In celebration of Nine Inch Nails’ new album, Ghosts Volume I-IV, an entirely instrumental collection, I thought it fitting to go back and look at a few stand out lyric-less tunes in the old music collection. For me, instrumentals have always been an exciting venture for an album. In a lot of ways, they express more about the musicianship of a band than a standard track may (although this is not always the case), as the music now stands alone and needs to conjure up the emotions within the listener without the aid of the lyrics telling the story. It’s almost a litmus test: can the musicians truly write a good piece of music or is it all catchy hooks that lay the foundation for a front man?
Take a look below at my list of great instrumental tunes (and my clear metal-bias) that pass the litmus test.
‘Call of Ktulu’ – Metallica (Ride the Lightning) – The first fully orchestrated instrumental tune from Metallica, ‘Call of Ktulu’ is like a symphonic piece with movements, tempo changes and a clear arrangement. Clocking in at a few seconds under 9 minutes, ‘Ktulu’ is like listening to the evolution of an orchestral piece.
‘Just Like You Imagined’ – Nine Inch Nails (The Fragile) – Trent Reznor once said in reference to the album, The Fragile, that it was like the soundtrack to a film that didn’t exist. The lush, full soundscapes created by Reznor and company on this album lent itself to moving instrumental pieces, with which the album is riddled. None are better than ‘Just Like You Imagined,’ which mixes the dramatic buildup of anthems with the industrial/pop sensibilities that surround NIN. Plus, its use in the trailer for the film ‘300’ was a driving reason for me to see the film (I won’t go into the disappointment that followed).
‘Orion’ – Metallica (Master of Puppets) – Written around a bass line Cliff Burton was noodling with, ‘Orion’ is a hard driving, evocative piece of music that excellently sums up the musical leaps Metallica took with the album, Master of Puppets. ‘Orion’ is a tighter arrangement than the band’s previous offering, ‘Call of Ktulu,’ it moves through its sections seamlessly, powerfully and is an great display of the guitar partnership of Hetfield and Hammett.
‘A Well Deserved Break’ – Morcheeba (Fragments of Freedom) – This steel drum and slide guitar piece is a simple song that is an example of excellence in naming. The song feels like a mellow Caribbean break on a beach with a
‘Daisy’ – Stone Temple Pilots (Tiny Music…Songs from the Vatican Gift Shop) – Dean DeLeo’s solo instrumental track feels like he’s channeling Leon Redbone in this saunter of a song. An acoustic rhythm section with an easy slide guitar playing over it, ‘Daisy’ is a demonstration that despite the attention front man Scott Weiland drew, the core and power of STP came from the brothers DeLeo with their understanding and use of non-traditional chords and phrasing put into great rock music.
‘Triad’ – Tool (Lateralus) – The final musical track of Tool’s opus, Lateralus, ‘Triad’ is a powerful bookend to the three-song suite at the end of the album. The real MVP of this track is Danny Carey, the band’s resident virtuoso on the drums, as he moves through irregular time signatures and polyrhythm to give the song an almost tribal, primal feel. The song is powerful, dark and mysterious, but what else would you expect from a band like Tool?
‘Bliss’ – Phish (Billy Breathes) – Said to be written for a Phish fan who died in an accident on the way to a concert, ‘Bliss’ is a simple, dual-layered acoustic song. Trey Anastasio’s use of open-tuning on the guitar allows each note to reverberate and hang, creating a peaceful, understated, beautiful tribute to a fallen fan.
‘To Live is to Die’ – Metallica (…And Justice for All) – The last instrumental track Metallica has recorded to date, ‘To Live is to Die’ follows suit with the album’s overall feel, shifting from section to section more abruptly, the heavy sections heavier than before and the quiet sections mellower. This pick also sort of breaks the “no-lyrics” rule because it includes a spoken-word poem by Hetfield, said to be a tribute to Cliff Burton. While it’s in third place out of Metallica’s three instrumental tracks, it is still a great inclusion on this list.
This is a great start to my list, but I’m sure there are a lot more additions that can be made. Feel free to make your own suggestions in the comments.