Guitar heroics have been a key part of rock music since Chuck Berry first touched the instrument, but heavy metal took fretboard pyrotechnics to the extreme. Ritchie Blackmore built bombastic melodies out of the raw material of classical and folk for Deep Purple and Rainbow. Nancy Wilson reached deep into her soul for Heart. Glenn Tipton and K.K. Downing sharpened dual guitar harmonies to a buzzsaw’s edge with Judas Priest. One Mr. Edward Van Halen blew up and rebuilt the entire concept of the guitar solo.
Even as punk rock and its descendants rebelled against guitar wank, the trend continued in metal through the ’80s, from the gnarliest underground thrashers to the hairiest poodle bands. Megadeth’s Dave Mustaine and Marty Friedman, The Runaways’ Lita Ford, Katherine Thomas (aka The Great Kat), and Yngwie J. Malmsteen—just to name a few—refined and defined what sounds could be generated with six strings and an amplifier. Even as nu metal stripped the genre of everything appealing in the ’90s, Scandinavian death metal maestros like Alexi Laiho (Children Of Bodom), Michael Amott (Carcass/Arch Enemy), and the Björler brothers (At the Gates/The Haunted) defended the faith until all the backwards baseball caps were burned. Metalcore acts like Shadows Fall and God Forbid (and games like Guitar Hero and Rock Band) helped bring the thrill of the power chord back to prominence in the new millennium, and so-called “hipster metal” groups like The Sword made it briefly cool again.
There have always been retro-minded metal warriors, but recently there’s been another surge in bands that live by the sword and die by the guitar. It’s not just an American thing; you can find men and women from Chile to Poland burning through guitar picks. The shred mentality has survived (and thrived) because nothing else delivers pure energy and empowerment quite like it.
We’ve handpicked some of the finest practitioners of old-school metal that celebrate the least humble of instruments: the electric guitar. The playing may be flashy, but these bands won’t be flashes in the pan.
Vinyl LP, Compact Disc (CD)
These Polish powerhouses took their name (and a lot of their sound) from an obscure single by a new wave of British heavy metal (aka NWOBHM) act called Jaguar, and judging by their diction, it’s very possible they learned English from Jaguar as well. While Ride on the Night doesn’t have a guitar on the cover, it does have a muscle car, which is basically the automotive equivalent of a Gibson Flying V—even if it makes for a rough ride at times, the sheer power and speed under the hood thrills. Also, the muscle car has a laser gun on it. Axe Crazy’s raw enthusiasm allows them to blast that beam right into your pleasure center.
Mixed and mastered by Toxic Holocaust’s Joel Grind, loyal to the Motorhead/Venom “everything louder than everything else” philosophy, and sporting song titles like “Speed ‘Til You Bleed” and “Black Speed Delirium,” Bewitcher’s primitive presentation make them seem like like an odd inclusion on this list until you realize their secret: They’re a smart band pretending to be a dumb band. The gravelly vocals and D-beaten rhythms work as vehicles to hide how seamlessly the guitarist, who goes by the name Unholy Weaver of Shadows & Incantations, weaves his intricate playing into the caveman thrash.
Latin America has long been a hotbed of metallic activity, and while many high profile exports have come from Brazil (see: Sepultura, Angra, Sarcófago), there’s reason to look farther south. Hëiligen hail from Chile, and while they probably owe Iron Maiden some royalties, they at least draw from the Brits’ lesser-copied, proggier post-millennial side. They aren’t quite at that level yet, but who is? You can’t argue with songs about battle and metal delivered directly into the hesher’s Gibson depicted on the cover by Zeus himself.
Compact Disc (CD)
Their logo makes their name look like “Kitten,” but these Spanish longhairs pack some seriously sharp claws. State Of Shock sounds like it was recorded through the muffler of Axe Crazy’s beater. Still, the primitive production can’t obscure their fancy fretwork. The controlled chaos always seems on the verge of short-circuiting, but Hitten do an admirable job of riding the lightning. Hopefully electrifying songs like “Wrong Side of Heaven” will earn them enough attention to get into a proper studio next time.
Compact Disc (CD)
Iron Spell balance on that precarious edge between ambition and ability, but by aiming just outside the outer reaches of their talent, they achieve a sense of energy and danger. Will they reach the heights of metal Valhalla? Or will they crash like Icarus after his tanning session? It’s all part of the fun! Still, on tracks like the Thin Lizzy-style instrumental exercise “Under the Iron Spell,” these Chileans make a strong argument for renting them out a pair of wings.
Lady Beast do have a lady in the band, although she seems to be human. Heavily inspired by Iron Maiden and Sinergy (a power metal-oriented side project of guitar god Alexi Laiho), these Pennsylvanians like their guitar tone clean and their metal triumphant. As one might expect from an EP called Metal Immortal, their subject matter revolves around the awesomeness of heavy metal and the same feeling vis-à-vis dragons. The anachronistic approach allows the guitar harmonies to really shine. Presumably the ’80s ended somewhere, but that somewhere ain’t here.
Cassette, Vinyl LP, Compact Disc (CD)
Coursing with an urgency that recalls the NWOBHM movement, Satan’s Hallow blast out of the Windy City like a full-blown tornado. Von Jugel and Steve “Lethal” Beaudette’s whirlwind of guitars propel Mandy Martillo’s forceful delivery, sweeping everything before them in its wake. That breathless energy, combined with a masterful grasp of metal fundamentals, keeps the excitement racing at a fever pitch. Their debut shows that traditional doesn’t mean boring. They’ve arrived at the top of their game, up there with other recent luminaries like Christian Mistress, Tower, and Castle.
Compact Disc (CD), Vinyl LP
Speed Metal Mania has guitar front and center—literally, in the case of the cover and figuratively, in the pyrotechnic display that opens the title track. These masters of disaster from Massachusetts subscribe to the Teutonic thrash school of thought: riff after riff after riff, played as fast as possible until the song ends or someone’s fingers fall off, punctuated with the occasional shriek. Thankfully, they don’t sacrifice precision for speed. Just because the radiation zombie on the album art doesn’t know how to hold the guitar doesn’t mean that’s the case with the actual members of the band.
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Weirdly not as sleazy as one would expect from a band that has “sleaze” in its name, this Italian battalion seems more interested in chasing (literal) dragons than they do in chasing tail. A darkness reminiscent of Savatage underlies the fun, giving seemingly silly tunes unexpected depth, an ’80s hallmark too many current bands miss. Vocalist Andrea Vecchiotti competes with dual guitarists Edoardo Artibani and Clemente Cattalani to see who can do crazier things with their instrument of choice. The listener wins.
Cassette, Vinyl LP
Stalker cast a shadow over the beautiful shires of their New Zealand home with their three-song demo. Despite their seemingly straightforward attack, they recall prime Slayer in their ability to not only crank out killer riffs at hyperspeed, but in making the transitions feel both surprising and organic at the same time. Sometimes it takes incredible complexity to execute the most primal thrash.
Cassette, Vinyl LP, Compact Disc (CD)
The cover model may be hiding a wicked knife behind her back, but Irish group Stereo Nasty don’t hide their wicked riffs. Taking cues from the bad boys of hair metal like WASP and (early) Twisted Sister, Stereo Nasty wield a sharper edge than many of their peers by going for grit instead of glitter. That’s represented in the songwriting as well, the solos aiming more for the streets than the stars. Still, they know when to let loose—and when they do, the knives come out.
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Reveling in the toxic waste that produced classic mutant metal bands like Manilla Road and Cirith Ungol, Substratum bring a sense of style to a raw and ugly genre (although Cirith covered Bach’s “Toccata in D minor,” so there’s certainly precedent for the tasteful classical intro to “Curse of the Soothsayer Part I: The Beggar’s Toll”). Though not as flamboyant as some of the other bands on this list, guitarists Jonny Haynes and Max Nazaryan still carry Amy Lee Carlson’s voice up the fortress parapets to slay the frog-thing warlord.