Since rock music became its own cultural force in the 1960s, full-length albums have been the format that gets the most recognition while constructing canon. Sure, it's true that many of the most important metal, hard-rock and punk releases have been long-form projects, but many of our heavy world's greatest names have also excelled in the short-form composition.
From metal giants like TOOL and Mercyful Fate jumpstarting their livelihoods with concise introductions, to bands like Nine Inch Nails and the Devil Wears Prada using the EP as an opportunity to transition their careers in bold new directions, these are the 11 greatest EP's in heavy music history. Because sometimes the best things come in small packages.
Alice in Chains were already a big band when they released 1994's Jar of Flies, but the EP elevated them to another level both creatively and commercially. Moving more than 140,000 units in the U.S. in its first week, Jar of Flies was the first EP to debut at the top of the Billboard 200. More importantly, the mostly acoustic record (the stylistic follow-up to and improvement on 1992's Sap) pushed the boundaries of what AIC — and any so-called "grunge" band — could sound like, bringing the world such timeless, haunting classics as "Nutshell," featuring what might be the late Layne Staley's single greatest vocal performance.
Many of the most important releases in hardcore history are EPs, and there's good argument to be made that none of them would exist without Nervous Breakdown. Black Flag's 1979 debut is their only project starring future Circle Jerks frontman Keith Morris on the mic, and his bratty swagger is a far cry from the hollering fury that Henry Rollins would bring to their later material. Songs like "Wasted" and the title track are so simple yet so effective, so riotous yet so goddamn catchy. Many have tried, but no one has succeeded at matching the intangible magic of these four songs.
The metalcore scene that the Devil Wears Prada sprung from was more concerned with crab-core breakdowns than well-devised concepts, so it felt like a seismic leap forward when the Ohio band dropped a project as lyrically thoughtful, aesthetically detailed and downright fun as 2010's Zombie EP. The five-track record injected the head-splattering glee of games like Left 4 Dead and Call of Duty: Nazi Zombies into viscerally exciting metalcore songs — replete with post-apocalyptic soundbites, shotgun blasts, and breakdowns that explode with enough force to level a field of flesh-eaters.
Mike Patton singing for the Dillinger Escape Plan was, and still is, an experimental metalhead's wet dream come to life. Left in the limbo between OG vocalist Dimitri Minakakis' departure and Greg Puciato's arrival, the Jersey mathcore eccentrics had the opportunity to record a four-song EP with the Faith No More/Mr. Bungle singer and obviously seized the motherfucking day. With three originals and a wild Aphex Twin cover, Irony Is a Dead Scene may be brief, but it's all killer no filler.
The one and only release by Hellhammer, the Swiss extremists who would become Celtic Frost, 1984's Apocalyptic Raids took the sound of Sabbath, Motörhead, Venom and more to crustier, gnarlier, darker new places, and provided a major foundational block for the incipient black- and death-metal movements. The likes of Napalm Death and Sepultura — both of whom would cover the EP's "Messiah" (off the 1990 re-release) — clearly took serious notice.
Deathcore had existed for a couple years prior, but Doom was the starting pistol that set the movement into motion. Job for a Cowboy's 2005 debut clicked together metalcore breakdowns, death-metal blasts and over-the-top pig squeal vocals, christening the contentious extreme-metal genre that's still going strong nearly 20 years on. Doom doesn't have the sheen of today's deathcore bree-hemoths, but the breakdowns in these songs are timeless, and the vocals still sound painful — in a good way.
It's cover art — a stark, black-and-white drawing of a mostly naked young woman burning on the cross amid a circle of hooded occultists — says it all: Mercyful Fate were taking no prisoners with their infamous debut 1982 EP. Helmed by helium-voiced great Dane King Diamond, its four sinister songs aim to shock and awe, and a young American band called Metallica took notice, eventually covering standout cut "A Corpse Without Soul" years later as part of their "Mercyful Fate" medley.
In the summer of 1987, Metallica made their studio debut with then-new bassist Jason Newsted, offering up The $5.98 E.P.: Garage Days Re-Revisited, a boisterous bash through songs by Diamond Head, Killing Joke, Misfits and more. Raw, raucous and an absolute joy to listen to, Garage Days Re-Revisited represented a healthy sign of life from a group still recovering from the sudden tragic death of Cliff Burton. The EP still stands as a rousing reaffirmation of Metallica's underground roots.
Minor Threat's entire discography is hardcore source material. They never cut a less-than-stunning track in their three-ish years as a band, but their first of two 1981 EPs contains their angriest, most energetic performances, as well as a proclamation of the straight-edge ethos (given its name by the song "Straight Edge") that launched an entire subculture. The riff on "Filler," the stomping rhythm of "I Don't Wanna Hear It," the unbridled speed of "Screaming at a Wall," the youthful pride of "Minor Threat"'s lyrics — it still sounds so vital, so inspiring, so life-affirming. This is hardcore.
There are fews things better than a "fuck you" record and Broken is one of the best. Ever. After the breakout success of his synth-pop debut, Pretty Hate Machine, Trent Reznor wanted to explore heavier territory with Nine Inch Nails, and his label wasn't having it — which led to an infamous feud. Reznor's righteous rage boils throughout each of the industrial-metal masterpieces on this explosive 1992 release, including the gloriously masochistic fan-favorite, "Wish," since covered by everyone from Linkin Park to Behemoth.
This is where it all started. A year before their debut album, 1993's Undertow, Tool introduced themselves to the world with a six-track EP that features some of the hardest-hitting songs of their career. Opiate doesn't feature the mind-bending prog elements that would make them alt-metal icons later on in their career; instead, "the music was all about emoting and releasing that primal scream," as Maynard James Keenan told us. And what a scream it is, captured on all-time invectives like "Hush" and "Part of Me."