Into the Pit: Thrash Metal Mailbag

Hello fellow pit-sters! This month, I thought we could do something a little different. You all know I’ve been playing fast and loose with the schedule of this column, and August will be no different! Fellow thrash Josh Bulleid and I thought we’d introduce ourselves to you all a little bit. You may have noticed on the previous best of the quarter columns, Josh and I have just slightly different takes on the sound. Like any two people, our tastes differ just a touch here and there. We thought it would be pretty interesting to basically interview each other and dig a little deeper than we normally do. It may be off the beaten path just a little bit, but I started this column and August is my birthday month. So we’re doing it! Josh and I cover a bunch of different topics here: our introductions to metal and thrash, what our personal tastes are, debating the hot topics like our own personal Big 4s, and where we see thrash going. Enjoy!

Pete Williams: Why thrash metal for you? For me, it started when Metallica‘s ReLoad came out. I lived in a town where I didn’t have access to metal of any kind except for MTV. Once I heard “The Memory Remains”, I was hooked. Then I discovered that Metallica had been around since the 80s. I picked up Master of Puppets when I was 12, and I’ve been listening to that record regularly for 20 years. I was always drawn to this kind of music since I was big on punk and thrash is really another avenue for that aggression. From there, I discovered a lot of other metal along the way but thrash has always been my mainstay.

Josh Bulleid: I actually have a very similar “getting into thrash” story, although I came in an album earlier. For me it started with Load. I remember my step mother playing the track “King Nothing” and I was pretty much obsessed from there. I’m not sure whether it was when the album came out because I remember a lot of the ReLoad tracks being played around the same time. But from there, tracks from both Load records and The Black Album were on constant rotation in the car and around the house, and from there I went back and discovered their early stuff, particularly Master of Puppets and Kill ’em All, which remain my favorite Metallica albums (my appreciation for Ride the Lightning and …And Justice for All would come later).

My Dad was(/is) pretty deep into rock music. He worked as a light tech for AC/DC and a bunch of other bands in the ’70s. So I grew up on a staple of metal-adjacent stuff like classic and ’80s hard rock and some of the more popular ’90s alternative acts—particularly Nirvana and Pearl Jam, given the time. I think Black Sabbath was my next foray into “proper metal” territory, via a best of compilation we had lying around the house. I remember being particularly drawn to trashier songs like “Sabbath Bloody Sabbath” and “Symptom of the Universe”. This was all limited to what I had access to from my parents’ collection. However, with the rise of computers and the internet as I was coming into my teens, I was able to seek out things myself.

Around the time I was 12-13, I got hold of a big collection of mp3s that I think came from my step mother’s brother, which had a bunch of Pantera and Sepultura/Soulfly albums that I latched onto. I think Sepultura’s Roots, Pantera’s Cowboys From Hell , and the self-titled Rage Against the Machine record are the three albums that really opened up and defined my own musical taste (i.e. “angry boy music”), as opposed to the one I had picked up via osmosis from my parents, and from there I searched the internet for similar and recommended artists—tracking down all the “Big 4” and Bay Area classics and working my from there.

What about you? What were your next steps, post-Metallica?

PW: Same for Metallica for me. Now that I’m thinking about it, I got the Black Album before Master, but it took me awhile to truly appreciate …And Justice for All. (Side note: “King Nothing” and “Enter Sandman” are the same song).

My mom was my family’s music nerd. Her record collection was what made me the music nerd I am today. She was more of a 60s/70s rock fan, so I grew up with Led Zeppelin, the Doors, Yes, the Beatles, stuff like that. Lots of prog rock like Traffic and related bands that I can’t think of off hand. I also had a group of friends who got really into 80s music from ages 12-14. They were more about new wave and more pop 80s along with hair metal. My best friend and I gravitated toward Metallica and the rest of the Big 4 along with 80s hardcore like the Misfits and Black Flag. I also started playing guitar around that time and discovered Stevie Ray Vaughan and the more virtuoso players.

About the same age as you, I got into the darker side of stuff. I, too, picked up Cowboys from Hell and got REALLY into it. I also got really into Sabbath at the time, particularly Paranoid and Master of Reality. As I’m going through my music library, I’m remembering the “angry boy”/”hate my dad” music on the radio at the time. (Don’t hate my dad, but anything remotely similar to Staind is by definition “hate my dad” music) I got really into Rage Against the Machine when The Battle for Los Angeles came out, and I think that means I had to love System of a Down, too. The big post-hardcore movement started around that time, too, and I was a huge Glassjaw fan. It was about that time that Mastodon emerged along with MTV’s Headbanger’s Ball coming back on TV. I remember getting a little into In Flames, Chimaira, and bands like that around that time, too.

Did you deepen your thrash knowledge from there? What did/do you gravitate to?

JB: Ha, I never noticed that about “Enter Sandman” and “King Nothing”, but you’re totally right! “Now That We’re Dead” off Hardwired… as well. Good song(s).

Sounds like we had fairly similar musical developments. My initial forays stayed fairly centered around thrash metal: the big 4, then “second-tier” stuff like Testament and Exodus, and on through the Teutonic bands and so on. I also got into death metal around the same time. Bands like Napalm Death, Carcass, Opeth and In Flames were big for me, and then black metal followed from there, although that one never really stuck as much, outside of some of the proggier bands like Emperor and Enslaved. Nü metal was also big for me, since it was what was popular at the time, and I still like a lot of it. But it was quickly eclipsed by metalcore, which hit around the same time as my self-driven musical explorations were winding down and has probably shaped a lot of my modern tastes.

To bring things back to thrash for a second—I alluded to this in my Heavy rewind for Killswitch Engage’s End of Heartache—but I really do see that second wave of mid-’00s metalcore as a continuation of thrash metal. There’s a direct lineage through the big thrash bands of the ’80s and the groovier acts of the ’90s through to modern metalcore that I think is way stronger than any ties to traditional hardcore, even if a lot of those bands came up in hardcore scenes. The thrash lineage is obvious in NWOAHM acts like Lamb of God, God Forbid and Chimaira, but more mainstream metalcore acts like Killswitch Engage, Unearth, Shadows Fall, etc., have way more thrash underlying their sound than they’re often given credit for, and I’d say much more than the melodic death metal sensibilities that they’re often accused of co-opting. I think the lack of acknowledgement of the thrash influence is largely to do with the insular/purist nature of thrash fans (which is something I’ve experienced far more online than in real life) but if a band like Unearth don’t play thrash metal because they have breakdowns then I think bands like Slayer and Pantera might have something to say about that.

You’ve alluded to your interest in thrash stemming from your interest in punk rock. But I think for me it was the other way around. My interest in metalcore and hearing bands like Metallica talk about (and cover) the Misfits and Minor Threat inspired me to go back and familiarize myself with a lot of the American punk and hardcore scene, whereas my exposure to punk previously had only been through less aggressive and confronting British acts like The Sex Pistols and The Clash, who I still love, but they bring a very different attitude to the table than their American counterparts. There’s a direct lineage from American punk—even from pre-hardcore bands like The Ramones—through to thrash metal, which probably only strengthens my metalcore=modern thrash argument (which was totally a separate post I was going to write, but i never got around to it so why not just dump it all here). Around the time metalcore hit was when I was old enough to start going to (underage) gigs by myself and there was a strong hardcore/metalcore scene here in Australia—and especially Melbourne—so that shaped a lot of my tastes as well.

Yet, despite my musical development being steeped in hardcore, the crossover side of thrash is something that’s never really appealed to me. I’ve always tended to gravitate toward the heavier and more extreme side of the genre and a lot of the crossover stuff just seems a bit thin by comparison. But I know crossover is something you’re really into, so maybe now is a good time to talk a bit about what appeals to you about crossover thrash in particular?

PW: Oh yeah, I got into that big wave of metalcore, too. Killswitch Engage in particular, but also bands like Shadows Fall, Eighteen Visions, and Lamb of God. Not the biggest fan anymore but it still holds some nostalgia for me. I would absolutely agree with the idea that those bands were the next wave of thrash. Everyone thinks it disappeared (and even I am guilty of that sometimes) but it just got repackaged. No one’s putting out the next Master of Puppets quite yet, but some of those records were damn good.

100% with punk music. Where I grew up in exurb Georgia, there wasn’t a ton of availability for real hardcore punk, but I had a whole bunch of pop punk bands I loved. To this day, I still listen to blink 182‘s Enema of the State. Green Day was a huge band for me, plus a lot of the bands from the pop punk explosion like New Found Glory, Sum 41, Jimmy Eat World, and bands like that. I started getting into hardcore once I heard Rancid, which is kind of a bridge to the harder stuff in a lot of ways, then At the Drive In‘s Relationship of Command came out. I couldn’t get enough of that. There’s a fun kind of organized chaos to it. Bands like that make music, but it’s so noisy and energetic. I think that’s where the crossover love comes from: just the pure energy of it. And there’s still a nice spectrum of sounds. You’ve got the open humor of bands like Municipal Waste and D.R.I. and the darker political commentary of bands like Power Trip and the Exploited. I’m kind of a political nerd so that really appeals to me, too. And I like the accessibility of crossover bands. It’s a nice mixing of the punk and metal scenes. So really, I just want everyone to get along.

From your side, what’s more your thrash taste? When we’ve discussed the best of the quarter kinds of records, your suggestions always make me think of basement parties and mixtapes. Some of the stuff is like really lo-fi which I think kind of goes with an underground aesthetic. Would that be an accurate statement?

JB: I’m surprised to see you interoperate my taste as more low-fi, although looking at some of the Q1 picks—Omicida, Critical Defiance, Destroyers of All—I can see how you might get that impression. In general though, I think I usually prefer cleaner production, which probably, again, stems from my penchant for metalcore. I have a real soft spot for Adam Dutkiewicz’s production during the mid-2000s, stuff like End of Heartache and Parkway Drive‘s first two albums in particular. Some of his later stuff spilled over into the overly processed/too clean side of things, but he seems to be back on top form with the new Killswitch album, which is super thrashy and which I’m very excited to talk about.

Other modern producers I like are Nolly Getgood and Ermin Hamidovic from Systematic Productions who works with big-name artists like Periphery, Architects and Devin Townsend these days, but who got his start working with Melbourne thrash bands like In Malice’s Wake, Elm St., Mason and Harlott (pretty much all my favourite Australian thrash albums) and his production tends to be pretty crisp and punchy, as does Chris Themelco’s from Orpheus Omega, who seems to have taken over the Australian production mantle now that Hamidovic has hit the big time. This punchy production style usually suits my preferred thrash style pretty well, which is usually very aggressive, groovy stuff or else stuff that leans toward the death metal side of things. I think you get the political side of things coming through in these styles as well, beginning with Metallica and Megadeth, all the way through to modern bands like Killswitch Engage (with Jesse at least) and Lamb of God as well—even if they’re not always the most nuanced or refined takes, the general outrage is captured well through thrash’s inherent aggression.

This production style is also pretty bass-heavy, which leads me to perhaps another aspect of crossover that doesn’t always click with me: the twangy, mid-heavy bass sound. A lot of people like that sound but I find it really grating. It’s something that puts me off a lot of crossover bands, and modern Overkill in particular that I just can’t get past a lot of the time. Which is why it’s kind of surprising to see you throw Power Trip in with the crossover crowd. There’s prominent elements of hardcore to their sound for sure, but their overall sound is way heavier than what I’d usually associate with crossover thrash and sounds way more in line with the heavier/grooovier tradition of Metallica and Pantera, who also have an underpinning of hardcore to their sound.

Speaking of low-fi production, I know you’re big into black thrash as well, care to talk about that and maybe how some of your own production preferences inform your tastes?

PW: That’s definitely it. I seemed to immediately forget a discussion of metalcore. I haven’t given metalcore its due lately. I completely stopped listening to it my first year of college and just fell out. I think that’s one spot where you and I differ. I’m not a huge fan of really super produced albums. I think it’s just from growing up on punk music. I like the occasional record with those kinds of production values, but I don’t know about most of them. What is it that appeals to you with it?

I totally get why people don’t usually like crossover. Some of the records definitely sound grating and tinny, but that’s what I like about it. It’s just the aesthetic it comes from. That kind of recording gives it this grassroots feeling like somebody figured out every aspect of recording and recorded their band with a lot of limitations. It’s a feeling of nostalgia. Power Trip fits with the aesthetic sometimes, but there’s a strong contingent of bass-heavy hardcore. It’s in the minority for sure, but that’s why I find those bands so interesting. Lowest Creature is in that same vein. You definitely don’t get good grooves with them, but there’s a time and place for everything. The thrash that doesn’t appeal to me is neither crossover nor groovy. It’s just not interesting.

Your question fits very nicely with crossover. I do really like the low production quality records. There’s something to those limitations that feels real to me. Like real human beings made the record on their own. And black metal just has this appealing aesthetic all its own. I really do think it’s because of how much I just love horror. I love horror movies, I like true crime, I love just like dark shit. Serial killers, cults, unsolved murders, just anything really macabre and unsettling. Black metal completely envelopes all of that. And when it sounds as dirty as it does, it just heavily leans into that idea. How much of a black metal fan are you? I remember talking about Inculter, but I can’t remember any other discussions of black metal. Sometimes I even see second wave black metal bands as modern thrash, so I have a pretty open definition of what blackened thrash sounds like.

JB: Well I just bought tickets to go see Cradle of Filth (who I also did a big retrospective on) this morning, so I definitely like some black metal. Actually, Cradle of Filth’s last two albums are pretty thrashy, especially Cryptoriana, which even has an Annihilator cover as the bonus track. However, I’m generally not that interested in raw or straight-forward black metal. I’ve never been that interested in the classic second-wave bands, although I definitely hear a lot of thrash influence there, especially on Mayhem‘s De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas. I generally go for black metal bands who venture outside the genre’s boundaries a bit more. I mentioned above that my favourite black metal bands are Emperor and Enslaved, and then probably Cradle as well.

“Black thrash” as a genre has never particularly grabbed me, which is probably because a lot of it leans toward that crusty, low-fi sound. I like Skeletonwitch, but they also have a much cleaner, punchier and varied sound than what generally comes to mind when I think of blackened thrash metal. But I’ll also admit to not really being overly familiar with the scene as a whole. Throw out some names; if I want a crash course in quality black thrash, what should I be listening to?

Just to cap-off the production question, I think my liking of cleaner production probably just stems from my metalcore conditioning. But more generally, when you have a genre like thrash metal, or groove metal or metalcore or whatever that’s built around aggression and generally succeeds on how much you “feel” the riffs more than you think about them (which isn’t to say there isn’t room for that as well), I think those riffs should probably endeavor to hit you as hard as they possibly can; although there’s definitely a point where things cross over into overly-clean/hollow territory. Unearth’s Darkness in the Light is when Dutkiewicz hit that point for me and I think Thy Art Is Murder‘s Hate is probably the apex of overly processed production robbing inherently aggressive music of its impact. But, again, bringing things back to thrash. I also think a lot of the ’80s thrash production, particularly the first three Metallica records are pretty spot on production wise. I’ve some people saying they don’t hold up to modern production standards, but they strike a perfect balance as far as grittiness, punch and clarity as far as I’m concerned.

Along with the black thrash recommendations, this might be a good time to ask: who are your Big Four?

PW: Now that we’ve built out each other’s personal tastes, I can see why you like those black metal bands. I’ve only recently become a big fan of both Emperor and Enslaved. Enslaved makes so much sense with your description because they’ve become this generally extreme metal prog band. I really dig it a lot, and you have to be doing something really awesome for me to like a prog metal band (generally speaking, not the biggest prog metal fan in the world). While I do love my second wave-style bands, I’m with you. When black metal can explore the boundaries of the subgenre, that’s where I really dig it.

When it comes to black thrash, I’d point to Skeletonwitch and Aura Noir. Skeletonwitch nails the sound and creates such a great atmosphere. They’re one of those bands that doesn’t necessarily fit neatly inside any genre label, but blackened thrash is a pretty good descriptor. Aura Noir is just one of the originals. They make a lot of sense simply because they grew up with a lot of the second-wave bands in Norway but went with what at that time could’ve been seen as a traditional kind of sound. Still, it’s great stuff. Black and thrash can just combine together so well that you really can’t go wrong. From you, who should I listen to for metalcore?

I’ve written about the Big 4 and the various reinterpretations of who that should be. To me, I think the Big 4 is Metallica, Slayer, Megadeth, and Testament. Those 4 just belong together really well, though Testament is the outlier here. The sound of each band is so relatable while also each having their own voice. If you had asked me who my Big 5 was, I’d have to say the original Big 4 plus Exodus. If you expand to 5, Anthrax has to stay in just because they were so (inexplicably) huge, but Exodus balances them out as Anthrax wouldn’t be quite as much of a sore thumb then. Who are yours?

Finally, what’s the future of thrash metal? What bands do you see at the forefront? Where do you think the sound is going?

JB: Alright. I’ll check out Aura Noir. I’ve given them a few cursory listens that resulted in me dismissing them because of the raw sound, but I’ll try and pay more attention this time. As for metalcore recommendations: Unearth’s Watchers of Rule is one of my recent favourites, it’s not overly thrashy and a bit on the cleaner side, but it goes SO HARD [in retrospect, I also realised it has a cover of Slayer’s “Blood Red” as a bonus track]; Still Remains Ceasing to Breathe was a great (and fairly thrashy) comeback album that no one paid attention to; God Forbid’s Earthsblood, given your love of Mastodon and Baroness; and definitely make sure to check out the new Killswitch Engage album when it comes out, thing is an absolute beast and is about 70%–80% thrash metal.

I was aware of your distaste for Anthrax, but it’s still surprising given that you’re the crossover guy of the two of us. In terms of innovation and popularisation, it’s hard to argue with the canonical Big 4, but as far as my personal development and tastes go:

  • Metallica, for all the reasons outlined above, and because they are just the best.
  • Testament, who aren’t as groundbreaking or as influential as Slayer or Megadeth but who, bar Metallica, I think have perhaps the most consistent and vaired discographies of any thrash band. I also think Chuck Billy is probably the best of the thrash vocalists, Alex Skolnick is in the running for the genre’s best lead guitarist as well and Eric Peterson’s songwriting is second only to Hetfield/Ulrich.
  • Kreator, who are probably the only big thrash band to be able to match Slayer in terms of extremity (well, maybe apart from my next pic), but who still have the progressive/technical edge of Megadeth; they’re a good combination of the two and easily have the best track record of any classic thrash band in the modern era.
  • and Sepultura, who I think have done as much to push the limits of thrash as much as Metallica, except in the opposite direction, and were also probably the biggest influence on my own development of any thrash band, apart from Metallica.

If we’re opening up a fifth slot then I have to give it to Machine Head, who I’ve always considered in the running as favourite band, but they’re just not quite as influential and foundational as all the bands listed above, even if they could play circles around nearly all of them, although if the next In Malice’s Wake album is anywhere near as good as the first three then they could be genuine contenders.

As to the future of thrash metal, I mean, Power Trip are the band, right? If they can follow up Nightmare Logic with something of equal or even approximate quality then they’re going to be pretty much unstoppable. In terms of keeping the traditional thrash style, I really wish more people were paying attention to In Malice’s Wake and the Australian scene in general, the thrash bands here at the moment really are second to none. As for new directions, thrash isn’t really as compatible with some of the newer popular genres, like djent (even though Meshuggah started as a thrash metal band) and deathcore, as it has been in the past, though thrashy takes on either of these genres is something I’m completely open too. I think that’s the main thing: thrash didn’t die, it just evolved; there will always be bands doing the old-school thrash style—in fact, I think we’re having one of the best years for the genre in a long time right now—but I think there’s a lot more thrash influence in a lot of other genres that doesn’t get acknowledged as much as it should.

I’ll leave it there, since I’ve gone on long enough. What are your thoughts on the current and future state of thrash metal?

PW: I’m going to check out the metalcore records as this conversation has completely changed my mind about the sound. And that’s a very interesting Big 4! Really turning it on its head. But I guess it just goes to show how important Metallica is to thrash metal. All the other bands could go away, but Metallica has had an influence on literally everyone.

I agree with you that Power Trip is THE band going forward. I see a few other bands on the up and up, but Power Trip is the flag bearer at this point. I see crossover continuing to come up. It’s never really had a heyday even though it’s been around for a pretty long time. I think that’s how thrash can separate itself in a modern era. I also think it will combine with other sounds, specifically power metal. Some of these new wave of power/traditional metal bands coming around, like Haunt or Paladin, include some thrash metal ideas really well. I think we’ll see more of that. The stalwart traditional sound will still be around, but I see it coming from Australia and Europe mainly. Not a ton of American bands are doing the traditional sound, but bands like you’ve mentioned are going strong. I really see Nervosa getting huge as there’s an opening for a really solid thrash and groove band from here on out. Something tells me we’re going to be talking about a huge new wave here very soon.

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