What we have here is a list of the heaviest guitar albums of all time. There can be few more contentious issues in the world today. What constitutes heaviness? How can we define such an elusive quality? Where does the electric guitar figure in all this?
These are questions up there with pineapple on a pizza. They can ruin relationships. They do not make for first date conversation. But even if we don’t settle this here and now, hopefully this will get people thinking about heavy music, and the role guitar plays in creating it. Compiling a list such this requires generous saucing with the caveats and an advance mea culpa to the sins of omission (sorry, Obituary, Cathedral, the Peaceville Trio…)
First, let’s talk heaviness: what does it mean and how can we define it? Heaviness in music as a quasi-physical phenomenon – quantifiable, even – as though it conforms to physical laws: crank the amp, crank the gain, tune down, palm-mute for impact and go. Simple. And yet, the feeling of heaviness doesn’t always translate.
Mainstream metal is an artform constructed with respect to such physical laws and yet it often lacks what we might intuit as heavy. Take a Limp Bizkit chorus or a Korn riff; all the ingredients are there, and by a certain metric, sure, they are heavy, but there’s something missing. If it was that easy, any fool with a Diezel VH4, or – heck, it’s 2022 – a guitar amp modeler with a comprehensive high-gain preset can string their guitar up with a set of 13s, tune down to A and they’d be heavy.
Heaviness can be at the mercy of tempo. Some riffs lose their power once the BPM is raised. Speed kills. There is also a difference between extreme and heavy. Grindcore and black metal might exist at the frontier of extreme music, but heaviness often feels reductive as an adjective; the punk-rock hyper kinetics of the former and the necro über-evil of the latter pulls both toward a related but distinct emotional conclusion.
Another way of looking at it is as heaviness being a function of atmosphere and intent, to say it is an abstract phenomenon, something beyond the vulgarity of mere signal-chain physics. Something spiritual, intellectual. Something intuited.
Whatever. Heaviness is all of the above. And maybe it is best defined by the following recordings.
There are some rules to encourage variety: only one album per artist, not everything is funeral doom, and the order in which these albums are listed is less significant than why they were selected. Think of it as a desert island collection of heavy guitar records – an excuse, if needed, to expand the pedalboard with more distortion and fuzz pedal options. To dime your guitar amp more often.
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30. Slayer – South of Heaven (1988)
Guitarists: Jeff Hanneman, Kerry King
Reign in Blood is the greatest heavy metal album of all time, but there’s something about the post-apocalyptic arrangements, Rick Rubin’s production and – crucially – the tempo on its follow-up that makes it all the more effective at chilling the spine.
South of Heaven was a reaction to its predecessor’s speed. It opens to the title track’s signature riff, guitars that sound as though they’ve been expelled from the celestial city. With great economy – and reverb – Hanneman’s riff, written years before he had found a use for it, maps out the emotional contours of a bleak and merciless record. Reign in Blood has the spectacle. Seasons in the Abyss is blockbuster turn-of-the-decade thrash.
With tracks such as Mandatory Suicide, Live Undead, and Spill the Blood, oh, and that 10-string B.C. Rich on the intro giving it a harpsichord/12-string necro-Byrds vibe, South of Heaven? It’s a full-on haunting of mind, body and soul.
29. Entombed – Left Hand Path (1990)
Guitarists: Uffe Cederlund, Alex Hellid
It’s one of the most influential electric guitar tones in metal history, and still one of the heaviest, the Sunlight Studio sound pioneered by Entombed with producer Tomas Skogsberg put Entombed and Stockholm death metal on the map.
Tuned down to B, one guitar went through a Boss HM-2 into a small Peavey Studio Pro 40 combo for the necro buzzsaw tone, with another going into a 50-watt Marshall combo with a Boss DS-1 distortion pedal in front of it. But maybe the mixing desk had something to do with it as well.
As Skogsberg explained to Guitar World in 2020, his desk is taking in too much electricity and is liable to explode. “I treat it like an old car,” he said. “I just don’t touch it. I do feel it is something that is good for sound.”
For Entombed, the HM-2 guitar tone gave their compositions a savage quality that wouldn’t have worked with one of those state-of-the-art high-gain tones. It wasn’t something that could have or should have been house-trained. How Boss must have been thankful that a hitherto overlooked pedal would assume such cultural importance. After 1990, everybody wanted one. They still do.
28. Electric Wizard – We Live (2004)
Guitarists: Liz Buckingham, Jus Oborn
The prevailing wisdom tells us that Dopethrone (2000) is the undisputed high point – no pun indented – in the Electric Wizard canon, and there’s plenty of evidence to back that up. An album of hallucinatory hedonism, it finds Jus Oborn’s voice and guitar dissolving in time with his brain, and you’ll have to go far to find a more convincing hymnal to the spiritual renewal and ultimate ruin of lifestyle extremism.
But We Live marked a new era for Electric Wizard, with Liz Buckingham (formerly of 13 and Sourvein) proving the ideal foil for Oborn on guitar. Whatever is lost in fried-brain fuzz is generously reimbursed in the form of more loose-leaf psychedelia.
And on The Sun Has Turned to Black, the epic head-trip of Saturn’s Children and the title track, ‘Electric Wizard II’ comes through with three more classic doom tracks.
27. YOB – Clearing the Path to Ascend (2014)
Guitarist: Mike Scheidt
What Mike Scheidt has done with YOB, and by extension the artform of doom metal as a whole, is nothing short of remarkable. Not only has he extended the spiritual depth and range of its aesthetic, he has somehow taken his band from the club circuit to the pages of the New York Times and the New Yorker, as though he’s some kind of Lin-Manuel Miranda of doom.
Nevertheless, doom metal and YOB will remain an underground concern, and that’s just fine. It’s the underground where the creative soil is most fertile. It is difficult to pick a moment when YOB’s sound scaled the Kilimanjaro of Scheidt’s musical ambitions, but it was probably on Clearing the Path to Ascend.
Here, the enlightenment and mindfulness ennobles the heavyweight riffs wrung from his custom Monson Nomad, and in Marrow, doom had one of its most ambitious and miraculous compositions, one that could be performed on acoustic guitar without losing any of its power.
26. Mastodon – Remission (2002)
Guitarists: Brent Hinds, Bill Kelliher
The breakout success of Leviathan and its successors forever associated Mastodon as a band game for lashing a big ol’ concept to the bow and steering the songwriting accordingly. And although Remission is no concept album, its titles read as though heaviness were the guiding principle.
Crusher Destroyer, Trampled Under Hoof, Where Strides the Behemoth, and so it goes… Songs, each and every one of them, written to present the idea of heavy music as something breathtaking, to be savored with a sense of awe.
Brent Hinds and Bill Kelliher’s guitars are pitched low and leave nothing standing. There was no shortage of fire in their bellies as they adapted the low-end impact of Melvins with the time-signature promiscuity of jazz and prog. And in March of the Fire Ants, they had a calling card in one of metal’s most spectacular riffs.
25. Metallica – …And Justice for All (1988)
Guitarists: James Hetfield, Kirk Hammett
Metallica formally exited the underground on 12 August 1991, when The Black Album established the Bay Area’s Fab Four as a stadium-filling concern. And little wonder. Where else could they have gone after …And Justice for All? This was the mic drop, the logical conclusion of a musical evolution that began in ’83 with the Friday night headbanger Hit the Lights and thrashed itself to a conclusion with Dyers Eve.
Metallica have been more heavy in isolated moments – the Lovecraftian doom of The Thing That Should Not Be springs to mind – but never have they sustained it over such long-form arrangements. The production, much derided for the absence of Jason Newsted’s bass guitar, is critical, and gives Hetfield and Hammett’s scooped chug a distant, frigid quality that makes their multi-layered guitars sound impermeable.
The byzantine title-track, the blackhearted Harvester of Sorrow, the tritone powerchord heft of The Frayed Ends of Sanity; the fatalistic songwriting fits the sound. Even when the tempo is jacked, with Lars Ulrich’s rat-a-tat snare peppering the jam, Metallica’s Justice sound sheds none of its body mass.
24. Death – Leprosy (1988)
Guitarists: Chuck Schuldiner, Rick Rozz
There is an argument to be said that, of all the great death metal bands, Death were the least heavy. But given Chuck Schuldiner is the most important guitar player in death metal history, a Top 30 without anything from the Death canon would feel incomplete.
Schuldiner broadened death metal’s horizons, dragging it out of the fetid gore and unworked thrash into something more sophisticated, programming intelligence into its necro physiology, and in the process recruiting some of the most technically gifted musicians the scene has had.
The evolutionary pivot was Spiritual Healing, Death’s third album, where savagery and virtuosity began to align, but you can hear the seeds of musical progressivism germinating in its predecessor, Leprosy. The ideas were getting bigger, and the arrangements stretched to accommodate them – like on Pull the Plug, a death metal analog to Metallica’s One, and on on the epic, dynamic Choke on It.
If Leprosy is not the heaviest death metal guitar album, it’s possibly the gnarliest, worthy of Ed Repka’s career-best cover art, and essential listening. And if this were a list of best extreme metal guitar albums, Leprosy would surely be in the top five.
23. Vastum – Hole Below (2015)
Guitarists: Leila Abdul-Rauf, Shelby Lermo
Vastum play an ugly brand of death metal that eases itself into a jacking groove to spin lurid tales inspired by the depravity of Georges Bataille’s imagination, post-coital urinary tract infections, and, y’know, other NSFW death metal fare from a noticeable carnal POV.
Something magic happens at Vastum’s preferred tempo. It’s a fine balance. With these jams, any slower and they might lose impetus. Any faster and the groove might perish.
Abdul-Rauf was good enough to share the secrets behind this guitar tone. She tunes her B.C. Rich Mockingbird down to B standard, runs it through channel three of a Mesa/Boogie Triple Rectifier, maxing out gain and presence and driving a Marshall 4x12 1960A&B 300-watt stack.
As ever, the story of the heaviest guitar albums is never just about the guitar. Daniel Butler’s bestial throat perfectly complements the riff work, and Adam Perry on drums is a diligent shepherd of that aforementioned groove.
22. Boris – Amplifier Worship (1998)
Guitarists: Takeshi, Wata
When it comes to picking a musical style to play around in, Boris are inveterate channel surfers. You never know exactly what you are going to get but almost always a lush, effervescent wash of fuzz is brewing. Amplifier Worship opens to find the Japanese trio invested in the construction of oversized doom jams whose size is only matched by their minimalism.
Huge is aptly named, a beast of droning open chords that gets more tightly wound as it finds its feet. The epic Ganbouki plays out in two acts: the first in the hypnotic stab of downtuned guitar; the second in droning guitar and feedback and programmed percussion.
And then we’ve got the freakout, feel-good sludge of Hama, the second-half ambience of Kurumizu and the Earth-inspired drone of Vomitself closing things out with guitars that can't decide between cautious euphoria and warning of a gathering storm.
21. Kylesa – Static Tensions (2009)
Guitarists: Philip Cope, Laura Pleasants
There was something in the air in Georgia at the turn of the century, with a generation of bands – Baroness, Mastodon, Zoroaster, Kylesa – each constructing a sound around the riff and embracing the creative destruction of low tunings at high volume. No two sounded alike, of course, but you could call it a scene if you wanted to, and Static Tensions is one of the best albums to come out of it, maybe even the heaviest, too.
Doubling up on the drummers, doubling up on the guitar, Kylesa performed a neat trick in keeping that super-heavy low-register sound light on its feet. Formed by alumni of crusty, sludgy hardcore band Damad, there was always an antic energy underpinning the weight of the riffs.
Tracks such as Scapegoat were like sludge competing against the clock, the forward motion of drummers Carl McGinley and Eric Hernandez proving irresistible for guitar players weaned on punk.
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20. Suffocation – Pierced from Within (1995)
Guitarists: Doug Cerrito, Terrance Hobbs
The recorded works of the Long Island death metal quintet were largely responsible for the word ‘brutal’ entering the patois of the extreme metal fan, stylized in the now passé forum-friendly format ‘br00tal’.
Some modes of death metal require the guitars to tune down and rot. Others require a pedantic noise gate to trim it into the physical ideal of an über-metal rhythm tone. What Terrance Hobbs and Doug Cerrito did was split the difference, finding a way of making sure the technicality was not lost in the mix while retaining the whiff of gore.
They could switch things up, too. Tracks like Breeding the Spawn defined the Suffo style, throwing chum for the slam heads and writing with the full knowledge it would ignite the pit – that mid-section breakdown on Breeding was seminal. The likes of Torn into Enthrallment showed another side to them, and proved they had the songwriting nous to sit at the table with death metal’s elite.
19. Nile – Annihilation of the Wicked (2005)
Guitarists: Karl Sanders, Dallas Toler-Wade
A landmark release for technicality in death metal, Annihilation of the Wicked found Nile far upstream in the heart of darkness, under the thrall of an Egyptomania that has given their songwriting such breadth and scope. After all, when your writing is inspired by the grand majesty of Khufu, Khafre, and Menkaure, it doesn’t pay to do anything by halves.
Some of these tracks will invariably be doubled with a guitar tuned an octave above A and sitting low in the mix; it’s one of Sanders’ signature moves. As Sanders explained to us in 2019, for all the “insane wrist-breaking” technicality, he’ll leave space for a simple hook that’ll stick with the audience.
“Sometimes the riffs, the ideas that are simpler, make a more direct connection and you can allow it to have that weight,” he said. “Heaviness, doom, it’s a very elusive quality. If you get too tricky with it you lose that feeling of doom very quickly. It’s fleeting. It will run away, like a deer!”
18. Demilich – Nespithe (1993)
Guitarists: Aki Hytönen, Antti Boman
Demilich enjoyed a mayflower existence, forming in 1990, putting their sound together over four demos, launching one of the best death metal records of all time, then disbanding in ’93. But Nespithe, their sole full-length studio recording, leaves quite the legacy. A foundational text for discerning tech death metal heads, its complex anatomy – all spidery, atonal guitar and feel changes – never detracts from the impermeable darkness.
There’s a jazzy, avant-garde approach to the writing, and a pure horror aspect to the performances. That Antti Boman sounds as though he’s gargling compost while tracking vocals only adds to the vibe. The guitar tones were gloriously raw. Boman reportedly used a Tokai Metal Driver TMD-1 distortion pedal through a Yamaha G100 solid-state head, and Aki Hytönen occupied the right-hand side of the mix with a Boss and a JCM800.
17. Napalm Death – Harmony Corruption (1990)
Guitarists: Mitch Harris, Jesse Pintado
Having recorded definitive grindcore releases in the shape of their 1987 debut album, Scum, and follow-up From Enslavement to Obliteration, Napalm Death pulled a handbrake turn into death metal for Harmony Corruption. It is sometimes overlooked, as though the Birmingham grind institution’s sojourn to Tampa, Florida, to work with the pioneering Scott Burns at Morrisound, was off-brand.
The strength of the songwriting, the performances, and a guitar sound that put full-frequency muscle behind the riffs, however, would argue that it was a masterstroke, and it saw Napalm Death establish a death-grind hybrid sound that would later be occupied by the likes of Carcass, Misery Index, et al.
Sonically, it’s perfect. Mick Harris’s snare drum is like a 12-bore going off, the ‘Human Tornado’ offering the perfect platform for Mitch Harris and Jesse Pintado to reshape death metal with a brutal, punk energy, none more evident than on Suffer the Children, which by this point is is pretty much the deathgrind Ace of Spades.
16. Pantera – Far Beyond Driven (1994)
Guitarist: Dimebag Darrell
Okay, here’s a mainstream pick, and Pantera’s Far Beyond Driven is all the more subversive because it really did belly flop into the mainstream, hitting the number one spot on the Billboard 200.
Was that evidence that the audience for super-aggressive metal was growing, that the record-buying public had developed a taste for extremity, or had Pantera simply assembled a broad coalition of all metal’s tribes? It was surely a bit of both.
Pantera circa-’94 lacked no sense of purpose, taking the street-tough workout of A Vulgar Display of Power and finding new ways of making it even harsher. Part of this effort involved the ongoing military offensive against midrange in guitar tone.
Here, the battle was reaching its climax, with Dimebag defining the contours of pre-millennial chug with a Dean ML and a solid-state Randall RG-100. The newly commissioned DigiTech Whammy pedal introduced high-end anarchy but, as ever, Far Beyond Driven was all about jamming out and finding hostile grooves to bloody noses with.
15. Swans – Cop (1984)
Guitarist: Norman Westberg
To call Cop a guitar album feels a little reductive. And yet the guitar gives Cop its center of gravity. It puts flesh on this experimental, avant-garde endeavor. Yowling and gnawing, Westberg drags distorted guitar through drummer Roli Mosimann’s shambling beats while Michael Gira expounds on exploitation and bodily existentialism, ambiguous poetry delivered in a meter that’s difficult by design, hypnotic in its delivery.
The ugliness is off the charts. This was the first half of the 1980s, remember. It was morning in America. Not here, though. The influence of Swans’ harsh early period was far reaching. Napalm Death alumnus Justin Broadrick was paying attention – they all were. So, too, Neurosis, Khanate, and many others with designs on reshaping extreme music at the margins.
14. Earth – Earth 2 (1993)
Guitarist: Dylan Carlson
A reference text for the drone metal and doom of the next decade, Earth 2 was an off-brand release for Sub Pop to pick up. Nonetheless it found an audience, particularly among metal heads who had tired of speed or had never acquired the taste for it in the first place.
And sure, this is metal, albeit without a drumbeat, without the tyranny of a pumped-up drummer to hold it to account. Just 60 seconds into Earth 2 and there’s no question this is a metal album, just in a style focused on pure elementary expression. Carlson’s guitar is like a gathering storm, dispersing in the soft-focus decay of fuzz, becoming one with and the adjacent low-end frequencies from bassist Dave Harwell.
Earth 2 is a massage chair for the inner ear, and over an unhurried 70-minute-plus running time it inveigles its way through the rest of the body, shaking your timber. What falls out are ideas, inspiration, and perhaps even the promise of an epiphany. Metal needed that then, as now. And Carlson’s Morbid Angel longsleeve on the sleeve brings us nicely to the next entry…
13. Morbid Angel – Covenant (1993)
Guitarist: Trey Azagthoth
Trey Azagthoth is the Eddie Van Halen of death metal and Covenant is kinda like Morbid Angel’s Women and Children First, a release confirming what we already knew but proving once more that there were depths and multitudes to these bands’ creative powers.
Having already perfected the art-form on their 1989 debut, Altars of Madness, the Florida death metal pioneers had the imagination to augment it in ways that deepened our understanding of the genre’s power. Blessed Are the Sick served notice that Morbid Angel could play around with the tempo and stay on-message, before the release of the seven-string Ibanez Universe gave Azagthoth new ideas for where he could take Covenant.
He made good use of the Steve Vai-designed SuperStrat on God of Emptiness, Blood on My Hands and World of Shit (The Promised Land), and was ably supported by drummer Pete ‘Commando’ Sandoval turning in another virtuoso performance.
12. Meshuggah – obZen (2008)
Guitarists: Mårtin Hagström, Fredrik Thordendal
It is ironic that the djent and progressive metal genres can be traced back to Meshuggah’s catalog of rhythmically complex metal, because those who followed in the Swedish iconoclasts’ footsteps possessed little of their spectacular power.
Meshuggah were well and truly in the groove and off-grid by the time obZen was tracked. At the time, drummer Tomas Haake – the veritable auteur of this style – explained how the band were almost hermetically sealed from outside influences. The internal logic of the band’s creative instincts was not to be polluted.
How it paid off. Tracking direct via a Line 6 Vetter II digital modeling amp was unconventional but it removed two potential weak links in the signal path and produced an alien, inorganic electric guitar tone that was perfect for this material. Some people hated it. That’s a good sign when you are reimagining heavy metal in real-time.
11. Winter – Into Darkness (1990)
Guitarist: Stephen Flam
Winter took their name from an Amebix song and carried that monochrome crust-punk aesthetic into their musical outlook with a bleaker-than-thou sound heavily informed by the Hellhammer/Celtic Frost paradigm.
The New York trio were never prolific. Into Darkness would be their only full-length album before they disbanded in 1992, reuniting to play the Sunn O)))-curated Roadburn Festival in 2011.
But their influence can be heard on pretty much any death/doom band worth their salt. Winter were always closer to punk in mindset, even if the music was doom, and their sound lives on not only in those who have ripped them off over the years – that list is long – but in guitarist Stephen Flam’s new project, Göden, too, which takes its name from a Winter track and sees Flam play an array of custom-made guitars he co-designed himself.
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10. SubRosa – More Constant Than the Gods (2013)
Guitarist: Rebecca Vernon
Rebecca Vernon’s downtuned guitar is played on strings as thick as tow-ropes and fed through a dimed Sunn stack. There’s no shortage of bass guitar in the mix to offer a foundation. And while all that alone would be enough to make a heavy record, the other stringed instruments have a lot to do with it, too. Sarah Pendleton and Kim Pack’s violins – and occasionally the latter’s cello – fill out the frequency bandwidth, and gave the sadly disbanded SubRosa a sound like no other.
SubRosa had a wider dynamic range than their doom metal peers, a grandeur built around Vernon’s monumental guitar tone. Using a relatively vanilla Schecter Diamond Series C-1 Blackjack, Vernon’s guitar sound was an organic, analog center of gravity that holds everything else in its orbit, in equilibrium.
And so, when SubRosa would take a stylistic left turn – as on the minimal neo-folk drone of Fat of the Ram – Vernon’s layers of low-end gain and heat act as the great emulsifier.
9. Blood Incantation – Starspawn (2016)
Guitarists: Paul Riedl, Morris Kolontyrsky
Death metal had spent a decade or so reanimating styles first aired in the ‘90s, when along came Blood Incantation out of Denver, Colorado, to drag it out of its complacency and breathe new life into the genre with a sound informed by Terence McKenna, psychedelic experiences, alien civilization and the expansion of the human consciousness.
Paul Riedl and Morris Kolontyrsky’s virtuosity plays a big part in the Blood Incantation sound, and came to the fore on their second album, Hidden History of the Human Race, which is all alien-jazz death metal riffs and meticulously constructed chaos. But it is the intention behind their sound that identifies Blood Incantation as a break in the evolutionary timeline of the genre.
Their debut is a study in cosmic heaviness, a marriage of the primitive and the mindful, an out-of-body experience you can put on a turntable. There are roots that stretch into death metal’s past – the raw, analog production, the primitivism in riffs – but also a tantalizing glimpse of its future, one augmented by krautrock repetition and jazz’s unorthodox phrasing.
8. Melvins – Gluey Porch Treatments (1987)
Guitarist: Buzz Osborne
It only took six minutes and 15 seconds for Gluey Porch Treatments to reconfigure underground punk and metal and inspire an entire generation of bands to pick up guitars and follow Buzz Osborne down the rabbit hole, chasing a sound that was heavy like Black Sabbath, weird like Captain Beefheart, and as angry as hardcore punk.
The Melvins’ ethos, if there is one, is to be pissed off with a smile on your face, and it has served them well over a sprawling catalog that takes the scenic route through sludge, metal, punk, noise, alt-rock, and whatever idea comes to mind.
The styles evolve subtly from song to song, from one record to the next, but Gluey Porch Treatments is the Rosetta Stone; it gives the Melvins sound its grammar, with complex rhythms belying the insouciant mode in which they play. Be angry with a smile on your face; be complex; but don’t look like you’re trying too hard.
There’s not a sludge band on the planet who hasn’t had their mind and riff vocabulary expanded by Gluey Porch Treatments, and after all this time it still sounds pretty damn radical.
7. Beherit – Drawing Down the Moon (1993)
Guitarist: Nuclear Holocausto
Cosmic, avant garde, unique, Drawing Down the Moon is the perfect headphones record for the black metal enthusiast raised on Buck Rogers and arrested by the infinite potential of a clear night sky. Sure, Satanic hugger-mugger informs the songwriting, and it was recorded in Kuopio, Finland, but Nuclear Holocausto’s production makes it sound as though this has landed here from Andromeda.
Mr Holocausto – né Marko Laiho – has an ear for off-kilter riffs and a guitar tone constructed of savage and primal fuzz. But heaviness here does not come from guitar tone alone; it is how he deploys it, sometimes burying it in the mix as the audio-manipulated whispered growl of his vocals drowns everything out, and at others bringing it to the fore as though pulling us in and out of consciousness.
One for the psychonauts, the space heads, and those capable of imagining great evil out there among the stars.
6. Godflesh – Streetcleaner (1989)
Guitarist: Justin Broadrick, Paul Neville
Godflesh’s seminal industrial sound could be musically interpreted as the fusion of man and machine, with its creative core of Justin Broadrick and G.C. Green pitching guitar, bass and throat against the propulsive rhythms of an Alesis HR-16.
They might be in concert and time with each other, but there’s a sense that they are at war with the machine – literally, when it would break down live, and thematically, in how it echoed the pressure of modern, urbanized living.
Godflesh is all about urbanism, the alienation of city life, the inhuman architecture and claustrophobic realization that a future in a factory beckoned. After cutting his teeth in Napalm Death, Justin Broadrick found a more appropriate medium for his anxieties, dehumanizing the electric guitar with overwhelming distortion, creating inhospitable sound with a synaesthetic quality; you can almost smell the smokestacks, the exhaust fumes. And like Broadrick, you’ll want out, too.
5. Floor – Oblation (2014)
Guitarists: Steve Brooks, Anthony Vialon
Floor’s full-length comeback album should have come with a warning – perhaps the advice that prayers should be offered for the safety and integrity of your hi-fi system’s speaker cones. It’s not like we weren’t warned, with the Florida sludge band’s early 21st-century output serving notice that low-end guitar can indeed cause structural damage.
But Oblation, perhaps because it needed to be given that it was a reunion, and that calls for renewed vigor, takes the Floor sound further.
Tracks such as Trick Scene might well disavow you of the notion that the electric guitar is essentially a midrange instrument. Here, and throughout Oblation’s running time, they move in on the bass player’s registers and outmuscle everything else. This leaves plenty of space up high for Brooks’ vocals.
Where much of sludge is performed in a register of disgust and nihilism, Floor – and Brooks’ interregnum band Torche, whose 2008 album Meanderthal is a breezy pop-sludge masterpiece – works the borderland between bitter and sweet like it were the Mona Lisa smile of underground rock/metal.
4. Sleep – Dopesmoker (1999)
Guitarist: Matt Pike
Dopesmoker was so heavy it killed the band. It was too heavy for the label, London, who had no idea what to do with an hour-long stoner-doom song whose epic territories were irrigated solely by bong water. The band themselves did not know what to do with it. That, however, is often the case when the magic happens – it wouldn’t be magic if it were easily explained, right?
Black Sabbath and whoever first cultivated marijuana have a lot to answer for. With Sleep, Matt Pike’s guitar would sit low on the high-volume of a Green Matamp stack. Close-mic’d Pignose amps were one studio trick he’d use to get enough sustain, but with Dopesmoker – a record constructed on the principles of patience and sustain – there could never be enough.
Even as the arrangements grew out of hand, Sleep pressed on, processing the lessons gleaned from Iommi et al and taking the sound established on the first two albums and stretching out into the abstract. If the story ever gets documented in an audiobook, we want Brad Pitt’s Floyd from True Romance narrating. It’ll have a happy ending, too. The full version eventually got released as intended.
3. Black Sabbath – Master of Reality (1971)
Guitarist: Tony Iommi
Having already established heavy metal as an exhilarating outgrowth of hard rock over two albums of exquisite songwriting and an uncanny ear for the macabre, Black Sabbath pulled this new style into weeds and foregrounded a sense of pure doom.
It did not come without humor. Even at their heaviest, Sabbath retained a sense of irony, an appreciation of the absurd, and they duly opened Master of Reality by sending a hacking cough sputtering across the stereo field on a heavyweight joint titled Sweet Leaf. But Tony Iommi’s riffs had grown a thick pelt of fuzz that sounded truly elemental tuned down at C#.
The riffs were bigger. The sound was bigger. The purple-on-black typography of the cover has become a visual shorthand in doom metal circles, adopted as a marketing meme.
The dynamics were bigger, too. The all-but-whispered Solitude only serves to accentuate the fact that Sabbath had found a heavier register to their songwriting, a sound so dense that its darkness would remain intact even when performed under the summer sun as at the California Jam in ’74.
2. Triptykon – Melana Chasmata (2014)
Guitarist: Tom G. Warrior
Few have done more to steer the direction of heavy music than Thomas Gabriel Fischer. The coltish Hellhammer gave black metal a vocabulary. Celtic Frost expanded it and proved Fischer, by now operating under the stage name Tom G. Warrior, knew very well how to write a song and, crucially, create an atmosphere with instrumentation that all too often leaves little to the imagination.
Celtic Frost’s Morbid Tales, a debut EP latterly expanded to a full-length, showcased a sound that was darker than anyone else’s at the time, with Procreation (of the Wicked) a tantalizing sign of where their sound might go if left to prosper.
Ultimately, Celtic Frost would come apart, but Fischer persisted, forming Triptykon in 2008, expanding upon the similar style of Monotheist-era Celtic Frost with gothic and new wave elements extending the dynamics.
The broader canvas makes albums such as Melana Chasmata all the more concentrated and powerful, with Fischer’s H.R. Giger custom print Ibanez Iceman happy to assume a supporting role during ethereal passages, and unleashing hell when the moment calls for a bleak, morbid hellscape.
1. Neurosis – Through Silver in Blood (1996)
Guitarists: Scott Kelly, Steve Von Till
What started as a crusty, Amebix-influenced hardcore punk project out of Oakland, California, soon evolved out of sight with an experimental sound that defined post-metal, and became a byword for extremity.
Not that Neurosis are the most extreme band per se; there are others who push the envelope every minute of every recording. But they have a singular gift for seeing deep into the darkness that’s within all of us, that’s in nature itself, and then articulating it in a way that elevates heavy music onto a spiritual plane.
Through Silver in Blood’s effect on the listener is subcutaneous, spoiling. It changes you. It changed Neurosis, too. This was the breakthrough they were threatening. Scott Kelly and Steve Von Till’s guitar sound is punishing but it has to compete with a lot in a dense, complicated mix: bass guitar, keyboards, noise, samples. Then there are those hypnotic drum patterns, too. Again, pulling us deeper into the storm, into the trance.
And Neurosis would take their time, too. Perhaps, with riffs like Purify being so unorthodox, they wanted to give the audience plenty of opportunity to realign themselves to their rhythms, to let it all sink in.
Subsequent recordings would see Neurosis expand their horizons, but this was them at their most apocalyptic, harnessing that end times, eye-of-the-hurricane vibe to open a dark new chapter in the history of heavy music.