The End of Dystopia: How 2016 is Thrash’s Redux

Thrash metal. It’s the archetypal sub-genre of metal. It wasn’t the first one on the scene, nor is it particularly representative of what metal music means today. Yet, it was the genre which served as the gateway into metal for a huge proportion of our community. When those unfamiliar with metal are asked to name any metal bands that they may know, you can bet that Metallica would be one of the most popular answers. And it’s not surprising to learn why. Thrash metal exploded all across the USA and Europe in the mid 80’s, dominating the metal landscape with its speed, aggression and technicality. Fast, furious and pissed the fuck off, it was exactly what people wanted. Bands quickly rose to bona fide rock-star status, and we’ll be focusing, initially, on the big four: Metallica, Megadeth, Slayer and Anthrax. Through the early-to-mid 90’s some sought, and found, mass crossover appeal when turning to a more commercial style of music. Charts were topped, and millions of records were sold. Yet, this commercial zeitgeist was paradoxical in nature. Yes, some bands had scaled the mountain. They had made it. But they also had nowhere else to go, nowhere but down. It was an achievement, but it was also the beginning of the end.

Disposable Heroes

The mid-to-late 90s were testing times for metal, and the state of thrash metal was emblematic of the wider genre as a whole. The giants tried to change their sound, and in doing so they alienated a lot of their fans. The bands they had become were in some cases incompatible with the bands they had once been. They were no longer giving fans what they wanted, a dangerous thing to do in an era where the explosion of grunge, alternative rock and, in particular, nu metal was already threatening to cannibalize many of traditional metal’s fans. Thrash had been the torchbearer for heavy metal as a whole, and both experienced a severe decline.

Whilst metal as a whole has thankfully rebounded, the same can not be said for thrash metal. By this point we’re well and truly beating a dead horse when we say that thrash is dead. The giants release one mediocre album after another, with an occasional stinker thrown in for good measure, whilst by-and-large the up and coming bands sound derivative and stale. There has been a solid downwards trajectory since the zenith of the late 80’s and early 90’s and we shouldn’t be discussing this genre anymore, save retrospectively. So why are we? We’re discussing it because 2016 has been an interesting year indeed, and maybe, just maybe, the nadir of thrash metal has passed. There is evidence to suggest that perhaps thrash metal is back from the dead, so let’s dive deep and explore what’s going on.

Conquer or Die

First, we’re going to take a closer look at the old guard, specifically the big four. We’ve divided their past into two eras: the golden era of thrash (1983-1994) and the dark days which followed (1995-2015). We need some way of comparing these two eras. To compare their commercial exploits would be foolhardy; we all know that record sales have well and truly fallen from the precipice and so they’re not an accurate method of comparing across time. However, we can still compare the critical/fan reception to albums, and so this is the approach we’re going to take. We looked at data from two well known music aggregation websites, rateyourmusic.com (RYM) and sputnikmusic.com (SM), to try and get a feel for how the metal community rates the quality of music these bands are producing. Our measure isn’t perfect, but it’s the best that we have. Turning our attention to the present day, 2016 is actually the first time since 1990 that three of the big four have released LPs in the same calendar year, with Metallica, Megadeth and Anthrax all releasing albums.

Big 4 Ratings

RYM

% Change

SM

% Change

Golden Era (83-94)

3.71

N/A

3.98

N/A

Dark Days (95-15)

2.92

-21.29%

2.96

-25.63%

2016

3.17

8.56%

3.4

14.86%

According to RYM, the average rating given to the big four’s releases during the golden era of thrash was a very healthy 3.71/5. By contrast, the following era’s rating dropped to a meagre 2.92/5, a decline of over 20%. Yet, the average for 2016 releases is a slightly higher 3.17/5, an improvement of almost 10%. It’s not an enormous change, but it’s bucking the trend. The numbers from SM paint a similar picture. During the golden era the ratings were a huge 3.98/5, before dropping by over 25% to 2.96/5 over the subsequent decades. However, 2016 has seen a 15% increase to a very respectable score of 3.4/5.

Now let’s take a closer look at the individual bands that had 2016 releases. Anthrax are somewhat of an anomaly in this group in that their last few releases have been reasonably well received. As such, despite being a solid release, For All Kings had a lower rating on RYM (3.18) than their preceding three albums (3.23-3.47). Thus it is only the fourth highest rating they’ve achieved from their past six releases. The figures are a little contrasting over at SM, where it’s actually the second highest rated record of their past 6 releases.

Moving onto Megadeth, both rating aggregators agreed Dystopia was their best release since 2009, with RYM having it outperforming six of their last eight albums, and SM having it higher than five of their last eight. Finally, we have Metallica’s Hardwired… To Self-Destruct, where both RYM and SM agreed it was their finest release since 1991’s seminal The Black Album. An album, lest we remind you, which is 25 years old! These numbers all generally point in the same direction: the quality of output from the old guard has significantly increased in 2016 relative to the period of 1995-2015. They’re not back to their best, but they’re not dying either.

Recharging the Void

Whilst the Big Four’s renaissance of sorts is in some way encouraging, it isn’t enough to truly ensure thrash remains relevant. Newer bands need to be able to take the torch and run with it, pushing the boundaries of the genre whilst continuing on the legacy of what has come before. Without new blood and fresh ideas, a genre is doomed to fall into a state of disrepair. Whilst there have never been a shortage of young thrash bands, the quality of their output and, more specifically, the novelty of their ideas has often been sorely lacking. This is where two of Heavy Blog’s favorite 2016 releases come into play: Vektor’s Terminal Redux, and Astronoid’s Air.

Vektor have been around for a while now, but their first release was as recent as 2009, so with only three albums out there we don’t consider them a veteran band. Their output has always been amazing, but they have also always felt like a lone band flying the flag for thrash against a tidal wave of oppressive irrelevance. In 2016 that no longer feels like the case, and instead they’re at the vanguard of the genres return to form. Their mixture of technical thrash metal with progressive tendencies and Schuldiner-esque screeched vocals is absolutely a winning formula. It’s not traditional, straight-out thrash metal in the vein of the Big Four, but that works to its advantage. We don’t need more thrash bands that sound like the Big Four. The Big Four exist. We need bands who push the boundaries of a genre, who aren’t afraid to draw from the entire spectrum of metal and incorporate it into a neat, singular whole. You’d be hard-pressed to find an album from this year which has executed a concept better, and which has more quality riffs than Terminal Redux. Quite simply, it is outstanding. It proves that in the modern era thrash can be more than just OK. It can be more than a throwback to days gone by. A record with thrash at its heart can be fucking amazing, and a serious contender for album of the year if it’s well written, incorporates fresh ideas and executes those ideas perfectly.

 

Now speaking of diversity, why should bands be restricted to only draw from the spectrum of metal? Astronoid show that bands can have amazing results by turning to genres outside the confines of metal and incorporating them as a core aspect of their sound. Self-styled as “Dream Thrash”, the band imbue thrashy riffs with a sense of levity and positivity not often seen in the genre, alongside typical thrash/speed metal drum work. However, when we spoke with them earlier in the year, they revealed they’re heavily influenced by bands as disparate as Mew and Cynic, and you certainly hear those influences coming out in their music. In particular, they have heavily incorporated shoegaze, making it a central tenet of their sound alongside thrash metal to create a sound which is distinctly theirs. It’s not traditional thrash metal by any stretch of the imagination, but there is enough thrash for us to (partly) label it as such. Furthermore, there are enough other elements to make it a fresh and interesting addition to both the genre and the discourse surrounding it. It’s a release that seemingly came out of nowhere, and it has helped provide a much-needed shake up to both the genre’s output and the fans’ perception and expectations of what thrash can do. It has shown that there can be new and innovative ideas. It has shown that thrash can be interesting and malleable, and hopefully it has forged a path that other bands will seek to experiment with.

 

Returning to our rating aggregators, the average scores for Vektor and Astronoid’s 2016 releases are 3.51 on RYM, and 4 on SM. These are numbers which stack up very well against thrash’s Golden Era, which were rated at 3.71 and 3.98 respectively. So the giants of the genre are lifting their game in the twilight of their careers, whilst a couple of younger trailblazers are showing that thrash-adjacent music can still be breath-taking in the modern era. Add to that the fact that a couple of mid-tier bands like Revocation and Witchery continue to pump out one solid record after another, and the scene is looking surprisingly healthy. Thrash is in the best place it’s been for decades; however, having fired most of its big shots in 2016, it remains to be seen if there is enough depth for others to step up to the plate in 2017. We can name a few more great thrash releases from 2016 and we’re sure there are many more which we’ve missed. However, the question remains: is this year just a flash in the pan, or will this inspire either existing artists to lift their game or a new wave of amazing artists? Only time will tell, but until then we have a more than a few amazing thrash releases from this year to listen to, and listen to them we shall.

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Hailing from Melbourne, Australia, Karlo is an aspiring author in fantasy/historical fiction with a passion for music, history and board games.






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