Obsessive List 1: Metal Records

I love lists. You have no idea.

When I lived in Albany during college my friend Jason and I would constantly come up with lists - it passed the time during long drives and mammoth rounds of cards. Five Cover Bands You'd Want To Be In, Movie Sequels That Were Better Than The Originals, Books That Would Be On A Shelf Of Fame - the list, as it was, was endless. So in the spirit of those good times, some friends and I will begin posting different types of lists. First up for me - My 10 Essential Metal Albums, Give or Take a Few Extras (in no particular order):

1. Death: Spiritual Healing (1990) - I love transition albums. It was a while before I was able to pick up a Death record. Just the rumor, the vibe the band projected kept me at arm's length for the longest time. Man, was I shocked when I finally picked up a record.

Spiritual Healing is the third record for the Florida metal legends, straddling the line between the raw, horror schlocky lyric play of the first two records and the ultra-technical, progressive sound coupled with the socially conscious lyrics of future releases. Featuring James Murphy on guitar, the music is progressive without sacrificing the pounding brutality of the old stuff, but has lyrics focusing for the first time on the issues sticking in Schuldiner's craw. "Living Monstrosity" deals with fetal drug addiction; "Altering the Future" addresses abortion, and the title track talks about religion as an excuse for killing. Totally killer record with a heavy emphasis on guitar brilliance for a "death" metal record.

LIVE 2.1. Slayer: Decade of Aggression (1992) - Most people would go with Reign in Blood for the definitive Slayer record, and I would be hard pressed to argue the point - it's one of the defining moments in all of metal, and was the first Slayer record I bought (on cassette, no less).

So why did I pick DOA? Two reasons. One, it had all the songs I loved from Reign in Blood, but also from Show No Mercy, South of Heaven, Hell Awaits, and Seasons in the Abyss. Also, it was the first time I heard a live record from a "metal" band that didn't wear spandex, tease their hair, or shout "Whooaa!" during a show. I remember reading how the band was stressing there were no overdubs of any kind, and going back to other "classic" live albums only to now distinctly hear the overdubs (Thin Lizzy, are you listening?). When you put it on, and you hear the opening to "Hell Awaits," and you hear those drums by Dave Lombardo kick in, you are completely obliterated. Forget comparing this to other live metal records - this is one of the best live albums of any genre. Highlights for me are "South of Heaven," "Expendable Youth," "Raining Blood," and the mandatory closer "Chemical Warfare." Plus, it's great to remember a time when the bands would caution the mosh pits to help a guy up if he falls, as opposed to the crap that goes on at even pop shows now. This has been in my top 10 list since I bought it back in college so many freakin' years ago (Arggghh - I just counted back - almost 14 years ago!!).

LIVE 2.2. Iron Maiden: Live After Death (1985) - C'mon, what's not to love? Spandex? Check. But that's where the comparisons end. You want highlights? Too many to count. But how about these immortal words: "Scream for me Long Beach!" Eddie is the most badass mascot any metal band ever had, period. "The Trooper" is one of the greatest riffs ever created, period. Bruce Dickenson is one of the best metal vocalists in the known universe, period. Live After Death has one of the best metal covers of all time, period.

They wrote a song about Dune, ferchrissakes! About Quest For Fire!!! About the Prisoner!!! Iron Maiden wrote the book on merging disparate riffs together. Every Swedish metal band working today owes royalties to Dave Murray and Adrien Smith for copping their guitar lines (see Soilwork review below). "Hallowed Be Thy Name." "The Number of the Beast." "Powerslave." "Where Eagles Dare." "Run to the Hills." Every great song Iron Maiden had up to that point was on this album, all played pitch perfect. Like the Slayer entry above, Live After Death is one of the best live albums of this or any genre.

3. Opeth: Ghost Reveries (2005) - Okay, this was a hard one. And I can hear a lot of screamers out there. The album came out six months ago - how the @#$% can it make the list over so many other records, even other Opeth records!?

Simmer down!. Opeth is one of my favorite bands playing right now. Although I love all their albums, every single one had a little something I thought could be better. Orchid was too raw. The production on Morningrise sucked. My Arms Your Hearse was a little to homogeneous. Still Life was great, but "The Moor" went on too damn long, and "Benighted" was slight. Deliverance was amazing in small chunks, but no song was great from beginning to end. Damnation wasn't really a metal album. So it was between this and Blackwater Park, and it was close. What clinched it? Ghost Reveries feels like the summation of everything that came before - the long songs, progressive structures, searing solos - with the great production and vocals that came with the later records. And, contrary to what others may think, I love the addition of Pers Wilburg on keyboards. The Moog sound on "The Baying of the Hounds" totally drives the song with a groove normally heard on a Deep Purple record. Dark, moody, full of atmosphere and beauty, Ghost Reveries is a look to even higher peaks for Opeth.

4. Metallica: ...And Justice For All (1987) - Part 1 of the 80's 1-2-3 thrash suckerpunch. This is the record that got me into real metal. In 1987 I was 14 years old, tall, gangly, wearing aviator glasses and White Lion t-shirts. I was an avid listener of the hair gods - Ratt, Mötley Crüe, Triumph...okay, well Triumph wasn't really a hair band(or god for that matter), but I think you get the picture. My friend Ricky Hennessey and I used to sit up in his room listening to these bands and talk about the "Satan Metal" that we would see when we looked through the record stores (small town, okay?). I knew I would be hooked as soon as I saw the covers. They were so cool! But, God-fearing kid that I was in those days, I was a little nervous about picking up one of those cardboard and vinyl temptations. Also, I was afraid of getting stuck with the stigma of "druggie loser" that seem to attach itself to all the other kids in my school who walked around with Metallica and Megadeth patches on their backs. So Ricky and I decided to perform an experiment: for science, we would randomly pick one fo these records to listen to, with the intention of throwing it out immediately afterwards. After careful deliberation, ...And Justice For All was chosen. About 90 seconds into "Blackened" Ricky was done. "Turn this crap off. It sucks!" After 3 minutes, I was hooked for life. Again, this is a personal choice - I know a lot of people would say Metallica already jumped the shark at this point, but for me this album was a beacon of light that shined down, lifting me into the glorious heavens of Metal.

And "Dyer's Eve" is one nasty fucker of a closing song!

5. Testament: The New Order (1988) - Part 2 of the 80's 1-2-3 thrash suckerpunch. Testament is the old friend I hadn't seen in a while. The next band I checked out after devouring all the Metallica I could find was Testament, known in many circles as "Metallica-lite." But I loved it, even going so far as to sing "The Greenhouse Effect" in my high school Social Studies class for a project. After the debacle that was The Ritual released in 1992, I jumped ship and didn't really listen to them again for about 12 years. About a year or so ago I had a strange hankering to see what they were up to. I had sold all my old tapes, so I went out and bought The New Order on CD. This was always the most mysterious album of their catalog for me. Songs like "The Preacher," "Disciples of the Watch," and the title track were so angry, and the glassy logo rocked hard, man! Listening to it now, it sounds dated to be sure, but the playing by Alex Scholnik is still incredible, and Chuck Billy's screaming is awesome. Still my personal favorite Testament album, and it gets a added thanks for getting me back into the band after so many years to hear the great records I missed, such as Low and The Gathering (featuring two monsters from elsewhere on this list, Dave Lombardo on drums and James Murphy on lead guitar).

6. Megadeth: Rust In Peace (1990) - Part 3 of the 1-2-3 80's thrash suckerpunch. I know this came out in 1990 and really doesn't count, but damn, this album is so great! Peace Sells... had one or two great songs, but nothing came close to how much of a step up this was from their previous records. Mustaine is a demon, coming up with some of the best riffs in metal ever, and the addition of guitar whiz Marty Friedman was a stroke of genius. "Holy Wars...the Punishment Due" is in my top 3 metal songs of all time, and that's only the first song.

To me, this was the absolute pinnacle of Megadeth. The following albums all became too clinical, too sterile. Rust In Peace had the perfect mix of grit and polish, and boasted some of Dave Mustaine's most blistering riffs ever. "Hanger 18" is a blueprint for all guitarists trying to play this kind of metal. The production is superb - the bass is all over the place here and, in true metal fashion, the album cover contains everything you could ever need for a perfect metal record in the late 80's/early 90's: cool dead-looking mascot, signs of government conspiracy and/or nuclear hazards, logo in some type of polished metal - this album has it all! Devil Horns!!!

7. Mastodon: Leviathan (2004) - Okay, let's make a couple things clear about this record. Sure, it's a trifle overblown and over-rated. And yes, it's a song-cycle centering on Moby Dick. So why am I adding it? Couple of reasons: Brann Dailor. If there was a drummer who could take Dave Lombardo's crown as reigning drum god, it's him. I am convinced Dailor possesses supernatural powers that enable him to lock into any groove on the planet, and make that groove sound like it's coming up from your bowels to grab your throat and strangle you. And despite the kudos the band has been getting all over the world, it doesn't stop the fact that Leviathan is something different out there right now - it's fresh, unconcerned with trends, and willing to follow it's own tune to wherever it goes. The band stretches the songs out a little more here than on their excellent predecessor Remission, allowing each track to breathe and develop in its own time. Bassist/vocalist Troy Sanders gives his voice a little more range this time out as well, and it all pays off. It's not the second coming of metal, it's just a damn great record. Favorite tracks are "Naked Burn" and "Hearts Alive."

8. Soilwork: Steelbath Suicide (1998) - No Metal List would be complete without at least one representative from the New Wave of Swedish Death Metal, made famous by such bands now as At the Gates, In Flames, and Dark Traquillity. This album really ties for me with At The Gates' Slaughter of the Soul, but since overall I own more Soilwork records, I went with this, their debut.

This album epitomizes the NWSDM ethos: the pounding brutality of American thrash and death coupled with the intricate dual guitar lines of European metal ala Iron Maiden (I think it's a law that you must have two guitar players in order to qualify as a NWSDM band). Everything on Steelbath Suicide is crisp and clear - sometimes a little too crisp, as the bass is sometimes lost, but that doesn't lessen the impact of songs like "Wings of Domain" and "Demon in Veins." This is by far the heaviest of Soilwork's records - later albums feature much more clean vocals and softer passages. Still, great melodies, great solos, and strong vocals - if you're looking for an "in" to NWSDM, this is an excellent place to start.

9. Strapping Young Lad: City (1997) - "Oh My Fucking God." That song and this album has been my anthem ever since I heard it about a year or so ago. Someone wrote in a review that this album reminded them of Nine Inch Nails and Ministry drinking too much coffee and inviting all their friends over to place as fast and precise as they can.

Pretty fair description of Devin Townsend, the main man behind this madness. Anyone remember where they first heard of Devin Townsend? I do. It was when he was the singer for Steve Vai's first solo band, Sex and Religion. Yup, this is the same guy. Well, Devin don't play that stuff anymore...at least when he's in his extreme metal alter ego: Strapping Young Lad. City is a sonic hurricane - it whips by so fast it takes a couple listens to even register what's going on. There is just so much going embedded in each song. Listen real close and you'll hear Devin screaming in harmony - layers upon layers of vocals at incredible pitches, inhuman drumming compliments of another former Death player, Gene Hoglan, and dare I say melody as well? This has steadily become one of my top metal albums of all time, ands the first three tracks: "Velvet Kevorkian," "All Hail the New Flesh" and the aforementioned "Oh My Fucking God" are the rocks that make me roll.

10. Carcass: Heartwork (1996) - What happens to a band that is revered for short, nasty slices of grindcore with lyrics snatched out of medical journals when they sign to a major label (in this case, Columbia)? Well, in the case of Carcass, they get a flash of inspiration, tweak their sound, and become fuckin' brilliant. Similar to the classic H.R. Giger sculpture that adorns the cover, the music is sharp, precise, and capable of slicing you to the bone. Heartwork is a fearless middle finger to all the metal bands signed to major labels playing it safe. From opener "Buried Dreams" to closer "This is Your Life" the music washes you at breakneck speed, sharp as a scalpel thank to Michael Amott (currently guitarist/leader of Arch Enemy) and Bill Steers. Jeff Walker is one of the unique talents in extreme metal, and his vocals here are the best they'd ever been. Carcass pretty much self-destructed after this; their last album (appropriately titled Swansong) was an overblown mess, but at least Heartwork still stands as a crowning achievement for 90's metal.

10+1. Fates Warning: Perfect Symmetry (1994) - Alright. I know I already have 10 - 11 if you count both live albums (and I obviously don't). But I can't in good conscious leave this list without mentioning one of my favorite bands throughout all of the 90's. Fates Warning. They were another of those bands back in the 80's whose covers left me quivering in abject adoration. Awaken the Guardian is still one of the coolest covers ever. An early practitioner of Progressive Metal, with the emphasis in progressive, Fates Warning dropped their original lead vocalist David Arch, who was responsible for much of the band's fantasy-based lyrics and replaced him with lung powerhouse Ray Alder. Alder had one of the widest ranges in metal, and sounded like a total man whether he was singing low or high. With the addition of Alder the music became more and more progressive. Perfect Symmetry is the album that firmly launched Fates Warning into their new direction. Opener "Part of the Machine" is killer, super-heavy and syncopated to sound exactly like the title - this was razor-precision music, full of odd-time signatures (thanks to the math drumming of Mark Zonder), cold, clinical guitar solos, and piercing vocals by Alder add a level of legitimacy to lyrics that reflect society's dependence on conformity: "A spirit of belonging/satisfies your longing/but the truth is never seen. False sense of freedom grows/but dependency shows/you're part of the machine."

Couple of honorable mentions (damn if only this were a top 20 list!): Entombed's Wolverine Blues, Morbid Angel's Blessed Are the Sick, Emperor's Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk, Burst's Origo, Cave In's Jupiter, Katatonia's Viva Emptiness, Anathema's Last Chance to Exit, and Pestilence's Testimony of the Ancients.