Death has always been one of the most predominant themes in heavy metal music, taking a backseat maybe only to Satanism. Death, disease, murder and chaos have accompanied heavy riffs since Sabbath first began playing them back in ’68. This dark subject matter is part of what has always made metal controversial — revolting to some, but appealing to those musicians interested in facing the things we all fear. But there’s often a strange irony that comes into play when we have to realize that these musicians are also human beings, capable of falling victim to the very horrors they seem to embrace.
Disclaimer: In no way do I intend to make light of these deaths. Many of these musicians were heroes of mine and died far too early. Also, one that might seem like an obvious choice, Dimebag Darrell’s death, will not be included here. Getting shot and killed for no reason is a hip-hop way to die, not a metal one.
10. Chuck Schuldiner / Death
Let’s begin with the man who put the death in death metal before his own death, the highly influential Chuck Schuldiner. As the guitarist/vocalist/songwriter for the widely acclaimed band with a name already mentioned too many times in this paragraph to repeat, Schuldiner’s lyrics focused on subjects like addiction, mental trauma and disease before a tumor formed in his brain in the summer of 1999. After months of radiation therapy and surgery, he fell victim to his brain cancer in late 2001 and died at the age of 34.
9. Cliff Burton / Metallica
When Metallica went down the crapper in the 1990s it was hard to imagine that it would have happened had Cliff Burton been alive. The bassist was the dirtiest, highest, wildest member of the band throughout the 1980s, but was also the heart and soul of its first three albums. After Metallica’s tour bus skid off the road due to a patch of black ice (if the driver was actually drunk or had fallen asleep is still a matter of debate), Burton was thrown onto the pavement, then crushed by the bus he had just been flung from. As violent and graphic a death as anything from the opening scene of Maximum Overdrive, and a scene that could have easily been song lyrics from the band that brought you Ride the Lightning and Kill ’em All. I still think Black Ice would still be a great name for an all Burton-era tribute band.
8. Randy Rhoads / Ozzy Osbourne
Ozzy Osbourne has always been well known for writing songs about getting wild and crazy, so I’m sure it seemed like an appropriate idea to have a little fun with him… by repeatedly diving an airplane straight toward his tour bus. Little did guitarist Randy Rhoads realize, not everyone is the invincible freak of nature Ozzy is. As the plane got too close, the left wing clipped the bus, sending the jet out of control and crashing into a nearby mansion. Rhoads, the pilot, and makeup artist Rachel Youngblood were killed instantly, and the guitar legend’s body was burned beyond recognition. During an autopsy, cocaine was found in the snowblind pilot’s blood.
7. Layne Staley / Alice in Chains
While arguably not exactly a metal band, there’s no doubt that Alice in Chains had some pretty dark and heavy jams. And what’s more metal than the desire to go fast, super fast, as fast as you can? After all, the genre is founded on a band named after a speed freak, so “motor-head” Layne Staley’s 2002 speedball overdose seems relevant here.
6. Jeff Hanneman / Slayer
When Slayer guitarist Jeff Hanneman contracted a case of necrotizing fasciitis caused by a spider bite, you could almost hear the screams of joy from those Westboro nut jobs. How terribly ironic that the man who wrote and performed so many songs about pain, rotting, suffering, death, and disease would fall victim to one of the most horrific and repulsive flesh-eating bacteria known to man. It’s some truly disgusting stuff — look it up if you don’t believe me — just make sure you have a barf bucket nearby. While complications related to this spider bite seemed to be the obvious culprit in Hanneman’s unexpected death, the cause has recently been revealed to be liver failure due to alcohol related cirrhosis. But hey, drinking yourself to death is still pretty metal. Kerry King has already declared that “Slayer” will continue, but as many fans like me know, that band died along with Hanneman. Read my full thoughts on his passing here.
5. Mieszko Talarczyk / Nasum
There are few styles of metal as fast, chaotic, and pummeling as grindcore. And there are few things in nature as fast, chaotic, and pummeling as a fucking tsunami. Vocalist Mieszko Talarczyk had been an active member of the Swedish grindcore band Nasum dating back to 1993. In late 2004, while taking a vacation with his girlfriend between albums, Talarczyk was one of many whose lives were claimed by the Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami disaster on December 26 of that year. Nasum have since disbanded, but is still considered one of the godfathers of modern grindcore.
See also: The Oral History of NYC’s Metal/Hardcore Crossover
4. Jon Nödtveidt / Dissection
Start awesome black metal band. Become satanic priest. Murder Algerian man. Serve prison sentence. Complete reunion tour. Take own life. If there’s one thing it seems Dissection guitarist/vocalist Jon Nödtveidt doesn’t like, it’s doing anything half-assed. Dissection played fast and melodic black metal very deeply rooted in the occult, with its band leader acting as a functioning member of a religious gang called the Misanthropic Luciferian Order. True to form, Nödtveidt shot himself inside a circle of lit black candles inside his home, with a “satanic grimoire” in front of him. Although he clearly had his issues, Nödtveidt was a great songwriter, performer, and one of the flat out scariest fuckers metal has ever seen.
3. Terje “Valfar” Bakken / Windir
The grim-frostbitten-storm-blasting-ice-winds are a common theme in black metal. The frozen imagery perfectly represents both the bleak Norwegian winter and the cold emptiness of depression. A seemingly too-perfect fit with this theme is the death of Terje “Valfar” Bakken, founder of the black metal band Windir. In January of 1994, Bakken took a walk to his family’s cabin through the Sogndal Valley, but he never arrived. He was found three days later, frozen to death after getting caught in a snow storm. Although going to visit your parents may not be very metal, freezing to death is about as grim and metal as it gets.
2. Per “Dead” Ohlin / Mayhem
Stranger than the obvious irony caused by this Mayhem vocalist’s chosen stage name is the reason this name was chosen: As a young man, Dead had his spleen rupture after being beaten by bullies in school and was clinically dead for some time before being resuscitated. So this guy is the first on our list to die twice. As the singer for one of the world’s most notoriously fucking crazy black metal bands, Mayhem, it is no surprise that Dead decided to take his own life by cutting his wrists and throat and blasting himself in the face with a shotgun. There is speculation that this had even been encouraged by his band mates for the sake of the band’s black metal image — better a corpse than a poser, I guess. Upon discovering Dead’s bloody corpse, his bandmates quickly grabbed a camera and took a photo that became a Mayhem album cover. There are also rumors that the remaining members made a stew from chunks of Dead’s splattered brains and made necklaces from bits of his skull.
1. Øystein “Euronymous” Aarseth / Mayhem
One of the most notorious crimes in the history of metal once again centers on Norway’s infamous Mayhem. In possibly the most well-known black metal true crime story of all time, Mayhem co-founder and vocalist Euronymous got into a confrontation in his home with new bassist and Burzum mastermind Varg Vikernes (aka Count Grishnackh) in August of 1993. The dispute left Euronymous dead, with two stab wounds to the head, five to the neck, and sixteen to the back. After his conviction of the murder, as well as at least three church burnings in Norway, Vikernes served 15 years in prison and was released in early 2009. Neither the bass nor vocals were re-recorded for the release of Mayhem’s Mysteriis Dom Sathanas album. As drummer Hellhammer said at the time, “I thought it was appropriate that the murderer and victim were on the same record.” Burzum and Mayhem both continue to release new music to this day.