Introduction to the Series
For the next calendar year, I’ll be digging into the metal music movement of thrash, which began its heyday in the early 1980s, suffered an untimely death at the hands of grunge in the early ’90s, and had a glorious, if unheralded, comeback in the early ’00s that still provides niche audiences with plenty of neck breaking headbangs to this day. Join me for a trip into music history.
Volume One Intro
The Veterans Memorial Coliseum of Phoenix is an old beast of burden, its heyday of hosting NBA games and the biggest concerts in town well behind it. It acts as a catch-all attraction space for myriad random and/or annual events. Its massive but outdated space is a prime spot for tattoo expos, home and garden shows, gun markets and, when the Arizona State Fair is active, special concert appearances that couldn’t be booked anywhere else.
On one cold October night during the fair’s zenith, sometime in 2016, Anthrax had chosen to play these far-from-hallowed grounds for the meager price of $10 (or a fair ticket). It seems fitting: the 50-year-old rockers entertain 50-year-old fanboys who barely pack the stadium with body heat but more than make up for it in beer belches and loud enthusiasm. The gods are here, no matter how small the church and however meager the congregation.
As the mothballed overhead speakers start to play a tinny version of “Among the Living,” I look around at my surroundings. The beginnings of a few mosh pits begin, though all comers look barely prepared to move furniture let alone smash their aging bodies against each other. I see Alexander the Great, his stoic, calm demeanor unreadable, waiting for the real music to begin so he may flash some horns and gently nod a courteous headbang before stoically watching over the music that makes up his heavy metal kingdom.
I see The Animal with his shirt off, grunting, looking forward to a nice mosh. His fists are clenched and he breathes in an exaggerated manner as he waits for the madness to begin. Though he has aged like everyone else, his sinewy, tall frame is marked with muscle and he can hold his own in a pit. He stares at his fictional opponents, only waiting for the ground shaking bass drum of Joey Belladonna to make that bzzzzz sound on the cement floor.
I see some of my other known associates, more relaxed and coy like me, just wanting to see the show. Stephen, Cahill, Oberg, the whole crew of music warlords who only know each other by sight and by taste but haven’t really ever met. The world of heavy metal gifts us a global community where only knowing a song makes you friends forever. And on this night, all my friends are here.
The stage lights are going crazy, that tinny version of “Among the Living” kicking into high gear as the main crushing riff…deeeerrr der der deeeerrrrr…begins. Deeeerrrr der der durrrrrrrr. Deeeerrr der der deeeeerrrrr. Deeeeer der der AND THEN an explosion of sound as Scott Ian comes out and plays the final note, forcing the stereo portion into extinction. DUUUUURRRRRRRRRR. It is crushingly loud, shaking seats, eardrums, and the old Coliseum’s foundations. And then the riff begins again and madness begins. No more tin. All hell!
Time stops. It is no longer 2016. Nor is it 1983. It is just the here and now, and metal is the game. As Anthrax continued “Among the Living” and moved on to “Madhouse,” I couldn’t help but be moved by the genre I love so much: thrash metal. Like the Coliseum itself, like the band playing within its walls, to the fans ready to mosh, it hasn’t aged into fine wine. But it is still worth cultivating. And I want to be that cultivator. At that moment I knew I needed to speak the word of thrash to the masses. And years later, here we are.
Cast of Characters (So Far)
- Metallica, Bay-area thrash band that formed in 1981 by James Hetfield and Lars Ulrich.
- Slayer, Huntington Park, CA band that formed in 1981 by Jeff Hanneman, Kerry King, Dave Lombardo, and Tom Araya.
- Exodus, Bay-area thrash band that formed in 1979 by Kirk Hammett, Keith Stewart, Tim Agnello, and Tom Hunting.
- Anthrax, New York-based act that formed in 1981 by Scott Ian and Dan Lilker.
- Megadeth, an L.A.-centric band formed in 1983 by Dave Mustaine, formerly of Metallica, and Dave Ellefson.
- Testament, Bay-area thrash band that formed in 1982 by Eric Peterson and Derrick Ramirez.
- Death Angel (Daly City, CA) formed in 1982 by Rob Cavestany, Dennis Pepa, Gus Pepa, and Andy Galeon.
- Overkill (NJ) formed in 1980 by D. D. Verni and Rat Skates.
- Voivod (Quebec, Canada) formed in 1982 by Dennis “Piggy” D’Amour and Michael “Away” Langevin.
- Hirax (Cypress, CA) formed in 1984 by Katon W. De Pena.
- Kreator (Germany) formed in 1982 by Mille Petrozza, Jürgen “Ventor” Reil, and Rob Fioretti.
- Destruction (Germany) formed in 1982 by Mike Sifringer, Schmier, and Tommy Sandmann
- Sodom (Germany) formed in 1981 by Tom Angelripper.
- Tankard (Germany) formed in 1982 by Andreas “Gerre” Geremia, Axel Katzmann and Frank Thorwarth.
What is Thrash?
All forms of metal are mutated versions of music that came before, and thrash is no different. The original godfathers of metal, Black Sabbath, took from the new rock wave that swept the world in the 1960s, added rhythm and blues theory to it, and then darkened it by downtuning their guitars and talking about things that were previously forbidden.
Thrash represents a unique crossover of different genres as well. For soon-to-be thrashers, the New Wave of British Heavy Metal (NWOBHM) acts like Iron Maiden and Judas Priest, where heavier guitars, operatic vocals, impressive solos, and fantasy elements in the lyrics ruled the day, were the base inspiration. Thrash acts would drop the fantasy elements in the lyrics and focus on real-world problems like nuclear war, PTSD, political corruption, and general global aggressiveness but maintain the catchy choruses and, most importantly, the guitar solo.
But to complement the NWOBHM basics was speed, and lots of it. Just as influential to thrash was hardcore punk with its DIY aesthetic, insane time signatures, and general f*ck you attitude. When combining the technical brilliance of NWOBHM with the speed and attitude of punk, you got thrash. And when we talk speed, everything was sped up to the nth degree. The guitar solos, formerly a slow, majestic thing made heavenly by the likes of Jimi Hendrix and Jimmy Page, became lightning-fast blitzkriegs that made your head spin … or, as Metallica would say in their song “Whiplash”,
“Adrenaline starts to flow
You’re thrashing all around
Acting like a maniac
While thrash bands began forming as early as 1979, the first true thrash album didn’t come out until July 25th, 1983 with Metallica’s Kill ‘Em All, followed a few months later with Slayer’s first album Show No Mercy. As the years progressed, more and more bands began to appear with studio albums and a movement was created. Not only was thrash metal meant to make you “thrash all around” but it existed in direct opposition to hair metal, a brand of music so disliked by thrashers that half-serious declarations of death to those “posers” was deemed necessary. Better not show up to a thrash show wearing a Poison shirt, that’s for sure.
Thrashers have long hair, bullet belts, spiked wrist bands, and a beer in any free hand ready to mosh with the crowd. As one of the thrash originators indicated in their song “Bonded by Blood”, to live thrash was to commit murder in the front row:
“Murder in the front row
Crowd begins to bang
And there’s blood upon the stage
Bang your head against the stage
And metal takes its price
Bonded by blood”
Albums In Focus
Metallica, Kill ‘Em All (1983)
This is the album that began the genre and it certainly helps that it is a great record. A lot of metal bands struggle out the gate as they are still trying to discover their sound and create a cohesive album experience where each track is a journey. A lot of early thrashers have a sense of sameness to their opening records. Kill ‘Em All might tend to sound consistent sonically from track to track but each song is so technically brilliant and endowed with such brilliant hooks that every track becomes distinctive, even if the structure ends up being similar; repetitive but not derivative.
Slayer, Hell Awaits (1985)
While Slayer’s first album Show No Mercy has some incredible thrash tunes, including “Evil Has No Boundaries”, “Die By the Sword”, with its riff-heavy, headbangy bridge, and “Black Magic”, their second album Hell Awaits is the album where they really became the Slayer we know and love to this day. If Show No Mercy was more reliant on its New Wave Of British Heavy Metal heroes, Hell Awaits leans more on the hardcore punk influences of the thrash genre all while introducing lyrics centered around the darkest and bleakest of subject matter.
Megadeth, Killing Is My Business… And Business Is Good (1985)
Like a bat out of hell, Dave Mustaine formed Megadeth almost out of anger. After being ousted from Metallica for his drinking problem, Mustaine went on to show his ex-comrades what technical thrash was really about. What we the listener got was something not quite as catchy as Metallica’s first two albums, but something undeniably breathtaking in its speed, technical mastery, and unlimited scope.
When “Last Rites/Loved to Death” exits its piano intro and enters into its thrash-based mania, one is forced to keep up with, and try to somehow process, things at a break-neck speed. Even the band’s drummer, Gar Samuelson, seems like he is struggling to keep up with Mustaine’s insane guitar speed. The album, from this track moving forward, feels like an angry proclamation; a pissing in the corner declaration of metal dominance that screams “this is my territory.”
Highlighted Tracks: Last Rites/Loved to Death, Killing Is My Business…And Business is Good!, Rattlehead
What Came Before
Every month we’ll look at albums and artists that influenced the thrash genre. In this month’s column, we have the godfather of the entire metal genre as well as an early ’80s band that not only influenced subsequent thrash albums from the masters like Metallica and Slayer, but also paved the way for black metal to flourish.
Black Sabbath, Sabotage (1975)
Black Sabbath is the inspiration for all metal, yes, but Sabotage has a special place in the hearts of thrashers, as many of the top-notch songs on the record formed the bones of what the thrash sound became. As Metallica drummer/founder Lars Ulrich told Rolling Stone, “To me, the f*cking one-two punch of ‘Hole in the Sky’ and then ‘Symptom of the Universe,’ that’s where it peaked for me.” He continued about “Symptom of the Universe”: “the simplicity in the riff, the down-picking, the chug—it’s obviously the blueprint for the core of what hard rock and metal ended up sounding like…up through the Eighties and Nineties.”
Rolling Stone named Sabotage the 32nd greatest metal album of all time, stating “Tony Iommi steps up with some of his all-time nastiest riffs on ‘Symptom of the Universe’—a clear thrash-metal precursor” while The Guardian proclaimed it “an album full of invention.” Loudersound accurately stated that Sabotage was “the last great album from Sabbath’s golden age with Ozzy.”
Mercyful Fate, Melissa (1983)
Mercyful Fate was formed in 1981 but didn’t release this groundbreaking album until after thrash was birthed by Metallica in 1983. But despite the timing, Melissa is one of the primary influences on Metallica’s evolving sound. Ride the Lightning, which would be released almost nine months after Melissa, has its larval origins in Melissa’s groundbreaking sound of blackened NWOBHM.
As Metalstorm.net mentioned in their review of the album, “Mercyful Fate immediately impacted the thrash metal boom of the ’80s, and bands as ubiquitous as Metallica and Slayer have worn their Fate influences proudly ever since.” With an intro song called simply “Evil”, one of the finest metal songs ever produced in my opinion, Melissa kick-started a revolution for so many genres, most especially thrash.
It’s one thing to read the names and hear the stories, but when it comes to music, you have to listen to the history being made. Below is a Spotify playlist of every thrash band that released albums between 1983 and 1985, in chronological order. You’ll notice some names are missing from this list as those bands, like Testament and Death Angel, despite existing at the time the thrash movement began, were unable to release albums until much later in the genre’s history.
In next month’s column we look at the greatest year in human civilization, 1986, where albums were released that shook the foundations of the metal genre and had parents and politicians clutching their pearls.