Show us a record label more important to the definition and evolution of heavy metal than Metal Blade Records, and we’d still be skeptical. From launching the careers of thrash’s biggest acts to championing new trends within the scene’s roiling underground, Brian Slagel‘s labor of musical love has become a cultural staple for millions of listeners around the world. Now, the label is celebrating its 40th anniversary, marking four decades since they first dropped the Metal Massacre compilation in 1982.

In honor of this achievement, we went through Metal Blade’s extensive release archive and picked a song they released for every year they’ve been around, to illustrate how the label started, changed, and eventually became a touchpoint for metalheads everywhere. Here’s how the axe fell…

1982 – Metallica, “Hit the Lights” (Metal Massacre)

How could we kick it off with any other song? Metal Blade is famous for any number of amazing bands today, but once upon a time they were the label that misspelled the band name of a scruffy bunch of dreamers who’d eventually become the biggest metal band of all time. With this track on the initial *Metal Massacre *compilation, the label became part of musical history – and they didn’t even know it yet. Imagine the look on ‘82 Slagel’s face if he got to time-travel to now.

1983 – Slayer, “The Antichrist” (Show No Mercy)

Now, let’s add some hot sauce. Slayer’s early years on Metal Blade represent a different branch of the label’s family tree, celebrating the underground at its darkest and most subversive. Lots of the label’s early bands were reaching for the stars, but the creepiest member of the Big Four only had eyes for the pit. If you’re listening to the moment where satanic thrash became metal’s standard, you’re blasting a record with a Metal Blade logo on it.

1984 – Voivod, “War and Pain” (War and Pain)

There’s a two-sided beauty to the inclusion of “War and Pain” here. On the one hand, early Voivod were as gnarly and thrashy as any band, and this shows how the label were intent on exploring the genre’s darkest corners. On the other, Voivod were never typical, and one wonders if Slagel saw their weirdo potential ahead of everyone else. Either way, this record was a landmark for the Blade, both ini its rabidity and the band’s marrow-deep wonkiness.

1985 – Lizzy Borden, “American Metal” (Love You to Pieces)

But it wasn’t all crazy shit! By ‘85, Metal Blade had enough of a credible pedigree to be releasing records that appealed to the broader metallic audience. Lizzy Borden weren’t exactly Poison, but “American Metal” was definitely the kind of track that could get MTV’s entry-level headbangers through the door. Hell, the lyrics talk about “the smell of leather.” It’s like Trick or Treat (in a good way).

1986 – Flotsam and Jetsam, “Hammerhead” (Doomsday for the Deceiver)

Thrash wasn’t just where the Blade got its start, it was also a genre that the label championed in its more intelligent and interesting incarnations. Flotsam and Jetsam were fast, but they weren’t loose, playing tight, steely speed metal that showed off musicianship alongside the genre’s pace. This was the beginning of thrash’s rise to worldwide relevancy, and these guys were showing how well it could be done with pure metal at its heart.

1987 – Corrosion of Conformity, “Happily Ever After” (Technocracy)

The release of Technocracy is a statement on Metal Blade’s forward-thinking take on the genre. CoC are definitely still just a gnarly thrash act on this record, but their pure punkishness and incorporation of far-out groove hints at what they’d soon become. In ‘87, while everyone was looking for the new Slayer, the Blade was championing the next generation before they truly bloomed. They were at the crest of the wave.

1988 – Fates Warning, “Silent Cries” (No Exit)

Plenty of ‘80s independent labels went all-in on how extreme and hardcore they were, but No Exit is a reminder that Metal Blade wanted to support metal in all its forms. Fates Warning were progressive, elaborate, and thoroughly entrenched in the scene – but Metal Blade wasn’t worried about making pop records . They knew cool when they saw it, even if it came with odd time signatures and virtuosic guitar work.

1989 – DRI, “You Say I’m Scum” (Thrash Zone)

As thrash became huge, Metal Blade dug in deeper. DRI would always be too crunchy, too bruised, to fit in with the major-label crowd. They were a perfect band for the Blade to champion as most other thrashers focused on six-minute-plus songs and making sure everyone knew that they were more than just beatdown music. But here? Here’s where the beatdown lies.

1990 – The Goo Goo Dolls, “There You Are” (Hold Me Up)

Radio hitmakers Goo Goo Dolls will always be Metal Blade’s odd duck in terms of outfits connected to the label. But the band’s first five records came out via the label, and “There You Are” shows off just how palatable they were, doing their damnedest to eat Paul Westerberg’s lunch with their punkish proto-alternative. After “Long Way Down,” of course, there was no holding onto these guys for Slagel – they had to go bigger.

1991 – Cannibal Corpse, “Meathook Sodomy” (Butchered at Birth)

With the previous year’s Eaten Back to Life, Cannibal Corpse had launched their career-long relationship with Metal Blade – but it was Butchered at Birth when both the band and the label realized what they had. More offensive than offensive, stygian and furious in its tone, the record plumbs the depths of a genre that was too young to yet look inward. With this album’s opening track, this one band were metal’s underground, and their label was there for the long ride down.

1992 – GWAR, “Gor-Gor” (America Must Be Destroyed)

This track matters if only because it showcases the explosion that was GWAR under Metal Blade’s stead. For a second there, everyone’s favorite foam-rubber sex-lords were indie art-house sleaze darlings, and the Blade was there to steward them along. Though the label was usually associated with pure denim-and-leather metal, this band proved that Metal Blade had a taste for the bizarre and timely as well.

1993 – Mercyful Fate, “Is That You, Melissa?” (In The Shadows)

Though one might argue that other Metal Blade albums in ‘93 were more important for metal as a whole — you’ll notice a notable gap in the Cannibal Corpse chain here — what makes Mercyful Fate’s In The Shadows so important is that it showed how Metal Blade was officially signing its founders’ idols. Mercyful Fate were beloved by all of Metal Blade’s earliest breakthrough acts – and now here they were, releasing new material on a fan-founded. Basically, Metal Blade just did a fuckin’ lap.

1994 – Cannibal Corpse, “Stripped, Raped, and Strangled” (The Bleeding)

While Butchered at Birth gave death metal its depth, and ‘93’s Tomb of the Mutilated gave it its Ace Ventura-based breakthrough, *The Bleeding *saw Cannibal Corpse become a staple of metal as a whole. “Stripped, Raped, and Strangled” wasn’t just some wily, ugly piece of evil riffage, it was a song that could get a pit full of dudes headbanging in unison. At this point, Metal Blade was still championing the underground – it’s just that the underground was quickly rising to meet the surface.

1995 – King Diamond, “Dreams” (The Spider’s Lullaby)

What “Dreams” shows off is Metal Blade’s continued dedication to what they loved in their hearts. ‘95 wasn’t exactly King Diamond’s year culturally; despite the fact that The Spider’s Lullaby is fucking fantastic – dramatic metal just wasn’t at the genre’s forefront. But though the Blade was willing to adapt as tastes changed, they never wavered from wanting to give classic metal its place. They never threw out that battle jacket when the flannel took over.

1996 – Crisis, “Bloodlines” (Deathshead Extermination)

Experimental funk-infused death metal led by a snarling, squealing witch woman with dreads down to her feet – not what your average full-on metal label was seeking in ‘96. But Metal Blade championed Crisis for everything they were, and celebrated Karyn Crisis for her spit-in-your-eye kinetic sorcery. The band would act as a beacon to death metal’s outsiders, telling them that even the strangest and most uncommon acts were welcome.

1997 – Broken Hope, “Siamese Screams” (Loathing)

Maybe Metal Blade were defining the parameters of death metal in the early ‘90s, but it was with Loathing that they proved that they could see its future. The stark, punching viciousness of Broken Hope‘s “Siamese Screams” is a precursor to much of the genre’s evolution – slam, tech-death, and deathcore’s roots can be heard on the track. Today, the label can say they followed through on the genre’s haymaker.

1998 – Bolt Thrower, “No Guts, No Glory” (Mercenary)

A different side of the coin from the previous entry. In ‘98, folks loved Bolt Thrower, but they were not the scene legends and genre influencers that they are today. But there Metal Blade were, giving them a platform on which they could reach the thousands of death metal bands they’ve since helped define. The modern-day scene owes the label a debt of gratitude for this album alone.

1999 – Cradle of Filth, “From The Cradle to Enslave” (PanDaemonAeon)

Technically, yes, this is song from a DVD and not an album. None the less, the fact that Metal Blade were distributing Cradle of Filth during their ascension speaks to their understanding of what metal trends were about to blow up. For millions of American kids, being able to find this vampiric metal VHS at out local Tower Records was an unbridled joy.

2000 – The Crown, “Death Explosion” (Deathrace King)

Today, we know The Crown‘s Deathrace King as a death-thrash masterpiece, an ode to all things old-school. But in 2000, the band were making music as underground as you could get, divorced from the ultra-modern world of nu-metal. Once more, we saw Metal Blade recognizing real, giving the fans the satanic cataclysm of sound that they so craved. I mean, fuck, how good is this song?

2001 – GWAR, “Immortal Corrupter” (Violence Has Arrived)

One might not think of GWAR as a band who could reinvent themselves — but somehow they did it without losing the costumes, mythology, or gore. Violence Has Arrived sees the band tossing aside their all-over-the-place art-metal and instead going all-in on the catchy thrash that their characters promised. This begins a new chapter for both Metal Blade and the band, rising once more to prominence with a new take on the old ways.

2002 – Vader, “Wolftribe” (Revelations)

One sometimes forget how hard 2002’s Revelations landed for Poland’s Vader. 2000’s Litany was already a huge release, but this record cemented them as one of the old-school scene’s most vital survivors. Slowly but surely, the idea of OSDM became less of a vibe and more of a genre unto itself, and this record was at the forefront.

2003 – The Black Dahlia Murder, “Funeral Thirst” (Unhallowed)

While championing the old-school, Metal Blade were also looking to the future. The signing of The Black Dahlia Murder was a huge step for the label, who needed fresh blood in the extreme underground, as well as for the band, who could now share a roster with their idols. The fact that the band’s debut was, according to a 2017 ranking for Kerrang!, the late Trevor Strnad’s favorite of their albums makes this song an obvious symbol of the year the Blade and this talented tour de force collided.

2004 – Unearth, “Zombie Autopilot” (The Oncoming Storm)

It’s easy to look back on metal subgenres as contained entities, but at the time it’s all just cool bands making rad music. Unearth were certainly unique among the bands of the New Wave of American Heavy Metal, going harder than some while still utilizing everything that made that new scene so awesome. It’s cool that while other labels were desperately searching for any band with a fleur-de-lis embroidered on their shirt, Metal Blade were there for the riffs, supporting one of the movements youngest, fiercest bands.

2005 – The Red Chord, “Antman” (Clients)

How do you think the folks at Metal Blade responded when they first heard The Red Chord’s Clients? Was it a cool death metal album they couldn’t easily describe? Did it drop jaws the way we imagine it did, some 17 years later? We can only imagine they loved it – I mean, obviously they did, they put it out – even if they had no idea what it would influence, and spawn, and become. Then again, maybe they were fully fucking aware.

2006 – Cannibal Corpse, “Death Walking Terror” (Kill)

There are only a handful of bands on this list with more than one entry, and only one of them has three songs included. But one cannot overstate what Kill meant for both Cannibal Corpse and Metal Blade. If there is any main root at the core of death metal’s current surge, it is this album, proof that the genre’s Ol’ Reliable could be new, and exciting, and vital to the scene. Make them suffer, forever.

2007 – Primordial, “Empire Falls” (To The Nameless Dead)

If we’re being real, black metal might be where it took Metal Blade a hot second to catch on. But when they embraced the genre, they went interesting, as evidenced by their signing of Ireland’s Primordial. This wasn’t another stark band writing ghost riffs about crypts and loneliness, it was an epic coming together of folk legend and lush, striking musical grandeur. The label didn’t hop on the black metal bandwagon, they released metal albums that they loved — including this black metal classic.

2008 – Amon Amarth, “Guardians of Asgard” (Twilight of the Thunder God)

By the late 2000s, Metal Blade had become a full-on household name, and no album drove that home like Amon Amarth’s gigantic ‘08 release. On the one hand, it was still Viking death metal, and therefore belonged on the label. On the other, it was ultra-delicious weightlifting music, bringing Odin and Mjolnir into the earbuds of casual hard rock listeners looking for something more brolic. A breakthrough moment for everyone involved.

2009 – Goatwhore, “Apocalyptic Havoc” (Carving Out the Eyes of God)

You don’t usually think of extreme metal as having a ‘song of the summer,’ and if you did, you probably wouldn’t pick Goatwhore to write it. But real talk, “Apocalyptic Havoc” was fucking everywhere the summer of ‘09. You couldn’t get a cold one at any metal bar without hearing, “WHO NEEDS A GOD WHEN YOU HAVE SATAN?” at full blast. So there you go – somehow, Metal Blade dropped the big satanic blackened death metal summer jam of ‘09. Weird sentence to write.

2010 – Allegaeon, “The God Particle” (Fragments of Form and Function)

While the world was gobsmacked over weed-doom and blackgaze, Allegaeon were merging progressive metal, melodeath, and technical death metal in a blistering whirlwind of riff and momentum. That the label recognized the young act for their many talents and evergreen appeal when their specific flavor not in vogue speaks to their stalwart love of the genre at its purest. You’ll never read a Metal Blade press release saying some bullshit like, ‘Maybe quiet is the new loud.’

2011 – Ghost, “Elizabeth” (Opus Eponymous)

Okay, deep breath: we know Opus Eponymous came out on Rise Above in 2010. Metal Blade released the vinyl in early 2011, is the thing. Which means that even during their first album cycle, the label knew that Ghost were going to be important. They got in while the getting was good. Now, the biggest metal band of our time is an integral part of Metal Blade’s story – which obviously puts both parties in good company.

2012 – Cattle Decapitation, “Forced Gender Reassignment” (Monolith of Inhumanity)

On the one hand, by 2012, Metal Blade was one of the scene’s most visible labels. On the other hand, they’d never abandoned their ugly, gnarly, in-your-face love of outsider art, and Cattle Decapitation epitomized that. We can only imagine plenty of other labels hearing about a vegan death metal act sporting an unfathomably disgusting video and thinking, “Nah, we’re good.” The Blade? They were all about it.

2013 – In Solitude, “Pallid Hands” (Sister)

One could argue that In Solitude stand out on this list, wedged in amongst all this roaring death metal. But Sister was beloved and accepted by the metal masses for the undeniable drive behind its goth doom. Even though it might be outside their traditional wheelhouse, Metal Blade still knew a quality metal act when they heard it howling out of the shadows.

2014 – Behemoth, “O Father, O Satan, O Sun!” (The Satanist)

To be fair, we’re not sure Metal Blade knew what this album would be. Sure, Behemoth already had a slew of big records out at this point – but *Demigod *and The Apostasy, while massive, didn’t hint at the cultural shift which The Satanist would signal. One wonders how the team would’ve reacted to a time traveler popping into their offices and saying, “An entire generation of metalheads are going to wear sigil-draped robe hoodies ‘cause of this record. Just a heads up.”

2015 – Ensiferum, “Heathen Horde” (One Man Army)

With the release of One Man Army, Metal Blade did two important things: ignored a trend and got the good shit. The record might be Ensiferum’s best, but came out years after the initial boom of folk metal around 2008 (remember, Wacken started the whole folk village thing around then). While Metal Blade didn’t scoop the band up during their first wave of renown, they still knew a damn good record when they heard it. Hell, even I was surprised by how much this one slapped when it first came out.

2016 – Amon Amarth, “Raise Your Horns” (Jomsviking)

It’s kind of mindblowing how far Amon Amarth have come. One minute, they’re at the forefront of metal’s pagan underground; the next, they’re crowdsourcing a video from millions of devoted fans from around the world (among them Zakk Wylde). “Raise Your Horns” showcased that the band had moved beyond fantasy, existing in a world occupied by Vikings of their own making. Who else could inspire this many people to buy fucking drinking horns?

2017 – The Black Dahlia Murder, “Nightbringers” (Nightbringers)

Somehow, amidst all the ‘core’ labels and trends in death metal, The Black Dahlia Murder came out on top. After being hemmed and hawed over by haters for 14 years, the world was forced to admit that Nightbringers was a banger, tightly-written and fucking delicious to the ear. Never leaving their loyal label, the band stuck it out, and eventually became one of the scene’s undeniable champions.

2018 – Rivers of Nihil, “Where Owls Know My Name” (Where Owls Know My Name)

Where was metal going? What was it becoming? Rivers of Nihil knew, even if they might not have been able to tell you when releasing this incredible record. But though the band challenged genre boundaries, they still remained committed to extremity when it was needed, and kept their music loud and gut-punching even as they took it to undiscovered countries. Once more, the future was on Metal Blade, sax and all.

2019 – Whitechapel, “When a Demon Defiles a Witch” (The Valley)

In the same way that Metal Blade embraced metalcore and deathcore before their time, so too were they ready to showcase those bands when they were seasoned and making some of their darkest stuff. The Valley sees Whitechapel at their most shadowy and nuanced, expressing a sense of theatricality and storytelling they couldn’t have on previous records. That the label was ready to take a chance, and not just urge them to make the same album again, speaks to their unwavering commitment to releasing quality material.

2020 – Igorrr, “Camel Dancefloor” (Spirituality and Distortion)

Did Igorrr know? Spirituality and Distortion is an album so weird, hostile, and yet inspiring that one can’t help but wonder if the experimental act knew where the world was heading when they dropped it on March 27th, 2020. Whether or not they did, though, their label was once more ready to embrace change as traditional heavy music was taking a moment to reflect and the weirdos were coming out with the dolls they’d spun out of hair. The soundtrack to the world to come.

2021 – Tribulation, “Funeral Pyre” (Where the Gloom Becomes Sound)

A new world, a new way of understanding metal and metal culture – and here was Metal Blade, championing the underground at its best. Tribulation broke through with 2015’s Children of the Night, but 2021’s Where the Gloom Becomes Sound landed them on plenty of year-end lists, recognized for how well it tempered the band’s Draculean blackened goth metal. The future looked grim – and these guys, and their label, were here to meet it.