It is held by many a fan and critic that thrash metal was merely a necessary transition for the global metal movement, a rite of passage if you will, from metal’s crude foundations that still carried the musky stench of 70’s rock to its more evolved and far-reaching sub-genres of black and death metal that continue to grow this day. Yet there’s a lot to be said for the thrash movement in the 1980s and its renaissance in the early 2000s. For starters, big names like Metallica, Slayer and Exodus are at the root of the thrash movement that raised the American flag high among the international metal scene.
Yet the Americans weren’t the only ones playing faster, more aggressive and more violent metal with complex socio-political and philosophical themes. There was a whole other pot brewing all across the pond in Europe. Bands from Germany, England, Switzerland and Sweden were pushing the envelope of auditory violence, some even further into the dark side than American bands did. But of course not all bands who took a shot at thrashing made it big. For every Exodus out there, there are dozens of other bands that aren’t more than a passing fancy and the same principle held water in Europe.
This article sheds some light on the bigger thrash metal bands that emerged across Europe in the 1980s and how they have aged through the years and finally, the resurgence experienced by the genre by the turn of the twenty first century.
The Big Boys
The Teutonic trio of Kreator, Sodom, and Destruction were not the only thrash band on the continent during the second half of the 80s but they certainly were the ones who made it big; forming a ‘Big Three’ akin to the proclaimed ‘Big Four’ from America. Some would argue that Tankard should be added to create a German ‘big four’ but the band’s childishly beer-obsessed lyrics and overall theme, coupled with their rather pedestrian writings don’t really make a strong case in their favor. Of course in terms of worldwide fame and commercial success, the Germans didn’t go as far as the Americans, but one can argue that their influence on younger bands across the world far exceeds their American counterparts.
Kreator is probably seen as the most successful of these three musketeers. Having made their debut with the raw Endless Pain in 1985, the band made steady improvements with each record all the way to 1990’s Coma of Souls. Having released 5 studio albums and two EPs in the space of six years, Kreator’s sound evolved from a primitive, immature state to a much more technical and intelligent sound; a sound that came with a lot of tight musicianship and forward-thinking lyrics that continue to be relevant more than 25 years later.
Kreator entertained the notion of change by the turn of the 90s which saw the band experiment with some gothic and industrial sounds, producing albums like Cause for Conflict and Outcast which continue to divide fans to this day. Yet like a lot of bands who had spearheaded the movement in the 80s, they made a triumphant return by the turn of the century and continue to raise their proverbial flag of hate to this day.
Starting off in 1985 with In the Sign of Evil, Sodom’s induction into the metal world could have had them pegged as black metal beginners. There was a palpable Venom influence in their sound that could have sucked them into a hopeless vortex of goatheads and satanic references. This skin began to shed with 1986’s Obsessed by Cruelty and the anger and violence commonly associated with thrash metal started to sprout. The full blossoming of the band’s sound came with Persecution Mania in 87 and Agent Orange in 89; arguably the band’s best effort. Perhaps the main thing that could set Sodom apart from its two German colleagues is the fact that the band just went through the 90s like they never happened and kept plugging away. The quality of the output did fluctuate a little but 1992’s Tapping the Vein, which almost plays out as a death metal album, is proof positive that Sodom is a band that can venture into new territory while maintaining its identity, all in a period when thrash metal had already become yesterday’s tune.
Destruction’s career plays out like a sine wave with two peaks on each side of a rather drastic drop. Unlike their countrymen from the west, southern Germany’s Destruction was the one band to seriously suffer throughout the 90s. Having made a screaming debut in the form of 1985’s Infernal Overkill and moved on to create a classic in 1986’s Eternal Devastation, Destruction refined their sound and took a slower, more introspective outlook on things with 1987’s Release From Agony. Afterwards however, disruptions in the band’s line up led to the average Cracked Brain in 1990 and then eight years of silence before the aptly titled The Least Successful Human Cannonball.
By the turn of the century, things were finally looking up again for Destruction with the return of founder Marcel ‘Schmier’ Schirmer, who, back in the day, got his mother to sign the band’s first record label contract for him because he wasn’t old enough. The 2000s saw Destruction take the thrash world by storm and release a handful of top quality thrash records.
The Best of the Rest
It’s only natural to find lots of other thrash bands coming out of Germany in the same time. Aside from the aforementioned Tankard, which is an occasionally fun band at best, there’s a lot to be said for other German bands like Mekong Delta, Holy Moses and Assassin. Their work rounds off that of their peers as they added some classical influences (Mekong Delta) and played faster, more aggressive thrash (Assassin). North of the border in Denmark, Artillery presented a more technical style of thrash with hints of melody, while further north in Sweden, the obscure Hexenhaus pushed this technical/melodic style even further.
This technical contingent wasn’t entirely Scandinavian however. Switzerland’s Coroner were also pushing the boundaries of tradition with works like Punishment for Decadence and No More Color. A final addition to this piece would be England’s Onslaught. A relative outlier in terms of musicianship if compared to the rest of these bands, Onslaught may actually be the first ever band to officially use the term ‘death metal’ in their 1985 record Power From Hell (Some debate that Florida’s Possessed used it first and are therefore the first ever death metal band. That is argument best left for historians).
The Re-thrash Movement
As previously mentioned, thrash metal went through a renaissance period by the turn of the 21st century. As American metal was quietly ignoring the rise of nu-metal and focusing more on death metal, bands in Europe were looking back at their history. Kreator made a triumphant return with 2001’s Violent Revolution, even boldly starting the album with a track titled ‘Reconquering the Throne’! In the same year, Sodom released M-16, a concept album focused on the Vietnam War, and Destruction booked their ticket on the re-thrash train with The Antichrist.
But it wasn’t only the old-timers making the entire buzz this time. The movement inspired lots of younger bands to rise up and thrash, and they weren’t all Germans. England’s Evile is probably the most successful young band to come from this movement, though their fellow countrymen Savage Messiah made very strong waves as well. To the east, there was Virgin Snatch from Poland, to the north there was Blood Tsunami from Norway (featuring former Emperor drummer Faust) and from the south came Damned Creed from Greece. These bands were obviously not alone during this period but they were the cream of the European crop. The most noteworthy band from Germany would have to be Dew-Scented, though they don’t really fit the bill because their formation was in 1992. Despite this early birth, they slowly evolved separately from any wave and really came of age after the turn of the century with 2003’s Impact.
A Final Note
For metal fans who only listen to new music, going back in time and listening to all these albums in 2015, or even later, may seem rather pointless. All metal sub-genres has been evolving at unusual rates for past ten to fifteen years and offer so much variety which would definitely make the up-to-date listener have a hard time digesting all that trebly thrashing. However, thrash metal, with its rich history and worldwide popularity, is an integral part of the global metal culture and its big names continue to influence younger bands year by year.