Dropping another top ten list seemed a tad redundant, given that I’ve picked out a “Big Four” for each quarter of the year. Put those together and you effectively have a “Top 16” of 2020. I thought about doing a Big Four for the year, but splitting hairs between Sylosis and Killer Be Killed for fourth place, behind In Malice’s Wake, Testament and Sepultura, proved impossible and extending it to a “Big Eight” to include Trivium, Havok and Annihilator brought us back into the realm of redundancy. Take the top two from each quarter, add in a couple of favourites from the threes and fours, and there you have it. …which sounds easy enough, except I was also running out of things to say about a lot of these albums, many of which I’ve already written about multiple times and also gave a good airing in our general 2021 album awards. So I thought I’d do something more interesting.
Back in the Q2 2020 post, I made the claim that 2020 was “shaping up to be the best year for thrash metal since 1986,” although I quickly qualified that my claim was purely speculative and “not supported by any even cursory research”. Now, with the year over, I though it wanted to put that claim to the test, using real actual evidence and research!
Persistence of Time
Although we usually only bold a band’s name the first time they are introduced in an article, I decided to reset the process here for each band that actually released an album in the year I’m talking, to hopefully make things a bit easier to follow and to better showcase the density of thrash releases per particular annum.
They say there’s “no school like the old school”, and 1987 is about as old-school as it gets when it comes to thrash metal. Although it doesn’t quite stand up to the onslaught of the previous year, 1987 is still packed full of thrash classics. The obvious ones are Anthrax‘s Among the Living and Metallica‘s Garage Days EP, but there’s also my favourite Kreator album, Terrible Certainty, one of Overkill‘s best records, Taking Over, one of the few decent Sodom records in Persecution Mania and the definitive crossover album, uh… Crossover by D.R.I..
There’s also the classic, if flawed, Death Angel debut, The Ultra-Violence, along with similarly undercooked, if charming, offerings in the form of Testament‘s The Legacy and Coroner‘s R.I.P., Sepultura‘s Schizophrenia, Suicidal Tendencies‘ Join the Army and Artillery‘s Terror Squad. Cult classics come from Voivod, in the form of Killing Technology, Carnivore‘s Retalliation, Heathen‘s Breaking the Silence, the self-titled Mekong Delta record, Whiplash‘s Ticket to Mayhem, Exumer‘s Rising from the Water and even Destruction‘s Mad Butcher EP.
Thrash metal was in full swing while managing to maintain a startling level of quality across its second wave, many of their albums going onto be both genre and wider heavy metal classics.
Alright, here’s the deal: 1985 is technically the ninth-best year for thrash metal overall. However, since my original claim was that 2020 was “shaping up to be maybe the strongest year for thrash metal since 1986″ (italics added), it’s not relevant to testing my hypothesis. Nevertheless, I wanted to give it a quick overview, since – somewhat shockingly – this will be the one of the last times the ’80s will be featuring on this list, outside of the pre-determined number-one spot.
1985 is packed with thrash classics: Exodus‘s Bonded by Blood, Anthrax‘s Spreading the Disease, S.O.D.‘s Speak English or Die, Overkill‘s Feel The Fire, Slayer‘s Hell Awaits, Destruction‘s Infernal Overkill, Megadeth‘s Killing is My Business …And Business is Good!, Mortal Sin‘s Mayhemic Destruction, Possessed‘s Seven Churches, Watchtower‘s Energetic Disassembly; as well as some less-refined but promising early offerings, such as Kreator‘s Total Death, Dark Angel‘s We Have Arrived, Onslaught‘s Power from Hell, Artillery‘s Fear of Tomorrow, Carnivore‘s self-titled debut, Hirax‘s Raging Violence, Sepultua‘s Bestial Devastation and D.R.I.‘s pre-crossover effort Dealing With It!.
1985 is undeniably a landmark year for thrash metal. What stops it, and many other ’80s years, from placing higher on a list of the “best” years for thrash metal is the simple fact that there just weren’t that many thrash metal album’s released during it. According to The Metal Archives, only thirty-four thrash records were released throughout all of 1985, compared with literally hundreds during later years, which we’ll get to. Given that I’ve listed almost a third of them as definitive thrash classics, and a further eight as noteworthy examples, leaving us with a 52% showcase overall, an argument might be made that it should definitely be based on consistency alone.
Whether you’d prefer 10-18 certified traditional thrash metal classics as opposed to (again) literally hundreds of thrash and more varied thrash-adjacent albums is for you to decide. Personally, I lean toward the latter option. Moreover, while there’s no hard and fast rules when it comes to making this list, the general method I’ve been using to split differences is to ask myself, if I could only have the albums from one of the years in question – meaning i could never again listen to those of the other (or maybe even any other) – which year’s albums would I want more. As strong as 1985 is, the overwhelming offerings of later years manage to oust it a lot of the time; six times out of thirty-five to be exact.
2007 makes its claim to thrash supremacy with a slew of heavy hitters. The undisputed heavyweight champion is clearly Machine Head‘s The Blackening, although the under-card isn’t to shabby either. Exodus and new vocalist Rob Dukes (Generation Kill) produced a worthy imitation in The Atrocity Exhibition: Exhibit A,* Chimaira and DevilDriver each perfected NWOAHM with Ressurection and The Last Kind Words. A pre-controversy As I Lay Dying also made waves by adding a heft dose of thrash metal to their sound on An Ocean Between Us, which is now widely regarded as their definitive album and Darkest Hour delivered their shreddiest record to date in Deliver Us. Himsa followed up the might Hail Horror (2006) with the equally excellent Summon in Thunder, The Agony Scene got thrashy on Get Damned and Dååth (remember them?!) suggested tech-groove was the future with The Hinderers.
As for more traditional fare: Municipal Waste preached The Art of Partying, United Abominations was the Megadeth album about a decade and a half, Evile preached the thrash gospel on Enter the Grave , but not as much as Blood Tsunami, who literally named their debut album Thrash Metal. Mekong Delta continued to be one of the most underrated band on the planet with the fantastic Lurking Fear, Angelus Apatrida gave ’em war on – uh – Give ’em War, Onslaught staged a convincing comeback with Killing Peace and Sylosis showed up, albeit a little under-cooked but undeniably brimming with potential on Visions of Demise. Back home, Mindsnare went full crossover on Disturb the Hive, while Australia’s biggest thrash export, Mortal Sin also delivered a career best record in An Absence of Faith.
There were also a number of promising thrash up-and-commers who hit the scene in 2007. Lich King showed up with Necromantic Malestrom, while Skeletonwitch were turning and banging heads with Beyond the Permafrost. Legion of the Dammend refined their craft on Sons of the Jackal, Lazarus[A.D.] and Suicide Angels were still exciting prospects and Susperia showed promise on Cut from Stone. It wasn’t all flying-Vs and windmills though. Although some of the newer bands mentioned above made good on their promise (Skeleton Witch and Legion of the Damned in particular), none of them really went onto do anything particularly groundbreaking and most have since faded into obscurity.
The older crowd also made some pretty big blunders. Sodom were stuck in the past on The Final Sign of Evil, Overkill stumbled slightly with Immortalis before hitting their stride again with Ironbound in 2010, Shadows Fall broke their kill-streak with the overly calculated Threads of Life, S.O.D. squandered their legacy with Rise of the Infidels before M.O.D. did away with what little they had left on Red, White and Screwed. The Chuck Billy (Testament) and Steve Souza (Exodus) team-up supergroup Dublin Death Patrol‘s DDP 4 Life was less than inspired, while Dew-Scented themselves sounded uninspired on Incinerate. Annihilator made a mess of things with their star-studded album Metal, Tankard‘s re-recordings record Best Case Scenario somehow made their tepid material sound even worse, Iced Earth made the first (but by no means the most…) massive blunder of their career with Framing Armageddon (the first of their two under whelming “Something Wicked” continuations), Throwdown (who I’ll go on to talk about way more than I want to here), unfortunately, kept on throwing down and the abomination that are/were Hellyeah were unleashed upon the world. It’s major blunders like this that keep the otherwise stellar 2007 from being higher up this list. Although it isn’t everything, consistency is still key. Which brings us to…
*Dukes Exodus is best Exodus, fight me.
Here it is, 2020: not quite the best year for thrash metal since of 1986, but not all that far off either. As with most things in 2020, thrash metal was severely impacted by COVID-19. I made my original claim about how the year was “shaping up”to be the best since 1986 about halfway through the year, right as the world was being plunged into lock-down and manufacturing and marketing campaigns were being ground to a halt. As a result, the year’s third quarter was a bit weaker than the first two, even if the fourth quarter came back with a serious vengeance. While it was nice to see some of the smaller bands get a chance to shine, the relative weakness of 2020’s third quarter prevents it from placing higher on this list, even as the bigger releases ensure it’s praises will be sung in thrash circles for years to come.
To list and categorise all of the year’s thrash releases would, again, be redundant, so I will use this opportunity to explore some of the trends I noticed in 2020 thrash metal. Firstly: Supergroups. Q4 was rife with them, with big four releases coming from Killer Be Killed, Mr Bungle (featuring Scott Ian and Dave Lombardo) and Eternal Champion, while Wreck–Defy combined ex-Demolition Hammer and Malevolent Creation drummer Alex Marquez ex-Testament bassist Greg Christian and ex-Annihilator singer Aaron Randall. Elsewhen, Kill the Lights brought the thunder and Testament themselves are also essentially a supergroup now, as are Sylosis, given Josh Middleton’s new day-job in Architects and the addition of Conjurer bassist Conor Marshall to a line-up that already includes Bleed From Within drummer Ali Richardson.
Maybe it’s just because I’m paying closer attention now, but there also seemed to be a considerable increase in distinctly Metallica-influenced sounds, most prominently heard on albums by Havok, Trivium, Sylosis and Hellripper, even if the long-awaited release of S&M2 left a little to be desired. Metallica are clearly the most culturally influential thrash metal band of all time. Yet, within the thrash genre itself, the influence of Megadeth, Anthrax and especially Slayer have always seemed more prominent, or at least more identifiable. Maybe it’s because those bands have a fairly defined sound, compared to Metallica, whose discography and songwriting has been much more adventurous over the years. Nevertheless, there’s a distinctive Metallica guitar ton ethat’s been showing up more and more recently and the hallmarks of the bands sound that set them apart from the other Big Four acts – i.e. big fat 4:4 stomps, precision grooves and progressive song structures – have seen bands like Sylosis, Trivum and Killer Be Killed rise to the top of the 2020 thrash pack.
2020 was all about the bigger thrash icons, with veteran acts like Testament, Sepultua and Annihilator each delivering some of the best albums of their career, while retro sounds were celebrated by bands like Midnight, Hellripper, Eternal Champion and Mr. Bungle and newer acts such as Sylosis, Trivium and In Malice’s Wake each cemented their supremacy over the genre. Thrash is certainly one of the most regressive metal subgenres, with a showing as strong this, it’s not difficult to see why the old guard remain so revered.
Just edging out the current offering is the next most recent other year on the countdown, 2016.. When you look at what’s on offer though, it’s not hard to see how it made the cut. According to The Metal Archives, there were 1,069 thrash-related albums released in 2016 – the most of any year featured here – and that’s not including all the “groove” and “metalcore” albums I might include and all the clearly “metal” ones they continue to exclude for nonsensical elitist reasons. What’s more surprising is that most of them are pretty damn good! So good, in fact, that Heavy Blog voted Vektor‘s Terminal Redux the second best album of the year (before my time).
Other thrash highlights came from Death Angel, who released their best album, The Evil Divide, and Artillery, who also released their best album, Penalty by Perception. Melbourne supergroup Meshiaak (featuring members of 4Arm, Terramaze, Anthrax and even Testament at one point, apparently) released their fantastic debut album Alliance of Thieves, Elm Street finally delivered their ambitious second album Knock ’em Out …With a Metal Fist, Testament continued their run of form with Brotherhood of the Snake, Metal Church released their best album in a long time with XI, as did Sodom with Decision Day. Suicidal Tendencies‘s World Gone Mad was pretty decent, so was Megadeth‘s Dystopia, even if it was pretty bigoted and perhaps less impressive than a record featuring Chris Adler (ex-Lamb of God) on drums along Angra‘s Kiki Loureiro on lead guitar. Flotsam and Jetsam‘s self-titled was a respectable effort, as was Destruction‘s Under Attack, even if it didn’t live up to the album that came before, or after. Hell, even Metallica released a really good (double) album in Hardwired …to Self-Destruct!, as did Anthrax in For All Kings – an unfairly overlooked album that I have a really big soft spot for.
Notable smaller releases came from Destroyers of All with Bleak Fragments, Game Over with Crimes Against Reality, Exmortus with Ride Forth and Adelaide’s Alkira with Klotho. Fellow Australians Envenomed released the awesome Reckoning EP, Hobbs’ Angel of Death returned with Heaven Bled, showing they could still do a pretty decent Slayer impression and long lost Australian thrash classic D.e.s.t.i.t.u.t.i.o.n. by Allegiance finally got the reissue treatment. Hometown heroes Dreadnaught turned up the thrash for Caught the Vulture’s Sleeping, and Sewercide finally reased their debut record Immortalizaed in Suffering before promptly splitting up. A bunch of future Into the Pit favourites also made themselves known. Future Into the Pit favourites Allagash made their self-titled debut, Warfect continued to improve with Scavengers, Violblast caused Conflict, Nervosa Agony, while Ripper, Hemotoxin and Suicide Angels all delivered decent records as well.
There were a couple of underwhelming efforts. DevilDriver finally fell victim to diminishing returns on Trust No One, Superjoint [Ritual]’s Caught Up in the Gears of Application was trash even before you factored in all of Phill Anselmo’s bullshit and Lamb of God seemed like they’d lost the plot on “The Duke”. Given the abundance of other outsdanding thrash records that came out the same year, however, you can hardly hold them against it.
Upon finalising this list, I’m a little shocked to see 2011 come in this low. I have a special thrash-centric connection with this year. Not only did Machine Head deliver a follow-up to The Blackening (2007) that was superior in every way, in Unto the Locust,* but two of my all-time favourite Australian thrash records were released as well, being In Malice’s Wake‘s The Thrashening and Elm Street‘s Barbed Wire Metal. I spent the majority of the year, wherein I turned twenty-one driving back and forth to see my then-girlfriend, blasting both albums both ways, so that i came to know them inside and out. The esteem in which I hold Barbed Wire Metal has dropped off somewhat since, but I maintain The Thrashening is one of the best thrash metal albums ever made. Truth Corroded also delivered their best record to date, Worship the Bled, which injected some of the thrash back into the Chimaira template from which it was by then waning.
2011 also saw the release of Sylosis‘s Edge of the Earth. Although I personally prefer its follow-up Monolith (2012), I’ll accept that Edge of the Earth is their definitive album, and a hot contender for the most underrated record of the last decade. Destruction‘s Day of Reckoning remains among the best of their latter-day material, ditto Iced Earth‘s Dystopia which began a new, groovier era for the band. Trivium also released In Waves, which – if not quite a modern metal classic – is a damn good record nonetheless, while Darkest Hour delivered the surprisingly thrashy Human Romance. Skeletonwitch also finally wowed me with Forever Abomination and Warbringer continued to deliver the goods with Worlds Torn Asunder.
Elsewhere, Evile took a cool turn on Five Serpents Teeth and Havok started gaining traction with Time is Up, as did Vektor with Outer Isolation and Revocation with Chaos of Forms, while Midnight set the standard for raw, blackened proto-thrash n’ roll with their debut Satanic Royalty. A band I have quite the soft-spot for, Shredhead were formed, Melbourne thrash icons Desecrator also released their debut full-length, the live-recorded Live ’til Death, Mortal Sin went out on one of their best in Psychology of Death, and Harlott made their first waves with the Virus EP. One of the shitty thrash band my shitty thrash band used to play shows with all the time, Seppuku also finally got around to putting a demo out, and it was pretty decent (for what it was; their bass player is now one of the lead guitarists in Hollow World, so how about that?). Toxic Holocaust released their album Conjur and Command, which I’ve honestly never listened to, but I’m sure is good. I’m told Absu‘s Abzu is good as well, although I can neither confirm nor deny.
The only real disappointments seemed to come from the bigger bands. Anthrax returned with the long-awaited Worship Music, which received rave reviews, as did Sepultura‘s Kairos, although neither particularly grabbed me. Nor did Artillery‘s My Blood, Onslaught‘s Sounds of Violence or Megadeth‘s Th1rt3en, although none are truly bad albums. Chimaira‘s The Age of Hell is a bit of a stinker though and Cavalera Conspiracy‘s Blunt Force Trauma was a pretty disappointing follow-up to their fantastic debut. I seem to be the outlier when it comes to the bulk of these though, which are generally celebrated as further examples of why 2011 was such a strong year for thrash. One much maligned record I will stand up for, however, is The Haunted‘s Unseen – an album I adore and which had the potential to revitalise the band after they’d stagnated a bit with the previous couple of releases. I won’t deny that the album is severely derailed by the awkward-sounding and ill-fitting “No ghost”. Remove that though and you’re left with a truly fantastic alt-metal record that’s way more interesting than the generic trash they’ve been putting out ever since. Whether you agree or not, there remains a plethora of other great thrash records from 2011 on offer.
2009 is one of the greatest years for metal music, ever, and thrash was no exception. The year saw the release of Endgame, the best Megadeth album since at least 1992’s Countdown to Extinction and likely the best album any of the Big Four have released this millennium (although I honestly think Slayer’s Christ Illusion (2006) gives it a run for its money). Speaking of Slayer they released World Painted Blood – an album whose sheen has dulled considerably since its release, but which nevertheless constitutes an underappreciated entry in their catalogue while Kreator continued their revitalised run of perfection with Hordes of Chaos. The year also saw the release of the he last great Lamb of God record in Wrath and a landmark album from Chimaira, in The Infection, even if it signaled their move away from traditional thrash metal. DevilDriver embraced melody with equal success on Pray for Villains, God Forbid took more than a few pages from the Mastodon playbook with Earthsblood, while future Chimaira collaborators Dååth upped the ante with The Concealers. Goatwhore delivered the best black-thrash album of the year, with the awesomely named Carving out the Eyes of God. Even on a lesser release, Darkest Hour continued to rip shit up with The Eternal Return, Shadows Fall returned to form by aping Lamb of God on Retribution, crossover kings Iron Age made multi-coloured waves with The Sleeping Eye and, on the home front, tech-thrashers Nothing made their mark with The Torture of the Nameless.
Those looking for something more conventional were still spoiled for choice. Warbringer released their best record to date Waking into Nightmares, Blood Tsunami proved they were more than one hit wonders with Grand Feast for Vultures; Evile improved considerably upon their debut with Infected Nation, although they were yet to fully hit their stride, Havok made waves with Burn and Municipal Waste continued their run of fine form with Massive Aggressive. Newcomers Vektor and Revocation made their mark with the respective tech-thrash assaults of Black Future and Existence is Futile, Mantic Ritual released their acclaimed debut Executioner, Warfect made their debut with Depicting the Macabre and Savage Messiah turned thrash with the outstanding and often overlooked Insurrection Rising. The “re-thrash” era was in full swing.
In fact, there are no real thrash blunders to report from 2003. Voivod released the unremarkable Inferi, Absu released their lesser self-titled record and Throwdown continued to be painfully average on Deathless but that’s about as bad as it gets. Even albums I thought to be lesser releases, like Susperia‘s Attitude and Artillery‘s When Death Comes, turned out to be pretty frikin’ awesome. Similarly, although Sepultua‘s A-Lex is largely maligned, I believe it to be the Green-ear’s best release before 2013’s The Mediator Between the Head and Heart Must be the Hands. In a year wherein The Metal Archives claims there were 686 thrash-releated albums released that’s not a bad batting average at all now is it?
This is still one of the worst music videoes ever made, although it certainly takes on a different meaning through a (potentially intentional!?) queer lens.
When I started putting this post together I had 1988 in the number-eleven spot – not even in the top 10! I don’t know what the hell I was proverbially smoking, because 1988 is so obviously one of the greatest years for thrash metal even an idiot would realise it (which I guess makes me not an idiot somehow?). Both Testament‘s The New Order, from which this column takes its name, and Metallica‘s …And Justice for All have been covered in-depth elsewhere. However, 1988’s thrash classics hardly end there. There is of course, Slayer‘s South of Heaven – not my favourite, but perhaps the most important Slayer record? – and another milestone from Suicidal Tendencies who successfully transitioned from punk to thrash on How Will I Laugh Tomorrow …When I Can’t Even Smile Today.
The year also offers a plethora of underground classics in the form of Vio-lence‘s Eternal Nightmare; Two of the finest tech-thrash records ever made in Voivod‘s Dimension Hatröss and Coroner‘s Punishment for Decadence, Forbidden‘s Forbidden Evil, Flotsam and Jetsam‘s No Place for Disgrace, Eden’s favourite Destruction album, Release from Agony (which I swear is not tech-thrash, but still), Nuclear Assault‘s Survive, Sabbat‘s History of a Time to Come,the debut self-titled record from Hobbs’ Angel of Death and Mekong Delta‘s Music of Eric Zann. A little-known hair metal band by the name of Pantera also recruited a new vocalist, who later turned out to be an arsehole white-supremacist, but who would first help revolutionise both thrash and metal at large. In 1988, they merely released a (genuinely) little-known album called Power Metal, which is actually pretty good!
1988’s missteps are largely unremarkable. Megadeth‘s So Far, So Good …So What? has its fans, and contains at least a few undeniable classics (“Set the World Afire”, “In My Darkest Hour”, “Hook in Mouth”), although a middling Anthrax record at best, State of Euphoria still contains “Be All, End All”, while Overkill‘s Under the Influence and Death Angel‘s Frolic through the Park are both too bland to be considered fully fledged disasters. The year more than doubled the thrash output since 1985, delivering approximately seventy thrash metal records, according to The Metal Archives, which – given that I’ve only highlighted thirteen albums – only damages its strike rate. The home-runs it hits, however, are far more spectacular. I’d definitely take the broader output of later years over 1988 but, if we’re looking at it purely in terms of thrash metal, it’s a tough one to beat.
That 2003 – the year of St. Anger – also happens to be one of the strongest years for thrash metal might be a contentious position, especially since a lot of the albums that make it so might not usually be considered definitely “thrash” records. Broaden your horizons a bit though and you’ll see that 2003 was a landmark year for thrash(-adjacent) metal, and on that set the tone for the genre for years to come.
The year was headlined by massive comebacks from Machine Head, with From the Ashes of the Empires, and Anthrax, with We’ve Come for You All. Perhaps more importantly, however, were those albums bubbling under the surface at the time that went on to define modern thrash metal. I’m talking, of course, about Lamb of God‘s As the Palaces Burn, hailed by many as the definitive modern thrash metal record. The band would polish their sound further on future landmark records Ashes of the Wake (2004) and Sacrament (2006), both of which are arguably superior outings (personally, I’d put Ashes on top), yet both of which lacked the rawness that connected the burgeoning NWOAHM sound more directly to thrash metal. Chimaira also made the switch to a more thrash-focussed sound with The Impossibility of Reason which they would push further than Lamb of God across subsequent records, even if their influence wasn’t as widely felt. Coal Chamber‘s Dez Fafara returned with DevilDriver, who would go on to be one of the better, heavier and thrashier of the NWOAHM acts, Darkest Hour blended metalcore and thrash to perfection on Hidden Hands of a Sadist Nation and Municipal Waste hit the scene with Waste ’em All, alongside Toxic Holocaust‘s Evil Never Dies, ushering the “re-thrash” era. A little band by the name of Trivium also released their debut album, Ember to Inferno, portending the following decade or so’s worth of frustratingly unfulfilled potential (until now, it seems).
Other 2003 thrash-success stories include Superjoint Ritual, who followed-up their fantastic debut with A Lethal Dose of American Hatred (an album title that, unfortunately, has some pretty off-putting connotations these days); The Haunted,who continued their run of form with One Kill Wonder, as did Nevermore with Enemy of Reality. The Crown released one of their best records in Possessed 13, Dew-Scented soldiered on with Impact, Overkill returned with their best record in over a decade in Killbox 13 and the Derrick Green-ear Sepultura delivered their first decent album in Roorback – even if it would take until 2020 for that potential to fully come to fruition. Kreator also capitalised on their forward momentum with the fantastic live record Live Kreation, which showcased their calssic material alongside killer cuts from 2001’s outstanding Violent Revolution, while Machine Head even managed to make their Supercharger (2001) material sound awesome on Hellalive (2003). The tenuously-related Black Label Society also delivered their definitive album, The Blessed Hellride. Good year!
What misteps there were, outside of St. Anger, were hardly major ones. Destruction stumbled follwoing up the ravenous Antichrist (2001) with the solid-yet-underwhelming Metal Discharge, Voivod‘s self-titled failed to make an impression, Carnal Forge were yet to hit their stride on The More You Suffer, Extol tried their hand at tech thrash on Synergy, to mixed results while Throwdown did a piss-poor imitation of Sepultura in the lead-up to slightly more competently ripping of Pantera. None of these were major blemishes, however, and ven St. Anger isn’t that bad – especially when streamlined and beefed up by some extremely talented amateurs – and I maintain “Invisible Kid” has always been a banger. Moreover, the backlash to St. Anger was slow coming. Upon release the album was met with almost universally positive reviews, praising it as a revitalised return to Metallica‘s thrash roots, following the Load-era. The album is deeply and inherently flawed, for sure, yet I’d argue it’s a more genuine and successful endeavor than Death Magnetic (2008). Like it or not, St. Anger is a definitive moment for thrash metal and, if you didn’t like it, there was plethora of other quality releases in 2003 that proved thrash was, once again, on the up.
The ’90s are generally considered a dismal decade for thrash metal, which checks out, given that not other year from the ’90s made this list. Nevertheless, the genre made one last hurrah before the grunge revolution set in, making the decade’s inaugural year one of, if not the best year for the genre overall. Highlights come from Slayer‘s Season in the Abyss and Megadeth‘s Rust in Peace – often considered both bands’ best records – and Pantera‘s Cowboys from Hell, which ushered in the scooped guitar tones and groove-laden ethos that would dictate the genre from here out. Suicidal Tendencies also delivered their best, and thrashiest, release with Lights… Camera… Revolution! Other career highlights came from Exhorder‘s Slaughter in the Vatican, which Pantera argiuably “ripped off”; Anthrax‘s Persistence of Time, from which this segment takes its name (even if it’s never really clicked with me personally); the definitive Sacred Reich record, The American Way and the last great Kreator record for a good decade, Coma of Souls.
There was also Annihilator‘s Never, Neverland, which the band wouldn’t even come close to rivaling until this year; By Inheritance, the best Artillery album until 2016’s Penalty by Perception, and Act III, the best Death Angel album until The Evil Divide (2016), released that same year. Steve DiGiorgio was gearing up for later stints in Death and Testament, with Sadus‘s Swallowed in Black. Robb Flynn and Phil Demmel teamed up for their best work prior to reuniting for Machine Head’s Through the Ashes of Empires (2003) with Vio-Lence‘s Oppressing the Masses, while Flynn’s old band, Forbidden delivered arguably their best record, Twisted into Form. Mekong Delta also released their best record to date with Dance of Death (And Other Walking Shaodws), Anacrusis stayed strong with Reason, Demolition Hammer hit the scene with the outstanding Tortured Existence, Morbid Saint created a cult classic in Spectrum of Death and Sanctuary set a longstanding benchmark for prog-thrash with Into the Mirror Black. Your most-esteemed thrash aficionado was also born this year, at the height of thrash metal’s critical and commercial prowess.
It wasn’t all success stories, however. Testament made the first slip of their career with the imminently forgettable Souls of Black, even if “The Legacy”is an all time great thrash-ballad (Bill disagrees). Destruction did likewise with Cracked Brain, Exodus began their decline with Impact is Imminent, Sodom failed to recaputure the energy of their two previous releases on The Saw is the Law, after loosing guitarist Frank Blackfire to Kreator, Tankard started to sway with The Meaning of Life and Flotsam and Jetsam delivered their first stinker with When the Storm Comes Down. Yet, while none of these albums are their respective band’s best work, few of them are generally considered their worst either, and all have their defenders (except maybe Tankard and Jetsam).
That’s a major, or at least notable, release from seemingly every major thrash act besides Metallica, who were busy getting ready to blow the genre wide open with The Black Album (1991) the following year, and Sepultura, who delivered landmark releases in both 1989, with Beneath the Remains, and 1991, with Arise. It’s pretty undeniable that 1990 – not 2020 – is the best year for thrash metal, outside of 1986, which it might even supersede when it comes down to sheer volume. It’s domination!!
That cheeky grin from Dimebag (3:40) when he starts slowing down before the breakdown might just be the single greatest moment in thrash metal history.
Metallica‘s Master of Puppets, Slayer‘s Reign in Blood and Megadeth‘s Peace Sells …But Who’s Buying. There’s no beating that. 1990’s unholy trinity of Seasons in the Abyss, Rust in Peace and Cowboys from Hell comes close – especially since both Seasons and Rust are arguably superior to their earlier counterparts (I’d personally take Seasons over Reign in Blood but it’s a tossup between the two Megadeth records). Where I think 1986 has the edge is that, while the 1990 albums have certainly inspired future thrash artists, they weren’t aren’t as influential upon the genre overall – Pantera exerting their main influence via Vulgar Display of Power (1992) and Far Beyond Driven (1994) in the years that followed. Master of Puppets, Reign in Blood and Peace Sells were all released while everyone was still figuring out what thrash was and they each took it to completely different levels, defining what the genre could and should be from there onward.
Maybe that’s all just a lot of mental gymnastics to justify my original premise. However, When you add in Kreator‘s Pleasure to Kill, Destruction‘s Eternal Devastation, Dark Angel‘s Darkness Descends, Flotsam and Jetsam‘s Doomsday for the Deceiver, Cro-Mags‘ The Age of Quarrel, Nuclear Assault‘s Game Over, Onslaught‘s The Force, Metal Church‘s The Dark, Sodom‘s Obsessed by Cruelty, Sepultua‘s Morbid Visions, Exumer‘s Possessed by Fire and Voivod‘s Rrröööaaarrr, the point becomes pretty moot.
1986 still isn’t done though. Lesser/cult albums were also released in the form of Razor‘s Malicious Intent, Whiplash‘s Power and Pain, Holy Moses‘s Queen of Siam, Cryptic Slaughter‘s Convicted, Hirax‘s Hate, Fear and Power and Possessed‘s Beyond the Gates. I’m sure there are a few I’ve probably missed as well. We all knew this going in but 1986 is, undeniably, the best year for thrash metal.
But what about the worst years for thrash metal, I hear you ask…
The Years of Decay
Despite 1990 being the second-best year for thrash metal overall, it won’t be surprising that the majority of “bad” thrash years are from the ’90s. It was somewhat surprising to see how weak a year 2019 was when you only look at the bigger releases, although the smaller bands more than made up for it. Ultimately, however, the only non-nineties years in contention for the coveted position of worst year for thrash metal ever are 2000, which is pretty much still the ’90s anyway, and 2002.
Both years have a few notable highlights, the former in the form of The Haunted‘s Made Me Do It and Soulfly‘s Primitive – neither of which are really thrash metal – alongside underground hits like Dark Angel‘s Time Does Not Heal, The Crown‘s Deathrace King, Shadows Fall‘s Of One Blood and Quo Vadis‘s Day Into Night and lesser works like Pantera‘s Reinventing the Steel and Lamb of God‘s New American Gospel, which really haven’t stood the test of time.
2002 fares slightly better, featuring a lot of direct improvements over 2000’s offerings. For a start, there’s three whole albums from The Crown, including their best one, Crowned in Terror. Shadows Fall‘s breakthrough The Art of Balance, Darkane‘s Expanding Senses, Superjoint Ritual‘s Use Once and Destroy, one of the better mid-period Annihilator records in Waking the Fury and a great live album from Overkill in Wrecking Everything. Only Soulfly really stumbled, with the underwhelming 3.
Although there’s a lot to from 2000 and 20002, it’s slim pickings when compared to the years highlighted above. Still, it seems like a surfeit when compared to most ’90s years.
The early ’90s aren’t too bad, with thrash still clinging on amid the grunge revolution. By the later part of the decade, however, nu metal was in full swing, thrash was on the out and was hardly doing itself any favors.
1999 fares the best of the late ’90s bunch, as we begin to transition into the new millennium and a new musical epoch. Megadeth released the abysmal Risk, but that was more than made-up for by Overkill‘s Necroshine and Testament‘s The Gathering which kicked off the thrash revival. Metallica also released the lauded S&M (thoughts here), Artillery came back with B.A.C.K., Endorama is actually one of the better “bad” Kreator records and Machine Head‘s Burning Red is a lot better than its reputation suggests. Annihilator‘s Criteria for a Black Widow still sucks though.
1996 is off the hook since it contains two of my favourite albums ever in Sepultua‘s Roots and Pantera‘s Great Southern Trendkill. Also, you know what? Load is actually pretty good, even if more traditional thrash releases from Annihilator, Overkill and Slayer‘s hardcore punk tribute Undisputed Attitude left thrashers severely wanting.
1997 is where things start to take a turn. It’s not all bad news. Lesser, yet still respectable works like Machine Head‘s The More Things Change, Testament‘s Demonic and Shadows Fall‘s Somber Eyes to the Sky are bolstered by one of the all-time greatest live albums in the form of Pantera‘s Official Live: 101 Proof. Again, Phobia is a pretty decent “bad” Kreator record and, while Metallica‘s ReLoad is less consistent than their first Load outing, it still contains some classic tracks. Same goes for Megadeth‘s Cryptic Writings and there’s just enough steam left in the S.O.D. tank to make Bigger than the Devil worthwhile. Nevertheless, other traditional thrash acts like Overkill, Annihilator, Sodom, Voivod, Forbidden, Flotsam and Jetsam, Sadus and Mekong Detla all continued to struggle, making 1997 the first year listed here where the bad thrash releases comfortably outweigh the good, even if there are still some redeemable records on offer.
1998 is even worse. It maybe has more thrash highlights than the preceding year, in the form of The Haunted‘s self-titled debut, Metallica‘s Garage Inc., Max Cavalera’s semi-triumphant return fronting Soulfly and another excellent live record in Sepultura‘s Under a Pale Grey Sky. Lesser remembered winners come from Witchery‘s Restless and Dead and The Crown‘s Hell is Here. Unfortunately, 1998 also produced some all-time thrash abominations. I don’t think Slayer‘s Diabolos in Musica is as bad as most people seem to (I’ll take it over Divine Intervention and Undisputed Attitude) but it’s definitely not a good album. The rest of Sepultura had less luck than Max, coming back with Against – an album inexplicably lauded upon release which has aged like spoiled milk. Tankard have never been good, so Disco Destroyer is probably as bad as it looks, Anthrax were merely bluffing with Volume 8: The Threat is Real and Destruction released an album so bad in The Least Successful Human Cannonball that they’ve since completely disowned it.
By far though, the worst year for thrash metal has to be 1995. It’s so bad, in fact, that there’s only one truly outstanding thrash record to be found amid its release schedule, and even then it’s a fairly niche offering. That record is Power of Inner Strength, the debut record from Grip Inc., an industrial/groove “supergroup” consisting of Slayer drummer Dave Lombardo, Despair/Voodoocult guitarist Waldemar Sorychta later Exhorder/Heathen bassist Jason Viebrooks and vocalist Gary Chambers. The record is somewhat of a cult classic and the band released other well-reviewed albums in 1997 and 1999 (and 2004 apparently), although neither do much for me personally and you can hardly say they’ve been influential or impactful on thrash metal or, indeed, anything else.
You know you’re in trouble when the two most significant thrash releases of the year are Anthrax‘s worst album, Stomp 422, and a Megadeth b-sides collection. The Sound of White Noise (1991) aside, Anthrax’s ’90s output has been rightfully forgotten and, while Hidden Treasures gets points for including “Go to Hell” from the Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey (1991) soundtrack, none of its other material is worth mentioning. The is the self-titled, debut Nevermore album, which is fine but hardly their best work, and D.R.I.‘s Full Speed Ahead, which is decent enough but isn’t particularly remarkable either. It also doesn’t really matter how good these albums are when all they’re surrounded by are bad-to-middling records by Sodom, Voivod, Flotsam and Jetsam, Tankard, Hobbs’ Angel of Death, an actually bad Kreator album in Cause for Conflict (call it “Kause for Konflikt” at least!) and an abysmal solo album by Joey Belladona.
If you want to push the boundaries a bit then there’s Meshuggah‘s Destroy, Erase, Improve which still contains a smidgen of their tech-thrash beginnings. You could even compare the start of “Suffer in Truth” with contemporary releases from Machine Head and Sepultua to make an argument from a “groove metal” point of view, but it’s hardly applicable in retrospect. Iced Earth‘s Burnt Offerings is also pretty thrashy but mostly heavy/power metal and a lesser release in their catalogue overall and Absu‘s Sun of Tiphareth is hardly worth bothering about.
As much as the ’90s may be my favourite decade for music overall,* I can’t deny it was a tough time for thrash metal. The decades since, however, have seen the genre not only rebound but expand and grow so that thrash metal is perhaps in a healthier position now than it’s ever been. 2020’s stellar offerings prove as much and I look forward to seeing what 2021 has in store.
*1986–96, if we’re being more specific, although 2001–11 is a close second.
See you all again in a couple of months to talk about awesome new releases from Angelus Apatrida, Violblast and Nervosa, among others.