When you are deep inside the heavy metal bubble, you can sometimes forget how some of the more extreme imagery, lyrical content and even band names sound to those on the outside. Casually dropping in conversation that you are going to the Eyehategod show or that you just picked up the newest album by Prostitute Disfigurement is bound to get a few shocked looks from folks that don't normally roam within the fiery circles of metal fandom.
It is in that spirit — and the spirit of the Halloween season — that we selected our picks for the 10 scariest bands in heavy metal. Some use costumes or Satanic stagecraft to up the terror factor — but all are capable of scaring the crap out of you with their sound and lyrics, too. We highly recommend turning these bands up to eleven if you want to freak out your non-metal friends.
10. Dimmu Borgir
This Norwegian black metal act has spent their 20-year career gradually upping the majesty of their symphonic metal attack. Their mix of brutality and grandiosity evokes a Dario Argento classic like Suspiria or Deep Red run through a filter of Scandinavian darkness. Never has this mix been more evident than on their 2003 single “Progenies of the Great Apocalypse.” Vocalist Shagrath grunts his way through an apocalyptic lyrical tale while the music is swarmed by classical elements, suggesting that an epic end awaits mankind.
9. Agoraphobic Nosebleed
Agoraphobic Nosebleed’s brand of grindcore mayhem is the aural equivalent of taking a bunch of meth and going on a face-eating killing spree. Albums such as 2009’s Agorapocalypse are highlighted by Scott Hull’s programmed drums, which shatter all human limitations, while vocalists Jay Randall, Richard Johnson and Katherine Katz trade off frenetic screams and terrifying lyrical screeds about chaos, violence, drug use and societal decay. If Agoraphobic Nosebleed were zombies in a horror movie, they would be the zombies that run, and run really fucking fast.
8. Church of Misery
This stoner rock outfit originated in Japan, but the inspiration for their lyrics comes from the most notorious serial killers and mass murderers in Western culture. From their 1997 debut Vol. 1 up through this year’s And Then There Were None, this group has cranked out riff-laden tributes to humanity’s worst. The sordid source material would be enough to inspire icky feelings no matter the subgenre, but the sludge-fueled Sabbath-y riffs that drive their musical sound add a ‘70s grindhouse aura to the proceedings.
When you first hear it, the pop-rock catchiness of this Swedish act’s melodic compositions doesn’t seem intimidating at all. Yes, they have a scary look, but when you press play on records such as their newest EP Popestar, you find yourself lured into Ghost’s cult by the clean vocal choruses of frontman Papa Emeritus. You don’t realize how truly insidious their spell is until you find yourself receiving looks of concern from metal outsiders overhearing you absent-mindedly singing the chorus of “Ritual,” from their 2010 debut, Opus Eponymous: “This chapel of ritual/Smells of dead human sacrifices.”
6. The Body
Chip King, vocalist/guitarist for Rhode Island industrial doom-metal act The Body, may have the most blood-curdling scream in all of heavy music. The haunting and densely layered music he puts together with drummer Lee Buford would be frightening enough as instrumental compositions, but King’s mostly unintelligible screams seem to be coming from someone who has been held captive in an underground pit. King sounds like a man who is willing to shred his vocal chords, doing permanent damage in the quest to escape whatever emotional traumas he is purging on albums such as this year’s No One Deserves Happiness.
This Polish act has spent 20 years putting together a sound that is over-the-top in its pummeling death metal, and a live show that is equally over the top in its demonic majesty. Vocalist/guitarist Adam “Nergal” Darski is unmatched in his lyrical vitriol for organized religion, and makes a point during live shows of being the most terrifying stereotype imaginable of the religious right’s dislike for heavy metal. Lording over his followers as a true master of ceremonies, Nergal’s stage presence turns Behemoth’s performances of material from albums such as 2014’s The Satanist into something more resembling a Satanic ritual than a heavy metal concert.
4. Mournful Congregation
The actual concept of death can be simultaneously full of terror and beauty. Terror because it could strike us at any moment, and we don't know what lies on the other side; beauty, because there's also a certain allure to the idea of peaceful and eternal sleep. The subgenre tag “funeral doom” is full of bands that do an excellent job of balancing that beauty and terror, with Australia’s Mournful Congregation being on the high end of that spectrum. Vocalist Damon Good provides an edge of terror to the band’s doom-metal dirges with his howling death growls, and joins forces with second guitarist Justin Hartwig to provide some of the most beautifully depressive guitar work in the metal genre. Much as death can be a slow process, the songs on albums such as 2011’s The Book of Kings are also rather lengthy experiences, often clocking in over the 10-minute mark.
As a child of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, my first exposure to many horror film landmarks was via beat-up VHS rental tapes, smothered with tracking issues, picture decay and color loss. When I first heard the ugly, lo-fi black metal din contained on Tetragrammacide’s 2015 EP Typhonian Wormholes: Indecipherable Anti-Structural Formulæ, that's what it reminded me of. The amount of grime, dirt and sheer noise was overwhelming even to a hardened extreme metal fan such as myself. Both the lyrics and the music are completely unintelligible. And the mystery that shrouds the duo behind Tetragrammacide adds to their aura. Performing under the personas of “Uragnostic Eliminator” and “Martial Opium,” these noise purveyors managed to put out a record that makes the first Venom album sound like it was produced by George Martin.
This Swedish black metal band has toned down aspects of their over-the-top live show slightly as their popularity grows and they play larger venues thanks to albums such as 2013’s The Wild Hunt. But when they have the opportunity to do so, they still try to match the visceral aura of their early performances. One such appearance at the Whisky a Go-Go in 2010 saw the band drenching themselves in pig’s blood, adorning the stage with rotting animal meat (filling the room with a pungent stench), and lighting torches with flames nearly reaching the ceiling. I have never — before or since — seen a room full of so many people whose facial expressions simultaneously said “this is awesome” and “this could go really wrong any minute now.”
1. Oranssi Pazuzu
When this Finnish act’s newest record Värähtelijä came out earlier this year, I had it pegged as an early contender for the most unsettling metal album of 2016. Now nearing the end of the year, it’s still tops on my list. While Oranssi Pazuzu can be loosely categorized as a black metal band, the psychedelic elements they incorporate into their music provide for a hypnotic listening experience that swarms the mind with all sorts of terrifying demons, voices and specters. The acid trip has gone bad, the lights are going back and forth between an epileptic level of flickering and completely pitch black, the voices are screaming every horrifying thought you have ever had, and then you wake up from the acid-induced nightmare hoping that’s your blood and not someone else's all over your clothes.