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Heavy Metal’s “Big 4” are looked at in-depth as we dive deep into the quadruple kings of heavy music

Heavy Metal has been a dominant force in music for decades thanks to its pounding drums, soaring vocals, and thunderous riffs. The genre stems from relatively humble beginnings in the late 1960s, enjoyed global dominance throughout the 1980s, and is as popular today as ever. Although every heavy metal band is unique, most have at least one of the following iconic bands to thank for their rise to stardom. BLACK SABBATH, IRON MAIDEN, METALLICA and JUDAS PRIEST have inspired thousands of heavy metal bands over the years. Here is why they and heavy metal are so popular.

Heavy Metal’s Origins

Heavy Metal emerged in the late 1960s, inspired by blues-based rock, acid rock, and psychedelic rock. Metal bands began creating their own sound using distorted guitars, extended guitar solos, and extreme loudness. In 1968-69, BLACK SABBATH (then known as EARTH), DEEP PURPLE and LED ZEPPELIN formed and became pioneers in the metal scene.

The 70s saw the rise of such acts as AEROSMITH, VAN HALEN, MOTÖRHEAD and JUDAS PRIEST, which in turn spawned such notable acts as ANTHRAX, MEGADETH and METALLICA in the 1980s.

Despite its broad appeal, heavy metal has often been at odds with critics, a trend that still continues today. It’s a genre that has sold millions of albums yet rarely finds itself listed on the “Album of the Year” market at the Everygame sportsbook. The ongoing struggle with mainstream recognition highlights Heavy Metal’s unique appeal and the loyalty of its vast fanbase.

That being said, let’s now explore four of the most iconic Heavy Metal bands of all time and discover why they are held in such high regard.

BLACK SABBATH

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Black Sabbath is widely regarded as the godfathers of the genre that is Heavy Metal. Their classic lineup consisted of Tony Iommi on guitar, Geezer Butler on bass, Bill Ward on drums, and the legendary Ozzy Osbourne on vocals. These four pioneers crafted a sound unlike anything the music world had heard.

The band’s self-titled debut album hit record store shelves in 1970 and sent shockwaves through the music industry. The album contained tracks such as “Black Sabbath,” “The Wizard,” and “N.I.B.,” all of which have withstood the test of time.

BLACK SABBATH was prolific throughout the 1970s, releasing several albums, including “Paranoid,” “Master of Reality,” and “Sabbath Bloody Sabbath.” “Paranoid” is still to this day considered one of the greatest Heavy Metal albums ever produced.

Although BLACK SABBATH‘s lineup changed numerous times over the years, the band’s popularity remained strong. In 2017, the appropriately titled “The End” was BLACK SABBATH‘s final tour, calling time on one of the most influential metal bands ever. Regardless of who your favorite band is, you likely have BLACK SABBATH to thank for their existence.

IRON MAIDEN

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IRON MAIDEN emerged in the late 1970s and blew the Heavy Metal genre wide open. The band’s classic and most notorious lineup, featuring bassist and primary songwriter Steve Harris, alongside drummer Nicko McBrain, guitarists Dave Murray and Adrian Smith, and lead vocalist Bruce Dickinson, forged a sound that came to define the very essence of heavy metal.

Like BLACK SABBATH before them, IRON MAIDEN‘s debut album was self-titled and at the time featured vocalist Paul Di’Anno. Featuring tracks like “Running Free” and “Phantom of the Opera,IRON MAIDEN showed their ability to combine memorable melodies, catchy hooks, and intricate musicianship. Future albums included “Killers” in 1981 and Bruce Dickinson‘s debut LP with the band, “The Number of the Beast” – an album which although was released in 1982, remains one of the group’s most beloved records.

IRON MAIDEN‘s incredible live performances set them apart from the opposition. Whether it was the band’s iconic mascot, Eddie looming over the stage, explosive pyrotechnics, or Bruce Dickinson‘s vocal acrobatics, IRON MAIDEN‘s elaborate sets never failed to wow crowds wherever they played.

The band’s lineup has changed several times since its formation, a common feature of long-running metal bands, but IRON MAIDEN‘s lure is still strong. In 2023, the band started its 25th global tour, playing to audiences of over 100,000 people at a time and over one million fans in total by the time the massive 2023 festival known as “Power Trip” wrapped up.

METALLICA

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While BLACK SABBATH and IRON MAIDEN laid the foundations for Heavy Metal, METALLICA was one of the first bands to become accepted in the mainstream.

Drummer Lars Ulrich and guitarist James Hetfield formed the band in the early 1980s, with bassist Cliff Burton (replacing original bass player Ron McGovney) and guitarist Dave Mustaine. Mustaine would be ousted from the group in 1983 and replaced by EXODUS shredder Kirk Hammett, which would put the band’s journey on course to what it is today.

Kill ‘Em All,” the band’s debut album in 1983, introduced METALLICA‘s awe-inspiring blend of aggression, technical precision, and speed. A year later, “Ride the Lightning” was released, catapulting the group to global fame.

The 1986 album, “Master of Puppets” is still considered one of the greatest Heavy Metal albums of all time, while the 1991 self-titled LP, known as “The Black Album,” sold more than 17 million copies in the United States, solidifying METALLICA‘s status as one of the biggest and most popular bands on the planet.

Although the group has received some criticism for its shifts towards a more mainstream sound (especially since the tragic passing of bassist Cliff Burton in a tour bus accident), METALLICA continues to expand its fanbase 43 years after its formation, which is absolutely astounding when you think about it.

JUDAS PRIEST

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Metal fans have Birmingham, United Kingdom, to thank for two of the most iconic Heavy Metal bands ever formed. The first being the iconic BLACK SABBATH as mentioned above, while the other is undoubtedly JUDAS PRIEST. With the group’s classic lineup featuring guitarists Glenn Tipton and K.K. Downing, drummer Scott Travis, bassist Ian Hill, and vocalist Rob Halford, JUDAS PRIEST set the metal world alight throughout their iconic career, and still continue to do so to this very day.

It was not until 1974, five years after their formation that JUDAS PRIEST released its first of studio album, “Rocka Rolla,” which introduced tracks including “One For The Road” and “Run Of The Mill.” Four more albums were released before “British Steel” would arrive in 1980 – the album that lit the blue touchpaper under JUDAS PRIEST. Featuring tracks such as “Breaking the Law” and “Living After Midnight,” the album peaked at number four in the UK charts and announced the band’s true arrival.

Although PRIEST‘s music is what metal fans remember them by, a section of people remember the band was the first to be subject to civil action in the United States, where they stood accused of inserting subliminal messages into their songs. Teenagers James Vance and Raymond Belknap had listened to the 1978 album “Stained Class” before attempting to commit suicide; Vance took his own life, but Belknap survived. Lawyers argued a subliminal message urging the pair to “do it” was embedded in the “Better By You, Better Than Me” song, resulting in the suicide attempt. Metal fans protested during the six-week trial before the judge dismissed the case completely.

Controversy aside, JUDAS PRIEST has earned its place among Heavy Metal’s elite; the fact they are still performing five decades after they formed speaks volumes about the band.