The mathematicians among you will realise that this post technically shouldn’t be hitting you until January. Although I usually hit you with these quarterly posts the month after a quarter expires, I’m dropping this one early since we’ve got our end of year roundup coming up next month and also because it seems like there’s been as many quality thrash releases these last couple of months as there has been all year – even if its offerings aren’t quite as consistent or refined as those of the previous quarters. Feast your ears on the cream of the crop below and, if there are any December stragglers, I’ll make sure to include them in the 2020 roundup next month.
The Big Four
In Malice’s Wake – The Blindness of Faith
All thrash bands are not equal, and In Malice’s Wake are a band who have consistently proven that they’re simply better at playing thrash metal than everyone else. While the other three members of this quarter’s “Big Four” are set-up and apart by their pedigree, In Malice’s Wake assert their supremacy by just thrashing harder and faster than anyone else.
Each subsequent In Malice’s Wake record has seen a step up in extremity and intensity and The Blindness of Faith is no exception. As discussed when we premiered closing track “Gehenna” earlier this month, the Melbournians’ fourth full-length is also their most extreme, blending more and more death metal into their sound until they’re teetering on the cusp of the genre itself. The album comes across like a blend of Slayer‘s Hell Awaits (1985) and Testament‘s colossal classic The Gathering (1999), blending the best of modern and old-school thrash metal into something worthy of being recognised as the genre’s ultimate incarnation.
It may seem like In Malice’s Wake couldn’t possibly push the basic thrash metal template any harder without leaving it behind entirely. The Morbid Angel influence is palpable, as “Gehenna” shows, and there’s even a latter-day Immortal-sounding section that kicks in halfway through “Unbound Sinful Light”. Yet, time and time again, In Malice’s Wake have found a way to push themselves that little bit further – to play that little bit heavier and harder – without compromising their traditional thrash metal aesthetic. The Blindness of Faith is yet another flawless entry in their catalogue that yet again raises the bar for themselves and their competitors. The album’s production – again handled by Chris Themelco (Orpheus Omega, Eye of the Enemy) and mastered at Sweden’s Panic Room studios (Soilwork, Eurovision) – is, as always, absolutely top notch, the band obliterating the competition under the weight of their sheer sonic force as much as their precision songwriting assault. If you’re going to play traditional thrash metal in 2020 then you damn sure better play it as well as this, or risk being blown away.
Killer Be Killed – Reluctant Hero
Killer Be Killed‘s debut album (2014) is an all-time favourite of mine. So when the super group’s second album was surprisingly announced this year it quickly rocketed to the top of my “most anticipated albums” list. Yet, while it was love at first sound with the self-titled, Reluctant Hero has taken a bit of time and a significant amount of tinkering to sink in.
From my first few listens, it was clear that the quality was still there but the album just wasn’t hitting me in the right way or sticking with me all that much. It was also immediately apparent – especially when compared with the immediacy of Killer be Killed‘s opening salvo – that a lot of Reluctant Hero‘s stronger and more interesting material was being buried in the middle or toward the end of the record. You know what that means: it was time for one of my patented track-list rearrangements!
First-up, we’re moving the title track, which originally closes the record into the opening position. The mellow, melodic and mournful “Reluctant Hero” is easily the biggest departure from Killer be Killed’s debut and their second outing’s most intriguing and definitive statement. Band’s have a tendency to save their stylistic departures for their finales, which can work when the rest of the record builds up to them (see Cattle Decapitation‘s Death Atlas (2019) for a superb example), but in this case it makes a string statement to put their best foot forward, immediately showcasing how the band have grown and shaking the feeling that this second round will be merely a rehash of the first.
Next we’re keeping original opener and lead-single “Deconstructing Self-Destruction”. The song feels somewhat like an ever-so-slightly inferior attempt to recapture the magic of “Of Feather and Wax” even if it’s compositionally more complex. However, the track is given a lot more individuality following the build up of “Reluctant Hero” and, while I do wish they’d hit the melodic bridge section a bit earlier, given this fresh perspective the track is every bit as powerful as its predecessor.
From there, we’re going to capitalise on that momentum with two of the album’s heavier tracks, “Inner Calm from Outer Storms” which see Max Cavalera (Soulfly, Cavalera Conspiracy) in top form as the apocalyptic voice of unreason and “Filthy Vagabond”, a rollicking punk rock ditty that has Troy Sanders (Mastodon, Gone is Gone) sounding the most alive he’s sounded in years and fully capitulates on the hardcore background of newcomer Ben Koller (Converge, Mutoid Man). Then we’re going to take things down a notch with the groovy “From a Crowded Wound” whcih draws blends the bouncier moments of Mastodon and with the more ethereal sections of The Dillinger Escape Plan – the band’s ex-frontman Greg Puciato fully taking command of his surroundings. Max and Troy drop in with their usual thunder, but it’s Puciato’s strained screech that makes for the album’s most powerfully abrasive moment.
We’re then taking things back up again with “Left of Center” – a Sanders-led number that gets kind of lost in the original order, but really pops in the now arrangement when allowed to contrast more with its surroundings. Then it’s the raging “Dead Limbs” perhaps the most conventionally thrash-sounding song on the record, even if it does have a big fat Troy Sanders chorus stuck right in the middle of it and eventually transitions into something that wouldn’t sound out of place on The Dillinger Escape Plan’s Dissociation (2016) or either of The Black Queen record. Then there’s two of the album’s more straight-forward tracks in “Comfort from Nothing” and “Animus”, the latter of which recalls Cavalera’s short-lived Nailbomb project from 1994 (which I really should revisit…).
Taking us out are “The Great Purge” and “Dream Gone Bad”. The former, with its electronic flourishes, has all the hallmarks of an epic closer, culminating in one of the best and most punishing thrash breaks ever committed to record. Just when you think it’s all over, however, the triumphant “Dream Gone Bad” kicks in, ending the album on an elated, rather than melancholic note, as the original title-track originally did. Perhaps it changes the overall “narrative” of the record, if there is one (which I don’t think there is). Nevertheless, while “Dream Gone Bad” gets somewhat lost amid the similar and superior tracks either side of it in the original track order, it stands out as one of Killer be Killed’s most memorable and compelling offerings when allowed some room to breathe and a statement to make.
Although this rearranged track-liting hasn’t quite had the “unlocking” effect it had with Killswitch Engage‘s Atonement (2019), it has certainly made for a far more engaging listen which only adds to the conviction that Killer be Killed are the ultimate metal super group.
Eternal Champion – Ravening Iron
As I said in our release-day roundup, Eternal Champion‘s Ravening Iron “Does what it says in the tin and does it damn well.” One look at the album cover and you know what you’re in for. Indeed, this album has more in common with traditional heavy metal than the thrash sub-genre per se, but it’s the added thrash edge that helps them stand out and triumph over the rest of the trad-metal crowd.
Although Power Trip guitarist Blake Ibanez seems to have stepped back from the band, the modern thrash aesthetic remains in tact, primarily through the savage sheen provided by producer-extraordinaire Arthur Rizk who pulls double duty behind axe and kit, alongside his Summerlands bandmates John Powers and Brad Raub. Iron Age frontman Jason Tarpey completes the set, delivering an amazing vocal performance that also sits in a lower and more intimidating register than your usual heavy metal throwback vocalist while loosing none of the majesty.
The only issue with the album is the artwork. The cover is an authentic, classic heavy metal piece, courtesy of legendary artist Ken Kelly (Manowar, Kiss, Elm Street), which unfortunately maintains and even accentuates heavy metal’s traditional, sexist imagery. Most Kelly and Frank Franzetta-esque pieces these days are inherently campy and can’t avoid becoming self-parodying pastiches – whether intended sincerely or not. What makes Ravening Iron‘s artwork particularly troublesome is not the bare-chested, buxom warrior queen commanding a dragon atop a fiery throne of skulls; That is obviously badass and even empowering.
The problem is the second bare-chested, buxom woman in the shadows of the album’s foreground. What is she doing there? Why does she have her arms behind her back (besides “to stick out her chest”)? At first glance I thought she’d maybe had her arms cut-off, due to the strange red hue atop her shoulders, or was some kind of sexy snake lady, due to the serpentine tail that curls behind and around her companion’s feet. But no. Her arms are there, tucked behind her back, for no other reason than to stick her chest out. It’s gross and unnecessary and undermines an otherwise outstanding record.
Mr. Bungle – The Raging Wrath of the Easter Bunny
One of 2020’s best thrash records comes straight out of 1986. Mr. Bungle randomly reuniting after a twenty-year absence to exclusively play and then re-record their 1986 demo tape The Raging Wrath of the Easter Bunny had the paradoxical effect of raising everyone’s eyebrows while also raising none at all. Would it be a Mr. Bungle reunion if it didn’t seem perplexingly ill-advised and insane? Was it worth getting even getting excited about if that’s all they wouldn’t be playing any of their classic songs or recording any new material? The answer to the first question is, of course: no. Juding by the The Raging Wrath of the Easter Bunny, however, the answer to the second is a surprising and resounding: yes!
This isn’t just Mike Patton singing on any old thrash metal records. This is Mike Patton singing on one of the most fun and impressive thrash metal records of the last thirty-four years. Whether it’s dropping into impromptu covers of “La Cucaracha” and S.O.D.‘s “Speak [Spanish] or Die” in the middle of “Hypocrites” or Patton’s many vocal freak outs, The Raging Wrath of the Easter Bunny is a blast from start to finish.
Patton and co. have also managed to assemble an intimating all-star cast of legendary thrash musicians for this nostalgic outing, that makes them one of the most intimidating thrash acts working today. I’ll still take California (1999) any day, but this is easily the biggest and most pleasant musical surprise of the year so far. Mike Patton on vocals, Scott Ian on guitar, Dave Lombardo on drums, a song called “Anarchy Up Your Anus”, what more do you want?
Further Lessons in Violence
Hellripper – The Affair of the Poisons
Hellripper rip! And they rip like Hell! The Affair of the Poisons is a blast from start that borrows heavily from the likes of Hellhammer and Iron Maiden alongside usual black thrash suspects Venom, Motörhead, with a hefty dose of Kill ’em All-era Metallica for good measure. It also adds in a lot more black metal than your usual “blackened” thrash act. Tom G. Warrior’s “Ohh!”, which opens the record, and Lemmy’s trademark “Alright” are sampled throughout. Yet the the album also frequently dips into some more unexpected, melodic black metal passages in between going hell-bent for leather, which helps set it apart from other homogeneous imitators. That the whole thing is the work of one James McBain (a.k.a. Lord Rot). is only more impressive. I’m not sure it has quite as much sticking power as the Midnight album from earlier this year but its infectious vigour makes it an extremely close second when it comes to blackened thrash metal in 2020.
Harlott – Detritus of the Final Age
Another highly anticipated Australian thrash release, Harlott‘s fourth full-length sees the band continuing to bring the thunder in a way that should make their Bay Area and Tutonic forefathers proud. From the moment the album starts, Harlott lay down vicious riff after vicious riff forming an unstoppable and uncompromising whirlwind of thrash metal.
…and therein kind of lies the problem. Although the musical material on Detritus of the Final age is always superb it lacks dynamics, both in its production and songwriting, so that it ultimately comes off as homogeneous and fatiguing.When bonus track “The Time To Kill Is Now” kicks off in an unexpectedly brutal and blistering fashion, it’s such a shocking and welcome surprise that it took me a while to realise that it was, of course, a cover of the Cannibal Corpse classic. Which got me wondering whether it would benefit Harlott to simply broaden their pool of influences rather than reinventing them – it certainly worked for In Malice’s Wake!
That band also wear their influences on their sleeves – or bare, sweaty chests as it may be – but they manage to put enough of their own personality and twist into things to set them apart and above. There’s no denying the similarity between the opening of “The Blindness of Faith” and “Hell Awaits”, but from there they also go harder and faster than even Slayer ever dared, and with that, In Malice’s Wake manage to become something all their own. With Harlott, there’s always an immediate and obvious point of reference, whether its lifting Slayer melodies on their previous record, or Kreator ones the one before that, the band never quite manage to escape their influences.
Specific similarities to other thrash acts continue to crop up all over Detritus of the Final Age. “As We Breach” recalls Slayer’s “Angel of Death” in both its structure and delivery, the beginning of “Idol Minded” is almost identical to Psycroptic‘s “We Are the Keepers” and “Bring on the War” sounds like any and every Warbringer track, even if it’s maybe the best Warbringer song that’s been put out this year. Opening with something like the epic “Nemesis” – as expected as the acoustic thrash intro is at this point – might have made for a more definitive statement. Indeed, Detritus of the Final Age‘s later part is much stronger and more compelling than its first, the album hitting its stride half-way through with its outstanding title track and the crushing “Prime Evil”, but by then the damage has been done.
Perhaps I’m being unfair; in any other year, Detritus of the Final Age would be an undeniable highlight. Nevertheless, the album’s presentation undersells its content and there’s just not enough variation or individuality across the record to help it stand out amid the fierce competition of 2020.
Warfect – Spectre of Devastation
For all their dominance of more extreme metal genres, the Swedes don’t get enough credit for their frequent and exceedingly excellent contributions to thrash metal. Case in point: Warfect and their fantastic fourth record Spectre of Devastation. Built upon a solid foundation of thrash classics such as Slayer, Megadeth and Sodom, Specres of Devastation is by far the trio’s best effort to date (and with some fantastic artwork this time around as well). The band’s classic blackened underpinnings remain, but there’s more of a death metal twist this time around. The chorus to opening track “Pestilence” borrows heavily from Bloodbath‘s “Ways to the Grave”, while standout track “Left to Rot” sounds like slowed-down Seasons in the Abyss-era slayer by way of Naglfar. Again, Warfect wear their influences loud and proud, but it’s these subtle twists that set them apart.
Wreck-Defy – Powers That Be
Hailing from Thunder Bay, Ontario – maybe the most metal-sounding city in the world – the less-awesomely monikered Wreck-Defy have made huge strides with their third album Powers that Be. Having recruited drummer Alex Marquez (Solstice, ex-Demolition Hammer, ex-Malevolent Creation), who joins founding guitarist Matt Hanchuck, ex-Annihilator singer Aaron Randall and founding Testament bassist Greg Christian, the band have essentially made a super group of themselves.
For the most part, Powers that Be shows the strength of its pedigree, laying down killer riff after killer riff, backed by a noticeably elevating performance from Marquez. Unfortunately, Randall really lets the side down. He really isn’t a strong vocalist, having only performed on 1993’s Set the World on Fire – generally considered one of the worst Annihilator records – and sounding like Dave Mustaine by way of Wednesday 13 if he smoked three packs a day and joined a hair metal band. At times he manages to makes it work. His performance on “Skin” is particularly strong, and the times when the band lean into some uncannily Alice in Chains-like harmonies, as on “Drowning in Darkness”, are truly striking.
The lyrics, however, are pretty unforgivable. The word “whore” is used roughly once a song and the album’s opening number, the again awfully-titled “Beyond H8”, sees Randall spewing the charming line: “You are the pussification of a cunt-like man … Face down in bowl of shit, Yeah you can suck my dick” and ends with a clip of Joe Pesci shouting “your mother sucks fuckin’ big fuckin’ elephant dicks” from Raging Bull (1980). Since Randall performed on Set the World on Fire, he is at least 27 years old – probably closer to a mature 47 – not a twelve year-old boy who has just discovered profanity for the first time.
More concerning than the infantile obscenities are some of the album’s political spoutings. Generally the band seem to endorse a fairly well-intentioned anti-authority philosophy, or at worst the kind of libertarian nonsense you expect from older thrash acts these days. However, they lack even the basic amount of nuance or insight to make their observations anything more than self-pitting paranoia. Often their targets seem confused or obscured. The cringe-inducingly-titled “Freedomless Speech,” although it begins with a tirade against “Censorship for the sheep” turns out to be a diatribe against government censorship of whistle-blowers, while the final verse of the title-track, which lumps in “Arsonists and anarchists, [and] ANTIFA sporting terrorists” with the authoritarian hypocrites it’s been rallying against for the previous six minutes. “Skin” – perhaps the best song on the album, musically – is also perhaps the worst offender, equates being called a “punk assed white boy” with institutionalized racism which enables things like, y’know, black people being shot in the middle of the street and forced hysterectomies of detained immigrants of colour, just to name a couple of recent examples. Again, the sentiment is appreciated, but not at all thought through.
Adding to the general discomfort is “Goodbye to Misery”, which recounts the tale of an unhappy man smothering his “bitch to the core” partner to death so he can finally escape all her “bitching and nagging” (she being the “misery” of the title, y’see). While such murderous explorations are perhaps not off limits among more extreme genres, they’re generally done with a bit more distanced insight and escapist elevation than this. The track’s blatant misogyny is both reprehensible and embarrassing, given how outdated and out of step with the last three or so decades of social progression it is.
And so, despite its infectious quality, I have a hard time recommending Powers That Be. Some people may be able to ignore the lyrical gripes others will not. I’m sure there will be many who balk at such criticisms and place the blame on those listeners who “can’t handle it” or take things “too seriously”. Yet such rebukes go against the underdog inclusivity and unity the band themselves propose to preach. All in all, it’s a shame, because this band could be a real contender if they had better name and lyrics that aren’t complete trash.
Psycroptic – The Watcher of All
While the band and their fans still cling to the tech-death label, I hear way more tech-thrash in Psycroptic’s sound these days, especially over their last few releases. If the title track of their two-track EP Watchers of All is anything to go by, the band will only continue that evolution over their coming records. “The Watcher of All” is as thrash as it gets: pounding double-bass drums, chugging, palm-muted riffs, rabid vocals, which all sound absolutely huge and crisp, thanks to drummer Joe Haley’s perfect production and Will Putney‘s brilliant Mastering Job. B-side “A Fragile Existence” has a bit more of a traditional tech-death vibe to it but nevertheless continues the experiments with more epic and operatic textures seen on 2018’s As the Kingdom Drowns. It’s unclear whether this stop-gap EP is taken from leftover material from the Tasmanians’ previous record or excess material from their upcoming record, due out next year. “A Fragile Existence” certainly sounds like it could have come from the latter, while “The Watcher of All” has a bit more of its own identity, primarily due to the influx of thrash metal. Either way, their next record sounds like its shaping up pretty well, especially if this is what didn’t make the cut.
Idle Ruin – Idle Ruin
Sticking with the Australian theme for a minute, newcomers Idle Ruin certainly made their mark with their self-titled EP. I said my piece on lead single “The Devil’s Trade” when we premiered it last month and the rest of the EP holds up just as well. The Brisbanites pull from classic, proto-black metal power trios like Venom and Hellhammer as much as modern blackened thrash metal. If they can deliver a full-length as fun and infectious as this you can expect to hear their name thrown around in the same breath as the Hellrippers and Midnights of the world.
Sodom – Genesis XIX
Of all the bigger thrash bands, Sodom have always been the ones that never really clicked with me. Despite my unabashed love for their brethren in Kreator and Destruction the third prong in the Teutonic trident has always seemed a but limp by comparison. I understand why albums like Persecution Mania (1987) and Agent Orange (1989) are heralded as genre classics (not that I ever reach for them myself) and have found a significant amount of enjoyment – if not an entire album’s worth – among some of their more modern-sounding recent releases, particularly previous record Decision Day (2016) and In War and Pieces (2010). Why anyone would bother with any of their discography outside of those few standout releases, however, continues to baffle me.
Genesis XIX, which takes its name from the Sodom and Gomorrah chapter in Genesis, is the band’s sixteenth full-length record and their first since the aforementioned duology of Persecution Mania and Agent Orange to feature guitarist Frank Blackfire. As such, it sits somewhere in between the band’s rawer, classic approach and their cleaner, harder-hitting modern one. Yet, although it maintains a decent level of quality throughout, the album as a whole fails to take full advantage of either approach, lacking the rabid aggression of their older output and, perhaps more significantly, lacking the memorable hooks that have helped make the best moments of their more recent output. For die hard Sodom fanatics, Genesis XIX will probably be hailed as a “return to form” of some sort but, from an outsider’s perspective, it doesn’t have much to offer that can’t be gotten, at a much higher quality, elsewhere.
Hatebreed – Weight of the False Self
When I was a young warthog, I had a Hatebreed poster on my wall that I’d cut out of a magazine. Every single member of the band was wearing camouflage shorts; Jamey Jasta was wearing an Ozzy Osbourne t-shirt (Diary of a Madman, I think); the rest were wearing slayer shirts. That’s the metal/hardcore Titan’s thrash credentials sorted then. Hatebreed make the kind of music people in camo shorts and Slayer shirts would make, and the kind of music people in camo shorts and Slayer shirts would listen to, and they’ve been doing it damn well – often better than anyone else – for the better part of two decades.
Having said that, the overall quality band’s output has been waning for some time now. I loved the sheer aggression of 2013’s The Divinity of Purpose, but it’s not since 2006’s Supremacy (perhaps my favourite Hatebreed record) that the band have truly blown me away and they really lost me with their previous release, The Concrete C0nfessional (2016). With The Weight of False Self‘s title and cover art harking back to the Divinity of Purpose and buzz from within the Hatebreed camp of this being their best and heaviest Hatebreed record in years, I was primed to fall back in love with the band.
Instead, The Weight of the False Self might be the final nail in the coffin. Much has been made about Hatebreed supposedly releasing the same album over and over again, but this is the first time in the band’s history that the material has truly felt recycled and – above all – tired, which really isn’t something I should be feeling when listening to a Hatebreed record. All of these songs sound like shells of their former material. Even on lesser albums like Hatebreed (2009) or The Concrete Confessional they had songs like “Become the Fuse”, “In Ashes they Shall Reap”, “Looking Own the Barrel of Today” or “In the Walls” that stood out as instant classics. In fact, I’m listening back to The Concrete Confessional now for the first time in years, and it sounds utterly inspired by comparison: the riffs are harder, the guitar tone is sharper and the choruses are far more memorable.
Maybe I’ll have the same experience with Weight of the False Self in another four years. At this point, however, having had the record for a few months now, I can’t remember a single thing bout it, other than the crushing disappointment that sets in every time I put it on.
High Command – Everlasting Torment
Hot off the presses, it’s a two-track EP from one of our favourite new thrash acts from last year. Everlasting Torment picks up exactly where High Command‘s superb debut, Beyond the Wall of Desolation (2019), left off. Well, actually, it goes back to before that album, to “an age of mystery where knowledge is shared through steel, … where ancient lands were carved by ice and stone” and the listener can ” Scream for mercy as [they] bear witness to an arcane god’s unquenchable thirst for bloodshed” and “See where the madness began…” but you get the point. The EP’s title-track may as well be be a leftover b-side from the album recording sessions, with it’s slightly crossover tinged array of Slayer riffs and tones, but it’s second track “The Infernal March/Sword of Wisdom” where things get interesting.
The track opens with a rawer take on something that might have been on the last Metallica record before launching into a hardcore swing that has Power Trip written all over it. There’s a mid section that sounds like Pantera mixed with Black Sabbath which transitions into a dredging end riff that sounds like a blend of Metallica and Slayer circa 1986 – an idea so obvious it’s amazing more bands haven’t ried it, or at least managed to pull it off. Again there’s nothing wholly original here, but the mix itself is novel. If High Command keep going down this path we could have thrash superstars in the making.
Pteroglyph – Solaire
Another late addition, this one brought to you by Calder over at Rotten to the Core. Personally, I don’t hear much (if any) -core in Pteroglyph‘s sound. This is death metal-infused groove thrash through and through. The band sound like a mix of Sylosis and Dyscarnate with a hint of modern Psycroptic in some of the more melodic sections as well and is guaranteed to having you stink-facing from start to finish. This is great stuff and one of the nicest surprises of 2020. Thanks Calder!
Phew! Well, there you go. See you again next month when we look back at the best thrash releases of 2020.