Essential Thrash

Thrash represents that pivotal point at which heavy metal turns extreme. Of course, extreme music existed before Slayer, Metallica, Megadeth, Anthrax, Overkill, Celtic Frost, and thousands of other vile shredders across the globe declared war on our ears in the mid-’80s. There was Motörhead’s mechanically chugging roar, Venom’s cavernous blasphemy, Diamond Head’s white-hot intricacy, and Void’s violently messy hardcore (which basically is proto-thrash). Yet these were mere glimpses when compared to thrash’s radical, across-the-board redefining of heaviness, speed, and volume, one embedded in the genetic sequence of practically every manifestation of extreme metal to follow: death metal, black metal, metalcore, grindcore, sludge, you name it.

It’s generally understood that thrash is a collision of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal’s scorching complexity (including that scene’s innovative use of double-bass-drumming) with hardcore punk’s raw force and gang chant toughness. And while this certainly is true—it’s especially obvious on Anthrax’s “Caught in a Mosh” and Exodus’ “And Then There Were None”—it doesn’t fully explain the movement’s revolutionary newness. And that’s because thrash isn’t a mere blending of antecedents. When it comes to fully appreciating these sick jams, what isn’t heard is just as important as what is. Take Sepultura’s absolutely manic “Stronger Than Hate”—it was recorded a mere six years after Iron Maiden’s “Run to the Hills,” and yet it sounds decades removed. Melodies, ornateness, choruses—indeed, any semblance of traditional songwriting—have been ruthlessly excised. All that remains is a high-velocity explosion of vicious shredding, incensed howls and grunts, whiplash rhythms, and lyrics splattered in seething rage and graphic imagery.

This last quality created quite an uproar during the disgustingly conservative and paranoid Reagan era, back when Tipper Gore’s vile PMRC and tons of Bible-banging parents viewed the genre, as well as headbanger culture in general, as the decline of Western civilization. (Too bad it wasn’t.) It resulted in thrash bands frequently being dismissed as a cross between Satan worshippers and knuckle-dragging brutes, when in fact their lyrics often tackled environmental concerns, nuclear war, genocide, and psychological alienation with a mix of holding-a-mirror-up-to-society morality and intensely black humor inspired by horror flicks. Moreover, thrash unleashed some of the most dizzyingly demanding music this side of avant-garde jazz. Far and away the most potent proof of this is the genre’s crowning achievement: Slayer’s 1986 touchstone Reign in Blood, a record that bludgeons like a club embedded with nails (especially the screaming dive bombs of guitarists Jeff Hanneman and Kerry King) while also sounding so stunningly precise, energetic, and intelligent that it’s difficult to fathom mere mortals creating such a jigsaw-like artifact.

This feature is part of our Thrash 101 online course that was produced in partnership with the good rocking folks at GimmeRadio, a free 24/7 metal radio station hosted by heavy-music experts like Megadeth’s Dave Mustaine and Lamb of God’s Randy Blythe. Check them out here and sign up for the Thrash 101 course here.