It’s been said that conflict is the driving force of drama, literature, film, and other art forms. Certainly that’s true in the case of heavy metal, but conflict seems far too mild a term for a music genre that fundamentally traffics in screaming, wailing, sonic terror, lyrical bloodshed, and theatrical presentations awash in leather, chains, fire, and horror.
In fact, loud and angry inner battles routinely drive musicians to heavy metal in the first place. From there, the combat often spills out into dust-ups with other fellow travelers across the minefields leading to metal Valhalla. Often, such bad blood boils over into artists creating brilliant material in an effort to top their competitors. Other times, it can lead to babyish name-calling and creative breakdowns. At least once, such antagonism has led to a savage murder.
Here now are the eight most vicious rivalries in heavy metal.
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Kerry King vs. Robb Flynn
“Kerry King Loves a Good Feud”
Since forming in 1983, Slayer has pioneered virtually every form of extreme metal that has dominated the genre to follow in its wake. One group that has performed brilliantly along those trails blazed by Slayer is Machine Head, and no one would deny that the Oakland band have forged their own new paths over the past quarter-century.
It seemed odd, then, in 2001 when Slayer guitarist Kerry King, a fearsome figure who is also well liked among his peers lashed out at Machine Head, branding the group as “sell-outs” and blaming them as “responsible for rap-metal.” Odder still is that King kept on verbally bashing Machine Head for the next two years.
Machine Head frontman and guitarist Robb Flynn, who had considered Kerry King a friend, finally fired back in 2003 via the band’s website: “We [in Machine Head] talk about it and we decide we're not gonna say anything about it in the press. We're like, ‘Maybe he's just going through a phase or something.’ So six months or so go by and he's still talking sh-t. But again we decide not to say anything in the press, because this guy was our idol. We had posters of this guy on the wall in our jam pad. It was weird.
"So three or four more months pass by, and he's still going at us. And now he just starts getting a little too f—kin' mouthy. Now it's 'They fooled me into thinking they're metal,' 'They have no integrity left.' And we're like, 'WHOA! What the f—k!?' F--k this mother---er! How f—in' dare you accuse us have having no integrity?! Oh, Mr. Sum 41 video has so much f—kin' integrity now?!
So I fired some rounds back. And I don't pull any punches. I f—kin’ roasted his ass, period, and he knows it. He just can't take it like a man, and leave it at that. Whatever man. I'm over it. O-ver it. You want to know how I feel? This whole thing just disappoints me. I'm disappointed in him that he had to bring it to this."
After two more years of back and forth, Flynn offered an olive branch to King. In 2007, they finally buried the hatchet, and the old friends have been new and stronger allies since then.
Randy Rhoads vs. Eddie Van Halen
“Greatest Guitarists: Eddie Van Halen vs. Randy Rhoads”
From the moment aspiring guitarist Randy Rhoads first caught Van Halen in the mid-1970s, he fell down awestruck by the unprecedented wizardry that erupted forth from Eddie Van Halen on the lead axe. When Rhoads’s band Quiet Riot opened for VH during a college gig in 1977, Randy finally got the nerve to talk to his idol, asking about a particular tuning technique. Eddie said that it was a secret he wouldn’t share with the young upstart and, from there, the friction commenced.
Throughout the late-’70s, the rivalry between Randy Rhoads and Eddie Van Halen to dominate Southern California guitar virtuosity exploded all over the local scene. It exploded into violence one night when David Lee Roth and Eddie pulled up next to Randy and his girlfriend in a parking lot. Heated words were exchanged, and Randy’s lady slapped Diamond Dave smack across the kisser.
The upside is that Randy’s anger at Eddie pushed him to play harder, deeper, and more brilliantly until he finally found his perfect musical outlet alongside Ozzy Osbourne. Tragically, Randy died in a 1982 airplane stunt gone lethally wrong, but his riffs and licks live on, forever reminding Eddie Van Halen to push his own limits in respectful tribute and competition.
Ronnie James Dio vs. Vivian Campbell
“Ronnie James Dio slams Vivian Campbell”
The mid-’80s Dio classics Holy Diver and The Last in Line arise, of course, on the power of vocalist Ronnie James Dio, but also just as a crucially on the boomingly exquisite guitar leads of Vivian Campbell. For two compatriots who performed so electrifyingly together at first, they apparently never really liked one another. Then, when things became unworkable between Ronnie and Viv, their feelings turned almost supernaturally ugly.
Hateful words flew throughout the years, with Campbell calling Dio “one of the vilest people in the industry” and reuniting the Holy Diver lineup with a different singer because, he said, “I didn't quit that band. They quit me... I wrote those riffs. I’m going to take them back.” In response, the normally gregarious Dio labeled Vivian “a f—king piece of s—t.”
Sadly, this bitterness remained unresolved at the time of Ronnie’s tragic passing in 2010.
Glenn Danzig vs. North Side Kings
“Glenn Danzig gets knocked out”
Glenn Danzig is a horror metal legend with a career that spans decades and includes multiple achievements in a variety of genres. North Side Kings are a hardcore punk squad that have also become legendary—but it’s all because of one good, fair, literal knockout punch that the band’s frontman, Danny Marianino, delivered to Danzig back in 2004. If you’ve read this far, you’ve likely already watched the YouTube video hundreds of times.
It’s been more than a decade since that backstage squabble ruptured the Internet, but each of the participants seems to continue to operate in its shadow. Furious, muscle-bound Glenn has tried to explain away the moment, even claiming in 2011, “I allowed it to happen. Why? Because there are always those looking to goad you into hitting them so they can sue you. It happens to public figures all the time. It's a way of life.” He claims this despite the fact that the video clearly depicts him shouting “F—k you, motherf—er!” and shoving Marianino first.
Marianino, for his part, is really only known to the general public for that haymaker and he’s talked endlessly about it to the press. In 2012, he even published a book titled, Don’t Ever Punch a Rockstar: A Collection of Hate Mail and Other Crazy Rumors.
Guns N’ Roses vs. Nirvana
“Nirvana/Guns N’ Roses Clash at 1992 VMAs”
The early 1990s was as revolutionary a moment in rock as any since the form’s mid-’50s birth and, for one loud moment, the two groups leading the charge, Guns N’ Roses and Nirvana, took up arms against one another.
Perpetual loudmouth and archetypal egomaniacal “a-hole” rock star Axl Rose represented a camp steeped in arena-rock tradition, albeit with a musical take that was brilliantly new and invigorating: heavy metal deeply informed by punk rock.
In the other corner, Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain, who loved much of the music that came out of such ’70s excess, played punk that was deeply informed by heavy metal, and arose from a scene hellbent on smashing rock star traditions. Complicating matters, as she does, was Cobain’s wife at the time, Courtney Love, who rose through the punk ranks only to ultimately reveal herself as longing to be everything Axl Rose at his most grotesque and self-indulgent.
Hard rock fans largely split along those lines, too, for a while, until ’90s kids just figured rock-is-rock-is-rock and everything Axl and Kurt were doing musically kicked all manner of ass.
What finally prompted the pressure cooker containing Guns N’ Roses and Nirvana to blow its top was the MTV’s 1992 Video Music Awards ceremony, where each band was scheduled to perform. Legend has it that Courtney taunted Axl in the outdoor talent area before the show, holding up her baby and saying, “Hey, Axl! You’re the godfather!”
Love’s jeer prompted Rose to tell Cobain, “Keep your woman in line!,” which Kurt reportedly laughed in his face. Some accounts claim that Guns N’ Roses then rocked Cobain’s trailer while he was inside with his infant daughter.
It all seemed to climax with Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl grabbing a microphone after the band’s performance exploded into anarchy and yelling in a high-pitched, mocking voice, “Where’s Axl? Where’s Axl? Hi, Axl! Hi, Axl!”
Within a fast couple of years, Guns N’ Roses in any kind of worthwhile form were history. Kurt Cobain was, too, albeit in a far more permanent sense.
Van Halen vs. David Lee Roth vs. Sammy Hagar (and Michael Anthony)
“David Lee Roth pissed off at Van Halen (1986)”
This one never seems to stop. Just a few weeks ago, Eddie Van Halen decried his once-and-present frontman in the press, saying that David Lee Roth “doesn’t want to be my friend” and that the problem with the band is that “three of us like rock-and-roll and one of us likes dance music.”
Since it seems as though anger and competition between the instrumental segment of Van Halen and its various lead singers will never cease, can we ask where it all began? No one really knows for sure, but the first major schism occurred thirty years ago, right after VH’s breakthrough to mega-stardom via the milestone album, 1984. Roth quit the group, Sammy Hagar stepped up, and a year later, two classic LPs resulted: Diamond Dave’s Eat ’Em and Smile and Van Halen’s 5150.
Through the decades since then, Roth and Hagar have traded places in Van Halen on more than one occasion, badmouthing one another all the way. The two frontmen even tried to tour together in 2002, and that prompted some real hatred. Five years later, Roth permanently (at least so far) took the mic once more, but this time, VH bassist Michael Anthony got the boot, landing alongside Sammy in the supergroup Chickenfoot.
These shenanigans will only continue. And as long as all the players involved keep rocking as hard as they do, we will also always continue to enjoy them. Sometimes it’s fun to hope rockers never do grow up.
Megadeth vs. Metallica
“Dave Mustaine sits down with Lars Ulrich”
It’s arguably the most brutal band firing in rock history: in early 1983, due to issues of excessive drug and alcohol abuse, Metallica informed lead guitarist Dave Mustaine that he was no longer in the band and they put him on a bus back to California from New York. Later that year, the group rewrote rock history with their Mustaine-less debut, Kill ’Em All.
Seething throughout that long Greyhound ride home, Mustaine said, ““After getting fired from Metallica, all I remember is that I wanted blood: theirs. I wanted to be faster and heavier than them.”
From that rage arose Megadeth, one of thrash’s Big Four, alongside Slayer, Anthrax, and, of course, Mustaine’s former bandmates.
While Megadeth never caught up to Metallica commercially and/or creatively (please argue about that in the comments), Mustaine has never let go of that initial killer instinct to decimate his rivals. As a result, he’s not only delivered a towering succession of classic Megadeth works, he’s remained one of rock’s genuine wild cards, forever stirring the pot, igniting tempers, and, at the very least, keeping extreme music alive, interesting, and dangerous.
Varg Vikernes vs. Euronymous
“Varg Vikernes talks about killing Euronymous”
Anyone aiming to paint heavy metal as “evil” or even “the devil’s music” may well look to Norway’s black metal scene in the ’80s and early ’90s for evidence that can prompt even rock’s staunchest defenders to cock an eyebrow, grit their teeth, and concede, “Well… you might be on to something.”
Norwegian black metal invented itself as cold, dark, menacing, and inflamed by notions of agony, death, and Satan worship. The genre’s musicians burned down a multitude of churches (some more than 1,000 years old), beat and tortured one another, and preached to their fans to do the same. A black metal cultural highlight occurred when a singer named “Dead” blew his head off with a shotgun, whereupon his bandmates took pictures that ended up on an album cover and cooked chunks of his brain in a soup that they gleefully consumed (some claim the cannibalism is apocryphal; others maintain it happened—it's certainly within the realm of terrifying believability).
Among this cast of extreme rock villains, no one is more notorious that Varg Vikernes. Under the moniker Count Grishnackh, Varg played bass guitar with the Norwegian black metal group Mayhem before launching his still-thriving multi-genre act Burzum.
On August 10, 1993, Vikernes employed a knife to settle some series of arguments with Mayhem guitarist Øystein Aarseth aka Euronymous. Varg stabbed Euronymous a total of 23 times—two to the head, five to the neck, and sixteen in the back—and then claimed he acted in “self-defense.”
Varg served 12 years of a 21-year sentence for the murder. Within a month of Varg getting sprung, arsonists torched yet another Norwegian church. While in jail, he composed and released music, wrote a book, and loudly and proudly affiliated himself with right-wing racist political movements with whom he still associates today.
After moving to France, Varg remained unable to avoid trouble. Authorities arrested him in 2013 on suspicion of planning acts of terrorism. He was ultimately convicted of promoting racial hatred and given a six-month probation. Since then, Varg has continued running his mouth and left it at that… until the next time.