The Top Seven EPs of Rock and Metal

Extended Play (EP) records are much more popular now in the age of streaming and have replaced the demo as a band’s first studio recording. The EP also presents an opportunity to include live tracks, remixes, demo recordings, and other miscellany as part of a wider package of material that often centres around a lead single. Indie labels with tight budgets and scarce resources support EPs as a way to allow their artists to develop organically and with the freedom to make mistakes. They don’t expect big sales. Traditionally, major record labels have been much more lukewarm in their support of the extended play format. How do you market something that is neither a single nor an album? Only when one of their clients had the attention of the zeitgeist and an astronomical explosion in sales would they consider it to maximise profit opportunities. Often, they would push a live album, a remix album, or a B-sides and outtakes record instead.

Nevertheless, those EPs that received the green light in the golden era of physical record sales are some of the finest recordings of our favourite rock and metal bands. The reasons for their release come with interesting backstories. Nine Inch Nails recorded their Broken EP in secret and under a pseudonym to stop their record label seizing the material. Smashing Pumpkins turned their 1996 Zero single into a seven-track EP with the last song made up of over seventy segments from unreleased demos. Bands like English art-rockers, Mansun, released fourteen EPs during their short career in the mid-90s to early 2000s.

In some cases, a debut EP is the best record in an artist’s discography. Who remembers the impact of Doom by Job for a Cowboy during the MySpace scene explosion of the early 2000s? Sometimes, the EP is the only thing possible due to external circumstances. How could Emperor produce anything more than an EP in 1993 when most of their members were in jail? Likewise, Mayhem released no official record after the 1987 Deathcrush EP until they unleashed their legendary 1994 debut album.

For this list, we based our choices on the criteria below:

  • The EP cannot be a single from an album
  • It must come from the rock, metal, or alternative genres
  • The record should be a clear influence on other artists
  • We will exclude EPs padded with live tracks, remixes or acoustic interpretations of existing songs

These shortlists always create debate, and it’s difficult to please everyone. Your favourite EP might not be on this list. Tells us if you think we’ve missed a classic from our final seven.

For the record, we know that Europe categorised Celtic Frost’s Morbid Tales debut as an EP in 1984 while the North American market defined it as an album thanks to its two extra tracks. We already included this in our Top 7 Debut Albums of the 1980s, so it does not qualify for this list.

These are the SBR Top 7 EPs of Rock & Metal. Watch our 16-minute documentary video below to enjoy the countdown.

7. My Dying Bride – The Thrash of Naked Limbs (1993)

In hindsight, The Thrash of Naked Limbs is a stepping-stone between 1992’s As the Flower Withers debut and My Dying Bride’s 1993 masterpiece, Turn Loose the Swans. Like Paradise Lost, the English death-doom pioneers could see a gap developing where Celtic Frost had vacated the stage – the underground needed a band that could be as ruthless in their experimentalism as in their hard metal edge. The West Yorkshire legends did not disappoint with the three new tracks on their 1993 EP. The title track pulsates with the slower moments of Morbid Angel’s Blessed Are the Sick album but second-guesses you with violin flourishes when you’re ready to whip out the air guitar. ‘Le Cerf Malade’ explores avant-garde minimalism in a dirge of eerie flutes, windchimes, and gothic keyboards to leave you as unsettled as an unwitting intruder. Meanwhile, closing song, ‘Gather Me Up Forever’, rips through a death metal workout with alternating passages of maudlin doom. These elements might be regular parts of the metal landscape in the twenty-first century, but they were new innovations in the early 1990s.

Those new to My Dying Bride should start with their 1990 demo, Towards the Sinister, for a feel of where this band started. From here, you can go through each album in chronological order from 1992 to 2020. Ask yourself: is there a more consistent band in metal?

6. Periphery – Clear (2014)

Perhaps the most ambitious and unique EP on this list, American prog metal virtuosos, Periphery, might be the only band in contemporary music where all five members are multi-instrumentalists who can write their own songs and produce them to a professional standard. Demonstrating the diverse influences of each musician, Clear treats us to industrial, post-punk, tech death, metalcore and groove metal. Behind it all is a common melody that all songs reference as their centre point on each composition. Drummer, Matt Halpern, produces a fine rhythmic pulse in ‘Feed the Ground’, while Spencer Sotelo’s ‘The Parade of Ashes’ experiments with a Nine Inch Nails offbeat and anthemic chorus.

Of course, no Periphery release would be complete without stupendous seven-string guitar fretwork. Misha Mansoor, Adam Getgood and Mark Holcomb provide the djent fix for the faithful on their individual efforts. Clear is a breathtaking achievement and a good place to start for those that want to understand the brilliance of Periphery before they commit to an album.

5. Slayer – Haunting the Chapel (1984)

Venom might have opened the gates to hell, but Slayer widened them. The sharp guitar rhythms were the fastest in music at the time of this EP’s release. Dave Lombardo shows the first signs of his technical prowess on ‘Chemical Warfare’ with an earth-shaking rumble of the double-kick pedal. King and Hanneman’s riffs gallop like invincible tanks cutting through no man’s land. Slayer were the most dangerous band in the world in 1984. This song seldom left their setlist over the next four decades. ‘Captor of Sin’ contains little of the band’s hard rock influences as they discover a style of their own. How did this music break out of the underground in just two years? There’s no doubt that it anticipated a sound and aesthetic that would lay the foundations for death metal. The production is brittle enough to earn the listener’s fondness forty years later. Your gurning face will receive no respite. Tom Araya’s gurgle of bass in the title-track is a threat to your collar bone.

Black metal bands worship this record, and you can see why. The fact that thousands of artists across the extreme metal spectrum try to capture this distinctive sound in 2024 is a testament to the everlasting impact of Haunting the Chapel.

4. Meshuggah – I (2004)

The enduring genius of Meshuggah is their ability to combine scientific rhythms with groove. Everything seems to be in common time, but you soon start to notice extra beats, unorthodox drum accents, and rhythms that appear to be talking past each other rather than to each other. This is a band that requires time and effort, and you must be willing to sit through ritual repetition and bludgeoning guitars that belch like lava pools. The light bulb moment might not arrive at first, but the band’s 2004 EP is a good place to begin. As a twenty-one-minute composition, it started as a studio jam between Fredrik Thordendal and Tomas Haake and evolved into a complex amalgamation of bowel-crushing grooves, frenetic thrash metal shapes and asymmetrical rhythm loops. Vocalist, Jens Kidman, roars over the top of this heavy metal data lake like a pumped-up soldier with a shot of steroids in his veins. The amount of brain cells required to remember the abundant off-meter time signatures defies imagination. Your body will relent to the chest-bursting riffs with involuntary contortions beyond your control. See if you can stop your eyes from bulging in violent delight as the down-tuned guitars circle your skull like robotic killing machines.

Nobody sounds like Meshuggah, but many have tried to imitate them. Their 2004 EP is another example of not just thinking outside the box – but outside the universe.

3. Tool – Opiate (1992)

Believe it or not, Tool were once a band who wrote heavy rock songs of less than five minutes with simple verses and chorus renditions. Grunge and alternative metal were about to become the dominant forms of heavy music in the mainstream, and Tool had the ability to surf between both scenes without conforming to any. This is Tool after all. They do their own thing. How many groups would release their first studio offering of six songs as a mini-LP with two of them recorded live? ‘Sweat’ introduced us to Maynard James Keenan’s distinctive pining soprano voice with its sinister undertones and latent melodies. Drop-D basslines grind through the mix here like lever controls in the lowest gear. Adam Jones wrestles with his high-treble distortion settings to unleash some of his most memorable riffs in ‘Part of Me’ and ‘Jerk Off’. Make no mistake: Tool were always a metal band at heart. Their guitar tunings and technical drum work are as integral to their sound as their vicious sense of humour.

This record’s impact was as immediate as Helmet’s major label debut. Within four years, American metal had changed its headquarters to LA thanks to Rage Against the Machine, Faith No More, Korn and, of course, Tool. Better records lay ahead, but this one still stands up today.

2. The Dillinger Escape Plan – Under the Running Board (1998)

Nobody had heard anything as chaotic or as violent as Under the Running Board when five kids from New Jersey released their debut studio recording on Relapse Records in 1998. Imagine using a bazooka to break down a wooden door when your foot could do the job. That’s how Dillinger Escape Plan approached this record. On opener, ‘The Mullet Burden’, they take the most jagged hardcore dissonance and complex rhythms and combine them with screaming vocals that sound like they could burst the windpipe of vocalist, Dmitri Minakakis. Chris Pennie’s superhuman operations behind the drumkit will leave your brain weeping. There is no escape. A hurricane of technical noise gyrations threatens to mutate from the speed of sound to physical matter in ‘Sandbox Magician’ with an unorthodox pinch of jazz rhythms and grindcore aggression thrown in for good measure. Closing track, ‘Abe the Cop’, is more intense than the final moments of two high-speed trains heading towards each other on the same line.

Under the Running Board created enough of a buzz to make the Terrorizer Top 40 Albums of the Year for 1998 despite being an EP and containing only three songs. Things were never the same again in heavy music after this EP, and it only took Dillinger twelve months to follow it with their groundbreaking Calculating Infinity album.

1. Nine Inch Nails – Broken (1992)

Few EPs have created as many myths as the Nine Inch Nails debut for Interscope Records in 1992. Trent Reznor found himself in a contract dispute with TVT Records and had to record the Broken EP in secret so CEO Steve Gottlieb could not seize the material and release it without his permission. TVT wanted Pretty Hate Machine, Part Two; Trent wanted to produce, in his words, “an ultra-fast chunk of death.” The latter prevailed. Synth-pop this is not. The guitars are loud and abrasive and caked in distortion like Ministry; the vocals seldom settle into the tuneful angst of the 1989 debut LP; synths bubble and froth in the background rather than in acquiescence with the words.

The two lead singles are classics of the NIN canon to this day. ‘Wish’ won a Grammy for Best Metal Performance. Its video pulsates with a Cliver Barker-esque human pyramid of wailing souls beating against Reznor’s band in a cage. The half-timing drums in the chorus are monumental in their tension release. Reznor’s lyrics are as memorable as the vocal lines and thrashing guitars: “I put my faith in God and my trust in you / Now there’s nothing more fucked up I could do.” And, of course, this is the only Grammy-winning song to include the word “fist-fuck.”

‘Happiness in Slavery’ erected too many video-nasty transgressions to win airplay on MTV. Those that have seen performance artist, Bob Flanagan, in the video for this song will not forget it. Many of the masochistic torture effects are real. The protagonist’s death at the end is not, but you can understand why its mythological status grew. Banning something is often the surest way to bring it attention. This song is just as much a jibe at TVT Records as an exploration of the darker side of sexual gratification. A funk bass and crushing drum machine rhythm receive some of Reznor’s most aggressive lyrics. The layering of metallic guitars in this and in ‘Wish’ is as forceful as an avalanche.

This is the Nine Inch Nails record that caught the attention of a metal audience. You can see why. ‘Last’ is a chunky industrial metal operation with palm-muted riffs and rage-fuelled vocals. ‘Gave Up’ unravels around a tormented melody of demonic voice projections and rapid drumbeats. The segue track, ‘Help Me I Am in Hell’, sustains the tension and unease with a morbid down-strum of clean guitars and dissonant notes. Broken feels like an album, and the people treated it like one by sending it towards the top of the charts and helping it go platinum in America and Canada.

A gratuitous long-form video was supposed to accompany the Broken EP, but it never saw an official release due to its graphic imagery and disturbing content. Directed by Peter Christopherson and leaked as a bootleg VHS throughout the 1990s, many people have said that the torture scenes and sexual deviancy make ‘Happiness in Slavery’ look like a Disney film. Reznor acknowledges the existence of the video, and it’s easily accessible in the internet age, yet the mythology surrounding it lives on.

Did we mention that Reznor also covers Adam Ant’s ‘Physical’ as a hidden track along with a cover of ‘Suck’ by Pigface? There are many hidden delights to this EP. It’s influence on metal and the darker side of rock is immense.

Honourable mentions…

Alice in Chains – Jar of Flies (1994)

Chimpspanner – All Roads Lead Here (2012)

Curve – Frozen (1991)

Mansun – Closed for Business (1997)

Mayhem – Deathcrush (1987)

Sodom – In the Sign of Evil (1985)

Spiritbox – Self-Titled (2017)