The Ten Best Lead Singer Swaps in Metal

You may have heard that we like Cannibal Corpse around here. If the announcement that they’re headlining the 2019 Decibel Tour, or the hyper-fast selling special issue 100% devoted to them didn’t tip you off, let me spell it out plainly: we really really like Cannibal Corpse.

One thing I personally love ab out that band—on top of their consistently-high songwriting quality and penchant for punishing rhythm—is that they’ve managed to pull off one of the trickiest moves in the music business, the dreaded Lead Singer Swap.

Vocalists have an oversized effect on the trajectory of a band. They often take up much of an audience’s attention in the live setting. More often than not, they serve as a band’s spokesperson and mouthpiece in interviews, regardless of their songwriting contribution. Maybe most importantly: the human voice creates an emotional connection between music and listener.

Changing lead singers without substantially altering a band’s fanbase and perception is tough. When bands change singers, a chapter is closed and another one begun. Vocalists denote ‘eras.’ Even replacing an excellent singer with another excellent singer can alienate huge swaths of a diehard fanbase.

Don’t believe me? Ask Sammy Hagar. (Who sang most of David Lee Roth’s songs better than Diamond Dave did, for my money).

On the flip side, a good lead singer swap can restart a flagging career or catapult a band into a higher stratosphere of notoriety. Great vocalists elevate the material they work with. Sometimes bands need to start a new chapter. As such, the Lead Singer Swap is a high risk and high reward chess move. When it’s done deftly, it deserves applause.

As such, here are the Ten Best Lead Singer Swaps in metal.

First, a few notes on methodology.

This list only accounts for lead vocalists. Singer/guitarists or other multipurpose musicians are not taken into account. Yes, some of these vocalists do sometimes take up a guitar for a few songs, but guitarist is not their primary or even secondary role. In other words, swapping David Vincent for Steve Tucker does not count, since they’re both bassists and riff composers in Morbid Angel.

This list allows for swaps under duress. That is to say, it counts switches wherein the first vocalist passes away or is otherwise incapacitated. In fact, this is a higher-risk and higher-reward move and so those swaps are given a slight ranking edge.

Finally, this list does not count swap-backs. Lord Worm’s temporary return to Cryptospy was an excellent swap, but for the purposes of this list does not count, if only because Rob Halford can’t just be #1 at everything.

David Wayne for Mike Howe (Metal Church)

David Wayne’s singular scratchy vocals hit like a ton of bricks on the first two Metal Church albums, which made stepping into his shoes a tall order. Credit is due to Mike Howe for stepping into his shoes and bringing down the hammer. Howe manages to sound uniquely like himself while also nailing the scorched-earth sound that Wayne did. A solid third-to-half of the band’s required songs come from Howe’s period, including rippers like “Fake Healer”. That Howe continues to front Metal Church to this day is a plus.

Udo Dirkschneider for Mark Tornillo (Accept)

Trading singers is not always a zero-sum game. Sometimes it literally benefits everyone involved. Udo Dirkschneider got to continue his sometimes-excellent-mostly-pretty-good solo career, accept got to return, revitalized, and Mark Tornillo’s singing career took a huge shot in the arm after languishing in relative obscurity. In this scenario literally everybody won, and in metal that almost never happens.

Charlie Dominici for James LaBrie (Dream Theater)

Full disclosure: I don’t really love James LaBrie as a singer. As a matter of fact, with a few exceptions I don’t really love Dream Theater as a band. That said, for better or for worse (hint: for worse) they condensed prog metal from a genre sprawling in infinite directions into a singular sound: their sound. And they never would have done so without LaBrie. After he came on board, the New Yorkers became their own fully functioning economy, and for that reason alone trading him for Dominici was a pro move.

Bon Scott for Brian Johnson (AC/DC)

If this trade had been made for any reason other than Bonn Scott’s untimely demise, it would never have cracked this list. That said, Back in Black elevated AC/DC to unstoppable arena headliners, and that record just would not have sounded the same without Johnson. His sacking in favor of Axl Rose is a travesty, and our only consolation is the fantasy that in some parallel universe Slash maintained rights to the Guns N’ Roses name, sacked Rose, and replaced him with Johnson for a series of stellar ’90s records. Someone summon a portal into that universe for me, please and thank you.

Per “Dead” Ohlin for Attila Csihar (Mayhem)

Yes, yes, Dead was a singular and beautiful flower child whose untimely suicidal end (alongside a few, ahem, other untimely ends) helped catapult Mayhem into the halls of metal legend. And yes, his “Funeral Fog” vocals still kick ass. Now, let’s call a spade a spade: Nobody does evil like Csihar, the man of a thousand wicked slurps, croaks and goblin orgasms. His underrated operatic cleans also added a depth to Mayhem’s music that their imitators often lack. Add in his ability to roll with the band’s many genre-expanding punches throughout the years, and you have an all-time excellent lead singer swap

Dimitri Minakakis for Greg Puciato (the Dillinger Escape Plan)

Dimitri Minakakais sang on The Dillinger Escape Plan’s groundbreaking debut, Calculating Infinity, and therefore will remain many fans’ favorite, but the band found their true sound with Puciato behind the mic. His addition of crooning pop vocals rankles some, but unquestionably fit with the band’s numerous jazzy and electronic excursions. His venomous “ladies, can you see my red flag?” personality and wit added a lyrical danger to match Dillinger’s harrowing live shows, as well.

Joey Belladonna for John Bush (Anthrax)

John Bush made Anthrax better. I’m not the first writer to say so. I won’t be the last. Yes, the band wrote most (but not all) of their best work with Belladonna, but Bush sang those songs better than Belladonna does. He also sang some essential songs himself. If The Greater of Two Evils had been properly mastered it wouldn’t have just been the best Anthrax release, it would have been the only essential record of a band at its peak.

Chris Barnes for George “Corpsegrinder” Fisher (Cannibal Corpse)

You had to see this one coming. It took Cannibal Corpse a while to come into their own, and while at the start Barnes’s sloppy gurgles suited the band’s sound, his comrades quickly outpaced him. Corpsegrinder, on the other hand, is one of death metal’s all-time greats. His blast-furnace bellow can’t be mistaken. Even crazier, he can deliver it at hip-hop battle speed, enunciating each foul syllable to the point where he’s also one of death metal’s most accessible singers. Add in a surprisingly high shriek and indomitable stage presence, and you have a singular vocalist. This trade was a no-brainer, and good on Cannibal Corpse for making it.

Chuck Mosley for Mike Patton (Faith No More)

Some people prefer Chuck Mosley to Mike Patton. I have no idea who those people are, or what they’re smoking, but odds are it’s still illegal in Colorado, whatever it is. Mike Patton’s titanic vocal range, penchant for experimentation and restless appetite for innovation have earned him a sizable cult following that maybe equals that of Faith No More. Love him or hate him, there’s no denying Patton has a mystique that captivates people’s imagination. Yes, he rapped on “Epic”, but he also sang “Everything’s Ruined”. Chuck Mosley was a punk singer; Mike Patton is a cult leader. Kneel and worship.

Paul DiAnno for Bruce Dickinson (Iron Maiden)

Iron Maiden’s decision to exchange Paul DiAnno for Bruce Dickinson is the textbook gold standard for the successful lead singer swap. Yes, the band wrote some of their best work with DiAnno behind the mic—I’d entertain the argument that Killers is their best album overall even if it’s not my personal favorite, for example—however those songs sound better when Dickinson sings them.

Shut up. Yes, they do.

OK, even if they don’t (they totally do), DiAnno never had the vocal chops to perform songs like “Aces High” or “Hallowed Be Thy Name”. These are the songs that took Iron Maiden from NWOBHM darlings and club stars to stadium overlords with their own private jet. DiAnno songs also elevated the band when performed on that level, but even then Dickinson’s athletic performance and winning personality (so long as he’s not talking politics) allowed them to do so. A world where DiAnno stayed in Iron Maiden is a world without “Powerslave,” “Die With Your Boots On” and “The Trooper”—it’s a world I don’t want to live in.