The 25 Greatest Debut Metal Albums of All Time

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The 25 Greatest Debut Metal Albums of All Time

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    There’s nothing more important than making a good first impression. This holds especially true in the metal world, where the songs are often über-technical, the fans are more demanding, and the margins for creative and commercial success are narrow at best. The most effective solution, of course, is to hit the ground running with a kick-ass debut LP. With that in mind, here’s our list of the 25 best debut albums in heavy music, from death-metal masterworks, to stoner-doom monuments and Big Four thrashterpieces.

    –Zoe Camp
    Contributing Writer

    25. Pallbearer – Sorrow and Extinction (2012)

    The Arkansas doom band Pallbearer have never shied away from paying tribute to their influencers; just flip to the back of the liner notes of Sorrow and Extinction, the band’s stunning inaugural epic, and observe the final party they acknowledge in the thank-you list: not a family member, musical associate, or divine being, but, “of course, Black Sabbath.” Of course, inspiration is nothing without proper application, which brings us to the group’s greatest asset: their sharp, steeled sense of dynamic intuition, which makes every last crunchy stoner riff and extended psychedelic jam feel all the more urgent, as well as unforgettable. –Zoe Camp

    24. Acid Bath – When the Kite String Pops (1994)


    Throughout the ’90s, New Orleans served as the center of the sludge-metal universe, giving rise to a bevy of imposing wrecking crews: Down, Eyehategod, Crowbar, and Soilent Green, just to name a few. The most sinister and underrated denizens of this swampy circuit were Acid Bath, an explosive, five-man merger of two local metal groups (the sludgy, thrashy Golgotha and death-metal peers Dark Karnival). 1994’s debut, When the Kite String Pops, is not so much an LP as it is a musical snuff film directed by guttural, growling frontman Dax Riggs, who paints a grim tableau of kinky sex, hard drug use, and insatiable bloodlust. Consider When the Kite String Pops’ cover art — a painting by John Wayne Gacy, the notorious clown-turned-serial killer — an explanation for the resultant, enduring cult appeal of both album and band. Trends come and go, but true terror endures. –Zoe Camp

    23. Blasphemy – Fallen Angel of Doom (1990)

    Canada’s Blasphemy pioneered bestial black metal, a super raw, super primitive variation where the blast reigns supreme. They were in between the first wave of black metal — Venom, Mercyful Fate, and Bathory — and the infamous Norwegian second wave that would later define the genre. Fallen Angel of Doom, their 1990 debut, would inspire their countrymen and bands across the Atlantic to go all out. Their vocalist, Nocturnal Grave Desecrator and Black Winds (look up the rest of their pseudonyms; they’re equally ridiculous), took death grunting and made it more animalistic, blurring comprehension even further. “Ritual” is a key cut, with its stilted yet charging drum intro and lingering riffs that float over the drums. It’s barbaric for its own sake, and while it would inspire legions of bands to copy their sound years on, no one could get their simplicity right. –Andy O’Connor

    22. Incantation – Onward to Golgotha (1992)

    You know how thrash royalty (Metallica, Slayer, Anthrax, and Megadeth) are commonly referred to as the Big Four? Well, New York City’s death metal underground has its own upper echelon as well, four pioneers I’ve personally dubbed the “Ion-ic Quatre”: Suffocation, Immolation, Mortician, and last but not least, Incantation, the heaviest, most hardcore-indebted of the bunch. 1992’s debut, Onward to Golgotha, embodies the platonic ideal of New York death metal, with top-heavy grooves, thrilling punk breakdowns, and filth-ridden production flourishes showcasing the Big Apple’s characteristic brutalism. –Zoe Camp

    21. Darkthrone – Soulside Journey (1991)


    Norway’s Darkthrone began their career with the weirdest entry in their catalog: a death metal album, not the black metal they pioneered nor the blackened punk-heavy metal hybrid they morphed into. And while it gets lost in the shuffle of early ’90s death metal classics, Soulside Journey stands on its own. Journey sounds a lot like what their Swedish countrymen were doing at the time, and it was recorded at the legendary Sunlight Studios where Entombed and Dismember recorded their formative records as well. Soulside is much doomier than what came out of Sweden, and its keyboards also lend to a lurching menace. The whirling buzzsaw guitar tone becomes a more gradual swell, less an immediate panic and more inevitable fate. They already had their cold, desolate mood that would inform their work henceforth on point. Soulside is a fascinating portrait of what a different future could have sounded like: bizarre in retrospect, but bizarre nonetheless. –Andy O’Connor

    20. Earth – Earth 2: Special Low Frequency Version (1993)

    It might sound hard to believe, given the music’s copious reptile brain baiting, but the brutal, primitive genre known as drone comes courtesy of the latter-day intelligentsia: a loose network of Ivy League musicologists, avant-garde performance artists, and psychonauts-turned-philosophers who molded 20th century anxieties into overwhelming sonic horror shows. With their inaugural full-length, Earth 2: Special Low Frequency Version, Dylan Carlson and co. sent a heretofore inaccessible musical philosophy on a one-way ticket to hell, resulting in one of the harshest, most punishing albums ever pressed to wax. The band might’ve pivoted to a lusher, more melodic sound after Earth 2, but their opus is their calling card nonetheless. Is there any question why? –Zoe Camp

    19. Bathory – Bathory (1984)

    Bathory’s self-titled 1984 debut brought the fuzzy, necro-production that would eventually become a staple of black metal. Beneath that murk was tons of swagger, bringing Motörhead’s charge from bikes, girls, and whiskey to Satan, witchcraft, and more whiskey. Quorthon, the band’s leader and chief songwriter, had a rasp as nasty as Lemmy’s, but he also had his sense of hooks, too. Bathory was far from pop-metal, though had Blackie Lawless gotten a copy, he would sense a kinship in Quorthon and maybe even have him out to throw some meat on audiences. It’s a lot cheekier than the music that black metal would eventually inspire. Quorthon himself would take his own music towards a more epic style focusing on Norse mythology before passing away in 2004, but from the onset, he sealed his legacy. –Andy O’Connor

    18. Dillinger Escape Plan – Calculating Infinity (1999)

    With Calculating Infinity, Dillinger Escape Plan crammed hardcore, technical death metal, grindcore, progressive rock, and even traces of IDM into one of the most volatile musical cocktails. Riffs never stay static, and if they can fit a synchronized solo in there, they will. “43% Burnt” is still the jam, an experiment if you can mosh to ultra-fast sweeps and ever-changing tempos. Its title track, one of the lone breathers, has a noise-rock-meets-Faith No More vibe that would not only chart the band’s future, but also lead to working with Mike Patton himself. “Weekend Sex Change” has tranquil guitars but sputtering angry drums, like they tried to remember an Aphex Twin song from memory. Dillinger Escape Plan came out the gate with such an insane record, it’s no wonder every album since has been tempered down to some degree. To be fair, trying to replicate this wouldn’t be just deadly, but impossible. –Andy O’Connor

    17. Trouble – Psalm 9 (1984)


    Formed in 1979, the Illinois band Trouble were among the first bands to churn out UK-style doom-metal stateside, garnering local fame through massive, primordial psych jams reminiscent of Blue Cheer and Black Sabbath. 1983’s self-titled debut LP — eventually rechristened Psalm 9, to avoid confusion with Trouble’s eponymous fourth LP, released seven years later — represents the first great American doom album, a bleary-eyed wonderland awash with down-tuned riffs, turgid chug, and pointed hooks. Even as a record musically inseparable from Ozzy and co.’s infernal tradition, Psalm 9’s god-fearing, spiritually-driven themes proved damn subversive in the early ’80s, when popular discourse framed metal as a musical means of devil worship. In tempering the light and darkness, Trouble challenged and expanded genre mores, providing a possible explanation for the dubious “white metal” label bestowed upon them by label home Metal Blade. The grand irony, of course, is that Trouble’s Psalm 9 is neither pure nor holy: it’s simply enlightened, albeit wrathfully so. –Zoe Camp

    16. Cynic – Focus (1993)

    Death metal is proof that sometimes the best music is made by the biggest fucking nerds to walk the Earth, and in the early ’90s, when it began melding with progressive rock and jazz fusion in part because of Atheist and Pestilence, that was even more true. Vocalist/guitarist Paul Masvidal and drummer Sean Reinert had already helped Death advance to a new realm of musicality with Human, and they returned to their main band, Cynic, to further explore progressive directions with their debut, Focus. Masvidal recorded his vocals through a vocoder, creating a robotic and totally alien vibe. Even the guitars are rough yet polished, grafting metal heft onto smooth fusion runs. Basically, they sound exactly like they were recorded on headless guitars. Fretless bass gives this a hopped up Jaco feel, a small Florida homage. Death metal had explored the cosmos before, but Cynic felt truly interdimensional. –Andy O’Connor

    15. Exodus – Bonded by Blood (1985)

    Exodus represent the Christopher Marlowe to Metallica’s Shakespeare. Similar to the aforementioned playwright pairing, both pioneering thrash bands ran in the same scene, both rose to prominence at roughly the same time, and both went down in history for carrying their chosen art form into uncharted territory; moreover, as with Marlowe’s legendary Docter Faustus, Exodus’ revolutionary inaugural release, Bonded by Blood, is frequently sidelined in favor of its more famous rival, Metallica’s Kill ‘Em All. Heshers who’ve done their homework, however, will see this nine-course riff-feast for what it is: an early masterwork that laid the foundation for the blackout-drunk, bloody-fisted, lightning-fast drama we call “thrash metal.” –Zoe Camp

    14. Ozzy Osbourne – Blizzard of Ozz (1980)

    Ozzy Osbourne’s s solo debut, Blizzard of Ozz, wasn’t even intended as a solo album — that title was supposed to be the name of the band until the record company put his name on it. Title aside, it was a new beginning for him. Opener “I Don’t Know” is an apocalypse anthem where Ozzy positions himself as an anti-savior. “What’s the future of mankind? How do I know I got left behind?” One of the world’s most visible rock stars is saying that you should not look to him, a rock star, for answers. Still, he’s somewhat of a prophet when he tells you the answer isn’t in booze (“Suicide Solution”), the occult (“Mr. Crowley”), or porn (“No Bone Movies”). He wasn’t in a position of guidance because he was in debt to two of its players, both of whom really make Blizzard — Bob Daisley, who wrote virtually all the lyrics, and Randy Rhoades, a once-in-a-lifetime talent who grounds a tangled album while also making it lighter. He was a burgeoning talent who never realized his potential, equally concerned with classical influences as he was catchiness, the Van Halen lesson a lot of shredders miss. “Crazy Train” is his signature song, from when he comes in like flickering stars rapidly descending into Earth to its carnivalesque chorus to every squeal and skronk he slips in to a future baseball stadium staple. –Andy O’Connor

    13. Venom – Welcome to Hell (1981)

    Released in 1981 at the peak of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal movement, Venom’s debut full-length, Welcome to Hell, created a whole new world of pain for metaldom, with hyper-condensed arrangements and blistering riffs portending the death- and black- metal styles that would take hold in the coming years. In a 1981 review for Sounds magazine, the British critic Geoff Barton compared its cramped, dank sound to that of a 50-year-old-pizza, going on to add that it “brought a new meaning to the word ‘cataclysmic.’” He’s not kidding; with their sheer power and immense distortion, standouts like “Schizoid” and “Mayhem with Mercy” play as dispatches from the uncharted wilderness. Welcome to hell, indeed. –Zoe Camp

    12. Down – NOLA (1995)


    Technically, we couldn’t include Pantera’s Cowboys from Hell on this list as that wasn’t their actual debut album — they had four albums before as a glam metal band. However, we couldn’t exclude the Pantera universe entirely, and Down’s 1995 debut, NOLA, is up there with Pantera at their best. When Down formed in the early 90s, it was a side project for Phil Anselmo and some of New Orleans’ finest metal musicians, including Corrosion of Conformity guitarist Pepper Keenan, Crowbar guitarist Kirk Windstein, and Eyehategod guitarist Jimmy Bower, who plays drums with them. NOLA is a love letter to Louisiana in that it shows how multifaceted its metal is. With Keenan and Windstein on the axes, riffs and grooves just seep out, as is the case with “Temptation’s Wings” and “Lifer”. Swampy blues guides “Eyes of the South”, “Stone the Crow”, and “Jail” take dark psychedelic turns. Anselmo had lost his ’80s wails by this point, but he’s a capable blues vocalist in his own right, adding the final layer of grit to an already hearty bunch of songs. –Andy O’Connor

    11. Emperor – In the Nightside Eclipse (1994)

    When we think of Norwegian black metal, we think of corpse-painted melodrama: scenes of burning churches, blood feuds, and unabating sorrow. These tropes, however sensationalized, stand ultimately as a reflection the genre’s original sin: a 1992 crime spree carried out by Burzum’s Varg Vikernes and several other area musicians, which saw them burning down a historic church and abetting murder and assault. Among those standing for the events were members of the Norwegian band Emperor, who were then on the crux of dropping their first album, 1994’s In the Nightside Eclipse. The group’s alleged role in the widely publicized crimes, coupled with the violent intrigue of the genre writ large, helped make Emperor’s infernal debut a global success. Those listeners wise enough to look past the overarching ambulance-chase are rewarded with majestic, synth-y soundscapes, cold-blooded furor, and insane rhythms, the stuff from which all glorious nightmares are born. –Zoe Camp


    10. Death – Scream Bloody Gore (1987)

    After cranking out tons of demos that would become the foundation for death metal, Chuck Schuldiner and his band, Death, brought the genre to album form in 1987. Scream Bloody Gore set the template by intensifying thrash’s tempos, Schuldiner’s growled screams, and the general obsession with horror and the macabre. “Zombie Ritual”, in particular, remained a live staple until Schuldiner’s death in 2001; its screechy intro was unlike anything coming out then. Possessed and Slayer were already among the most extreme thrash bands at the time, yet Scream solidified that into code. He would later expand death metal’s frontiers a thousandfold, yet this primitive model still has old heads and new forming death metal bands. And though he didn’t realize it, Scream was the first step in making Florida death metal as important to the state and the world as Miami bass and Blowfly. –Andy O’Connor

    09. Napalm Death – Scum (1987)

    Napalm Death’s debut album, Scum, arguably the first grindcore record, is almost two albums. Side A and Side B have completely different lineups, with drummer Mick Harris the common thread between them. Side A features Justin Broadrick on guitar and vocals, who would later go on to form Godflesh, and bassist, vocalist,and founding member Nik Bullen trading shrieks and barks. They compacted Discharge’s blown-out, dystopian anachro-punk into its shortest, most blistering form possible, ending with the infamous one-second track “You Suffer”. Side B has a more grinding guitar tone from Carcass’ Bill Steer and deeper grunts from future Cathedral singer Lee Dorrian, both of which predicted Napalm Death’s eventual death-grind direction. Their pointed social commentary, as blunt as the music itself, served as inspiration for other groups to use death metal to confront societal ills. Intense music shouldn’t leave you off the hook — why compromise on your ideals? –Andy O’Connor

    08. Godflesh – Streetcleaner (1989)

    “YOU BREED! LIKE RATS!” Justin Broadrick’s opening words on “Like Rats” are still spine-chilling and some of the angriest verses laid to tape. After leaving Napalm Death, Broadrick formed Godflesh to combine grindcore and death metal with industrial music. Though part of Earache’s Golden Era, their debut, Streetcleaner, wasn’t blistering fast: it was a steady death machine, the programmed drums only functioning to kill. Streetcleaner needed that cold feel of a drum machine; it’s a record about crushing life, or in the case of “Like Rats”, propagation as destruction. G.C. Green’s bass provided even more inhuman clang, and even Broadrick himself doesn’t sound human, offering pained growls that sound like he’s fighting off assimilation and losing. Don’t hold him back, as he says on “Christbait Rising”, this is his own hell. –Andy O’Connor

    07. Morbid Angel – Altars of Madness (1989)


    Morbid Angel were destined for greatness from the moment they first rose from the swamps of Tampa, Florida in 1983. It took mastermind Trey Azagthoth and his cohorts less than 7 years to push to the front of the Sunshine State’s fertile death-metal circuit, racing alongside scene poo-bahs like Obituary, Deicide, and Death. On 1989’s debut, Altars of Madness, the quartet effectively left their peers in the dust with 10 eternal, accessible stompers, each showcasing the transcendent potential of a style regarded by many a music snob as being overly primitive and formulaic; take the incendiary opener, “Immortal Rites”, one of the first tracks of its kind to incorporate sampling and drum machines; “Maze of Torment”, a polyrhytmic, byzantine clusterfuck of the highest caliber; or “Evil Spells”, the hallucinogenic love letter to dark magic that concludes the whole affair. In the wake of Altars of Madness, Morbid Angel signed with Giant Records and started getting spins on MTV, making them the first death-metal band to burst into the mainstream. –Zoe Camp

    06. Slayer – Show No Mercy (1983)

    Years before the giant shades, years before tribal tats, years before Sum 41 guest appearances, years before Gary Holt, there was Show No Mercy. Formative American thrash albums showed their NWOBHM influences more nakedly, and Mercy was no exception. Slayer’s look at the time was more dramatic, filled with studs, spikes, and eyeliner (thrashers could be pretty boys, too!), and Tom Araya’s vocal performance reflected that. “Die by the Sword” is an upbeat romp where Araya attempts squeaky highs and theatrical lows — as fun as it is, it’s as much about him finding his literal voice. Still, there were signs here of the Slayer to come. Jeff Hanneman and Kerry King’s soloing is noticeably cleaner and more Priest-influenced than the borderline free chaos they created, though “Evil Has No Boundaries” and “Metal Storm/Face the Slayer” were still rife with messy squabbles. “Black Magic” has a darker air and is the most Slayer song on here, which is why it’s still a setlist staple. Hanneman’s hardcore influences, which made Reign in Blood a modern classic, hadn’t fully seeped in yet, but there was more speed than what was coming from across the pond. Even if the British influence lingered, Slayer were already well on their way into carving their own place, and with the exception of Kill ‘Em All, no thrash debut came close to touching Show No Mercy. –Andy O’Connor