Shadow of the Horns: Who has the best discography in metal?

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best metal discography

In the absence of live music during 2020, I’ve been getting more up close and personal with my record collection. If I haven’t listened to my entire collection of vinyl yet this year, I probably will have by December 31. Not a lot this year is going well, but at least I’ve got records to revisit and fend off the cabin fever a little longer.

And that’s got me thinking about discographies. I’ve never been a completist (though I have been pondering an Instagram project along these lines—gotta keep myself busy in 2021 too!), and at no point has it ever been important to me to have a band’s entire catalog in my possession—unless everything is great, of course. I have the complete Joy Division catalog, because it’s just two albums and two compilations. That’s it. Easy. But the longer a band sticks around, the less tidy the catalog gets—yet arguably more interesting. Take someone like Bob Dylan; he’s a legend because of albums like The Freewheeling Bob Dylan and Highway 61 Revisited and this year’s Rough and Rowdy Ways. But his story is a lot more compelling because of albums like the uneven Self Portrait, or his born-again album Saved, or his infamously unloved live album with the Grateful Dead. The bad albums don’t improve the catalog, but they give it character. And when you put his catalog up against, say, Neil Young’s, it’s pretty hard to decide who comes out ahead. (Full disclosure: I listen to Neil’s a lot more often, but that’s not a value judgment.)

So what happens when we start to look at the complete bodies of work of the best artists in metal? Well, I can tell you that much of the time, it’s not any less of a mess than someone like Dylan or Young, who had their moments of triumph as well as some that were destined for the dollar bin. But I wanted to go deeper to see where the legends, the heavy hitters and the current crop of metal’s best all stand. So let’s dive and see what how the greatest discographies in heavy metal stack up against each other.

There’s only one way to start and that’s with Black Sabbath. Inarguably the greatest heavy metal of all time, Sabbath has a number of absolutely indispensable releases—and some entirely dispensable ones. For releasing what averages out to about one album every two and a half years, that’s a pretty good chunk of albums, and six of them were in the first six years! Those six are all grade-A essentials, but the group started to lose some of the anthemic heavy metal power after that, dabbling in prog and eventually losing some steam with Never Say Die! But then when Ronnie James Dio took over on vocals in the ’80s, the band got a second wind, with albums like Heaven and Hell and Mob Rules standing up to the best of contemporary metal at the time, if only shortly. Ian Gillan of Deep Purple took over vocals on Born Again, which is kind of when the question of “How many lineup changes does it require to no longer be Black Sabbath?” comes in. By the mid-’80s, the band were onto fourth vocalist Glenn Hughes and that’s where it starts to fall apart. The introduction of fourth vocalist Tony Martin coincided with an uptick in quality, briefly, which then nosedived until Ozzy came back for 2013’s 13. There’s a lot of missed opportunities and albums that probably shouldn’t have been recorded, but the split ends up being essentially half absolutely essential albums, one quarter pretty good albums, and one quarter albums for the garage sale box. Which for any discography sounds about right.

But what if we take a look at Judas Priest’s catalog—the first great heavy metal band to rise after Sabbath. Their catalog has almost as many albums, but there’s a different distribution. Their debut Rocka Rolla isn’t a false start necessarily, but what came after is a lot more consequential—the entire run from 1976’s Sad Wings of Destiny on up to 1984’s Defenders of the Faith (with sole exception Point of Entry—still not bad, just not great) comprising not only their best work but some of the best heavy metal ever recorded. Even after that, the albums that constitute their “missteps,” 1986’s Turbo and 1988’s Ram It Down, aren’t catastrophically bad, more a question of perceptions of metal in an age where the divide between synth-heavy pop and heavier music couldn’t be more vast. And then by 1990 you get to Painkiller, which in my book is a solid 16 years of good-to-great material. Then the rest of the ’90s happened, and well, most great metal bands from the ’80s fared poorly in the ’90s, Priest being no exception. Without Rob Halford, they weren’t the same band (no disrespect to Tim “Ripper” Owens). Thankfully Halford did come back with 2005’s Angel of Retribution, and as of 2018’s Firepower, Judas Priest sound stronger than they have in nearly 30 years. (And then there’s Nostradamas, which was certainly ambitious but kind of a wild pitch.) But when you look at the full picture, you really only get a handful of albums that aren’t worth having on your shelf.

OK, but what about the biggest metal band of all time—Metallica? I don’t have to belabor the point too much here, because everybody knows where this is going, but precisely one third of Metallica’s catalog is great, and the rest of it isn’t. Some of it extremely not great. Hardwired was OK I guess.

When we look at other bands like Iron Maiden or Slayer, we see some similar ratios, though Maiden’s comes out a big stronger—let’s call it tied with Priest. But what if we go a little deeper into the acts that haven’t traditionally filled megadomes and enormo-amphitheatres? Death metal icons Death only released seven albums during their career, but there’s not a bad one in the batch—in fact, they’re arguably all great. In fact, you could probably make a similar argument for Opeth, who have gradually made the transition from death metal to progressive rock gracefully. And they haven’t just consistently released impressive albums, they’ve grown and evolved as they’ve done so. Granted, not everyone loved their prog albums, but they’re still well executed. And for that matter, they’re still far outnumbered by metal albums. I’ve written about both the Converge and Neurosis catalogs, each of which is pretty consistent—I dare say Converge has gotten progressively better throughout the course of their career. And Mastodon hasn’t released a bad album either, even if they’re currently in hard rock mode, less a point of contention than an acknowledgement that the days of releasing albums like Leviathan are probably behind them. I’m also tempted to throw Baroness in there—for me, it’s kind of a personal thing—who are five for five. But then again, it’s only five, which raises an entirely different question of whether an all-great set of five albums can be compared to a mostly great collection of, say, twelve? It probably can’t—longevity counts for something!—but still, not a bad streak.

I obviously don’t have the answer for who has the best catalog here, but I’m inclined to give more praise to those bands who have been able to recapture a spark, like Judas Priest or Iron Maiden, or those who keep on making amazing records despite younger and somewhat less sophisticated origins, like Converge. I’m also curious to see where younger bands are headed. Blood Incantation have released two incredible albums thus far, and Horrendous and Deafheaven have each released four. I’m excited to follow where all these bands might lead us.

I’m interested to hear what everyone else’s take is—feel free to suggest your nomination for best metal discography in the comments. In the meantime, I’ll just keep on spending more quality time with my metal records.

The Best Metal Tracks of October 2020

Lie in Ruins“Spectral Realms of Fornication”

Look, I really need to take a moment to highlight the title of this track: “Spectral Realm of Fornication.” Know what that means? Ghost fucking! Don’t ever let anyone tell you that metal doesn’t have a sense of humor, even if this Finnish band plays it totally straight-faced. Lie in Ruins—who have been around since 1993!—certainly deliver the sound of a well-seasoned, creative and instrumentally tight band on “Spectral Realms,” an epic of blackened death metal that shoves all the intensity up front, but ultimately prove themselves a band whose knack for songwriting outpaces that of their tremolo-picked riffing and adrenaline-pumping blast-beat gallop. Plus, you know, phantom phornication (free title up for grabs!). So that’s fun.

From Floating in Timeless Streams, out November 20 via Dark Descent

Ilsa – “Poor Devil”

This year there have been plenty of metal albums that provided a source of pure escapism, or that invited us to bask in the stillness of discomfort. But the return of Washington, D.C.’s Ilsa comes just when most of us need to feel the catharsis of pure, sludgy destruction. “Poor Devil,” the first single they’ve released from upcoming album Preyer, is raw, slow, gut-churning intensity with bulldozer riffs and anguished screams—the kind of thing that Eyehategod pioneered back in the ’90s, but which seems to have no expiration date. Particularly when a group like Ilsa fuse it with melancholy, melodic doom metal elements. It’s easy to get hooked by the sheer, blunt power of “Poor Devil” on first listen, but stick with it a little while longer and find that there’s more to Ilsa than just a big, dumb, satisfying riff.

From Preyer, out November 20 via Relapse

Kevel – “Of Being”

Italy-based I, Voidhanger Records has been a consistently impressive source of forward-thinking, progressive and sometimes genre-collapsing heavy music this year, from Spectral Lore and Mare Cognitum’s epic planetary split album to Esoctrilihum’s spacey black metal and Neptunian Maximalism’s avant garde jazz drone-doom. Greece’s Kevel belongs in this elite group, their own approach to black metal incorporating post-rock elements, an exploratory prog streak, and some truly cosmic atmosphere. “Of Being” kind of sounds like what the galaxy brain meme looks like—you can imagine your grey matter being dispersed into the far reaches of the universe after hearing this epic progression of dark, intricate sounds. It passes the necessary first test, which is that it absolutely slays, but that’s just a baseline for just how sonically immersive these seven minutes are.

From Mutatis Mutandis, out October 23 via I, Voidhanger

Wayfarer – “The Iron Horse (Gallows Frontier, Act II)”

Wayfarer’s 2018 album World’s Blood presented a band with a unique perspective, their brand of black metal informed by the aesthetics and mythology of the American West. Cormac McCarthy-core if you prefer. It’s interesting that their latest should arrive now, just as I finished re-reading Blood Meridian, as I can think of few bands better to soundtrack such a tale of ruthless violence and rugged terrain. But Wayfarer are a unique band, and “The Iron Horse,” from their consistently strong new album A Romance With Violence, is what happens when the band is operating at full strength—or, as one might say, guns a-blazin’! There are traces of bluegrass in their guitar riffs, Morricone-esque atmosphere, and a full-throttle ferocity that takes the dust of the ponderosa and weaponizes it. Not to harp on this too much, but there’s a horror-western film sometime in the future that absolutely requires a score from this band.

From A Romance With Violence, out now via Profound Lore

Heretical Sect – “Rising Light of Lunacy”

It’s funny—I never really set out to find great black metal, it somehow finds me. (Yes, certainly, there are labels that send it to me!) Maybe that’s just because there are so many good black metal bands going right now that I never feel as if I’ve been deprived in any way. And just look at this column—three out of this month’s five track picks are in the black metal sphere, and one is definitely encroaching. Heretical Sect is the newest of the bunch, having only made their EP-length debut in 2018, but the Santa Fe group’s upcoming Gilead debut promises to close out the year with a much-needed intensity. Their new album revolves around the concept of a historical Catholic padre who committed some violent atrocities. So the themes certainly fit! But the track itself is just brutal, a particularly searing black metal ripper with sharpened edges and crisp production values that showcase the kind of musical weaponry Heretical Sect harbor.

From Rapturous Flesh Consumed, out December 11 via Gilead Media

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View Comments (5)
  • I don’t know about all time but for this century I’d say without question it’s Converge. Jane Doe – The Dusk in Us? Who can even compete?

  • Throw another one in the ring for Converge – IMO, everything from When Forever Comes Crashing onwards is utterly indispensable. Others not mentioned above that I’d include; Incantation, whose early run and late career renaissance starting with Vanquish in Vengeance is all excellent; Krallice, who are both prolific and consistent; Napalm Death, an amazingly deep discography; Gridlink, only three records but all utterly astonishing; Inter Arma, who are four for four; Darkthrone, for the classic early stuff and the fun stylistic detours of their recent records; Thou; Eyehategod.

  • Agreed with RogueDukakis – Converge are a tough act to beat (Baroness comes the closest, maybe Aaron Turner if you lump everything he’s done into one discography). I’m more of a new school metal fan myself, but Death left us with a ridiculous amount of quality, and I’ve liked just about everything I’ve heard from Celtic Frost. I’ll give a nod to Panopticon too: anything from Austin Lunn is a reason to celebrate – “Rune’s Heart” might be THE black metal song of 2020.

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