More than almost any other musical genre, hard rock and heavy metal is all about great performances. Dedicated headbangers demand excellence from every player in a band, and when they’re rewarded with a particularly memorable guitar solo, a heart-stopping drum track, or an unforgettable riff, it becomes the stuff of legend. Some of the best musicians and performers of the past three decades have released work on Roadrunner Records, so here are 20 of the most crushing musical moments they’ve created during that time (and here's the accompanying Spotify playlist). Beg to differ? Think we chose wrong, or overlooked someone? We’ve left plenty of space in the comments section for you to make your own case, and plenty of those tracks will be spotlit in the next installment.
King Diamond, “The Family Ghost” (from Abigail, 1987): There’s so much to love here – a pulverizing drum track, Andy LaRocque’s gorgeous guitar solo, and, of course, King Diamond’s alternately growling and shrieking vocal performance is a thing of beauty. But it’s all held together by an instant-classic guitar riff that still manages to sound impressive some 25 years later.
Deicide, “Dead By Dawn” (from Deicide, 1990): Once all the Satanic trappings and conjured controversies are over, what survives in any metal classic is the power of the riff. This killer track from Deicide’s self-titled debut album has a memorable one that rolls over your eardrums before birthing to a squealing hellion of a solo from Eric Hoffman.
Gorguts, “Inoculated Life” (from Considered Dead, 1991): Always leave ‘em wanting more: Gorguts’ Considered Dead closes with this murderous track featuring a guitar solo so sick it perfectly fits the title. There’s a good reason this feels like the product of a death-metal summit meeting: that’s James Murphy, fresh off his stint in Death, providing the poison.
Sepultura, “Refuse/Resist” (from Chaos A.D., 1993): Chaos A.D. was Sepultura’s great leap forward, and they announced it from the very first second of the very first track: a murky, thudding pulse (actually Max Cavalera’s son’s heartbeat) gave way to Igor Cavalera’s clattering, Afro-Caribbean-influenced drumming. From that moment on, nothing would ever be the same for them.
Cynic, “Veil of Maya” (from Focus, 1993): One of the great prog-death albums, Focus comes from a whole different planet than most of its contemporaries. This is obvious on the first track, where death growls and storms of guitar are backed by a downright startling bass groove that burbles and swings courtesy of bassist Sean Malone’s fretless Kubicki.
Machine Head, “Davidian” (from Burn My Eyes, 1994): Anyone who’d paid any attention to Robb Flynn’s career prior to Machine Head’s debut knew what he was capable of. But even so, the sheer ferocity of “Davidian” was frankly flabbergasting: its crazily powerful, perfectly timed, groove-heavy guitar was practically the definition of what a metal riff should sound like.
Death, “Zero Tolerance” (from Symbolic, 1995): Anyone wondering why the loss of Chuck Schuldiner was such a blow needs only listen to this one track. Having already invented and re-invented death metal, he slows everything down here, creeping one slowed tempo away from mastering doom as well. Gene Hoglan’s colossal drumbeats hit like a physical blow.
Suffocation, “Depths of Depravity” (from Pierced from Within, 1995): A quintessential death metal band with a world-class two-guitar attack in Terrance Hobbs and Doug Cerrito, Suffocation thrived on the ultra-tight riffage they produced. That’s why it’s so surprising that their greatest Roadrunner production was this song, carried along to churning perfection by the underappreciated bass playing of Chris Richards.
Soulfly, “Bumbklaat” (from Soulfly, 1998): Max Cavalera made any number of normally career-killing moves with Soulfly; he left a popular band, courted a mainstream audience, and incorporated eclectic world music influences into his music. The result, though, was dynamite, and even on deep cuts, crushingly heavy riffs like this one asserted themselves, and Cavalera stood justified.
Slipknot, “Wait and Bleed” (from Slipknot, 1999): Picking a favorite musical moment from Slipknot is like picking your favorite grain of sand at the beach. But everything comes together here; after a melodic, deceptively simple start, things get nasty pretty quickly, and by the time #7’s guitars explode on the breakdown, you feel like you’ve been mauled.
Brujeria, “Laboratorio Cristalitos” (from Brujerizmo, 2000): A standout for the narco-metallic supergroup, this ode to the art of cooking meth features a pinpoint lockstep that sounds like the Ramones if they’d grown up on the streets of Juarez. The near-grindcore feel is thanks to the stellar work of guitarist Jesse Pintado, appearing as “Cristo de Pisto”.
DevilDriver, “Hold Back the Day” (from The Fury of Our Maker’s Hand, 2005): DevilDriver gets praised for their lyrics and sharp guitar playing, but their real hero is drummer John Boecklin. He kicks off their second album with unhinged time signatures, and by the fourth track, his double-kick thunder absolutely dominates the proceedings. It’s a great performance on an album thick with them.
DragonForce, “Through the Fire and Flames” (from Inhuman Rampage, 2006): Anybody can claim to have the most mind-bending guitar solo of all time. DragonForce can prove it, by virtue of this track being the hardest to play in the Guitar Hero game franchise. Even the video was made to quash rumors the song was performed by a twelve-armed, hundred-fingered alien.
Killswitch Engage, “Eye of the Storm” (from As Daylight Dies, 2006): KsE’s mutated metalcore is anything but a one-breakdown pony, as brilliantly illustrated here. Featuring the best start-stop dynamic this side of the ‘90s, “Eye of the Storm” also scores by Adam Dutkiewicz’s sloppy generosity with his leads: there’s so much fantastic guitar playing that the song can barely contain it.
Trivium, “The Crusade” (from The Crusade, 2006): Trivium may be the ABBA of metal. Don’t laugh: like the Swedish pop overlords, they seem like they have more hooks than they know what to do with. The closing instrumental title track from their second Roadrunner release is a perfect example, as Matt Heafy piles one memorable riff after another into this eight-minute epic without ever reaching overload.
Megadeth, “Sleepwalker” (from United Abominations, 2007): Dave Mustaine was having a tough time in the 2000s, plagued by lawsuits and band turnover. But it took only one song on Megadeth’s Roadrunner debut to prove he had plenty of life left, and when the jaw-dropping guitar solo appears two minutes in, they sounded as dominant as ever.
Nightwish, “Amaranth” (from Dark Passion Play, 2007): Symphonic metal bands, like opera companies, live and die by the vocal power of their divas. There was some question whether new vocalist Anette Olzon could fill the shoes of her predecessor, Tarja Turunen; “Amaranth” proved she could and then some, as her soaring voice made it the band’s biggest hit to date.
Dream Theater, “The Dark Eternal Night” (from Systematic Chaos, 2007): Dream Theater has built a hell of a career on prog-metal instrumental fireworks, the bunch of showoffs. But they can also bring the pain, and on “The Dark Eternal Night”, supreme shredder John Petrucci busts out a solo that wouldn’t be that out of place on a Machine Head record.
Rob Zombie, “The Man Who Laughs” (from Hellbilly Deluxe, Vol. 2, 2010): Rob Zombie’s musical career has been intermittent in recent years, as his work in movies frequently pulls him away from songwriting, but on the epic final track of his latest album, he brings them together in a breathtakingly over-the-top way. That’s thanks to two men: Tyler Bates, Rob’s longtime score composer, who provides the hypnotic orchestral track, and Tommy Clufetos, who plays the awesome four-minute drum solo.
Opeth, “The Devil’s Orchard” (from Heritage, 2011): Thanks to all the acoustic instruments, prog-rock trappings, and other departures on Heritage, some claimed it wasn’t metal at all. “The Devil’s Orchard” should easily have silenced those doubters, as its morphing chord patterns and instrumental trickery gave way to a fierce, blazing guitar solo at the end.
OK, so who did we miss - or pick the wrong song by? Tell us in comments, and look for your selections when we publish the next 20!