The year 1991 was truly transitional for a world of rock and metal – the big, bright hair metal acts that dominated the mid to late 80s were quickly becoming stale and obsolete, as to the tougher, harder thrash scene that was snapping at it's (high) heels.
In their stead was a whole new crop of bands emerging from various scenes, countries and sub-genres; some that would create and expand niche, underground extreme metal, and others that would go on to affect the music mainstream and beyond. From band’s releasing their debut efforts, to older acts finding their footings in a changing time, 1991 was one of the finest years in metal history. So what albums stood the tallest and made the cut in our top 20 list? Read on and find out…
Armored Saint – Symbol of Salvation
An album that got somewhat lost in the massive musical reshuffle of the early 90s – the traditional heavy metal stylings of Symbol of Salvation were simply out of place in 1991. But this doesn’t mean that Armored Saint’s fourth LP wasn't of top quality, with the pumping opener “Reign of Fire” setting the tone with a driving guitar riff and John Bush’s massive vocals. While the production was something of a kindred spirit to the first Alice In Chains album Facelift, thanks to their shared producer Dave Jerden, it’s style straddled the classic metal stylings of the early 80s, thrash metal and the European power metal scene. Sadly it all fell apart after this release, failing to become a commercial success, and with Bush poached by Anthrax less than two years later, it would be nearly another decade before Armored Saint released another full length release. Symbol of Salvation still holds up as a straight-ahead metal album, and deserves more praise and attention than it received in it’s day.
Atheist – Unquestionable Presence
With the release of their second full length, Atheist firmly placed their foot forward as one of the forerunners of the progressive/technical death metal scene. Featuring endless tempo and time signatures, dissonant guitar tradeoffs and an almost fusion/latin jazz-like quality to their rhythm section, Unquestionable Presence is truly the thinking-man’s metal. Special mention must go out to bassist Tony Choy, who stepped in at the last minute to replace recently deceased Roger Patterson, and who’s powerful bass sound stands proudly along side the technical guitar work of Rand Burkey and frontman Kelly Shaefer. While only just a notch over half an hour long, tracks like “Mother Man”, “Your Life’s Retribution” and “An Incarnation’s Dream” feature more notes and twists and turns than most band’s full discographies. Unquestionable Presence is a tremendous sophomore album that shows how ahead of their time Atheist were.
Cathedral – Forest of Equilibrium
Formed by ex-Napalm Death frontman Lee Dorian, who had grown tired of his former band’s growing death metal sound, decided to push extreme music in the complete opposite with his new doom metal group Cathedral. With only the low-end heavy guitar tone and Dorian’s tortured vocals in common with Napalm Death’s material, the band took the sound of the underground proto-doom and stoner bands of the 70s and 80s (and Black Sabbath) and made it their own. The crushingly slow tunes crawl along at an almost lethargic pace, with the never-ending waves of downtuned riffs on tracks like “Ebony Tears” stretching well beyond the seven minute mark, while “A Funeral Request” and the epic closer “Reaching Happiness Touching Pain” add outside elements like acoustic guitars and gothic organs. Perfectly loose, unpolished and borderline muffled sounding, Forest of Equilibrium was an album created to become the deafening soundtrack to late-night bong-rips and ritualist incantations.
Carcass – Necroticism – Descanting the Insalubrious
Moving further away from their grindcore beginnings, Carcass’ third album sees the English four-piece introduce more technical and progressive song-writing, yet also becoming more ear-catching than ever before. The addition of young hot-shot guitarist Michael Amott helped push the guitar work into a more melodic territory, especially in the solo department, with him and founding guitarist Bill Steer delving deep into the classic rock and metal playbook for the multiple lead breaks on show. Carcass clearly played a strong part in helping build the foundation of the melodic death metal scene, yet Necroticism still features ambitious song structures and complex song titles that’d have the average metalhead thumbing through the closest medical dictionary. “Corporal Jigsore Quandary” and “Incarnated Solvent Abuse” are gruesomely addictive, with dancing guitar work, rock-solid drums and Jeff Walker’s sordid, ‘surgery-gone-bad’ tales. Carcass’ music would get more melodic and straightforward on subsequent albums, but on Necroticism… they managed to straddle the difficult line of brutality and catchiness with great ease.
Corrosion of Conformity – Blind
Corrosion of Conformity’s first album after a few years in the wilderness thanks to a lineup upheaval, the key additions of vocalist Karl Agell and guitarist (and future band frontman) Pepper Keenan brought in a more guitar focused sound to the band, merging sludge and groove metal, with more than a touch of southern charm and swagger. Simply put Blind is all about riff worship, with only the lyrics and mentality of their hardcore punk early days remaining – not to say that the band ditched their sounds for commercial pastures however, with plenty of dirt and grit to be found on the band’s massive yet unpolished sounding third full length. The absolutely raucous “Dance of the Dead” would be a minor hit for the band, while the thumping “Vote with a Bullet” is album’s most well known track, and with Keenan taking the song’s lead vocals it was a sign of things to come from the band. An uptempo, beer-drinking, speed-limit-breaking classic metal album.
Death – Human
The genius of the late Chuck Schuldiner is on full display on Death’s fourth release Human, with his unrivalled ability of writing addictively complex music at it’s arguable peak. With the addition of then fresh-faced youngsters Paul Masvidal and Sean Reinert of fellow prog-metal groundbreakers Cynic, as well as fretless bass icon Steve Di Giorgio, the music frequently pushes the technical boundaries of what metal can do, with dazzling guitar and bass runs, complex drumming and musical passages turning on a dime. “Lack of Comprehension”, “Suicide Machine” and the jazzy instrumental piece “Cosmic Sea” would go on to become essentially the template for the next generation of technical death metal bands that would crop up in the post-2000s metal landscape – yet most have yet to be able to find the balance between instrumental brilliance and memorable songwriting, something that Schuldiner was a true master at.
Dismember – Like An Everflowing Stream
Featuring one of the most disgusting guitar sounds committed to tape, thanks to the now legendary Boss HM2 pedal, Dismember’s debut album Like An Everflowing Stream raised the bar even higher for the already highly revered Swedish death metal scene. Uncompromising and relentless, the opening one-two of the epic “Override of the Overture” and the sub-two minute “Soon To Be Dead” is like being hit with a Swedish brick; as tremolo picked riffs and storming drums fight for dominance. The tempo is slightly reined back for more minor-key melodic passages during the (almost) self-titled track “Dismembered” and the ending of album closer “In Death’s Sleep”, but truth be told, it is a relatively brutal one-trick pony, but when the trick is done so damn good, who cares? A landmark 90s death metal release that sounds a fresh and visceral as it did three decades ago.
Entombed – Clandestine
Hot off the back of their classic debut Left Hand Path, Sweden’s Entombed faced the daunting task of following that breakthrough release without their recently dismissed frontman LG Petrov with their sophomore album Clandestine. Taking the template from their first LP, the band’s song-writing has become sharper and more focused, and features very subtle touches of groove and rock riffs – something that would become much more prominent in the band’s following years. With horror movie quotes popping up across the album adding to the overall atmosphere, tracks like “Living Dead” “Sinners Bleed” and “Stranger Aeons” are all archetypal examples of the burgeoning 90s death metal scene coming out Sweden, whilst keeping on eye on moving the genre moving forward. Contrary to what the liner notes say, the band’s multi-talented drummer Nicke Andersson handles lead vocals and does as a more than respectable job, as well as beating his kit into submission. Another classic Entombed release that stands should-to-shoulder with their groundbreaking first LP, and their equally revered follow up Wolverine Blues.
Immolation – Dawn of Possession
While their signings would become more commercially minded throughout the years, Roadrunner Record’s early claim to fame was being a hotbed of American death metal bands, with New York’s Immolation being amongst their finest. With hype built up off the back of the popularity of their demos amongst the underground tape-trading and fanzine scene, the band’s debut Dawn of Possession announced Immolation as one of the hottest extreme metal acts in the world. Opening track “Into Everlasting Fire” is a stone cold death metal classic, showing off all of the band’s strongest elements – breakneck pace, frequent tempo changes, twisted solos and Ross Dolan’s churning growls. Dawn of Possession is one of the most important albums during death metal’s formative years, as the genre was becoming an unavoidable noise in the heavy music underground. It’s strong production mixed with technical wizardry and sheer brutality makes Immolation’s first album gimmick-free, old school death metal at it’s purest.
Meshuggah – Contradictions Collapse
The primal beginnings for one of the most influential metal bands of the modern era, Meshuggah’s first album Contradictions Collapse flew under mosts radar, and was all in all a much more thrash orientated affair than their future material. Despite not being quite as number-crunching-ly complex as their more well known work, the technical and progressive flourishes that littered the album showed that the Swede’s sound was already far removed from their countrymen’s death metal obsession. “Erroneous Manipulation” and “Cadaverous Mastication” are prime examples of this; with the more straight-forward riffing being broken up with tricker, experimental passages of clean guitars and Thomas Haake’s groove-orientated yet highly advanced drumming. It must be said that Meshuggah hadn’t quite landed their trademark sound from the very start, but there is so much obvious potential and uniqueness on Contradictions Collapse that it’s no surprise that they would become the legendary band that they are today.
Metallica – Metallica (The Black Album)
Metallica were already on the verge of mainstream superstardom with 1988’s …And Justice For All (hitting number 6 on the Billboard charts), and rather than rest of their laurels, the band took a huge collective risk by actively dialling back their sound and enlisting hard rock uber producer Bob Rock on The Black Album. So much has been said about this album that their isn’t much new ground to cover – simply put the commercial success of The Black Album, thanks to their concerted effort to deliver the most concise and accessible songwriting possible whilst staying within the heavy music realm, pushed Metallica from being the biggest metal band in the world, to the biggest band in the world. “Enter Sandman”, “Sad But True”, “The Unforgiven”, “Nothing Else Matters”… There’s not a metal fan, hell even rock music fan, in the world that wouldn’t know these songs inside out. Deservedly one of the biggest selling albums of all time time, and whether you like it or not, The Black Album is one of the genre’s most important releases.
Monster Magnet – Spine of God
Far more psych-rock leaning than most of their stoner peers, Monster Magnet had no trepidation when it came to push the boundaries of rock songwriting and sonic experimentation on Spine of God. While the band’s future albums featured more straight-forward hard rock, Monster Magnet's debut is filled to brim with trippy sound effects and production techniques that harken back to the glory days of psychedelic music. A mammoth drum fill, run through a phaser no-less, kicks off opening track “Pill Shovel”, which is built around a fuzzy guitar riff, while following track “Medicine” is as straight ahead rock as the album gets, with proto-punk style guitars and driving drums pushing the song along. Experimental cuts like “Nod Scene”, “Spine of God” and closing track “Ozium” are lengthy workouts, with walls of guitar and vocals layering on top of one another to build up to cacophonous crescendos. Dave Wyndorf and co’s first album was far from a smash hit, but Spine of God is rightly considered a cult classic in the stoner rock underground.
Morbid Angel – Blessed Are The Sick
Taking Slayer’s sound and cranking it up to the extreme, Morbid Angel kicked down the metal door with their first album Altars of Madness. Toning down the blistering pace of their debut just a tiny bit to include more mid-paced riffs, Blessed Are The Sick sees the Flordia four-piece embrace neck-wrecking grooves on tracks like “Fall From Grace” and “Blessed Are The Sick / Leading The Rats”, before lunging back into more familiar territory with a multitude of blast beats and tremolo picked guitar parts littered across the released. Adding depth to their sound, with elements of classical music such as acoustic guitars and orchestrations scattered across the album, with no less than four instrumental passages breaking up the whirlwind of metal. With the darkness and light of the chaotic “The Ancient Ones” and piano solo piece “In Remembrance” wrapping up the album, Morbid Angel’s march into the metal mainstream would only grow stronger on the back of Blessed Are The Sick.
Overkill – Horrorscope
Potentially thrash metal’s most unsung heroes, Overkill’s fifth album Horrorscope is an unrelenting collection of pit-worthy tunes that’s the culmination of a decade of hard work, trials and tribulations. While the addition of two new guitarists to replace founding member Bobby Gustafson may have caused concern in their fanbase, Horrorscope shows the band’s energy is at an all time high, with the same lightning fast tempos and powerful riff-driven tracks in full-effect. As the metal scene had slowly changed in the new decade, Overkill were happy to add subtle new influences into their sound, with elements of groove metal beginning to creep in, with the title track grinding along at an almost Black Sabbath pace and featuring just a hint of Pantera style swagger. Opening tune “Coma” is amongst the best things the band have ever written, while the powerful “Thanx For Nothing” and their excellent cover of Edgar Winter’s “Frankenstein” shows why Horoscope is Overkill’s biggest selling and, arguably greatest album, for a good reason.
Ozzy Osbourne – No More Tears
As one of the founding fathers of the metal scene, Ozzy Osbourne was already two decades deep into his music career by the time 1991 rolled around. 1988’s No Rest For The Wicked gave the Englishman a renewed energy, thanks in a large part to his blossoming partnership guitarist Zakk Wylde, and with the new outside contributions from the late Motorhead frontman Lemmy Kilmister, the creative dream-team helped Ozzy Osbourne and band create one of his most successful and finest solo albums, No More Tears. Featuring the massive title track, as well as the rollicking “Desire”, “I Don't Wanna Change the World” and “Mr Tinkertrain”, Ozzy landed on a winning formula with some of the best tracks in his career, with hard heavy riffing inside of melodic, radio friendly hard rock material. Ozzy’s penchant for slower songs was also on full display, with three big ballads on this album; “Time After Time”, “Road To Nowhere” and the huge hit “Mama I’m Coming Home”, proofing that the Prince of Darkness was far from shy about showing his sensitive side. While he might have changed his mind to keep his career going after the album’s supporting ‘farewell’ tour, No More Tears is the last great Ozzy Osbourne album.
Sepultura – Arise
Having fought their way into the metal mainstream, Brazil’s Sepultura was one of the best and hardest working bands of their generation. Having proven that they could easily hang with their USA counterparts with 1989's Beneath The Remains, the four-piece doubled down on their sound and delivered arguably the last great, uncompromising thrash metal album released, Arise. The furious opening title track blows the doors right off, before the following back-to-back strikes of “Dead Embryonic Cells” and “Desperate Cry” keep the momentum and quality at it’s absolute peak. “Under Siege (Regnum Irae)” and the Motorhead cover “Orgasmatron” show outside elements such as industrial, tribal and hardcore punk slowly beginning to seep into Sepultura's sound, with the band losing none of the ferocity that featured on their previous material. Wrapped up in Michael Whelan’s amazing artwork, Arise’s powerful music, reality-rooted lyrics and clever compositions created potentially Seputura’s best LP, and arguably the best metal album of the year.
Skid Row – Slave To The Grind
One of the few, and I mean few, hair metal bands to put out a great, successful album post ’89, Skid Row’s sophomore release Slave to the Grind was a smash-hit, screaming into the number one position on the Billboard Charts. Featuring a much heavier sound, without sounding forced, and more matured lyrical themes, without being too stepped in cliche, Skid Row managed to get off the glam metal band wagon before most of their contemporaries, whilst also managing to keep the original bravado that broke them with their self-titled debut a couple of years earlier. “Monkey Business” and the raging title track are awesome album openers, clearly showing the band’s willingness to step into the new decade with the best foot forward, while “Quicksand Jesus” and “In A Darkened Room” prove that the band are still happy to bust out the acoustic guitars for a well-composed ballad. Credit were credit is due, the band’s key-songwriters of frontman Sebastian Bach, guitarist Dave Sabo and bassist Rachel Bolan could see the writing on the wall for their band and successfully crafted an album that took them from the also-rans of the late 80s to the front of the metal scene of the early 90s.
Soundgarden – Badmotorfinger
One of the main bands to usher in the alternative hard rock revolution that ruled the musical world for the 90s, Seattle’s Soundgarden announced themselves with their third album Badmotorfinger. Both equally heavy and cerebral, the tracks are replete with complex rhythms and unorthodox tunings – yet never in lieu of quality songwriting, with strong influences from 70s classic rock acts and the 80s underground music scene that the band emerged from. The opening four songs, “Rusty Cage”, “Outshined”, “Slaves & Bulldozers” and the wild “Jesus Christ Post” are firmly cemented as hard rock/metal classics of the 1990s, and show that the late, great Chris Cornell was undeniably one of the best vocalists and songwriters of his generation. Terry Date’s dry, natural production stood out from the reverb drenched trappings that the vast majority of 80s/early 90s rock bands employed, and would become the standard for the rest of the decade. Deeper cuts “Holy Water”, “New Damage” and “Mind Riot” shows the huge wealth of material on offer, and that Soundgarden is more than worthy of the success and critical acclaim that Badmotorfinger gave them.
Suffocation – Effigy of the Forgotten
Potentially the most brutal band on the planet at the time, Suffocation’s debut album Effigy of the Forgotten is breathtaking in it’s unforgiving extremity. Featuring little of the evil and gore qualities of their Floridian and Swedish death metal contemporaries, the New Yorkers focus purely on delivering pure heaviness, with Mike Smith’s light speed drumming fusing with Terrence Hobbs’ and Doug Cerrito’s absolutely manic guitar work, not to forget Frank Mullen’s thunderously low growls. The breakdown on opening track “Liege of Inveracity” was unheard of at the time, and the pace and technically of classics like “Infecting The Crypts” and “Jesus Wept” stand amongst the genre’s greatest hits. With an astonishing piece of Dan Seagrave art adorning it’s cover, Effigy of the Forgotten is gnarly enough to send casual rock fans running for the hills, but simply put; every brutal death, slam and deathcore band from the mid to late 90s owes Suffocation are large debt of gratitude.
Unleashed – Where No Life Dwells
A card carrying-member of the ‘Big 4’ of Swedish death metal, Unleashed were formed by frontman/bassist Johnny Hedlund from the ashes of Nihilist; the band that would later evolve into Entombed. Fuelled by that acrimonious split-up, Unleashed’s debut album Where No Life Dwells is clearly hewn from the same Swedish death metal playbook, but they stand apart from the rest of the crop by adding in strong thrash and hardcore influences, as well as lyrics steeped in viking mythology. The rampaging “Beyond The Creation of Time” is a classic track of the early 90s extreme metal scene, while “Into Glory Ride”, “The Dark One” and opening song “Dead Forever” deliver furious pace and headbanging tempo changes. Production wise the album is a lot more polished sounding than their countrymen’s similarly timed releases, and easily could slot into the current crop of underground death metal acts. Instantly enjoyable and remorselessly no-frills, Where No Life Dwells is a straight to the throat death metal classic.