BY GEORGE PACHECO
The compilation album is a lost art, a relic from the not so distant past when labels needed an efficient and ear catching way of exposing listeners to their latest rosters of talent. Today’s hyperconnected culture means that new artists possess more choices than ever when it comes to platforms for sharing their music. Sites like Bandcamp, YouTube, and more eliminate the middleman and directly connect the freshest metal to those who need to be first in line.
But what about creativity? How about connecting threads or running themes? Sure, it’s true that compilation albums were a dime a dozen back in the 80s, 90s, and beyond, but there were also seminal examples of the medium that captured the imaginations of metal fans in a pre-internet age. Whether it was Scandinavian black metal mystery, melodic goth extravagance, or the fastest and most brutal grind acts, compilation albums not only exposed us to new music. They also led our kind down the paths we tread today—metal obsessives who simply need to know everything about where metal had been, where it was, and where it was going.
So, think of this as a fond look back at the metal roadmap of a bygone age, giving some love to those discs and cassettes that never left our cars and boom boxes. The compilation album may have gone the way of the dodo, but memories of the times we spent with these collections will never be far from our hearts.
#1: METAL MASSACRE SERIES (1982–)
C’mon, could there be any other series parked up at number one? We could (and probably should) spend all day ranking just entries in this series, but perhaps we’ll save that for another day. The legacy of Metal Massacre really speaks for itself, as its been responsible for kick-starting numerous careers for artists as massive as Metallica and Slayer to other metal icons like Armored Saint, Trouble, Lizzy Borden, Ratt, Overkill, Possessed, and Voivod. What’s most satisfying about listening to any of the Metal Massacre installments is how consistently good much of the other material is, from bands that may or may not have made it to the same heights as their peers.
Obsession, Black ‘n Blue, Znowhite, Warlord, Savage Grace, Omen, and Hirax were all Metal Massacre alumni, but what about Jesters of Destiny, Viking, Banshee, and Avernus? Stone Dagger, End It All or Divine Regale? These were solid tracks from solid bands that were given a chance to ply their wares to a willing audience. The Metal Massacre series almost always paid dividends for those who entered with an open mind, and this is why the franchise continues to be beloved by so many for so long. Metal Blade Records even brought back Metal Massacre in 2016 for a 14th installment, proving that there’s still plenty of life and interest for what’s certainly the finest metal compilation series of all time.
#2: GRINDCRUSHER (1989)
In the world of extreme metal, there are label compilations, and then there is Grindcrusher: The Ultimate Earache. It’s sometimes easy to forget how formative those classic Earache recordings were to the history of underground heavy metal. That’s why it’s fun to revisit a comp like Grindcrusher, as it quickly fills us with that rush of hearing these songs for the first time. Truth be told, yours truly probably wasn’t ready to be blasted with the heaviness levels of Carcass, Morbid Angel, and Bolt Thrower back when I first tossed this cassette in the old Walkman. Grindcrusher doesn’t give the listener time to breathe, either, as the track order is arranged just perfectly for maximum sonic impact. Still reeling from Carcass’ “Exhume to Consume?” Too bad, because here comes Godflesh and the “Streetcleaner” to erase your fucking world. It’s also fitting that Grindcrusher closes things out with a smattering of crossover and grind to scorch the earth, and seems to celebrate everything that’s fast, heavy, and offensive to the senses. Consider this one essential.
#3: NEW WAVE OF BRITISH HEAVY
METAL ‘79 REVISITED (1990)
This is it: the definitive New Wave of British Heavy Metal Compilation of its day. This double disc set was put together by Kerrang!, Sounds, and Classic Rock magazines’ Geoff Barton, alongside Metallica’s Lars Ulrich and compiles NWOBHM classics and rarities alike for a truly immersive experience. Your truly knew very little about the genre prior to hearing New Wave of British Heavy Metal ‘79 Revisited for the first time. It was just your basic big names of Diamond Head, Sweet Savage, and Holocaust, etc., without any real knowledge of underground killers like Gaskin, Trespass, Witchfynde, or Dragster. This is where Ulrich and Barton’s choices really come together, as it truly feels like a history lesson given by those who were there and who feel passionate enough about the subject to give it more than a cursory glance. Copies of New Wave of British Heavy Metal ‘79 Revisited aren’t always as cheap as some other entries on this list, but the music on here is timeless and promises to pack just as big a punch now as it did when it was originally released back in 1990.
#4: DEATH…IS JUST THE BEGINNING SERIES (1990–) NUCLEAR BLAST
It’s perhaps one of the most fondly remembered compilation series ever, a heavy institution that found its way into the homes, car stereos, and CD collections of countless hungry metalheads. Death…Is Just the Beginning is still going strong today, thanks to a little bit of nostalgia, and that’s a damn good thing, since this series was, quite simply, The Shit for many years. The title started off things fairly accurate, with the series drawing its focus upon the heaviest and most brutal death metal around town. Incubus, Master, Dismember, and Benediction were just a few of the names on that inaugural installment from 1990, and it didn’t end there.
The sophomore entry expanded to two discs and kept things ultra brutal. It wasn’t until the third volume in 1994 that horizons began to be expanded, with the inclusion of bands like Dissection, Therion, and Hypocrisy into the mix, to keep things interesting. It’s after this where, depending on your point of view, the word “Death” may or may not entirely fit. The fourth entry inserted a lot of gothic and melodic metal, and it was here where Death…Is Just the Beginning began to feel more like a label compilation than a series with a unique vision. This isn’t to say that there was anything inherently wrongwith the track listings, but rather the focus seemed to be getting a bit blurred.
Today, of course, it’s all gravy, with each entry of the Death series bringing back more and more nostalgia for that simpler time. Nuclear Blast even resurrected the name in 2019 for a new album and tour package, featuring Hypocrisy. Welcome back.
#5: METAL FOR MUTHAS (1980–92) EMI
Let’s be honest, any metal compilation that’s responsible for exposing the mighty Iron Maiden to the world deserves to be high on our list, no? Damn right, hence why we need to talk about the excellent Metal for Muthas series. The 1980 debut in the series is a veritable “who’s who” for the early New Wave of British Heavy Metal scene, from Angel Witch and Samson (featuring a young Bruce Dickinson) to Praying Mantis and…err, Toad the Wet Sprocket (not that one). Don’t let the track listing fool you, Metal for Muthas is straight bangers for days, capturing the energy and youthful naiveté that helped define NWOBHM for a new generation. The second installment is no slouch, either, even if the names aren’t quite as big. Trespass, Dark Star, and White Spirit easily make this a worthy sequel to the OG, while an early 90s resurrection, titled simply Metal for Muthas ‘92, kept the spirit going into a whole new decade.
#6: NORDIC METAL: A TRIBUTE TO EURONYMOUS (1995) NECROPOLIS
Necropolis Records was responsible for releasing some truly cult material during its 10 year reign. Arckanum, Dawn, The Black, and Impaled were just a few big time names to release material on Necropolis, but it’s this black metal compilation that’s perhaps the label’s most definitive calling card. Nordic Metal: A Tribute to Euronymous was just that—a lineup of bands with specific and personal connections to the fallen Mayhem guitarist and songwriter, together with a very specific calling out of one Varg Vikernes for his actions. There isn’t a hair out of place with this track listing, as it features classic and rare cuts from such legends as Emperor, Marduk, and Enslaved. There’s also the best Abruptum track ever put to tape, Thorns’ classic “Aerie Descent” and Ophthalamia’s cover of Mayhem’s anthemic “Deathcrush.” Finally, an unreleased outro from Mortiis caps off what can only be described as an absolute moment in time when it came to the crazy world of Scandinavian black metal.
#7: FIRESTARTER (1998)
We’re gonna do back-to-back black metal bangers for our next couple of entries, blasting off with what was perhaps one of the most well known compilations of its day, thanks to a very memorable promotional gimmick. The first run press of Century Media’s Firestarter compilation contained a matchstick tucked away in the CD spine, a black tribute of sorts to the church burnings that captured the morbid imaginations of black metal fans around the world. It was a conversation piece that helped spark the success of Firestarter to American audiences dying to hear some of the latest unholy tracks from the black metal world. Sure, not every artist on this disc could remotely be considered to be “black metal” (Hi, Opeth!), but the darkness and atmosphere is palpable on offerings from Ulver, Satyricon, Arcturus, and Rotting Christ. Firestarter served as a jumping off for many into this underground world, and this more than makes up for the lack of any outstandingly rare or unreleased material.
#8: BEAUTY IN DARKNESS SERIES (1996–) NUCLEAR BLAST
Sure, the title Beauty in Darkness could mean a lot of things, but the best selling point about this compilation series is how much variety Nuclear Blast packed into six CDs and a double DVD set. The first Beauty in Darkness was perhaps the most impactful, as it brought together some of the brightest shining stars from the mid 90s. The focus was usually on atmosphere, and this embraced everything from gothic metal and melodic death to black metal and beyond. Beauty in Darkness numero uno is perhaps the most enduring of the series, as it presented a rock solid lineup of tracks from Cradle of Filth, Theatre of Tragedy, Tiamat, and Sentenced, not to mention underground bangers from End of Green and Mindrot. There are a few duds from Atrocity and Crematory, but that matters little when it’s paired with immense classics from Hypocrisy, Sentenced, and In Flames.
The second installment included some familiar faces from the first outing, as well as some excellent additions from My Dying Bride, Peter Tagtgren’s Pain, and the underrated gothic metallers Dreadful Shadows. Pyogenesis’ “Blue Smiley’s Plan” has to be heard to be believed, while Switzerland’s Alastic closes things out with their best Samael impression. This vibe would continue throughout the series’ run, with a lot of familiar names sharing space with up-and-comers from the gothic metal world. There honestly isn’t a weak one in the bunch, and there are enough obscurities here to keep even a modern audience entertained.
#9: W.A.R. COMPILATION: VOLUME 1 (1995) WRONG AGAIN
We return to Sweden for our next entry, specifically the melodic death and black metal genre with the aforementioned Wrong Again Records. W.A.R. Compilation: Volume 1 (there wasn’t a volume 2) is another view into the fertility of Sweden’s metal underground, with nearly every outfit spawning a group of children in their wake, like a supremely badass family tree. Dark Tranquillity’s “Punish My Heaven” is an all time classic from the band’s back catalog, while Dissection delivers the same with “Where Dead Angels Lie” and a cover of Tormentor’s “Elisabeth Bathori.” Early material from In Flames, Katatonia, and Eucharist round the comp out, alongside more excellent, but lesser known material from Ceremonial Oath, Miscreant, Purgatorium, and Mourning Sign. It’s a match made in melodic metal hell.
#10: DARK PASSAGES (1991)
Dark Passages was similar to the Hellhound Compilation, in that it offered something of a definitive view into a genre defining record label. In this case, we’re talking about Lee Dorrian’s Rise Above Records, a label that’s still going strong today as one of the best locations for doom, occult rock, and cult reissues. Rise Above was 100 percent doom for Dark Passages, however, and it shows in this nearly unfuckwithable lineup. Dorrian’s Cathedral is, of course, present and accounted for, but the US also makes an excellent showing with tracks from Saint Vitus, Revelation, Solitude Aeturnus, and the underrated Penance. The comp is rounded out by Sweden’s finest in Count Raven, but let down a little by a decent but uninspired cut from Stillborn. Rise Above would return five years later with Dark Passages Vol. II, bringing together heavy hitters from Paul Chain, Acrimony, Electric Wizard, Solstice, and more for a supremely worthy sequel.
#11: PROJECTIONS OF A STAINED MIND (1994) CBR
Some of these compilations are of their time and are memorable for nostalgic reasons, while others remain cult snapshots of their respective scenes. Projections of a Stained Mind certainly falls in the latter category, with many metal fans today discovering this comp’s devilish extremity. It simply doesn’t get much better than the raw and hateful death metal sounds from Scandinavia that make this compilation practically burst with hellacious energy. Entombed, Mayhem, Merciless, and Dismember are just a few of the heavy hitting names of this bad boy, while more obscure acts of the day like Nirvana 2000, House of Usher, and Chronic Decay lend Projections of a Stained Mind even more street cred. Plus, many of the lesser known names on this comp never left the demo stage of their career, making Projections of a Stained Mind something of an archive for Norway and Sweden’s extreme metal underground.
#12: DOOMSDAY NEWS SERIES
The art of the label compilation doesn’t get much better than the Doomsday News series, a three album deal that delivered some of the best Noise Records had to offer from the late 80s to the early 90s. The initial installment is definitely the best of the bunch, as its lineup features the cream from the label’s early crop. Helloween, Coroner, Celtic Frost, Kreator, and Voivod are the heavy hitters, of course, but the Doomsday News selections from Deathrow, Sabbat, and Tankard are no slouches, either, and the comp is rounded out by decent cuts from Vendetta and Scanner. The second installment dips a little, but still offers strong material from the progressive cats in Watchtower, Rage, and “The Artist,” from Mordred’s underrated full-length funk(!) thrash debut, Fool’s Game. Finally, the Doomsday News series ended strong with Thrashing East Live, a blower collection of live material from Kreator, Tankard, Sabbat, and Coroner from East Berlin.
#13: SPEED KILLS SERIES (1985–)
UNDER ONE FLAG / MUSIC FOR NATIONS
You want your speed metal? We got your speed metal right here. This fantastic series has endured through seven installments and multiple labels to earn a nice and nostalgic pedigree for fans of the fast and heavy. The names that have passed through the Speed Kills series reads like a veritable laundry list of the best thrash metal has to offer and from all over the world. Bulldozer, Sarcofago, Venom, Nuclear Assault, Dark Angel, Possessed, and Exodus are just a few of the prestigious names to be featured on the Speed Kills series over the years, so you know we’re in some very good company. The true standout from the franchise is up for debate, but yours truly was always partial to the second installment, as it was my first time hearing bands like Bathory, Iron Angel, Onslaught, and Razor. So, roll the dice and pick up a slice of Speed Kills, if you dare. You won’t be disappointed!
#14: SUMMER BLAST (1994)
NUCLEAR BLAST / RELAPSE
It’s a given that every list has to have a personal favorite, and this one is mine, so please forgive the indulgence. Everyone needs an entry point, right? A open door into more extreme avenues of heavy metal that before seemed either too obtuse or too obscure to be revealed. Summer Blast ‘94 was my gateway into hearing bands like Amorphis and Hypocrisy for the first time, and it also possessed enough variety to blow my 15-year-old mind into oblivion with new and bizarre sounds. After all, could anything prepare the average teenage metalhead for Pyogenesis and their porno doom weirdness? Or Convulse’s hippy-fried, psychedelic death groove? How about Afflicted going full epic power metal on “Dawn of Glory” years before HammerFalll signaled the revival of tradition? Summer Blast ‘94 had all of this and more, not to mention tracks from Kataklysm’s corking early days, grind from Disrupt and Exit-13, and a Mortification song from their kick ass, early death metal period. This one will always hold a special place in my heart.
#15: METALMEISTER (1996)
Here’s a question: how badly has this album art aged? Sure, the Jägermeister parody of Metalmeister leaves a little bit to be desired, but the metal contained within is anything but lame…and that’s with the inclusion of a Galactic Cowboys song. Metalmeister was a nice snapshot of the Metal Blade roster in ‘96, a mixture of the old and new, the up-and-coming and obscure. For every well known album cut from Cannibal Corpse and Mercyful Fate, there was new material from the hardcore influenced Crisis, Wardog’s melodic thrash, or Skrew’s abrasive industrial metal. There were also some cult favorites on hand, as well, including two of metal’s most underrated acts, Desultory and Decoryah. The former delivered Dismember-esque death metal prior to going death ‘n’ roll à la Carcass’ Swansong, while the latter was one of Finland’s finest death/doom groups that never made it. The best thing about Metalmeister, however, is that you can probably still find a cheap copy second hand for about the same price (or less) than it was going for back in ‘96!
#16: DEATH METAL (1984) NOISE
Okay, so by now everyone who’s heard this iconic comp from Noise Records is going to be thinking the same thing, “Man, that’s one hell of a lineup…and Dark Avenger.” And yeah, it’s an easy joke, but it’s still impressive that this one and done German metal band didn’t make it, while the other three artists on Death Metal went on to enjoy thriving careers. Hellhammer, Running Wild, and Helloween are all presented at their heaviest and most extreme (well, Hellhammer was always extreme, but you get the idea), the latter two leagues away from the melodic pastures they’d eventually explore on future full lengths. Running Wild is gearing up for their Gates to Purgatory/Branded and Exiled thrash attack prior to discovering piracy on the high seas, while Helloween’s “Oernst of Life” is one of the band’s most obscure early cuts. Finally, Hellhammer’s primitive pounding signifies how influential they would become in their new life as Celtic Frost.
#17: WAR DANCE:
A WAR MUSIC COMPILATION (1998)
RELAPSE / WAR MUSIC
Wrong Again Records may not have existed for very long, but they managed to release some of the most formative slabs of Swedish death and black metal of the day. We’ll talk more about them later, but for now we’re going to discuss War Music, another short-lived company that emerged from its ashes. War Dance was released in conjunction with Relapse Records and continued Wrong Again’s pedigree for the more melodic side of Swedish extremity. For many, it was the first time bands like Darkane and Carnal Forge were being exposed to American audiences, while older bands like Eucharist, Naglfar, and Canada’s Cryptopsy all made welcome appearances with cuts of their own. We’ll admit that the mileage for War Dance will vary, depending on how much you dig the Gothenburg and Helsingborg sounds, but for our money this comp just hits a nostalgic spot.
#18: HELLHOUND COMPILATION (1994)
The next compilation on our list is another genre specific entry, in this case doom metal, but it’s also a cross section from one of that genre’s most iconic labels, Hellhound Records. There was little, if anything, notto like about the Hellhound lineup, and this compilation proved that in spades. Sure, the title is a bit unimaginative, but we can certainly forgive that misstep when the content inside is this heavy and powerful. There’s the traditional styling of Iron Man and Revelation, the experimentation of Unorthodox and even some thrashier sounds from Vortex of Insanity. True doom diehards will probably point to genre titans Saint Vitus, Count Raven, and The Obsessed as the real selling points here, however, and they’d be right. Many of the names of Hellhound Compilation remain cult and obscure to this day (Year Zero, Wretched, and Lost Breed, anyone?), but that’s all the more reason to take deep dive into this doom revue.
#19: TRUE KINGS OF NORWAY (2000)
So, is True Kings of Norway the best black metal comp of all time? No, but for the corpse paint hungry 90s and millennium, one simply didn’t miss an opportunity to capitalize on the genre’s explosive popularity. Enter True Kings of Norway, released in the year 2000 on the “extreme” Spinefarm Records subsidiary, Spikefarm. There’s nothing exclusive to be found on this disc, but it nevertheless showcased an intriguing snapshot into the early Norwegian black metal scene. True Kings of Norway collected seven inch EPs from Immortal, Emperor, Arcturus, Dimmu Borgir, and, uhhh…Ancient all in one place, making it a nice one-stop shop from some of these previously hard to find pieces of wax. Also, to be fair, the Ancient material here stands alongside the Svartavlheim full-length as their best, while the album in general balances black metal’s early mysticism with traces of its death metal roots, making True Kings of Norway a satisfyingly raw listen.
#20: BRAVE WORDS AND BLOODY KNUCKLES SERIES (1994–2006)
BRAVE WORDS AND BLOODY KNUCKLES MAGAZINE
We admit that we miss the newsstand glory days of the 80s, 90s and early millennium, when magazines like Metal Maniacs, Terrorizer, and Brave Words and Bloody Knuckles thrived in a pre-internet era. We particularly looked forward to the free compilation discs that were packaged with the aforementioned BW & BK, all of which brought together a wealth of variety and talent. Again, although the quality of each comp was subjective based upon personal taste, there was usually something for everyone on these CDs, from black and death metal to melodic power metal and thrash. More often than not, the discs reflected the content from that issue, although Brave Words also offered young bands the opportunity to promote their music alongside some of the bigger named acts. It was just one of the things that made BW & BK one of the most unique metal magazines around town.