We all marvel at those times when artists come from nowhere to produce a new sound and a new movement overnight. Think of the impact Venom, Metallica, Death and Napalm Death had when they burst onto the scene in the 1980s. The likes of Helmet, Darkthrone, Paradise Lost and Korn did the same in the 1990s. Surely, Dillinger Escape Plan, Killswitch Engage, Suicide Silence and Periphery deserve a mention in the last two decades for producing so many instant clones at the time of their arrival.
But what about those bands that are influential now whose art took years to gain a full understanding of how it could be used by other musicians? Often this could be due to contemporary bands having no clue how to incorporate the new innovations into their own music. Some rightly feared that they would be seen as appropriating the sound of the upstarts for their own commercial gain. In the seven albums we select here, we argue that the artists were incomprehensible to the existing metal scenes because they were so different to those around them. Some achieved immediate mainstream success, while others had to wait for decades to receive their dues. These are the top seven metal albums ahead of their time…
7. Gorguts – Obscura (1998)
You can thank Canadian heroes, Gorguts, if you ever wondered why modern death metal bands sound so complex and off-kilter. Sure, the likes of Cynic, Atheist and later-era Death took the genre into new realms of innovation, but nobody produced anything as discordant and unpredictable as Gorguts with their ground breaking third album. The odd time signatures, violent guitar chugs, high-tuned jazz snares, and hissing chord shapes were so out of place in 1998, you’d have thought they came from Mars. The fact they wrote it in 1993 after being dropped by Roadrunner Records and released it five years later is even more impressive. It’s not improvised, but it’s the closest thing extreme metal has to a record that sounds spontaneous and telepathic. Fast forward to the 2010s and you have entire micro-genres devoted to this sound.
Influenced: Necrophagist, Portal, Artificial Brain, Fallujah, Haunter, Moral Collapse, Knekelput, and the entire tech death and avant-garde extreme metal scenes.
6. Voivod – Killing Technology (1987)
Killing Joke might have been the first band to use dissonance as the core part of their sound, but Canadian legends, Voivod, were the first to insert it into a heavy metal setting in 1987. Most thrash bands at the time were adjusting to Slayer and Metallica’s genre-defining masterpieces while the first death metal bands were emerging. By contrast, Voivod departed from planet earth, introduced hardcore punk and classical elements into their repertoire, accentuated the doomier side of their music, and retooled their guitars and bass to sound like malfunctioning war machines. It didn’t catch on for a good two decades until the rise of mathcore, progressive metal, and dissonant extreme metal in the early 2000s. By then it was clear that we could trace most of this back to one band in Canada.
Influenced: Vektor, Gorguts, Revocation, Imperial Triumphant, Cryptosis, Fractal Universe, Pestilence, Red Rot. Most things progressive thrash, tech death and avant-garde metal draw inspiration from Voivod these days. They were also the first to map out the guitar approach for mathcore.
5. Neurosis – Souls at Zero (1992)
The rock and metal world were still digesting the importance of grunge on heavy music and its place in pop culture when an obscure hardcore band from Oakland, California, emerged with a new sound in 1992. Few paid any attention or even realised that Neurosis had the template for a genre of music we now know as post-metal when they released their third album. In hindsight, Souls at Zero is so far ahead of its time, you might even believe you’re listening to one of the many artists that imitate their sound in the 2020s if you’ve never had the pleasure of listening to this masterpiece. The tempo here is a slower grind compared to the crossover thrash of their earlier efforts, taking Celtic Frost, Swans and Joy Division and retaining the agonising vocal roars of their hardcore roots and combining them with sporadic moments of folk guitar, brooding cellos and fuzz heavy bass. The ritualistic drums, dissonant chords, and complete absence of pentatonic scales in the guitarwork make this a classic of avant-garde metal and the first record to show that the hardcore scene could produce something as ambitious and experimental as Voivod.
Influenced: Cult of Luna, Isis, KEN Mode, The Ocean, Pelican and every band that identify with the post-metal sound. Neurosis are also a big influence on sludge metal, progressive doom metal, post-hardcore and avant-garde metal artists such as Maudlin of the Well.
4. Celtic Frost – Into the Pandemonium (1987)
The main reason metal fans know the French term ‘avant-garde’ (definition: after fashion) is probably due to Celtic Frost’s 1987 masterpiece. Every idea conceived here is now part of the fabric of metal, but no band mixed proto-black metal and thrash with string arrangements, female soliloquys, and gothic cadences in the late 1980s. Starting the record with a cover of new wave pop group, Wall of Voodoo, and following it up with the first recorded instance of what would become gothic metal (‘Mesmerised’), you already know you’re on to something different before Tom G Warrior and the boys blast through the neo-death metal of ‘Inner Sanctum’. The famous death grunts and crunchy guitar tone are all over this record, but so is the sultry darkness of Dead Can Dance (‘Tristesses De La Lune’) and the imperious might of Wagner on the symphonic metal glory of ‘Rex Irae (Requiem)’. All genres of music need to take risks and regenerate by absorbing wider influences, yet Celtic Frost managed to do this within an extreme metal framework that still sounds as inspiring today as it did back in 1987. The later sub-genres of gothic metal, symphonic metal, avant-garde black metal, and post-metal would be nothing without this record.
Influenced: Paradise Lost, My Dying Bride, Emperor, Mayhem, Therion, Sepultura, Morbid Angel, Neurosis, Tiamat, Septic Flesh, Enslaved, Opeth… Essentially, a ‘who’s who?’ of extreme metal.
3. Faith No More – The Real Thing (1989)
A list created in 2001 would have had Faith No More’s 1989 opus at the number one spot. Back then, nu metal and rap were the dominant genres in mainstream pop culture and every artist that combined the two were indebted to the Californian legends. But The Real Thing is more than just a prototype for the alternative metal that dominated 1990s’ MTV America. Listen to the likes of ‘Surprise, You’re Dead!’ and ‘Zombie Eaters’, and you’ll realise how much Jim Martin’s thrash metal influences power the groove and rhythms of the music. No other artist mixed extreme metal, soul and pop with rap and funk during the stranglehold of the hair metal years, and no one did it with a more warped sense of humour than Mike Patton. Only Faith No More could mix electric piano blues and keyboard pop with shades of Slayer and funky bass up-strokes in the same record as a Black Sabbath cover (‘War Pigs’) and a deviant song about drowning your girlfriend (‘Underwater Love’). The avant-thrash instrumental, ‘Woodpecker from Mars’, might also lay claim to using the first polyrhythm in a metal song.
Influenced: Rap metal, avant-garde metal, nu metal, alternative metal, groove metal, progressive metal, funk-rock fusion, art metal
2. Meshuggah – Destroy Erase Improve (1995)
It’s mind-boggling to think that Meshuggah were using polyrhythms, chugs, and eye-popping hardcore dynamics with jazz fusion solos and dissonant atmospherics a full ten years before other artists started paying attention. Has any other band been more influential on modern metal than these Swedish pioneers? The enigmatic genius of Destroy Erase Improve is how it still defies categorisation today. Is it an industrial metal album, a prog metal masterpiece, a dissonant metal opus, or a post-thrash LP? The fact a micro-genre called ‘djent’ emerged in the 2010s to describe musicians influenced by the harsh sound and rhythmic complexity of Meshuggah tells you how much of an influence they’ve had on the twenty-first century metal landscape. ‘Future Breed Machine’ and ‘Suffer in Truth’ are two of the heaviest bone-crunching audio blasts ever captured on tape and continue to inspire everything from tech death to deathcore, prog metal, and modern thrash.
Influenced: Every band with a seven-string or eight-string guitar and a mind for technical arrangements and polyrhythms. Gojira, Periphery, Tesseract, Veil of Maya, Spiritbox, Vildhjarta, Vexed – the list is endless. It’s also notable how established bands like Decapitated, Deftones and Kataklysm have absorbed a Meshuggah influence later in their careers.
1. Black Sabbath – Master of Reality (1971)
You might think it strange that the band who invented the sound we know as metal should take number one spot on this list with their third album. But the term had no meaning in 1971 to describe the fuzz-heavy, down-tuned dirge of Black Sabbath’s follow up to Paranoid. As one of a handful of releases from the 1970s to stand the test of time as a heavy record in the 2020s, it did not receive its dues until the emergence of doom metal in the late 1980s and the conquering force of grunge in the early 1990s, when the Seattle bands erased the enduring nightmare of cock-rock from mainstream culture.
The subsequent development of sludge metal and stoner rock owe their existence to Master of Reality. Like many original pieces of art, the development of the Black Sabbath sound had a fortuitous element to it, following Tony Iommi’s finger-shredding accident on an industrial production line in the late 1960s. It caused him to loosen his guitar strings by three semitones to drop-C, and the rest is history… Or at least it was after thirty years when this tuning became the dominant one in metal in the early 2000s.
The time lag for Master of Reality’s influence spanned for longer than a decade before other artists began to take notice of its unique sound and bass-heavy brilliance. Today, every metal band with a distorted guitar and chugging groove section draw inspiration from it. Listen to the grind of ‘Sweet Leaf’ and the head-drooping weight of ‘Lord of this World’ and ask if anything matches this swampy surge of distortion before Candlemass, Trouble and Celtic Frost took inspiration from it in the mid-1980s. The intro riff to ‘Into the Void’ and its chunky mid-section could well be the greatest in the history of metal.
Influenced: Doom metal, sludge metal, thrash metal, grunge, groove metal, stoner rock/metal
Bathory – Under the Sign of the Black Mark (1987)
Carcass – Heartwork (1993)
Cynic – Focus (1993)
Deadguy – Fixation on a Co-Worker (1995)
Prong – Beg to Differ (1990)
Suffocation – Effigy of the Forgotten (1991)
Therion – Theli (1996)