"Heavy", when it comes to music, is really a subjective term in that everyone has a slightly different impression of what heavy is, and therefore, what makes a band sound heavy. Regardless, there's still a few common traits that all heavy bands share: volume, aggression, and a viciously bleak delivery. What form that takes is where the artisanship of the trade emerges.
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With a name inspired from a newsletter/zine that guitarist/vocalist Chris Smith put out in high school (an acronym that stands for "Kill All Redneck Pricks"), Olympia, Washington-based Karp terrorized the indie rock landscape throughout the 1990s with an unrelenting mixture of Melvins-meets-D.C. hardcore, often with cynical, sometimes ridiculous, lyrical themes that somehow seemed to fit the band's sound perfectly.
Since the band broke up in 1998, members have gone on to form various other bands, most notably Big Business, who've recently been touring with The Melvins. Keep an eye out for the documentary due out this year chronicling Karp's exploits.
Burzum is the brainchild of Varg Vikernes (a.k.a. "Count Grishnackh") and is considered one of the forefathers of the Norwegian Black Metal scene of the early 1990s. In case you aren't familiar with the reputation of that scene, Norway's Black Metal bands started gaining notoriety at the time because of how brutally insane the members of these bands were and how seriously they took the whole idea of "Black Metal." And amongst this group, Varg maybe be the most notorious of them all.
Burzum began releasing records in 1991, and Burzum's abrasive sound was born of Varg's desire to create "the worst quality recording possible" using the cheapest microphones he could find and shoddy guitar amps. This approach actually combined to give Burzum a whole new sound of their own: thrashing, buzzsaw distortion which saturated all aspects of the records, combined with an unstoppable barrage of pummeling drums and shrieking, distorted vocals - most of which ended up becoming hallmarks of Black Metal.
In 1993, Varg was convicted of numerous felonies, including burning down several churches in Norway and the murder of Euronymous, a friend of his and a member of the band Mayhem. Despite his imprisonment, Vikernes continued to record and release albums from prison, which included the release of the classic record Filosofem.
Vikernes' two albums from behind bars were notably less aggressive than earlier records due to obviously limited access to musical equipment in jail, but the brutality of the earlier work is inarguable.
In 2003, Varg made an attempt to escape from prison, but was caught shortly thereafter. Despite that small blemish on his record, he's scheduled to be released sometime in 2009, so you might want to keep an eye out for this one.
8. High on Fire
Hailing from Oakland, California, High on Fire was formed in 1999 by Matt Pike, the former guitarist for the influential (and extremely heavy) stoner metal band Sleep. Essentially picking up where Sleep left off, High on Fire takes the churning, downtuned aspects of stoner and sludge metal and sets them to thrash metal tempos.
Formed in Sweden in 1987, Meshuggah have rose to become the frontrunners of their trade, a culmination of the aggression of thrash metal, the technical precision and complex song structures of progressive metal, and the insane speed of death metal.
When a band can combine insane musicianship with the constant, inescapable assault of the most fierce aspects of metal, the results are astounding. Throughout their years as a band, Meshuggah have enjoyed little mainstream success but continuously championed in scenes where extreme music thrives.
Considered by many to be the godfather's of the late 80s/early 90's "Grunge" sound, the Melvins are much heavier than most of the bands that would later follow their formula (Mudhoney, Nirvana, Soundgarden).
Despite being considered the origin point for Sludge Metal, they had actually started as a hardcore punk band, but later ended up unabashedly worshiping at the alter of Black Sabbath, taking the slowest, most downturned aspects of Sabbath several steps further and creating a sound which embodies the ideologies of "heavy."
5. Black Sabbath
Right off the bat, it has to be noted that Sabbath was straight-up writing the template for "heavy" music forty years ago. While the rest of the world were putting sunflowers in their hair and grooving out to Jefferson Airplane, Black Sabbath was on an entirely different planet, writing songs about Satan, destruction, lost souls, and general misanthropic brutality.
And their sound? I dare you to name another band that sounded like Black Sabbath before them. Between the downtuned Gibson SG-driven crunch of Tony Iommi's guitar riffage, Bill Ward's virtuoso work behind the drum kit, Geezer Butler's driving basslines and, of course, Ozzy Osbourne's unforgettable howl, Black Sabbath actually scared people. Without Black Sabbath, this list, and all the bands within it, would not exist.
4. Sunn O)))
Hailing from Seattle, Washington, Sunn O))) takes a decidedly different approach to heavy than most of their contemporaries. Considered "Drone Metal" in the most literal sense of the word, Sunn O)) takes the idea of sludgy riffs and massive volume to the most extreme levels possible. How sludgy, you say? How about downtuning to Drop A? Most guitars are not even physically capable of being tuned that low and have to be modified to do so.
And since they're named after a brand of guitar amplifiers, it should come as no surprise that they are unbelievably loud in person. If I were creating a Halloween haunted house and I wanted people to have nightmares for weeks afterward, this is the music I would have playing in it.
3. Cannibal Corpse
If you're gonna have a record cover that looks like this (NSFW), your band better be pretty damned heavy. And Cannibal Corpse delivers on this promise. Cannibal Corpse is a band that pushes the envelope in every direction possible. Sonically, they are one of the bands that helped form the genre of "Brutal Death Metal", a genre reserved for bands that have pushed Death Metal past its limits into new levels of manic intensity.
And aesthetically, with album covers like the one mentioned above and lyrics mired in controversy, it's no surprise their music been banned at various points by Australia and Germany, and Senator Bob Dole once accused the band of helping to undermine the character of the United States. Whatever the hell that means. Hey, if your music is capable of pissing off entire countries and their politicians... it's pretty heavy.
2. Electric Wizard
Formed in 1993 in Dorset, England, Electric Wizard wastes no time in laying down the law in their bio when the first line states, "Electric Wizard is the heaviest band in the world." Bold words sir, bold words.
But then you hear the tracks, and you suddenly realize, "man, these guys could be right." Electric Wizard sounds like vintage Black Sabbath, pushed ten steps further, and with the additional benefit of modern musical gear, recording equipment, and a seemingly genuine interest in the occult and various other mystic forces. This line from that bio seems to perfectly sum up the origin and purpose of Electric Wizard's brand of stoner metal:
"The oblivion and ecstasy of crushing doom and high grade marijuana, a sonic aural trip far, far away from this world, where only cyclopean walls of crackling vintage valve amplifiers set to the full overdrive and primal ritualistic beats can wash away all the filth and drudgery of everyday life."
While there are seemingly endless devices a band can use to sound heavy, Electric Wizard seems to accomplish this goal in spades, yet with seemingly little effort or gimmickry. They're just really fucking heavy metal:
" Violent, bleak and ritualistic, we bow to the black altar of the RIFF. We do not rock, we kill."
Emerging from the placid surroundings of Huntington Park, California in 1981, Slayer quickly emerged as one of the leaders in the Thrash Metal movement, which emphasized speed and aggression over everything else.
With the frantic solos of guitarists Jeff Hanneman and Kerry King, the helicopter blade-style rhythmic attack of Dave Lombardo's drumming and Tom Araya's barked lyrics about less-than-politically-correct subjects like Nazis performing human experimentation, necrophilia, Satanism, suicide, serial killers and rape, Slayer was definitely not concerned with appealing to a mass audience.
What they've been concerned with for the last several decades is making music that's as heavy as the lyrics are, and when you turn to tracks like "Angel of Death", "Reign in Blood" or "South of Heaven" it's obvious that they've had no problem accomplishing that goal.
Scott Ian of Anthrax once described Slayer's sound as the "soundtrack to Hell." If that's the case, sign me up, because Slayer fucking rules. There may be bands now that are more "brutal" or more "technical" than Slayer, but the bottom line is that nobody is heavier. Nobody even comes close.