Let’s get the sad stuff out of the way upfront. The thrash world lost a major figure with the unexpected passing of Power Trip frontman Riley Gale last month. I’m not going to pretend I had any personal or intimate connection with the man, beyond enjoying his music, but the outpouring of stories and commiserations from across the metal community and beyond once the news was announced goes to show what a positive and well-respected influence he was, regardless of his musical impact. Barely an installment of this column went by when we weren’t singing Power Trips praises. The band have set the standard for current thrash metal and, although they’ve spawned many imitators, even the best have hardly come close (as we’ll see below). I wish Gale’s family, friends and the rest of Power Trip the best and look forward to seeing what they do when they’re ready.
Snap your neck to one of the best riffs and vocal hooks in thrash history below and I’ll see you on the other side to talk about the more positive these last few month have had to offer.
While the first half of 2020 was been all about the bigger names, its third quarter has been largely sat out more established acts. Some of them delivered merely forgetable records, while others really shit the bed. The dearth of bigger releases is likely a result of COVID-19, which continues to play havoc with release schedules (and lives) across the globe. If there’s an upside, however, it’s that the interruption to major programming has allowed some of thrash metal’s smaller, upcoming names to make their mark across these past few months.
I’m playing pretty fast and loose here with the genre categorisation. Most if not all of these bands could fit snugly into adjacent genres. Nevertheless, they each remained underpinned by a distinctly thrash aesthetic. So, while thrash metal can often be one of the more regressive metal genres, let’s take a moment to celebrate the variety of sounds it also often inspires.
The Big Four
Let Us Prey – Virtues of the Vicious
Since I already said my piece about this round’s top pick, I’m handing the reigns over to Heavy Blog head honcho Eden for a second, to tell you all about the power-thrash goodness that is Virtues of the Vicious:
For me, the Golden Age of power metal was back in the halcyon days of Blind Guardian and their transition from a thrash band to a power metal band. Power metal tends to be too saccharine, lost in the sort of filigree you find at the top of tacky wedding cakes. Thrash gives it a, not be too redundant, metallic edge, grounds the music in an aggression that forces power metal to be direct, to speak straight, and to not waste our time with too many reprisals, solos, and ret-treads. That’s how you get Nightfall in Middle Earth or Angra‘s Temple of Shadows, two of the best power metal albums that have plenty of thrash influences on them.
That’s the pedigree of Boston’s Let Us Prey whose Virtues of the Vicious is incredibly blatant about its influences and its intentions. Hell, the first few seconds of the album, taking the form of opener “Above the Vaulted Sky”, already feature a high octane, thrash metal riff which sounds just a bit different, with perhaps a hint of power metal’s larger drums and more melodic guitars. By the time the high-pitch vocals kick in less than a minute in, you should already be well aware what sort of album lies before you.
Virtues of the Vicious, much like those classic power/thrash albums mentioned above, channels the best of both genres. On one hand, the riffs hit hard and they hit fast, wasting no time in their chainsaw like delivery of notes and plenty of them. This keeps the album pounding, hitting you with track after track (only one track significantly exceeds the six minute mark and that one is the closer, at “only” eight minutes). The power metal influences, mostly dominant on the aforementioned soaring vocals, serve to inject things with grand gestures and an epic sheen that elevates the music beyond “just” its thrashy directness. Throw in some killer solos, extremely solid drum work and you’ve got yourself a treat and a half.
Kill the Lights – The Sinner
A “supergroup” made up of the ex-drummer from Bullet for My Valentine, guitarists from Threat Signal and Still Remains along with a bassist and vocalist from some other bands you’ve never even heard of (Glamour of the Kill and Throw the Fight, respectively)—the latter of which sounds more or less exactly like Brock Lindow from 36 Crazyfists, might not sound like the most exciting of prospects. …but just listen to the song below! This rips!!!
Kill the Lights make good on the promise of sounding like what Bullet for My Valentine might have sounded like if they’d followed the thrash infused path suggested by Scream Aim Fire (2008) rather than going completely off the rails into Temper Temper (2013) territory. That the riff’s come courtesy of Still Remains’ axeman Jordan Whelan makes perfect sense, given the thrashier edge they displayed on 2013’s criminally overlooked Ceasing to Breath (2013), and The Sinner’s does a more than adequate job of filling the void while we wait for the increasingly unlikely follow-up to that record. Having said that, it seems like it’s Threat Signal’s Travis Montgomery who’s taken the lead on this one, which only goes to show how much of a wasted talent he is in his usual position.
The Sinner definitely puts its strongest foot forward, with the opening volley of “Shed My Skin,” The Faceless” and “Watch You Fall.” After that, it again follows Scream Aim Fire‘s lead by wandering into overly affected ballad-territory a bit to often. Nevertheless, it remains surprisingly consistent, especially from a band made up of members who haven’t put together a solid record for the better part of seven years (if ever, in the case of all those members who aren’t Whelan). Even if everything I’ve said here has done nothing to stoke your enthusiasm, it’s worth giving Kill the Lights a shot. You might be surprised.
Madrost – Charring the Rotted Earth
Californian tech-death-thrashers Madrost really stepped things up for their fourth full-length release. Charring the Rotted Earth represents a refined take on their already potent blend of tech-death and rabid thrash metal. They’ve also upped the death metal component considerably, so that they come across more like a rawer version of Revocation than ever before. Far from mere imitators, however, Madrost have delivered a record that is a worthy tribute to their influences while also finding a way to set themselves apart.
For all its refined songwriting, the most notable thing about Charring the Rotted Earth is the addition of keyboards, courtesy of courtesy of Xanthrochroid‘s Sam Meador. The album’s clear standout is its closing title-track. Halfway through, “Charring the Rotted Earth” breaks for an almost power metal like folk-break before kicking back in with a wall of sythesized sympohonics, reminiscent of In Sorte Diaboli-era Dimmu Borgir. The keys show up frequently,although far more subtly throughout the record. yet, while their restraint is appreciated it would be interesting and likely most rewarding—given the finesse on display here—to see Madrost fully commit to the new direction for future releases.
Plague Years – Circle of Darkness
Circle of Darkness is an album I was really looking forward to, following Plague Years‘ fantastic 2018 mini-album Unholy Infestation. Of all the many, many bands aping the sound of Power Trip sound in the wake of Nightmare Logic (2017), Plague Years came closest in both sound and quality. That trend continues on their first (full) full-length. Riff-for-riff, Circle of Darkness is one of the most impressive and exhilarating thrash albums of the year. If this were the new Power Trip album, no one would be batting an eyelid, and it would likely be receiving the kind of praise and exposure the band clearly deserve.
Having said that, there are a few key factors still seperating Plague Years from the genre’s upper eschelons. Firsly, for as good as the riffs are—and they are very, very good—the songs themselves, so far, lack that crucial sticking power that sets Power Trip out from the pack. The album’s lack of memorability might have less to do with its inherent quality than with its second major sticking point: the production. Compared to the razor sharp attack of Nightmare Logic, Circle of Darkness sounds muddy and imprecise,causing a lot of their inherent impact to get lost in translation. Tim Englehardt’s vocals, in particular, sound like they were recorded from the back of a cave somewhere, which sounds cool. However, they also often sound muffled, and this style of music really needs the vocals to clear and prominent in the mix.
The albeit impressive impersonation of Phil Anselmo on “Eternal Fire” along with lifting the vocal pattern from Pantera‘s “Mouth For War” for the already very Pantera-sounding “Nrftl” is further evidence Plague Years are yet to step out of the shadow of their influences and find their own identity. Still, if this is how good Plague Years sound while they’re sill finding their feet, I can’t wait to see what they come out with next.
Further Lessons in Violence
As the Palaces Burn – All the Evil
Despite what the bland band-name and logo might suggest, this is not a groove metal album, but rather progressive thrash of the highest order, in the vein of Let Us Prey. In fact—pound for pound—All the Evil might just be better than Virtues of the Vicious. The three-track “EP” is essentially a glorified single, consisting of the awesome title-track, the equally awesome “b-side” “Nothing Lasts Forever” and a kickass cover of Savatage‘s “Hall of The Mountain King”. If As the Palaces Burn can keep this level of quality up across an entire full-length record, you can expect to see them at the top of the “Big Four”. The cover art, by Marcelo Vasco (Slayer, Machine Head) is also very cool. It has a very Dave McKean vibe to it. I dig.
Fermentor – Continuance
Fermentor are one of the more impressive instrumental bands I’ve heard in a while. The band’s overall blend of tech-thrash and old-school prog-death is pretty par for the course when it comes to this sort of thing. Nevertheless, drummer Dylan Marks and guitarist Adam Wollach (both of San Diego thrashers Beekeeper), manage to keep things fresh and engaging throughout. The twelve tracks on Continuance sound like—gasp!—actual songs, yet they never feel like they’re missing anything either. Taking the vocals away allows the instrumentation and compositions to speak for themselves and they more than hold their own against more fleshed out line-ups.
Battlemaster – Ghastly, Graven & Grimoireless
Longtime Into the Pit patrons will know that black thrash isn’t really my thing. Usually that’s because it seems like they’re only using raw “blackened” production to hide the fact that they don’t really have that many ideas and the riffs aren’t actually that good. Battlemaster, on the other hand, have nothing to hide. Ghastly, Graven & Grimoirless is overflowing with awesome ideas and unapologetic black-thrash brilliance. There’s a distinct Immortal vibe to their sound; kind of like if Abbath went further down the thrashy route with his solo stuff. That’s not the usual area of black metal that black thrash bands usually draw from but, if Battlemaster are anything to go by, they really should be.
Slowbleed – ’20 Promo
Santa Paula’s Slowbleed are certainly a band to keep an eye on. Their 2020 promo leans on the HM2 pedal a bit harder than 2019’s stellar Never Been Worse EP but there’s still a thrashy undercurrent to their volatile mix of filthy hardcore and increasing splashes of death metal. Imagine if Power Trip came at crossover thrash from less of a DRI angle than a Trap Them one. The sonic tapestry remains more interesting than the songs themselves, for the moment. Nevertheless, there’s a ton of potential here, and I can’t wait to see what they do in a full-length format.
Raven – Metal City
It’s weird to think that Raven probably put out the best album of all the veteran thrash acts last quarter. Maybe it’s just the lack of available options at the moment, but Metal City is a surprisingly solid and enjoyable album from a band I imagine most people are either not aware of or completely forgot existed. I’m not sure this record has any staying power, but it’s a ton of fun while it lasts. If you’re looking for something a bit lighter then this is definitely worth checking out. (PS – what’s the deal with these guys? Do they have some long-lost thrash classic or two that i should be aware of?.)
Metallica – S&M2
Oh yeah, Metallica also released a live album last month, and it was kind of a big deal. I’ve gotta level with you though, while Metallica are probably my favourate band, I’ve personally found it difficult to muster up any enthusiasm for S&M2 since it was announced. The original S&M (1999) was a huge touchstone for my musical development, helping introduce me to more of the band back catalogue, beyond The Black Album (1991) and Load (1996). Since then I’ve become pretty lukewarm on it; at times (“Master of Puppets”, “Bleeding Me”) it’s electrifying, others (pretty much everything else), it sounds like being stuck between two radio stations. Since then I’ve also seen the band live twice and both times (even the one where they actually played “Disposable Heroes”) left me pretty cold. So this might just be a me thing.
Still, there’s not a lot to get excited about on S&M2. The album is essentially an inferior rehash of the original S&M, maintaining most of its original track listing. The new additions are also pretty lackluster. “The Outlaw Torn” and San Franciso Symphony stand-up bassist Scott Pingel‘s performance of “(Anesthesia) Pulling Teeth” are clear highlights. However, the other newer offerings are pretty uninspiring, “The Unforgiven III”, “All Within My Hands” and (yeah, I’ll say it) “The Day That Never Comes” all prime candidates for the worst Metallica song of all time. Even some of the cuts from 2016’s highly respectable Hardwired… To Self-Destruct (“Confusion”, “Halo on Fire”) are extremely questionable. Where’s “Spit Out the Bone”? “Dream No More”? Let alone something like “Fade to Black”, “Blackened” or even “Invisible Kid” or “Frantic”.
I imagine S&M2 was a fun time for the live audience but I can’t even bring myself to watch the live recording and the few listens I’ve given the record have been extremely underwhelming. It’s by no means a blemish on Metallica’s track record, but it’s not particularly recommendable either.
There was also a new Lamb of God song on the soundtrack to the new Bill and Ted movie. Both of which are… fine.
Anyway, see you next round when I’ll get to gush about the new In Malice’s Wake and OH MY GOD THERE’S GOING A NEW KILLER BE KILLED ALBUM YOU GUYS!!!!