Despite what Atreyu may think, the roots of metalcore go back to the late '80s and it was a fully formed genre by the early-to-mid '90s, way before the mainstream metalcore boom of the early 2000s that put a lot of the genre's overly-polished bands on MTV. Like a lot of underground genres of music that suddenly hit it big, metalcore had some growing pains, but recent years have seen the genre's influence being reinterpreted by great newer bands who -- going by their age -- presumably found metalcore from the bands on MTV and then traced its roots back to the underground bands of the '90s. Bands like Vein, Code Orange, Knocked Loose, Harms Way, Jesus Piece, Ithaca, Employed to Serve, Year of the Knife, Frontierer, Judiciary, and more have been finding new and interesting ways to channel the unique thrills of metalcore in a way that still sounds fresh and that avoids the outdated and often-cringeworthy cliches that were stereotypical of the genre during its most popular period.
The mainstream boom tarnished the word "metalcore" for a while, but now that the genre became fully established, went away for a bit, and is now coming back around in a major way, it's a good time to start looking back on the bands who shaped this sound and the bands whose early music holds up especially well today. So, I've put together a list of 15 essential metalcore albums from the genre's formative decade, the 1990s, that still resonate in today's music world. When you limit the list to 15, some great bands will of course not make the cut (no disrespect whatsoever to The Dillinger Escape Plan, Shai Hulud, Vision of Disorder, Rorschach, Bloodlet, All Out War, Strife, Trial, Morning Again, or the many other great '90s metalcore bands who probably would've landed on this list if it was slightly longer), but I did my best to narrow it down to a list of records that I think sound most relevant or most deserve to be revisited today.
Some of the bands on this list went on to have fruitful, constantly-evolving careers (like Converge), some were tarnished by overly-polished records during the mainstream boom (like Hatebreed), some have had resurgences in recent years (like Integrity), and some broke up for good and never returned (like Deadguy) (update: Deadguy is back!). Not all of them sound "metalcore" in the same way, and some probably even reject the term altogether. It's also -- like most genres -- not an easy term to define; even saying "metal meets hardcore" doesn't really do it. Hardcore and metal's relationship long predates metalcore; hardcore bands inspired metal bands to invent thrash, and in turn thrash bands inspired punk bands to start crossover thrash, both genres influenced grunge, and the cross-pollination just kept spiraling from there. I don't know the exact year that "metalcore" entered the vernacular, but some of the earlier bands on the list probably would have just been called "metallic hardcore," though this list is titled a metalcore list to reflect the umbrella term for these bands that became most prominent. Some of these bands are more on the hardcore/punk side, some of them are more on the metal side, and some cross over into other subgenres like mathcore or post-hardcore. All of them are great in their own way, and if anything on this list is new to you and you dig this kinda music, I can't recommend these albums enough.
With that all said, read on for the list, presented in chronological order...
Ringworm - The Promise (1993, Incision Records)
Ringworm have had a few different phases in their career. They were Victory Records-signed regulars in the metalcore scene in the early 2000s, and for the past few years they've been enjoying a nice resurgence as a Relapse Records-signed band who do not shy away from the more traditionally metal influences that a lot of their current labelmates also have. But before all that, they released one album back in 1993, The Promise, and it would go on to be their only album for eight years. They've never had a gap even close to that long since. Ringworm still make great records today, but none of it ever would have happened without The Promise, which remains one of the most ahead-of-its-time albums in all of metalcore. Ringworm were very much a hardcore/punk band when they made this album -- you wouldn't start hearing clean production and flashy metal solos until later on in the band's career -- but The Promise flirted with metallic sounds in other, usually more subtle ways. Sometimes the album can sound like a straightup hardcore/punk album, but it's also full of chaotic moments that nearly qualify as grindcore. It doesn't seem crazy to assume that soon-to-be-established bands like Converge and Botch were taking notes from this album, and it's still kind of crazy to think it came out in 1993. Other than the charmingly raw production, there are songs on this album that still sound fresher than the metalcore bands coming out today.
Earth Crisis - Firestorm EP (1993, Victory Records)
A lot of metalcore best-of lists include Earth Crisis' 1995 debut album Destroy the Machines, and as good as that album is, the most crucial thing they ever made was the three-song Firestorm EP that came out two years earlier. Its opening DUH-DUH, DUH-DUH chugs alone warrant it a slot on this list; when the popular metalcore bands started getting trigger-happy with breakdowns, they owed so much of it to the first song on this EP. With the intro and the mid-section of "Firestorm / Forged In the Flames," this then-up-and-coming Syracuse vegan straightedge band basically perfected the art of the metalcore chug. There are probably bands who did it first, and there are countless bands who did it after, but you rarely hear it done as efficiently as you do on this EP. It's not too raw, not too polished; not too over the top, but not too restrained either. Earth Crisis figured out the most simple, effective way to get a room of people stomping the floor with all their might, and it still sounds better today than a lot of the machine-gun-chug bands that followed. Firestorm is also a success for more than its chugs. Karl Buechner's voice is at its peak on this album, closer to a passionate hardcore bark than it would be later on in Earth Crisis' career but still more metallic than straightup hardcore. And Firestorm is as good at texture and atmosphere as it is at mosh fuel. It does more in three songs than some bands do in an entire career, and it remains one of the most pivotal moments in the development of both metal and punk.
Unbroken - Life. Love. Regret (1994, New Age Records)
San Diego's Unbroken were around for just a few years in the early '90s and they released two albums before calling it quits (they've reunited a handful of times since but never released new music), but even in that short amount of time they left a major impact. (Members later went on to play in Some Girls, Narrows, and other bands.) Their second and final album Life. Love. Regret. has riffs that sound like Slayer, barked vocals from Dave Claibourn that sound like Rollins-era Black Flag, and even a few softer, more melodic parts that predicted the late '90s and early '00s wave of post-hardcore. Even if you've never listened to Life. Love. Regret., there's a good chance you've listened to music directly or indirectly inspired by it. The roots of metalcore were still being planted in the early '90s, but Unbroken pretty much had the whole thing figured out. The heaviness, the attitude, the atmosphere, the melodies -- they had it all, and it feels truly fair to call this album ahead of its time for that reason. While a lot of classic metalcore bands lean on the more spastic side, Unbroken really perfected the art of slowing down and letting their songs breathe. It's something you'd hear all throughout the mainstream post-hardcore boom of the early 2000s -- it doesn't seem crazy to assume that bands like Thursday were as influenced by these guys as heavier bands like Modern Life Is War were -- and Unbroken had perfected it over half a decade earlier.
Integrity - Systems Overload (1995, Victory Records)
Integrity have evolved a lot over the years. When you compare their punky 1991 debut Those Who Fear Tomorrow to the metallic sounds of their last album (2017's Howling, For the Nightmare Shall Consume), you might not immediately realize you're listening to the same band on both albums (possibly also because frontman Dwid Hellion is Integrity's only constant member). They've put out good stuff throughout just about all of their various lineups and stylistic changes, but if I had to pick one key album, I always come back to their 1995 sophomore album Systems Overload. It's more metallic than its predecessor but still retains enough of the band's punk roots that the album sits firmly on top of the fence that separates punk from metal. And its title track remains one of the most iconic, influential, and timeless songs in all of metalcore. It's got a riff that borders on sludge metal and a shouted chorus that begs to be screamed back in the band's faces by a crowd full of fist-raised fans. It's one of the only Integrity songs that resembles what could have been a "crossover hit," but still far, far more abrasive than the metalcore bands who actually had hits. And it's not the only thing Systems Overload has to offer. The album touches on everything from straightup hardcore ("No One") to soaring prog-metal ("Armenian Persecution") to songs that explore both of those things on the same song ("The Screams"). The title track isn't the album's only foray into sludge metal, and the sludgier moments are balanced out by a healthy dose of high-speed, circle-pit-inducing punk. Integrity were not afraid to show an equal interest in real-deal hardcore and flashy metal solos, and there are still punk and metal fans who think those two things never belong together. But Integrity very surely do not care what anyone thinks, and that was clear even just two albums in to their lengthy, storied career.
Update: Systems Overload has a new 2022 reissue, remixed and remastered by Arthur Rizk, and you can pick it up on blood red w/ black & white splatter vinyl.
Deadguy - Fixation On A Co-Worker (1995, Victory Records)
New Brunswick, NJ's Deadguy formed in 1994 with members who played in Rorschach, Lifetime, and other bands, and broke up after releasing just one album, 1995's Fixation On A Co-Worker. And over time, it would become increasingly clear how crucial a role that album played in the development of metalcore. (Members would go on to form another band who also released just one album that was very crucial to metalcore, Kiss It Goodbye.) Deadguy weren't as technical as later bands like Botch and The Dillinger Escape Plan, but they hinted at that technical side and clearly helped spawn what became known as mathcore. Vocalist Tim Singer also knew how to sound genuinely scary, as you need to be if you're gonna sell lines like "I watched you die with your mask on." Metalcore is often known as an angry, abrasive, confrontational style of music, and Deadguy were all three of those things. They sounded more pissed off and more menacing than a lot of their peers, and it seems safe to assume that a lot of the more brutal bands on this very list were taking cues from Fixation On A Co-Worker. I'm sure a lot of factors contribute to why a not-commercially-successful '90s hardcore band would call it quits after just one album, but maybe one factor is: why bother making another album when you've already got one this perfect?
Update: Deadguy is back, played reunion shows, and have hinted at new music.
Converge - Petitioning the Empty Sky (1996, Ferret Music)
Converge used to call themselves "hardcore kids with leftover Slayer riffs," and that hasn't fully described them since solidifying the lineup of J Bannon, Kurt Ballou, Nate Netwon, and Ben Koller that made every album from 2001's Jane Doe onwards, but it was a pretty perfect descriptor back in the '90s when Bannon and Ballou were still working their way through different lineups and finding their sound. Converge would go on to become one of the most definitive metal/punk bands of the 21st century, one with a sound too diverse to tie to any one genre, but they fit somewhat neatly into the burgeoning metalcore movement when they released their first three '90s records. Any of those probably could've been the one to make this list, and the truth is I probably went with this one (which is sort of technically a compilation album) just because of the seven-minute album opener "The Saddest Day," which is one of the most iconic songs of the band's '90s era. (They don't play that song a lot these days, but the first time I saw them, they encored with it. And: wow.) Converge's influence on the last two decades of heavy music can pretty much not be overstated, and though the arty direction they'd go in during the 21st century is only hinted at on Petitioning the Empty Sky, even this album is loaded with songs that shaped the future of hardcore, metal and beyond. Five or six years before bands were blending clean-sung vocals and screamed vocals on MTV, Converge were doing it on "Farewell Note To This City." The kind of sorta-dissonant-yet-sorta-melodic riffage that dominated the bulk of the early 2000s Ferret and Trustkill rosters had already been perfected with just about every song on this album. It almost starts to feel too redundant to keep talking about how important and influential a band like Converge is -- they're like the Radiohead of hardcore, we get it -- but when you really let yourself think about it, you remember that they deserve all the praise they get. Their first masterpiece, Jane Doe, came out in 2001, which was around the same time hundreds of bands were trying to rip off Petitioning the Empty Sky. Converge had already been there and done that, and they wasted no time moving forward.
Browse our selection of Converge vinyl.
Snapcase - Progression Through Unlearning (1997, Victory Records)
Progression Through Unlearning deserves a spot on this list just for that snare sound alone. Produced by Steve Evetts (who did the Deadguy album two years earlier), Snapcase's sophomore LP has one of the hardest-hitting high-pitched snares in all of metalcore, and they let you know it right away with the iconic drum intro to album opener "Caboose." It's as memorable an element of this album as Daryl Taberski's distinct bark, and it's an influential element too. It would be hard to believe that Vein weren't taking cues from this album's production when they made their instantly-loved 2018 debut album errorzone. The influence of Progression Through Unlearning doesn't stop there though. Refused may have put out one of the most seminal punk albums the following year with The Shape of Punk to Come, but even they would tell you they were taking notes from Progression Through Unlearning for that album. Progression Through Unlearning may not have gotten the same level of widespread recognition that The Shape of Punk To Come got, but you can trace a lot of the punk and metal bands that got big in the early 2000s back to this album. The album was more complex than some of the band's peers, but still not spastic enough to qualify as mathcore, which helped Snapcase occupy an appealing middle ground. You could still bang your head to this album as easily as you could to the bands with the more simple grooves and breakdowns, but Progression Through Unlearning also appealed to fans of brainier music. The rhythmic and melodic work on this album was innovative at the time, and even if you might forget that since the music Snapcase helped pioneer eventually became so widespread, this album still retains a charm that a lot of Snapcase's followers never had.
Catharsis - Samsara (1997, Good Life Recordings)
North Carolina's Catharsis released just two albums before breaking up in 2002 (they later reunited, but not for new music), 1997's Samsara and 1999's Passion. Both are great, genre-defying works with powerful lyricism that blends the personal and the political (Passion even dabbles in reggae), and either one could have made this list. I went with their debut, on which they knocked it out of the park on first try. Like I wrote in the intro, some of these bands lean more punk and others lean more metal -- Catharsis definitely lean more metal. They've got the mentality of a hardcore band, but Samsara brings in elements of thrash, death metal, D-beat, and other firmly metal sounds that make Catharsis one of the more evil-sounding bands on this list. Their influence lived on, but more within the extreme-sounding underground than within the mainstream metalcore boom that happened as Catharsis were breaking up (not that that's a bad thing at all). And if your taste in modern hardcore/metalcore/etc leans on the more extreme side, you'll probably agree that this 22-year-old album still sounds as relevant today as it did back then. Catharsis share some certain individual traits with some other bands, but mostly they forged their own path and even today they stand out as one of metalcore's most unique bands.
Hatebreed - Satisfaction Is the Death of Desire (1997, Victory Records)
Hatebreed became one of the biggest bands in metalcore with their polished-sounding 2002 major label debut Perseverance, but five years earlier than that they released a much rawer debut album that's helped them retain their hardcore cred today. Even if you don't approve of the direction they'd go in later, it's pretty hard to deny the appeal of their debut. At the time, Hatebreed were still very in touch with their hardcore roots, clearly pulling influence from thrash and other metal subgenres but in a way where you could still see them as part of the New York area hardcore lineage. Jamey Jasta's shout at this point in his career was very in line with the hardcore bands who helped pave the way for Hatebreed, while the rest of the band had perfected a blend of stripped-back punk, Earth Crisis chugs, and Slayer riffs. It's no surprise that Hatebreed got as big as they did; even on this album, you can hear the sound of a band who are meant to be stars. The raw production keeps them sounding like a band who plays dingy punk clubs, but they were already performing like they belonged in arenas. And it's that tension that keeps this album great all these years later. You get the accessibility of the soon-to-be-mainstream metalcore boom without the cheese. If you like the thrashier side of modern hardcore like Power Trip (who have toured with Hatebreed) or Judiciary, you can still play Satisfaction right next to those bands and it sounds just as fresh. Hatebreed haven't always had as strong a reputation as some of the other bands on this list, but they continue to do cool things like play Satisfaction in full on tour and take out cool openers like the aforementioned Power Trip and Code Orange, so it's a good time to remember that the only reason Hatebreed had a chance to "sell out" in the first place was that their first album was so legitimately good.
Zao - Where Blood and Fire Bring Rest (1998, Solid State/Tooth & Nail)
As the story goes, everyone in Christian metalcore band Zao except drummer Jesse Smith left after the tour supporting their 1997 sophomore album The Splinter Shards the Birth of Separation in order to pursue religious paths rather than musical ones. Smith replaced the lineup with guitarist Brett Detar of emocore band Pensive (who went on to front the successful emo-pop band The Juliana Theory), as well as vocalist Dan Weyandt and guitarist Russ Cogdell of Christian hardcore band Seasons in the Field, who had released a split with Pensive in '97. The new lineup saw Zao going in a more distinctly metal direction compared to their more hardcore-rooted early material, and it also saw them dialing back the religious lyrics to focus on more personal issues. You could still consider Zao to be a "Christian band" at this point, but they were writing powerful music that could appeal to any fan of heavy music, regardless of religious beliefs. Compared to the hardcore bark of previous frontman Shawn Jonas, Dan Weyandt brought a blood-curling, almost black metal-sounding delivery to Zao, and the new guitarists provided the perfect backdrop. They had everything from thrash riffs to early '90s metalcore chugs to the more chaotic riffage of late '90s metalcore to the dark, atmospheric soundscapes that bands like Converge were incorporating into the genre. It's got a much rawer production style than the ones Zao would increasingly embrace as metalcore became more popular in the 2000s and major labels took interest in the band, and the rawness gave Blood and Fire an evil edge that went missing on later LPs. And that edge helps this album hold up super well today too. Similar to the aforementioned Catharsis, it's easy to see how well this album fits not just alongside today's metalcore bands but alongside more extreme modern metal bands too.
Turmoil - The Process Of... (1999, Trustkill Records)
There are probably better ways to open a metalcore album than by yelling "WHAT THE FUUUUUCK" but there can't be too many ways. If that intro to Turmoil's once-final album (until they reunited with a new singer and released a new album in 2008) doesn't get you out of your chair and into your own personal mosh pit in your living room, then I don't know what will. And it's tough to open an album on a note like that and stay on that level, but Turmoil pull it off. This Philly band broke up the year after The Process Of came out and they never got as big as they deserved to, but the bands who did get big were probably listening to The Process Of because its influence feels undeniable. They don't do anything too fancy, they certainly don't do anything poppy, they're almost always turned up to 11, and they just kick your ass over and over throughout this album's entire running time. They basically push hardcore to its limits, earning the "metal-" prefix because of how fucking heavy they get but not because they do anything that would traditionally classify as metal. The guitars sound thick as a brick and the riffs are almost always rhythm-guitar-centric, making The Process Of all about the gut-punching attack. But the band always keeps things interesting enough that The Process Of never starts to drag or sound samey, and Jon Gula's caustic scream keeps you at the edge of your seat the entire time.
Cave In - Until Your Heart Stops (1999, Hydra Head)
By their second full-length album, Boston-area band Cave In fully abandoned their metalcore roots in favor of spacey alternative rock, and they'd continue to go through stylistic shifts up through this year's atmospheric Final Transmission, which features the final recordings of bassist Caleb Scofield, who sadly passed away during the making of the album. I think my favorite direction they went in is the towering post-metal of 2005's Perfect Pitch Black and 2011's White Silence, both of which sort of find a happy medium between the extremes of their first two albums, but it's of course their 1999 metalcore debut that's eligible for this list (and very deserving of inclusion). Knowing all the different paths Cave In have gone down since this album came out, it's almost shocking listening to it now, and it's also shocking how they were pros at this kind of music on the first try and then never attempted it again (save for early splits and EPs). Unlike their pals Converge, Cave In's evolution did not happen gradually. One album, they're churning out crisp, machine gun chugs and piercing screams that make some of the earlier albums on this list sound flimsy in comparison. The next album, they're pairing soaring falsettos with light, dream-like guitars. And Cave In mastered every move they made on Until Your Heart Stops. They weren't the only band making music like that at that point, but they still predated the huge flock of bands who would be taking plenty of cues from Until Your Heart Stops. And by the time they were, Cave In had fully moved on. A few moments of this album hint at what was to come, like parts of "The End of Our Rope Is a Noose" and "Ebola," or the ambient ending to album closer "Controlled Mayhem Then Erupts," but those were brief flashes of atmosphere and melody in an album that was otherwise all about brutality. The hints of the artier sounds Cave In would explore later and the rich sound of the album (which was co-produced by Converge's Kurt Ballou) still made Until Your Heart Stops a cut above the other chug-friendly metalcore albums coming out in the late '90s. And it represented a turning point. It helped close the book on '90s metalcore, and it led directly to what the genre had waiting for us in the new millennium.
Browse our selection of Cave In vinyl.
Botch - We Are the Romans (1999, Hydra Head)
Another band with a small discography but a huge impact, Tacoma, Washington's Botch (whose members went on to play in Minus the Bear, These Arms Are Snakes, Russian Circles, Narrows, Sumac, and more) helped define the mathcore subgenre of metalcore with their two albums, including their now-classic swan song, 1999's We Are the Romans. Compared to some of the earlier bands on this list, Botch had pretty great production value (thanks in part to expert producer Matt Bayles), and they used that to their full advantage. Guitarist Dave Knudson's riffs were all over the place, and the clear production helped every unpredictable note he hit come through sharp as knives. The rhythm section of Brian Cook (bass) and Tim Latona (drums) kept Botch as pummeling and spastic as you need to be for the kind of music they were making, and lead screamer Dave Verellen knew how to sound as simultaneously manic and anguished as possible. Together, they made songs that were chaotic yet controlled, and larger than life. They get tied to the mathcore genre, but even that is sort of limiting. Botch shared a sense of post-metal atmospherics with Hydra Head label boss Aaron Turner's band Isis. A song like "Swimming the Channel Vs. Driving The Chunnel" could almost count as slowcore. The 11-minute "Man The Ramparts" manages to fit in everything from sludge metal to Eno-esque ambience. Converge would go on to turn mathcore into art rock over and over again in the 21st century, but Botch pulled off the same feat just one month shy of the new millennium. P.S., we are still hoping for a Botch reunion now that Minus the Bear is (sadly) done and Dave Knudson presumably has more free time on his hands!
Coalesce - 0:12 Revolution in Just Listening (1999, Relapse/Hydra Head)
Metalcore has a few regions commonly associated with the genre, like Florida and Upstate New York, but there are of course exceptions. Coalesce came from the same Kansas City scene as classic "Midwest emo" bands like The Get Up Kids and The Casket Lottery, both of whom they shared members with and the former of whom they released a split with. But Coalesce were a much more chaotic, abrasive band than their emo neighbors, as is very clear on their classic third album, 1999's 0:12 Revolution in Just Listening (on which Get Up Kids keyboardist James Dewees is the beastly drummer). Like Converge and Botch, they dabbled in the spastic sounds of mathcore, but they didn't limit themselves to it. You definitely don't have to know or care anything about complex time signatures or tech-y guitar riffs to appreciate 0:12 Revolution in Just Listening; it has those things, but the depth of the songwriting and the passionate screams of vocalist Sean Ingram are in the forefront of Coalesce's impactful sound. The album also saw guitarist Jes Steineger dabbling in the kind of classic/Southern rock riffs that metalcore bands like Every Time I Die and Maylene and the Sons of Disaster would bring into the mainstream metalcore conversation years later. Extreme metal bands often seem like they're in competition to see who can sound more inhuman, but the appealing thing about 0:12 Revolution in Just Listening is just how human Coalesce sound on this album, without sacrificing any of the complexity or the aggression. It's full of great melodies, without veering into "melodic metalcore." It sounds as fresh today as ever, and it's even more impressive that it's so good given that -- as legend has it -- the band had already broken up and the members wrote and recorded the album apart from each other just to fill a contract.
Poison The Well - The Opposite of December... A Season of Separation (1999, Trustkill)
A lot of the albums on this list were crucial precedents to the mainstream boom of metalcore in the early 2000s, but it would be understandable if you came to the genre through popular melodic metalcore bands like Killswitch Engage and never felt like these '90s bands could scratch the same itch. That wouldn't be the case with Poison the Well, though. Their 1999 debut album The Opposite of December was a major milestone in establishing the more melodic sounds that would dominate mainstream metalcore, but still raw enough that it fits in with the more abrasive albums on this list. Crossover between metalcore, post-hardcore, and emo was common, and The Opposite of December was much more rooted in emo's melodrama than in tough-guy metalcore. They're sort of the connecting tissue between earlier metalcore bands like Earth Crisis and Snapcase and more popular post-hardcore bands like Thrice and Thursday. The album constantly goes back and forth between screamed vocals and clean vocals, as most of the popular melodic metalcore bands (and popular post-hardcore bands) would, but it's void of the overly polished and overly whiny tendencies that a lot of their followers had. Listening to the album now, it's fun to hear the kind of music that got very popular in the 2000s but in this much rawer, much more modest way. And if you're looking at The Opposite of December through a lens of today's metalcore comeback, it's easy to draw a direct line to this album from current bands like Ithaca and Vein. While Poison The Well may have sometimes been wrongly grouped with the cheesier "mall punk" bands of their time (their 2002 sophomore album Tear from the Red is a noticeable step forward and just as classic as their debut, and late-period albums saw them doing some pretty cool, unexpected stuff), it seems like the current metalcore renaissance -- and the band's reunion -- are helping to firmly establish them as the important, influential band they always were. (Also, fun fact: guitarist Derek Miller, who played on The Opposite of December and left PTW in 2004, later became famous as one half of Sleigh Bells.)
Note: In 2012, Rise Records reissued ‘The Opposite of December’ packed with ‘Tear from the Red’ and that’s what the above stream is of.