Heavy Blog Is Heavy’s Best Of series takes musical genres and categories and highlights our staff’s personal favorites. You can read more entries from this series here.
In this installment of ‘Best of’, the Heavy Blog staff get down and dirty with some of the meanest, sickest riffs around. We didn’t limit the genres here too much; unlike our other Best Of lists, we want for effect rather than intent. Does it make you bang your head so hard your neck hurts? Is the urge to air guitar irresistible? Does it connect to that visceral place to which metal always speaks on some level? Then it’s on this list. We’ve collected these albums in the hopes that you’ll find catharsis, a vent to your aggression and an outlet for your passions. It seems weird to include a long intro paragraph into what’s, at its core, a simple and direct collection of sounds. So, without wasting anymore of your time, head on below, turn your speakers loud and dive into some of the most groove inducing, neck-breaking, head-swaying tracks that metal can offer.
Mastodon – Blood Mountain
Long before the guitars slowed and the themes were made more subtle, Mastodon were about one thing and one thing alone: blistering, evocative and aggressive metal. Informed by the imagery of wild beasts, the band let loose from their gut, creating intricate, progressive and powerful tracks. Blood Mountain might foreshadow their quieter future but still contains more than enough umph to be on this list; from “Crystal Mountain” to “Colony of Birchmen” the riffs are thick, fast and plentiful, churning on this machine of metal.
Nowhere is the energy more uncontainable than in “The Wolf is Loose”. Ushered in by break-neck drums, the track takes its time, establishing its core structure. Only later, around the two minute track, do things start to shift and vary, creating one of the most convincing and memorable bridges that Mastodon have ever written. The joint vocals work beautifully above the slightly down-shifted guitars, calling forth the drums to their explosive ending. The main riff is ushered back in and we’re back in the belly of the whale, cartwheeling towards the end, breath knocked out from us through and through.
I love Mastodon’s later work but there’s something about the sheer honesty and immediacy of this track and, indeed, the album itself that makes me long for the old days. They were the go to band for headbanging and beers, the source for complex, fast, aggressive metal. Whether they return to that or not, we will always be able to run with the wolf under the blood mountain and for that, we should be eternally grateful.
Meshuggah – Nothing
One may argue to hell and back about the merits (and even superiority) of Meshuggah’s earlier, more thrash-influenced work, and make some extremely valid points in doing so. But there is no denying that 2002’s Nothing is where their mathematical grasp of rhythm and groove reached another plane entirely — a plane countless bands have since tried to reach through blatant imitation but to little avail. Within the context of Meshuggah’s own discography, Nothing’s slow tempos and stripped down sound may initially seem like an odd choice for a list about music to headbang to, especially when the band already had much more straightforward bangers such as “Corridor of Chameleons” and the eternal “Future Breed Machine” on earlier albums. That being said, Nothing arguably introduced the metal world to the concept of combining overly intricate rhythms and unheard of time signatures with a pulse that remained almost impossible to not headbang to, bringing forth a new rhythmic energy by liberally exploring grooves well outside the realm of 4/4.
Cosmic masterpiece “Straws Pulled at Random” (tell me the extended outro doesn’t make you feel like you’re floating through space) as well as “Rational Gaze” both dabble frequently in odd, unpredictable rhythms all while maintaining their energetic quality, while the crushing “Nebulous” and “Stengah” sound like they could make the earth itself quake in sync with their massive, lumbering grooves. While some of the odd twists and turns on Nothing may admittedly take some time to get accustomed to, the interlocking grooves soon find themselves committed to instinct, and once has fallen that far into the deep end, there’s no turning back.
At the Gates – Slaughter of the Soul
This is where it all came to a head for At The Gates, and arguably for melodic death metal, too. The record that birthed a hundred imitators, and tied with Wolverine Blues as quite possibly the most influential melodeath album of all time. At The Gates previous releases, The Red In The Sky is Ours and With Fear I Kiss The Burning Darkness, were excellent melodic death metal albums that were forward thinking and progressive in their execution and inclusion of elements not normally seen in the genre, but Slaughter of The Soul is where At The Gates truly honed their songwriting to a razor’s edge. From the very first song, Anders Björler’s energetic guitar riffs and Adrian Erlandsson’s drumming strike a perfect balance between death metal ferocity and straight-ahead groove. Every song on Slaughter of The Soul, save for the atmospheric album closer, is packed with incredible riffs that are just brimming with energy.
The album’s slightly more stripped down approach to instrument layers and songwriting works in it’s favor compared to earlier albums, allowing the furious riffs and groove driven songwriting to take center stage without sounding muddy or getting lost in the mix. Everything about Slaughter of The Soul works in service to the song, and At The Gates strip away any extraneous elements that may dilute the core sound they were striving to achieve, and while the scaling back of some elements from previous albums may be seen as somewhat of a regression, all arguments over the matter are silenced when the album actually plays. The riffs contained within are absolutely infectious, and will get stuck in your head for days after listening. Few albums go harder than Slaughter of The Soul, and nothing gets me headbanging faster
Iced Earth – Something Wicked This Way Comes
Iced Earth is a band that has tried so hard to stay relevant, active for more than thirty years and consistently releasing full-length records since 1990. Though their legacy cannot be denied, the unfortunate reality is that what is “popular” in the heavy metal scene just isn’t the same as the power/thrash flavor they’ve been sporting pretty much their entire career. The great part, however, is even if their recent material is tired and formulaic, that doesn’t stop their past material from being any less excellent. 1996 saw the very cool Spawn-inspired concept album The Dark Saga, but the album that has been a listening beacon in their discography was certainly 1998’s Something Wicked This Way Comes. Our first glimpse at the Set Abominae concept by rhythm guitarist and lead songwriter Jon Schaffer, the album begins with the headbangingly-good “Burning Times” and has very few lulls throughout, with “Reaping Stone” standing as the weakest track on the record. Even slower songs like “Melancholy” and “Watching Over Me” have their moments that will have your head bobbing, however. The album culminates with the precursory Set Abominae trilogy in “Prophecy,” “Birth of the Wicked,” and “The Coming Curse,” providing us with the tale of a chosen child who will bring the apocalypse.
Nearly 20-years-old and still as crisp as the day it released, Something Wicked This Way Comes may not be for everyone’s tastes these days, but it’s hard to deny that it’ll still get you moving with sick power/thrash stylings from the late ’90s.
Lamb of God – As the Palaces Burn
No band is truly flying the flag of unabashed, no-frills metal at such a high level quite like Lamb of God. Since their start, they’ve slowly climbed the ranks as arguably the single most important group to emerge from the “new wave of American metal,” and 2003’s As the Palaces Burn is still their most lethal collection of songs to date. Though it’s been thankfully remastered (the album’s initial mix was rife with technological mishaps), there was no denying the band’s savagery right out of the gate with “Ruin.” Once you’ve been sufficiently bludgeoned by monstrous grooves that harken the best aspects of Pantera, the band is off to the races with the melodeath-esque title track.
Then you’ll find yourself greeted by a masterful guitar solo from Megadeth’s Chris Poland in “Purified.” Do you see where this pattern is going? This is an absolutely essential piece of heavy music. As the Palaces Burn is the perfect amalgamation of everything that the band won over the world with. It’s got the raw nature of the band’s early days, the catchy and concise songwriting of Sacrament, the political leanings of Ashes of the Wake, and more spine-shattering riffs than you’ll know what to deal with. Even the album’s more obscure tracks like “Blood Junkie” and “For Your Malice” boast some of the band’s finest musical ideas and climaxes. We probably assume you’ve at least heard some of this album over the past 13 years (has it really been that long?!) but let this serve as a reminder to check this out with a fresh set of ears.
The Tony Danza Tapdance Extravaganza – Danza III: The Series Of Unfortunate Events
Maybe the most unconvincing pick out of all of these for a “headbanging” album but do you know what? I’ve hurt myself listening to this particular record, far more than any other in existence because it is a headbanging marathon. Doesn’t matter how jarring the shifts between time signatures and riffs get, Danza III is hands down my favourite album to put on to get the neck muscles popping and pulling. With its roots in mathcore mayhem, every track has ample opportunities to windmill, chin to chest bang or that awkward side to side movement; you know the one, when the 4/4 man doesn’t even think about turning up. It’s only fitting that I get to write about this album for Heavy Blog Is Heavy because I wouldn’t know it existed without these guys. Still my favourite find anywhere online, this album changed what I looked for in music and changed my interpretation of heavy music from the ground up. A soundtrack to the end of the world, sure, but one that will have me threatening whiplash the whole way down into the ground, flailing and screaming.
Deftones – Around the Fur
Any of the Big Four come to mind as fair additions to this list (I’m almost sweating at the thought of adding Reign in Blood), as do more hardcore acts like the Dillinger Escape Plan or Converge, who really tap into the wild, near-heart-attack-level pulse of metal. But I’m going to take a different route. I submit to you the second Deftones album, Around The Fur.
While perhaps best known for their 2000 album White Pony, or their spectacular 2010 release Diamond Eyes, these Sacramento-based boys have been pummeling people with their music since their beginning in 1988. However, Deftones will rock your mind in a distinct way.
I personally like to think of their music as a vehicle of sort: in Around the Fur we have the combination of Stephen Carpenter (guitar), Abe Cunningham (drums) the (now) late Chi Cheng (bass) creating a nifty, grooving sort of car. Not too posh, not too complex—pretty straightforward, but incredibly powerful. And then we add the vocal talents of Chino Moreno, whose whispers and inhale screams add a layer of personality not usually seen on a lot of ‘90s metal—metal fused with softness. Think roses made from razorblades.
While much of Around the Fur is the traditional, head-banging awesomeness we come to expect (with tracks like “My Own Summer,” “Dai the Flu,” and the Max Cavalera-featuring “Headup”), it also has a variety of songs that take that same grooving formula and twist it and play around with it. Yes, a track like “Mascara,” may not have the same sentiments—in fact, the emotions evoked with this track in particular are more on the morose side—but they are head-banging in their own, very dark way, as you want to break your neck in time to Cunningham’s tight drums.
Is it the heaviest thing out there? No. Is it the most head-banging out there? Again, no; but Deftones does what they do best and mixes things up and experiments in their own singular way.
Gojira – From Mars to Sirius
I just couldn’t bear the thought of this list not including an entry for Gojira. Such is the burden of the editor! Choosing from this band’s impressive discography based on headbanging is a complex task: on one hand, every single one of their albums contains at least one masterpiece of aggression, speed and impact. On the other hand, we’re looking for the ultimate in that special mix of groove, violence and power that creates the impossible to resist urge to destroy. For that, we need look no further than From Mars to Sirius. While Gojira’s other albums are all excellent, From Mars to Sirius manages something that only Terra Incognita got close to: the perfect blend of complexity and prowess.
On the prowess front, we choose “Backbone” and “The Heaviest Matter of the Universe”, both supported by mean, fat, drowning riffs that launch them, from beginning to end, into an overpowering assault on our hearing. The signature vocals are also very much present in both of them, almost outgunning the guitars in their race to obliterate us. On the complexity side, we lean on “Flying Whales”, by now a metal anthem for the ages, and “From the Sky”, with their more varied interplay between verse and chorus. This interplay only serves to punch the heavy parts home, contrasting them with buildup and catharsis, inhaled breath and explosive release. The whole package itself is a joy to be heard: I don’t know when’s the last time you listened to this masterpiece of an album from start to finish, but it’s an experience which leaves you oddly calm, like the sea after a massive storm, and that’s what all good headbanging music should do.