There’s this narrative pushed by music journalists and nostalgia series that metal died screaming in the ’90s. The idea is that the moment Kurt Cobain first played “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” metal clutched its heart, crapped its leather pants, and dropped into a heap of spikes and Aquanet.
Of course, we all know that’s not true, but for mainstream audiences, who see anything other than world domination as failure in rock music, metal was no longer in the spotlight. Vulnerability was the name of the game now, and there was no place for combat boots and wheedly solos.
In truth, the ’90s didn’t kill metal, but it did force the genre to evolve. And what metalheads found out was that this was a good thing. Since it was no longer the biggest fish in the pond, metal had to learn how to swim without the crutch of shrugging and saying, So what, I’m a rock star. And in the underground, away from the prying eyes of the masses, metal could mutate in ugly, awesome ways that would frighten fair-weather fans. The result was, of course, some of the genre’s most innovative and interesting albums.
Here are the 30 albums which made the ’90s such an unexpectedly awesome decade for metal…
30. Darkane, Rusted Angel (1999)
While acts like In Flames and Soilwork were trying to make melodic death metal spacier and more pop oriented, Helsingborg’s Darkane were taking it to new extremes. Rusted Angel incorporates goth and industrial elements around it edges, but its core is a Janus face of chaotic death metal and ripping thrash. Tracks like “Convicted,” “Rape of Mankind,” the furious “July 1999” and the towering title track made this an album which immediately infected underground fans who heard it, even if it sounded like a well-harnessed racket. Chaos at its most expertly controlled.
29. Powerman 5000, Tonight The Stars Revolt! (1999)
With the genre they’d helped invent firmly established in the rock world, Powerman 5000 finally found their sweet spot. The junkity, uneven rap-rock of 1995’s The Blood-Splat Rating System (later reissued at Mega!! Kung-Fu Radio) was refined, polished, and given a more dance-friendly beat, and thus turned into an unstoppable monster. Tonight The Stars Revolt! is as well-crafted a collection of nu-metal hits the world had ever seen, crossbreeding exciting riffs with blood-pumping rhythms and birthing music that was impossible to ignore. This is what it’s like when worlds collide.
28. Cradle of Filth, Cruelty & the Beast (1998)
Later Cradle of Filth releases saw the band gothicizing their black metal sound for broader audiences, and earlier records fought hard to put the band’s grimmest face forward. But Cruelty & the Beast walks the beautiful line between both sides of the act, celebrating vampirism at both its most evil and its sexiest. Every riff on this record sounds like the gargoyle-choked spire on the tallest castle against palest full moon imaginable. That its subject matter was a real-life murderess only further accentuated its bloody perfection.
27. Exhorder, Slaughter In The Vatican (1990)
While commonly considered the true fathers of the groove metal guitar sound, NOLA’s Exhorder aren’t relying on syrupy hooks on Slaughter In The Vatican. Though the riffs are thick and the snare echoes powerfully, this is a mean-ass thrash metal record across the board. But that mixture of groove tone, thrash speed and anger, and death metal vocal delivery (cheers to Kyle Thomas) made this an underground sensation, the kind of metal record that was lost beneath the acclaim heaped on those who owed it everything. Proof that plenty of people would like to see the pope at the end of a rope.
26. Entombed, Left Hand Path (1990)
No album is more synonymous with Swedish death metal than Left Hand Path. Entombed’s debut took everyone by storm, combining chaotic volatility with enjoyable riffage to massive results. Even those who’d come to know the band as Nihilist were in no way prepared for this onslaught, tempered as it was with crumbling morbidity and classic thrash worship. To this day, the album sounds as fresh and furious as ever, a testament to the strength of its raw energy alone.
25. Anthrax, Persistence of Time (1990)
Like many of their thrash peers, Anthrax decided to get serious at the turn of the decade, and began penning tracks that were mid-paced and uncommonly long. But what sets Persistence of Time apart from so many other records like it is simple: songwriting. Sure, the tracks on Anthrax’s entrance in the ‘90s might’ve all broken the four-minute mark (except for their cover of “Got the Time”), but each one is such a carefully-crafted chugger that it never feels boring. Put on “Blood” or “In My World” and tell us that’s not some of the best metal ever written.
24. Immortal, At The Heart Of Winter (1999)
The ‘90s were a warlike time for Immortal, and the 2000s saw them finally embracing their black metal wrestler sound. But At The Heart Of Winter sits on the precipice between the battlefield and the ring, seeing the band utilizing their patented icy-gale guitar tone while keeping things chaotic and furious. Opener “Withstand The Fall Of Time,” galloping stampede “Where Light & Dark Don’t Differ,” and the looming title track proved that even these humorless goofballs knew a kickass riff when they heard it. Thank Ravendark for that.
23. Death, Human (1991)
Having fully merged his thrashy roots and wonky new leanings, Chuck Schuldiner was ready to take Death to the next level in the ’90s. Human is the first of the band’s progressive triptych, and is brilliant in part because it’s early on in their evolution. While unorthodox and uncommon to say the least, the album is still mired in the guts of death metal, embracing both philosophy and anatomy. As such, the record’s title remains beautiful in its simplicity, referencing both its tone and the most disgusting subject matter of all.
22. Dismember, Like An Everflowing Stream (1991)
While the “Gothenburg sound” became Swedish death metal’s calling card, the “Stockholm sound” was what headbangers secretly craved, and no one did that like Dismember. Though later releases would see the band become a more polished, efficient killing machine, it was their debut release Like An Everflowing Stream that coined their unique sound. Vicious but never icy, catchy but never poppy, the record remains a testament to how much fun death metal can be without sacrificing any of its ire. Sit back and let the lava take you.
21. Judas Priest, Painkiller (1990)
Leave it to the most metal band on earth to foresee the genre’s future before anyone else. After a stint in synth-heavy floofery in the late ‘80s, Judas Priest surged into the ‘90s with vicious gusto on Painkiller. As though hearing their pop-oriented material in a hotel lobby and wondering what the fuck had happened, the band went in on a blistering, metal-as-fuck album that sounded like a tank being cut in half with a laser sword. So rarely does a record sound exactly like its cover art.
20. Machine Head, Burn My Eyes (1994)
Not only did Burn My Eyes help shape metal forever in the ‘90s, but the ‘90s was exactly the decade Burn My Eyes needed to blow up. Trying to label this record with any genre or subgenre other than ‘metal’ is impossible — it’s not thrash, it’s not death, it’s not even quite groove. But the ‘90s were down for good-no-matter-what-it-is, and Machine Head’s concrete sledge of urban anger and riff worship was excellent with or without a label. A pleasure to listen to even as you put your foot through the drywall.
19. Carcass, Necroticism – Descanting the Insalubrious (1991)
Only a few years before Necroticism, Carcass had changed the extreme music game by helping invent grindcore and gore metal. But in the ‘90s the band proved that these seemingly-unlistenable genres could be wrangled into something catchier than their many competitors. The album isn’t just brutal as fuck and heavy as hell, it’s just fun to jam, providing sick solos and perfectly headbangable sections which drew in death metal fans desiring both a good time and a sonic autopsy. Get double-bassed to death.
18. Hatebreed, Satisfaction Is The Death of Desire (1997)
And out came the breakdowns. Hatebreed’s debut album was an underground sensation, effortlessly merging hardcore’s burl with metal’s vengeful fury. The child of this coupling was momentous, pissed-off, and easier to sing along to than the Star-Spangled Banner. While it would take the band another couple of years to officially break through to widespread audiences, Satisfaction… showed underground fans that maybe there was something more brutal than gore lyrics and death-growls. It’s not the blood you spill that gets you what you want, it’s the blood you share.
17. Deftones, Around the Fur (1997)
Languid, dreamy, and drenched in sweat — Around the Fur captured the big mood of the late ‘90s perfectly. Unlike so many of their jacked-up brethren trying to sound tougher than anyone else, Deftones employed their artsy tendencies, adding heavy doses of new-wave shimmer and noise-rock shriek to their massive guitar-driven sound. That a track like “My Own Summer” or “Be Quiet and Drive” enraptured so many listeners is a statement on just how ready ‘90s audiences were for a record as weird as this.
16. Strapping Young Lad, City (1997)
On paper, ‘97 was the year of JNCOs and bands with DJs; for metalheads, it actually marked the release of a truly perfect album. City saw a merging of thrash, industrial, and shred metal that was never before (and maybe never again be) realized, creating a searing, infectious sound that melodeath bands would attempt to copy for decades. While Devin Townsend is probably better known for his solo and production work these days, Strapping Young Lad’s finest moment stands as eternal proof that he could get utterly brutal when he wanted to. ‘Oh my fucking God’ is right, man.
15. Skid Row, Slave to the Grind (1991)
Music historians like to act as though hair metal disappeared the minute the clock hit midnight on New Year’s Eve, 1989. But the ‘90s saw some of that scene’s more exciting acts release incredible, genre-bending releases, and Slave to the Grind is one of them. The album makes one wonder if Skid Row were more of a cheesy thrash act than a true ‘hair’ band; tracks like “Monkey Business,” “Psycho Love,” “Riot Act,” and the crushing title track could’ve easily been Pantera songs. A record that deserves more credit for this decade’s development.
14. Korn, Follow the Leader (1997)
If any album made nu-metal the world’s dominant guitar-based music genre in the ‘90s, it was Follow the Leader. On their third full-length record, Korn took their grimy, street-level sound and injected it with a huge dose of ambition. That took the band’s blue-collar grind to new heights and created a scene all its own, where typical kids feeling really fucked up felt like they finally had people who understood them. You can only see the “Freak On A Leash” video on MTV so many times before you realize these guys are part of history.
13. Sleep, Sleep’s Holy Mountain (1993)
Despite the insane ‘Just Say No’ campaign proliferating the media during the decade, the ‘90s was an era where potheaddom achieved new levels of recognition. For Sleep, this made society finally ready to embrace their wily brand of acid-edge stoner metal. Sleep’s Holy Mountain is a buoyant, exciting tribute to all things kind and loud, packed like a fat bowl of riffs that sends the listener strutting through the bummer of their everyday lives. Just say yes, every time.
12. Obituary, Cause of Death (1990)
Death metal was finding its footing by the end of the ‘80s, but Obituary officially stomped it into existence on Cause of Death. The Florida band didn’t just overdrive thrash and add lyrics as gory and offensive as possible, they used slow southern rhythms and churlish grooves to bring an oozing humidity to the scene. To this day, the record sounds utterly disgusting, and presents listeners with the seeds from which sprouted so many of the vibes and subgenres we worship today. An album that’s just killer on its surface, but grows more important with every listen.
11. Metallica, Metallica (1991)
If any band seemed to read the room in the early ‘90s, it was Metallica. The thrash giants could’ve easily kept penning the stark gallops of 1988’s …And Justice for All and pleased all of their diehard headbanger fans around the world. Instead, the Four Horsemen saw the writing on the wall and stripped their sound down to its heaviest, most functional parts. The result was a history-making record which paved the way for the decade’s obsession with pure groove. After this came out, nothing else mattered.
10. Type O Negative, World Coming Down (1999)
While Bloody Kisses changed the game and October Rust included their goth-club smash shit, World Coming Down was Type O Negative’s shining moment in the ‘90s. With this album, the Brooklyn-based gloom mongers went all-in on their depression, hatred, and true creepiness. Whether it wa the addiction dirge of “White Slavery,” the ethereal turmoil of “Everyone I Love Is Dead,” or the autumnal celebration of “All Hallows Eve,” the songs on this record gave the world a look at just how heavy it feels to be perpetually dominated by a million tons of brightly-lit concrete. What can we tell you — everything dies.
9. Slipknot, Slipknot (1999)
No one saw it coming. Nine guys in jumpsuits and Halloween masks, three drummers, a DJ and sample guy…from Des Moines? Must be a record label gimmick fest, right? Couldn’t possibly be a reinvention of contemporary metal. Couldn’t possibly be an acerbic explosion of honest American hatred, a cataclysm of angst for the everyday downtrodden whose inner faces were finally being worn on the outside. Couldn’t possibly be the record that a generation of metalheads would consider the beginning of everything. These guys? No way.
8. Emperor, Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk (1997)
So much of second-wave black metal is murky noise and teen filth, but Emperor revealed the genre’s true form with Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk. While so many of their peers used frightening churches and crumbling temples on their album art, these guys made music that sounded like those things. The record is a sweeping, classically-inspired deluge of metal at its most epic and self-involved, showing exactly what black metal could be if it didn’t limit itself. If Milrton’s Paradise Lost were set to music, they’d use this.
7. Meshuggah, Destroy Erase Improve (1995)
It’s only now that the world can see Destroy Erase Improve for the masterpiece that it is. There’s no doubt that when it was released during the height of groove metal, grunge, and alternative rock, casual fans heard it and just wondered where they were supposed to headbang. But today, any fan can hear on Meshuggah’s sophomore album the fruitful beginnings of metal’s entire future, from prog to djent to melodeath. Not an album anyone expected, but definitely one we all needed.
6. Slayer, Seasons In The Abyss (1990)
In many ways, Seasons In The Abyss was the birthplace of ‘90s metal. The crimson ‘80s had been so good to Slayer, but with this album they ushered in a new era of disillusionment, melancholy, and rough-edged horror that other bands would do their damnedest to recapture later on. With tracks like frantic military scream “War Ensemble,” ghoulish Ed Gein tribute “Dead Skin Mask,” and plodding apocalypse anthem “Skeletons of Society,” Slayer showed the world that leather pants were dead and camo cut-offs were the way of the future. Hell followed with them.
5. Cannibal Corpse, The Bleeding (1994)
Trying to pick one of Cannibal Corpse’s incredible ‘90s releases to include on this list is difficult, but The Bleeding wins by a hair. The album is just perfectly balanced, combining the band’s gnarly intestinal sound with a level of catchy songwriting that they hadn’t been equipped with beforehand. The result is a very complete-sounding record for the band, which can be adored from start to finish even as it rips your guts out at every turn. If “Fucked With A Knife” doesn’t immediately launch you into a frenzy, you might be on the wrong site.
4. Pantera, Vulgar Display of Power (1992)
Let’s be honest, when you think of an album that represents where metal was in the ‘90s, it’s Vulgar Display of Power. While Pantera had made an impressive name for themselves with Cowboys from Hell, this record is the one that coined both their thicker-than-thou groove metal sound and their dirtbag everyman aesthetic. As Diamond Darrell became Dimebag, so too did the band become a new voice for this grimy, down-to-earth decade. And hey, “Mouth for War,” am I right?
3. White Zombie, Astro-Creep: 2000 (1995)
While 1992’s La Sexorcisto introduced the world to White Zombie’s groovy, stoner-grindhouse vibe, it was ‘95’s Astro-Creep: 2000 that cemented their greatness. The record’s polished, streamlined profile was one the likes of which the world hadn’t heard before them, setting ultra-heavy riffs to a killing-rhythm metronome. Without this release’s ultra-catchy chug, the entire nu-metal movement would’ve struggled to find its footing. While Rob might have outdone himself in ‘98 with his solo debut, this was the record which truly cleared his way to the top.
2. At The Gates, Slaughter of the Soul (1995)
While some metal albums can be judged by their extremity, cultural weight, or technical songwriting, Slaughter of the Soul is the rare record that stands solely on its deliciousness. Every song on At The Gates‘ legendary album is so melodic that it makes your teeth hurt, while at the same time never losing a sense of urgency and intensity. That tracks as catchy as “Caught Inside Your Mind” and “Suicide Nation” can also be so brutal speaks to what a perfect culmination of the ‘90s Swedish sound this classic is. In a word: GO.
1. Sepultura, Chaos A.D. (1993)
Simply put, Chaos A.D. checks every single box that a metal album should. It’s a thrash record that incorporates heavy groove, but never feels anything less than cutthroat. It’s an honest examination of society that never comes off as overly lofty or eggheaded. It’s an international record that feels street-level wherever its listened to. And if all that isn’t enough, it just rips, from start to finish. With this album, Sepultura went from promising speed metal game-changers to one of the most important acts the genre has ever known, and altered the course of every metal subgenre out there. Every band in the world had their work cut out for them from this album forward.
Words by Chris Krovatin