Dispatches from the Port Phillip Bay Area – Into the Pit of Australian Thrash Metal

Due to the way we’ve decided to divide up the time zones, correspondence with an international audience from the humble southern continent of Australia often feels akin to looking into the past. Yet, despite this perceived futurism, Australian culture often trails its American and European counterparts by some distance. So it is that, while the northern thrash revival has come and (more-or-less) gone, the Australian metal scene is currently experiencing the biggest genre boom it has undergone since thrash metal originally emerged in the mid ‘80s. Back then, we brought our own quality acts to the fold, most notably in the form(s) of Mortal Sin and Hobbs Angel of Death, and the Allegiance in the ’90s. Yet, while the style had effectively remained dormant since then, the last five-to-ten years have seen an explosion in the amount of world-class thrash metal bands to have emerged from these southern shores.

Although Australian music culture, and particularly the heavy music scene, has always been focused around Melbourne—with many notable interstate acts moving into the city in order to take advantage of its burgeoning musical community—this seems particularly true of the current thrash movement. While the scene is remarkably less incestuous than its 80s’, Bay Area counterpart, Melbourne’s Port Philip Bay Area has given rise to one of the healthiest and most exciting thrash metal scenes in the world, and it seems like the international community is starting to take notice, with Italy’s Punishment 18 Records, and even Metal Blade swooping up some of the movement’s best and brightest in recent years. Likewise, longstanding staples of the Australian metal scene, such as Dreadnaught and Psycroptic have released more thrash-oriented efforts with their most-recent offerings. Here, however, I’m proposing the establishment of a new canon of heavy metal heroes, by highlighting some of the best bands this burgeoning Australian thrash metal movement has to offer; and it would only be fair to do so in true traditional thrash metal style: in the form of a “Big Four.”

 

In Malice’s Wake

The mighty In Malice’s Wake are one of the longest-running staples of the Melbourne thrash scene. They’re also, undeniably, one of the most extreme. Although their earlier releases  readily recalled the likes of early Metallica and, at most, Testament’s heavier offerings, their most recent effort, 2015’s Light Upon the Wicked, is an outright savage affair that boarders on the verge of death metal at times and which pays open homage to Slayer’s most extreme offerings in Hell Awaits and Reign in Blood. Their second album, 2011’s The Thrashening is—for my money—the single greatest (pure) thrash metal record of the new millennium and also boasts perhaps the best example of the “Systematic” production job that became largely characteristic of the Australian scene during the period, and which launched Ermin Hamidovic (Periphery, Devin Townsend, Architects) to the forefront of the international mixing and mastering scene.

Although In Malice’s Wake’s origns date back to before the “re-thrash” explosion, was properly underway, it undoubtedly helped them along. “Worldwide thrash seemed to come back into the spotlight over that period,” observes guitarist/vocalist Shaun Farrugia. “I remember seeing heaps of ‘Thrash Specials’ and ‘Greatest Thrash Articles’ or comparing old and new thrash bands etc. … Vektor were a favourite of mine because they nailed the forging of their own sound, style and aesthetic.” This renewed international attention helped pave the way for In Malice’s Wake to become the local heavy metal juggernaut they are today.

“Having the genre in the limelight as far as metal publications are concerned probably encouraged a lot of listeners to seek out fringe bands and find lots of gems they missed,” he elaborates, adding that the movement perhaps drove people to check out local thrash bands and realise that “they [were] doing things that really can compete on the world stage” as well. “Hobbs Angel of Death are my all time favourite Aussie thrash band,” declares Farrugia, adding that the band’s frontman “Peter [Hobbs] is down to earth, and loves metal more than anyone I’ve ever met … and Asylum are responsible for many of my recent favourite live sets.” He also says he is a “Massive fan of Harlott who are a bunch of legends”—but you’re not to tell Harlott mainman Andrew Hudson he said that.

“More than anything else, people in Melbourne love to get out and see live music and have (more than) a few beers and get rowdy. Thrash metal lends itself to that arena better than anything else, its fucking powerful. …  [It’s] hard to see that going on and not think…. ‘man its time to start a thrash band!’” he exclaims, and it certainly seems like that was the case. “We’ve seen it blow up over the 15 years we’ve been doing the thrash thing,” says Farrugia. “We’d done a huge number of great thrash shows with Desecrator quite a while back, so it’d be cool to think we’d helped a few younger bands get excited about playing thrash metal here in Melbourne.”

Shaun Farrugia of In Malice’s Wake’s
Big Four favourite thrash bands:

Slayer
“Nothing since has been equivalent to the vibe of Slayer in their prime—absolute presence, power and darkness.”

Testament
The Gathering is still one of my favourite albums of all time and I borrowed from Chuck [Billy] heavily to develop my vocal style”

Sepultura
“ Of all bands I would love to go back in time to see in their prime, Sepultura on the Arise tour would be first on my list. “

Sodom
“The[ir] sound has changed so many times over the years but all of it works.”

Bonus “Big Five” pick: Coroner
“More of a technical take on thrash than the above, but the genius tech riffing on No More Colour … is breathtaking.”

In Malice’s Wake are “approximately halfway” through writing their fourth album and are playing Adelaide’s New Dead Fest in October, with Napalm Death, Lock-up and Brujeria. (…Now, if only they’d still play “No Escape” live.) You can pick up their stuff from their official webstore.

 

Elm Street

If you’re already aware of Elm Street—or are aware of them without knowing it—it’s likely because of the film Deathgasm. The cult heavy metal horror comedy illustrates the innate power of its musical centerpiece by having its listeners transported to the top of a fantasy mountain where they shred solos on a battle-axe while awestruck maidens swoon at their feet. The song that plays during these montages is none-other than Elm Street’s own declaration of their metallic way of life: “Metal is the Way,” taken from their 2011 debut, Barbed Wire Metal. If you never bothered to check out the band beyond that point however, then you’ve done yourself a severe disservice. Barbed Wire Metal is one of the best metal records ever committed to wax, regardless of origin, and Elm Street are easily some of the most dedicated and enthusiastic proponents of the metal cause on any shore.

Beginning life as Raid in 2003, when the members were around 14-years old and hadn’t even picked up their instruments before—let alone knew how to play them—Elm Street have forged themselves into one of the most impressive acts on the Australian and international heavy metal circuit. Although they share more in common with traditional heavy metal than any of the other bands mentioned here—especially on their most recent effort, 2016’s Knock ‘Em Out… With a Metal Fist—there’s a distinctive thrash sound that remains integral to their sonic core. Whether it’s via the Ed Repka artwork that adorns the cover of their debut, frontman Ben Batres’ distinctly Dave Mustaine-ian vocal style, or the driving riffs that continue to be the centerpiece of their sound; Elm Street continue to preach from the thrash gospel. They just happen to promote everything else that’s great about heavy metal at the same time.

The international thrash revival certainly helped pave the way for the band. “We had the opportunity to tour with Warbringer in Europe & UK a few times and they always had such a positive energy because they loved what they did. That definitely gave us the extra motivation we needed at the time,” explains frontman Ben Batres. “It opened doors for a lot of young bands to strive for more and also the opportunity to believe if their dreams ever felt impossible, it WAS possible.” However, Elm Street are not without their home grown heroes either. “Mortal Sin [were the] first band that got me into Australian thrash,” he continues, adding that In Malice’s Wake were also “one of our biggest live inspirations as a young band.”

Now, both Elm Street and In Malice’s Wake have risen to the pinnacle of the Australian heavy metal pile and having such a healthy local scene to support them played no small part in their ascension. “I believe Melbourne’s live music culture helps bands achieve their goals,” Batres proclaims, “Having traveled to many cities around the world, you realise what a great arts culture Melbourne has and that rubs off on the heavy metal scene in the city.”

Ben Batres from Elm Streets
Big Four favourite thrash bands:

Metallica

Megadeth

Testament

Kreator

Elm Street are currently rounding out their touring schedule for Knock ‘Em Out…With a Metal Fist across Australia & UK, and will be returning to Europe with Grand Magus and Evil Invaders in October and November. Find music and merch over on their Big Cartel page.

 

Desecrator

If there’s one band that embodies thrash metal within the Australian scene then that’s surely Desecrator. The band have been going strong for over a decade now—despite only just having released their first “proper” studio album, To The Gallows, this year. This isn’t to say they’ve been keeping quiet all that time though either. Prior to that they released two EPs and the 2011 “live studio” album Live to Death, along with last years live Skulls ’n’ Daggers compilation. Desecrator are truly a band who live and breath the thrash lifestyle and who are dedicated to keeping things as “real” and traditional as possible.

“I love this topic … it’s been my life personally and professionally for over ten years now so I could go on for ever,” says Desecrator frontman—and noted Melbourne metal fixture—Riley Strong. “Our forefathers like Hobbs Angel of Death, Mortal Sin [and] Nothing Sacred should get a mention for paving the way,” he acknowledges, but he’s not above acknowledging the second (arguably third) hand nature of the current Australian thrash scene either. “Australia loves parroting what’s happening in the bigger musical markets,” he observes. “Europe America and both saw a wave of new bands like Evile and Havok storm through and a lot of the older bands like Overkill and Anthrax start to release [albums] and tour again so I think it was natural that the guys over here who are into that stuff got inspired and thought now is the time! I know I did!!”

While Desecrator might be said to be leading the way for Australian thrash bands in the current era, they certainly haven’t been doing it on their own. “In Malice’s Wake are long term touring pals of Desecrator and, although they are not a traditional thrash band, release-to-release; I think The Thrashening was a really important time in [the] Melbourne’s thrash scene’s development,” he continues. “Harlott are [another] band we have a tight gigging history with and always get excited about seeing,” he adds, while also shouting out Deraign, who get extra props for being “a really cool up and comer from Brisbane that everyone should keep their eye on … [and] one of the rare bands in this country claiming the thrash moniker that I believe aren’t abusing the title and crossing over into too many [other] influences.”

Riley Strong from Desecrator’s
Big Four favourite thrash bands:

My childhood favourites were the same as many as they were the biggest and most easily accessed bands like Metallica, Slayer, Testament and Death Angel; but they all opened gateways to other circles of “Big 4” like Destruction, Sodom, Coroner and Artillery in Europe; or Forbidden, Vio-Lence, Dark Angel and Hirax in the states.

Desecrator are about to head off on a European tour with Airbourne in support of To The Gallows, which is available in all the usual places.

 

Harlott

Harlott have undergone somewhat of a meteoric rise within the Australian metal scene over the last half-decade or so. Their debut record, Origin (2011), caused quite a stir among the local scene, with its brand of potent Kreator worship, and they have only gotten better and better with each subsequent offering. This year saw them hit the big time—signing to Metal Blade and releasing their third full-length, Extinction, which remains, in my opinion, the best thrash record released this year. They’ve added a tonne of hooks to their sound with this release, which gives the record a lot more staying-power than their previous releaes, and the album itself sounds phenomenal. Although this most-recent effort was mastered by Jens Borgen, the primary production and mixing of their records has always been handled by band mastermind Andrew Hudson and Chris Themelco (Orpheus Omega, Eye of the Enemy), whose work here and elsewhere heavily suggests he might be the true heir to Hamidovic and Systematic Productions’ crown.

If In Malice’s Wake embody the more extreme end of the genre, Elm Street are characterised by the more expansive mainstream ambitions of Megadeth and Metallica and Desecrator cement themselves firmly in the more traditional, underground stylings of Anthrax and Overkill; then Harlott round out the Big Four by sitting somewhere between the melodic speed and aggression of Slayer and Kreator—giving a nice cross section of their traditional counterparts among the Australian scene’s greatest exports. They were called-out earlier this year for a rather obvious homage to Slayer, but that’s kind of the point. As we’ve seen with all the other members of the Australian big four, playing this kind of music is very much a labor of love, and Horlott are no exception. Sure, these Melbournians sound incredibly similar to a number of bands who came before them. They just happen to be doing it better than anyone else these days.

The members of Harlott did not respond to my request for an interview. However, they do have a bandcamp page, which is quote handy if you want check them out further.

 

So ends our dissection of the current, Australian Big Four. However, these four bands are, of course, not the be-all and end-all of Australian thrash metal.

The Best of the Rest:

Mason

Having served a couple of international stints supporting Annihilator on their recent European and Canadian tours, Mason returned to their home shore a noticeably more polished thrash machine and with a phenomenal sophomore effort in the ferocious Impervious under their belt. There’s no mucking around here. Mason are about as old-school as thrash bands get these days (well, maybe apart from Desecrator), and their sound bears particular resemblance to classic and modern-period Kreator. The addition of ex-Vespers Descent and Darkenium guitarist Grant burns to their ranks seems to have done wonders for the band, with his and mainman James Benson’s distinctive trade-offs (not to mention their superb songwriting) setting them well-above the usual retro-thrash fare. As far as I can tell, the only way to get a hold of Impervious, or any of the band’s other releases is to order a physical copy through their Big Cartel page or pick one up at one of their shows.

Envenomed

Those seeking a more melodic treatment of the genre would do best to check out Envenomed, and their formidable debut record Evil Unseen (2014). If you can imagine Testament’s softer moments filtered through Trivium’s more ear-catching compositions then you should have a pretty good idea of what this band are all about. They originally shared a rhythm section with In Malice’s Wake and currently feature ex-Elm Street bassist Brendan Farrugia (who always played a six-string anyway. Their 2016 EP Reckoning took things in a slightly more aggressive direction, and the band’s frontman Anthony “Mav” Mavrikis also plays in Demonhead—who are likewise quite excellent—along with ex-drummer Dave Lowes. Both of Envenomed’s records can be picked up over at their bandcamp page.

Decimatus

Switching gears toward the more groove-dominated end of things now: Decimatus blend the best of The Haunted’s mid-period output with “groove metal” touchstones like Lamb of God and (of course) Pantera to create something undeniably derivative but also wholly fulfilling. Their 2015 debut, Catalyst for Rage, was somewhat marred by some less-than-optimal production choices, but their riffs speak for themselves, and the band remain one of the most exciting up and coming acts the Australian scene has to offer. Pick up their stuff on bandcamp if you like what you hear.

Meshiaak

This one’s kind of cheating, since, at the time of their debut album’s release, Meshiaak were, in fact, somewhat of an international supergroup; made up of ex-4Arm frontman Danny Tomb, Teramaze guitarist Dean Wells, Anthrax, Slayer and Testament touring drummer Jon Dette, and bassist Nick Walker (Bane of Bedlam). They also don’t play thrash metal in the traditional sense—bringing a hefty dose of modern groove and melody to the table, in the vein of Machine Head’s later period, while also giving distinctive nods in the direction of external genre acts such as Soilwork and even Alice in Chains. Nevertheless, 4Arm were the face of Australian thrash for a long time and probably deserved of a spot in the Big Four, if it weren’t for their superseding by Meshiaak along with their inability to lay claim to a truly outstanding record (not that their output is to be scoffed at either). On the other hand, although thrash is often, rightfully, considered one of the more conservative metal genres out there, Allegiance of Thieves (2016) is as good a modern metal release as you’ll come across in any other setting. Dette was officially replaced by Melbourne drummer David Godfrey earlier this year, rendering the band a full-blown Australian affair, and they are currently working on new material.

Further Listening: If that’s still not enough Australian thrash metal goodness to satiate your needs, might I suggest also checking out Demonhead, Captain Tripps, Trigger, Party Vibez, Sewercide and Asylum. Adelaide also has its own burgeoning thrash scene, lead by the likes of Alikira and Hidden Intent and, of course, Truth Corroded, who are awesome, but also pretty much only play death metal these days.