No Words: The Versatile Role of the Instrumental on the Classic Metal Album

No Words: The Versatile Role of the Instrumental on the Classic Metal Album

Sometimes, the music is all you need.

Literally, just the music.  No vocals.

I’ve always been a huge fan of a fully instrumental track.  It allows the listener to experience the band’s musical abilities first and foremost, without concern for the vocals.  At this base level, the listener can make a judgment about whether or not they like the band’s chops and sound prior to engaging with any other material.  It’s also an impressive feat by any band to draw the fan in with hooks that are purely produced by the music, where vocals and lyrics might actually ruin that magic they’ve already created.

This method for music discovery is especially true for any form of extreme metal, specifically those with different style vocals that a novice listener, like myself in my younger years, had been used to prior.  My first positive experiences with several bands you could label as extreme (e.g., death, melodic death, and black metal) were through first exploring their instrumental tracks and working through their other material afterwards.  Though the vocals sometimes proved to be an adjustment, if the quality of the music and the talent of the players draws you in, you’ve likely found yourself a new band to obsess over for years to come.

Being such a proponent of tracks like these, I wanted to find a way to discuss instrumentals that was more than just saying “Hey, here’s a bunch of my favorites – you should listen to them, too.” When I started racking my brain for every metal instrumental I ever cared about, though, I noticed that more than a few of them are on a lot of really good albums.  Like, universally loved, classic, influential, and important metal albums from all different genres.

As I dug a little deeper, some distinct patterns and classifications started to emerge in how the songs were used on the albums’ respective track listings.  I certainly wasn’t in the production meetings with any of these bands, but I can reasonably assume that these songs are placed in a certain slot of each record for a reason.   I want to explore these tracks deeper to see the different ways instrumentals have been used, especially in terms of their placement on the track listing, and how that makes them an indispensable part of the classic records they appear on.

(Please keep in mind that, though some of my favorites may appear on this list, this is far from the definitive metal instrumental playlist, and most songs are used to illustrate a point of how they’re used in the larger context of the album.)

Leading Off

One of the most common spots to place an instrumental is at the very beginning of the album.  It sets the tone and usually syncs up with the second track, creating a bit of anticipation for what’s to come for the listener.   In some of these cases, the band also places one as the very last track as a set of bookends for the record.  Though there are plenty of examples, I think these two best exemplify what I’m talking about.

Judas Priest – “The Hellion,” Screaming for Vengeance (1982)

Judas Priest’s seminal 1982 release Screaming for Vengeance leads off with “The Hellion,” which does exactly what I described above: it builds anticipation toward the next track with a simple, catchy guitar harmony from Glenn Tipton and K.K. Downing.  Though only roughly 40 seconds long, “The Hellion” leads perfectly into “Electric Eye,” creating one of the most iconic duos of introductory tracks on any metal album.  This is one of many examples of two tracks being essentially married to one another, and the two are still a staple of the band’s live show.

Dissection – “At the Fathomless Depths,” Storm of the Light’s Bane (1995)

Storm of the Light’s Bane is widely heralded to be one of the best black metal releases of all time.  Dissection’s second and final release blended elements of Norwegian black metal and the nearby Gothenburg melodic death scene to create a cornerstone album for the genre. It begins with this trudging, foreboding number that sounds like you’re walking through the front cover of the album, before giving way to the drum intro of the unrelenting second track “Night’s Blood.”  As will become a theme here, a great instrumental has a way of evoking a certain place or feeling – “At the Fathomless Depths” places you walking alongside the Grim Reaper riding on his horse through those cold, dark, and snowy mountains.

What A Concept

Sometimes, the band’s greater vision pushes the opening instrumental into the second slot of the album.  In both examples here, the opening track of the album is spoken to introduce the story of the concept album, followed shortly after by the tracks in question.

Queensrÿche – “Anarchy-X,” Operation: Mindcrime (1988)

Operation: Mindcrime, the third release from Washington’s Queensrÿche, is rightly characterized as one of the best metal concept albums of all time.  It follows the story of Nikki, a drug addict turned radicalized political assassin, recalling the events that led him to the mental hospital he’s currently in.  The album begins with “I Remember Now,” in which the protagonist is attempting to recall how he ended up there:

“I remember now…I remember how it started… I can’t remember yesterday… I just remember doing what they told me….”

“Anarchy-X” follows quickly after Nikki’s monologue concludes.  It’s a sweeping, dual guitar lead that features a clip of Dr. X, the mysterious political figure who brainwashes Nikki, speaking to a crowd at a rally.   Queensrÿche brilliantly used this track to represent the protagonist’s memory coming back to him.  The song also serves as a terrific transition into the powerful “Revolution Calling,” where we finally get to hear Geoff Tate’s legendary vocals telling us how the story really began from Nikki’s perspective.

Dream Theater – “Overture 1928,” Metropolis Pt. 2: Scenes from a Memory (1999)

Progressive metal legends Dream Theater used a similar sequence on their magnum opus Metropolis Pt. 2: Scenes from a Memory, also a concept album.  It opens with a man named Nicholas going through regression life therapy.  We hear the doctor hypnotizing him during the first minute of the opening song.  Through this therapy, Nicholas encounters a woman named Victoria that he feels oddly close to – and it turns out that’s because he was her in a previous life.  After a short acoustic conclusion to the intro, “Overture 1928” kicks it up a notch, all while representing Nicholas travelling back to the time he was alive as Victoria through hypnosis.  “Overture 1928” is a conglomerate of riffs and themes that will occur throughout the album, as well as some from “Metropolis Pt. 1” from Images and Words.  Once “Overture” concludes, the band segues into “Strange Déjà Vu” and we learn more about how Nicholas was Victoria, and the story of her murder and Nicholas’ quest to solve it unfolds from there.

Similar to “Anarchy-X,” Dream Theater uses the instrumental to represent the main character recalling previous events during his regression therapy, while also foreshadowing future events with musical themes that will reappear later on the album.   That’s not all these albums have in common either.  The main characters are named Nikki and Nicholas, they are recalling past events, and the song placement structure to open the album is nearly identical.  I guess I never realized it until I started looking at it closer, but it’s pretty clear that Dream Theater was influenced quite a bit by Operation: Mindcrime.

Second Stringers

I’ve always thought placing an instrumental second on the tracklist between two other songs with vocals was a bit odd, but these two work exceptionally well on their respective records.

In Flames - “The Jester’s Dance,” The Jester Race (1996)

The Jester Race is a defining record for melodic death metal and the Gothenburg sound.  “The Jester’s Dance” appears between “Moonshield” and “Artifacts of the Black Rain” on In Flames’ landmark second album and bridges the gap between the songs beautifully, highlighted by Jesper Strömblad’s strong playing. It also showcases the juxtaposition of acoustic and electric guitar that was the band’s signature mark at this point of their career.  I remember a friend from high school sending this song to me back then and being unimpressed, and here I am 20 years later writing about how great it is.  If you’re reading this, Luke, you were right.

Kyuss – “Asteroid,” Welcome to Sky Valley (1994)

Desert pioneers Kyuss’ Welcome to Sky Valley is celebrated as one of the most influential and revered recordings from the stoner rock and metal genre.   “Asteroid,” which guitarist Josh Homme said reminded him of [composer Richard] Wagner, appears between “Gardenia” and “Supa Scoopa and Mighty Scoop” in the first triad of songs on the record.  In Decibel’s Precious Metal: The Stories Behind 25 Extreme Metal Masterpieces, Homme likened the song to what a marching band would play going into war, stating that “asteroids are what I’d want to roll into battle with.”  Alternating between modest, spaced out strumming and crushing, heavy desert riffing for five minutes, “Asteroid” provides a reprieve from John Garcia’s raw vocals while also bridging the gap seamlessly between two Kyuss staples from their third full length release.

Interludes, Preludes, and Quaaludes

Interludes and preludes are another common way metal bands have used instrumental tracks.  Most of the time, these can be chalked up as cool pieces the band had put together that never amount to more, but are still catchy or appealing enough to be placed on the record.  Or, they’re a more somber counterpart to the song they precede, but they appear as their own track on the album.  When used correctly though, they can create the perfect combination.

Black Sabbath – “Embryo,” Master of Reality (1971)

Black Sabbath were no stranger to the interlude, nor the instrumental, as a majority of the early Ozzy albums feature them.  While a lot of the instrumentals were co-listed with the song that came after it, the brief little interludes often had their own spot on the track list.  Though there are many, none has the power of the placement of “Embryo” on Master of Reality.  A haunting guitar melody that highlights riffmaster Tony Iommi’s many talents, it provides the perfect introduction to the heavy, chugging start of “Children of the Grave.”  Sabbath rarely played one without the other live, and the two are intertwined forever much like “The Hellion” and “Electric Eye.”

Corrosion of Conformity – “Without Wings,” “Mano de Mono,” & “#2121313,” Deliverance (1994)

Pepper Keenan’s first appearance as the full-time vocalist for Corrosion of Conformity was a successful one, as they produced perhaps their best full-length effort with 1994’s Deliverance.  In between the southern-style greasy riffing that characterizes most of the album, the band interspersed these three lower key instrumentals.  Breaking up the album this way mixes up the listening experience and allows the listener a breather before the next major riff or big chorus from Keenan and company.  Though all of these interludes play this role, the best for me is the transition from the foreboding “Mano de Mano” into “Seven Days.”

Shadows Fall – “Casting Shade” & “Prelude to Disaster,” The Art of Balance (2002)

Shadows Fall, one of the bands at the forefront of the New Wave of American Heavy Metal, also used preludes in the same way on 2002’s breakthrough The Art of Balance.  After a strong trio of songs to begin the album (“Idle Hands,” “Thoughts Without Words,” “Destroyer of Senses”), the band mellows out for two minutes with this clean, acoustic jam before plugging back in and crushing your skull in again with “Stepping Outside the Circle.” They do this later prior to “A Fire in Babylon,” with the apropos sounds of a crackling fire underneath a duel guitar harmony called “Prelude to Disaster.”  Both preludes show the versatility of the band and add considerable depth to one of the defining records from this genre.

Savatage – “Prelude to Madness,” Hall of the Mountain King (1987)

Although this is technically a cover of composer Edvard Grieg’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King,” Savatage fittingly put their own spin on it as a prelude to the title track of their album of the same name.  The familiar melody is accentuated by Criss Oliva’s impassioned soloing, creating an evocative introduction to the unforgettable title track of this underrated album.  I actually had a ten minute conversation with a total stranger wearing a Savatage t-shirt at a recent concert about how great the band was in general, and this album was about seven minutes of the discussion.  For my money, the “Prelude to Madness/Hall of the Mountain King” combination is up there with the best of all time on any metal album.

ISIS – “Maritime,” Oceanic (2002)

Though their name has aged quite poorly, ISIS created a string of beautiful post-metal albums in the 2000s before breaking up at the decade’s end.  The pinnacle of these records, in my opinion, was 2002’s Oceanic.  As you might imagine, the songs evoke the feeling of water throughout, but none moreso than “Maritime,” a mellow three-minute build up that places the listener out at sea amongst gentle waves.  “Maritime” leads directly into “Weight,” an eleven minute, nearly full instrumental track that is the apex of Oceanic.  If it weren’t for the brief two lines of lyrics in “Weight,” I’d be talking about it instead because it’s a genius work in and of itself.  These two songs might be the best illustrations of how a band can transport you to a place using (mostly) only the power of their playing.

A Break In the Action

Though interludes and preludes are generally shorter tracks, the concept of including an instrumental as a bit of a break for the listener also applies for longer songs, especially when considering the ones surrounding them.

Agalloch – “Odal,” The Mantle (2002)

Portland’s Agalloch changed directions drastically on their second full-length The Mantle, incorporating more atmospheric and folk elements to create a unique progressive black metal sound for the band.  Recognized as a watershed album for the genre, the record is nearly half instrumental.  “Odal” appears after the grandiose “In the Shadow of Our Pale Companion,” conjuring a walk through a forest after the first snowfall with its beautiful sonicscapes.  When the album came out, I remember reading an interview with frontman John Haughm in which he asked the interviewer, “Can you imagine 'Odal' with lyrics?”  The answer is a declarative no, as this is one of the more beautiful songs I’ve ever heard.

Death – “Voice of the Soul,” The Sound of Perseverance (1998)

Chuck Schuldiner, the godfather of death metal, matured as a songwriter with each album he produced with his indispensable group Death.  The genre-defining outfit was largely the brainchild of Schuldiner, surrounded by ever-rotating guitarists, bassists, and drummers.  “Voice of the Soul” appears on their last and maybe most refined album, The Sound of Perseverance.   It’s out of character for the band, and Chuck, as its mostly driven by acoustic guitar, and appears in between tracks that contain his unique, electric playing.  But it is a beautiful change of pace on what would sadly become the band’s swansong, as Schuldiner lost a battle with cancer in 2001.

Iron Maiden – “Losfer Words (Big ‘Orra),” Powerslave (1984)

Iron Maiden have contributed quite a few instrumentals in their day, but the first to appear on an album in the Bruce Dickinson era came on 1984’s Powerslave.  On what’s considered to be one of the group’s best efforts alongside The Number of the Beast, “Losfer Words” follows “Aces High” and “2 Minutes to Midnight,” which is one of the strongest opening salvos you’re going to come across.   I’m not sure anyone’s asked for a break from Bruce’s singing, but “Losfer” provides just that before Maiden get back to what they do best on “Flash of the Blade.” The band actually never had the intention of muting Dickinson, but according to Steve Harris, they just couldn’t come up with any lyrics and decided to have some fun naming the song:

Metallica – “Orion,” Master of Puppets (1986)

Did you really think I’d go through this entire article without mentioning Metallica – the authors of some of the greatest instrumentals of all time?  Cliff Burton, their inmensely talented bassist who died in a tragic bus accident while touring in support of Puppets, was the driving force and inspiration behind the first four instrumentals featured on each of their first four albums (Burton was credited posthumously on “To Live Is To Die”).  While all four could easily be featured here, none illustrate the points I’m trying to make more than this one. Named for the spacey middle section led by Cliff’s immortal bass play, “Orion” summons the stars while also providing some reprieve from the unrelenting second half of Master of Puppets.  Wedged between “Disposable Heroes,” “Leper Messiah,” and “Damage, Inc.,” it’s the listener’s only chance to relax on Side B.

James Hetfield’s tattoo of the notes from “Orion.” (Revolver)


Where else would we finish but at the last song?  Some of these serve as palette cleansers, while others continue where the rest of the album left off, or tie it up with a neat, little bow.

Emperor – “The Wanderer,” Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk (1997)

Perhaps the most talented band from the Norwegian black metal scene, Emperor set themselves apart from their brethren with impressive composition and a symphonic element the others didn’t possess.  Their timeless second release, Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk, concludes with an airy and daunting instrumental called “The Wanderer.”  Placed after “With Strength I Burn,” one of my favorite black metal songs of all time, “The Wanderer” provides an atmospheric, slightly unnerving conclusion to this master work.

Mastodon – “Joseph Merrick,” Leviathan (2004)

Though they’ve released their fair share of classics, the album that put Mastodon on the map was 2004’s Leviathan.   The band’s first concept album loosely tells the story of Herman Melville’s 1851 novel Moby Dick, largely dealing with nautical themes throughout its ten songs.  The crescendo of the album, the nearly 14-minute “Hearts Alive,” details Captain Ahab’s final confrontation with Moby Dick.  The pure strength of the whale causes all of the ship’s crew to drown, except for Ishmael.  The much mellower “Joseph Merrick” follows, and the listener can picture Ishmael floating at sea as the lone survivor in the middle of the ocean.  The aquatic, contemplative nature of the track neatly wraps up Mastodon’s first work of brilliance.  It’s also one of three Mastodon songs named for the Elephant Man (real name: Joseph Merrick), with whom the band's members seem to have an odd obsession.

The Sword – “The White Sea,” Gods of the Earth (2008)

Like any record collector, I sometimes struggle with what album to play.  Whenever I don’t feel like thinking about it for too long, the answer is usually The Sword’s Gods of the Earth, an unyielding barrage of doom-tinged heavy metal. Guitarist and vocalist J.D. Cronise is the architect behind The Sword’s dense riffing and historical lyrical content, and this 2008 effort may be his best work. “The White Sea” combines slow, down tuned guitar sections with a bit of a shred-fest at the end.  Following “The Black River,” the epic penultimate track, the two songs create a crushing conclusion to the album.

Speaking of records, if you listen to Gods of the Earth on vinyl, the last note of “The White Sea” drones on until you actually get up to change the record – quite the minor inconvenience.

Opeth – “Epilogue,” My Arms, Your Hearse (1998)

On their third release, Opeth delivered their first of many concept albums with a more concise approach to their songwriting.  According to mastermind Mikael Åkerfeldt, the story details a ghost who returns to check in on his loved ones after his death, trying to affect them in some way.  After realizing they have all moved on, he becomes enraged and tries to take them with him to the other side, before ultimately failing, reflecting, and coming to terms with his death.  “Epilogue,” a gorgeous track with a stunning, solemn solo, represents the ghost accepting his fate and leaving purgatory for eternal rest.

It’s also the only song on this list with actual lyrics.  Though they aren’t sung, there is an accompanying poem in the liner notes:

“There it was.
The final destiny.
A sunrise that never came,
Still the night lamp that never faded away.
Farewell was the word,
And the afterglow was the brave morning.
Rising and telling everyone
About the beauty of its prologue.”

The final word of each song on My Arms, Your Hearse is the title of the next song on the record.  For example, the last word in “April Ethereal” is “When.” Åkerfeldt added this poem to reinforce the idea that the ghost is finally at rest and to complete the circular nature of the lyrics by ending it with the album’s first song title, “Prologue.”

So what have we learned here, if anything?  We’ve covered a lot of different bands from different metal genres.  We’ve seen a great degree of variety in the songs themselves.  Some represent departures from usual playing on the album, and some seek to enhance the tracks that come after them.  Others represent a momentary lack of creativity for the band, while others are calculated compositions that would be utterly ruined by a vocal track.

Regardless of these differences, the real takeaway from this discussion is that the best metal bands are able to utilize the instrumental to either accentuate or supply an exclamation point to the prototypical classic album in their own genres.  The albums discussed above display the versatility of the instrumental track because they show how they can be used in so many different ways and still be essential to the record they appear on.    As I said earlier, this is not meant to be a definitive list of the best instrumentals, but rather a list of their best uses in the larger context of the album when considering the placement of that track and how it enhances the listening experience that is that classic record.

The best instrumentals are the ones that can transport the listener to another place, build anticipation for what’s coming next, create emotional responses without lyrics, or spark an undeniable, unrelenting groove.  The next time you’re listening to your favorite album, and you remember there’s an instrumental on it, pay close attention to where it’s placed on the album and what purpose the band intended with it.

Because they probably did it for a reason.

Listen to the songs discussed in the article using the playlist below:

Great! You’ve successfully signed up.

Welcome back! You've successfully signed in.

You've successfully subscribed to This Day In Metal.

Success! Check your email for magic link to sign-in.

Success! Your billing info has been updated.

Your billing was not updated.