Howdy headbangers! What a hell of a few months, huh? Yet, while the world appears to be falling apart at an ever-increasing pace, 2020 is shaping up to be maybe the strongest year for thrash metal since 1986.* The new Warbringer album might not have done it for me, disappointingly, but almost everything else this quarter has been absolutely top notch, making for one of the most jam-packed roundups in our column’s humble history.
Looking ahead, you probably didn’t need me to tell you that these four albums were the best thrash had to offer over the past few months. I promise it won’t always just be the four biggest thrash releases of each quarter that make up my top picks—and, you’ll see from the further recommendations section, that the lesser-known acts have certainly been no slouches either this quarter. Yet, if last year was all about newer and overlooked acts making their mark on the genre (even if I did pick an extremely high-profile release (from arguably outside the genre) as the year’s best offering), then this one, so far, seems to be about the thrash titans reminding listeners of just why they’re so highly regarded to begin with.
So, while this round’s “Big 4” perhapas doesn’t contain any surprises, hopefully I can offer some worthwhile analysis and examination of just why these albums are so damn good—along with some solid secondary recommendations, of course.
*speculation wholly wild and not supported by any even cursory research.
The Big Four:
Testament – Titans of Creation
That a new Testament album is going to be great is pretty much a given at this point shouldn’t render it any less remarkable. If a new “supergroup” made up of the classic Testament triptych of Erik Peterson, Chuck Billy and Alex Skolnick—all arguably the best examples of their kind within the genre—and the rhythm section that played on Death‘s Symbolic (1995) and Individual Thought Patterns (1993), came out with an album as good as this, people would be losing their damn minds. Yet, just because Testament have done it before, over and over again, that somehow makes Titans of Creation less impressive? Hell no! If anything, the sheer consistency of their output makes the fact that Testament’s twelfth album is every bit as vital (and far more technically advanced) than their classic output even more staggering.
I’m going to keep this short, since I’ve already spoken about this album album at length, and any self-respecting thrash fan will have already rinsed it to death. To reiterate, however: Titans of Creation is a phenomenal record that stands out among Testament’s catelogue as the culmination of everything they’ve achieved to date. There’s a gulf of stylistic nuance between the melodic, hair-metal infused “Dream Deceiver”; more extreme cuts like “Night of the Witch” and “Ishtars Gate”; and more straight forward thrash offerings like openers “Children of the Next Level” and “World War III” (whose delicious bass slide gets tastier every time I hear it); and the band’s execution is never short of masterful.
Titans of Creation is the sound of five masters of the thrash genre, who’ve spent the better part of four decades honing their craft, operating at peak performance, and it shouldn’t be taken for granted.
Havok – V
More people should be talking about this album. Sure, it’s not the most original record going ’round, but who hears the premise “…And Justice For All mixed with ’90s Death” and goes, “nah, not for me thanks”? Indie rock diehards and casual music listeners maybe, but anyone with a vested interest in heavy metal of any kind should be lapping this up.V might not be a huge sonic departure for Havok, but everything has taken a massive step up in quality. The riffs are heavier, the songs are tighter and more memorable, the social commentary more directed and poignant and it’s all filtered through some delightfully punch production, courtesy of Mark Lewis (Chimaira, DevilDriver, every other hard-hitting metal band of the last two decades). The Eliran Kantor artwork—his second appearance on this list in as many entries—is also fucking superb, and perfectly captures collision of concrete thrash metal and abstract tech death contained within.
The true standout, however, is bassist Brandon Bruce, who (along with Lewis) constitutes the album’s one definitively “new” factor. Bruce seems to be a genuinely unknown quantity and had some pretty big shoes to fill, in departing bass player Nick Schendzielos (Job for a Cowboy, Cephalic Carnage). As I outlined in my original review, Burne’s playing feels additive, where so much of the band’s previous member’s contributions have felt distracting. I never thought I’d be recommending a new Havok album over a Warbringer one, but here we are. Weapons of Tomorrow may have a broader scope and an arguably loftier ambition than V, but its combination of traditional thrash elements is far less interesting than Havok’s integration of early prog death, and feels far less refined. Overall, I still think Havok probably have the weakest back catalogue of the re-thrash heavyweights, but this round clearly goes to the Coloradans.
Trivium – What the Dead Men Say
Ok, let’s talk about the new Trivium album…
The Floridian four-piece’s previous outing, The Sin and the Sentence (2017), was an album so good it turned my opinion on them around completely. As a result, What the Dead Men Say became maybe my most anticipated album of the year and the hype only increased as it garnered universal praise in the lead-up to its release. Upon release, I found it satisfying, if somewhat uneven and, after having sat with it for a while now, I’m feeling much the same.
What the Dead Men Say contains some undeniably lofty highs. More complex tracks like “Amongst the Shadows and the Stones,” “Sickness Unto You” and “Bending the Ark to Fear” are among some of the best the genre has ever produced—hearkening back to defining, boundary pushing albums like Metallica‘s …And Justice For All (1988) and Machine Head‘s The Blackening (2007). Yet, while perhaps more grandiose, What the Dead Men Say is a far more restrained and conventional album than its predecessor. Every track on The Sin and the Sentence had its own distinct flavour, as though Trivium were pushing out in every direction their thrash/core genre had to offer, while excelling in every instance. What the Dead Men Say has been widely touted (by us as much as anyone else) as a refinement on the Sin and the Sentence template. For my money, however, it does away with a lot of what made the Sin and the Sentence so interesting. Maybe it’s a matter of taste, but some of its strongest moments also feel like direct rehashes, with the beginning of phenomenal closer “The Ones We Leave Behind” sounding almost identical to that of The Sin and the Sentence‘s title-track. As great as so much of it is, What the Dead Men Say lacks the variety and flair of its predecessor—being essentially comprised of two ill-fitting speeds.
When it’s not busy sounding like a mash-up of …And Justice for All and The Blackening, What the Dead Men Say sounds like (bad) Bullet for My Valentine. There’s some great stuff on Bullet for My Valentine’s first few albums (and I don’t even dislike Gravity (2018) as much as everyone seems to think I should). However, it’s usually the stuff that sounds more in line with the material discussed in the previous paragraph. Where Trivium draw comparisons, however, is to the sappy, “emo” cliches for which the Welshmen are now mostly remembered. Although it maintains a bit of that Blackening Underbelly (mostly via Paolo Gregoletto’s ominous bass) the majority of the track is about as trite as its title makes it sound. If any other, out-of-favor band had written these lyrics, let alone delivered them so earnestly, they’d be laughed out of relevancy. “Scattering the Ashes” has a bit more pep to it, but is even more under-cooked, essentially repeating the same under-done chorus for the majority of its relatively minuscule running time.
Elsewhere the combination of styles is more successful. Although it fell flat for me at first, “Catastrophist” is an undeniable, melodic powerhouse, while “The Defiant” is a more effective and polished NWOAHM throwback. I do not at all, however, get the hype around the album’s title track, which continues to be touted as one of the best and most acomplished songs Trivium have ever written, yet seems so flat and simple compared What the Dead Men‘s says actual high-points. For me, the album’s weaker opening and its uneven mid-section undermines a lot of its inherent impact. I’ve experimented with an alternate track-list that foregrounds a bit more of its stronger material, and tries to smooth out its slumping middle somewhat, which has helped—although I can’t quite get it to click into place the way Killswitch Engage‘s Atonement (2019) did after reshuffling.*
What the Dead Men Say contains too many, glaring, structural faults and qualitative inconsistencies for me to fully get on board with, although I certainly seem to be in the minority. Even so, it remains a fantastic record, that contains some absolutely phenomenal material, the equal of any other thrash-related outing covered here.
*The closest I’ve got is: “The Ones We Leave Behind”, “Amongst the Shadows and the Stones”, “Catastrophist”, “Sickness Unto You”, “Bending the Arc to Fear”, “Bleed into Me”, “Scattering the Ashes”, “IX”, “What the Dead Men Say”, “The Defiant”. Problem is both “The Defiant” and the title track (which I’ve tried keeping at the start as well) feel like closing tracks, and I really need another intro track to stick on the front.
Lamb of God – Lamb of God
Based on the first few singles, there was no way I thought I’d be featuring this here as a top pick. However, Lamb of God‘s self-titled comeback record keeps getting better every time I listen to it. First up, some more structural shenanigans: The album is at least twice as good if you take the second half (beginning with “Resurrection Man”) and bolt it on the front instead. Replacing solid-if-generic into-track “Memento Mori” and “Ghost Walking”-rehash “Checkmate” with the album’s more convincing second half not only makes for a more foreful opening, but goes a long way toward alleviating its one undermining critiscim, which is that it’s simply Lamb of God by numbers.
Maybe so, but, as I point out in my review, few bands have ever done what Lamb of God do as well as Lamb of God do, and Lamb of God is simply proof that even middling Lamb of God is at least a cut above their competition. Speaking of which, Chris Adler really lost this one. I’m only treating his split form the band as a conflict, since he framed it as one; but, if we’re comparing this with everything Adler’s done since leaving to pursue more “creative” and fulfilling endeavors (Exhibit A, Exhibit B), then he’s off to a rough start. The nuances of his replacement, Art Cruz (ex-Winds of Plague), have also revealed themselves on further listen. Cruz has a much heavier foot than Adler, and the added stomp he brings to the band is enough to make their formula sound fresh (or at least compelling) again. Lamb of God might be a “comfortable” album for the band but, after sounding so uncomfortable for so long, it’s a welcome return.
Further Lessons in Violence:
Shrapnel – Palace for the Insane
As far as newer bands go, it’s Britain’s Shrapnel who have been bringing the most thunder this round. The Norwich outfit’s third full length is a bit of a different best to their previous material, due in no small part to the addition of vocalist/bassist Arran Tucker, who has more of a punky/crossover edge to his delivery than the band’s previous vocalist, Jae Hadley, who had more of a Teutonic rasp. The production is also a lot more polished, which might not be to everyone’s taste, but perfectly matches the sharpened songwriting. Palace for the Insane is a near-perfect amalgamation of traditional thrash approaches that never sits in the one lane for too long. There’s still a bit of fat that could be trimmed. The twelve-track album sags a bit in the middle and although the slower, more experimental tracks like “Begin Again” and “Future Sight” are interesting, they’re less effective than when the band simply put their collective foot to the floor and thrash it out. They’re also going to need some bigger, more memorable hooks if they’re going to be in it for the long run but, Palace for the Insane is a solid starting point and more than potent enough if what you’re after is a solid hit of thrash metal.
Shards of Humanity – Cold Logic
Cold Logic continues the collision of thrash and Death-style death metal that worked out so well for Havok and Testament this round. Shards of Humanity‘s take on the mash-up, however, is far more Leprosy (1988) than it is Human (1991)—let alone something like Symbolic or Individual Thought Patterns. The songs themselves might not be as distinctive as either their contemporaries or their forbears, but if it’s a pure distillation of death and thrash metal’s raw appeal you’re after, you could hardly do better.
Drain – California Cursed
Is it thrash? Is it hardcore? Is it crossover? who cares! The only thing you need to know about Drain‘s California Cursed is that its a ton of fun and you should start throwing-down to it immediately. Imagine if Comeback Kid continued in the more metallic direction hinted at across Symptoms and Cures (2010) and Die Knowing (2014) (rather than whatever they ended up doing on Outsider (2017)) and you’re in the right ballpark. Please report back should you actually manage to pull-off windmilling and two-stepping at the same time.
Black Pestilence – Hail the Flesh
Longtime readers of Into the Pit (does anyone actually read these things?) will be aware that blackened thrash just isn’t my thing, but there’s something about Black Pestilence‘s latest offering that’s hitting me in all the right places. The artwork is camp as hell—as much a send-up as a tribute to the Frank Franzetta-style album art of yore, while the band members dress like the guitar guy from Mad Max: Fury Road or the biker demons from Mandy serving you leather-daddy realness. Musically, it’s a cool mix of raw, Venom-style black metal and Swansong-era Carcass and I am here for it!
Ormskrik – Ormskrik
More kick-ass black-thrash coming at you, courtesy of Ormskrik‘s outstanding self-titled debut. This one is for the more “serious” black-thrash connoisseur. Which is to say its ragged, gritty and nasty as hell. Tracks like “March of the Dead” sound like they could have come from Black Breath‘s long awaited follow-up to Slaves Beyond Death, with an added, blackened twist, and the rest of the album is just as scathing. Again, as with Shrapnel, what Ormskrik are missing are thos ebig sexy hooks, but that doesn’t stop this album from being a true underground gem of 2020 and a the band are one to definitely keep an eye on. (And, hey, why not check out Vampire‘s Rex while you’re at it.)
Alarum – Circle’s End
I don’t know if I’d go as far as to declare this thrash metal, but there’s definitely a thrashier edge to Australian legends Alarum‘s latest. Either way, if Circle’s End set Eden down a tech-thrash rabbithole that ended up with him getting better acquainted with Destruction, that can’t be a bad thing, and, who knows, it might do the same for you too. The album’s also just really good and might even be the trio’s strongest effort to date. This is a no-brainer for fans of Coroner and later-period Death, but there’s also a bit of Devin Townsend mixed in. Give it a go, see what you think.
Thrash Bandicoot – Milwaukee Cannibal
Lastly, here’s one I missed from last round, which is mostly sneaking in here on name alone. Having said that, Milwaukee Cannibal shows far more potential than their brilliant moniker might suggest. Rather than the irreverent crossover, party-thrash practiced by most novelty-named thrash acts, the Wollongong four-piece take things in the opposite direction—delivering some bouncy Sepultura-style death thrash, sure to get necks snapping up and down the East coast and beyond. Keep an eye on these guys, we may just have some new hometown heroes on our hands.*
*For a given value of “town”.
That’s all for now (which is quite a lot, if I’m being honest). See you all again next quarter, when we’re probably going to talk about Plague Years.