10 Best Heavy Metal Instrumentals
You can tell a story in a song, but that doesn't mean you need words to convey that story. Music is a language all its own, and oh god yes, heavy metal is our favorite language. Where the instrumental metal album was once the domain of six-string shredders like Vinnie Moore and David T. Chastain, instrumental metal -- or "instrumetal," if you think you're being clever – now also means textural, explosive, highly complex metal as played by Blotted Science, Animals As Leaders, Scale the Summit, Canvas Solaris, and a rarified group of others.
But what about bands who only write instrumentals as a part-time endeavor? Here are 10 essential tracks that keep their mouths shut and truly let the music do the talking...
"Orion," Metallica from Master of Puppets (1986)
This list is in no particular order, but "Orion" is #1. Written by James Hetfield, Lars Ulrich and Cliff Burton, it's Burton's influence that made "Orion" a thing of epic orchestral metal. The middle section (3:59-6:55), climaxing with a terrific solo from bassist Burton, is played with a sensitivity and symphonic grandiosity that was entirely new for metal circa 1986. Metallica's ability to craft monumental instrumentals is proven not only by this track, but other epics "To Live is To Die" and "The Call of Ktulu" (the latter being grandest in its bombastic S&M version).
"YYZ," Rush from Moving Pictures (1981)
Impossible to choose between this track and 1978's "La Villa Strangiato," but I'll go with "YYZ" for its concision and influence. Nearly every young rocker picking up a guitar, bass or pair of drumsticks has attempted to tackle this colorful, energy-packed composition. In just four and a half flowing minutes, the terrific trio cram in as much musical information as in the 9+ minute "Strangiato." "YYZ" is daunting complication made friendly.
"The Ultra-Violence," Death Angel from The Ultra-Violence (1987)
It was with balls the size of California that these Bay Area youngsters opened up side two of their debut album with a 10-minute instrumental. Its haunting, "Tubular Bells"-ish main theme is a spine-chiller, and listening to the riff sequences and tempo changes fly by is more like watching mountains move than merely listening to music. Cinematic and special...especially special as these guys were just teenagers when this was recorded.
"The Day at Guyana," Agent Steel from Unstoppable Force (1987)
Look what "Orion" did! It forced the most talented thrash bands to step up their game and attempt instrumental masterpieces of their own. Many instrumentals on this list immediately follow the appearance of "Orion," and this one from L.A. speed metal merchants Agent Steel is a thing of cinematic grandeur, thrashing nut-tight here, opening into textured melodic vistas there...an excellent showcase for the formidable talents of guitarists Bernie Versailles and Juan Garcia.
"Cauterization," Dark Angel from Leave Scars (1989)
Sounds like what the title conveys: necessary pain, ultimately leading to healing and catharsis. A huge, blocky, muddy wall of sound, like Black Sabbath's Born Again after serious and irreversible amphetamine overdose. Drummer Gene Hoglan bashes around as if his considerable frame has been caught in a cement mixer, while two guitars and a bass rumble around looking for air. None found. This is totally suffocating, and perhaps the heaviest metal song of all time. No kidding.
"Arc-Lite," Coroner from Punishment for Decadence (1988)
What better way for this Swiss trio to explore and exploit their classical influences than through an instrumental track? The rhythms positively sizzle with energy, and the dexterity of bassist Ron Royce and most-underrated-lead-guitarist-ever Tommy T. Baron are on fire throughout these three minutes and twenty seconds. But don't think just because it's a classically-inspired instrumental track that it's fluff. "Arc-Lite" is freaking DEADLY.
"Five Billion Dead," Carnivore from Retaliation (1987)
Although it pitches and sways like an interlude, the melody is just sullen enough, and so catchy, that it manages to make its mark on an album that needs respite from all the rawness and rudeness. With the guitar and bass fighting for control of the fuzz pedal, this tune, more than any other Carnivore track, foreshadows what bassist/vocalist Pete Steele would perfect in his future band, Type O Negative. And, like "Orion," it features prominent bass guitar lines.
"Erotomania," Dream Theater from Awake (1994)
Pretty much a blueprint for the '90s-era prog metal style, this track from Dream Theater's third album writes the book on exactly what these uber-talented dudes are capable of on their best day. Never ones to deny their influences, there's plenty of Rush, Kansas, Marillion, Fates Warning and Yngwie Malmsteen inspiration to pick out, yet no rip-offs anywhere to be heard. Prog metal mastery, for sure.
"Cosmic Sea," Death from Human (1991)
A watershed metal album, and the most progressive death metal album ever released up to this point, Human just had to stick its neck out even further and offer the first remarkable death metal instrumental. And, as with anything relating to this album, it's totally killer. Another instrumental piece here that features prominent bass playing. Early '90s metal at its most and advanced and sublime.
"Eve of the War," Alchemist from Eve of the War EP (1998)
Absolutely incredible version of this song, which originally appeared on Jeff Wayne's War of the Worlds album in 1978. The perfect pairing of sci-fi prog rock and Australian band Alchemist's cosmic metal. You have to dig the synth-based theme in the middle of the song, and you also have to wonder how Alchemist never became huge, like, Mastodon-huge.
And six honorable mentions:
"Violence," Anathema (2003)
"In Nakedness," Eucharist (1997)
"Textures," Cynic (1993)
"Beings of Light," Alcest (2012 - not really an instrumental, but no real words either)
"Into the Lungs of Hell," Megadeth (1988)
"Racing with the Devil on a Spanish Highway," Riot (1990)
Jeff Wagner is the former editor of the influential Metal Maniacs magazine and the author of Mean Deviation: Four Decades of Progressive Heavy Metal, an exhaustive history on the sound and its various subgenres.