Many of you are thinking it, so let’s just get it out there in the open. To many music fans, even metal fans, the extreme sub-genre of thrash metal barely sounds like music. It’s rough, hard, fast and in some cases – frightening. So why has this genre survived through the years while others have faded away (I’m looking at you, glam metal)? Episode six of Metal Evolution explores.
Thrash metal emerged as a distinct sub-genre of metal in the early 80s with its ultra-fast guitar, relentless drums and often horrifying lyrical content about human suffering, warfare and murder. Much like any type of music, thrash metal was a cathartic release for those creating it. Except, while other genres allow people to express their deep feelings about things like love and relationships, thrash metal allowed them to act out twisted fantasies about murder and destruction. As Garry Holt from Exodus puts it: “We were just living out our twisted fantasies that were illegal to carry out in real life.” Oh, okay. Totally cool, Gary. Or is it Mr. Holt? Oh God, please don’t hurt me.
In all seriousness though, thrash metal evolved from the same place as many other genres did and will continue to do: the rebellious, awkward, insecure and emotionally overflowing fountain of youth. Combine the innate aggression in young men with the highly conservative political climate at the time (think Thatcher and Regan) and you’ve got the perfect conditions for thrash metal to take root. Many early thrash metal musicians were fans of the punk movement, but felt that it lacked musicality. This resulted in thrash metal emerging as the love child of punk’s aggression and speed and the musical intricacies of heavy metal and the NWOBHM movement.
A defining element of thrash metal is the double bass drum, which found its way into the heavy metal genre thanks to Phil Taylor of the legendary English band Motörhead. Taylor was simply beating away on his new drum kit one day, when the rest of the band happened to walk in. They immediately felt drawn to the relentless sound and wrote “Overkill” on the spot. Yet even though Motörhead is credited for bringing this essential element into the thrash metal equation, they are not considered to be the first thrash metal band. That title belongs to Metallica.
As a non-metalhead growing up in the early 90s, Metallica were one of those bands that were always just sort of… there. They were so huge, I never really gave any thought as to how it happened or why. This episode of Metal Evolution enlightened me on both of those points however, and I feel as though I’m a better music fan because of it. Although a thrash metal scene was developing in stark opposition to the glitzy, flamboyant glam metal environment around them, Metallica struggled to gain a following in L.A. during the early 80s. So they headed north, to the Bay Area. Being slightly removed from the chokehold that glam metal had on the City of Angels, the San Francisco music scene instantly embraced the harsh and aggressive sound of Metallica and were hungry for more. An underground thrash metal scene began to flourish with bands like Forbidden, Exodus, Death Angel, Testament and more emerging to form a community like a pack of wild dogs.
Local San Francisco venue Ruthie’s Inn became the mecca of thrash metal and the site of the first true genre crossover between thrash and punk. This is when metal crowds discovered crowd surfing and mosh pits. This is when shows begun to resemble prison riots more than concerts, but it was all love. In fact, there was so much love brewing in this underground metal scene that networks of pen pals – sorry, PENBANGERS – began to develop across the country. Fans would place ads in local ‘zines, looking for someone with similar taste to trade letters, cassettes and compilations with. This is how thrash metal spread from coast to coast. This was the Internet before the Internet.
This underground web of music exchange is what led Metallica’s “No Life to Leather” demo to land in a flea market in a New York suburb and into the hands of Jon and Marsha Zazula. “It just had such balls,” says Marsha (who totally looks like someone you would not expect to say the word “balls”). They took the demo around to major labels, meeting rejection at every one. Believing in the album and the thrash metal movement so passionately, they started Megaforce Records and did it by their damn selves.
As we’ve seen before in previous episodes of Metal Evolution (and in the music industry in general since well, forever) it doesn’t take much for major labels to get a whiff of underground potential and come running. For thrash metal, this moment can be traced back to one specific show. Roseland Ballroom in New York, August of 1984. Metallica, Anthrax and Raven were on the bill and 3500 fanatic metal fans (and a handful of A&R’s from major labels) were packed into the venue. As a result, all three bands were signed to major labels and thrash metal had arrived.
Signing with Rick Rubin’s label Def Jam, legendary thrash metal band Slayer suddenly found themselves on proper tour buses, wearing new clothes and staying in nice hotels. During the mid-80s, these bands were touring the world and producing their most influential records to date, culminating in what is arguably known as the greatest thrash metal album of all time – Reign of Blood.
Money was being made, new bands were popping up everywhere and each one was as good as the next: Voivod (Canadian!), Sacrifice (Canadian!), Sodom, Hellhammer and Celtic Frost. Thrash metal became the fastest growing sub-genre of metal the world had seen so far. And yet ironically, when thrash metal hit its peak in the form of the mega-tour Clash of the Titans, it was also foreshadowing its own demise in the form of opening act Alice In Chains who would go on to become the next big thing.
This is point when Metallica turned into the Metallica that I (and millions of other people) know best. You know, “Enter Sandman” Metallica. “Black Album” Metallica. Their sound changed drastically with this album, going from the frantic and sensory-assaulting sound of traditional thrash metal to the slower, more melodic vibe that would catapult them into commercial success. This was thrash metal’s all-time classic record, yet it was more accessible and radio-friendly than thrash had ever been before. Did they evolve or did they sell out? Well, it depends on who you ask. Of course.
Lars Ulrich will tell you that this progression was something Metallica needed to do for their own sanity, for fear of rewriting the same record over and over again. They felt the true sellouts were those who were staying stagnant and simply giving fans what they wanted. Others felt that this new face of thrash metal conformed to MTV standards, diluting what the genre was all about in the first place. Ballads in thrash metal? That might have worked for Metallica, but other bands like Slayer refused to change their sound despite the major label suits pressuring them to do so.
Thrash metal begun to spin its wheels during the mid-90s and the genre seemed to be fading into the background behind the emerging and brightly burning spotlight on grunge. But then thrash metal re-emerges from a place you would least expect it: Sweden. Borrowing the speed and aggression of American thrash metal but blending it the melody and musicality, Swedish thrash metal began to reinvigorate the scene around the world. In the early 2000s, Lamb of God from Richmond, VA helped spark the revival of the movement in America, giving bands like Slayer and Testament a new feeling of purpose and motivation.
Unlike previous episodes that detailed the rise and fall of certain heavy metal genres, this episode walks us out of a door that may never close. As long as young people are dealing with repressed emotions, frustration and anger, then trash metal – a genre that for many remains mysterious and misunderstood – is ageless.
The almighty grunge movement, my personal favourite, is up next. Don’t miss the next installment of Metal Evolution, Friday at 10ET/7PT.