The 10 Greatest Opening Tracks On Heavy Metal Albums

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The first song on an album is often the most important the most important track of them all. While it  doesn’t necessarily have to be the best song on the record, this set piece plays the integral role of compelling listeners by creating the tone for what’s to come. It operates much like the first chapter of a good book or the opening scene of a movie; creating an ambiance with the intention of hooking an audience in for the long haul.

Here are ten prime examples of killer opening songs from heavy metal albums:

Alice In Chains – “Them Bones” (Dirt)
Many heavy music fans consider the apex of the grunge movement to be Alice In Chains’ 1992 sophomore album, Dirt. An authentic masterpiece born of substance abuse and acute isolation, it’s an unflinching glimpse at the inner faculties of a drug addict narrated with the kind of poetic authenticity that Lou Reed could only dream about. Opening track “Them Bones” is a hook-heavy exercise in palm muted madness that has more musically in common with Pantera than their Seattle brethren. Lyrically, Layne plays the harbinger of his own doom. A heartbreakingly perfect song that sets the tone for a heartbreakingly perfect record.

Sepultura – “Refuse/Resist” (Chaos A.D.)
From their early excursions in blackened thrash metal and onward, Sepultura have remained in a constant state of evolution. During their heyday with the Cavalera brothers, the creative trajectory of these Brazilian juggernauts laid the bedrock for just about every long standing extreme rock subgenre of the modern age. While it is indeed a foundational groove metal album, the band’s seminal 1993’s masterpiece Chaos A.D. finds Sepultura at their unapologetically punk best. Ushering in the record with the unmistakable drums of war,  “Refuse/Resist” blasts forth in black bloc fury and righteous rage. Just as much an ideological call-to-arms as it is a mosh pit anthem, “Refuse/Resist” ushered in a new era for Sepultura and served as the tip of the spear for a musical revolution.

Slayer – “Angel Of Death” (Reign In Blood)
The undisputed kings of Satanic thrash, Slayer have never been ones to fool around when it comes to the opening songs on their records. The opening track to what is arguably their best record, “Angel Of Death” is a masterclass in sonic and thematic terror unlike any other. As the tension surrounding the murderous intro mounts to a fevered pitch, it kicks in with a tortured shriek and doesn’t cede one bit of ground for not only the duration of the song but the entire fucking record! While Slayer’s first two albums are landmarks of American blackened thrash, it’s clear from the opening hits of this track that the beast had evolved into something new and uniquely terrifying. The world has never been the same. 

Judas Priest – “Painkiller” (Painkiller)
After immense success in the first half of the decade, Judas Priest hit their critical low point with the one-two punch of the more commercial sounding Turbo and the traditional yet somewhat uninspired Ram It Down. Rather than admit defeat or attempt a stylistic about-face, the Birmingham metal gods redefined themselves as a razor sharp, impeccably calculated thrash band. Ushered in with an unrepentant double-bass barrage courtesy of new drummer Scott Travis, the title and leadoff track to 1990s utterly thrilling Painkiller is a tornado of tastefully frantic riffs, pummeling percussion, and the most maniacal vocal delivery of Rob Halford’s career (up to that point, at least). Having swung for a wider audience with disappointing results, Judas Priest learned a valuable lesson about prioritizing personal integrity over audience expectations. Painkiller is a record for metalheads, by metalheads.

Megadeth – “Holy Wars… The Punishment Due” (Rust In Peace)
While the genre might suffer an identity crisis in the years to come, thrash was still thriving as the 1980s gave way to the ‘90s. Look no further for proof of life at the beginning of the new decade than what is arguably Megadeth’s finest hour, Rust In Peace. Released in 1990, the first album by what is considered by many fans to be the band’s classic lineup is a full-throttled machine fueled by meaty riffs, dual guitar leads, and propulsive rhythms. Dave Mustaine and company set the stage with the iconic opener, “Holy Wars… The Punishment Due.” As a simple guitar intro gives way to a technical yet impossibly tasteful arrangement that is uncompromising in its ferocity yet catchy enough to come from the Thin Lizzy playbook. A work of hideous beauty and the perfect opening chapter for one of the greatest heavy metal records of all time.

Cannibal Corpse – “Hammer Smashed Face” (Tomb Of The Mutilated)
If anyone ever asks you to explain what death metal is, save your breath and just play them this song. From its opening hits through the murderous closing riff, it is a distilled masterwork of meat and potatoes genre purity. As blasting drums, putrid riffs and inhuman grunts give way to one of the nastiest breakdowns imaginable, it becomes clear that “Hammer Smashed Face” is more a statement of intent than a catchy title. While violent aesthetics have become so tongue-in-cheek over the years as to become a toothless meme (and a lot of that is indeed the fault of Cannibal Corpse), there is a level of sadism at play here that begats legitimate discomfort. Harrowing stuff, indeed.

Metallica – “Battery” (Master Of Puppets)
In what is arguably the biggest metal band in the world’s crowning achievement, Metallica’s third album set the gold standard for creatively expansive thrash and broke the mold on the way out. Beginning with the kind of dramatic acoustic intro that would feel right at home in a Sergio Leone flick, tension continually mounts through goosebump-inducing electric guitar hits before giving way to a kinetic main riff straight from the bowels of the netherworld. The song might only be a little more than five minutes long, but “Battery” is a dynamic endurance test conceived by genre masters performing at the height of their ability. An emotional rollercoaster that serves to prepare the listener for the journey to come.

Motörhead – “Ace Of Spades” (Ace Of Spades)
The eponymous opening track of Motörhead’s fourth album is so much more than an anthem. A nihilistically pragmatic ode to unapologetic fast living, “Ace Of Spades” is the definitive mission statement from a band with nothing to lose. A propulsive grove provides the backbone for a ten-ton riff that becomes the canvas for a punk-infused hard rock gut punch like none other. An earworm that helped catapult its namesake album to gold status in the UK shortly after its release and an ethos that cemented Motörhead as legends in their own time and forevermore.

Black Sabbath – “Black Sabbath” (Black Sabbath)
The song that launched a genre, the self titled track from the self titled album from the Birmingham miscreants who named themselves after a Mario Bava anthology flick is a monolith of heavy metal terror.. A crawling intro from the furthest reaches of hell lurches forward and explodes with all of the intensity of an Elder God revealing themselves for the first time since before the creation of the solar system, all the while Ozzy Osbourne pleads for his very soul with the sincerity of a man at the gallows. While it’s impossible for someone who wasn’t alive in 1970 to quantify just how scary it must have been for a kid from the flower generation to hear this track for the first time, I’m not ashamed to admit that the thought gives me goosebumps.

Korn – “Blind” (Korn)
This guy literally yelled “ARE YOU READY!?” and then nü-metal started. I might have opinions about Korn and the subgenre they helped to spawn but credit where credit is due.