Thrash metal – perhaps the longest enduring subgenre in the entire history of heavy metal music aside from the style pioneered by the classic greats such as Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Judas Priest and Iron Maiden. What rose out of the ashes of small pockets of bands working together both in terms of friendly networking as well as vicious competition and rivalry all across the United States and parts of Europe was the initial inspiration for a musical movement that would influence not just the world of heavy metal, but rock music in general. This is the story of thrash metal.
THE BEGINNINGS OF THRASH METAL:
Of course the best place to start when it comes to the story and the history of thrash metal would be at its very beginnings, if not what came to inspire the first wave of thrash metal bands right back at the beginning of the 1980s. As has been documented many times already by various individuals, thrash metal was a musical concoction of a handful of styles of harder rock music that had existed beforehand – the two obvious types and the pair that most credit in this regard: the New Wave of British Heavy Metal (NWOBHM) and general punk rock/hardcore. NWOBHM groups such as the aforementioned Iron Maiden and Judas Priest, as well as Motorhead, Tank, Angel Witch, Venom, Saxon, Diamond Head, Raven, Girlschool, Def Leppard, Sweet Savage, Samson and Tygers of Pan Tang, in addition to similar sounding bands from outside the United Kingdom such as Anvil, all influenced the early wave of thrash metal acts. Punk and hardcore also played a massive part in this regard, as the Misfits, Anti-Nowhere League, Sex Pistols, the Ramones, Minor Threat, D.R.I, Verbal Abuse, the Stooges, T.S.O.L and other bands also inspired the at the time young wave of thrash metal bands and musicians. Traditional hard rock acts such as Van Halen, Kiss, Aerosmith, Alice Cooper and Deep Purple also deserve recognition.
I’ve named dozens of bands that influenced the original wave of thrash metal bands, but what about the songs themselves? A handful of songs can be credited with kicking off thrash metal, albeit in a proto-thrash way – in the same way that The Velvet Underground is a proto-punk band and ‘Helter Skelter’ was a heavy metal song before the phrase ‘heavy metal’ was coined in the first place. Queen’s ‘Stone Cold Crazy’, first released on their 1974 studio album ‘Sheer Heart Attack’, came a year before Black Sabbath with their Sabotage track ‘Symptom of the Universe’ – the two of which could be said to have pioneered thrash years before the first wave of bands truly kicked their own respective careers off. The instrumental wizardry of at the time newcomer Eddie Van Halen as well as songs by Diamond Head (‘Am I Evil?’), Motorhead (‘Overkill’) and more followed in the footsteps of Queen and Black Sabbath.
THRASH METAL IN THE 1980s:
As you can imagine, there is a lot of stuff to talk about when it comes to thrash metal in the 1980s. In just a handful of years, a style of music emerged from nowhere to becoming one of the most popular types of hard rock music in existence at the time, and to a lesser extent in the contemporary musical climate of 2017 as well.
In the minds of many, the Bay Area in San Francisco, California is where it all began. Various venues situated around the locales of Oakland, Berkeley and San Francisco included the Keystone, Ruthie’s Inn and the Kabuki Theatre, among many others. Exodus, Metallica, Death Angel, Megadeth, Testament, Blind Illusion, Heathen and many more all crafted their musical skills and live performance chops in these venues throughout the early 1980s. Some of the pioneering 80s death metal bands also came through the doors of these places, namely Possessed, Autopsy and of course Chuck Schuldiner’s Death. However this is about thrash metal, so a separate feature on death metal is something for another day.
Over on the other side of the United States, a blossoming thrash metal scene in the state of New York was also developing. While admittedly not as influential as that of the Bay Area scene, it still did produce a number of classic bands that would eventually go on to influence the genre as a whole as well as the modern bands that play this style of music – Anthrax, Nuclear Assault, Overkill and Demolition Hammer are just some of the names you will know. Cannibal Corpse and Suffocation also emerged from New York as well, but that death metal feature is again for another day.
Over in the European mainland, a substantial number of thrash metal bands were pushing the musical envelope even further than what their American counterparts were achieving. The German big 4: Kreator, Sodom, Tankard and Destruction. These bands matched the American equivalents of Metallica, Anthrax, Megadeth and Slayer with equally visceral sounding music across the 1980s and into the following decades. The European bands like Kreator took the politicized lyrics of Megadeth, the speed of Anthrax, the ferocity of Metallica and the burning hatred of humanity of Slayer and combined it all into one hellish musical force that would become far more extreme and sum up the German thrash scene incredibly well. A selection of other German bands that don’t receive as much credit and publicity are Exumer, Holy Moses, Mekong Delta, Angel Dust, Vendetta and Necronomicon, in addition to general European thrash metal acts such as Onslaught, Acid Reign and others.
The albums that a lot of these bands produced during the glory period of thrash metal in the 1980s are all known to most of you by now: ‘Bonded by Blood’, ‘Master of Puppets’, ‘Among the Living’, ‘Peace Sells…but Who’s Buying?’, ‘Reign in Blood’, ‘Pleasure to Kill’, ‘The New Order’…the list goes on and on. What started as a musical weapon to combat the hedonistic decadence of the 1980s glam metal scene that was prevalent in the United States became one of the most successful and important scenes in the history of rock music.
THRASH METAL IN THE 1990s:
I know it’s like saying water is wet and the sky is blue, but thrash metal experienced a fairly troubling time over the course of the 1990s. A variety of other styles of rock music experiencing commercial popularity meant that some of the key players in thrash either changed their styles to suit a more commercial and mainstream eye and ear – you know who I mean. The opening riff of ‘Enter Sandman’ on Metallica’s eponymous 1991 mainstream breakthrough record meant that the band was now entertaining those who years previously Metallica and those close to them dubbed ‘posers’. ‘Nothing Else Matters’ as well as Testament’s 1989 track ‘The Ballad’ from their album ‘Practice What You Preach’ definitely showed that thrash was capable of having mainstream appeal. With Metallica changing their ways, and Slayer and Megadeth refusing to adjust to industry expectations for the time being, the gap was empty for another band to step in and take Metallica’s place…
Despite their glam efforts in the previous decade, Pantera took on the role as flag-bearers for heavy music in a ‘mainstream’ sense in the 1990s. While some will rightfully consider Pantera groove metal as opposed to traditional thrash like Exodus (for example), Pantera’s obvious respect for those bands shows clear, considering they toured with Exodus and Suicidal Tendencies around that time period. While death metal and black metal bands were ruling the underground of extreme music, namely acts such as Carcass, Emperor, Morbid Angel, Entombed, Mayhem and others, it was Pantera leading the charge against the grunge explosion of Nirvana, Pearl Jam etc and what would come after it with the punk rock revival (Green Day, the Offspring, Rancid, NOFX) and nu-metal (System of a Down, Deftones, Korn, Incubus, Slipknot). With that in mind, however, groups such as Machine Head (born out of the ashes of Bay Area favourites Vio-Lence and Forbidden) with their debut record Burn My Eyes, and other bands such as Fear Factory and Biohazard – thrash in the 1990s was not in as much of a bad place as some will like to tell you. ‘Cowboys from Hell’, ‘Vulgar Display of Power’, ‘Far Beyond Driven’, ‘The Great Southern Trendkill’, and ‘Reinventing the Steel’ – 5 superb albums that carried a genre that was nearing the point of defeat through 10 years of adversity all the way to the end of the 20th century.
THRASH METAL IN THE 21ST CENTURY:
Like with many of the more extreme genres of metal, thrash experienced a period of ‘reconsideration’ if you will – taking a step back to fully understand its place in the general landscape of heavy music. Nu-metal reigned supreme at this point in time with Linkin Park, Limp Bizkit and various other groups ruling mainstream radio, and the subsequent repercussions in terms of the revitalization of pop-punk could be seen in the eyes of Blink-182, New Found Glory, Jimmy Eat World, Sum-41 and numerous other bands.
At this point, it was time for a series of revivalist bands to join the ranks of the legendary acts. Municipal Waste kicked things off at the start of the century with their combination of traditional thrash and crossover hardcore influences whilst adding a comedic edge to their sound. Havok, Warbringer, Evile, Lost Society, Bonded by Blood, and Vektor were able to add to thrash’s basic musical template with their own signature and distinct qualities in innovative ways, whether that be ramping up the visceral ferocity of the music or incorporating progressive elements into their general instrumentation. While these bands did not reach the popularity highs of the groups that came before them, 21st century metal acts ranging from Gojira to Lamb of God all borrowed influences from the classic thrash metal bands, even though they were not solely thrash metal bands themselves.
THRASH METAL’S PLACE IN ROCK MUSIC
I’ve discussed the history of thrash metal enough already, but this is my final segment before I round things off. It can be argued that thrash is the most influential genre in heavy metal, as it directly inspired future bands in the black metal, death metal and grindcore genres, as well as the styles of music that those aforementioned genres ended up influencing. Take just Metallica and Slayer for example: two monumentally important bands who together or on their own have influenced numerous acts ranging from Cannibal Corpse and Behemoth to Biffy Clyro and Foo Fighters. The fact that new bands are coming through into the limelight decades after King met Hanneman and Hetfield met Ulrich is enough to display the undying willpower of this style of music.
Below are 20 albums that I have handpicked that I believe are worth checking out if you are interested in delving into the world of thrash metal.
- Megadeth – ‘Rust in Peace’
- Vektor – ‘Terminal Redux’
- Municipal Waste – ‘The Art of Partying’
- Anthrax – ‘Among the Living’
- Sepultura – ‘Beneath the Remains’
- Exodus – ‘Fabulous Disaster’
- Kreator – ‘Pleasure to Kill’
- Testament – ‘The New Order’
- Annihilator – ‘Alice in Hell’
- Overkill – ‘The Years of Decay’
- Dark Angel – ‘Darkness Descends’
- Slayer – ‘Seasons in the Abyss’
- Metallica – ‘Master of Puppets’
- Sodom – ‘M16’
- Suicidal Tendencies – ‘Lights, Camera, Revolution!’
- Death Angel – ‘The Evil Divide’
- Warbringer – ‘Waking into Nightmares’
- Havok – ‘Time is Up’
- Destruction – ‘Eternal Devastation’
- Nuclear Assault – ‘Third World Genocide’