Top 5 Most Influential Metal Bands

When it comes right down to it, people listen to the music that they do simply because they like it. I try to make lots of philosophical cases for why rap is terrible; but ultimately, it just bores me. And as much as heavy metal's opponents can conjure up an army of strawmen against it, they just don't like the way it sounds either.

Most of the time, I hear folks like this refer to metal as "noise." It's true, metal is intentionally louder than most other forms of music. But I'd argue that many in my generation would consider the dissonance of some of Mahler's finer symphonies "noise," as well. It's easy to attach disparaging adjectives to things we don't understand. For example, I know that rap doesn't actually suck. It's just built around things for which I have no appreciation (such as street poetry and beats with the repeat button stuck).

So in an effort not to gain more supporters but at least fewer detractors, I give you my top five most influential metal bands. Hopefully, they can explain why metal sounds the way that it does.

For a theological defense of heavy metal, refer to the previous three posts:

The honor of being the first heavy metal band has long been the subject of debate. For most musicologists, it's either Led Zeppelin or Black Sabbath. The only problem with this is that most musicologists aren't metalheads. And to them, there is no debate. No other band could rightly lay claim to the foundation from which all other metal bands would build more than Black Sabbath. And the funny thing about it, like most innovations, is that it came about completely by accident. Literally. 

Guitarist Tony Iommi lost the tips of two of his fingers in a sheet metal accident. And in order to continue playing with thimbles as finger extenders, Iommi began de-tuning his guitar so the string tension would be easier on his weakened digits. Add in Ozzy's fascination with cultic symbolism and all things dark and dreary, and you find the primeval blueprint for what all metalheads know and love today.

2. Judas Priest

Most people know that rock music has its roots in the blues. And a lot of people would correctly surmise that metal music grew up as the darker, heavier cousin of rock. During most of the 1970's, this was largely the case. It was still a subgenre of rock ("hard rock") that many popular rock bands dabbled in, but it was yet to be its own distinct creature.

Judas Priest is single-handedly responsible for making metal more than a subgenre by kicking the blues out. They straightened out the rhythms, lost the hillbilly musical lilt and twang, and--again, almost by accident--added a second guitar as part of their staple sound.

Around this time, Thin Lizzy had popularized dueling guitar licks like that of "The Boys Are Back in Town." Priest not only adapted this template to their faster solos, but to the overall rhythm section as well, giving their brand of metal a truly heavy sound. A sound few metal bands today attempt without the help of a second guitarist.

One could argue that metal had finally come into its own at this point. The rhythm galloped at high speeds, the attack was brutal and precise, and the twin-guitar melodies were a far cry from the rockabilly sensibility of Thin Lizzy. In short, Iron Maiden was--and for many still is--the quintessential heavy metal band. If nothing else, the mark they left on the metal world was one of simply showing everyone else how to do it right.

Their musicianship and technique were impeccable, their sound was calculated and polished, and their delivery and execution were as powerful as Bruce Dickinson's voice. They also laid the groundwork for the importance of melody in metal; something that would later get lost among the "thrash." Modern metal continues to refer back to this one band repeatedly as influencing their return to a melodic approach.

4. Slayer

To the uninitiated, this is just another entry. But to metalheads, this one will get me in some hot water. You see, one of the most influential movements in metal history was thrash to which belongs what we call The Big Four: Metallica, Megadeath, Anthrax, and Slayer. And most metalheads are split over who was more important. But the reason I picked Slayer is two-fold.

First, Dave Lombardo. While thrash pushed metal to its limits in terms of speed, drum technique hadn't changed much. And just like others introduced twin-guitars before Judas Priest popularized them, so Lombardo popularized double-bass drumming that was still in its infancy. Second, while some inaccurately claim that Slayer is the father of death metal (a subgenre that has firmly attached itself to the very definition of metal today), they were again directly responsible for making this style popular. You would be hard-pressed to find a metal band today that doesn't reflect either of these characteristics in some fashion.

I doubt many metalheads will be angry with me over this as much as confused. But one must listen to the metal of the day and ask, "Who do I hear in this?" And Meshuggah's angular, mathematical approach has left an indelible impression. Metal isn't very syncopated. This was one of the elements Judas Priest helped to remove. And ever since, its rhythms have been intentionally more straight and military-like.

Then in the early 1990’s, Meshuggah found a way to follow that paradigm while introducing syncopation with something music nerds (like me) like to call polyrhythms. It's almost as simple as the guitarists playing one rhythm while the drummer plays another. This gave metal a new edge that no amount of amplification or speed could achieve. And almost every metal band since has attempted, no matter how feebly, to add this jarring rhythmic effect. Not to mention their 8-string guitar approach (a sound they call "djent") which has equally influenced many modern metal bands' guitar tones.

photo credit: Meshuggah #17 via photopin (license)


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