By pivotal is implied a genuine paradigm shift in how heavy metal came to be perceived by the masses and by the musicians themselves. This selection is kept strictly to metal only and does not include peripheral influences from other genres as seminal as they may have been to the people involved in creating these songs. Some extremely influential bands are omitted as well because of being released just after these songs or being deviations on the same idea. Even when referenced from a position of retrospective, it should be obvious to tragics that these songs represent an irreconcilable split from the undemanding fare that owns the mainstream’s attention. These songs are about something greater than the transitive moment, simultaneously inward and outward looking in theme and execution, and conveying the stubborn, unabashed vitality of life in its different shades. What also needs to be said is that there is a common thread running from the first song here through to the last; far too often, heavy metal fans – this does not include clueless emos and hipsters – profess allegiance to one of the several branches on the genre tree. This need not be so because the essential spirit is one and one alone, and remains endemic to heavy metal.
Black Sabbath – Black Sabbath (1970)
To truly understand the iconoclastic impact that this song may have had when it was released, unfortunate victims of chronology need to spend a weekend with the music of the era. Gather your Beatles and your Stones and your Whos. Enjoy them. Or not. Then as Sunday fades into night, play the first Black Sabbath album. Feel the atmosphere in your room grow noticeably thicker, sense the walls groan and bulge in terror as those eponymous chords ring out again and again and again with a simple, clobbering intensity that just will make itself heard, user apprehensions be damned. This is not pretty music, and it is not groovy music. What it is, is a refutation of mostly every popular standard that rock n roll had adhered to until that point, an active confrontation with the evil that surrounds us and the evil that lies dormant inside the mind.
Judas Priest – Stained Class (1978)
Long ago when man was king
His heart was clean now he’s stained class
Time has slashed each untouched thing
So now he’s just a stained class king
While Black Sabbath are undisputed creators of heavy metal, they occasionally displayed a schizophrenic tendency to slip into the quaint bluesy, flower power jams symptomatic of their environment. Judas Priest, on Stained Class, presented the definitive, distilled version of molten steel that they had been working away at since Sad Wings Of Destiny. Stained Class is lucid and focused in intent, and strips away every last vestige of the progressive rock that touched and made that album so great. The underwhelming production does nothing to shortchange the sheer life-affirming energy of this song, written with near-perfect pacing, phrasing, and lyrical nuance. Heavy metal has never been better.
Motorhead – Stay Clean (1978)
So you see, the only proof
Of what you are is in the way you hear the truth
Don’t be scared, live to win
Although they’re always gonna tell you it’s a sin
In the end, you’re on your own
And there is no-one that can stop you being alone
Lemmy may say his band isn’t heavy metal. And one can even see the sense in that. But nobody with the advantage of healthy retrospective can deny the immeasurable impact Motorhead have had on all metal. Stay Clean has a lot to say in its sub-three minutes length; the repeating, and instantly resolved, riff-as-virus philosophy that Motorhead incorporated from punk, and which all ensuing speed metal borrowed from Motorhead, the once-heard-and-never-forgotten bass solo bridge, and the scathing honesty in lyrics. Attitude, aesthetics, and aggression are the three pillars of this band’s legacy, one that all following heavy metal owes debt to.
Iron Maiden – Phantom Of The Opera (1980)
Daring and ambitious, Phantom Of The Opera is the first of many epic, progressive songs that Iron Maiden would go on to write in their illustrious careers. It is easy to overlook just how rock-solid and self-assured the band was on its debut, the songwriting honed to a fine edge, birth pangs virtually non existent. While a certain amount of revisionism has crept into how the band’s records with their first singer are perceived, Phantom Of The Opera is devoid of the much-touted punk stylings of their early years – if you admired the punk in Maiden’s metal, then wouldn’t you be better off listening to punk in the first place? – and is unabashedly heavy metal through and through. Iron Maiden would transplant the core ethic of this song on to the remainder of their work up to the present day. As such Phantom Of The Opera deserves a vaunted spot in heavy metal annals.
Venom – Witching Hour (1981)
Loud, obnoxious, sloppy, Motorhead copycats. All true. But there is a primal ooze inside Venom‘s music that has been acknowledged by far too many, far more respected musicians to be simple coincidence. The passage of years also allows one to hear this band with the correct perspective, and for 1981 this irreverent filth was nothing short of revolutionary and entirely capable of igniting darker thoughts in wandering minds.
Metallica – Hit The Lights (1983)
From the crashing cymbals that announce the poignantly titled Hit The Lights to the first bludgeons of the spastic, palm muted right wrist that was about to revitalize an entire genre of music, Kill Em All is Metallica‘s lasting monument, and the ultimate rallying call to arms for metal. Twenty odd years of mediocrity and unhinged disillusion have done nothing to dilute its youthful vigour, still capable of giving the same surge of joy that one feels on seeing a pup attempt its first unrestrained gallop with shaking legs, lolling tongue, and ears flapping back in the wind.
Manilla Road – Veils Of Negative Existence (1984)
I will never put my sword down
I will never run away
In the veils of negative existence
I am the master here to stay
Not just fighting words. Mark Shelton has lived them for more than thirty-five years through the wilderness. Manilla Road are one of the very greatest heavy metal bands, and the exemplification of the triumph of the underground, and indeed of the human spirit. When idiots say “what is the difference between the mainstream and the underground? It’s all the same, bro!”, play them Manilla Road and spit in their face, “It’s in the mind, you stupid cunt.”
Hellhammer – Revelations Of Doom (1983)
Satanic Rites is ground zero for all death metal and black metal. Out of the clearly untrained chops on Revelations Of Doom arises a remarkably cogent and unnerving experience. Technical prowess is not needed here and would even diminish this material’s potency, an assertion that more than a few listeners are uncomfortable with. Hellhammer‘s music resides in the reptilian part of the brain and relies on the listener’s interpretation to give it fleshly contours. This, of course, pertains to Hellhammer only and not to the vast numbers of uninspired imitators that continue spawning from its seed to this day.
Slayer – Chemical Warfare (1984)
Slayer may have been Metallica‘s batchmates in thrash but this is where they took their game to a different level altogether, organizing a split in no uncertain terms between the fast but essentially feel good strains of Show No Mercy and the inconceivably darker world they were about to usher in with Hell Awaits. The NWOBHMisms are all but gone, the riffs aren’t proto-anything, they are death itself. The drums are possessed with the unstoppable momentum of avalanches, and lyrics describe the most disturbing war-themed imagery since War Pigs. Chemical Warfare is one of the most important songs to the evolution of the more extreme varieties of heavy metal. It’s really as simple as that.
Bathory – Storm Of Damnation (1984)
Storm Of Damnation is nothing more than a collage of atmospheric effects; a howling wind amid thundering clouds and lashing rain, and the ominous tolling of a bell somewhere in the distance. As precursor to what was to follow, by way of Bathory‘s music and black metal in general, it is beyond compare. No single entity in the history of metal, other than Tony Iommi himself, has perhaps been as responsible for diverse genres as Quorthon. To be an undetected mote at the back of his mind while he was caught in the tempest of inspiration would make for a fascinating experience.
Morbid Angel – Chapel Of Ghouls (1986)
Like the Ancient Ones spilling into our reality from other-worldly dimensions, Morbid Angel‘s music crossed the threshold of extreme thrash practiced by the likes of Slayer and Dark Angel, and emphasized their oeuvre as unapologetically death metal. Chapel Of Ghouls, even in its originally rough-hewn state of development, shows a distinct parting of ideology from the old ways in the grander, almost theatrical way in which it is approached and composed. Rising above mere street-wise cred, Chapel Of Ghouls fuses the immediacy of speed metal with the progressive rock of yesteryear but eliminates both the gratuitous nature of the first and the meandering tendencies of the latter, creating a frighteningly compact and direct realization of the potential locked within heavy metal.
Thergothon – Elemental (1991)
Most doom metal gets a pass as a separate genre in spite of being little more than warmed over, bluesy heavy metal. Thergothon were anything but, creating an entirely new form of music out of identifiable elements. Funeral doom is the most inaccessible of metal genres, depending on a very particular frame of mind in the listener to get its message across. Elemental is monolithic in every sense, but like the Emperor song that closes this list, and like all great metal in general, falls back on feeling to make itself truly tangible.
Emperor – Cosmic Keys To My Creations And Times (1993)
Emperor, following in Bathory‘s footsteps, brought black metal out of the morass of caveman simplicity, and made it a legitimate art form in its own right. Cosmic Keys To My Creations And Times reaches scales of a magnitude rarely seen in heavy metal before, accessing the universe of endless possibilities concealed both within and without. In The Nightside Eclipse is the distillation of black metal, an inky dark marriage between reason and emotion, and one of the finest extreme metal albums ever conceived.