Most bands are lucky if they write one truly amazing song, let alone a whole album of great tracks. But when a band can release three incredible albums in a row? That's the mark of historical excellence. Since metal is an album-focused genre, there are plenty of bands who can verifiably claim a triple-threat, but we wanted to celebrate the very best of the best — starting with metal's Sabbathian conception point and venturing through thrash, death metal, nu-metal and more. Below, are the 10 greatest three-album runs in heavy-metal history.
Influential albums don't always stand the test of time, but Black Sabbath's first three laid the groundwork for every band on this list and still hold their own alongside all of them. Black Sabbath created heavy metal, Paranoid made it, well, heavier with songs like "Iron Man" and its rip-roaring title-track, and then Master of Reality upped the ante once again. "Children of the Grave"'s hellfire gallop still rumbles through metal's purveyors of the speed, while "Into the Void" and "Sweet Leaf" continue to soundtrack productive smoke seshes, otherwise known as doom-metal band practice. Whatever you think of Sabbath beyond these records, these are the unholy trinity.
You could pretty much pick any three albums in Death's discography and make a case for why they're emblematic of the band's greatness. That said, their majestic mid-career run from Human through Symbolic is where we believe they hit their sweet spot. It's hard to overstate the importance of death-metal ground zero, Scream Bloody Gore, and its darker, heavier follow-up, Leprosy, but Chuck Schuldiner truly cracked into something mystical on his band's 1991 opus — a perversely beautiful, hauntingly virtuosic form of extreme music that would become known as tech-death. Individual Thought Patterns was even more inspired, and then he hit the bullseye on Symbolic, a gracefully prodigious masterpiece that no death-metal band has ever topped.
While there's a small but loud contingent of the Iron Maiden fandom who ride or die for the band's first two albums with OG vocalist Paul Di'Anno, 1982's The Number of the Beast is when the NWOBHM titans truly came into their own. Not only did now-legendary singer Bruce Dickinson bring a potent new flavor to the group, but their songwriting just got better (see: "Run to the Hills," "Hallowed Be Thy Name") in every regard, and then even more so on 1983's Piece of Mind and 1984's Powerslave. The middle record boasts two bona fide classics, "The Trooper" and "Flight of Icarus," and the latter includes what are possibly their greatest tracks, "2 Minutes to Midnight" and "Aces High."
This isn't a slight to the progressive technicality of …And Justice for All or the mega-smash stomp of the "Black Album" — Metallica's first three LPs are simply the superior trio within their historic catalog. Ride the Lightning and Master of Puppets are undoubtedly two of, if not the two, best thrash albums of all time — breathtaking displays of air-tight musicianship, mature songwriting and raw power. While Justice expanded on some of those elements, none of these records would even exist without Kill 'Em All, which crystallized a sound that changed rock music forever and gave Metallica the momentum to propel them into the stratosphere with their subsequent follow-ups.
Motörhead were an incredibly prolific band throughout the entirety of their 40-year career. Up until Lemmy Kilmister passed on in 2015, the band rarely took more than a couple years between albums, but the three they cranked out between 1979 and 1980 made for their hottest streak. The double-bass blast of Overkill's title track pounded harder than anything of its time, and Bomber passed the ball to the slam-dunk that was Ace of Spades, the band's most iconic album and their front-to-back strongest. Technically, On Parole arrived in the middle of this run in 1979, but it was recorded back in 1976 and therefore was more of a chronological aberration than part of this creative run.
Pantera's final two albums, 1996's The Great Southern Trendkill and 2000's Reinventing the Steel, are arguably their heaviest, but the three that came before it basically invented — and then mastered — an entire genre. Their 1990 recalibration, Cowboys From Hell, was a Southern-fried thrash-mosh conglomerate that codified groove metal, and then they perfected that sound on 1992's Vulgar Display of Power. Instead of basking in their budding superstardom and gunning for radio cash, they doubled-down on their most brooding, uncommercial aspects for 1994's Far Beyond Driven, which opened with a song that accurately describes this muscular trio: "Strength Beyond Strength."
Of all the trilogies on this list, Sepultura's contains the most unexpectedly brilliant evolution. The Brazilian band began as a thrashy death-metal group who really hit their stride with that particular sound on 1989's Beneath the Remains, but 1991's even better thrasherpiece, Arise, is when Sepultura began their bold new experimental phase. At that point, the brothers Cavalera, Max and Igor, began adding dashes of industrial music and Latin percussion in with their Slayer-y speed, and on 1993's Chaos A.D. they fully pivoted into a totally singular breed of tribal groove metal. Then came Roots, the band's ingenious fusion of rugged nu-metal and indigenous rhythms that divided some fans but ultimately proved to be their definitive and most popular work.
It took a couple records for Slayer to nail their signature, diabolic din, but once they got it right, every fellow thrash band sounded tame and lighthearted compared to ghoulish blitzkriegs like "Angel of Death" (1986's Reign in Blood) and "Mandatory Suicide" (1988's South of Heaven). By the time the new decade rolled around, their peers were either sprawling outward into glorious displays of virtuosity (Megadeth's Rust in Peace) or more accessible hard rock (Metallica's "Black Album"), but Slayer just went darker and more devilish on 1990's Seasons in the Abyss, writing songs about grisly murderers ("Dead Skin Mask") and enshrounding their social commentary in morbid guitar tones and deadly rhythmic assaults.
Slipknot are still making some of the most intense music in aboveground metal history, but the albums that made them the beast they are today will always be their most vital feats. Like Pantera before them, after garnering unexpected acclaim for their first major release, the 'Knot went even harder in every regard on its follow-up, 2001's excoriating Iowa. They would've been setting themselves up for failure if they tried to recapture lightning in the bottle with an even more decimating third LP, so instead they filtered the menacing attitude, the stifling sonic magnitude and the serial killer obsessions through catchier, creepier songwriting on Vol. 3 — delivering instant classics like "Duality" and "Before I Forget," two of their most iconic tracks.
Tool have only released five full-lengths to date, opting for a quality-over-quantity approach that's yielded one of the most spotless discographies in all of metallic music. While 2006's 10,000 Days and 2018's Fear Inoculum loom large, Tool's true brilliance begins with their 1993 debut, Undertow, which helped shape Nineties alternative metal with a sound and vision that was darker and more suffocating than any of their peers. Then came 1996's Ænima, a psychedelic mindfuck that retooled (pun intended) their approach in a more progressive direction that they'd take to mathematically conscious-expanding heights on 2001's Lateralus. Even if Tool never released another album, these three alone would crown them heavy-music visionaries bar none.