Saturday, May 14, 2011

10 Essential Heavy Metal Albums

Pledge Allegiance to METAL
Everyone has their opinions about what makes an album "great." For me it's a combination of factors- was the album important or groundbreaking for it's genre, and is it an album that I want to listen to again and again. I also consider if the parts that stand out to me are just a few individual songs, or is the album consistently good all throughout - would I go back for select singles, or do I want to hear the whole album over and over.

With that said, I feel that the list of albums below (in no particular order) defines what I feel are the best parts of Heavy Metal. I will not claim that this will define the genre from everyone's perspective, but if you work through my list, you'll have a feel for what I personally consider the things that are best about the genre. It is colored by my personal likes and dislikes, and by the periods and movements within metal history that have caught my attention the most. You are free to disagree with my picks, and are more than welcome to discuss why you feel differently than I do. Enjoy!

1) Black Sabbath (1970)

Friday the 13th in February of 1970 can easily be considered the day Heavy Metal was born. Black Sabbath's debut album set the tone for the entire genre. The title track, Black Sabbath, starts the album off with a simple three note riff based on the dissonant tritone - a musical interval that was associated with the Devil in medieval times. That simple riff, with it's dark and foreboding mood, set the standard for the entire genre. The remainder of the album shows Sabbath's roots as a blues band, featuring long jams on basic chord progressions and largely improvised solos. The album clearly has a huge blues influence, but the dark sound sound and heavy use of distortion made it equally clear that it was not a blues album, but something new and different for it's time. The album clearly illustrates the evolution of the blues into heavier sounds, and the formation of the then nascent Heavy Metal movement.

2) Screaming For Vengeance - Judas Priest (1982)

Judas Priest, along with Black Sabbath, was one of the bands that defined the sound and style of early Heavy Metal. Coincidentally (or not) Judas Priest's members originated in Birmingham, England - the same city where Black Sabbath's original members were from.Screaming For Vengeance was the band's 8th studio album, and contains some of their most recognizable songs- notably the popular songs "You've Got Another Thing Comin'" and "Electric Eye." Judas Priest's sound was slightly more mainstream than Black Sabbath's, and it is easy to see how their sound and style became the standard for the wave of Metal Bands that came into the spotlight in the 1980s. Judas Priest's dynamic frontman, Rob Halford, is almost single-handedly responsible for the popularity of the "leather and spikes" clothing style that became the norm for most Metal bands in the late 1970s and the 1980s.

3) Back in Black - AC/DC (1980)

Through the 1970s, AC/DC was considered by many to be one of the bands that helped found the Heavy Metal genre. The band had a sound that usually straddled the fine line between Hard Rock and Heavy Metal - the band themselves claim to be a "Rock and Roll" band rather than any particular sub-genre despite their popularity within the Heavy Metal subculture. In 1980, the Band's popular lead singer, Bon Scott, died from what most sources say was alcohol poisoning, and the band's future looked bleak. The band, however, found a new lead vocalist, Brian Johnson, and released "Back in Black" later that year. It is easy to dismiss the importance of the album because of it's immense popularity (it is currently the second highest selling album of all time, behind Michael Jackson's "Thriller") that crosses over several sub-genres - but in this case, I think the album's popularity is due to it being just that good. The title track "Back in Black" is often viewed as an expression of the band's triumphant return to the spotlight after the tragic loss of a key band member.

4) Iron Maiden - The Number of the Beast (1982)

In the late 1970s, and the early 1980s, there was a strong surge of new Heavy Metal bands from England that gained popularity in the U.S. and throughout the world. Iron Maiden, was arguably one of the leaders of this so-called "New Wave of British Metal" - their sound is typified by the album "The Number of the Beast" - their first studio album to feature their new vocalist Bruce Dickinson. Dickinson brought in a more operatic vocal style that went well with the band's heavy riffs, a combination that is still a success thirty years later. The album features tracks such as "Run to the Hills," "The Number of the Beast," "The Prisoner," and "Hallowed be thy Name." - many of which are still staples of the band's live act today. The title track caused a great deal of controversy and accusations of satanism in it's time, despite claims that the song was written as a horror story in the tradition of H.P. Lovecraft or Edgar Allan Poe. The song concepts used are mainly drawn from popular literature, television, and historical events- a point that many young Metal fans used in the 80s to convince their parents to let them buy more Iron Maiden albums- "...but they make me want to lean about history and stuff, Mom..."

5) Heaven and Hell - Black Sabbath (1980)

Black Sabbath went through many changes over their long history- some for the better, some not. In 1979, after rampant personal problem within the band, and two albums that had a poor response both from critics and fans, the band's long-time lead singer, Ozzy Osbourne, was fired and replaced by former Rainbow vocalist Ronnie James Dio. At first, the change did not sit well with the fans... until a few months later when they released their first Dio-fronted album "Heaven and Hell." The album is somewhat mainstream by 21st century standards, but was a true force to be reckoned with for it's time. It represented a partial departure from the darker, sludge like feel of the early Sabbath albums, to something more upbeat and melodic that still felt a connection to the older material. Both Dio, and guitarist Tony Iommi have frequently alluded that the album has some of their best songwriting work, and many Metal fans throughout the world consider it to be a "must have" album.

6) Blizzard of Ozz - Ozzy Osbourne (1981)

While his former Black Sabbath bandmates were busy settling in with their new vocalist, Ozzy Osbourne returned from a particularly bad substance abuse binge with some encouragement from his future wife Sharon Arden, and began work on his solo project. "Blizzard of Ozz" was released, and became and immediate commercial success. The album marks the rise to near-superstardom of former Quiet Riot guitarist Randy Rhoads as well. The album is one of the main pieces of work that helped Heavy Metal gain some degree of mainstream popularity- without being a sellout. The song "Crazy Train" is now considered iconic, and is usually the first song that pops into most people's heads when they think of Ozzy Osbourne. During his final years with Black Sabbath, Ozzy's showmanship during live shows seemed to have lost it's spark, but the tour supporting the album proved that working on his own project was just the change he needed to reclaim his reputation as one of the most dynamic and entertaining front men in Metal history.

7) Holy Diver - Dio  (1983)

After parting ways with Black Sabbath, Ronnie James Dio finally had an opportunity to build his own band from the ground up. The album is somewhat more commercial sounding than songs from Dio's tenure with Rainbow and Black Sabbath, but is still most decidedly an iconic example of 1980s Heavy Metal. Dio himself was somewhat put-off by the commercial sound of the song "Rainbow in the Dark" - according to the stories I've heard, Dio was upset that the song would be considered "selling out" that he threatened to destroy the master tape, but was talked down by his bandmates. The song would go on to become one of the band's signature songs. The most remarkable thing about this album is it's consistency - every track is well crafted, and are each a perfect example of Dio's excellent songwriting skills. This achievement would not have been possible without his thoughtful choices of band-mates- carefully selected for their talent, potential, and ability to work together- a young and little known guitarist named Vivian Campbell, former Rainbow bassist Jimmy Bain, and fellow Black Sabbath alumni Vinny Appice on drums. I would be hard pressed to select a single favorite track from this album, since I typically end up listening to it end-to-end even if I start out just wanting to hear one song. While all the songs are great, I would list "Holy Diver," "Don't Talk to Strangers," "Rainbow in the Dark," and  "Shame on the Night" as standouts (with the rest of the album only a hair behind them). This is the album that helped define what Heavy Metal was in the 1980s, and launched a band that only stopped making new albums when Ronnie James Dio passed away in 2010.

8) Master of Puppets - Metallica (1986)

Metallica firmly established themselves as the leaders of the growing Thrash Metal movement with their third studio album "Master of Puppets" - the last to feature bassist Cliff Burton before his demise in a bus accident while on tour. Thrash Metal has it's roots in the late 1970s, and gained popular momentum in the mid-1980s. Metallica typified, and even defined the sub-genre with fast angular riffs, with songwriting focusing more on rhythm than melody. The album also showed a touch of Progressive Rock influence with three tracks clocking in at an epic 8+ minutes each, and lyrics that were more thoughtful and poetic than most Metal of the day. In a sense, "Master of Puppets" can almost be considered Progressive Rock on speed with a very bad attitude- making it something unique, but still very accessible to Metal fans. This is another album that features a high level of consistency- every song is good in it's own right from the epic title track "Master of Puppets" to the slower, gloomier track "The Thing That Should Not Be" - which shows a strong influence from 1970s Black Sabbath, to the "almost-a-ballad-but-much-more-angry" song "Welcome Home (Sanitarium)."

9) Operation: Mindcrime - Queensrÿche (1988)

In the mid to late 1980s, a handful of Metal bands experimented with fusing the complex musical ideas, and overarching song/album concepts of bands like Yes or Rush, with the sound and style of more traditional Heavy Metal to produce what would become known as Progressive Metal. Queensrÿche was one of the bands that led the movement. Their 1988 album "Operation: Mindcrime" was a perfect example of a Heavy Metal concept album, and has often been compared favorably with Pink Floyd's "The Wall" and The Who's "Tommy." The album features an overarching storyline of a man lured into the role of an Assassin for an underground revolutionary group by his own disillusionment with mainstream society, by drug addiction, and by sheer manipulation. He begins to fall in love with the woman who was assigned to bring him the drugs that kept him firmly under the control of the revolution's mysterious leader, Dr.X, which eventually pushes him to defect from the group when he is ordered to kill her. The woman, named "Sister Mary" is killed while he goes to confront Dr. X, and he is framed for the murder. The album ends with him arrested and held in a hospital where he slowly loses his mind. The album is much more melodic in nature than most Heavy Metal, and some of the longer sections of the story are presented in a form similar to a traditional Opera. There are sections of spoken word and sound effects scattered throughout the album designed to make the listener feel like he is watching (or rather hearing) the story unfold as if it were a film soundtrack without an actual film. The album was a huge success for  the Progressive Metal movement, and is proof that conceptual music can work in the Heavy Metal format. Standout songs are "Revolution Calling," "Suite Sister Mary," "Breaking the Silence," and "Eyes of a Stranger."

10) The Devil You Know - Heaven and Hell (2009)

This is the only recent album on my list- it is too new to really know if it will stand the test of time. For me the album represents closure for many of my favorite Heavy Metal performers. Heaven and Hell, the band, is a reunion of the Black Sabbath lineup that featured Ronnie James Dio as vocalist. After Sabbath's reunion tour with Ozzy Osbourne a few years earlier, guitarist Tony Iommi, and bassist Geezer Butler, wanted to do a compilation and possible reunion with Dio to pay homage to the second phase of the legendary band's life. Dio's previous stints with Sabbath (Heaven and Hell in 1980, Mob Rules in 1981, and Dehumanizer in 1992) ended with bad blood and a great deal of personal strife, but in the 2000s, everyone involved was a good deal older and wiser, and put aside their past differences to focus on the great music they were able to achieve when they weren't fighting with each other. Vinny Appice, who was with the band with Dio joined in as well. They chose to record and tour under the name "Heaven and Hell" - after the first album they produced together in part to avoid confusion with the Ozzy reunion version of the band, and in part to have a fresh start. According to interviews, the four members worked well together, and each approached the job with the level of talent and professionalism expected of musicians of their immense experience- and this time, they finished the album and following tour as friends ready to record again. The album "The Devil You Know" would, however, be their only studio effort due to the untimely death of Ronnie James Dio in 2010. The album is very heavy sounding, and comes off as a blend of the slower doom-like Sabbath of the 1970s and the more melodic material of the early 1980s. The band members, all in their 60s, show their age, but make it obvious that their lifetimes of experience makes it possible to pull off one of the heaviest albums in recent history without missing a beat. Dio's voice has obviously changed a great deal since he first came into the spotlight in the 1970s, but he knows exactly how to make it work for him. While the album may not be the best "Sabbath" ever, if you think of it as the first effort for a new band, it is astounding. It represents the final recorded album to feature Ronnie James Dio, and may very well be the final recording by any incarnation of the founders of the Heavy Metal Genre, Black Sabbath. The standout tracks are "Bible Black," "Rock and Roll Angel," and "Breaking Into Heaven." For me, it is the closing chapter of the first 40 years of Heavy Metal history. It may or may not go down in history as the most important Metal album of the 2000s, but for me it has huge historical significance, and merges what Heavy Metal started as, with what Heavy Metal has become today.

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