Into the Pit – A Thrashy Introduction

Editor’s Note: Pete has a simple goal with this column – keep thrash metal alive. He’ll explore key bands. albums and movements in the scene every month. To kick things off, he’ll take a look back at thrash’s history and his own journey with the genre.

When I first got into metal, I can specifically point to one band: Metallica. ReLoad had just come out, and my parents had finally allowed me to watch MTV. I heard “The Memory Remains” and “Fuel” and knew I needed more. Then I discovered Master of Puppets. I was hooked. That was all I needed. There was that undeniable metallic darkness but there was also a lot of energy thrown in. Combine that with the nuttiest guitar work I could have possibly imagined (did you know Kirk Hammett had to rediscover how to make that harmonic during the guitar solo in “Master of Puppets”? He didn’t know how he did it!), and you’ve got yourself a metal classic. But this sound was distinctly different and more evolved from the metal of yore. Where did it come from?

The state of heavy music in the late 70s and early 80s really helped encourage the growth of thrash metal. Heavy metal had their establishment flag bearers at the time in Judas Priest and Iron Maiden, and Black Sabbath was still around despite some tumult in the band with Ozzy Osbourne starting his solo career. You also had the more mainstream hard rock groups evolving through bands like Van Halen becoming popular and defined a sound that became the corporate sound of 1980s hard rock. At the same time, the punk movement led to a wave of underground bands fighting the established label system that created music just to have something to sell to people. The time was right for a new wave of underground music and an explosion in the metal scene.

What this made was the perfect recipe for an explosion of thrash metal, a completely new sound that simply took over. Bands came from everywhere. Obviously, you had the classic Big 4 of Metallica, Slayer, Megadeth and Anthrax, but there was also Exodus, Testament and Overkill in the US. Thrash got pretty big in Germany with the rise of bands like Kreator, Sodom, Destruction and Tankard. Sepultura made sure that the southern hemisphere’s contributions weren’t ignored. It was really an international sensation.

But while the 80s was an incredible heyday for that sound, thrash was gone almost as quickly as it came by the mid-90s. The bands making that sound weren’t gone but they changed a bit. Metallica went for a more traditional sound infusing more alt-rock ideas. Many of the lesser known thrash bands evolved into something closer to a death metal sound. Pantera arrived and became one of the bigger metal acts of the 90s, but their take on the sound was fairly far removed though not unappreciated. Slayer and Megadeth were still putting out solid albums, but they weren’t getting radio play like they did in the 80s.

So, what happened? This isn’t exactly a scientific study. The tides of pop culture aren’t up to the laws of physics and nature, but there’s a possible culprit: death metal. The two subgenres sort of came up together. Both genres can point to Motörhead and Venom as influences. Both genres engage in extreme metal activities and really evolved together. Possessed was really part of both scenes, so you can see how entangled they were.

It’s the subtleties that divide thrash and death. Thrash has the more punk influences. It’s about the crazy fast riffing and often extreme guitar acrobatics. Death can do those things, too. But the focus isn’t on how extreme are the musicians; it’s on how extreme is the music. Thrash bands might have shouted lyrics, but death metal vocalists erupt with lyrics. Thrash vocals might put a little stank on their lyrics. Death metal vocals grunt and growl and blow forth from the depths of the underworld.

While it may seem like it’s just the vocals, that isn’t the entire picture. It’s about how much more extreme one movement is compared to another. The death sound is overall heavier. Musical content is often more complex with more intricate guitar work and an overall heavier tone. The lyrics deal with horror elements and often employ violent imagery. Does anyone need to say anything more than Cannibal Corpse to get an idea of what death metal lyrics tend to be about? Or you can look at Death’s debut with Scream Bloody Gore. The cover alone is enough: the scene of zombie skeleton monks performing a ritual in a dank cave, most definitely up to no good. The music really speaks for itself: loud, dark, distorted, and generally twisted.

Thrash almost seems reserved in comparison. Songs are often about more socio-political topics. There’s a levity to a lot of thrash metal bands, especially the crossover bands. (There’s a reason some thrash bands are often derisively called “party metal.”) Despite those outliers, you hear the political influences of thrash coming through in their more punk backgrounds. Master of Puppets is riddled with discussions of drug addiction but also served as the basis for their super political …And Justice for All. “Disposable Heroes” is just imagery of what the soldier grunts see during war and how their superiors can treat them: “You will do/what I say/when I say/back to the front/You will die/when I say/back to the front”. Slayer’s “War Ensemble” is very similar with its imagery, and don’t even get started on the majority of Dave Mustaine’s lyrical content.

But all of these things are very heady concepts. It’s hard to unwind while you ponder the question, “if peace sells, then who’s buying?” It can be a lot easier to just enjoy how over the top gory and violent death metal can be. And, oh yeah, it’s also the subgenre of more extreme riffing, drumming, and overall content. In heavy metal, the point is the extreme. You’re not going to win a fight when you’re intentionally holding yourself back.

Does that seem like a lot of doom and gloom? I suppose it does. The genre isn’t completely dead yet. There are still good bands out there making this kind of music. You’ve got bands like Power Trip, Toxic Holocaust, and Warbringer sticking with the old school stuff of the extreme variety and others like Iron Reagan, Municipal Waste, and Gama Bomb making the best crossover thrash and bringing some lightness to the genre.

At the same time, there are a lot of bands metalheads have missed out on. With the rise of death metal happening at the same time, a lot of bands just got lost in the shuffle. Bands like those mentioned early: Exodus, Testament, and Overkill from the US or Kreator, Sodom, and Destruction from Europe. They don’t always get a fair shake despite being massive influences in the genre and developing the sound.

That’s what I want to do with this column: keep thrash alive. There is some monster work being done in the scene, and there are some heavy hitting classics that don’t get their due. There’s a very specific part of the metal audience that loves this little niche. Sometimes, you want something that’s in the sweet spot: it’s heavier than most rock records, but it doesn’t overdo it. I want to invite all those moshers to join me. So please do come in. We have a few things to chat about. Hope you’ve got your battle jacket. Prepare for war.

 

Album Addendum

Oh…you kept reading. Highly unusual. Guess I should put some stuff down here then.

Dead Cross – Dead Cross EP

One of the more surprising crossover releases from last year was the latest Mike Patton project, Dead Cross. Inspired by old-school hardcore bands, the band was cobbled together by LA hardcore groups and included drummer Dave Lombardo. The group’s original singer left the band and was soon replaced by Mike Patton who re-recorded the vocals for each track with his own newly written lyrics. The album thrashes and blasts along with reckless abandon. It is a super fun record that both punks and metalheads can love.

Just shy of a year later, the group has released Dead Cross EP consisting of 4 songs, two new originals and two remixes from the previous full-length album. The two new originals, “Skin of a Redneck” and “My Perfect Prisoner,” are more of the same from the band’s established sound. Unlike many of Patton’s projects, these are relatively simplistic. There isn’t a lot of experimentation, and it’s simply perfect the way it is. The remixes are the more interesting selections from the album. They very much fit a darkwave kind of sound: percussive and synthetic but extremely dark and violent. The remix of “Shillelagh” weaves a driving synth with autotuned vocals at a slower tempo that greatly contrasts the original version of high energy crossover. It’s only 4 songs, but it’s worth a listen just to see what else goes on in Mike Patton’s brain.

 

Power Trip – Opening Fire: 2008-2014

What’s really great about the internet age of music is that many bands can finally show off all those songs you don’t get to hear. It used to be that you just had to wait a few years between albums just to hear any kind of new music, but maybe you’d get lucky and have a live album release or some crazy box set at the holidays. Thankfully we don’t have that problem anymore. Power Trip, the new thrash metal darlings, have blessed us with a compilation release to tide us over from last year’s masterpiece, Nightmare Logic. Opening Fire consists of 11 songs from previous EP releases from the earliest days of the band to just after the release of their first full-length, Manifest Decimation. What’s so great about this is just how similar it sounds to the more recent material. Power Trip has always had this sound. We were all just unaware of it. The only thing that’s changed is the production quality. But for anyone who pines for the lo-fi sound, Opening Fire scratches the itch.

 

Defiatory – Hades Rising

There may not be that many thrash metal bands coming out these days, but the ones that do have an awesome throwback sound. Defiatory does no different. They hit you with a powerful European thrash sound, focusing more on the metal side of things instead of the punk. That comparison extends to their lyrics, going more for the demonic imagery of war and hell than the more political American counterparts.

Once you get past those small subtle differences, this record is pure thrash bliss. Blinding tempos and riffs, shouting lyrics of war, and crazy guitar solo acrobatics that make you reach for your studded belts. This record is such a treat to the ears for people who love that thrash style. Some might find it a little overproduced, but that’s simply the European style and harkens back to the heyday of Euro-thrash. Thrash fans, unfortunately, can’t be too picky these days, but it certainly scratches that itch for everyone.

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