The lineup of a band has rarely, if ever, been a sacred thing. See how often the Nameless Ghouls of Ghost end up being rotated out of the congregation, or the endless list of players in Megadeth over the past four decades (well, not endless—25, not counting session musicians). But try to replace the voice—and in many cases the face—of the band, and see how difficult it is to retain interest.
For better or for worse, a vocalist is often the least replaceable part of the band, in large part because they’re the most visible member of the group—they sing the words we memorize, and they’re front and center on stage when we see them live.
But at least in terms of heavy music, it’s not that uncommon to see a band cycle through a few singers, and even more than that, still retain their audience’s interest. Sometimes it’s due to a game-changer of a record that introduces a blockbuster element, like Bruce Dickinson’s debut on Iron Maiden’s The Number of the Beast, or sometimes it’s because the successor knows they have to step up their game, like Brian Johnson taking the baton from Bon Scott.
But there’s a surprising amount of bands who didn’t just introduce a new singer, they actually thrived afterward. Here are 10 metal and hard rock bands who were able to pull off a lead singer recasting without missing a beat.
There’s no replacing a singer like Bon Scott, there’s only passing over the reins. AC/DC’s original vocalist, Scott belted with a singular screech that gave his ribald and absurd tales of Big Balls and Dirty Deeds a rough-edged badassery.
Which made the possibility of a successor taking over after his death of alcohol poisoning in 1979 seem all the more unlikely. Enter Brian Johnson, a singer who Scott himself admired and who had the voice to match. At the urging of Scott’s family, the band soldiered on and brought in Johnson on the first day of auditions.
Naturally, he nailed it, even though the group was polite enough to run through the rest of the potential singers who planned to audition. With the formalities out of the way, the group recorded their first album with Johnson, Back In Black, and the reception wildly exceeded expectations, becoming their best selling album at 25 million copies sold and counting.
Alice in Chains
The death of Layne Staley in 2002 brought a sad end to a band that hit their stride early and delivered three of the best albums from the Seattle grunge era. And for several years that seemed like it would have been the end, as the surviving members of Alice in Chains had moved on to collaborating with other artists.
Eventually, they participated in a handful of one-off reunions with other vocalists, including Heart’s Ann Wilson and Come With the Fall’s William DuVall. From that point on, DuVall continued on with the band, releasing three studio albums with the group, most recently 2018’s Rainier Fog.
The band said they weren’t looking for a vocalist to imitate Staley’s vocals, which is in large part why it works—DuVall’s a commanding singer in his own right, bringing something new to a band that unexpectedly got a much-welcome second act.
Thrash icons Anthrax have a habit of rotating vocalists, having cycled through nine different singers in their time, though only three of them appear on any of their studio albums: Neil Turbin, Joey Belladonna and John Bush. It becomes a game of musical chairs after that, beginning with Turbin on the group’s 1984 full-length debut, Fistful of Metal.
But within a year, he ended up being replaced by Belladonna, whose powerful vocal presence solidified the band’s classic lineup, appearing on legendary albums like Spreading the Disease and Among the Living. But the group parted ways with Belladonna in 1992, replacing him with John Bush, whose similarly impressive range on songs like “Only” and “Black Lodge” helped push Anthrax onto the Billboard Mainstream Rock Songs chart.
After that, both Belladonna and Bush were briefly in a tag-team match to take over vocals, with Dan Nelson taking over for a brief stint in the late ‘00s. Belladonna’s been at the helm ever since, though Bush arguably had a similarly strong, if less prolific, run with the Big Four legends.
There’s no heavy metal without Black Sabbath. Full stop. Their sound is monolithic, the product of four distinctive musicians playing heavier and darker than anyone before them—take away any one of those musicians and it just isn’t the same.
Especially without the commanding presence of Ozzy Osbourne—as irreplaceable as lead singers come. Or so it seemed until the band kicked him out in 1979 when drug and alcohol use had brought everything to a standstill. But if you’re going to bring in someone to fill Ozzy’s shoes, it’s gotta be a ringer at a minimum.
Former Rainbow belter Ronnie James Dio provided just what the band needed, his magnetic and theatrical presence giving Sabbath a necessary shot in the arm, as well as the creative jolt to deliver two classic albums with 1980’s Heaven and Hell and 1981’s Mob Rules. After internal disputes caused Dio to part ways with the rest of the band, they gave it a go with a series of other vocalists—Ian Gillan, Glenn Hughes, Tony Martin—with diminishing returns, at least until reuniting with Dio once more before finally bringing Ozzy back.
The Dillinger Escape Plan
New Jersey’s The Dillinger Escape Plan made their full length debut in 1999 with Calculating Infinity, an utterly bonkers showcase of technical prowess and sheer aggression, matched by the suitably harsh bark of vocalist Dimitri Minakakis.
After he left the band, however, they didn’t rush to find a new vocalist, instead taking the opportunity to do a onetime collaboration with Faith No More/Mr. Bungle vocal acrobat Mike Patton on the Irony Is a Dead Scene EP.
Once the group found a worthy successor in Greg Puciato, however, his versatility as a vocalist—able to transition seamlessly from a menacing growl to a heroic croon—helped the group expand their sound, ushering in more melodic and progressive elements as they continued their reign as mathcore kings.
Faith No More
It took a while for things to settle for Faith No More in the beginning. They went through two name changes (Sharp Young Men, then Faith No Man), and went through a revolving-door cast of singers (including, briefly, Courtney Love) before releasing their debut album, Introduce Yourself, with Chuck Moseley. That lineup yielded their first hit, “We Care A Lot,” but Moseley’s erratic behavior eventually led to his firing from the band in 1988.
Faith No More then enlisted Mr. Bungle’s Mike Patton that same year, and within two weeks of joining he had written all of his lyrics for the songs on The Real Thing, which earned the band a Grammy nomination and an MTV staple with “Epic”.
And though the band went on hiatus for a decade, and Patton’s been active with seemingly countless other projects, his vocal acrobatics have been a perfect match for their idiosyncratic metal sound ever since.
The introduction of Bruce Dickinson to the Iron Maiden lineup was a game changer. While their first two albums, featuring the raspy wail of Paul Di’Anno, are unquestionably great early ‘80s heavy metal records, bringing Dickinson into the fold on 1982’s The Number of the Beast gave the band the operatic presence needed to become the heavy metal legends they are now. Though, technically speaking, Dickinson was actually the fourth Iron Maiden vocalist.
Paul Day and Dennis Wilcock each served as the group’s lead singer for a short time in the band’s early days, and in the mid-’90s, Blaze Bayley stepped in as the band’s fifth(!) vocalist, taking over after Dickinson left the group to focus on his solo career.
But in 2000, with the release of the outstanding comeback Brave New World, Iron Maiden reunited with their iconic singer, proving once and for all who the strongest set of pipes in heavy metal belong to.
Norwegian black ‘n’ roll outfit Kvelertak won over fans like Metallica’s James Hetfield and Foo Fighters’ Dave Grohl on the strength of their unique hybrid of rowdy, party hardcore with black metal aesthetics—chiefly the throaty growl of Erlend Hjelvik.
But after ten years and three albums, Hjelvik announced he was ready to leave the group, launching his own viking metal project, Hjelvik, two years later. But the remaining members of Kvelertak soldiered on with Ivar Nikolaisen, who previously lent his backing vocals to the band’s debut album and whose aggressive snarl made for a seamless fit for the group.
Grindcore pioneers Napalm Death first began making music more than 40 years ago, which is a marathon span of time for any band to be expected to keep their lineup intact. But for this group in particular, their personnel is something of a heavy metal equivalent of the Ship of Theseus conundrum, replacing a new member every couple of years until it raises the question of who the real Napalm Death is. (Past members include, among others, Carcass’ Bill Steer and Godflesh’s Justin Broadrick.)
Since 1989, Barney Greenway has been the band’s full-time vocalist, the fire from his throat scorching the politically charged rippers on 15 of their albums. Napalm Death first released two albums with Lee Dorrian behind the mic, as well as one side of their debut album Scum with Nick Bullen.
Despite being on one of the most important extreme metal albums of all time, none of the members who perform on Scum stayed in the band. Yet, Greenway has kept going for over 30 years, pushing the band forward while bringing an even greater ferocity to the Birmingham legends’ sound.
The Pantera of Metal Magic scarcely resembles the one that became metal legends in the 1990s. And not just because the cartoon axe-wielding cat on the cover is hardly at all menacing. Granted, the Abbott Brothers were still just teenagers and heavy metal was still a pretty young genre itself.
But the group’s first vocalist Terry Glaze, though decent enough, did little to set the group apart. It wasn’t until Glaze left the group over disagreements about the band’s musical direction, and Phil Anselmo subsequently joining the group in 1986 and debuting with the release of 1988’s Power Metal, that Pantera began to come into their own.
But 1990’s Cowboys From Hell found them obviously fully arriving at the groove-metal sound that made them legends, helmed by Anselmo’s deep growl on songs like “Cemetery Gates” and the title track.