The first song on a band's album is the most important one. It doesn't have to be the best song on the record, the most complicated or the most catchy, but it does carry the integral roles of setting the sonic scene for what's to come and drawing new listeners in. In a genre as intense as metal, picking the right opening song is an especially tough choice. Do you begin with the energy cranked to 11 or do you gradually build up to that point?
You can probably think of a few albums off the top of your head that take a minute or two to really take off (and there is something to be said for a suspenseful slow burn), but we wanted to look at all of heavy metal history and celebrate the instances when bands pulled out all the stops on the very first song. From thrash perfection to groove-metal magnificence, these are the 15 greatest album-opening cuts in metal history.
As far as metalcore goes, it's hard to imagine a better opener than Converge's "Concubine." The Jane Doe kickoff distills all of the band's spasmodic majesty into a slim minute-and-change. Whether you're already years deep in the extreme-metal phase of your journey, or Jane Doe is claiming your metalcore virginity, "Concubine" never fails to leave a red mark.
There's a reason that the first song on Mudvayne's 2000 debut remains their most iconic. With a wonky lead lick that spawned its very own meme ("br br deng"), the L.D. 50 intro packs the furious punch of Mudvayne's early material with the anthemic hookiness of the music they'd make on future records. Plus, it's just a beastly move to start an album with lyrics like, "I would like to beat the face/Of any motherfucker that's thinking they can change me."
Machine Head have had a fruitful career making some of the best groove-metal of all time, and it all started with "Davidian." The first song on their 1994 debut, Burn My Eyes, was written about the Waco Siege of 1993, and the band effectively translated the deadly commotion that went down when law enforcement violently seized a religious compound. Robb Flynn's vocals still sound beastly —especially during the scream-along chorus, "Let freedom ring with a shotgun blast!" — and the breakdown at the end is an all-timer.
"Laid to Rest" might contain the best groove-metal riff that wasn't written by Dimebag Darrell. The starting pistol from Lamb of God's 2004 massacre, Ashes of the Wake, is somehow both utterly decimating and super infectious. It's not even the Virginia band's heaviest or hookiest song, but the way it begins — with Chris Adler's drum fills kick-spinning ninja-like between Mark Morton's gargantuan riff — is simply masterclass.
Deftones redefined the emotional pallette of nu-metal on their deceptively beautiful 1997 album, Around the Fur, and "My Own Summer (Shove It)" sets the mood. Beginning with a meaty riff that Chino Moreno alternately coos and shrieks over, the record's intro established the band's signature sound and functioned as an alluring commencement for the album it calls home.
Motörhead's "Ace of Spades" isn't just a song, it's a lifestyle. The title track from Lemmy and the gang's fourth LP captures the fantastical euphoria of going all in on a pair of aces and walking away with the whole pot. With all of the switchblade danger of OG punk, the brashness of hard rock and the horns-up nastiness of heavy metal, "Ace of Spades" is a timeless soundtrack for fast drives and faster life choices.
Has any metal band ever pivoted into a new style as well as Sepultura did on Roots? The Brazilian band's 1996 swerve from thrash to nu-metal resulted in one of greatest and most unique albums in the latter genre's history, and the LP's opening shot, "Roots Bloody Roots," is the standout. Max Cavalera howls over a groove that blends traditional Brazilian music with the power of down-tuned guitars. Many bands have followed in the song's footsteps (see, mostly recently, Gojira), but there's still nothing else like it.
Mastodon have a good track record when it comes to intro songs, but "Blood and Thunder" is the clear winner. Something about the force of the guitar riff, the contagious alignment of the notes themselves, the way Brann Dailor's tumbling drum fill explodes like a canon, and the way Troy Sanders yells, "I think that someone is trying to kill me," with a paranoid huff — it's just fucking badass. Clutch frontman Neil Fallon's unhinged cameo seals the deal.
The opener on Megadeth's 1990 gem, Rust in Peace, is easily one of the finest thrash performances of all time. Broken into three separate movements, the snarling, six-and-a-half-minute blitz about religious warfare is built upon an unfuckwithable riff that periodically recedes only to come back again bigger and badder than before. This is textbook heavy-metal mastery.
It's almost like Korn knew from the jump that they'd become the biggest metal band in the world. "Are you ready?," Jonathan Davis asks rhetorically at the start of "Blind," the pogo-ing lead-off track from their 1994 debut, and it turns out that millions of young and angry kids were. Five years later, the band would be performing it in front of an endless sea of jumping maniacs at Woodstock '99, and the song still emanates the same level of primal power to this day.
Slipknot's maniacal 1999 debut technically begins with a bone-chilling 30 seconds of garbled speaking, but "(sic)" is when the Iowa maniacs "pick up the pace." Slipknot's entire ethos is captured in this song, from the bullet-spraying percussion and bellicose guitar tones, to Corey Taylor's rabid barks and his gift for lyrics that pack the suspense of a horror film's climax into a single line. "You can't kill me 'cause I'm already inside you."
Countless bands are indebted to Slayer, and "Angel of Death" embodies everything awesome, terrifying and inspirational about the thrash titans. After some boot-stomping riffage, the group's magnum opus, Reign in Blood, truly begins with Tom Araya's hellish shriek at the song's start. The controversial ripper, about Nazi doctor Josef Mengele, is genre-defining speed metal, quintessentially Slayer and lyrically gruesome even by modern standards — plus it also has one of the best guitar solos in metal history.
Imagine having a catalog so good that "Enter Sandman," "Blackened," "Fight Fire With Fire" and "Hit the Lights" aren't even your best opening songs. "Battery" kicks off Master of Puppets, Metallica's 1986 triumph that launched thrash into the stratosphere and solidified the band as eternal gods even if they never made another record. They did, obviously, but they've never written an opening salvo that hits as hard as "Battery." Few bands ever will.
You can make a valid argument about the ordering of this list, but there's no denying that none of these songs would be here without "Black Sabbath" — the band, the album and, of course, the song. Although much of the heavy-metal originators' catalog sounds quaint compared to the brutality and technicality of metal today, it's almost not worth trying to make a song as atmospheric, creepy and exciting as this. It's the opening song for metal itself.
More than the opener to a single album, "Cowboys From Hell" marks the beginning of a new era for Pantera — and, if we're being honest, for the metal genre writ large. The title track from the Texas juggernaut's 1990 opus is the musical equivalent of a Sam Peckinpah-style shootout. "We're taking over this town" was Pantera's battle cry, Dimebag Darrell's unrivaled riff was their weapon of choice and the song's endless groove was their giant stockpile of ammunition. Sure, there are cuts that are more technical, crushing and/or catchy, but no metal song in history had the swagger of "Cowboys From Hell."