Dethklok's Brendon Small: the 10 greatest heavy metal songs of all time
"Any truly great heavy metal song has to have power and aggression," says Brendon Small, creator of the Adult Swim animated series Metalocalypse and its virtual band, Dethklock. "If it's a slow song, it should make you want to take over the world; and if it's a fast song, it should make you want to destroy the world. No matter what the tempo is, it should be physically evocative. All of the songs on my list have that quality."
For millions of teens and pre-teens, the songs by Dethklok have marked their introduction to the world of heavy metal. As for Small, his first "heavy moment" was when he listened to his parents' vinyl copy of Queen's A Night At The Opera. "The Prophet's Song is totally metal," Small enthuses. "Talk about conjuring up the end of the world. I thought, This could be the quintessential song for either a sports event or Dungeons & Dragons – or both. Anybody who says that's not metal just doesn't know."
As on previous Dethklok releases, Small is a quadruple threat – writer, vocalist, guitarist and keyboardist – on the group's newest disc, Dethalbum III. "In my work, I absolutely try to borrow from all of the metal songs I love," he says. "I think of the feel, the tempos, the chords that the guitarists used. ‘How are these things happening, and why do they work so well?’ I ask myself. Basically, I just try to rip everybody off!”
And that would include the songs on this list – Brendon Small's 10 greatest heavy metal songs of all time.
AC/DC - For Those About To Rock (We Salute You) (1981)
“This is an introduction to the world of rock. It’s saying, ‘Maybe all of you have not rocked before. But in case you want to, we’re going to prepare you for it.’ It’s an instruction manual on how to rock.
“It’s got one of the most solid tempos ever. AC/DC never has to play faster than they do here – the audience comes to them at any given tempo. You just can't get more solid of a beat than the one to this song. It’s not complex, and it doesn’t need to be.
“The ‘We salute you!’ refrain at the end is one of the most powerful things I’ve ever heard in my life. It’s operatic, majestic, and it could move a nation into war.”
Black Sabbath - The Sign Of The Southern Cross (1981)
“No more Ozzy Osbourne. Now we’ve got Ronnie James Dio. What a voice! He had an operatic quality to him, along with an anger and a gnash.
“I love a song that starts off in a quiet place and goes to complete doom. The track is a warning that really horrible stuff is on its way. The transition from Ronnie’s falsetto – which I don’t think we’ve ever heard before – to the acoustic guitar is amazing. And I don’t believe I’ve ever heard Tony Iommi play an acoustic before, either. The guitar is soft and pretty, kind of squawky and imperfectly played.
“The riff and the slow tempo give off a ‘world is ending’ feel. You could hear this song in your head as you’re marching onto a football field or in your basement with your stupid friends... as you’re nodding slowly and considering the finality of civilization.”
Iron Maiden - Revelations (1983)
“Another Biblical, foreboding song. Bad things are definitely going to happen. Songs that predict doom – that big in great heavy metal songs. I love when people can go back into history and weave their own kind of tale, which is the case here.
“The tempo is slow, and that’s fine. Actually, I think some of the heaviest songs are the ones that don’t rush. Don’t be afraid to take your time and let the audience come to you. You can become hypnotized by the tempo in Revelations.
“You’ve got the great Maiden harmonies. Bruce Dickinson is at the top of his game here. Most of all, there’s a story: ‘O God of earth and altar, bow down and hear our cry.’ Basically, it’s about people pleading for their lives, and the gods are going to refuse them.”
Slayer - Disciple (2001)
“Another song about the refusal of God, which I think is an interesting concept. A lot of people would disagree with me on this song – ‘Oh, no, the early stuff, the early stuff’ – but I think it’s one of Slayer's greatest ever.
“The album is called God Hates Us All, and it came out in 2001 on 9/11. It’s a cry-out in that we’re all in this thing by ourselves, and whatever we’re cursed by in life is ours alone to deal with.
“It’s got the quintessential Slayer solo, this cluster of angry notes that sounds like somebody having an aneurysm. It reminds me of nerve endings dancing around. There’s a breakdown where Tom Araya says, ‘I keep my Bible in a pool of blood, so none of its lies will affect me.’ So we know where this is coming from. Slayer don’t hide what they’re talking about.”
Metallica - Battery (1986)
“I don’t know if Metallica knew this, but Battery has such cool Baroque-isms and traditional harmony. I’m completely drawn to metal that uses classical moments. There’s I-V-I all over it.
“The song is about metal itself. Battery is a street intersection, and on one of the streets was this club. They’re talking about that, but they’re also talking about destruction. James Hetfield chose such great words to describe what metal is. It’s a perfect, self-contained song.
“Musically, it’s Metallica at their heaviest, fastest and most melodic. Unbelievable stuff."
Queen - The Prophet's Song (1975)
“If this isn’t metal, then I don’t want to be in this industry. You could put this against any current band, and it would still feel heavier than anything they were doing.
“It starts out with the same slow pace of For Those About To Rock, but Queen slowed it down a couple of clicks more. It travels a lot of ground and is completely through-composed. There are no parts that repeat similarly. There might be sections that repeat slightly, but the turnarounds are always different and always modulating. It’s incredibly complicated. I think it’s a guitar masterpiece.
“There’s so much to draw from the world of Queen and Brian May, but to me, this song has some of their most interesting moments. It’s a real epic.”
Megadeth - Holy Wars… The Punishment Due (1990)
“This song travels a lot of ground, too. When I was getting into the guitar, people would talk about Peace Sells… but Who’s Buying? as the ultimate Megadeth record, but when I heard Rust In Peace, I knew it was far better.
“This is the opening song, and it’s full of incredibly fast, thrashy guitar playing. Dave Mustaine is one of the best rhythm guitarists in the world. And Marty Friedman is outstanding in his own right. I hear a lot of Brian May in his playing. He’s got a cool way of choosing notes and has such distinctive feel – you know it’s him from a mile away.
“The song is long, and it has its own unique kind of momentum. It gets slow, it takes off, and it talks about people causing all sorts of destruction and blowing each other up. Pretty awesome.”
Mastodon - Blood And Thunder (2004)
“People would consider Mastodon to be one of the newer bands. There’s a rage in them that’s pretty amazing. They’ve got elements of bands like the Melvins, but I hear a lot of Metallica in them, too.
“The riff in this song might not be their most complex ever, but it gets me excited every time I hear it. I get that feeling that something is going to happen, and what’s going to happen is something bad.”
Gojira - Ocean Planet (2005)
“Gojira is a French environmental band, believe it or not. They’re named after what the Japanese call ‘Godzilla.’ They’re probably still in their 20s, and of the newer metal bands, I’d say they’re definitely one to watch. They’re incredibly heavy.
“This song has lots of cool guitar sounds and pick scraping. It sounds like they’re just slapping the picks against the strings in a really great rhythmic way, but they’re muting the strings, too. It’s harsh and crazy.
“I think this is an example of being as heavy as you can possibly be while still having a melody in the vocal. People need to check this out.”
Anthrax - Among The Living (1987)
“One of my favorite things about Scott Ian is his love for Stephen King. In every single Anthrax record, you can find one, two or even a few songs that are based on Stephen King novels.
“This one is based on The Stand, which is a terrific story about the war between good and evil. It describes the bad guy character, and that’s always exciting. The song’s from his point of view. Anything that does that – Jesus Christ Superstar in the overture, or Amadeus, which tells the story from Salieri’s side of things – is pretty cool.
“It’s classic thrash from the East Coast, and it’s got tons of heavy power chords. It’s as complex as it needs to be, and it does the job.”