Thirty years in the music business is enough to teach even the greenest amateur the ropes, but Metal Blade founder Brian Slagel was pretty tuned in from the start. His independent label launched in 1982 with the compilation Metal Massacre, which featured the first label appearance by Metallica (who provided an early version of “Hit the Lights”) as well as songs by Black N Blue and Malice, who would both also go on to receive major-label deals.
“I was working at a record store at the time and I was importing all the New Wave of British Heavy Metal albums,” Slagel says of the label’s origins. “People came up to me in the store and said, ‘Hey, have you seen any of these local L.A. heavy metal bands?’ And I went, ‘There are L.A. heavy metal bands?’ I started seeing all these cool bands. One of the first shows I saw was Motley Crue and Ratt at the Troubadour on a Wednesday night for a dollar. So I decided to put together a compilation of L.A. bands, including Metallica, who hadn’t moved to San Francisco yet.”
When Metal Massacre sold out its initial 5,000-copy pressing, Slagel signed a distribution deal and reissued the record. He also put out Metal Massacre II and III, which came out in 1982 and 1983, and included debuts by Armored Saint and Slayer, respectively. With practically no money to work with, Slagel pooled resources with Slayer to record and release their first album, Show No Mercy, in 1983 and its follow up, Hell Awaits in 1985, and continued from there.
“There were two things that helped us in the beginning,” he explains. “When Armored Saint got signed to Chrysalis, they talked about the label in every interview so people started to notice us. Then, when we put out Slayer, that was huge and gave us a lot of credibility.”
While many metal labels crashed and burned in the early ’90s when alternative and grunge became popular, Metal Blade became the go-to label for the underground and Slagel earned extra income by handling U.S. marketing for Faith No More, Soundgarden and other loud alternative acts. In short, he’s remained ahead of the curve by being flexible and keeping his ear to street, discovering trends in their infant stages, including thrash, power metal, speed metal, death metal, black metal, metalcore and deathcore. Today, Metal Blade is the home for some of the most popular bands on the metal circuit, including oldtimers like King Diamond and Cannibal Corpse and newer acts such as Job For a Cowboy, As I Lay Dying and Whitechapel.
“I always come from the perspective of a fan,” Slagel says. “I love this kind of music and I’ve always felt there are so many cool bands out there that are being ignored by the major labels. I just want to sign them all.”
To celebrate Metal Blade’s 30th anniversary, eMusic picked 15 essential albums that span the history of the label. A skull-rattling sampler is also available here.
The first live recording by the most sinister member of thrash's Big 4 captures Slayer in 1984, when they were still playing dive clubs and a year away from releasing their second album, Hell Awaits. The fans screaming over the music suggests there were hundreds, maybe thousands, in attendance. That's exactly right. Though Slayer recorded seven songs live in the studio in front of 50 of their closest friends, additional crowd howls were added later. Even so, Live Undead captures the raw savagery of Slayer's earliest days along with the obligatory onstage banter of the era. "They say the pen is mightier than the sword, but I say fuck the pen 'cause you can die by the sword!" exclaims Tom Araya before "Die by the Sword." In addition to the concert tracks, the release includes Slayer's Metal Massacre III track "Aggressive Perfector," and the full 1984 studio EP Haunting the Chapel, which opens with the six-minute long "Chemical Warfare," the band's first step towards gloomy atmospheres and multi-textured arrangements. The recording marks the last time Araya punctuated his pitbull growl with a piercing wail he later deemed "un-metal." It may not be a "true" concert album, but Live Undead / Haunting the Chapel is an excellent illustration of how great Slayer were long before they released Reign in Blood.
Before Corrosion of Conformity became a southern rock-tinged doom band, they were one of the most arresting and groundbreaking crossover bands around, blending hardcore and thrash into a dangerous and unstable compound that defied the conventions of either genre. The band's second disc, Animosity lurches and lunges on a foundation of odd meters and sudden tempo shifts ("Consumed"), catchy, gang vocals and palm-muted metal riffs ("Holier") and pure speed intercut with a startling array of off-kilter rhythms ("Intervention"). The instrumental title track starts out as a dense and sluggish ode to all things black (Sabbath and Flag), then tears into an frenzied skullripper, while "Kiss of Death" is more like Judas Priest filtered through early Bad Brains. At a time when punks and metal kids were as likely to exchange blows as mosh together, Animosity was a blaring cry for cultural unity.
Killswitch Engage and Shadows Fall are usually the first two bands associated with the Western Massachusetts metalcore scene; this is no small slight to Unearth, who have been banging around since 1998 and have grown dramatically without resorting to the genre's trademark hardcore verse, melodic chorus vocal construct. Instead, Unearth have relied on guitarists Ken Susi and Buzz McGrath to provide the hooks and the meat, and on their fourth album, The March, they hit the perfect balance between percussive teeth-gnashing and euphoric virtuosity. Opening track "My Will Be Done" demonstrates their ability to shuffle between crushing riffs, blazing leads and guitar harmonies equally inspired by the New Wave of British Heavy Metal and Swedish death metal. The highlight is "Crow Killer," which injects Mercyful Fate-worthy six string workouts between chugging, downtuned breakdowns. And whenever Unearth veer too close to prog, vocalist Trevor Phipps tears them back to earth with larynx-bursting screams that could make Henry Rollins grab his throat in sympathy.
In part, As I Lay Dying's fifth album, The Powerless Rise, was an apology to their oldest fans for the more commercial approach they took on 2007's An Ocean Between Us. Not that The Powerless Rise is free of melodic choruses or hum-along guitars, but the primary objective here is to prove how fast and heavy the band can still be in an age of commercial metalcore. "Beyond Our Suffering" opens the album with crashing thrash beats, speedy guitar runs and layered vocal howls. The tempo only picks up with "Anodyne Sea," which adds feral blastbeats to the band's assault. If there's a formula to The Powerless Rise, it's one of sonic diversity and rage that rivals the best death metal — a construction As I Lay Dying virtually introduced to Christian metalcore a decade ago. It would take a small miracle for the band to surpass the passion and fury of this album. All we can do is pray.
Polish death/black-metal veterans Behemoth faced considerable adversity as they started working on their ninth album. With the popularity of 2007's The Apostasy and a slot on the popular touring Mayhem Festival, kvlt purists questioned Behemoth's credibility, leaving frontman Adam "Nergal" Darski with the challenge of crafting a record evil enough to silence skeptics and epic enough to retain mainstream fans. With Evangelion, Behemoth succeed on all levels. Darksi's riffs are as heavy and inventive as Nile and Morbid Angel, his vocals are bloodcurdling and Zbigniew Robert "Inferno" PromiÅ„ski's drumming is faster than agitated atoms in a cauldron of molten steel. Yet Evangelion is also saturated with melody, from haunting minor-key hooks over the main verse of "Ov Fire and the Void" to the ominous guitar chimes and undead choir chants of "He Who Breeds Pestilence." In addition to writing majestic black/death metal songs that are at once crushing and captivating, Darski has upped the bar on his leads, delivering a muscular range of speedy, tuneful intros, trenchant transitional licks, and virtuosic solos. Twenty years into their career, Behemoth are at the top of their game.
Possibly the most offensive album in Metal Blade's 30 year history, Cannibal Corpse deserves a golden chalice of fetid, maggot-filled blood for creating this whirlwind of sadistic delight. Blastbeats and double-bass drums lay the foundation for guitars that sound like body organs being pureed in a blender and vocals that resemble zombies regurgitating indigestible innards. Slower riffs and syncopated beats offset the cacophony, which lasts for a pulse-pounding 36 minutes. Even more insane than the music is the art work, which depicts an exhumed corpse giving oral sex to a recently buried cadaver. Top it off with song titles, including, "Necropedophile," "Entrails Ripped From a Virgin's Cunt" and "Addicted to Vaginal Skin" and you're left with a classic unrelenting slab of Florida death metal that was banned in Germany (of all places) upon its release. God bless the First Amendment for allowing Cannibal Corpse to prosper Stateside, despite the vocal protests of established politicians including former presidential candidates Bob Dole and Senator Joe Lieberman.
Before French Canadian experimental sci-fi thrash band Voivod streamlined their sound with the progressive tones of 1989's Nothingface, they were one of the loudest, ugliest and strangest bands in the nascent thrash scene, mixing the blues-tinged bombast of Motorhead and the unfocused brutality of Venom with songs about futuristic beasts waging nuclear war. In 1984, when Voivod's "Condemned to the Gallows" appeared on Metal Massacre V (alongside the equally brutal Hellhammer), the band sounded like aliens descending to lay waste to Western music. Signed on the strength of the single, Voivod released War and Pain later that year. While songs like "Blower," "Suck Your Bone" and the title track offer few hints of the complex arrangements and innovative tones the band would deliver a few years later, there was enough energy, anger, weird noise and stranger lyrics to keep listeners captivated. So raw it's practically punk, so abrasive it's pure metal, War and Pain immediately put Voivod on a different platform than the big four and other more conventional thrash bands.
Inspired by Black Sabbath and doomy New Wave of British Heavy Metal bands like Witchfinder General and Angel Witch, Chicago's Trouble gave the English doom template an ironic twist, focusing on the heroes of Biblical conflicts instead of the villains — a move that earned them the classification "white metal." From their first album, Psalm 9, Trouble exhibited a multitude of trudging riffs and a variety of tempos, including dirge-like shuffling ("The Tempter"), sludgy lumbering ("Revelation (Life or Death")) and mid-paced thudding ("Assassin"). While vocalist Eric Wagner's wailing voice is an acquired taste, guitarists Rick Wartell and Bruce Franklin guide the band through an epic journey that's been equally praised by Dave Grohl and Philip Anselmo and started Trouble on a promising career path.
On their second full-length, Atlanta quartet Hallows Eve bring on the melodic thrash with fierce, playful intensity. Most of the songs on Death & Insanity see-saw between frantic rhythms and slower, more contained riffs. Many are complimented by Stacy Anderson's gritty, melodic vocals and horror-themed lyrics, which address torture, evil and, well, death and insanity, giving the album the feel of a carnival thrill ride. The title track is a galloping, razor-honed number with a chant-along chorus; "Goblet of Gore" is slower and more complex, with various rhythmic changes and the skillful, serpentine lines of guitarist David Stuart. Two instrumentals exhibit the band's skill in dramatically different ways. "Obituary" is a classical guitar number comparable to Randy Rhoads's "Dee," while "Attack of the Iguana" is a showcase for angular riffs and abrupt tempo shifts. Musically, most of Death and Insanity sounds like a hybrid of mid-era Sacred Reich, Flotsam & Jetsam and early Anthrax, but there's something about the campiness of the lyrics that makes the album as infectious as a campy gore movie.
Like Municipal Waste, S.O.D. and Gwar, the Black Dahlia Murder recognize the humor in metal, and can't help but poke a little fun at the genre — hence song titles like "On Stirring Seas of Salted Blood," "Malenchantments of the Necrosphere" and "Carbonized in Cruciform." It also explains why they've been discounted by some stern cult metal fans as unadulterated drivel. But make no mistake: Black Dahlia Murder's music is no joke. Their fifth album, Ritual, is fierce and unremitting, incorporating a variety of styles including death metal, black metal, thrash and metalcore, and skillfully intertwining them without sounding like a skipping CD player. The glue that binds comes from guitarists Ryan Knight and Brian Eschbach, whose fills and solos range from '80s shredders to Gothenburg-style melodic death dealers. But frontman Trevor Strnad is also a highlight, switching from guttural growls to blackened shrieks on tracks like "A Shrine to Madness," "Conspiring with the Damned" and "The Grave Robber's Work."
Flotsam & Jetsam are best known as the band that spawned bassist, lyricist and songwriter Jason Newsted, who replaced Cliff Burton in Metallica when the latter died in a bus accident. That being the case, it's surprising that Flotsam & Jetsam's debut, Doomsday For the Deceiver, has been so criminally overlooked. The album is a pure thrash gem that sounds like a cross between Metallica (there's even a song called "Fade to Black"), Among the Livng-era Anthrax and early Iron Maiden. The songwriting on uptempo tracks like "Hammerhead," "Desecrator" and "She Took an Axe" is top-notch, filled with fast, catchy riffs, galloping drums and shrill, melodic vocals. But it's the eight to nine minute multi-textural thrash ballads, the title track and "Metalshock," that display the band at its best. Even after Newsted's departure, guitarist Michael Gilbert proved he had the writing chops to keep Flotsam raging for several more strong albums.
In 1983, D.R.I. launched as a ferocious hardcore punk band with the Dirty Rotten LP, a record that featured little metal in its 22 rapidly boiling songs, all delivered in 17 minutes. Gradually, however, D.R.I. started exploring heavier tones and riffs. Their third album, 1987's Crossover, was perfectly titled — an inflamed hybrid of hardcore and metal, but it was the band's fifth record, 1989's Thrash Zone, that showcased their fully-formed metal chops. As the title implies, aside from Kurt Brecht's barked vocals, this is more of a thrash album than a crossover showcase. But it's a damn good one, packed with riffs that crunch, chug and churn along with the tempos of the music. Faster songs like "Standing in Line" and "Worker Bee" should please Slayer fans, while slower numbers like "Thrashard" and "Give a Hoot" offer more appeal to arm-swinging moshers.
They may have been one of the founders of deathcore with the blistering blastbeats and lunging breakdowns of their 2005 debut Doom, but Job For a Cowboy quickly shed the title and morphed into more of a cross between early Morbid Angel and Suffocation. Ruination is their best and most satisfying release, one more rooted in sonic overload than coherent structure. The rhythms shift from one section to the next with little concern for trivialities like bridges and choruses, and the beats batter along. But it works. Job For a Cowboy aren't interested in traditional approaches, be they instrumental breakdown chugs or deathcore pig squeals. The chaotic vibe here is what's important. Vocalist Jonny Davy spends most of his time growling like Lamb of God's Randy Blythe, and when he screams in a higher register he resembles Trevor Strnad of The Black Dahlia Murder. Fortunately for Job For a Cowboy, guitarists Bobby Thompson (who left the band in 2011) and Alan Glassman have an arsenal of textural and melodic tricks to keep the songs interesting, and drummer Jon Rice is young and agile enough to keep rapid double bass beats and syncopated fills going with little rest between flurries.
The first artist signed to Metal Blade, Bitch blended the rumbling style of Girlschool with the riffage of early Judas Priest. The group was fronted by Betsy "Bitch" Weiss, a theatrical frontwoman who played a dominatrix onstage and wrote fun, spirited songs like "Leatherbound" and "Live For the Whip." Weiss wasn't the most powerful vocalist, but she could carry a tune well enough, and the band's musicianship was simple, primal and powerful, complimenting Weiss's sexually-charged delivery. They may not be remembered as the most important Metal Blade band of all time, but Bitch made mainstream tough-chick rock like Pat Benatar and Joan Jett sound about as dangerous as Cyndi Lauper.
Combining elements of thrash with New Wave of British Heavy Metal, Tampa, Florida's Nasty Savage wrote fast, anthemic songs about gladiators, murderers and other traditional metal subjects. But they did so with style, and are considered by many to have sparked the underground Florida metal scene along with Savatage. Fronted by wrestler "Nasty" Ronnie Galetti, who used to smash tube television sets on his chest, Nasty Savage were highly charged and consistent, and their music was more than a backdrop for Galetti's antics. The band's self-titled full-length is simple, but effective, and the band plows through songs like "Asmodeus," "Dungeon of Pleasure" and "The Morgue" with authority and attitude even when Galetti occasionally veers into a falsetto shriek reminiscent of King Diamond.