We have reached the penultimate battle of our tournament to determine who is the greatest hard rock/metal band of all time. Through the previous 62 contests, we’ve whittled down the competitors to the two veterans that we see here, Australia’s AC/DC versus the States of America’s Metallica. As they used to say on the series Highlander, however, there can be only one. Let’s get to it on that decision!
Just to remind you, there are criteria that we can take into consideration after breaking down the various parts of the band. First, the band/singer would have to have some sort of longevity to their career – you don’t see many bands or singers that are considered “legendary” if they were only around for a couple of albums (Amy Winehouse is a rare exception, but that’s a discussion for another time). Second, the band/singer would have to have an impact on the genre – did they do something particularly noteworthy or notorious that put them into the annals of the genre’s history, a song or “behavior” – that was historic. Third, just how popular were they when they were in existence – a band or singer that was wildly popular with the fans might get some leeway over a critical darling OR vice versa (depending on tastes). Fourth, what accolades did they receive – awards, gold records, and recognition by the industry (Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, hello?) are all under consideration here. Finally, was the band/singer influential on future generations of music – have they helped shape the genre since they have left the sphere?
Without further ado, let’s see who is going to take the crown!
There are four basic parts here – the vocalist, the guitar section, the rhythm section and miscellaneous. With the first, we look at AC/DC’s front men – the late Bon Scott and Brian Johnson (we will not include Guns ‘N Roses singer W. Axl Rose as he has not officially been added to the band) – and contrast them with Metallica’s face James Hetfield.
It is arguable that there are not two bands with more identifiable or iconic leaders as these three men. Could you imagine an AC/DC song without the readily recognizable sounds of Scott or Johnson drawing you in? Likewise, Hetfield – and, as a result, Metallica – are also known quantities immediately upon hearing Hetfield’s growl. To be honest, none of them are what you’d call great singers but, for the bands they front, they are the perfect fit. Therefore, we’ll have to call this part of the competition a tie.
With the guitarists, Hetfield returns to the equation as rhythm guitarist. Along with first lead guitarist Dave Mustaine and then Kirk Hammett, the power behind Metallica’s sound is undeniable with these two men. AC/DC isn’t lacking for strength themselves with the brother combo of Angus (lead) and Malcolm Young, but they come up just short in this match. The “three bars and a cloud of dust” attack of the Young brothers doesn’t quite measure up to the complexity of the chord progressions of Mustaine and Hammett, nor do they have the ability to play at a virtuoso level (as Hammett does) and include the speed. Thus, we’ve got to give this segment to Metallica.
Finally, there’s the rhythm section, the bass and drums. Cliff Williams (bass) and Phil Rudd (drums) were the longtime base for AC/DC and they did their jobs masterfully but unspectacularly. In basically creating Metallica – and still being the vocal (as in speaking) member of the band – Lars Ulrich (drums) has done something that hasn’t been previously seen, the drummer as a band leader. Along with the late Cliff Burton, Jason Newstead and now Robert Trujillo, Ulrich has been the backbone of the band and created his own distinct style of drumming. This segment goes to Metallica also, giving them the overall win in the segment.
This is one category that will split down the middle with no victor declared.
Since 1973, AC/DC has been pounding out their brand of music, with arguably the apex of their career coming in the late 1970 through the early 1990s. They still are playing today (and drawing arena sized crowds for their tours), although Malcolm Young, Johnson, Rudd, and Williams are no longer a part of the proceedings. Metallica has a slightly shorter career, having “only” been founded in 1981, but it isn’t sacrilege to say they may still be at the best of their game. Sure, the mid 1980s through the late 1990s may have been considered their heyday, but Metallica continues to pump out excellent music (Hardwired…to Self-Destruct is arguably their best album since their …And Justice for All/Metallica days) and they are currently on a stadium tour that is selling out across the States of America. With such performance as this, there’s no way that one is pulling out over the other.
Influence on The Genre
This is one area where AC/DC could have the edge. Quite honestly, any hard rock/metal band that doesn’t say they were inspired by bands from the late 1960s/70s is being disingenuous. Such bands as Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, Black Sabbath, and others were the ones who laid the foundation for those who came later like Metallica. There is one issue where Metallica might outpip AC/DC is their location on the “Mount Rushmore” of thrash metal alongside Megadeth, Slayer, and Anthrax. Still, we’ve got to give credit where credit is due: without AC/DC, there’s no Metallica.
Another borderline call between two of the most loved bands in the world. You don’t stick around for three or four decades without having a devoted following that will literally follow you to the gates of Hell for a concert. Both bands have monster record sales – AC/DC has sold over 200 million albums worldwide (and 71 million in the States of America, more than Madonna and Mariah Carey) and Metallica has 100 million worldwide – and both bands have been lauded by the critics. Metallica has a bit of an edge on the critical acclaim, which only serves to offset the lead in record sales for the boys from Australia. I certainly hate doing this, but we’re going to have to call this one equal.
AC/DC has been nominated for seven Grammys and won once, while Metallica thrashes them in this category. Metallica has been nominated 21 times for Grammys, walking away with nine. Where AC/DC holds the edge is in platinum albums; 20 of their albums has gone platinum (one million sales) and the legendary Back in Black is a double diamond holder (10 million sales, twice). Metallica can vouch for their own double diamond record (Metallica), but they’ve only had 10 platinum albums because that’s all they’ve released.
They are both in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, but under highly different circumstances. Metallica was a first ballot entry when they were inducted in 2009 (an artist or band becomes eligible for induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame on the 25th anniversary of their first official album release) with everyone but Mustaine named on the induction plaque (Metallica wanted Mustaine to perform with them during the induction ceremonies, but Mustaine was touring in Europe with Megadeth at the time). AC/DC took a bit longer to get into the Hall, with their induction in 2003 coming almost 30 years after their debut. It’s a close battle, but the edge here must go:
So, Who Is the Champion?
By the slimmest of margins, Metallica captures the metal ring from AC/DC, earning the accolades of the greatest hard rock/metal band of all time. Individual tastes may vary on this decision, but overall there is a great deal of musicianship, innovation, and musical and lyrical substance to Metallica’s body of work. That isn’t saying that AC/DC’s brand of metal is something to deride; they have blazed their own trail in a very difficult industry and, as an international act from Australia, probably had some more issues to overcome in their early days. For this competition, however, it is the boys from San Francisco – Metallica – ruling supreme in the history of the genre.