Reign in Blood: The Taxonomy of Thrash Metal

Welcome back to our Taxonomy series, where we break down umbrella genres like progressive metal, post rock and doom metal and outline all of the progressions and subgenres that have matriculated over the past few decades. The dissection of thrash metal you’ll find below contains a detailed tabulation of the most crucial genre in extreme metal style. Thrash led to incredible innovations over the years, and in turn, a multiplicity of styles has made its way back into the genre’s core traits to form some of the most forward thinking metal coming out today. Seriously, many of the bands mentioned below have released records less than a year ago, and in some cases, less than a month. There’s a ton of ground to cover here, so without further ado, let’s riff on some of the best thrash you can use to mosh in your bedroom.

Metallica are relevant again. Megadeth won a Grammy. Slayer have won themselves a new kind of controversy. And Anthrax…. Well, they’re still among the living. Literally. Right now. Touring on that album again and still proving to be vital. The Big Four continue to chug away as the juggernauts that they are and not a whole lot needs to be said about them to explain their significance to thrash or metal in general. However, there are some other still-active Legends of Thrash that deserve their due for continuing to bring their particular brand of mayhem back into the pit after decades of work.

One of a slew of other bands who cut their teeth alongside the “Titans” that are still plugging away, even enjoying a modicum of success arguably bigger than their original run, is Overkill. They are one of those bands who have (re)gained some of their legendary (thrash) stature because of renewed interest in the genre from crossover and nostalgia (i.e. Municipal Waste, Iron Reagan, etc.) acts as well as being coaxed back into the studio and onto the road. The newest album, The Grinding Wheel (read our review here) has been the impetus for more live appearances from the thrash band that just will not die.

Testament looked bound to join the “big four” in the ‘90s but stumbled when metal and heavier rock gave way to a shift in hard rock tastes towards grunge and college/alternative rock. This inadvertently lead to driving the band back underground and despite one break in the early-’00s of a few years (Chuck Billy, their singer, was busy beating cancer) the band resurfaced, touring in various incarnations, and eventually releasing new studio material beginning with 2008’s The Formation of Damnation.

The biggest claim to any lingering fame that Exodus has might just be the prodigious work of Gary Holt who has turned into a more than admirable stand-in for Jeff Hahnemann who shuffled off Slayer’s mortal coil in 2013. All kidding aside, the release of Blood In, Blood Out in 2014 marked a major re-emergence for the band *and* the art form as it was well received by fans and metal critics alike. But in reality, the band continues to perform and play their variant of the form to receptive audiences worldwide.

Without a doubt, though, one thing we still see from the “Legends of Thrash” is their influence on today’s scene through their trademark riffage, production, breakneck speeds, big fills, and plenty of mosh for everyone.

Further Listening: Kreator Death Angel Flotsam and Jetsam

Bill Fetty

Discharge, DRI, Nuclear Assault, Cro-Mags, Suicidal Tendencies, Ratos de Porão, The Accüsed. Some of these bands you probably know but each represents a certain aspect of crossover thrash. The genre became extremely popular in the underground scenes of the mid-80s through the 90s. On the East Coast it was largely about illustrating the toughness of their scene combining the aggression of New York’s hardcore scene with the ferocity and speed of metal where Cro-Mags led the way. The band’s Age of Quarrel was the opening salvo for a New York scene that saw most of its purveyors shifting to a “harder” sound, integrating elements of metal to beef up their attack. Sick of It All would later go on to carry the banner for this “metalized” hardcore.

Discharge were more like a buzzsaw of anger out of the industrial wasted parts of England meant to irritate the senses as they combined their take on punk, metal, and the industrial music of the late 70s and early 80s. Hear Nothing, See Nothing, Say Nothing and its influence on all of the heaviest of weights in metal, particularly thrash, is what lands them in the pantheon of crossover bands. This is partly due to the fact that throughout their career they have been mentioned (and covered) by thrash artists over and over again as an influence. That many, many other artists also claim them shows how well they… ahem… crossed over.

Meanwhile, back in New York, Nuclear Assault were the band that, on releases like Game Over, solidified their own crossover appeal. They leaned more towards traditional thrash but still with that punk attitude. That the band grew from the same seeds as Anthrax makes for an even stronger connection for this band who engender fierce loyalty amongst their fans while perhaps feeling a little overlooked in the overall thrash catalog.

Then you have the underappreciated yet hugely influential crossover bands represented here by Ratos de Porão and The Accüsed. Both have their followings and anyone who has heard them seems to have at some point or other wound up picking up an instrument. There are other examples but none that are quite as stark. The fandom of both bands reached deep into the metal world and continues to do so. Landmark moments for each are Brasil, for the former, and The Return of Martha Splatterhead, for the latter.

Then you have the icons of the style: DRI, who coined the term for the form with the 1987 album Crossover, and Suicidal Tendencies who updated their aggro skate punk sound from seminal track “Institutionalized” off of their debut to the full on thrash assault of How Will I Laugh Tomorrow… When I Can’t Even Smile Today. When we think of modern crossover thrash it’s almost impossible not to see the fingerprints of these two bands (and the others listed here) all over the resurgence we’re now seeing for the style.

Right now, the two bands carrying the torch for crossover thrash are pretty much the same thing, albeit two sides of the same coin: Municipal Waste, the tough-guy, hard-partying, slack-off thrashers with punk attitude, and Iron Reagan the… tough-guy, hard-partying, slack-off punks with a thrasher’s sound. See what I mean? Also both bands have Tony Foresta in them.

There isn’t much to say in terms of how either band innovates on the genre’s sound, since, for the most part, they’re pretty content just fitting into their niche of being some of the only consistent modern crossover acts around for keeping the style alive, and it’s certainly working out for them. Both bands have enjoyed good tours and good reception to their albums, and Iron Reagan’s newest, this year’s Crossover Ministry, seems like a pretty heavy contender for AOTY lists (at least for yours truly). There’s also the excellent Power Trip, about whom we’ve written at length recently, both in our Editor’s Picks and reviewing their most recent release, Nightmare Logic.

Further Listening: Hellmouth | Dust Bolt | Mizery 

Bill Fetty & Simon Handmaker

This is exactly what it sounds like. The end. Next section.

Okay, but for real, blackened thrash is pretty much entirely as straightforward and easy to understand as you could reasonably expect: anybody with a decent level of knowledge in thrash metal and black metal can easily see where the two subgenres collide. Honestly, when you get down to it, the first wave of black metal pretty much was just a very overtly Satanic thrash scene; bands like Celtic Frost and Venom just cranked up the shock imagery to 11 over some pretty typical (though very good) thrash metal and called it a day.

The two sounds split off eventually—thrash veered off into hardcore territory or mutated into death metal while the second wave of black metal took out a lot of the pounding energy and galloping rhythms in favor of the all-consuming sonic attack that characterized bands like Darkthrone and Mayhem. While black metal certainly owed a debt to thrash, it had become a different beast entirely. To many, comparisons between the icy wasteland that characterized black metal and the organic, rip-roaring, manic qualities of thrash became nothing beyond apocrypha; the debt was recognized but also noted to be a past part of the sound. Simply put, black metal evolved, and the characteristics early bands in the scene borrowed from thrash had either disappeared entirely or changed to such a drastic extent that any attempt to reconcile the two to a singular original primogenitor would take on the tone of a history lesson instead of a musical comparison.

The narrative is a bit more complex, though, once you start to actually gaze at the particulars (as it always is). As soon as the schism between thrash and black metal began to occur, bands started to bridge the widening gap with their own combinations of the two, not so much harkening back to the earlier days of the aforementioned Celtic Frost or Venom so much as take what each style had that the other didn’t—black metal’s lethally grim, frostbitten sound and thrash’s energy and catchiness being the usual combination—and building a third amalgamation, a strange mixture of dialectical synthesis and return to roots that’s not really possible to find anywhere else in metal as a phenomenon large enough to label it a whole subgenre.

Although this subgenre existed in some form or another from the late 90’s onwards with releases like Destroyer 666’s Unchain the Wolves and Desaster’s excellent Hellfire’s Dominion fusing the genres together, blackened thrash has really picked up steam in the last decade or so, snowballing into a force of its own within the thrash metal scene, and man, has it given us some absolutely great bands.

Ohio-based Skeletonwitch is perhaps the most obvious modern candidate for the mantle of blackened thrash: the Athenian (as in Ohio) quintet has been pushing the genre to its limits for just over a decade now, exploring a version of blackened thrash that brings elements of death n’ roll and early punk for a sound that’s both highly fluid from album-to-album and instantly recognizable. Favoring short, punchy tracks full of minor-key melodic flare for the soaring sound of classic black metal, the band tends to rip through uptempo energetic verses and find their way into choruses that explode with typically blackened frostbitten fare. It’s a somewhat repetitive formula, but their songs rarely aim to surprise—why bother messing with what works? Their consistency and consistent level of quality makes them a great fit for a subgenre that focuses far more on riffs and mood than progressive ideas or forward-thinking music.

Where Skeletonwitch take the modernity of both genres and apply a symbiosis, Hellbringer look to the past, taking a classicist’s approach to thrash metal and throwing a layer of blackened grime on top to add an extra kick. After rereleasing their debut record, titled Hellbringer—it was originally released under their old name, Forgery—in 2011 following their signing to Iron Pegasus Records, the group followed up the next year with Dominion of Darkness, a fantastic album that takes their reference point of Sodom and brings it fully into the blackened thrash world of the post-2010’s. What is there to really say, even, beyond that this album rips? It’s grim, it’s dark, it’s energetic as all get-out: Hellbringer represents blackened thrash as a modernizing force, taking an anachronistic late-80’s sound and adding a new layer of aesthetic and sonic polish to make it relevant again.

Bands like Deathhammer, Nocturnal Graves and Impaled Nazarene (who have been around for quite some time and could certainly be considered part of the old guard in a genre like this) put different spins on the blackened thrash archetype, fusing the genres together in a plethora of methods, whether it be leaning heavily on occult tropes borrowed from the heyday of second-wave black metal, infusing a healthy dosage of death metal’s gory pomp and circumstance, or borrowing more from the crust-punk mutations of both genres for a one-two wallop of blackened thrash and hardcore.

Although the methodology is similar—and, really, what ties this genre together more than anything else—blackened thrash is far from a monolithic, unified sound, instead extrapolating on commonalities and branching out from a shared core in a vast multitude of different ways. It builds on the latter-day tendencies of thrash metal and its eventual evolution into more extreme territories to rally a sense of aggressive might that few other subgenres within the metal spectrum can muster.

Further Listening: Toxic Holocaust Ravencult Goatwhore

Simon Handmaker

Progressive thrash is a weird sub-genre which flourished in between the original Thrash flowering and the capitulation before more melodic elements which took over progressive metal in the mid-90’s. Bands like Voivod, Watchtower, Coroner, Annihilator and, some might say, Metallica, produced metal which had the speed and abrasiveness of Thrash but which also incorporated more complexity and influences from non-metal composition into the mix. The result were albums that were clearly of the Thrash aesthetic but dared to go further.

Lying dormant for years, progressive thrash now seems to be making a double-pronged comeback. Vektor have been fueling the sub-genre’s relevance for years now but have certainly done more for the sub-genre than ever before with their Terminal Redux, both musically and commercially. On one hand, the album in many ways executes the many promises of progressive thrash with unparalleled elegance, utilizing choirs, an extensive concept and impressive composition to create an album magnificent in its blend of Thrash-y aggression and progressive grandeur.

In that sense, it draws more on Nevermore, a progressive thrash band (in certain periods of their career) which carried the torch of the sub-genre through its long darkness in the 90’s. On the other, they’ve also managed to pierce through the mantle of apathy that often seems to coat the way metal journalism handles progressive thrash. The style of Terminal Redux then has come to define progressive thrash today, partly because of how good it is and partly because of a distinct lack of other bands operating on this scale within the sub-genre.

Funnily enough, in an impressive chronological hyperbaton, Watchtower returned to the field in 2016 to provide a different, if similar, approach to progressive thrash than Vektor. Relying on the mythical skills of one Ron Jarzombek, Watchtower’s Concepts of Math: Book One presents a much more old school approach to progressive thrash metal. Instead of grandeur in the form of choirs and galaxy-spanning concepts, Watchtower produce (as they always have) intensely demanding and technical metal that defies conventions even today. Their style might be more subdued than Vektor’s, but they present a different facet of the promise of progressive thrash. Much of the aggression of the original genre is maintained but it is elevated through the spectrum of fantastic guitar and bass work and truly awe inspiring composition.

Progressive thrash then is kind of a microcosm of where Thrash in general stands today. Awakening from a long slumber, preserved by a host of bands over the years, some of them old masters and others newcomers to the field, progressive thrash struggles with issues of identity, source, and purpose. However, when those are answered correctly (or rather, in interesting ways), the result is intensely intriguing. It has the ability to scratch both aggression and technical complexity in ways which other genres are simply incapable of and thus fulfills the original Thrash promise.

Further Listening: Revocation Mekong Delta Toxik 

Eden Kupermintz

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