Judas Priest are clearly one of heavy metal's most notable bands if only because in true metal spirit they never die. But the most enjoyable aspect of heavy metal isn't the power or the loudness, it's the endless, fruitless discussion over what actually constitutes "heavy metal."
First, there was the dubious distinction between "hard rock" and "heavy metal," then, of course, "punk" vs. "metal," then we had "crossover" bands who polluted the waters still. Now, with grindcore, screamo and other sub-varieties that make you wonder where are the "Log Cabin Metallists," it's to the point where you could argue that Cher and Ween should qualify somehow.
Well, I didn't have quite as cynical a take. But I did notice that I was favoring the old vs. the new. Maybe because everything is fresher the first time around. And while every single bio I receive on a new metal band tells me how UNLIKE ALL THE OTHER BANDS this one is, somehow, it isn't true. I'm not accusing anyone of lying, I just think that most bands and their supporters have what could be called "Parental Vision." That's where the only person who really believes you're beautiful is your mom or dad. These people want to believe their band doesn't sound like all the others and to highly trained ears--senior metallists, that is--the distinctions are obvious and concrete. To normal folks who are just looking to turn the radio up when they hear something they like, well, let's just say it's become pretty obvious why most metal has become part of a hardcore subgenre and not the mainstream phenomenon it once was.
Now for 25 performing outfits who have made Heavy Metal what it is.
25) Meshuggah: Swedish metal bands prefer to make things difficult for themselves. First off, they're in Sweden, not exactly a prime lift-off point for World Domination, unless you're IKEA. Top that with the fact that these guys refuse to play in standard time signatures, standard key signatures or do anything that could be considered standard. They sometimes don't even make the standard "evil" faces. They try. But it always looks like they're about to laugh. The music really is like shoving your head into an industrial fan. Impressive.
24) Mercyful Fate: A Danish metal band fronted by a guy in slightly wrong Gene Simmons make-up, a screech that sends chills up your spine and a goofy fun-lovin' name like King Diamond. Yet, for all that, the guitar playing, the relentless rhythms and the obsession with Satanic gobblygook make them sureshots in my book. Slightly more entertaining than Venom, who were number 26 and therefore left off this list.
23) Alice In Chains: Some people might choose Soundgarden and I might too, on a different day. But Alice In Chains were heavier and weirder, bluesier and more decadent. They pre-dated grunge and uncomfortably jammed themselves onto the Seattle tugboat as it sailed into the Pearl Jam nation. To anyone who says "Hey, they're not metal," I remind you that heavy metal began with a very strong blues influence and Alice In Chains were far bluesier than many bands who have since come to define metal.
22) Uriah Heep: The roots of Spinal Tap? Albums such as Very 'Eavy...Very 'umble, Look at Yourself, The Magician's Birthday and High And Mighty sure seem to have conceptually influenced a strain of "mock metal," yet Uriah Heep with the amazing singing of David Byron, one of the originators of the heavy metal vibrato-laden moan, and the brooding organ of Ken Hensley jammed together as many styles as they could sneak past customs. Sometimes it was peanut butter and jelly, sometimes Rum & Coke and sometimes bananas and bar-b-que sauce. At least they tried.
21) Pantera: Phil Anselmo is one scary dude. And I wouldn't want to meet any of these guys in a dark alley. But on a stage, gainfully employed, Pantera were in their element. While their hard and heavy ways made them heroes to their devoted following, one misguided member of that devoted following took things to the point of indescribable horror when he shot and killed guitarist "Dimebag" Darrell (among others) while Darrell was playing in his post-Pantera group Damageplan. Being in a band has its job hazards; this should NOT be one of them.
20) Thin Lizzy: You'll see that I'm partial to bands who can write songs. Play as many notes as you like. Scream your lungs out. Tell me the world isn't fair. Hail Satan, if you must. Tell me more about how you're going to "rock me." Or tell me all about the people in a faraway galaxy who will one day communicate through the electric guitar. But I'll still take someone who can write: "Jailbreak," "Cold Sweat," "Whiskey In The Jar" and "The Boys Are Back In Town."
19) Kyuss: Who to blame for Stoner Rock? Why not these California desert dudes? These days people know about Queens of the Stone Age, who excel at shifting their line-up on a monthly basis, but once upon a time in the early 90s, Josh Homme and his then buddies stayed together on a fairly consistent basis (well, bass players come and go... and the drummer got switched up in the end, but for these guys that is consistency) and cranked out albums and looked to be going somewhere. Then, of course, before they could really be considered successful, they broke up. Which is what stoners do.
18) Guns N' Roses: With sides of punk and glam, Guns N' Roses coasted into the heavy metal mainstream with catchy tunes and a harder edge than their nerf-metal counterparts. There seem to be two kinds of heavy metal groups: ones that can't stay together and ones that never quit. Funny how everyone but Axl seems to be able to play nice with each other. They say money changes everything, but apparently not everything.
17) Kiss: They may never get the respect they crave. But they've got the sales they always wanted. If any band can be said to be a retail industry, it's Kiss. While so many bemoan the fate of the music business since music is so often distributed free these days, Kiss were already making merchandise a key monetary hub in their organization while others were busy building up their reputations with critics. Now grab your Kiss lunchbox and set it down on your Ace Frehley dinette set with those Peter Criss utensils to nicely cut up that Gene Simmons Bologna and Paul Stanley Liverwurst. I don't even own this paragraph. Gene Simmons does.
16) Dio: Ronnie James Dio is what we call a lifer. A Heavy Metal Zelig, always somewhere in the mix, whether it's with Ritchie Blackmore's Rainbow, Black Sabbath, Elf or his own self-titled Dio. One of the originators of that vibrato-heavy metallic moan, Dio not only qualifies for a lifetime achievement award for his contributions to furthering the cause of Metal throughout the world but for Medicare in this country. And they credit him with that funny hand gesture!
15) Robin Trower: Ah, who? You know the guy from Procol Harum? Ok, that doesn't help. Well, ask a heavy metal guitarist sometime who's among their favorite players and nearly every time you'll hear people bring up the name Robin Trower, whose solo albums from the early '70s are pretty damn staggering in their sludgy-blues heaviness. This is back when the music didn't mind bringing you down. Which just goes to show what a good Quaalude can do. Start with Bridge Of Sighs.
14) Rush: Rush took a severe beating at the hands of critics for being a tad humorless about their high concepts. But they never whimpered and headed home. Nope. They had too many kids waiting for them in the stadiums who liked their high seriousness and looked forward to living in a future they would never actually live to see. 2112 is still a long ways away...They did it with guitars and they did it with synthesizers and they did it with a drummer who owned way too many drums. But to be fair, he uses all those drums. They're not just for show, like with some people.
13) Spinal Tap: Everyone says they weren't real. Yet I will put them on every Heavy Metal list possible, since their material--you know, the songs--are every bit as good as the "real" thing. And even if they never really did record an album called Intravenus DeMilo, they should've. And if the budget had been there, they just might've. And who's to say Shark Sandwich isn't just the victim of a clever two word put-down review? Maybe someone should go back and re-evaluate this band's imaginary oeuvre.
12) Deep Purple: While Sabbath and Zeppelin have gone on to be immortalized, Deep Purple have fallen dangerously behind. Ritchie Blackmore deserves better than to be lumped in with the "Where Were They Then?" pile. "Smoke On The Water" may be obvious, but "Space Truckin'" and the rest of Machine Head should be textbook cases for all aspiring young hard rockers. And they were purple when only hippies were ruining the color and not dinosaurs and Prince.
11) Slayer: Slayer redefined "heavy" back in the 1980s by speeding things up to the point of hardcore punk but with intricate riffs and shout-outs to Satan that made them obvious followers of the Metal church. With such a volatile sound and temperament, who would've thought they'd still be hanging together this many years later?
10) Iron Maiden: Just caught a live concert of theirs from 1985 on--where else?--a sports network. Great, since the music networks can't be bothered. And boy did these guys look kind of funny with all that billowing smoke and weird prancing around--and those spandex tights. In some respects, almost as good as Spinal Tap, and in some ways better since they were serious. "Rime Of The Ancient Mariner" is ponderous, but the hoof-beating gallop of "The Trooper" and just about anything from The Number Of The Beast makes up for their inherent corniness.
9) Motorhead: By never swerving from their ideals, Motorhead managed to win the hearts and souls of metal loyalists everywhere while simultaneously gathering punks and critics (same thing?) for their cause. Playing louder than others proved to be a key strategic move. Writing "Ace Of Spades" proved to be the other.
8) Aerosmith: There are those who will swear they aren't heavy metal. Yeah, I know. They were once considered a Rolling Stones ripoff because Steven Tyler had big lips like Jagger and Joe Perry was the sullen shadow playing the role of Keith Richards. But this bluesy, R&B-based hard rock band wrote stuff like "Toys In The Attic," "Back In The Saddle" and "Draw The Line" before crashing, burning and reforming in the '80s to further a more commercialized rock sound that sure sounded like a lot of heavy metal at the time.
7) Judas Priest: Their songs were always pretty catchy for a metal band, but I always preferred singer Rob Halford's between song banter. Very brief and always spoken in the same punctuated strain that he uses for the climax of their best tunes. In other words, he never lets up the intensity or drops the mask. He is the dominator on that stage and with two guys--K.K. Downing and Glenn Tipton--on guitars who virtually defined the overused trope "twin-guitar attack"--how much more definitive do you need?
6) Metallica: Whether their new album this Fall brings them back up a few pegs remains to be seen, but before they started a virtual war with their fans over $$ (weird, coming from a band who'd already raked in more than most bands would see in a lifetime) and put out St. Anger, the album that made people think that maybe Load was worse than they originally rationalized, Metallica were once the lords of a new generation. Master Of Puppets remains one of the sacred treaties and the self-titled Black Album is that one metal album that non-metal people own and pull out to prove they "like" heavy metal.
5) Jimi Hendrix Experience: Hendrix was far more than some heavy metal guitarist. Putting his music in any box is useless because it always sneaks out. But from the opening notes of "Purple Haze," it's obvious that Jimi was interested in being louder than the other boys. While it's an obvious shame that he didn't live through the ensuing decades, it's a blessing that he came of age at a time when musicians relied on band chemistry and not Pro-Tools to make their magic. Because as good as Hendrix was, he also knew how to pick the right supporting cast.
4) Van Halen: Some metallists say these guys aren't metal because they like girls and to party and they cover the Kinks, Roy Orbison and Motown. But have you heard Eddie's tone? He re-taught the guitar for an entire decade and while they lose points for employing Sammy Hagar (whose band Montrose, you'll note, is absent from this list), they did once bring us that ultimate, premium, all natural ham of hams, the great David Lee Roth.
3) AC/DC: Chords on top of chords, hooks on top of hooks and two singers--Bon Scott and Brian Johnson--who combined for a serious number of knockout punches. AC/DC knew how to flirt with radio without losing the crunch. And how Angus manages to bang his head and hop around the stage to this day remains one of metal's unsolved mysteries.
2) Led Zeppelin: Zep never stayed in one place too long and while Jimmy Page had an arsenal of riffs for aspiring young guitarists to emulate, the band coasted off into acoustic Hobbit tributes and art-rock when they got bored. But their complete demolition of the blues was damn impressive, whether it was Bonzo's beating the drums into submission or Bob Plant screeching for another inch of his love.
1) Black Sabbath: The lords of darkness who were always trying to find the sunshine but couldn't find the energy to lift the blinds. By keeping it simple and focusing on the most elemental elements, Black Sabbath mastered the art of the powerchord and the downward spiral. Killing themselves to live, never saying die and fighting the war pigs! What a legacy!