I’ve copped to my love of death metal before. Now I have to come forward and admit the sordid backstory: I like thrash, too.
Maybe you remember the clipped, palm-muted riffs and machine gun drumming of “One” by Metallica. …No? Let me refresh your memory: Darkness! Imprisoning me! All that I see! Absolute horror! I cannot live! I cannot die!… etc.
Coming back to you now?
Or maybe you remember that little bass lick that used to play every 8 seconds on MTV News, just before Kurt Loder’s sarcastic mug filled the frame. I can’t recite lyrics for a bassline, but if it was written out in words, it would go Buh-du-duh-duh, buh-du-du-da-na! except two or three times, real fast. That was the signature riff from Megadeth’s “Peace Sells,” and it made Loder seem 400% more metal than he had previously.*
Those right there were thrash’s two biggest flirtations with mainstream success: a constantly-in-rotation video that owed everything to its balladic sections and its disturbing scenes from a forgotten movie about a human vegetable; and a bass part that introduced the most shallow news program on television (no mean feat in the decade that invented the insipid morning show**). Apart from these moments in the shining light, thrash lived up to its billing as the foundation layer of extreme metal. Extremity != pop success.
But you know what? The current #1 single is this piece of shit, so who cares about pop success? If its relationship to quality isn’t actually inverse, then perhaps it would suffice to say that there is no relationship whatsoever. Thrash ’til death, bitches!
The glory days of thrash are long behind us, sad to say. There was a time – the latter half of 1986 – when you could say that these albums were all new releases:
Metallica, “Master of Puppets”
Megadeth, “Peace Sells… But Who’s Buying?”
Slayer, “Reign in Blood”
Dark Angel, “Darkness Descends”
Kreator, “Pleasure to Kill”
And in case you weren’t aware, Diane, that’s a fucking murderer’s row (semi-pun sorta-intended). The first three of those are widely regarded as being among the best five or six thrash albums ever. The latter two are more underground favorites, the type of releases that if you don’t know them, you can’t get your hand stamped to get into the Club of Cool Metalheads.*** Yes, 1986 was a good year. Within the next few years following we’d get Metallica’s “…And Justice for All,” Megadeth’s “Rust in Peace,” an excellent debut by Heathen, Evildead’s “Annihilation of Civilization,” a hotly debated new one from Slayer, my personal favorite from Exodus (“Fabulous Disaster”), a couple of great Anthrax albums, and two fascinating Holy Terror albums.
And then in 1991 Metallica would drop “The Black Album,” and thrash would drop its drawers and bend right over. Yikes. Not a happy time if you were still a diehard for extreme metal. I was not – I enjoyed a couple happy months with “…And Justice for All” after “One” came out, and then quickly moved on to Soundgarden and Jane’s Addiction and Nirvana (with a side order of Ministry and Skinny Puppy; yep, I was an angry little alternakid). By 1992 I was recording thrash and death metal parody songs in a two-man outfit called Deathfork.+ So it didn’t really bother me that the most successful thrash album to come out that year was Pantera’s “Vulgar Display of Power,” the album that took the corpse Metallica had left behind and gave it a good skull-fucking. Pretty soon Megadeth had turned into a rock band, Slayer had gone all nu-metal, Max had turned Sepultura into a groovy band with lots of “ethnic” percussion, and the underground was sick and tired of thrash metal’s bullshit. If you wanted extremity from 1993 on, you listened to black or death metal. If you were still listening to new “thrash” albums, you were a giant vagina.
So it goes.
Around the turn of the millenium, there were signs that things might be a-changin’, a-little bit. Slumbering giants like Kreator and Testament and Sodom and Exodus all had new albums, although most all of them were watered-down crap. Metallica promised to get back to its youthfully exuberant ways and then, predictably, let everybody down. Overkill and Nuclear Assault put out new albums that did not kill (over or under) or assault (nuclear or even just dirty). There were a lot of misfires, but hey, at least somebody was loading the gun.
And then this happened: 2007. The year that thrash came back. Kinda.
If you’ve managed to read this rambling post without falling asleep, and if you even perked up a little when I mentioned “Darkness Descends”… and ESPECIALLY if you smiled fondly and remembered the time you listened to Dark Angel’s crappy “Darkness” follow-up “Time Does Not Heal” and tried to count the riffs (they claimed they were 246 of them in a sticker on the front)… well then, you need to know about these releases. I’m not saying you’ll be rearranging your Top 20 Thrash Albums list, I’m just saying these will make your head bang, your hands play some air guitar, and your hair grow an inch – at least in the back.
~ Dekapitator, “The Storm Before The Calm.” With their great name (a “k” is way harder than a “c” any day, similar to the effect umlauts have on a plain ol’ vowel) and the barely-clever title – not to mention the muscular Quake reject on the cover with the large axe and a severed head gripped in his meaty fist – this is as old school a thrash release as there is. Amazingly, it’s not just a pastiche of the obvious influences, but has a singular vision and energy behind it. That vision is “We want to split your head open,” and that energy is “…really hard and fast.” And believe me, they’ll do it. A-plus.
~ Evile, “Enter the Grave.” I had high expectations for these Exodus/Slayer sound-alikes, and they weren’t quite met. But they came close. The production is meaty, the songs are fast, and the lyrics are incredibly dumb. Evile doesn’t have ambitions, it just has aggression to spare, and a lot of riffs that go chunka-chunka-chunka-WAAA-chunka-chunka-WAAA-AAAH! B-plus.
~ Lethal, “Annihiliation Agenda.” Technically this isn’t out yet, but it will be any day now. And if I can make a conclusion based on their previous vinyl seven inch, and a demo track they’ve posted since then, it would be this: this album is going to totally rule. They’re Swedes, but this is going to require PBR to listen to properly. Incomplete, for now, but I’m guessing a solid B or better.
~ Municipal Waste, “The Art of Partying.” They have it all: the funny name, the comic book-style cover art, the fast tempos, the riffs, and the yelping, shouted vocals. What’s missing? Well – it’s hard to pin down on first or second listen, because this band is so energetic and fun it’s hard to hear them critically. But that’s part of the problem. Municipal Waste is very much a first and second listen experience. They have no depth, and as such, not much replay value. If I used to listen to “Master of Puppets” over and over to unearth all the intricacies, I can’t imagine listening to “The Art of Partying” more than a couple times a year – and then just to deal with the cricks in my spine. C.
So to recap: that’s three high quality thrash albums in one year, and one decent/average one – which beats almost every single year since The Black Album came out. Plus this band Besieged from Canada++ is promising to put out their debut this year, and if they do, it’s going to be completely badass. Keep an eye on this trend, Diane. Maybe in a couple years we’ll hear an Evile drum fill in the introduction to “The Real World,” or see Dekapitator’s first video in heavy rotation. And then by 2011 Dekapitator can unleash its own self-titled, monochromatic album of simple, slow rock songs, and kill thrash again 20 years after Metallica did it the first time. In other words – if there’s going to be a ride here, enjoy it while it lasts. These things aren’t usually on for too long.
* Bringing his metalness-to-non-metalness ratio up to 1:1000.
** Possibly. I made that up, so if it’s true, it’s by accident.
*** Which can only exist in Sweden.
+ Sample lyric: “I have a band! Called… Death… Fork! DEATHFORKDEATHFORKDEATHFORK AHHH! DEATHFORKDEATHFORKDEATH… FORK!” We were fucking brilliant.
++ Speaking of Besieged, if their debut lives up to their demo, it will mark one of the rare moments in history that Canadians have made music that wasn’t ear-gougingly awful. I don’t think I need to recite the litany again; we’re all aware of Canada’s crimes against sound waves. For some reason, only Canadian metal bands have been the regular exceptions to this useful rule. Martyr is an excellent Canadian band, for instance. Rush has made a small amount of acceptable music as well, probably in proportion to their metalness-to-non-metalness ratio (1:3). But Celine Dion, who is resolutely not metal, has made zero percent good or listenable music. I don’t quite get it, I just report it.