10 All-Time Greatest Metal Live Albums
Is a live album really ever live? Most are manipulated in some way, either in the mixing stage or the overdubbing of guitar leads or vocal passages. The greatest of them all, KISS seminal Alive!, comes with legendarily conflicting reports of how much it was doctored. But who cares? It rocks harder than any other album in existence, KISS or otherwise.
Whatever they did to make it that way: thank you KISS and Eddie Kramer and the studio you perfected it in. Besides, you cannot bottle and sell the live experience any more than you can capture the wind from the beach in a plastic bag. It’s a one-time-only, of-the-moment thing. No high-dollar mobile recording unit can capture the experience, not even a great DVD can truly put you in the audience…and forget about capturing it on your smartphone.
These albums below are what they are… a fiercer, rawer, gnarlier take on those studio favorites. Sit down, strap on headphones and try to out-scream those screaming fans on the record!
Alive!,’ KISS (1975)
Early KISS performances were super-charged things of unleashed energy; people lucky enough to see the band in 1974/75 saw four bizarre looking youths with one goal in mind: total rock and roll overload. And we’re not just talking image and pyro effects: the band’s musical repertoire was a mix of early metal classics and masterful hard rock killers. The on-fire energy of Alive! proves how great the band was in its prime. Detonation after detonation occurs throughout its 16-song duration, a white knuckle thriller of a live album. Highlights are many – virtually every song – but the one-two punch of the extended “100,000 Years” (Paul Stanley playing a galvanizing rock dictator during the drum solo) and beyond-classic “Black Diamond”…there’s no denying it: KISS was once a totally focused force of nature before it became bloated with money, excess and fame (even then it was fun, and many of us were still listening). Ironically, it was this album’s success that set those wheels in motion.
‘Unleashed in the East,’ Judas Priest (1979)
In some ways, this album is a passing of the torch. Judas Priest reached a certain creative peak in the late ’70s then moving onto global success, leaving those couple hundred young British bands to unwittingly form what became known as the New Wave of British Heavy Metal. Unleashed in the East finds Priest exceedingly vibrant, reeling off material from all their ’70s albums except Rocka Rolla (a shame they ignored that little gem). It all sounds as majestic as ever. This would be their final album with Les Binks on drums, which was too bad, since he really is the greatest drummer they ever had. I’m not gonna sit here and complain about the lack of Rocka Rolla material or monuments like “Saints in Hell,” because this album is terrific as is.
Live After Death, Iron Maiden (1985)
I have it on very good faith (someone in the band) that the guitars on this album were totally re-done in the studio. And as said above: who cares? This is an amazing document of what stands as the most exhausting globe-trotting tour any metal band had undertaken up to this point, and the band, live, in their Powerslave era…hell, nobody could touch them. It’s as vibrant as KiISS’ Alive! and as comprehensive as Slayer‘s Decade of Aggression as live albums go. And the cover is as good as it ever got for Iron Maiden and artist Derek Riggs. It’s such an overused word nowadays, but this is EPIC.
‘All the World’s a Stage,’ Rush (1976)
I know, 1981′s Exit…Stage Left is a fine piece of work too, but almost too fine: Rush was so tight and precise at that point, the versions aren’t very different from the studio counterparts. All the World’s a Stage, however, finds the band’s early metal outpourings bursting with electricity, energy and a wildness not quite captured on the albums. Geddy Lee’s wails wail sharper, and when the band lock in together on highlights like “Anthem,” “Bastille Day” and an impressive rendition of the entire “2112″ song, you feel like you’re in the presence of young gods.
No Sleep ’til Hammersmith, Motörhead (1981)
There’s an understandable misconception that this album was recorded at Hammersmith; but no, Lemmy and the boys were just saying that the road is a long, ugly slog and that the pot of gold at the rainbow’s end would be the infamous Hammersmith Odeon. But the Hammersmith wasn’t played on this short jaunt (dubbed the “Short, Sharp Pain in the Neck” tour), and this album was culled from recordings made at the Leeds and Newcastle stops. What can be said? Motörhead was made for the stage, and the chain of Motörclassics fired off by the band’s best-ever lineup resonates like an atomic bomb through every second of this classic album.
Decade of Aggression, Slayer (1991)
Here we have the mighty Slayer at the top of their game and peak of their form. Before they started treating their Slayerness like a job, the band’s live shows seemed to be things supernaturally summoned, such was the level of intensity and danger, not to mention having the rowdiest crowds in metal. This album has the advantage of coming at a time in the band’s history where just about every song they could choose to play would be a winner. “Hell Awaits,” “War Ensemble,” “Chemical Warfare,” “Altar of Sacrifice” and on and on and on…all delivered with nightmarish ferocity. Stand-in-awe-and-melt-in-your-sneakers sort of stuff.
‘Live Without Sense,’ Destruction (1989)
There aren’t many great live albums from the death, black and thrash metal sectors. Many of these bands don’t care about it, and if they do, it’s difficult to capture the clatter in a live setting. So while many of metal’s greatest shows happen on the extreme side of the fence, not many great live albums do. This one is cool though. It’s even a little artificial and clean sounding, and I’m certain bassist Schimer’s between-song raps are faked in the studio, but this album still manages to capture the band’s manic essence. The ferocity of their early days is still here, but with the addition of a second guitarist and new drummer a year earlier, they were playing at a higher technical level than they ever had. Bookended by two classics of the German thrash wave, “Curse the Gods” and Bestial Invasion,” the set is totally solid in-between too, especially the back-to-back “Invincible Force” and “Dissatisfied Existence.”
‘The Origin of the Feces,’ Type O Negative (1992)
Maybe a stretch to include this album here, but it’s noteworthy as being one of the better hoaxes in live album history. Maybe hoax isn’t the right word, as the subtitle here, Not Live at Brighton Beach, revealed all was not as it seemed to be. The story goes that Type O Negative got the money from their label to record a live album and instead spent it on drugs, forcing them into the studio to record alternate, fake live versions of songs that appeared on their 1991 debut. All an exercise in deception and redundancy, maybe, but the revised versions are fascinating for the TON diehard. The version of Jimi Hendrix‘s “Hey Joe,” redubbed “Hey Pete,” stands as one of the best covers the band ever did — that from a band who were second only to Metallica when it came to recording cover songs.
‘Saints Will Conquer,’ Armored Saint (1988)
It’s just an eight-song album, and one of those songs is a studio track, but Armored Saint was that good live. This cozy little selection is the only official audio proof of their on-stage excellence that we’ve got. And every song kills. The version of “Chemical Euphoria” is an edgy, ballbusting take, and even though more Delirious Nomad material would have been cool, the versions of “Long Before I Die” and “Nervous Man” are yet further examples of the Saint’s godly live power.
Speak of the Devil, Ozzy Osbourne (1982)
It shouldn’t be one of the best live albums ever, but it is: Randy Rhoads had died a few months prior to this album’s recording, it was released to fulfill contract obligations, and there’s strawberry jam coming out of Ozzy’s mouth on the cover. But new guitarist Brad Gillis helps give an edgy slant to these 13 Black Sabbath songs, while Ozzy’s vocals are burlier and a bit more aggressive than on the originals. The overall vibe is “we’re flying by the seat of our pants here,” which results in a crazed, almost rushed sounding performance, but it fits the material. You can’t expect these to sound like the Sabbath versions, because the players are all different, other than Ozzy, of course. But it’s a blast anyway, and since Sabbath never released a seminal live album, this one stands as a fine substitute for that.