Monday, May 2, 2011

The 50 Most Epic Metal Albums Of All Time

We're talking epics here - no mere collections of songs, these are albums that harness the incredible power of metal and use it to bludgeon you into oblivion. Ride along with us through the most tremendous metal epics ever.

Mastodon - Leviathan

When prog-metal band Mastodon dropped Leviathan in 2004, the world of heavy music was rocked to the core. This intense, musically ambitious concept album loosely based on Herman Melville's classic novel Moby Dick showed the Georgia-born band widening their lyrical focus to capture the obsession and power of the book. It was an unlikely idea, but it proved a spectacular success.
Bal-Sagoth - The Power Cosmic

Just looking at the cover of The Power Cosmic and you know that you'll be in for some serious metal mayhem. The English symphonic metal band likes to mesh narratives with their albums, and this one tells the tale of a powerful demigod named Zurra who breaks free of his imprisonment beneath the Mare Imbrium and sets forth on a space-spanning journey to reassemble the Empyreal Lexicon. With tons of refrences to classic Jack Kirby comics, this is epic on every scale.

Iron Maiden - Number Of The Beast

Bruce Dickinson's debut with Maiden would result in the first of the band's albums to hit this list, but by no means the last. Number Of The Beast sees Iron Maiden wrestling with more advanced lyrical themes while still knocking out unforgiving metal jams like "Run To The Hills." A number of spooky phenomena pagued the band during its recording, from unexplained electrical failures to their manager getting a car repair bill for... £666.66. When Satan gets involved, you know things are getting real.

Queensryche - Operation Mindcrime

Operation Mindcrime came out at the exact right moment to vault into metal history - 1988 was just before grunge and alternative music broke, right as the crest of LA spandex sleaze-rockers was beginning to break. People were hungry for something new, and this ambitious progressive metal concept album that told the tale of a man in a dystopian future who becomes a mind-controlled assassin. It's a staggeringly ambitious work that still seems fresh two decades after its release.

Haggard - Awaking The Centuries

Some bands on this list achieve epicness through skilled songcraft, musical virtuosity and the like. German metal band Haggard gets there through sheer force of numbers. Upon the release of their 2000 album Awakening The Centuries, the group measured a staggering 21 members! This intense album, which is loosely based on the life of French prophet Nostradamus and his struggles during the Black Plague, veers madly from classically-tinged pieces to dark, punishing metal with full orchestration.

God Forbid - Constitution Of Treason

A lot of people think that heavy metal doesn't have anything important to say about the world we live in. We call those people idiots. Albums like Constitution Of Treason from New Jersey metal band God Forbid have plenty going on under the surface - this brutal, punishing album tells the tale of a far future society much like our own that drives itself from destruction, crawls from the ashes and then destroys itself again, because we humans just don't seem to be able to learn. The music is just as bleak and harsh as the concept.

Iced Earth - Framing Armageddon

What coud be more epic than the entire history of humankind? That's the topic that Tampa-based heavy metal band Iced Eath takes on in their two-album Something Wicked saga. The first installment was Framing Armageddon, the 2007 release that sees singer Ripper Owens having his last hurrah with the band. The narrative tells the tale of the alien Setians who inhabited the Earth before humans came along, and over 19 tracks we follow their secret plot to bring about the birth of the Antichrist under the nose of humanity.

Manowar - Gods Of War

It takes a real man to sport a loincloth, but that's what Manowar is made out of. The bombastic New York metal band has long been known for some seriously epic themes, but 2007's Gods Of War took things to the next level. A concept album about the deities of the Norse pantheon, the record sees the band moving into a slightly more symphonic metal direction without removing the trademark crushing power of pure Manowar.

Dio - Holy Diver

Ronnie James Dio was always in second place - the guy who replaced Ozzy in Sabbath couldn't ever seem to be recognized on his own merits. That is, until Holy Diver. The first album by the group that bore his name, this 1983 classic took everything the singer could do and ramped it up to infinity, creating a truly expansive album full of top-flight playing and insane lyrics. Both the title track and "Rainbow In The Dark" are epic metal classics.
Ensiferum - From Afar

For some reason Finland has become a hotbed for what some people are calling "battle metal," essentially awesome soundtracks for brutal swordfights and other acts of wanton savagery. One of the leading bands in the genre is Ensiferum, who mix pummeling blast beats with fantastic interludes to create some truly insane metal. Their 2009 album From Afar is the perfect thing to put on your iPod before you cleave some dwarf skull in twain.

Sleep - Jerusalem

San Jose stoner doom band Sleep were notorious for their dedication to the craft - their songs were longer than just about anybody in the business. On their final album, 1999's Jerusalem, they take this tendency to the limit. The entire record is one massive song, clocking in at an hour long, and it is incredible. Taking inspiration from the early days of Black Sabbath's monolithic riffs and transforming them into something truly unique, this is a milestone that should be in any true metalhead's collection.

Nocturnus - The Key

For some reason, Florida is the locus for some of the country's most intense metal. One of the most influential bands from that state was Nocturnus, who helped push the genre of death metal forwards with complex sci-fi lyrics and liberal use of keyboards. Their debut album The Key is a conceptual metaphor for the band's clash of cultures between traditional Satanic and occult themes and more futuristic ones, and it blew people out of the water when it dropped.

Crimson Glory - Transcendence

Sometimes the creation of a true metal epic can be as simple as a confluence of lucky forces - so it was with Transcendence, the sophomore album from Crimson Glory. Easily their best album, it won fams for vocalist Midnight's powerful style and the complex, driving dual guitar leads of Jon Drenning and Ben Jackson, as well as the band's unique stage presence - they all wore silver full-face masks for performances and photo shoots.

Rhapsody - Power Of The Dragonflame

Italian metal band Rhapsody takes epic to a whole new level, with thematic cycles stretching across multiple albums released over the span of decades. On Rhapsody Of Fire, the group closes their Emerald Sword Saga with the final fate of the Warrior of Ice and his final duel with Dargor the Shadowlord. It's just as awesomely barbarianistic and over-the-top as you'd think.
Opeth - Ghost Reveries

Swedish prog-death masters Opeth are great at giving their albums a scope beyond "here's some songs we put together," and Ghost Reveries, their eighth full-length, is an excellent example. Originally intended to be a concept album about a man who kills his own mother, the addition of some songs that didn't fit the theme actually help the record get even more brutal.

Demons & Wizards - Touched By The Crimson King

With a name like Demons & Wizards, you already know that this is some heavy fantasy steez. The side project of members of Blind Guardian and Iced Earth (both of whom will show up on this list a time or two), the band's two albums have been rife with high fantasy and dark influences melded into a delicious metal stew. Their sophomore album Touched By The Crimson King draws inspiration from Stephen King's Dark Tower novels, which are epic in their own right.
Sabaton - The Art Of War

Swedish power metallers Sabaton really pushed things to the wall with their fifth album, The Art Of War. Taking inspiration from some of humanity's greatest conflicts, the album boasts a dozen tracks of punishing metal that gazes unflinchingly into the face of war, from historic battles of World War II to the philosophies of Sun Tzu. This is awesome music for getting psyched to kick somebody's ass.

Atlantean Kodex - The Golden Bough

German metal band Atlantean Kodex reinvented the entire concept of "epic" with their 2010 album The Golden Bough. The songs here sprawl in every direction, with soaring vocals and astounding solos anchored by classic drumming. It's at once forward-looking and deeply traditional, and listening to it at top volume will have you feeling like you just took a thousand-mile journey on horseback to a cursed mountain.

Enslaved - Isa

Norwegian progressive viking metal band (yes, that is a real thing) Enslaved are well known in the extreme music community for their intense speed - guitarist Ivar Bjornson is a maniac on the strings, and many of their songs boast ridiculous playing. They really pushed their prog tendencies to the edge on 2004's Isa, which contains one of the band's longest songs, the 12-minute "Neogenesis," as well as the ludicrously epic "Lunar Force," which is seven minutes of pure punishing pleasure.
Overkill - The Years Of Decay

You'll notice that most of the bands ont his list tend towards the more symphonic, orchestrated end of heavy metal, with complex arrangements that shy away from the music's wilder, more anarchic side. But the crazy guys can do epic too, as evidenced on Overkill's 1989 release The Years Of Decay. Fusing the band's all-out attack with a little more complexity, this disc is gritty and grimy while simultaneously boasting some insanely long songs that will have you frantically banging your head.

Legend - From The Fjords

One of the most interesting times in metal for me is the late 1970s, when what was previously known as hard rock began to morph into something a little darker. A pretty cool obscurity from that time is New Jersey's Legend, who released one album of Viking-powered metal in 1979 called From The Fjords. The vocals work a traditional 70s melodiousness, but the guitars are raw and the drums wild. It's a cool example that loving the legends of Norway isn't a recent trend.

Pyramaze - Legend Of The Bone Carver

Set in a time when darkness rules the world, Legend Of The Bone Carver is a concept album in the greatest sense of the world, telling a momentous tale of good, evil, and the one person who can restore the balance between them. Danish/American power metal band Pyramaze don't flinch from the inherent dorkiness of the material, instead using it to fuel punishingly complex metal tracks that will have you ready to join the Bone Carver's army of the dead yourself.

Dream Theater - Awake

Metal fans are often split on Dream Theater - while everybody can appreciate the technical excellence of John Petruzzi and company, some of their tracks lack the aggression that we want in our metal music. Released at the height of the grunge era's popularity, 1994's Awake sees the band at its most epic, knocking out insane solos and complex arrangements across the board.

Tvangeste - Damnation Of Regiomontum

Russian symphonic metal band Tvangeste are deadly serious about their epic skills - there's no track on their 2000 debut Damnation Of Regiomontum that's under eight minutes long except for the outro. They do a lot in that time, too, coupling complex orchestral arrangements with slamming blastbeats, growling, choral singing and more. The band hasn't released an album since 2003 but they say that their next one will drop in 2013. Music this epic takes time.

Angra - Temple Of Shadows

Brazilian power metal band Angra is well known among heavy music fans for their insane technical skills - these guys shred to a level that's hard to fathom. On their 2004 album Temple of Shadows they use their music to chronicle the tale of a knight during the Crusades as he comes to question the Church's decisions to send him to war. Big ideas and big riffs make for a truly epic record.

Pain Of Salvation - The Perfect Element, Part 1

Okay, if you have "Part 1" in your album title, you know you're in for some serious action. Swedish power metal band Pain of Salvation is primarily the project of multi-talented composer and singer Daniel Gildenlow, and all of their records take Big Themes as their core. This one, released in 2000, examines the development of personality from childhood to maturity, and features some of the band's most complex and driving playing.

Katatonia - Night Is The New Day

Swedish death metal band Katatonia has evolved amazingly over their lifespan, going from a traditional doom sound to something a little more nuanced. The tracks on their 2009 release Night Is The New Day show the group locking on all cylinders to produce metal that is both aggresive and technical while also embracing the beauty of the world, even in decay.

Emperor - Anthems To The Welkin At Dusk

Emperor are one of the most important bands of the Second Wave of metal, and on their sophomore album Anthems To The Welkin At Dusk they move away from the more symphonic tendencies of their debut to a more traditional sound driven by blastbeat drumming and fierce guitars. This doesn't make the songs any less intense, though, as the lyrics abandon garden-variety Satanism for more complex mystical theorizing.

Judas Priest - Sad Wings Of Destiny

The second Priest album is a landmark in the world of epic metal, with the English heavy metal band locking into their role as one of the leading lights of the new wave of British heavy metal. This record has some of the band's most powerful early songs, and Rob Halford considers this album Priest's Sgt. Pepper's. Songs like "Victim Of Changes" show that metal could be more than just sludge and riffage, with new dynamics pushing the sound forward.

Vesperian Sorrow - Psychotic Sculpture

Austin's Vesperian Sorrow had a quantum leap between their first and second albums - Psychotic Sculpture is such a massive improvement on the band's prior efforts. The band has always stood out for avoiding the traditional doom topics of Satan and demons, preferring instead to explore metaphysical and scientific concepts. Every track on this disk is enormous, but the most epic is "Astrodramatica," almost nine minutes of insane punishment.
3 Inches Of Blood - Battlecry Under A Wintersun

Canadian metal band 3 Inches Of Blood has gone through a lot of changes in their short life - the band now features exactly zero original members - but one thing remains constant: their desire to knock out awesome riffs that hearken back to the glory days of early metal. Their songs have the perfect subject matter for epic greatness: slaying orcs, riding horses, battling evil and sometimes becoming evil.

Fates Warning - No Exit

It takes a lot of guts to totally turn over an entire side of an album (yes, albums used to have "sides" before we transformed them into little digital bits inside your pocket) to a single song, but prog metal band Fates Warning has nothing but guts. Their 1988 album No Exit boasts one of the most epic tracks in metal history, the 21:58 "The Ivory Gate Of Dreams." This thing will keep you on your toes for the track's entire length, and the rest of the album isn't bad either.

Blind Guardian - Nightfall In Middle Earth

The fantasy works of J.R.R. Tolkien are common touchstones for metal musicians - the world of Middle-Earth is rife with awesome battles, fearsome beasts and mysterious locations that lend themselves to song. One of the most notorious Tolkien-metal acts is German band Blind Guardian. Their sixth album Nightfall In Middle-Earth is based on the Silmarillion, and features not only driving melodic songs but spoken-word narration.
Tank - Honour & Blood

Tank was one of the lesser lights of the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal, but they still managed to knock out some awesome records. Their fourth LP Honor & Blood boasts a mere seven songs, mostly dealing with the subjects of war and carnage, and the album-closer "Kill" is a true epic classic, merging a scraggly guitar sound with driving rhythms.

Isis - Oceanic

Isis's Oceanic proves that you don't need to sing about dwarf warfare and flying on the back of a dragon to be epic metal. Post-metal band Isis helped create a style characterized by dark riffage and repetition, and their sophomore release is still a touchstone in the genre, sparking other bands to experiment with ambient noise, female vocals and other dynamic concepts. This one will stretch your brain out in a good way.

White Spirit - White Spirit

The early days of the NWOBHM were interesting because it documented a time when the essential tenets of metal were less codified - bands drew inspiration from 60s and 70s hard rock as well as punk, progressive and more. An interesting curiosity from that period is White Spirit's self-titled (and only) album.

Iron Maiden - Powerslave

You knew we'd get some more Maiden on this list - the legends of metal have always pushed the envelope in favor of sheer epicness. On 1984's Powerslave, you know you're in for some serious business from the instant you see Derek Riggs's insane Egyptian cover art, and things just get huger with classics like "2 Minutes To Midnight" and the band's insane interpretation of the classic Coleridge poem "Rime Of The Ancient Mariner." Making poetry cool is the definition of epic.

Aina - Days Of Rising Doom

You have to have some serious balls to subtitle your album "The Metal Opera," but Aina's Days Of Rising Doom pulls it off. This astonishing two-CD package from the Portugese supergroup is an amazing achivement, telling the tale of two brothers who war over their father's throne, with one fueled by jealousy to betray his people with a race of hideous monsters.

Mercyful Fate - Melissa

Some of these albums get a spot on the list for just one amazingly epic song - while the rest of Mercyful Fate's debut album Melissa (named after the human skull that frontman King Diamond carried around) is awesome old-school metal, things get truly over the top with the insane 11 minute "Satan's Fall," which features constantly evolving riffs and driving percussion that helped lay the groundwork for the future of metal.

Moonsorrow - Viides Luku – Hävitetty

Finnish folk-metal band Moonsorrow has built quite a fanbase with their driving, diverse songs which are just as likely to incorporate punishing blastbeats as extended synthesizer interludes. Their fifth album, Viides Luku – Hävitetty, takes that tendency to the extreme - boasting just two songs, each over 25 minutes long, they're astounding journeys through a truly foreign space.

Amon Amarth - Twilight Of The Thunder God

You could really pick just about any Amon Amarth album to make this list, as the Swedish death metal merchants have made a career out of delivering epic songs with brutal precision and fantastic lyrics. I have a soft spot for 2008's Twilight Of The Thunder God, which takes Norse legends as its inspiration. Hopefully Thor will use a song or two on the soundtrack.
Bathory - Hammerheart

You have to hand it to Quorthon, the main creative force behind Sweden's Bathory - not content with pioneering what would become death metal, he took his band away from the sound he invented towards something a little more... epic. Dispensing with growling vocals and adding more melodic complexity, 1990's Hammerheart is widely regarded as the first real Viking metal album, inspiring hordes of imitations.
HammerFall - Glory To The Brave

The first album from Sweden's power metal overlords HammerFall laid the groundwork for everything they would proceed to do - tremendous anthems about victory in battle and the glory of carnage, backed with insanely speedy playing. Hell, there's even a song about killing dragons on here. If you want to get into Viking metal, this is one of the best places to start.
Kamelot - The Black Halo

Back to Florida for some more punishing American power metal. The Black Halo draws inspiration from the classic tale of Faust, where a man makes a bargain with the Devil for Earthly rewards only to find that making those kinds of deals often doesn't work out so well. Featuring guest vocals by Simone Simons of Epica, this is a wildly ambitious album that more often than not delivers on its promise.

Battlelore - The Last Alliance

Back to the fertile ground of Tolkien metal with Finland's Battlelore. This group has become notorious for intense songs that are perfect for huge battles involving ents, orcs, giant eagles and whatever else you can think of. Their unique combination of lead vocalists helps keep this sounding intense and alien but still driving and familiar.

Rhapsody - Dawn Of Victory

Back to Rhapsody for what may well be their most battle-oriented album. 2000's Dawn Of Victory sees the band in top form, bolstered by the addition of new drummer Alex Holzwarth. The tale of the Warrior of Ice's triumphant battle against the armies of Dargor, this is prime music for pulling out your broadsword and cleaving some heads in twain.

Metallica - Master Of Puppets

While most of the bands on this list turn to the past for inspiration, whether from historic battles or tales of high fantasy, Metallica at their peak proved that the present day can be made epic if you try hard enough. On their last album with Cliff Burton they produced one of the single greatest metal albums of all time, blasting off from their thrash roots to create songs of unimaginable power and complexity, including the legendary instrumental "Orion."

Symphony X - The Divine Wings Of Tragedy

Symphony X's insane progressive metal is just about as epic as modern music gets, with insanely long songs overloaded with precision playing that veers wildly between punishing tempos and calm interludes. Their 1997 album The Divine Wings Of Tragedy gained them global attention, with the title track an insane twenty-minute suite of metal mayhem.

Bolt Thrower - Those Once Loyal

Coventry death metal band Bolt Thrower named themselves after a Warhammer weapon, so you know they love the smell of combat. Taking a more brutal approach to their epic tales of carnage and war, their final studio album Those Once Loyal uses World War I as the backdrop to punishingly loud songs that still manage to maintain an epic feel.

Black Sabbath - Paranoid

It's kind of amazing that the band that started it all could also be so great at making metal epic, but on the other hand it's not amazing at all - it's Sabbath. Paranoid is a milestone in metal history, as Ozzy, Tony, Geezer and Bill Ward took the aggression and transformed it into powerful, stomping songs that go on and on but never get bored. "Iron Man" might be the original metal epic, and "War Pigs" is equally insane. Panned by critics when it came out, Paranoid is widely regarded to be one of the most important rock albums of all time.

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