Hey there headbangers,
No end of year lists again this year. Once more, given that I pick out a “Big Four” each quarter and that we only had a “Big One” last round, you’ve already got yourself a rough top thirteen to play with and adjust to your whims, and to repeat them all here would simply be redundant. Another factor in the lack of Into the Pit AOTY celebrations is that I think this has been a fairly weak year for thrash metal overall, especially compared to last year. It hasn’t been anywhere near dire enough to wind up among the worst years for the genre or anything like that, but those truly great thrash metal releases have been largely few and far between. Moreover, many of the genre’s best releases reared their head during the year’s first half, with only Urne and Cryptosis really sticking around to bother my personal Albums of the Year list.
As a reflection of this late-year dip in quality, what we have here is a bit of an apocryphal entry in the Into the Pit series, with the Big Four consisting of bands that most people would not only not consider thrash metal under traditional definition, but that I also would never have believed I’d be backing individually, let alone collectively. Nevertheless, as one influential post-hardcore (and definitively not thrash metal) act once put it: times change and people change with them, and at the end of the day, good music is simply good music. So let’s get on with it shall we?
The Big Four
Bad Wolves – Dear Monsters
This is not a thrash metal album, but I’m choosing to cover it here for a few reasons: 1) Bad Wolves are made up of members from bands like God Forbid and DevilDriver that would usually be covered in Into the Pit and, until Heavy Blog gets a dedicated groovy tech-metal-infused nu butt rock column, I don’t see where else it could really fit (I toyed with covering it in Rotten to the Core, but we didn’t end up running a December column for that, and I think they have more in common with thrash-adjacent bands like Five Finger Death Punch (whose guitarist Zoltan Bathory is also Bad Wolves’ manager) than any truly -core ones), 2) it’s my column and I’ll do whatever I want, and 3) it’s my favourite album that came out last month and I can’t stop listening to it.
Bad Wolves have grown leaps and bounds since ditching ex-Divine Heresy singer and certified garbage human Tommy Vext in favour of ex-Acacia Strain guitarist Daniel “DL” Laskiewicz. I still can’t get over it being the same dude/man mountain who wrote “JFC” and “Carbomb” who’s crooning all over these songs. Laskiewicz was already helping out with songwriting and arrangements on Bad Wolves’ last album and, while he doesn’t quite have Vext’s inherent edge, his performance here is especially impressive given he wasn’t really known as a vocalist before this. Indeed, some of the softer songs such as “Wildfire” and “Lifeline” are where he shines brightest and are easily the two best ballads the radio rock chasing band have produced to date. Having said that, the band also hit a real low point with “Comatose” and its refrain of “IDK LOL”, but for the most part its smooth, uplifting and often absolutely crushing sailing.
What sets Bad wolves apart from the Five Finger Death Punch/Breaking Benjamin crowd is just how genuinely heavy they are. Whatever mainstream success Bad Wolves had with their cover of The Cranberries “Zombie” and songs like “Sober” or even “Killing Me Slowly” is unlikely to translate to all the tech/groove metal riffing that’s all over this and their other albums. Their 2018 debut Disobey is a far heavier and more aggressive record than I remembered it being and, although the emphasis remains on the melodies, there’s a decidedly metal edge to these songs that carries over from the bands previous projects. It’s as if guitarists Doc Coyle (ex-God Forbid) and Chris Cain (ex-Bury Your Dead, ex-For the Fallen Dreams), can’t help themselves. Early highlight “Never Be the Same” even has Gojira-style pick scrapes as part of its main riff while tracks like “On the Case” and standout number “House of Cards” boast a riffs worthy of Monuments, the latter frequently devolving into a pounding thrash break before building to a blistering solo section.
What’s become clear on Dear Monsters is that Bad Wolves aren’t interested in being a heavy radio rock band. They are a definitively metal prospect with prominent radio rock influences, and I could easily see God Forbid evolving toward a sound like this had they continued on. It’s this added edge and idiosyncratic sound that sets them apart from the radio rock fray and the genuine, uncompromising nature of their songwriting that makes them better than everyone else in that scene as well. Bad Wolves (sans-Vext) deserve every bit of mainstream popularity and acclaim they’ve received so far and, it’s high time the “metal community” started paying attention as well.
Volbeat – Servant of the Night
Volbeat will be familiar to most thrash fans, having been frequently dragged out on tour by Metallica and riding that wave of support to their own arena headlining shows across the globe. Yet, despite their close alignment with the genre, and obvious mid-period Metallica influence, Volbeat have never really had that much to do with thrash metal itself, until now. Seemingly reinvigorated by their participation in the Metallica Blacklist project earlier this year, Servant of the Mind serves as Volbeat’s heaviest and most metallic effort to date. The band bounce effortlessly between thrash, doom and even death metal, amid a darker and more ominous lyrical palette than they usually deploy, to deliver a record that not only stands apart in the band’s discography, but might also have been the sort of thing their heroes in Metallica might have put out after The Black Album (1991), if they’d stuck more closely to their metal guns (y’know, instead of releasing a bunch of more mellow, alt-rock inspired records that nevertheless contain some of their strongest material).
The influence of Black Album-era Metallica on Volbeat has always been pretty blatant, but the level of extremity they take their sound to on this record is entirely unprecedented in their discography. Opener “Temple of Ekur” and early highlight “The Sacred Stones” recall the most recent Khemmis record, except both are far more memorable, as is album/career standout “Shotgun Blues” which boasts some of the toughest thrash riffing heard this (or any other) year. The bonus edition of the album includes a version of the song fronted by the vocalist from Jungle Rot of all bands, and extreme metal makes its way onto the album proper in the form of “Becoming”, which sounds like a lost Bloodbath track.
Along with the accentuated extremity, Volbeat’s trademark rockabilly aspect has been noticeably (and thankfully!) toned down. In fact, there’s only one more traditional rockabilly track on the whole record, in the form of pop punk-esque summer anthem “Wait A Minute My Girl”. The song is fine for what it is, I guess, but it sticks out like a sore thumb on such a dark and otherwise aggressive record and might have been better served closing out the record rather than potentially derailing it by being placed as track two and more discerning thrash fans should probably just go ahead and delete it. There’ also quazi-ballad “Dagen Før” featuring Alphabeat singer Stine Bramsen, which sounds like something Creeper might come up with, but it’s a much better song and fits more smoothly into the record’s running order. More successful than both is “The Devil Rages On”, which blends a satanic surf rock aesthetic with a bendy groove that sounds exactly like the riff form Metallica’s “Fuel” slowed down to half speed. As it has been throughout Volbeat’s history, when the band go full rockabilly it can be grating and they are far more interesting when they incorporate those influences along with their more extreme touchstones.
Servant of the Mind is a strange record, but it’s an undeniably fun one which proves the band belong within the more metallic and extreme circles they often frequent. Having delved back into their catalogue on the basis of this record, I don’t think there’s much/anything there for those, like me, who are first coming to Volbeat through this record, but I’m excited to see if they embrace this direction more in future.
Trivium – In The Court of the Dragon
If you asked the broader metal public (including the other HBIH staff) what the best thrash metal album of the year is, they’d probably say this one – and I can see why! As a relatively recent Trivium convert, it’s great to see them producing and being recognised for what I truly believe are their three best albums at such a (relatively) late stage in their career. In the Court of the Dragon will go down in metal history, alongside Sin and the Sentence (2017) and What the Dead Men Say (2020), as part of a trilogy of albums that defined both the band and modern heavy metal itself, and deservedly so.
Having said that, for whatever reason, this album just isn’t clicking with me as much as the last two. The album that brought me onboard the Trivium train, The Sin and the Sentence, remains the best album of their discography due to its tighter and more varied songwriting. Conversely, while I think In the Court of the Dragon is a more consistent record than What the Dead Men Say – being absent of stinkers such as “Bleed into Me” and “Scattering the Ashes” – I also don’t think it reaches the heights of tracks like “Amongst the Shadows and the Stones”, “Sickness Unto You” and “The Ones We Leave Behind”. Rather than those raging prog-thrash odysseys, In the Court of the Dragon’s strongest offering is the more subdued and melodic “Feast of Fire” which perfects the formula previously employed on iconic tracks like “Catastrophist” and “Heart from Your Hate”. Other standouts include “Like a Sword Over Damocles”, which contains the strongest collection of riffs on the record, and resurrected Shogun (2008) offcut “The Phalanx,” which goes some way toward fulfilling my desire to see that record re-recorded/re-interpreted with the band’s current line-up and capabilities. By the same token, however, “Phalanx” also points toward what I think might be my main, unconscious sticking point with the record.
Of the last three Trivium records, In the Court of the Dragon, by far, has the most in common with the band’s older material. As much as I love the riffing on “Sword Over Damocles”, it shares a common fault with the material Trivium’s early albums, which is that its chorus doesn’t really pop, deflating much of the song’s otherwise intrinsic momentum. The same can be said for “In the Court of the Dragon”, which is an absolute flurry of furious thrash riffage, but lacks any real staying power. Matt Heafy’s improved vocal capabilities (which I attribute in large part to his coaching by Disturbed’s David Draiman on Vengeance Falls (2013)), are one of the things that sets the latter Trivium records apart from and above their earlier releases, but a lot of the time it seems like he’s falling back on old habits here. The other major distinguishing factor, drummer Alex Bent, also doesn’t stand out as much here as on previous records, even if his performance can’t be faulted technically. I also wish they’d stop getting Ihsahn to do these orchestral intro tracks, or otherwise integrate them more into the songs themselves, as I find the transition from both “IX” and “X” into their respective record’s opening, title-tracks rather jarring.
Maybe I just need a bit of time with this one. I imagine if they’d waited until next year – with a bit more distance from What the Dead Men Say and separated from the insane release schedule that dominated 2021 – the album might have hit a bit differently. There’s no denying Trivium their well-earned spot at the apex of modern metal, and I’m sure that in a year or so I’ll come back to this record and see what everyone else was raving about.
Bullet for My Valentine – Bullet for My Valentine
I was never a big Bullet for My Valentine fan back in the day, but I’ve found myself going back to their first two records a lot recently. I don’t think they’re one of the best bands in their genre, but I get the hype around The Poison (2006) and find them a refreshing prospect when I’ve had enough of Killswitch Engage, Unearth and Trivium for a while. Moreover, I think I was a lot more positive about 2018’s Gravity than a lot of those in the Internet Metal Sphere™; if they were looking to blend melodic metalcore with modern radio rock then I think they did a pretty good job of it on that record, but there’s no denying that the band feel both more comfortable and far more potent leaning into their heavier side and embracing their thrash roots on their seventh, self-titled record.
There’s no getting away from the Machine Head comparisons on this album. Those looking for a bit more of a distinctive identity would be justified in writing it off as simply “Machine Head lite”. Yet, by the same token, the Bridgend brigade are also worthy imitators, and this self-proclaimed return to their metallic roots far outshines whatever Machine Head have been putting out recently. The song-writing is tighter and more varied, the riffs hit harder and Matt Tuck’s voice sounds far stronger when compared to both Machine Head and Bullet for My Valentine’s more recent material, to the point that those who long ago fell out of love with the band or have never given them the time of day will likely find a lot to love here. Had Bullet for My Valentine released this record in the wake of Scream Aim Fire (2008) or even following Fever (2010), they’d be justified in claiming the position at the pinnacle of the modern metal pyramid that has always eluded them, despite their constant claims to the contrary.
Further Lessons in Violence
Exodus – Persona Non Grata
Moving into “true thrash” territory now, but let’s keep the unpopular opinions going, shall we? I’m one of those very few thrash fans who believe Rob Dukes Exodus is best Exodus. As such, the band’s widely acclaimed reunion with classic vocalist Steve Souza on 2014’s Blood In, Blood Out did far less for me than it seemed to for everyone else. I’m happy to report that its long-awaited follow-up leans far more in the Duke-era direction, to the point that I probably think it’s a superior record overall. Having said that, it’s probably the weakest of the modern Exodus records otherwise, primarily due to one, glaring factor: Souza is simply not a good vocalist. His nasal sneer has never been the most technically proficient delivery, but whatever personality it brought to previous, classic records, such as Tempo of The Damned (2004) and Fabulous Disaster (1989), is completely absent. The less Sousa’s personality comes through these days is probably for the best, given the kind of shit he’s been spouting lately, but I definitely feel like Dukes or someone else could have done a much better job of elevating the material on this record beyond the unremarkable plod-fest it wound up being. Persona Non Grata is fine, just completely forgettable, and the lack of praise or publicity around its release seems to confirm that the furor surrounding Sousa’s return was perhaps misplaced.
Extinction A.D. – Chaos, Collusion, Carnage & Propaganda
(Not so) fresh off the back of releasing one of the best thrash records of 2018, Long Island’s crossover kings are back with a four-track EP of furious thrash that more than whets the appetite for a forthcoming full-length release. What CCCP lacks in length it makes up for in infectious vigour, infectiously bouncing between rabid riffs, vicious two-step sections and ferocious beatdowns with an infectious kineticism that belies the ire bristling beneath. I’m still hanging out for a full album, but if Extinction A.D. just want to show up with an EP that’s this strong every year or two, I’ll happily take it.
Lordi – Abracadaver
Abracadaver isn’t the best of the seven-albums zombified Eurovision winners Lordi recorded and released this year but, like all the Lordiversity records, it perfectly captures the era it’s aping, whcih in this case is early ’90s thrash and groove metal, à la Pantera, Metallica and early John Bush-era Anthrax. In some ways, this is maybe the most accessible of the Lordiversity albums, given how often Mr. Lordi decides to give his decaying voice box a rest and just let the riffs do the talking. Almost every song on this record opens with a riff you won’t believe one of the aforementioned bands hasn’t written already, and—as with Volbeat—gives a bit of insight to what a Metallica follow-up to The Black Album might have sounded like if they’d decided to stick with thrash metal for a bit longer. Unlike Sousa, however, the perhaps pitch-challenged Mr. Lordi’s personality is exactly what elevates Abracadaver above mere nostalgic pastiche. As strong as its collection of riffs are, it’s the album’s many memorable choruses that you’ll have stuck in your head once it’s over. Lordi have proven themselves unlikely masters of many styles this year, and thrash is no exception.
Bonded – Into Blackness
Bonded hit the scene in 2020 with the solid, yet unremarkable Rest in Violence. Less than a year later, the German thrashers have made a huge step up with sophomore effort Into Blackness. The riffs are sharper, the songs are tighter and the melodies much more memorable. While this is certainly a superior record to Persona non Grata, I’m not quite ready to declare that the students have become the masters just yet. Nevertheless, what we have here is a rapidly rising star within the world of thrash metal, and if they continue on this trajectory let alone at this rate, it won’t be long before you’ll see them up among the Big Four.
Wraith – Undo the Chains
Wraith’s last record, Absolute Power (2019), was a favourite of Into the Pit alum/founder Pete. While I don’t necessarily share Pete’s enthusiasm for the more blackened side of thrash metal, I certainly agree that Wraith are one of the better acts out their doing it. If anything, I think I like Undo the Chains a little bit more than Absolute Power due to its accentuated pace and more prominent crossover influences. Like a lot of black thrash albums, Undo the Chains sounds like a missing link between Welcome to Hell (1981) and Kill ‘em All (1983) by way of Motörhead – which is great! – but also like a lot of black thrash albums I find the album is ultimately let down by one-dimensional songwriting, the band being happy to just ride out a riff for a while rather than really developing it or taking it anywhere. Yet, while it doesn’t quite reach the heights of something like Hellripper’s Affair of the Poisons from last year, Undo the Chains is still a blast of infectious, blackened thrash metal that firmly establishes Wraith as a band to watch out for come their next album cycle.
That’s 2021 sorted, we’ll be back next quarter to talk about the debut Schizophrenia record, along with bigger releases from Canadian thrash institutions Annihilator and Voivod.