Thrash Metal really started when Newcastle band Venom mixed the speed and aggression of Motorhead with the dark occult themes and heavy guitar sound of Black Sabbath. Their first two albums Welcome to Hell (1981) and Black Metal (1982) are recognised classics of the Heavy Metal genre, proving to be influential on the formation of both Black Metal and Thrash Metal.
The genre began in earnest however when a scene coalesced in the Bay Area of California, featuring bands such as Metallica, Megadeth, Slayer, Exodus and Dark Angel. Metallica released the genre’s first album Kill ‘Em All (1983), a raw offering of superfast and heavy Metal music that took obvious cues from both Motorhead and the NWOBHM movement. Slayer followed close behind with Show No Mercy (1983), a dark and crudely satanic work that owed more than a little of its sound to Judas Priest. Without doubt Metallica and Slayer are the two most important bands in the Thrash Metal movement, Metallica going on to achieve massive success, popularising Thrash Metal and then moving beyond it to become the world’s biggest Heavy Metal band while Slayer pushed at Thrash Metal’s extremes, going faster than anyone else and then slowing things down a notch but always keeping it heavy and raw, proving to be a major influence on the burgeoning Death Metal genre.
Metallica’s sound matured on their second album Ride the Lightning (1984) and then became a little bit progressive with Master of Puppets (1986), creating possibly Thrash Metal’s most important album in the process. Unfortunately the success of Master of Puppets was followed by the tragic loss of their bass player Cliff Burton in a traffic accident while on tour. The band replaced him with Jason Newsted and recorded a new album but 1988’s And Justice for All, although even more progressive than its predecessor and including the truly awe-inspiring single One was flawed by a weak production. Their next move shocked the Thrash Metal faithful. They enlisted the production expertise of Bob Rock, a man famous for his work with Def Leppard and AC/DC. The resulting album called simply Metallica (but also known as ‘the Black album’ thanks to its black cover art, featureless apart from the band’s logo and a snake) was no longer simply a Thrash album. Oh, the Thrash elements were still in there but the overall sound was glossier, the style more palatable to non-metal audiences and the effect was one of either the mainstream of metal, or perhaps even the growing Alternative Metal scene. The next two Metallica albums are not thought highly of by fans. Load (1996) and Re-Load (1997) saw Metallica cut their hair short (horror of horrors!) and continue the Black album’s journey into the mainstream and towards the ‘alternative’. St. Anger (2003) saw a return to something akin to Thrash, albeit with a stripped down sound and a slight Industrial Metal feel thanks to the clanging drum sound. But the true return to form was Death Magnetic (2008), which found many old Metallica fans rejoicing at the apparent return of the Master of Puppets/Ride the Lightning sound.
Slayer meanwhile created a far harder and darker sound than their debut on 1985’s Hell Awaits and then proceeded to create perhaps the fastest album known to man and Thrash Metal’s other most important album Reign in Blood (1986). This album inspired the entire Death Metal genre and it made Slayer one of the most important Metal bands on the planet for going further, harder and faster than anyone else had done at the time. Their next move could have misfired horribly but with South of Heaven (1988) the band slowed down while losing none of their characteristic heaviness. This doomy Thrash Metal offering proved equally as popular as its predecessor and two years later Seasons in the Abyss (1990) completed a hat-trick of excellent Slayer albums by combining the approach of both Reign in Blood and South of Heaven. Later Slayer albums were however disappointing. Divine Intervention (1994) seemed to be just treading water and by 1998’s Diabolus in Musica the band had adopted some of the stylings of the Nu-Metal movement.
Another very important Bay Area band was Exodus. An early incarnation of the band included Metallica’s Kirk Hammett. Their debut album Bonded by Blood (1985) was a mean little record, chock full of pseudo-satanic lyrics and tight but heavy riffs that could knock your socks off. Despite his excellent vocals on the album, singer Paul Baloff was sacked soon after and replaced by Steve Souza. The next few albums (Pleasures of the Flesh (1987), Fabulous Disaster (1988) and Impact is Imminent (1990)) continued their success and popularity and the band was often considered the unofficial number five of the Thrash Metal Big Four at the time. The Big Four consisted of Metallica, Slayer, a New York band called Anthrax (of which more later) and a band formed by an ex-Metallica member, Megadeth.
Dave Mustaine was fired from Metallica early in their career for his excessive drinking and difficult personality. He was replaced by Exodus’s Kirk Hammett but Mustaine went on to form his own band with David Ellefson, Gar Samuelson and Chris Poland. The band was called Megadeth and their debut album was Killing is my Business... And Business is Good (1985). The follow-up album Peace Sells... But Who’s Buying? (1986) proved to be a total classic, containing as it does the title track (Peace Sells), Wake Up Dead, The Conjuring and My Last Words (a song about Russian roulette). Chris Poland and Gar Samuelson were both fired following the Peace Sells album and a third album was released in 1988 called So Far, So Good... So What! This album featured punk influenced Speed Metal and contained the classic track In My Darkest Hour. Another personnel shuffle followed the album though and also a period when Dave Mustaine tried to wean himself off of his heroin addiction. Substance abuse along with Mustaine’s volatile temperament had contributed to all the line-up changes previously after all. A newly clean Mustaine released a new Megadeth album in 1990, Rust in Peace which is considered by many of their fans to be their best album. It is certainly a very technical album, focusing greatly on the skill and musicianship of Mustaine’s guitar work. Two years later and Countdown to Extinction (1992) stripped down the band’s sound for an Alternative Metal groove, obviously inspired partly by Metallica’s change of direction (as well as the overall change of styles in Metal culture of the time). Later albums have been progressively more disappointing and so Megadeth join many other great Thrash Metal bands of the eighties in having a definite ‘use by’ date to their popular appeal.
Another important Bay Area Thrash band was Dark Angel. Their 1986 album Darkness Descends joins the ranks of Slayer’s Reign in Blood and Possessed’s Seven Churches in being a formative influence on Death Metal. Latecomers to the Thrash Metal party are Testament. Formed in 1983 in Berkeley near San Francisco, Testament didn’t release their first album until 1987, by which time Death Metal was arriving to take Thrash’s crown and many of the bigger names of Thrash were starting to reach out for mainstream acceptance. Nevertheless early Testament albums such as The Legacy (1987) and The New Order (1988), although style-biting Metallica proved to be popular with Thrash fans and the band’s third album Practise What You Preach (1989) turned out to be their breakthrough album. Souls of Black (1990) and The Ritual (1992) followed and built on the reputation of their first three albums, before the inevitable occurred and the times moved on, leaving Thrash Metal behind in favour of Death Metal, Black Metal and Industrial Rock and leaving many Thrash bands to flounder in their own stupidity by trying to ‘alternative-ize’ their sound, Testament amongst them.
Bay Area California wasn’t the only Thrash Metal scene however. Two other important scenes were in New York and in Germany, and there were also minor scenes in Canada, Brazil and even the UK. The major New York act was Anthrax. Their debut Fistful of Metal (1984) was disappointing but new singer Joey Belladonna seemed to bring good fortune to the band because second album Spreading the Disease (1985) turned out to be something of a Thrash classic. Like Iron Maiden turned up a notch, Spreading the Disease included wonderful tracks such as AIR, Madhouse, Armed and Dangerous and the Greek myth inspired Medusa. Next the band adopted a shorts and baseball cap image and professed their love for Rap music (they even released a comedy rap called ‘I’m the Man’, which parodies the Beastie Boys). Their next album however proved to be an even bigger and more important album than their last and Among the Living (1987) and State of Euphoria (1988), despite giving them a reputation as the jokers of the Thrash Metal pack also coincided with their most popular period. A new decade saw the band changing style for a more serious, moody album called Persistence of Time (1990) and then they fired Joey Belladonna and replaced him with John Bush from Armoured Saint. Their first album with the new singer, Sound of White Noise (1993) did quite well but a run of bad luck led to their next two albums being poorly promoted and the band has struggled to recover ever since.
Some of Anthrax’s members (Scott Ian, Charlie Benante and Dan Lilker) collaborated with vocalist Billy Milano on a project called Stormtroopers of Death, releasing the comedy Metal/Hardcore crossover album Speak English or Die (1985). Danny Lilker also left Anthrax to found his own group Nuclear Assault. Nuclear Assault were quite popular in the late eighties Thrash scene, especially with their debut album Game Over (1986) and Handle With Care (1989).
Another major player in the New York/New Jersey scene were New Jersey’s Overkill. Debut album Feel the Fire (1985) was raw and exciting but it was the punk feel of Under the Influence (1988) and the more progressive Years of Decay (1989) that brought the band the most success. Overall, the New York scene showed more influence from Hardcore Punk than the Classic Metal informed Bay Area scene.
Germany was the hard edge of the mid eighties Thrash boom. The three main German Thrash Metal bands were Kreator, Sodom and Destruction. Kreator were almost rivals to Slayer in ploughing the brutal extremes of Thrash. Debut album Endless Pain (1985) was certainly dark and hard but it was their second album Pleasure to Kill (1986) that really shone the brightest. The sheer brutality of that album is truly a thrilling thing to behold. Sodom wrote a lot about war and the battlefield and their musical style even resembles the relentless march of a killing machine. Obsessed by Cruelty (1986) and Persecution Mania (1988) certainly made their mark but the band’s true masterpiece was 1989’s Agent Orange.
Meanwhile in the UK, we struggled to compete with the Thrash Metal of the New World and the Continent. A number of bands came and went, having partial success but let down badly by their record companies. There was Onslaught, Re-Animator, Acid Reign, Satan/Pariah and Xentrix, all of them little more than a flash in the pan. Sabbat was really the UK’s only Thrash Metal band of note, creating wonderfully pagan themed Thrash on A History of a Time to Come (1988) and Dreamweaver (1989). Singer Martin Walkyier’s eccentric personality and vocal style led to him becoming something of a phenomenon in his own right and when he left the band to found Folk Metal pioneers Skyclad, he took Sabbat’s fans with him.
More successful minor Thrash scenes were to be found in Canada and in Brazil. Canada’s Annihilator created technical but largely straightforward Thrash very much in the vein of Metallica and Megadeth. Their debut album Alice in Hell came out in 1989 but was fairly popular, as was the follow up Never, Neverland (1990). Surprisingly this Canadian band has even found success in more recent years with Schizo Deluxe (2005) riding on the wave of nostalgia for the eighties Thrash scene that led to the current trend for Neo-Thrash. A more unusual band was Voivod. Voivod was always a strange and punk influenced band; this was evident on early noise-fests such as War and Pain (1984) and RRROOOAAARRR!!! (1986) but the next three releases sawing a growing tendency towards the avant-garde and the progressive, utilising unusual keys and time signatures and lyrical themes derived from a bizarre kind of science fiction story the band were creating. Killing Technology (1987) fused enjoyable Thrash Metal with some progressive elements, then Dimension Hatross (1988) increased the progressive elements hugely while still remaining recognisably Thrash. Finally The Nothingface (1989) twisted Thrash into such weirdly avant-garde shapes that it was barely recognisable as Metal anymore and sounded like nothing else on Earth. Voivod have since continued to plough their own Progressive Metal furrow but are not really a Thrash band anymore.
The scene in Brazil meanwhile is completely dominated by one band. Sepultura surprised everyone by breaking out of a Third World country and finding success across America, the UK and Europe with their own brand of Death Metal informed Thrash. Early albums Bestial Devastation (1985) and Morbid Visions (1986) are sometimes considered today to be the first examples of Death Metal but they are very amateurish affairs and failed to break outside their native Brazil. Schizophrenia (1988) is much better and brought them their first attention outside of Brazil, leading to them signing with Roadrunner Records (a label famous for signing many of the US Death Metal bands). Their first release for the label was Beneath the Remains (1989) by which time Sepultura were definitely a Thrash band, despite retaining the Death Metal growl and the use of double bass drum pedals. The album made Sepultura superstars in the UK and US, a position they built upon with the fabulous Arise (1991). Chaos AD (1993) saw the band experiment with their style, stripping it down in a similar way to other ‘groove metal’ artists such as Pantera and Machine Head and also adding elements of traditional South American music. This latter trend continued with 1996’s Roots but unfortunately divisions within the band led to Max Cavalera’s departure. He formed his own band, Alternative Metal act Superfly and Sepultura continued without him. But the fans never really adapted to the loss of the former front man and Sepultura’s fortunes soon faded.
Ultimately Thrash Metal was overshadowed in the extremity stakes by Death Metal and then Black Metal. It tried to adapt to survive but just got lost in the massive surge of Heavy Metal into the alternative mainstream (yes, such an oxymoron actually makes sense in the Nirvana drenched waters of the mid 1990s). Subsumed into the current of Alternative and ‘groove’ metal, Thrash ultimately lost its identity as the spectre of Nu-Metal loomed. Yet Metallica and Megadeth, even as they changed their styles beyond recognition, were still fondly remembered for their glory days in the eighties and Slayer got due respect for sticking to their extreme metal guns. Even as they toyed with elements of Nu-Metal, they still kept things hard, dark and fast. Perhaps it is little wonder then that, as Nu-Metal and its offshoots fade away under a wave of scorn and metallers turn back to Death Metal, Power Metal, Black Metal and Doom, a new trend is raising its head and threatening to be the next big thing in Metal circles – a trend that sees a return to the Bay Area Thrash of yore, Neo-Thrash Metal.