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For those about to rock, we salute you

As 40 years of heavy metal are celebrated in Birmingham, the genre's spiritual birthplace, James McMahon picks out its top players

With the possible exception of hip-hop, no form of music comes close to having the global reach of heavy metal. Yet, despite its popularity, its fans have been accused of crimes ranging from murder and Satanism to wearing two items of denim clothing at any one time. All of which might well explain the genre's mass popularity.

If you take Black Sabbath's self-titled 1970 debut as the birth of the genre (and for the sake of argument, sorry Led Zeppelin, et al, let's do just that) the art form is now more than 40 years old. That's 40 years of music which has thrived exactly because of the loyalty that it inspires in its listeners. And it's an attitude to be celebrated at the forthcoming "Home of Metal" exhibition in Birmingham – the home of Ozzy Osbourne and the spiritual birthplace of hard rock.

Metal is clever, cathartic and it rocks. It thrives because the mainstream ignores it, because it's often misunderstood, and because it's the gateway to a broad but insular scene. But don't worry if you barely know your Napalm Death from your Dillinger Escape Plan, I've compiled a list of what I consider to be the greatest metal bands of all time. It's been an arduous task, and there's a host of stadium-filling mastodons who have fallen by the wayside. To paraphrase the great AC/DC: for those about to rock, read on. Here's the 10 greatest metal bands ever (until I change my mind and get Van Halen in there).

'Home of Metal' an exhibition commemorating 40 years of the music, opens on Saturday at Birmingham Museum: bmag.org.uk. James McMahon is the editor of 'Kerrang!' magazine

Black Sabbath


Critics have argued over who coined the phrase "heavy metal" for decades, but there's no doubt which band first came to define the sound. Alongside classic horror film-making, the Birmingham band's music was inspired by the bleak, brutal surroundings of 1960s West Midlands – in more ways than one. After an industrial accident at the age of 17, factory worker and guitarist Tony Iommi lost the tips of the middle and ring finger of his right hand. He relearned the guitar using metal thimbles to extend his reach, thereby creating a host of strange, new, metallic sounds.

Key track "Paranoid"

Judas Priest

1969 to present

If it's bizarre that one of metal's greats took their name from 1967 Bob Dylan curio "The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest", it's stranger still that last year the West Bromwich veterans announced their retirement from the live arena. In the intervening 43 years they got through 15 band members and a 1990 civil action trial (in which they were accused of having subliminal messages on their records that allegedly "persuaded" a Nevada teenage fan to commit suicide).

Key track "Living After Midnight"


1973 to present

The very definition of heavy metal icons, Australia's AC/DC graced the first cover of Kerrang! on 6 June 1981 – or, rather, the band's guitarist Angus Young did, a man who to this day has a peculiar habit of dressing like a 1960s schoolboy. Singers have come and gone (in the case of their greatest front man, Bon Scott, choking to death on his own vomit in 1980 in East Dulwich, London, in the back of a Renault 5), but it's Young who defines the bluesy brilliance of the band. Their tribute to Scott, July 1980's Back in Black, is still the second biggest-selling album of all time.

Key track "It's a Long Way to the Top (If You Wanna Rock and Roll)"


1975 to present

Motörhead play speed metal, although bassist, singer and sole founding member Ian "Lemmy" Kilmister prefers to call it rock 'n' roll. Fittingly, the power trio's name is slang for amphetamines – the band had considered Bastard as a name, but their manager told them they would "never get on Top of the Pops". More fittingly still, Motörhead formed after Lemmy, a former bassist for spacerock titans Hawkwind, was fired from the band in 1975, after being arrested on the Canadian border in possession of – yup – speed.

Key track "Ace of Spades"


1995 to present

Purists would argue that Korn are the band who define the nu-metal era of the late 1990s (which encompassed acts such as Limp Bizkit and System of a Down, and fused hip-hop stylings with classic metal crunch), but Slipknot, formed in mid-1990s Iowa, are perhaps the band that endured. Slipknot's eight members (their founding bassist, Paul Gray, passed away last summer) wear matching boiler suits supplemented by an arsenal of horror-themed face masks. (Think Kiss in full apparel standing a little too close to the fire.) Their fans – whom the band endearingly call their "maggots" – consider Slipknot the soundtrack to their lives.

Key track "Wait and Bleed"

Iron Maiden

1975 to present

The quintessential British metal band have amassed 36 albums in their career: 15 studio albums, 11 live albums, four EPs and six compilations – which make up their 85 million records sold worldwide. Astonishing statistics for a band who are rarely played on the radio or TV – which may, in fact, be a reason for Iron Maiden's phenomenal success. They've never wavered in their vision, and they – and their mascot Eddie the Zombie – define the "us against them" spirit of the genre.

Key track "Run to the Hills"

Napalm Death

1981 to present

Birmingham's Napalm Death defined the sub-genre of grindcore – a fusion of hardcore punk, death metal and sociopolitical lyrics. None of the original members from the early 1980s remains. Their song "You Suffer" is listed in Guinness World Records as the world's shortest, at 1.316 seconds.

Key track "The Icing on the Hate"


1981 to present

One of the "Big Four" that pioneered thrash metal in the 1980s (along with Anthrax, Megadeth and Metallica), there's an argument for Huntington Park's Slayer being the baddest band on the planet. Since their breakthrough 1986 album Reign in Blood, they've often been accused of being Nazi sympathisers, largely thanks to the song "Angel of Death", inspired by Josef Mengele. The band's response? They're merely "interested" in the subject.

Key track "Dead Skin Mask"


1981 to present

Crudely speaking, Metallica did for metal what the Beatles did for pop, perfecting the core elements of the genre and popularising them to such an extent that they're now synonymous with the art form. Over a 30-year career, they've had ups and downs (check out their 2004 documentary Some Kind of Monster), but they've had stratospheric moments of brilliance, too. Between 1981 and 1996 it's arguable that they never wrote a bad song – and even The Beatles had "Yellow Submarine".

Key track "Enter Sandman"

Dillinger Escape Plan

1997 to present

Alongside Converge, Mastodon, Isis and the charmingly named Pig Destroyer, New Jersey's Dillinger Escape Plan have spent a career ripping up metal's conventions, then stitching them back together again at all sorts of askew angles. Critics call them "mathcore", or "post-hardcore", and their sound is certainly odd and experimental. Singer Greg Puciato is strange chap, too. In 2002 at the Reading Festival, he defecated in a plastic bag and threw it in the audience. No ill feeling – that's just his thing.

Key track "43% Burnt"