One constant in every musical genre is the turnover of acts that come swinging out of the gate, but then go through a commercial and/or creative slump. Music’s most truly enduring acts are able to “weather the storm” and come out the other side.
The heavy metal genre is certainly no exception to that constant. Plenty of acts gain momentum, only to fall to the wayside. In the early 2000s, to give just one example, Shadows Fall was a contemporary of the same Massachusetts metalcore scene as Killswitch Engage, but virtually disappeared after a failed major-label jump. And European guitar-shredders Dragonforce lost steam after gamers moved on from the Guitar Hero series, which had given them a big boost.
Below are 10 acts that persevered through all of the challenges their awkward middle years threw their way. Whether it was personnel changes, ill-advised sound alterations, or a mistimed label jump, these are the top 10 heavy metal acts that managed to successfully navigate a career slump and “weather the storm.”
10. Paradise Lost
These British metal icons pioneered the death-doom movement on early efforts like 1991’s Gothic. Vocalist Nick Holmes eventually dropped the death vocals for a more melodic bark on 1993’s Icon. But what really alienated the band’s core fan base were their forays into electronica-driven pop-rock later that decade. Once their early commercial success with that style died down, the band regained their footing with more metallic-driven albums like 2007’s In Requiem and 2012’s Tragic Idol.
These German thrash titans came roaring out of the gates with their 1985 shredding debut Endless Pain. But as thrash went out of style in the early '90s, Kreator unsuccessfully attempted to adapt to the changing times by integrating industrial and goth-rock elements, hitting a sonic nadir on 1999’s Endorama. The millennium saw the group reverting back to a thrashier sound and attaining their largest commercial success in America to date with 2009’s Hordes of Chaos and 2012’s Phantom Antichrist.
8. Napalm Death
This U.K. group kick-started the grindcore genre with their 1987 debut Scum. But due to various lineup changes, the band entered the ‘90s with a sound more rooted in traditional death metal. The group was certainly heavy on albums like 1992’s Utopia Banished, but the chaotic ferocity of their early work was relatively muted. Napalm Death finally circled back around to more trademark grindcore elements at the turn of the millennium. Their new album, Apex Predator – Easy Meat, is one of the most powerfully ferocious albums of their career.
7. Machine Head
When Pantera was the heaviest thing in the eyes of the mainstream, Machine Head showed they could go even heavier on their 1994 debut, the groove-metal opus Burn My Eyes. But on 1999’s The Burning Red, they lost their way, attempting to adapt to the nu-metal train Korn was leading at that time. They returned to form with 2003’s Through the Ashes of Empires and continued that trend with new album Bloodstones & Diamonds, which features ambitious six-to-seven minute epics that manage to retain their power throughout.
Glenn Danzig’s melodic yet sinister barks and croons made his first three solo albums among the most enduring records of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. But a string of subpar albums followed the industrial-metal endeavor that was 1996’s Danzig 5: Blackacidevil, and a backstage fight with an opening band in 2004 tarnished his demonic luster. Shortly after that incident, Danzig embraced his past by performing Misfits and Samhain songs more regularly as part of his concert set, reinvigorating himself as a live draw.
These costumed metal warriors became notorious for their bloody tales of intergalactic domination on albums like 1990’s Scumdogs of the Universe. But a softening of their harsher metal sound in favor of a more punk-rock vibe on late-'90s albums like 1999’s We Kill Everything prompted some metalheads to abandon ship. The course was corrected with a return to their metallic beginnings on 2001’s Violence Has Arrived, and a return to early-'90s label home Metal Blade Records helped the band regain some popularity and become an essential live experience for new metalheads once again.
Showing that New York could thrash as hard as the West Coast, Anthrax shot to fame with seminal albums like 1987’s Among the Living and one of the first rap-metal crossovers on 1991’s “Bring the Noise,” a collaboration with Public Enemy. Even though many fans embraced new vocalist John Bush after he replaced Joey Belladonna on 1993’s Sound of White Noise, Anthrax soon fell victim to major label A&R politics in the mid-'90s and nearly disappeared off the map. Their final album with Bush, 2003’s We’ve Come for You All, was a shot in the arm that re-established Anthrax with their core metal fan base, and a 2005 reunion tour with Belladonna reignited the flame further. Belladonna’s recorded return on 2011’s Worship Music has kept the Anthrax ship running strong since.
3. Judas Priest
These British metal gods became one of the most popular heavy metal bands of the '80s with all-time classics like 1982’s Screaming for Vengeance. They transitioned into the next decade with the heaviest album of their entire catalog, 1990’s Painkiller, but vocalist Rob Halford left the band soon thereafter. Priest returned with new vocalist on Ripper Owens on 1997’s Jugulator, but a lukewarm reception to Halford’s replacement, combined with the seven-year hiatus, took the steam out of the metal juggernaut. Owens left after two albums, and Halford returned to the band just in time to co-headline the 2004 OzzFest tour. Three new albums have come since then, and Halford’s powerful vocal presence both onstage and in the studio has the group selling out arenas to this day.
2. Black Sabbath
Considered the inventors of heavy metal on their 1970 self-titled debut, this British powerhouse rode waves of gloom and doom to become one of the biggest rock bands of that decade. Ozzy Osborne departed the band as the ‘70s ended. The addition of beloved vocalist Ronnie James Dio helped stop the bleeding, but Dio’s departure after two excellent albums found the band hemorrhaging fans. A revolving door of band members and unmemorable songwriting conspired to make the once-almighty Sabbath nearly irrelevant by the mid-’90s. But those classic '70s albums never went out of style, so when a 1997 tour was announced with Osborne rejoining the act, the villagers rejoiced. With their original vocalist back at the mic, the group has once again become a wildly successful live act, even though only one proper album with Osborne — 2013’s 13 — has been released since his return.
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1. Iron Maiden
Bruce Dickinson was not Iron Maiden’s original vocalist, but he is certainly their most beloved. The man nicknamed the “Air Raid Siren” took the reins on genre milestones like 1982’s The Number of the Beast. His charismatic stage presence, combined with bassist Steve Harris’ expert songcraft and monstrous band mascot Eddie, helped the band become one of the most powerful – and popular – arena draws during the ‘80s. Dickinson left the group in 1993 to embark on a solo career, leaving big shoes to fill for new vocalist Blaze Bayley on 1995’s The X Factor. The songs were good, but Bayley’s vocal performance was a major step down from Dickinson’s band-defining work. Dickinson returned to the Iron Maiden fold for a 1999 tour and 2000 comeback album, Brave New World. Since then, the band has been a force, selling out arenas and stadiums worldwide and serving as a seminal band in the early development of new teenage metal fans.