Sunday, August 19, 2012

The Essentials: Thrash Metal

In this series I select a type of metal, briefly describe it, and then link a series of songs which I would use to introduce a new listener to the sub-genre. I'll give my reasons for each song, but as a rule I try to use tracks which sound good, are representative of certain elements of the sub-genre, are by bands new listeners should explore further, and which I personally return to repeatedly for my own listening. The ultimate goal is to give an inexperienced listener a good starting point for exploring a type of metal, and as such these articles may not be of much interest to seasoned fans.

I had a tough time with this entry, since thrash is not as firmly in my wheelhouse as, say, doom is. Nonetheless, with an emphasis on the role of thrash in the development of extreme metal, I think I've managed to construct a solid enough collection that it will be of some use for developing metalheads. I will note, though, that I leaned pretty heavily on Californian bands.

Thrash Metal:

Thrash is the central pillar of the more extreme end of metal. While doom grew straight from metal's roots, the other extreme branches (like death metal and black metal) developed later out of thrash. With sharp tempos, aggressive riffing, and angry vocals which had not yet evolved (or devolved, depending on your opinion) into full-blown grunts and screams thrash metal was the natural bridge which allowed the heavy metal of the 70s to sprout the ferocious death and black metal of the 90s.

The style still exists and has in fact gone through a recent retro-revival, but it really had its heyday in the 80s. Perhaps the largest influence on its development was the ugly new heavy metal produced in the late 1970s by Motörhead, though they did not play thrash themselves. New bands began to sprout up in various different areas, taking this new-found dirty feel and upping the ante. By far the best known of these scenes was centered around San Francisco. Other countries had strong scenes as well, though, with Germany in particular making noteworthy contributions to the style. Within just a few short years, thrash grew heavier and began to branch off into more extreme variants, effectively ending its run as the dominant form of heavy music as death metal and black metal began to take center stage. Its influence remains, however, and new groups continually emerge trying to recapture the magic, or to blend it in new ways with its twisted offspring.

Master of Puppets -by- Metallica
Metallica rank amongst the all-time elite in the metal world, and are unquestionably the best known thrash band. Founded in 1981, they were one of the central bands in the San Francisco thrash scene. I didn't want to use multiple songs by the same band, but because Metallica have several albums which are all essential listening, picking just one track was extremely hard. In the end I decided to go with perhaps the most definitive song from the true thrash years of their career, the title track from the colossal Master of Puppets. from 1986. I can't recommend highly enough that any new thrash fan acquire several Metallica albums, with at least Ride the Lighting, Master of Puppets, and ...And Justice For All being absolutely indispensable. Their self-titled release marked a move to a more accessible sound, losing some of their thrash grit. It is, however, a marvelous gateway from the rock world into thrash.

Peace Sells -by- Megadeth
Metallica's evil twin, Megadeth were formed in 1983 when Dave Mustaine was booted from the former outfit. He dedicated his new band to being darker, meaner, and uglier than Metallica. The feud between the two bands has cooled over the years, though fans still debate fervently in favor of one or the other. From 1985-1990 the band produced a series of phenomenal albums, making them yet another band for whom selecting a single track was extremely difficult. Eventually, I again decided on a title track (sort of) from a 1986 masterwork, this time from Peace Sells... But Who's Buying?. That album, along with Rust in Peace, represents the pinnacle of their brand of thrash.

South of Heaven -by- Slayer
For the other top California thrash band, I've selected yet another title track. Their 1986 release Reign in Blood is widely considered a thrash masterpiece, but for my part I've always preferred its 1988 follow-up South of Heaven. The latter opts for a slower, darker sound rather than the bristling ferocity of the former, and that is best exemplified by the opening title track. Both albums are vital for any thrash fan, though.

Carrion -by- Kreator
In Germany, 1986 saw another pivotal thrash release. Pleasure to Kill, the sophomore album by Kreator, is probably the definitive German thrash album. That scene produced dirtier, more savage material than their counterparts in California. The vocals were one step closer to the distorted roars of a death metal band, the riffs were relentlessly fast and heavy, and the whole feel was one of wild, unconstrained aggression.

Witching Metal -by- Sodom
Another savage German thrash act, Sodom are often credited with directly aiding the development of black metal. Their 1984 EP In the Sign of Evil featured the beginnings of the same rasping, satan-inspired vocals and rough production that would later become black metal staples. Since then, the band has produced consistently strong material, with a few minor exceptions, making their catalog one of the more thoroughly solid in the thrash world. Along with Kreator and Destruction, Sodom is considered one of the "Big 3" of German thrash.

Stronger Than Hate -by- Sepultura
In Brazil, Sepultura were walking a fine line between death and thrash as the 1980s progressed. With a flavor drawn from their very different location, and a level of heaviness that makes it debatable whether they were still even playing thrash, Sepultura serve as a good example of the outer boundaries of the sub-genre in the death metal direction. This track is from their 1989 album Beneath the Remains, a brilliant slab of extreme metal regardless of how one defines it.

Dawn of Meggido -by- Celtic Frost
As thrash branched off toward black metal via Sodom or death metal via Sepultura and Possessed, there came a fork in the road where all three sub-genres met. It was a place where all could be seen, but none had exclusive claim. That place is called Celtic Frost. Hailing from Switzerland, they are amongst the most influential bands in extreme metal, with later bands in all those branches, and even in some doom metal, drawing on them for inspiration. This track is off the masterful To Mega Therion from 1985.

'Til Death Do Us Part -by- Exodus
From the San Francisco Bay area, Exodus played a slower, more groove-oriented form of thrash. Their influence would be a precursor to later groove metal groups like Pantera. Formed originally in 1979, Exodus carried strong traces of traditional heavy metal with them, particularly in their vocals. Those vocals, combined with the slower tempos and groovy riffs make them rather unusual in the thrash world. Though I know this claim would face a lot of disagreement, I would argue that they could at times be thought of as doom-thrash. This track is from their 1987 record Pleasures of the Flesh.

Killing Technology -by- Voivod
The title track from the Canadians' 1987 release, with its bizarrely alien feel and complex riffing, resides at the peak of progressive thrash. Voivod put out two thrash albums before this, and moved into pure progressive territory afterward, but this album represents the perfect melding point of the two in a single record.

Native Blood -by- Testament
I was trying to decide if I should close this article with a new thrash-revival band to display what the sub-genre is doing now, or if I should go back and include a track by one more classic thrash band. Fortunately, Testament's new album Dark Roots of Earth just came out a few weeks ago and it sounds great, so this is a wildcard/two-birds-with-one-stone entry. Testament are yet another Bay Area thrash act, and though they never achieved the fame of Metallica or Slayer, they are an excellent band with several strong albums in their back-catalog. Their 1987 debut The Legacy is particularly noteworthy.


  1. Fantastic list, as I see it (but of course I'm not really a thrash fan either). I too prefer South of Heaven, but even so I was going to question using "South of Heaven" over "Angel of Death"--until I saw your Sepultura pick, which filled that niche quite well.

    My only complaint is, I firmly believe Celtic Frost was always a doom metal band. I don't have that particular song on my iPod right now to verify, but I can't remember them ever not sounding like doom to me.

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  3. Also, you get bonus points for not including Anthrax.

    But I was wondering if you really covered the area of blackened thrash, now that I think of it. I guess Teutonic thrash (Kreator/Sodom) kind of covers it, but I'm not sure. Maybe including Blood Tsunami, Witchery, or Skeletonwitch would be nice.

  4. I figured Sodom filled that hole, though my last pick where I went with Testament I was very close to using Skeletonwitch instead.