If the story of 1980 to 1984 was how NWOBHM (and more specifically, Iron Maiden) awoke metal from its dormancy to tear the boundaries of popular music, then 1985 – 1987 is about the coronation of thrash metal atop the metal throne, and the subsequent underground rumblings of a closely linked cousin, a blood brother faster, more brutal, and more astonishing — death metal.
1985 was the year of thrash. As we have observed in the breakneck world of metal in the 1980’s, two years is all it takes for a genre to germinate, mature, and explode through the topsoil into public consciousness. The first legitimate thrash releases came in 1983, with the most polished belonging to (who else) Slayer, accompanied by fun, energetic releases like Metallica’s garage band debut Kill ‘em All. By 1984, Ride the Lighting had realized the immense potential of the burgeoning genre. It also cemented thrash as a commercial viability; Ride the Lightning quickly rose to number 100 on the Billboard 200. What began as a troublingly chaotic version of speed metal had morphed into something mature and utterly groundbreaking in a single year. Perhaps it’s a bad omen for one of the crown jewels of a genre to appear in its infancy, but in any case, the thrash revelation of 1984 must have proved an obvious foreshadow to the madness that was unleashed in 1985.
In 1984, there were 148 thrash metal releases (full lengths, EPs, splits, demos). By 1985, 361 thrash records hit the shelves — a 144% increase in volume over a single year. And as any thrash devotee can tell you, these weren’t albums of the dust-collecting sort; the year is a veritable who’s-who of thrash metal. Slayer, Anthrax, Destruction, Kreator, Exodus, Watchtower, Overkill, Artillery, and Megadeth all released top-shelf albums still receiving praise today. And consider that there were only a scant 44 thrash metal albums (so not including demos, EPs, etc) released in 1985. So there was not only a massive jump in volume, but the quality of the records was astronomically high, too.
Elsewhere in the genre, the status quo was changing as well. NWOBHM and speed metal, once the saviors of metal, and then the innovators on its leading edge, were falling out of popularity. The meteoric growth of metal had metastasized entirely onto thrash. NWOBHM and its peripheral genres only saw a modest 16% increase from 1984 to 1985, well below the baseline 35% jump in releases (again, that’s full-lengths, EPs, splits, and demos) that metal as a whole enjoyed in the same time period. The talent that had once pushed the boundaries of heavy metal had outgrown their cages and flown into newer, heavier, more transgressive genres like thrash or death metal. Even NWOBHM legends like Iron Maiden were halfway between the two albums that pushed them away from their roots into more progressive, ambitious territory (Powerslave in 1984, Somewhere in Time in 1986).
Besides thrash, other genres of extreme metal didn’t fare quite so successfully. Black metal continued to dwell in the darkest corners of the world as an absurdly niche genre, with no real progression. The tiny handful of bands already experienced in the black arts (Bathory, Venom, and Bulldozer) released material as expected and went on their merry way. The only newcomer was Onslaught, who slung a cool hardcore punk take on black metal. (Black metal is an interesting case study in the survival and eventual propagation of a genre — but that’s an article for another time.)
There was such incredible volume in thrash metal that some interesting divisions began to occur within the newborn genre. Some thrash was clearly quite accessible — think Metallica with Hetfield’s refined rasp and ballads like “Fade to Black”, or Anthrax with Joey Belladonna’s high-pitched pipes. Compare that with the Teutonic assault of a band like Destruction, or the evil aggression of Slayer. On its extreme edge of heaviness, thrash began to distort and transform — and in this mutation we find the beginnings of death metal.
In its infancy, death metal was so closely linked with thrash that a distinction between the two can be academic at best, and utterly meaningless at worst. Many of the traits that now come to define death metal — rapid-fire double bass, blast beats, inhuman growls, an emphasis on rhythm and atonality in lieu of melody — took a few years to develop or fully realize. But don’t tell that to Possessed, Death, or Sepultura, because these fellas were the most brutal kids on the block, and all have a claim to playing “legitimate” death metal in 1985. Possessed were the only band of the three to release a full-length, but the demos featuring Death’s absurd harsh vocals or Sepultura’s unbridled aggression cannot be ignored in the history of the genre.
Although death metal enjoyed an early start, its heyday didn’t begin in earnest until 1987. Seminal releases like Death’s Scream Bloody Gore, Necrophagia’s Season of the Dead, Necrodeath’s Into the Macabre, Sepultura’s Schizophrenia, Sarcofago’s I.N.R.I., and Napalm Death’s Scum worked to reify the genre conventions of death into a musical form clearly separate from thrash, spawned from it but superior in extremity.
The propagation of death metal, with its abrasiveness and unpalatability to the general public, was in part a reaction against the dominion of thrash. After its triumphant arrival in 1985, thrash veritably took over metal — nearly became synonymous with it. The “Big Four” of thrash were easily the most commercially successful extreme metal groups of the time, and Metallica has since gone on to become one of the most successful bands of all time, period. Imitators slithered from every nook and cranny. The numbers tell a stark story: In 1986, there were 548 thrash metal releases compared to 1495 metal releases total (remember, that’s full-lengths, EPs, demos, and splits). In other words, more than one in every three metal releases was thrash. By 1987 that number had jumped to 45%. Thrash would continue to oversaturate the market until 1989 marked its tremendous zenith: an unbelievable 52% of metal releases could be labeled as thrash. Clearly, more than half of the releases in a genre as massive and diverse as metal cannot belong to one subgenre without spelling doom. Indeed, the thrash bubble popped with satisfying efficiency, and by 1992 thrash had fallen below its 1986 market share.
In all of this hubbub about the rise and fall of genres, there is an important lesson. Metal never stagnated in the 1980’s. After riding high off the NWOBHM explosion, metal propelled itself onto the next surge embodied in thrash metal, leaving NWOBHM/heavy metal to wither. When thrash became impossibly bloated, death metal went underground and took the innovative reigns with it. Other subgenres, like black metal and doom metal, preferred to lie in wait, patiently existing until finding soils amenable to them, germinating decades in the future and thousands of miles from their origin. The ruthless ability of metal to demolish convention, invent progression, and embody resilience has managed to keep the genre as a whole exciting, fresh, and relevant for nearly four decades now. Here’s to many more.