Deputy Online Editor
Ask any metal fan you know about their favourite bands – they will probably mention some modern acts, such as Lamb of God, or Mastodon. They might talk about the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, which includes bands like Iron Maiden and Judas Priest. But regardless of all of this, you will almost certainly hear names such as Metallica, Slayer and Megadeth, all belonging to the sub-genre that is called thrash metal. There is a certain irony to the way that thrash managed to conquer the world, considering its underground cult status during the mid-80s – nevertheless, the genre’s strangely morbid appeal probably deserves its enduring legacy. The purpose of this article, then, is to serve as a brief introduction to thrash metal, while focusing on what I consider to be three of the most prominent bands in the genre. This means that I will unfortunately have to leave out some personal favourites, such as Kreator, Overkill and Anthrax, but unfortunately, there is only so much one can write when constrained by space.
The origins of thrash metal can be traced down to two songs – ‘Stone Cold Crazy’ by Queen and ‘Symptom of the Universe’ by Black Sabbath. Both featured heavy, chugging riffs, which focused on palm-muted alternate picking to give the song a dark but energetic feeling. The complicated solos on ‘Stone Cold Crazy’ also became a staple of the genre – thrash metal songs often place a huge emphasis on fast, technically-complex guitar solos. It wasn’t until a decade later, however, that thrash began to emerge as its own genre.
During the mid-80s, several bands emerged that became known as ‘The Big Four’ of thrash metal – these are Metallica, Megadeth, Slayer, and (for some reason extremely underrated) Anthrax. Each of these bands fused the explosive, testosterone-fuelled technical showcase of regular heavy metal with the lightning-quick, anti-establishment aesthetic of hardcore punk. The result was a very odd kind of music that was as much abrasive and fast as it was skilful and technically sound – its lyrical themes ranged from insanity and murder to rebellious, anti-war messages. The overall look of the bands became considerably less glamorous than the almost Spinal Tap-esque atmosphere of the contemporary heavy metal scene – band members would often wear jeans and leather jackets, with no elaborate props and smoke jets (well, at the outset of the genre, anyway).
I’ll start off with what is essentially the most famous metal band of all time – Metallica. We can argue about whether this is a good thing or a bad thing, but the fact remains that the Metallica brand is extraordinarily strong, even thirty years after the band’s formation. Fans often consider the first five albums of Metallica’s prolific output to be their best. Everything that came after their self-titled album ranges from mediocre (the Load/Reload duo) to bad (St Anger) to kill-me-now-this-shouldn’t-even-be-called-music (Lulu). Regardless of this, it is undeniable that Kill ‘Em All, Ride the Lightning, Master of Puppets and …And Justice For All are classics, and are essential listening for anyone starting out in the genre – Metallica (1991) is also a great album, but it marked a change for the band’s style, making it more of a straightforward heavy metal record than a thrash one.
While the bizarrely experimental …And Justice For All remains my favourite Metallica album, the one that is considered the band’s magnum opus is undoubtedly Master of Puppets – the title track is probably the most famous thrash song ever written (which is quite odd, as it is not as representative of the genre as some of the other tracks on the album – ‘Battery’, for example). Dealing with themes of drug addiction and featuring some monstrous riffs and solos, this is an absolute beast of a track, clocking in at over eight minutes. Dark and briskly paced, this is the song that got me hooked on thrash – if you’re interested in getting into the genre, the whole album comes highly recommended.
Moving on to Megadeth. Founded by Dave Mustaine, one of the original members of Metallica, this is a more traditional thrash metal band. Lyrically, Megadeth takes more inspiration from political themes, in particular those of nuclear war, making them just a little more interesting than those of Metallica. The band’s most famous album is arguably Peace Sells… but Who’s Buying? The first track on the album, ‘Wake Up Dead’, is a showcase of the lead guitar – mostly instrumental, this song features some absolutely scorching guitar solos – the backing rhythm riffs are also quite interesting. The title track, Peace Sells… demonstrates just how cool Dave Mustaine’s snarling vocals really are – his sneering voice really sends the anti-establishment message of the song across. Interestingly enough, the instantly-recognisable bass riff was also used as the intro music to MTV News.
Slayer, the last of the bands that I wish to talk about, is the most morbid of ‘The Big Four’. In fact, it can probably be described as an influence on death metal (you would be hard-pressed not to find at least some similarities with albums such as Morbid Angel’s Altars of Madness), but that is a discussion for a different time. Slayer’s lyrics are more explicitly to do with death than any other thrash bands – some songs, rather controversially, feature satanic themes. Albums like Angel of Death, South of Heaven and Seasons of the Abyss are extremely fast, often featuring double-bass pedalling and, occasionally, very heavy breakdowns.
Another noteworthy feature of the band is Kerry King’s guitar solos – they are chaotic in nature (fitting, I suppose, when considering the lyrical themes). Personally, I feel that they occasionally lack structure, but that is just a personal gripe. For me, what sets Slayer apart from the rest is the way their songs can sound both fast and heavy at the same time – for example, ‘Epidemic’ uses an interesting alternate picking technique to achieve this effect.
So now that thrash metal has become widely-known, where does that leave the genre? Well, even though there has been a lack of new bands, there are still some that carry on the proud tradition – for instance, Evile has recently come crashing into the scene and began a resurgence of thrash. Also, with several generations now growing up with this rebellious form of metal, there are bound to be some people who will wish to make a similar type of music. Whether or not this will happen, I don’t know – we can only hope.