Not since 1990 have so many thrash albums been released by the very same bands that were doing it when I was a kid. It’s nothing short of thrilling, and kind of amazing in the music industry of today, that they’re finding the requisite receptiveness to keep recording new material. For me, the ones that provide my earliest memories are Metallica, Slayer (my personal favorite) & Anthrax.
My first favorite band was Ratt. Then a friend popped in something different. I heard one acoustic guitar, then another, yet another, etc. until BOOM! Metallica ripped into “Battery” and I was hooked.
On a trip back from a football game, our fullback let me listen to what he was playing. The lyrics were aggressive & uncompromising. The drums were crisp, the vocals as clear as they ever would be, and the guitar solos were just flying all over the place on Slayer’s 4th album “South Of Heaven” (SOH).
One day I turned on MTV and saw 5 guys in jams shorts exuding a generally goofy vibe while playing “Indians”. Anthrax made thrash seem kinda fun.
It wouldn’t be long before I dove into Megadeth & Testament as well, and discovered the breathtaking speed of Sepultura (who was recently sandwiched between Testament & Prong at a show here in San Antonio).
I’m sure I’m not the only one who had doubts as to whether or not these bands would be able to keep up such aggressive artistry so many decades later. It hasn’t come without a cost though. Both Slayer vocalist/bassist Tom Araya & Megadeth vocalist/guitarist Dave Mustaine have neck ailments from years of headbanging. Araya’s late bandmate, guitarist Jeff Hanneman, died of alcohol-related cirrhosis of the liver 2013. Anthrax drummer Charlie Benante has struggled with carpal tunnel syndrome (he was not behind the kit when I saw them last October). Overkill frontman Bobby “Blitz” Ellsworth survived cancer. And that’s not to mention the predictable hearing loss that afflicts numerous thrashers.
But here they are. Led in by late 2015’s “Repentless” by Slayer, and bookended by Overkill’s “The Grinding Wheel” and Sepultura’s “Machine Messiah” released this year, six of these bands put out albums last year, capped off by Metallica’s “Hardwired … To Self-Destruct” (HTSD).
Slayer credits producer Rick Rubin with convincing them to junk the reverb when making their seminal masterpiece “Reign In Blood”. That’s ironic, since HTSD sounds clearer with Greg Fidelman (Slipknot’s “.5: The Gray Chapter” & Adele’s “21”) producing than 2008’s “Death Magnetic” (DM) did with Rubin at the controls. James Hetfield alluded to as much recently, saying “I wanted HTSD to be more palatable to the ear. I think DM is very, very powerful, and I love it, but it abuses the ear quite a bit.”
The album starts out with three songs as good as any starting trio on any of their records.
Summoning the spirit of “Whiplash”, from their first album, “Kill ‘Em All” (KEA), the title track is as thrashy as any song released in recent years. And it serves to plug them directly into the renaissance of the last decade or so. “Atlas Rise!” brings “… And Justice For All” (AFJA) to mind regarding its complexity. In addition to having some of James Hetfield’s best vocals, it’s one that brings to the fore how well they (primarily drummer Lars Ulrich) incorporate & arrange the multitude of riffs they come up with.
And the third of that threesome, “Now That We’re Dead”, has earned one of the highest marks a song can in my household; “DaaaAAAD; how many times are you going to listen to that?!?” The drumbeat is infectious enough to include in my regular routine (either behind the steering wheel OR my own kit). When I first heard it, it felt feels like a quasi-companion piece to “Hell And Back” from the “Beyond Magnetic” EP of 2011. In the ensuing months however, it has reminded me of the groovier rock songs found on the “Load” albums of the 1996 & 1997, but with a definite, metallic-sounding edge.
I found a lot of that on HTSD, a melding of different parts of their catalogue. Ulrich’s drums on “Spit Out The Bone” are the energetically best I’ve heard since AJFA. Kudos to them for including “Lords Of Summer” in the deluxe issue. When I heard it a couple years ago, I imagined it as what an AJFA-crafted number would have sounded like if it had been included on (KEA).
Many of the middle tracks are reminiscent of stuff they recorded in 1990s. Say what you will about those “Load” records, but taken for what they were, there was much good stuff there.
“Here Comes Revenge” hearkens back to “Thorn Within”, while “Halo On Fire” strikes me as a beefier “Until It Sleeps” initially, before lifting off & soaring in its latter half. On the flipside, “Am I Savage” and “Dream No More” bring back to mind tunes I thought managed to forget, like “Poor Twisted Me” or “Ronnie”.
As it is, HTSD represents further progression from 2003’s “St. Anger” (SA) & DM. Releasing the blistering title track as a first single was a sure way to grab everyone’s attention. One can’t help but wonder if not for a lost iPhone, riff contributions from lead guitarist Kirk Hammett might have made this album even better. After all, “Enter: Sandman” was his creation, as was the crowd sing-along bridge to “Creeping Death”.
Consider it added motivation for the next record.
After Metallica & Slayer turbocharged the genre in 1986 with “Master Of Puppets” (MOP) and “Reign In Blood”, respectively, the floodgates opened with 25 releases from these bands between 1987-1990, and I lapped it up.
The music appealed to me. It felt like a release. It was something aggressive that I could pump my fist & bang my head to. It was something to provide me extra fuel at the gym, or on the track.
And the lyrics fascinated me. I was a good kid with a good upbringing. I wasn’t particularly rebellious. I didn’t dabble in devil worship. I wasn’t cruel to animals. But here came these pissed-off sounding words about issues that I was as yet unfamiliar. Anthrax shining a light on homelessness in “Who Cares Wins” off 1988’s “State Of Euphoria” (SOE). Flotsam & Jetsam raging against censorship in “Hard On You”, from their first effort without bassist Jason Newsted (who had jumped ship to fill Cliff Burton’s big shoes in Metallica), 1988’s “No Place For Disgrace”. My mom even understood a paper I wrote in junior college about Slayer’s take on abortion, “Silent Scream”, from 1988’s SOH.
Nowadays, metal is something more intense than my incredulousness regarding all the stupidity that surrounds us as adults. It soothes me. And the lyrics are still as pointed as ever, from Slayer’s anthemic “Take Control” from their most recent record, to Exodus’ echoing what many of us think in “Burn, Hollywood Burn” off 2010’s “Exhibit B: The Human Condition”, to Megadeth’s self-explanatory “United Abominations” from the 2007 album of the same name.
After that late ‘80s wave of albums though, the bottom fell out.
Grunge took over the airwaves. Some of these bands made good hard rock. Some experimented further in other directions. Nevertheless, most of it was decidedly less thrashy.
Some dropped off the radar altogether. Exodus & Death Angel suffered crippling record label friction, while both Death Angel & Testament saw key members sidelined for health reasons. During this time, Slayer & Testament were the only ones in my catalogue that kept the pedal to the metal.
Thrash seemed to go so far underground as to be buried, reaching a nadir or sorts in 2002, when nary a thrash band issued an album. That was the only such year since the genre’s inception.
Some of the seeds of its resurrection nonetheless, were planted the year before.
‘Thrash Of The Titans’ was a concert organized in early 2001 to benefit Testament vocalist Chuck Billy and Death’s Chuck Schuldiner, both of whom were battling cancer. Anthrax and Flotsam & Jetsam were there, and after more than a decade of being inactive, the event saw the reunions of both Exodus & Death Angel, each of which would release new albums a couple years later.
While Testament and Anthrax were hamstrung at the vocalist spot (2003’s “We’ve Come For You All” would be the last John Bush would record with the latter), Metallica dipped their toes in speed again on SA. Exodus overcame a sudden change in vocalists and released crushing albums with Rob Dukes out front. Slayer welcomed drummer Dave Lombardo back into the fold, culminating in 2009’s “World Painted Blood”, their best since 1994’s underrated “Divine Intervention”. And just before bassist David Ellefson returned to the band he cofounded with Dave Mustaine, Megadeth recorded one of their best albums that year in the form of “Endgame”.
Homages that had heretofore almost exclusively been in tribute to the big boys started to filter out to the rest of the players. Alongside the likes of Pro-Pain’s take on Slayer’s “South Of Heaven” and Hatebreed shining a light on Metallica’s underexposed “Escape”, Arch Enemy covered Megadeth’s “Symphony Of Destruction” while Ultimatum took on Overkill’s “Powersurge”. As Fury turned the century with Testament’s “Dog Faced Gods”, Ignitor put their spin on Exodus’ “Lesson In Violence” just a few years ago. Imitation is after all, the purest form of flattery.
The seeds of resurrection were emerging above the surface into a bloom of revival … and then the ‘Big 4’ got together.
With Metallica starting to round back into form with DM (and performing fewer & fewer songs from the previous 10-15 years), and Slayer & Megadeth having recently issued top-notch albums, December 2009 seemed like a primo time to announce that they would all join an Anthrax just reunited with singer Joey Belladonna to play a number of Sonisphere festivals in Europe the following summer. The thrash universe subsequently soiled its collective breeches! These four pioneers of the movement had never played the same stage before, much less toured together. The closest thing that had ever happened was when Slayer, Megadeth & Anthrax toured as the “Clash Of The Titans” in 1990 & -91, and two decades later on the second leg of the American Carnage Tour.
The Bulgaria stop was simulcast in almost 1000 movie theaters worldwide, and was later released in a deluxe boxset with CDs & DVDs. Included was a behind-the-scenes chronology of the day’s events, from the bands respective rides to the venue, to Ellefson playing tour guide of the grounds, to the bands’ mingling & prepping, to the group rehearsal of Diamondhead’s “Am I Evil”, which they would all play toward the end of Metallica’s set. (Not included unfortunately, was an impromptu jam of AC/DC’s “Whole Lotta Rosie”, with Lombardo on drums, and Anthrax drummer Charlie Benante showing off the lead guitar chops heard on their best record with Bush, 1995’s “Stomp 442”.)
Since then, the bloom of revival has grown into a full-fledged tree of thrash metal.
Just two days before a ‘Big 4’ show hit their backyard in Yankee Stadium the following year, Anthrax released the well-received “Worship Music” (WM), their first with Belladonna since 1990’s “Persistence Of Time”. In Belladonna they have what very few other metal bands have; a full-throated, yet smooth-sounding vocalist. No one has pipes like him. Bassist Frank Bello said recently, “(Joey’s) better now than he has ever been. I stand on stage with him every night and the dude is just a phenomenon. I'm a fan of his voice. He has a gift from God, and it's a beautiful gift. I'm thankful to be in a band with him.”
WM was followed up last year with their best ever effort, and what could very well be the best album by a thrash band in decades, “For All Kings” (FAK). Just as Metallica did with HTSD, FAK sounds like a reflection of multiple Anthrax records, concluding in the best thrashy tradition of late 1980s records … TIMES 3! The record is nearly devoid of a weak spot. The powerful vocals make the well-written music soar, and new lead guitarist Jon Donais’ solos fit in nearly perfectly. FAK is in the same flawless league as MOP. That’s no misprint.
Perhaps no thrash band has improved as much however, as Death Angel.
What Nick Menza did for Megadeth, when he joined before they recorded their thrash-terpiece “Rust In Piece” in 1990, is what Will Carroll has done for Death Angel; embody a drummer that simply blasts doors down. Their last 3 albums have been awesome!
Still, that’s secondary in their ascendancy to the beast that frontman Mark Osegueda has become. He didn’t have the most metal of vocals when they were starting out. They had some cool tunes on “Frolic Through The Park” and “Act III”, but he didn’t add to it. Fast forward 20 years and no one belts it out like he does, on record OR in concert. It’s as if someone removed the reins from his larynx & kicked him in the ass! He’s right up there with Billy.
But that’s not to say Testament hasn’t contributed to this resurgence. Lead guitarist Alex Skolnick & bassist Greg Christian rejoined to record 2008’s “Formation Of Damnation” and 2012’s step-up “Dark Roots Of Earth” (DROE) (Christian has since left and been replaced by one-time bassist Steve DiGiorgio).
Perhaps the most pleasant surprise for me has been Kirk Hammett’s first band Exodus. Growing up in Victoria, TX (population 65K), the only exposure I had to them was the video for “Toxic Waltz”. And if I’m being honest, I took a buying interest in them only after Gary Holt stepped in to fill the big void that Hanneman’s death left in Slayer (you can hear his leads on “Repentless”). Holt has a chainsaw-sounding rhythm guitar to rival anyone, which might explain why Slayer guitarist Kerry King likens him to Glenn Tipton of Judas Priest. Throw him & drumming machine Tom Hunting around Rob Dukes or (now) Steve “Zetro” Souza vocals and Exodus has sounded monstrous!
It seems only fitting that 2016 was brought to a close by Metallica’s HWSD. The speed & aggression therein makes undisputed their place at the top of what would be an awesome traveling thrash festival.
I don’t know what the future holds for thrash, at least beyond my years. Just like anything, music evolves over time. New subgenres are created, and those are influenced by the evolution of non-metal music. These things can’t be predicted.
But at least with these guys continuing to chug along in the ‘rock-til-you-drop’ spirit of the late Lemmy Kilmister, thrash metal like the kind that I grew up with has a chance to make a longer-lasting impression than merely the hearing & neck flexibility that’s been lost along the way.