Thursday, January 10, 2008

My top five heavy metal albums

Following are my top five favorite heavy metal albums, and the reasons why. These are in no particular order.

One of these days I'll get to writing an obnoxious screed as to why I think metal is one of the great, underappreciated genres of music, and the subject of much unfair scorn and criticism, but not today.

On to the best:

1. Somewhere in Time, Iron Maiden. Blasphemy, you say? What with a catalogue that includes classic albums like Number of the Beast, Piece of Mind, Seventh Son of a Seventh Son, and Powerslave? Yes, I retort. While hardly a fan favorite (or seemingly a band favorite--Maiden seems to avoid this album like the plague in concert), Somewhere in Time is consistently great all the way through. It has an otherworldly sound and a feel that makes me think of Blade Runner and instantly transports me back to high school (with all its high and low points). There was a time when I wore through two Somewhere in Time cassette tapes from too many listens. There's just something about this album that resonates deeply with me. Maybe it's the whole package--the mesmerizing cover, the distinct guitar synths, Bruce Dickinson at his peak as a singer, the band at its creative peak--I don't know. In the end, I love it because it exemplifies that metal can be a lot more than just loud and fast, and can aspire to art.

2. Heaven and Hell, Black Sabbath. I know Ozzy Osbourne will forever be identified as the one and only lead singer of Black Sabbath, and I'm not saying that assumption is wrong. But for my money, the Ronnie James Dio-fronted Heaven and Hell is Sabbath's best. Neon Knights and Children of the Sea never fail to transport me into a land of dragons and kings, while Die Young, though depressing, is brilliant. The title track is among the finest examples of the soaring heights of greatness metal can reach. Operatic and epic, it ranks alongside Maiden's Hallowed be thy Name in this regard. And Tony Iommi is my personal favorite metal guitarist, with a unique style and a sound that more technically gifted players (Steve Vai, Joe Satriani, etc.) can't touch.

3. Screaming for Vengeance, Judas Priest. I hemmed and hawed over a couple of Priest albums before setting on Screaming, which wins out by a nose due to The Hellion/Electric Eye (best metal album lead-in, ever), and hits like Riding on the Wind, Bloodstone, and of course, You've Got Another Thing Coming. Nobody could sing like Halford at his best.

4. Operation Mindcrime, Queensryche. It's a cliche' to call this the best heavy metal concept album ever, but that's exactly what it is--and arguably its the best concept album across all genres of music (though Pink Floyd's The Wall is perhaps superior). While I don't find the story of Mary and Doctor X quite as compelling as I did as a teen, there's no denying that Mindcrime is a brilliant piece of writing. And it's every bit as good musically--Chris DeGarmo's guitar work and Geoff Tate's soaring vocals are artistically perfect. In 1988, nobody could touch Queensryche. This album reminded me of George Orwell's 1984 set to music, and absolutely blew me away.

5. Master of Puppets, Metallica. Metallica was at its high water mark on Master of Puppets (1986), hitting the right note at the peak of their considerable talent. 1984's Ride the Lightning is another extremely good album, though a bit rawer and less artistic. And Justice For All (1988) marked Metallica's creative peak, but I find it though a bit less compelling and more repetitive than Master. Unfortunately, it was all downhill from there. Can Metallica ever again write a lyric like, Mirror stares back hard, kill is such a friendly word, seems the only way, for reaching out again, and be able to pull it off with conviction? No way--there's simply too much (sewer) water over the dam. It's a shame to see how the mighty have fallen.

Honorable mentions: Defenders of the Faith, Judas Priest; Holy Diver, Dio; Nightfall in Middle Earth and Live (2003), Blind Guardian; and every Iron Maiden album ever made (except for the Blaze Bayley era, No Prayer for the Dying, and Fear of the Dark).


Falze said...

Not bad. Not bad at all. 5 is not many to choose from, but it is probably better than 10 because then you start to have more 'battles' over whether to include something else. Very interesting. Would I name anything different? Hmm...let's see.

Has to be Iron Maiden involved and I'd probably also go with SIT, it was the first Maiden album I got, the cassette from BMG when I signed up and got a pile of tapes for the supposed penny (I don't recall the other 11, but I think there was some Bruce Hornsby and Steve Winwood - I had never actually heard Iron Maiden before, so it was a bit of a risk and I felt quite the daring sort for ordering it at the ripe old age of 13 or 14), none of which stood the test of time like SIT. SIT is indeed 1 of the top 5. 7th Son is good, great even at times, as is NOTB, but each has flawed segments, ditto for the newer trio of albums, which are amazing accomplishments for a band of this vintage that had partially broken up. SIT also has lesser tracks, I would put Loneliness and Deja-Vu in that category, but each is listenable, though I find I would prefer Loneliness shortened by about 2 minutes. And the highs are consistently high - on the cassette the whole first side is unbeatable, CSIT, HCW, SoM, and the brilliant Wasted Years. And of course it ends with Steve's greatest historical tale, Alexander the Great that can only be truly appreciated with earphones (or I guess a giant freaking stereo system with speakers spread around the room so you get the texture of both sides of the mix). And the cover is simply Derek's artistic peak. And it peaked at #23 on Billboard's charts.

Judas Priest must also be represented and, again, we're almost on the same nail. But I have to give the nod to Defenders Of The Faith. Too many misses on Screaming including Take These Chains and Devil's Child (Devil's Child?). Not terrible songs, but compared to DOTF it doesn't hit the same consisently high note. From the blistering Freewheel Burning to the crunch of Jawbreaker and Rock Hard Ride Free you hit the next peak, The Sentinel, then there is also a lull on this album, Eat Me Alive, etc. but all in all I think the album is slightly higher quality throughout. Each showcases Halford's glorious pipes. These 2 albums are heads above other JP albums, but merely a whisker apart from each other. Indeed sometimes I cannot recall whether a certain song is on one or the other.

Metallica's Master Of Puppets is a masterpiece and must be included. Nuff said. Never happy endings on these dark sets.

Unlike the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, I agree that Black Sabbath needs to be in here. However, I think I have to go with the 'cliche' pick - Paranoid. Heaven And Hell is brilliant, but Paranoid set the bar that everyone's been reaching for for years. I believe it is only the repeated listens and brain-numbing overkill use of War Pigs, Paranoid, Iron Man, etc (there was a preview of Iron Man during I Am Legend - I can't believe they've fallen so low in Hollywood that they're making an Iron Man movie, just how many half-as&ed superheroes are left to exploit - Aquaman has to be next) that you begin to forget how groundbreaking and brilliant the album is. Everyone and their brother has covered a track from this album. The difference is an eyelash and on another day I might choose H&H.

That leaves just 1 and too many to fit into that slot. Does Mindcrime get that slot? Maybe. I have trouble forgiving the 'Mission/Suite Sister Mary' slog that brings the album to a screeching halt halfway through and some of the stupider short tracks in the 2nd half. The good is unbelievable, the rest is forgettable. The videos were excellent at MTV's musical peak. But, I need more red meat and think my #5 is the reddest of the red meat - Manowar's Fighting The World. Not a bad track on the stereotypical cartoon sword and sorcery album. But sometimes it pays to recall that the first and the greatest of a genre isn't a parody of itself and I think FTW fits that mold (though their later albums are somewhat parodies of this one). Entire bands exist almost exclusively because of Manowar's work on FTW and Kings Of Metal - hell, they've spawned an entire genre. Often imitated, never duplicated. Manowar's Fighting The World gets the 5th spot, driven by power drumming, blistering metal guitar, amazing bass work, and, of course, the screaming, over the top before over the top was over the top lung-rending might of Eric Adams' singing, he who sits quite near to Bruce Dickinson if Rob Halford sits to the Air Raid Siren's
right and Geoff Tate to his left.

I'll round out the top 10 for the hell of it, but of course think 15 is more appropriate...or 15...or 100...

The other 5 would be Operation: Mindcrime, Evergrey's In Search Of Truth (not a bad track on it, filled with emotion, you get chills as you are truly put in the shoes of a man haunted by alien encounters that may or may not be real, slowly slipping into madness and despair "I just want to go home...", you're left looking over your shoulder for flying cigars), Ocean Machine's Biomech (Devin Townsend's masterpiece that literally grabs your body and shakes it with music until, as it approaches the end, it grabs your very soul and makes it, too, resonate with Devy's vision and "death becomes musical" the amazing creation that is Voices in the Fan and its mechanical groovitude), Sepultura's Arise that marked the peak of a band that appeared to grow before our very eyes through Schizophrenia and Beneath The Remains, a band proving, for a time, that you could improve with every album you produced, of course the peak could never be sustained or exceeded, but for a while the peak was a great place to be and we were all Dead Embryonic Cells under a pale grey sky, waiting to Arise. And, finally, though rejecting many worthy contenders (fine, I'll name them, too - Megadeth's Rust In Peace, Sentenced's Down, Skinlab's Bound, Gagged, & Blindfolded, and other albums by artists already included), I have to settle on one of the giants - My Little Pony Sings Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star, no, wait - Slayer's South Of Heaven, because it, too, spawned legions of imitators. The dual guitar work, the maniacal drumming, and Tom's tortured wailing...a classic.

sorry for the excessively long comment :D

Falze said...

Dang, forgot Imaginations From The Other Side. That makes, what? About 15 albums in my top 5?

Brian Murphy said...

Wow, I'm amazed at how close our top 5 is. We both picked Somewhere in Time (a bit of surprise) and Master of Puppets (should be in every metal fan's top 5). I was actually torn between Screaming for Vengeance and Defenders of the Faith. Defenders has my favorite Priest song (The Sentinel) and on another day I might have picked it as my favorite. Ask me tomorrow :). And it sounds like Heaven and Hell and Operation:Mindcrime were very near misses with you as well.

I'm also a huge Manowar fan as you know, but I wouldn't put them in my top 5. Top 10, maybe. Now you have me thinking of another post on the next best (the sixth through 10th best heavy metal albums of all time!).

I'll admit that you've lost me on some of your honorable mentions. Guess I'll have to broaden my horizons a bit and listen to some of these guys (Ocean Machine, Evergrey). I agree with your choices of Sepultura's Arise and Megadeth's Rust in Piece. South of Heaven is awesome too, though I think I slightly prefer Reign in Blood.

If I haven't told you already, Blind Guardian is now firmly in my top 5 favorite bands, and I have to credit you for introducing me to them. Personally, I think with albums like Imaginations and Nightfall in Middle Earth they've one-upped Manowar at their own game as the kings of fantasy metal. Although Eric Adams could kick the crap out of Hansi Kursch.

Falze said...

Has Blind Guardian truly exceeded the teacher? Perhaps. Though, in keeping with the spirit of this blog, it's more likely that Manowar, the mighty Fighter, as is so often the case, merely sets the stage and defends the weaker until they, too, grow strong, eventually allowing them to obtain nearly unmatched might - for I see BG as more the Magic User with a feel more of sorcery than steel. And now I think I've stretched the analogy far enough.