The sight of six makeup-clad Norwegian satanists on the Ozzfest main stage this summer was a great sign for metal, if not the makers of Max Factor. During recent outings, metal's biggest event of the year has been plagued by rote rap-rockers like Crazy Town, Papa Roach and Linkin Park, but in 2004, the underground began to reassert itself with non-commercial acts like Superjoint Ritual, Unearth and Everytime I Die drawing big crowds. It all reflected a welcome trend toward less mainstream sounds in metal. New-school American thrash bands like Shadows Fall and Lamb of God soared past the 100,000 mark in sales, while fast-rising emo-metal hopefuls Killswitch Engage are already halfway to gold with their latest. Read on as we recount the bands that shoveled the lime into nü-metal's grave in 2004.
1. Pig Destroyer, Terrifyer (Relapse). Inspired by boobies, illegal fireworks, hot sauce and the bad parts of town, Pig Destroyer drops the Naked Lunch of grindcore on its fourth full-length. Frontman Scott Hull sounds as if he's standing barefoot in a roomful of broken glass as he shrieks about crippled horses and restraining orders in a manner that makes William Burroughs seem positively lucid. Combined with absurdly acrobatic time signatures, wrist-spraining velocity and truly disturbing samples that'll have you sleeping with the lights on, it's the scariest, most monstrous thing to hit metal since Billy Milano's beer gut.
2. Mastodon, Leviathan (Relapse). Granted, a nautical-themed concept album about a rogue fish is almost as big a heavy-metal conceit as rainbows in the dark or Manowar's waxed chests. Nevertheless, Mastodon manages to amaze on the ocean-sized Leviathan. No band is more adept at balancing dizzying, Yngwie-worthy instrumental aptitude with fist-in-the-air anthems as epic as any Herman Melville novel. Here the band makes head-scratching proto-thrash palatable, with watertight choruses and frenetic guitar interplay that seldom dips below twenty knots. By the time the band reaches its placid, acoustic finale, you feel like you've been handed a Band-Aid to mend a broken leg.
3. Lamb of God, Ashes of the Wake (Epic). It's only fitting that former Megadeth shredder Chris Poland guests on this album's title cut, an exercise in air guitar for anyone worth his weight in dog-eared back issues of Guitar for the Practicing Musician. Lamb of God is the most formidable straight-up thrash troupe to emerge since Dave Mustaine and company debuted two decades ago with curled lips and carpal-tunnel-inducing fretwork. On the anti-war Ashes, political pathos thumb-wrestles with massive, strangulated riffs, resulting in an album guaranteed to clear Republicans from the room.
4. Meshuggah, I (Fractured Transmitter). For most folks, twenty minutes is just enough time to have an orgasm or two, fry up some bologna, maybe organize a sock drawer. But for the Swede speed-metal goliaths in Meshuggah, twenty minutes is all it takes to span three decades of heavy metal in a single bound. In one uninterrupted track, this bunch races from heart-palpitating thrash to heady, pocket-protector metal to foreboding soundscapes worthy of a John Carpenter film. And at around the five-minute mark, nouveau guitar god Fredrik Thordendal breaks out the most warped metal solo of the year, which sounds kind of like a seagull being fed into a wood-chipper.
5. Anata, Beneath a Stone With No Inscription (Wicked World/Earache). In a genre where inventiveness is largely measured by the number of inverted crosses a band can cram into its logo, Anata is one of the few acts pushing death metal forward. The band's latest is the first truly worthy successor to At the Gates' seminal Slaughter of the Soul, an album that set the standard for melodic death metal. With impulsive, impossible-to-predict tempo swings, guitars as malleable as wet taffy and an unbounded adventurousness, Anata raises the bar so high that overrated hacks like In Flames and Dark Tranquility couldn't reach it with a forklift.
6. Dillinger Escape Plan, Miss Machine (Relapse). Dillinger's first full-length in five years bears many of the band's trademarks: hyperventilating vocals, pneumatic drumming, guitars that shriek like baby seals being clubbed to death. The difference this time is that they're all grounded in discernible songs rather than formless freakouts set to a beat. Yeah, vocalist Greg Puciato sounds more like Mike Patton than Mike Patton did on the former Faith No More frontman's 2002 collaboration with Dillinger -- but with a touch of ashen melody, percolating electronics, and songs about werewolves named Sunshine, this Miss is the belle of the headbangers' ball.
7. Decapitated, Negation (Wicked World/Earache). In Poland, you reach drinking age when you're old enough to see over the bar. Maybe this helps explain why the fresh-faced Poles in Decapitated seem mature beyond their years. This bunch may still get carded for cigarettes on these shores, but Negation solidifies Decapitated as being among the most precise and powerful of the new breed of straightahead death-metal combos, right alongside Nile and Hate Eternal. The band doesn't stray far from the blueprint -- seasick vocals, guitars that fart lightning, and a drummer who sounds like a metronome hooked up to a car battery -- but neither will metalheads stray far from this disc.
8. Megadeth, The Complete Remasters (Capitol). If egomaniacs like Lars Ulrich and James Hetfield kick you out of a band for being too much of a dick, it's safe to say you're somewhere between Carlos Boozer and that Mussolini dude in the grand pantheon of royal assholes. But as big as the chip on Dave Mustaine's shoulder has been since being booted from Metallica, his guitar chops have always been bigger, resulting in undeniable thrash classics like Peace Sells...But Who's Buying and Rust in Peace. With all of the band's albums remastered for pristine sound and enough volume to thoroughly piss off the neighbors, then topped off with a bevy of rare and demo cuts, this collection is a metal must-have.
9. Clutch, Blast Furnace (DRT). N.O.R.M.L.'s house band drops a man-rock masterpiece guaranteed to result in at least a 36.57 percent increase in chest hair per spin. "Everybody move to Canada/Smoke lots of pot" frontman Neil Fallon growls like the devil with a tracheotomy on "The Crowd Goes Wild," a funk-rock throwdown in which political protest means passing the duche on the left-hand side. Kind of like a heavy-metal Phish, Clutch has groove and girth to spare, reinvigorating the jam-rock set by relieving it of any asswipes playing Hacky Sack.
10. Yob, The Illusion of Motion (Metal Blade). The second full-length from this doobies-n-doom three-piece sounds like the very reason the bong was invented. These Portland potheads play as if Liquid NyQuil were coursing through their veins, eschewing brevity like they do piss tests. Coming with four songs in just under an hour, Yob makes 4/4 time seem like grindcore, conjuring a true wall of sound like a stadium full of Phil Spectors. If Geddy Lee had a pair, he'd sound something like band frontman Mike S., whose guitar is perpetually at high tide. Bring your floaties, dude.