I recall with fondness when my friends and I used to argue over who was the hardest band, who was most outrageous, etc. and being teenagers we were of course experts on the subject. But sometimes I think rock and roll has no greater therapeutic value than at a time you don’t worry about the business side, and concentrate on the music and image. Today that’s not possible. Many many people can do their own albums with their computers, ProTools and other programs and apps that sound as good as the old records, but the playing no doubt would leave something to be desired in most cases. Point there is, the business is closer than ever and the magic is farther in the background. If you’re in a place like LA, NYC, Chicago or some larger city that has studios, it’s one thing, but the only “studios” in NW Arkansas were just little hives for local businesses to do radio commercials, and a few had some 4 track or a little larger 16 track machines.
Meanwhile, the fate of the world lie in our tiny hands, because the heaviest, the best, the most butt kicking bands were, we were sure, eager to learn their fates a thousand times an hour before the internet from fans who argued at school lunchtime, during class, drew logos, wore homemade patches, and maybe were lucky enough to see a live show. You know, dedication was on a different level back then. One of the most ferocious battles amongst guitar playing nerds and others who weren’t jocks who were too busy keeping up with disco while they chased pretty girls all over town to try to impress them (if it did, I wasn’t successful) was whether Led Zeppelin or KISS was greater, and whether Jimmy Page or Ace Frehley were the greatest guitar players. My vote went to KISS and Ace Frehley because of their imagery, mystique and simpler straight up rock and roll songs and a mythical reputation as a touring band in the late ’70’s.
Other contenders were of course Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, Aerosmith and Styx, but when Eddie Van Halen was first broadcast, you could hear millions of jaws dropping to the floor worldwide. For a little while, the guitar playing contest was over. Only Jimi Hendrix withstood the comparisons for a while. Jeff Beck is my favorite living guitarist but he wisely laid low because his jazz/fusion was not what would get attention. Today, it’s Beck by a landslide.
Let’s look at 10 seminal ultra heavy albums for their time, and see how the industry reacted, not to mention fans and bands. This is not a completist look because I don’t own every album, but albums I have or at least have a good working knowledge of. I’ve mentioned Link Wray and his infamous “Rumble”, Dick Dale and his great surfing songs and tuff tone for the day, and the Rolling Stones, whose albums usually have enough variety you couldn’t really call them anything but Rolling Stones albums, and the grittiest and toughest rock and roll.
10) Are You Experienced? – Jimi Hendrix Experience
I cannot fathom what impact this monster album had on rock fans when it came out. I was only six so Hendrix really wouldn’t be part of my life until college. But nobody ever welded R & B, soul, blues, jazz and rock and roll to create such an earth shaking new sound. It was so wild no doubt many guitar players probably went back to day jobs, knowing they could never get near this genius.
9) Kick Out The Jams – MC5
Detroit in the late ’60’s was full of riots, demonstrations, etc. and definitely was NOT a hippy town where flower children could go out on Grand Ave. and distribute daffodils to policemen. It was hard, ultra violent, and the MC5 (Motor City 5) saw a war time, not peaceniks to address, and boy, did they ever. In one of the most brazen and ultimately brilliant moves ever, the label decided to do something never done before, and that was to release a live album as the debut. Kick Out The Jams was the result, and it was brutal. The title track was peppered with another word that ensured it would be banned by Hudson’s, Detroit’s biggest department store, and live, the band made sure the fans got the message. With very loud abrasive guitars, hooks and somewhat kitschy sloganeering today, MC5 nonetheless gave us one of the heaviest albums for its day. Still gnarly and raw after all this time.
8) Black Sabbath – Black Sabbath
I won’t declare this debut the bands’ greatest, but it is their definitive doom album, another band that didn’t see the world in peace signs. Ozzy Osbourne’s wail on the title track, the heavier than lead bass lines and guitarist Tony Iommi’s sick huge bends created an album that would be a blueprint for all heavy music to follow.
7) Rocks – Aerosmith
They were the American amalgamation of The Yardbirds and The Rolling Stones, and that blend worked very well for them. But on their fourth album, somebody must have really put a burr under their saddle because Rocks is not just a great album, it’s also one of rock and roll’s heaviest ever. “Sick As A Dog”‘s segue into “Nobody’s Fault” is the building of one of rock and roll’s most titanic riffs ever played. We were absolutely floored by this amazing album, and while I do not care for post ’70’s Aerosmith, this one is one of the albums that raises the heavy quotient again.
6) Van Halen – Van Halen
The story needn’t be retold over and over. It was just truly a mind blowing experience when we got our Van Halen albums, 8 tracks like I did or cassettes, and after “Runnin’ With The Devil”, which had already made our heads spin out of control, the now most-famous-in-this-sector-of-
5) Woman And Children First – Van Halen
Van Halen Yes, it’s a bit weird to have two albums here but the first was for the technique and style, and by the time Van Halen released this album Women and Children First for whatever reason they decided to go as heavy and brutal as possible, and it worked. “The Cradle Will Rock” started out as a good straight up rocker, but from then on, starting with Alex Van Halen’s tribal drum intro sounds started screeching, clawing and annihilating anything that got in the way, giving us “Everybody Wants Some!”. It was just incredible. But not content, Eddie cooks up “Fools”, a boogie that makes you swing like a gorilla in a jazz band. And “Romeo Delight” is near thrash, and “Tora! Tora!”/”Loss of Control” finally leave functioning ear drums bleeding before the last couple cuts give a little respite. But it’s the incredible power of the first side especially that I maintain is another album that raised the heaviness bar for everybody.
4) Ride The Lightning – Metallica
Funny thing about the Big Four and a few others who were around but just didn’t get the attention because they didn’t sell as well, most of these bands’ debuts were not that great. It took the second albums for most outfits to get the motor running, so to pun, but nobody was ready for Ride The Lightning. The opening track, “Fight Fire With Fire”, is a thrash tune so devastating I have no problem listing it as an early death metal song as well. When I first heard it, I was in shock. This truly was new territory now. Other albums are classics but this one is the blueprint for the heaviest thrash and early death metal.
3) Honorary Mentions – Suffocation, Morbid Angel, Sepultura,Vader, Oransii Pazuzu etc…
This style came on so fast that it’s not possible to pick out just one pioneering album because of diffuse styles. All, however, had ultra thrash tempos, unless they were using doom as their template, like Obituary, Immolation or Incantation, experimenting, like Morbid Angel, a thrash/death hybrid like Sepultura, and the first two astonishingly brutal Suffocation albums. I’d pick Suffocation for the raising of the bar yet one more time, but they had a lot of competition. If this most brutal yet technically mind boggling music sounds interesting, I recommend the bands I mentioned, and Nile, who specialize in Egyptian themes, Vader, a great thrash/death band from Poland, Oransii Pazuzu, a Finnish black metal/experimental band, or Possessed, regarded as an early death pioneer who invented the term “death metal”. Don’t let this tag discourage you – it is too extreme for most, but if you are like me, and like your metal really tough, it is some of today’s most challenging music.
2) Far Beyond Driven – Pantera
This third album since their “official” restart with Cowboys From Hell debuted at Number 1 on the Billboard charts, and was so brutal and abrasive it was beyond anything most people had heard. Pantera were re-tooling metal for the ages. Brothers Vinnie Paul Abbott and guitar hero Darrell (Dimebag) Abbott were brilliant as drummer and guitarist. Dimebag was so good he was getting many favorable comparisons to Eddie Van Halen, himself a huge fan. Dimebag was that good, and Pantera were the band to beat in their unfortunately short life span. This album is just psychotic – vocalist Phil Anselmo is a monster, literally on vocals. Live, the band had no equals. On this album, once again the heaviness quotient had to be raised. It would be a horrific shame that Dimebag would be assassinated onstage on December 8, 2004, by a deranged gunman in a club in Columbus, Ohio. But his legacy lives on.
1) Death Atlas – Cattle Decapitation
As this list has gotten heavier and more brutal, I can’t really think of anybody worth more in this extreme music environment than San Diego’s Cattle Decapitation. Despite its unsavory band name, this outfit is right on the cusp of containing musicality especially in older albums, but with time and a few more albums has evolved into a very very good band capable of clean vocals, melodic passages, and like always, featuring lyrics that deal specifically with pollution and global warming and mankind’s extinction for lack of doing anything about it. Singer Travis Ryan has it all – he can growl like a tiger with heartburn, has a shriek that could have been serious competition for Dan McCafferty of Nazareth, and a clean voice as well. This is not easy music to listen to if you’re not already conditioned to it. However, given the subject matter and anger that we should all feel as our forests are leveled, jungles burned, oceans polluted and air polluted by industry, it is more than appropriate.
10 Of The Heaviest Albums Ever Released article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2021
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