Heavy Metal: The Four Biggest Bands in History

Spotlight the Four Biggest Heavy Metal Bands Ever

Heavy metal music speaks to millions throughout the world. Whether it lets out people’s aggression, gets people pumped, or speaks to them personally, the unparalleled power of the genre has been ruling rock & roll for the past four decades. There were signs of heavy metal dating back to bands like Led Zeppelin with their heavy guitar strumming but the genre was eventually innovated by U.K.’s Black Sabbath in the 1960’s. Tony Iommi’s signature detuned riffs mixed with Ozzy Osbourne’s haunting vocals helped create that “evil” sound that heavy is generally known for. No example could be more apparent than the opening track off their very first album (also titled “Black Sabbath”).

Heavy metal eventually found its way to the states and four bands in particular shaped the metal culture. They are known as the “Big 4” and they consisted of Metallica, Megadeth, Slayer, and Anthrax. Their influence in the heavy metal scene is well documented throughout the past 30 years. After taking separate roads to the top, the bands reunited in 2010 for a series of “Big 4” shows which were considered dream concerts among fans to finally see these forces perform on the same bill.


Metallica formed in Los Angeles, California in 1981 when founding members, James Hetfield and Lars Ulrich joined up with original bassist, Ron McGovney and guitarist Dave Mustaine. Influenced by bands such as Motorhead, Iron Maiden, Mercyful Fate, and Diamond Head, the group developed a speed metal sound that had listeners everywhere banging their heads. Mustine was eventually booted from the group due to his alcoholism and Kirk Hammett was hired as his replacement. McGovney was eventually kicked out as well and iconic bass player, Cliff Burton, stepped in completing the familiar line-up. After gaining some notoriety from their first two releases, “Kill ‘Em All” and “Ride The Lightning”, (which Dave Mustaine co-wrote a lot of the songs on), the band found their thrash footing with 1986’s “Master of Puppets”. Tragedy struck the band as Cliff Burton was killed in a tragic bus accident in September of ‘86. After recruiting Jason Newsted to fill the void left by Cliff, the band made the transition into the 90s, opting to work with producer, Bob Rock (Aerosmith, Bon Jovi) to produce a more clean, traditional hard rock sound. The result was the band’s highest selling album to date, dubbed by fans as “The Black Album”, the 1991 self-titled release included the mega-hits “Enter Sandman”, “Sad But True” and “Nothing Else Matters”. This was, in many fans’ eyes, seen as the beginning of a downward spiral in quality for the band as they embraced a more radio-friendly, hard rock sound as opposed to their thrash roots which become more evident in their next two releases, 1996’s Load” and 1997’s “Reload”. 2000 saw the band become embroiled in a court battle with then start-up music file sharing titan, Napster, over their music being downloaded without cost which caused them to lose a lot of respect in fans’ eyes. Jason Newsted himself had enough over the lawsuit and quit the band in 2001 before Metallica went on to record the critically panned, “St. Anger”. While fans were sensing the end of the foursome, the group were able to rebound with their stellar live performances and are still going strong to this day (with Robert Trujillo on bass in place of Newsted). They released their last album, “Death Magnetic”, in 2008 to mostly positive reviews and in 2009, became the only Big 4 band thus far to be inducted into the Rock N’ Roll Hall of Fame.


PERSONAL OPINION: Metallica is my favorite of the big 4. I personally had no connection to the Napster trial since I like to keep the artists separate from the people (let’s be honest, a lot of the people we like and look up to aren’t the greatest people in real life). I even enjoy their less than impressive albums throughout the late 90’s and early 2000’s (I didn’t think St. Anger was terrible, sue me). They were the first metal band I enjoyed and “Fade To Black” to this day contains my favorite guitar riffs of all time. The good definitely outweighs the bad.


Ride The Lightning (title track, For Whom The Bell Tolls, Fade To Black, Creeping Death)

Master of Puppets (Battery, title track, Disposable Heroes, Welcome Home (Sanitarium), The Thing That Should Not Be)

Metallica (Enter Sandman, Sad But True, The Unforgiven, Nothing Else Matters, Wherever I May Roam, Of Wolf & Man)


Not one to be outdone, Mustaine said “fuck off” to his old buddies in Metallica and formed his own band, Megadeth, in 1984. The band gained recognition with riffs (brought to you in part by longtime guitarist, Marty Friedman) that would rival their metal counterparts and ideal songwriting with tracks such as “Train of Consequences”, “Symphony of Destruction”, and “In My Darkest Hour”. In 1986, their anti-society anthem, “Peace Sells” put them over the top in the metal community and gave notice to Metallica that they weren’t the only metal game in town. After a number of line-up changes, the band released “Rust In Peace”, in 1990 which contained one of their biggest hit to date, “Hangar 18”, followed by their highest selling album “Countdown to Extinction” in 1992 containing the schizophrenic-themed blockbuster, “Sweating Bullets”. After an on-again/off-again feud with his former bandmates in Metallica and a drug addiction,  Mustaine finally sobered up and the band decided to take a chance by releasing the universally hated, “Risk” in 1999. The album was a greatly stylized departure from their signature thrash sound with the inclusion of more melody and an “arena rock” feel. The band would actually call it quits in 2002 but would reform two years later with a brand new line-up and their own signature tour, “Gigantour”. In recent years, Mustaine has patched things up with Metallica and has become outspoken on such subjects such as religion and politics, including a controversial message about U.S. president Barack Obama during a concert in Singapore in 2012, which has garnered himself a level of infamy. The band’s fourteenth studio album “Super Collider” is set to be released later this month.

PERSONAL OPINION: Megadeth may actually be my least favorite of the big 4. Not to say that they’re bad or even not very good but I just couldn’t get into the Deth the way I could the other bands. Mustaine’s voice can become grating after a while and their best album (Rust In Peace) doesn’t hold a candle to Ride The Lightning of Reign In Blood.


Rust In Peace (Hangar 18, Holy Wars….The Punishment Due, Lucretia, Poison Was The Cure, Tornado of Souls)

Countdown to Extinction (Sweating Bullets, Symphony of Destruction, title track, Skin O’ My Teeth, Foreclosure of a Dream)

Horns Up Rocks SLAYER Old School Group Shot

Slayer represented the more “evil” side of heavy metal with songs ranging from religion to the harsh realities of war to serial killers. Bassist/vocalist, Tom Araya, guitarists Kerry King and Jeff Hanneman, and drummer Dave Lombardo first burst onto the California metal scene in the early 80’s showing off impressive guitar work and thunderous drummer techniques that were much faster than their counterparts. Unfortunately, it wasn’t long before the group gained a reputation of demonic, killer obsessed devil worshipers. After releasing two albums, “Show No Mercy” and “Hell Awaits”, the band decided to show more of their hardcore punk influence with their third release, “Reign In Blood”, in 1986 which solidified the band as metal gods. The Rick Rubin produced record featured shorter songs and more attitude than their previous releases. They followed that success up with two more thrash classics, 1988’s “South of Heaven” and 1990’s “Seasons of the Abyss”. The subject matter of the band’s songs no doubt has angered several conservative and religious sectors (their 2001 release was titled “God Hates Us All”) over the years but it’s been documented on many occasions that the band aren’t evil, satan worshipers by any means. Slayer were dealt a crushing blow when longtime guitarist, Jeff Hanneman, passed away this past May which shook the metal community. Despite the tragedy, they are still planning to tour this summer and deliver to their fans.

PERSONAL OPINION: Slayer would be ranked second in my Big 4. Dave Lombardo’s drumming is quite impressive and am glad he got the notoriety among the music community that he deserved. The one-two punch of King and Hanneman on guitars cranking out memorable riff after memorable riff is another signature I can’t get enough of. Araya’s scream captures the essence of what metal should be. If you want good metal without the stereotypical death metal growls, listen to Slayer.


Reign In Blood (Angel of Death, Piece by Piece, Necrophobic, Criminally Insane, Jesus Saves, Raining Blood)

South of Heaven (title track, Silent Scream, Live Undead, Mandatory Suicide, Dissident Aggressor [Judas Priest cover]).

Seasons In The Abyss (War Ensemble, Dead Skin Mask, Spirit in Black, Expendable Youth, Hallowed Point, title track)


Anthrax, the only band on the list to hail from the east coast, formed in my hometown of New York City in ‘81, and represented more of the punk rock/comical side of heavy metal. Although vocalist Neil Turban started out with the group, the band reached their breakthrough with singer Joey Belladonna and their 1987 signature album, “Among The Living”. The quartet wanted to stand out in the heavy metal genre by adding a sense of humor to their music and having loud personalities such as their 1987 hip-hop parody, “I’m The Man” and the fun loving nature of the group’s most well-known personality, longtime guitarist, Scott Ian (and his signature beard). Belladonna quit in the early 90’s and Armored Saint’s John Bush filled in for vocal duties and released their most famous album with them, “Sound of White Noise” in 1993. Like Van Halen, Anthrax can be split into two eras. There are fans that prefer Belladonna and there are fans that prefer Bush. After a series of commercial flops throughout the mid-late 90’s, Belladonnna returned to the band for a classic line-up reunion tour in the mid-2000s before rejoining full-time in 2010. Their first album in nearly a decade, “Worship Music”, was released in 2011 followed by an EP of cover songs “Anthems”, released this year.

PERSONAL OPINION: Anthrax is #3 in my Big 4 countdown. Their combination of hardcore punk and thrash helped them standout from their West Side counterparts. The variety within the group which sees them develop their 80’s sound with Belladonna only to show off a more polished 90’s sound with John Bush, is another plus for them in my book and you can really see the progression in their work over the years.


Spreading The Disease (A.I.R., Madhouse, Armed & Dangerous, Medusa, Gung-Ho)

Among The Living (title track, Caught In A Mosh, Indians, I Am The Law, N.F.L, A Skeleton In The Closet)

Sound of White Noise (Only, Room for One More, Black Lodge, Hy Pro Glo)


Written by Matthew Reine

is a New Yorker with a strong passion for film and television. Also the biggest Keanu Reeves fan you know.

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