saying is give weed a chance. The dopesmoking dopesmokers made Dopesmoker but it also got released, to their chagrin, as Jerusalem, the songs split up into parts and passages. In its ultimate and most pure form, it’s an hour long bong song that never once stops. Sleep make records by building up a catalog of riffs -- one day they decide to unleash them with a potent, slow-burning rhythm section, and on Dopesmoker they proved this approach might just be the best way of making music ever. Stoner metal has never been more alive than it was in this moment.
Yep, more dope. If Sleep take pot metal’s pole position, Electric Wizard are worthy runner-ups, opting to make heavier and less palatable bong jams. Electric Wizard’s long, disgusting songs did what they set out to do, suggesting foul stenches and boggy hellscapes alongside the usual hazy stoner riffs. It’s doom metal that refuses to be anything but horrible. Electric Wizard must have been really taken aback by how much people dug their turgid metal, because they’ve been trying to replicate it ever since.
Paranoid is eight heavy metal staples sequenced one after the other. That’s pretty much all that needs to be said about Black Sabbath’s second ever record, released way back in 1970. Is metal old or what? Back then the genre was so purely elemental you got songs like “Iron Man”, a classic to this day known simply from people reciting its riff verbatim. Black Sabbath would start with a riff and create an environment around it -- they’d let the song get in your head, and then they’d reign down the heavy metal rituals. I didn’t even tell you “War Pigs” is on this record too -- it’s a masterpiece, I’d wager.
They mean 666, if you didn’t know; the beast is satan. Glad we could clear that one up. You may not agree with our Ian that The Number of the Beast is a classic, but it says some things about metal we rarely wilfully admit: that maybe it’s closer to pop music, to glam rock, to a good time. Iron Maiden were a relentlessly catchy band weaving euphoria into their dark, brooding content. “Hallowed Be Thy Name” is a stormy, epic song that suggested being proggy, being heavy, could maybe also be cool.
One for our grindcore fans. Please tell me you’re out there? For those encountering the genre for the first time, Phantom Limb is kind of impossible to enjoy, an indecipherable slab of hate. Taking in the lyrics sheet isn’t much help: J. R. Hayes writes strange, surreal poems hard to delineate in one go. And yet…it comes together. Somehow, this pulverising record metamorphoses into something that sounds tight, hook-heavy and essential. It’s a speedrun of metal and punk that coalesces into something entirely new. Made between the raw as heck Prowler In the Yard and their more refined recent efforts, Phantom Limb is the sound of a band working intuitively and intelligently.
Converge’s magnum opus Jane Doe takes the well-worn musical theme of a break-up and turns it into a furious attack on the senses, creating an epic melodrama from its ferocious blend of metal and post-hardcore. Moments of bloodletting clarity colour a record that is total in its extreme sound -- any melody is a momentary release from music marked by Jacob Bannon’s demonic screams and Kurt Ballou’s screeching guitars.
On The Great Cessation, YOB grew up, from a budding doom rock band to one who would only be making classics from here on out. An epic poem told in rancid riffs, the record is an hour-long ode to the glacial speed of their stoner metal forefathers. Dense and destitute, it proved that they could make heavy music that was also deep, emotionally affecting, even relatable -- all the while containing a kind of cosmic sound far away from the murk of traditional doom metal.
Leviathan just rips. If you’re making a record about a giant mythical sea creature, you have to make a big, loud, overwhelming record, the kind that could bring ships to wreck. Despite its sludgy textures and dense sound, Mastodon made a metal record that was always invigorating, its solos racing through the fabric of time, the whole band somehow able to hold onto each other as they fall through dimensions. It’s known for its amazing flow, this record, but it’s also known for being a bit off the wall.
Who knows how Baroness got left off our list of essential artists, but we can at least shout out Purple as a definitive record - a sludge metal landmark made shortly after the band’s devastating bus accident. Baroness’ response to being pushed into the commercial foreground of metal was to make something larger than life, embracing the strange, fantastical world they now occupied while keeping up their signature stonerisms and impassioned riffwork.
Once a grindcore band keen to veer off the edge of metal’s cliff and never look back, Carcass grew into something quite the opposite, eschewing the proudly gross goregrind of the past and bringing about a new, fledgling sound with plenty of death metal bleeding through it. Symphonies of Sickness has all that and more, fashioned into some sort of discernable shape by the guttural growls of frontman Jeff Walker. The drums pummelled and did so dynamically, suggesting the band’s need for speed and newfound appreciation for overwrought death metal.
“I wish it would reign down on me”, said Phil Collins.
He’s obviously a big fan of Slayer, and who could blame him? With their classic record, Slayer proved that the gruesome and overwhelmingly fast sound of thrash metal could be accessible, even fun, somehow defining a genre in under thirty minutes. You surely know “Angel of Death” from its thunderous drumming and gnarled bassline; as far as bands who made hell sound like a favourable setting go, Slayer did their job and did it well.
Obituary - Slowly We Rot
There’s really nothing that sounds more archetypical of metal than a band called Obituary making a record called Slowly We Rot.
What’s contained within is a claustrophobic coffin of down-tuned riffs and slow-cooked death metal, slowly rising from its slumber and stomping its listener one song at a time. It’s dirgier than they’d prove to be in future releases, a bit more lo-fi, but stands as the most intense and suffocating record of their career. What a way for them to start.
Even more of the best metal bands and albums
We could write about metal forever, but we've gone on enough. Here are a few more pointers for you.
More metal bands
- Cannibal Corpse
- Celtic Frost
- Deep Purple
- Electric Wizard
- Inter Arma
- Iron Maiden
- Judas Priest
- Led Zeppelin
- Morbid Angel
- Napalm Death
- Nine Inch Nails
- Primitive Man
- Rage Against The Machine
- The Body
- Wolf Eyes
- Wolves In The Throne Room
More metal albums
- Anthrax - Among The Living
- Boris - Pink
- Cannibal Corpse - Butchered At Birth
- Celtic Frost - To Mega Therion
- Deftones - White Pony
- Ghost - Opus Eponymous
- Kyuss - Blues For The Red Sun
- Led Zeppelin - Houses Of The Holy
- Megadeth - Peace Sells... But Who’s Buying?
- Napalm Death - Scum
- Nine Inch Nails - The Downward Spiral
- Rage Against The Machine - Rage Against The Machine
- Soundgarden - Superunknown
- Wolves In The Throne Room - Two Hunters