Before there was the current buffet of online platforms to watch metal music videos at your leisure, fans had to wait for a TV special to see their idols in action. Then, on August 1, 1981, came the birth of the music video via MTV, television’s first 24/7 music channel, giving musicians an outlet to visually communicate their music in truly bold, cinematic ways to the masses.
For metal fans, these videos offered a glimpse into the wild imaginations of their favorite artists and provided a platform for live footage – the next best thing to seeing a band play in concert. From the classic thrashers from the 80s to the slick productions of today, here are some of the best metal music videos that pushed the artistic boundaries of the form.
Black Sabbath: God Is Dead? (2013)
It’d been 35 years since Ozzy Osbourne, Tony Iommi and Geezer Butler of Black Sabbath had made an album together, and this video marked their triumphant return. This Nietzsche-approved music video utilizes existing footage from the controversial and politically-charged trilogy film series Zeitgeist, by Peter Joseph, who served as director. More of a short film than a promo video, archival footage of the band is imposed over clips of war, destruction and a gluttonous couple straight out of The Discreet Charm Of The Bourgeoisie, that will make you never want to eat shrimp again.
Megadeth: Sweating Bullets (1992)
What’s better than Dave Mustaine losing his mind in a music video? Multiple Daves going crazy in the video for “Sweating Bullets”, off Megadeth‘s commercial smash, Countdown To Extinction. The video captures Mustaine’s conversational style of singing as he battles all the “Daves” stuck in a prison of their own mind. Supposedly written about a friend of Mustaine’s wife who suffered from extreme anxiety attacks, the video illustrates how sometimes you can be your own worst enemy. Reuniting with director Wayne Isham (who had also directed “Symphony Of Destruction” and “99 Ways To Die”) the band also deployed seasoned cinematographer Daniel Pearl, who’d worked on everything from the cult horror film Texas Chainsaw Massacre to Mariah Carey music videos (you can’t say he lacks range) for a perfect combination of technical wizardry and emotional wallop.
Rob Zombie: Dragula (1988)
As the auteur of horror, Rob Zombie‘s visual-arts pedigree and penchant for old creature features allowed him to step into the director’s seat when it came to crafting his own metal music videos. After going solo in 1998, he made his video debut with a phantasmagoric vision for “Dragula”, off his hit album Hellbilly Deluxe. Racing along in a car from the 60s TV show The Munsters, Zombie brings along some demonic sidekicks for the ride on a dizzying hallucinatory road trip filled with kids and creepy clowns. Standard Zombie stuff. Revisiting this mini-film, it’s clear that Zombie was destined for a future in filmmaking. With 74 million views and counting on YouTube, clearly the thrills were built to last.
Slayer: Seasons In The Abyss (1990)
Just as the occult is a concurrent theme in metal, ancient Egypt is equally a subject of fascination. Look no further than Iron Maiden’s Powerslave cover, Metallica‘s “Creeping Death” and Dio’s “Egypt (The Chains Are On)”. For their first official music video, Slayer went to the source itself and, through a series of bribes and good fortune, found themselves playing among the pyramids in Egypt – even amid the first Gulf War. While there are plenty of mysterious scenes in ancient tombs, the video is less about the narrative and more about vocalist Tom Araya’s reflections on death. The video got heavy rotation on MTV’s Headbangers Ball and remains one of the more ambitious metal music videos. The band would later top themselves with their Tarantino-inspired carnage-fuelled video for “You Against You” in 2015.
Anthrax: Madhouse (1985)
Even during the early era of MTV, it seemed almost like a rite of passage to get your video banned on the network. Everything from Queen‘s promo for “I Want To Break Free” to Megadeth’s “A Tout Le Monde” fell foul of the censors, so it came as no surprise when Anthrax‘s video for their hit “Madhouse”, which depicts the band as patients moshing in a mental institution, alerted the censors. The video not only showed off Anthrax’s humorous side but also their new lead singer, Joey Belladonna, who had taken over from Neil Turbin. Directed by famous punk and no wave filmmaker Amos Poe, “Madhouse” captures the chaotic nature of metal music videos while staying tongue in cheek: a combination that would characterize Anthrax’s career. Most of the videos had an element of humor (like their collaboration with Public Enemy on “Bring The Noise”) but they would truly break new ground with their thrashterpiece “Blood Eagle Wings”.
Dio: Holy Diver (1983)
One of the most beloved songs in heavy metal history, with an unmistakable opening riff, Dio’s “Holy Diver” is a classic track, featured on their album Holy Diver. The accompanying music video, directed by Arthur Ellis, illustrates the song’s story arc with a Conan-style narrative complete with a sword-wielding quest. Between these vignettes, we see Ronnie James Dio emotively singing in front of flames. This video authentically encapsulates the 80s’ love of fantasy, adventure and myth circa Dungeons And Dragons fame – a concurrent theme in metal cover art and metal music videos.
Metallica: One (1989)
With its unforgettable chilling riffs and lyrics, the anti-war track “One” is not only pivotal to Metallica’s catalogue, but to the canon of metal music videos. Directed by Michael Salomon and Bill Pope, the band’s 1989 debut video captured the intensity of the song and immediately grabbed the No.1 spot on MTV that same year. The video intersperses footage of the band with clips from the 1971 film Johnny Got His Gun, which reinforces the anti-war theme of the song. When the chugging riffs and double bass come in, the film reaches a crescendo with James Hetfield and Kirk Hammett frantically playing their guitars with a palpable frenzy while the lasting image of a World War I soldier lays in a hospital bed, sheet over his face.
Rammstein: Mein Teil (2004)
Widely known for their provocative lyrics and slightly disturbing (albeit entertaining) metal music videos, controversial East German industrial metal band Rammstein went all out for “Mein Teil”, off their 2004 album Reise, Reise. Inspired by the notorious German cannibal Armin Meiwes (known as the “Rotenburg Cannibal”), the video depicts all manner of illicit imagery that satiates people’s grotesque fascination with the obscene actual events, proving music videos to both an artistic and political form of expression. The cinematography, sepia-colored shots, and erratic camerawork combine to put the viewer on edge – all hallmarks of the Rammstein aesthetic. Needless to say, this video was banned from airing on German MTV until after 11pm, just in time to give everyone nightmares.
Iron Maiden: Can I Play With Madness (1988)
Choosing the more conceptual route over live footage, Iron Maiden‘s “Can I Play with Madness” remains one of most influential metal music videos of all time. Shot at Tintern Abbey and the Chislehurst Caves in the UK, the video is like Harry Potter for heshers. The video opens with a white-haired wizardly man gazing into a crystal ball, then cuts to Monty Python‘s Graham Chapman starring as a curmudgeonly teacher who scolds young lads drawing Maiden’s famous mascot, Eddie. Of course, it wouldn’t be a Maiden video without Eddie, who soon appears in the sky, followed by coming to life on the pages of Metal Madness.
Pantera: Five Minutes Alone (1994)
While the title implies some kind of groupie gathering, this Pantera hit actually gets its name from an encounter with a fan’s father. The man in question filed a lawsuit against frontman Phil Anselmo for allegedly beating him up after he heckled the band during their opening performance for Megadeth. Anselmo reported that the dad wanted “five minutes alone” with him, spawning this killer song and music video. It’s remarkable the amount of head-banging and thrashing that Anselmo deploys, despite having recently ruptured two discs in his back at the time. The video wraps with live show footage (featuring Anselmo rocking an Eyehategod shirt), slow-motion flames, and headbanging. Because what’s a metal music video without fire and headbanging?
Sepultura: Roots Bloody Roots (1996)
Deriving their name from the Portuguese translation of Motörhead‘s song “Dancing on Your Grave” (“Dançando Na Sua Sepultura”), Brazilian death and thrash metal giants Sepultura made a name for themselves in the late 80s and 90s for their singular sound and visuals. For their concept album Roots, the band partially recorded their album and this music video in the Brazilian rainforest with an indigenous tribe. Shot in the Salvadorian catacombs where slaves were bought and sold, the video juxtaposes traditional Brazilian imagery, such as Timbalada percussionists, Catholic churches, and capoeira fighting, with recurring metal themes and a quote by the late Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe. This music video not only celebrates a band that embraces their cultural identity, but also gives you a glimpse into their personal identities as proud Brazilians.
Tool: Stinkfist (1996)
Tool fan or not, the band has reached notoriety for their metal music video stylings. Off their 1996 album Ænima, “Stinkfist” won a well-deserved Grammy for Best Music Video. In typical Tool style, the music video for “Stinkfist” is highly artistic, conceptual, and enigmatic, thanks to director and Tool guitarist Adam Jones, whose signature stop-motion animation and quick-focus still shots are immediately recognizable. Even the song title was deemed too offensive for MTV and was retitled as “Track #1”, causing irate fans to complain to the network. Though the title remained, MTV host Kennedy would famously whiff her fist in solidarity before introducing the video as “Track #1”.
Mötley Crüe – Don’t Go Away Mad (Just Go Away)
Van Halen – Right Now
Slipknot – All Out Life
Guns N’ Roses – November Rain
Whitesnake – Here I Go Again
Slaughter – Up All Night
Metallica – Enter Sandman
Rollins Band – Liar
Korn – Freak On A Leash
Dokken – Dream Warriors
Warrant – Down Boys
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