In a lot of ways, shock rock is heavy music at its purest. The genre is 1o0% dedicated the entertaining fans, and for metalheads that means bringing their most morbid and dramatic visions to life before their eyes. This complete dedication to making people gasp, scream, and clap with joy lies at the heart of our entire movement, which tuned down lower and picked up the tempo in the hopes of getting pulses pounding. If you have the opportunity to watch someone get play-dismembered onstage, shoegaze can go fuck itself.
Problem is, a lot of people think that shock rock is only theater, with the music coming second. But that’s simply not true — just because these guys like to cover themselves in blood and set things on fire doesn’t mean they aren’t dedicated to writing great songs. In fact, most shock rockers are well aware that without the music to back it up, all their costumes and pyro in the world doesn’t really matter. So in honor of this classic sonic tradition, we decided to list the shock rockers whose tunes deserve as much credit as their shtick.
Here are 10 acts whose music holds up under the stage lights…
What Rammstein did was really the gold standard: they started with the music. When “Du hast’ first conquered the world in 1997, no one knew the extent of the band’s onstage plans. Now, some decades later, one thinks of Rammstein as a force of pyro, elaborate costumes, and insane stage set-ups. But the band made sure they had fans of their music alone first, and as such never felt like shock for shock’s sake. First, you get the fans. Then, you buy the fireproof coat. Then you get the women.
With 28 studio albums under his belt, the law of averages dictates that Alice Cooper has to have a few good songs, right? The thing is, while most outsiders known rock’s ultimate showman for chopping his own head off and waltzing around with a snake, metalheads know him for “The Black Widow,” “Bed of Nails,” and “Brutal Planet.” The Coop’s snide, morbid showtunes have even informed the metal underground, who see the brutality in ripping singles like “Roses on White Lace.” It ain’t theater without great tunes.
For a certain breed of subterranean extreme metal fan, Death SS (the initials representing frontman Steve Sylvester) are the ultimate in lo-fi shock rock. And yet the real power lies in the unhinged horror-metal that the band perform alongside all the blood and pyro. Death SS could easily fill an arena with elaborate terrors, but put ‘em in a stripped-down club setting and you’ll still feel the power of their darkness via their wailing tracks about vampires and voodoo. A book detailing Death SS’s long and storied career was just released, so make sure to delve into the band’s sordid history if you don’t know them.
For most metalheads, GWAR are the ultimate shock rockers, and rightfully so. The Antarctican thrashers leave no fan un-creampied, dousing everything in their path with blood, green muck, and anything else they can excrete. That said, the band’s big hits are so big, and hit so damn hard, that they’ve become impossible to extract from their in-person free-for-alls. Songs like “Jack the World,” “Immortal Corrupter,” and the beauteous “Tick Tits” may sound great while you get fed to the alien, but they’re just as killer on your headphones during your morning walk.
If you’re attending a Gorgoroth show, you’re probably going to see someone’s vagina while they get crucified onstage (that’s just life, man). But put on an album like Pentagram or Incipit Satan in your spare time, and you’ll hear black metal at its most grand and aggressive. Especially cool is that the band’s viciousness and giant scope are transportive, taking the listener right back to that front-row view of fake-blood-covered genitals. These dudes could’ve been all sheep heads, but they made an effort to write evil songs, and for that, we thank them.
Everything about Wednesday 13 speaks to shock rock’s prime directive: pure entertainment. The ‘duke of spook’ provides one hell of a live show, contorting amidst a green-lit Halloween party with a Janus face of wailing masks. But just as hard-hitting as 13’s performance art is his music — records like 2012’s Spook and Destroy and 2017’s absolutely blistering Condolences make sure that even visually-impaired fans will lose their minds at one of his concerts. Screaming in terror is fine, but screaming in pleasure — that’s show business.
There’s shock rock, and then there’s the fucking Mentors. The Seattle band’s stage show is less haunted house, more crack house, full of blow-up dolls and scantily-clad women drenched in fake blood (and if you were lucky enough to see them with late frontman El Duce, maybe some spat booze). But these masked men certainly play the kind of music that warrants this sort of behavior and attitude — with rollicking chainsaw-guitared tracks like “On The Rag” and “Turned You Into A Lesbian,” the band always come through with enough gnarly metal-punk to back up their executioner-hooded live set. The ultimate heavy metal vomit party.
It’s not that epic Italian horror-metallers Deathless Legacy need onstage dramatics to make their music cool. The band’s symphonic occult metal could stand on its own easily, without the dancers and ghoulish actors who come out on stage to accompany their live performance. It’s more that Deathless Legacy’s music is so massive and theatrical that it feels like a morbid metal musical — so why not take their stage show to its next natural step, and turn the live arena into an over-the-top spectacle? When darkness calls, put a cape on it and kick its ass onstage.
If they wanted to, Ghoul could just get up on stage and play, and it’d be fine. The Creepsylvanian quartet’s patented splatterthrash is exciting, aggressive, and fucking fun enough to stand on its own. But these masked cannibals aren’t content to just let their churning riffs destroy your ears — they also want to bathe you in fake gore and entrails, and maybe bring out their fungal god Abominox onstage. It’s always a good sign when a band doesn’t need to come armed with shock, but still give the people what they want.
Among the acts on this list, Watain might be the only ones to horrify even their own fanbase. The band became infamous for using real animal blood in their performances, with fans at a 2014 show in Brooklyn being filmed puking afterwards. But spin a record like 2007’s Sworn to the Dark and 2013’s The Wild Hunt, and one will hear the kind of Scandinavian Aghori music that warrants such a disgusting live ritual. Sorry, vegan black metal fans, but revulsion has always been part of this scene.
Words by Chris Krovatin