Last year, Spotify named fans of heavy metal the most loyal music fans in the world. While metal fans keep coming back over and over again to their favorite albums, lifetime band allegiances are mostly won in the live arena. In a genre where album sales are rarely enough to make an income, careers and fan bases are truly made by providing a killer live show, and inspiring fans to come back again and again — and, of course, buy the tour shirt every time.
The 10 bands below are the best live metal bands today, and here’s why:
This Scottish pirate-metal band sings jaunty metallic odes to the pirate life and drinking. Using some of the structures of traditional pirate sing-alongs and amplifying them with metal guitars and keyboards, Alestorm provides an atmosphere of sheer fun that is in contrast to the overly serious nature of many metal bands. In the live setting, it’s nearly impossible not to shout along with songs like “Drink” and “Wenches and Mead,” with frontman Christopher Bowes sporting a pirate hat, shouting pirate chants between songs, and tossing in killer keytar solos to boot.
9. Amon Amarth
These Swedish metal masters have spent 20 years mining a seemingly endless supply of blood-soaked Viking stories and Norse mythology for their melodic death metal. Frontman Johan Hegg effortlessly replicates his hearty death bellows in live performances and the rest of the band are reliably strong, but their live show took an even more epic turn on this year’s Jomsviking tour. Songs such as “The Way of Vikings” featured two sword-wielding warriors in full chainmail engaging in battle and standing guard with bows and arrows throughout the show, adding a heavy metal Medieval Times atmosphere to the band’s already stellar live show.
8. Lamb of God
There is nothing fancy or gimmicky about what Virginia metallers Lamb of God do. For almost 20 years, the band has engaged in a no-frills aggro-metal approach that takes classic Pantera-style riffs and injects them with steroids. Onstage, the raw power of the band’s sound on anthems such as “Walk With Me in Hell” and “Now You’ve Got Something to Die for” inspire some of the most viscerally violent mosh pits found today. Frontman Randy Blythe stalks the stage, his posture and stance matching the power of the music — and he's singing with renewed vigor since he was acquitted of manslaughter charges relating to the death of a stage diver at a Lamb of God show in the Czech Republic in 2010.
7. Devin Townsend Project
Many mosh pits at metal shows are populated by angry scowls and death glares. Devin Townsend is the antithesis of that. On his 2012 album, Epicloud, the Canadian metal mastermind screams during the chorus of "Liberation": "The time has come to forget all the bullshit and rock!" And that’s exactly what happens at a Devin Townsend live show. While he very much takes his songcraft seriously, Townsend is all smiles when he performs his infectiously catchy prog-metal opuses. His engaging stage presence, bolstered by wickedly humorous stage banter, stokes a mosh pit fueled by smiles instead of anger.
6. Dillinger Escape Plan
Here are things I have witnessed Dillinger Escape Plan vocalist Greg Puciato do at his band’s live shows: Start the set by stage-diving into the crowd. Throw the mic stand out into the crowd like a javelin and hit the back of the room. Crowd-surf his way over to the House of Blues VIP section and start heaving the heavy wooden chairs into the crowd. Swing from the lighting fixtures at the Center for the Arts Eagle Rock. Confuse a shitload of Metallica fans at the Revolver Golden Gods Awards with his antics and come up bleeding from the forehead two minutes into the band’s set. Sing a shockingly faithful cover of Van Halen’s “Hot for Teacher.” And the rest of the band is just as batshit insane.
These Polish metal titans have spent 20 years bombarding the ears of listeners with an avalanche of thunderous death metal. Their blistering barrage of tortured growls, bludgeoning blast beats and abrasive riffage is led by vocalist/guitarist Adam “Nergal” Darski. Decked out in corpse paint and often wearing a robe or other menacing adornments, Nergal stands at center stage operating as if he is a Satanic high priest, the aura around his demonic shouts and chants enhanced by his caustic guitar work. Performances of songs such as “Blow Your Trumpets Gabriel” are more akin to dark rituals than concerts.
For three decades, these costumed warriors used thrash metal and punk rock to underpin tales of intergalactic destruction, scatological warfare and other assorted unpleasantries. Their live shows became an initiation for new metal fans, as band leader Oderus Urungus would violate and decapitate caricatures of power-hungry politicians and celebrities, spraying fake blood and other bodily fluids all over the crowd. Dave Brockie, the man behind the Oderus Urungus persona, passed away in 2014, but recent tours have seen Michael Bishop step into the role of new front-creature Blothar, a loutish brute hell-bent on continuing GWAR’s mission to lay waste to everything in its path, and most important, continuing the spectacle of GWAR’s outrageously bloody live shows.
These Iowa natives are nearing 20 years of taking their message of Midwest disaffection and misanthropy and spreading it worldwide thanks to hard-driving nu-metal riffs and an energetic, strength-in-numbers live show. With nine grotesquely masked performers storming the stage at all times, it can be overwhelming to keep up with everything that is happening at a Slipknot show. Corey Taylor is an experienced arena frontman at this point in his career, but when you have two percussionists (Shawn “Clown” Crahan and Chris “#3” Fehn) beating on hydraulic-powered drum risers that move in the air and spin, the visual overload matches the aural overload of the band’s music.
There is a reason why Metallica remain one of the biggest bands in the world 25 years after their mainstream breakthrough, “Enter Sandman.” They are, quite simply, one of the best arena acts in the business, across all genres of music. Already seasoned road warriors by the time of their mainstream success, Metallica achieved world domination in the wake of The Black Album by going on the road and not coming home for three years straight. Even as the band members enter their 50s and no longer harbor the same anger that fueled their early albums, Metallica still know all the right cues to hit on a large stadium stage, and how to play to the cheap seats. Lars Ulrich is as animated as ever on drums, and James Hetfield is adept at playing the role of a heavy metal carnival barker, keeping the crowd firmly in the palm of his hand, whether it’s for early classics like “Creeping Death,” Load-era hits like “Fuel” or new-school faves like “All Nightmare Long.”
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1. Iron Maiden
Thirty-one years after shouting “Scream for me, Long Beach!” on the live album Live After Death, Iron Maiden vocalist Bruce Dickinson remains the most compelling live vocalist in the entire genre. The British legends’ galloping metal anthems — inspired by historical events, classic literature and fallen civilizations of the past — have resulted in one of the most devoted fan bases in all of music. Iron Maiden is one of the few bands where the rule of “don’t wear the band’s shirt to their concert” is shattered and shattered proudly. The band's theatrical live show matches the grandiosity of their lyrics and subject matter, with every show culminating in a 15-foot high effigy of the band's “Eddie” mascot looming over the stage. It’s hard to resist joining the throng of fans wearing Maiden T-shirts and singing along with classics such as “The Trooper” and “Number of the Beast” as Dickinson, now in his late 50s, lives up to his “Air Raid Siren” nickname, hitting soaring high notes and still running and leaping across the stage with the energy of a college athlete.