10 Thrash Albums You Need to Hear Before You Die

With the proliferation thrash metal is currently enjoying due in part to its second wave occurring in America as well as the popularity of the Big Four shows happening all over the globe, there is no better time to reflect on some of the best albums the extreme sub-genre has to offer. Rather than a comprehensive “best of,” the goal of the list is to expose as many artists and styles as possible, including, at most, any given band once. While listing more obscure and/or non-American albums from bands like Flotsam and Jetsam, Sacred Reich, Sodom, and Stone might net some more scene points, the list reads more like some of my personal favorite thrash records that every self-respecting metalhead must hear. As always, your mileage may vary.

Master of Puppets

Master of Puppets

What can be said about Master of Puppets that hasn’t already been said before? It is, by many peoples’ esteems, the quintessential Metallica – nay – Bay Area thrash album. I was a bit incredulous toward all of the praise it has received from people who didn’t really know the genre or who had not plumbed the depths of Metallica’s back catalog and had for a long time considered the albums successor, …And Justice for All, to be the superior musical outing.

What Puppets might lack in complexity and sheer quantity of quality riffs per song compared to Justice, it makes up for in diversity and songwriting. It is certainly not Metallica’s most raw record, nor their most technical, and with the exception of maybe four songs or so, is far removed from the typical banalities associated with the movement it emerged from and helped to spur.

Master of Puppets covers a lot of bases in only eight songs. It contains what might arguably be considered the perfect heavy metal song in the form of its title track: one that is aggressive enough to maintain its street cred but is so instantly hooky that its interlude section is hummed by audiences the world over, and, despite its near nine minute duration, keeps your attention like any of the songs flanking it on mainstream radio.

The band’s level of craftsmanship is at an unprecedented high for its 54-minute playing time. The album moves seamlessly between Hetfield’s often imitated, but never matched muscular riffing to introspective, melodic passages, due in no small part to the innate understanding of musical interplay from prodigious bassist Cliff Burton. One of its shining moments, Master of Puppets contains a lengthy instrumental penned by Burton, the tranquil demeanor of which rises above the status quo of its contemporaries.
Despite its fair share of razor sharp guitars, Master of Puppets is much more than one of the poster child albums of 1980s thrash. Not content to follow the lowest common denominator, Metallica’s third album finds itself as one of the finest heavy metal releases ever, setting the template for heavy music to this day. To lump it in a merely a “thrash metal” album is a disservice to the suite of songs contained within and Metallica in their prime.

Prime cuts: “Disposable Heroes”, “Damage Inc.”

Rust in Peace

Rust in Peace

Coming out during the waning years of thrash’s commercial viability during which it was beginning to die a swift death to alternative rock and grunge, Rust in Peace is in some ways Megadeth’s farewell to those halcyon days. Though many consider 1986’s Peace Sells… But Who’s Buying? to be the band’s seminal work, Rust in Peace finds the band putting out their most cohesive, unrelenting record up to that point; one who’s level of musicianship and chops have not been matched since.

Megadeth’s three previous releases all had some truly great thrashers like “Wake Up Dead,” “Hook in Mouth,” and “Set the World Afire,” to name a few, but were ultimately brought down by awkwardly chosen cover songs and a lack of rhythmic muscularity in favor of a more spindly, jazz-inspired approach to metal. With the exception of perhaps the bass-centric segue track “Dawn Patrol,” Rust in Peace literally has no weak songs and relentlessly assaults the listener with snarling vocals, angular riffs, and pyrotechnic lead guitar.

Megadeth’s fourth record, is easily their most technically accomplished and a veritable tour-de-force of guitar playing. This should come as little surprise, as the album also features the debut of virtuoso shredder Marty Friedman of Cacophony fame. Friedman’s use of exotic scales and general technicality gave Megadeth a “two lead guitarist” approach, undoubtedly bringing up Dave Mustaine’s own chops and ambition to craft a high caliber record.

Prime cuts: “Tornado of Souls”, “Holy Wars… the Punishment Due”

South of Heaven

South of Heaven

While 1986 seems to be considered something of a hallowed year in the San Francisco Bay Area thrash scene, I find it to have gotten that reputation mostly through the rose-colored glasses of nostalgia and the synchronous release of the breakout, but not necessarily best, albums of each of the Big Four’s respective careers. Indeed, most of my favorite albums of the scene— and many on this list— came out during the tail end of the era. While there were certainly many fine releases during that year, including Slayer’s own revered Reign in Blood, its follow up is that much more well put together.

This of course comes from the mindset that brutality and speed do not a better album make. Feeling that they could not top the success of Reign, Slayer consciously decided to change up their style by slowing down the tempo, with bassist Tom Araya adopting a less shrieked, more on-key vocal approach. Though the band has been openly critical of the album for several reasons, the breathing room afforded by the slowed pace opens up the potential as a listener to sink one’s teeth into the riffs, providing some great headbanging opportunities. These qualities are all enhanced by a crisp and powerful production courtesy of long-time Slayer producer Rick Rubin, bringing out Dave Lombardo’s kit and the crunching of Hanneman and King.

The album sees Slayer trying new things, such as clean guitar sections, and genuine increase in songwriting sensibilities that infused groove into the band in a way that did not bring them down into the down-tuned monotony of some of their later releases. Despite being the underrated black sheep of the Slayer back catalog, South of Haven is an imposing album whose stylistic flexing has not been revisited since.

Prime cuts: “Mandatory Suicide”, “Behind the Crooked Cross”

Practice What You Preach

Practice What You Preach

If there ever were to be an addendum to the “big four” of American thrash, Testament would be most deserving of the fifth spot. Starting late in the game with 1987’s The Legacy, they were often compared to Metallica, but were never quite able to capture the same success as their peers. Still, the band’s early work can be mentioned in the same breath as their more well-known comrades in arms, the level of quality of which not being more evident than on their third album, Practice What You Preach.

The comparison of Testament to Metallica, at least on Practice, is certainly apt. Musically, the album finds itself being more moderately paced and rhythm-focused than its predecessors, while Chuck Billy adopts a midrange, shouted vocal style, both of which were trademarks of classic Metallica. The album also moves away from occult topics to dealing with a number of political issues such as deforestation and the plight of Native Americans. Whether these things were done consciously to attempt to achieve success on Metallica’s coattails is certainly up to conjecture, however.

Prime cuts: “Sins of Omission”, “Time is Coming”

Twisted Into Form

Twisted Into Form

Forbidden began as Forbidden Evil, which was started in part by Rob Flynn of Machinehead fame. Flynn would contribute four songs to the band’s debut album, but left to join fellow thrashers Vio-lence in 1987. Though one of the more successful second-tier Bay Area bands, Forbidden would mostly be forgotten as a footnote after releasing what I consider to be their finest offering: Twisted Into Form.

The band’s sophomore effort proves to be a more progressive and melodic affair that is musically more in line with bands like Annihilator and Testament than Exodus or Kreator. This combined with Russ Anderson’s vocal delivery akin to a more harsh-sounding Joey Belladonna gives the record an appeal of overall superior sonic execution and melodic flair that doesn’t sacrifice heaviness to achieve the result. Twisted Into Form also features the second album appearance of veteran thrash skinsman Paul Bostaph, who would go on to play with Slayer, Testament and Exodus.

Prime cuts: “Infinite”, “Out of Body (Out of Mind)”

Never, Neverland

Never, Neverland

Created in 1984 during thrash’s infancy and having recorded several demos during its heyday, Canadian band Annihilator would not land a commercial record deal until the end of the decade. Though their first album, Alice in Hell, was a pyrotechnic heap of thrash that would gain a cult following in subsequent years, Annihilator’s follow up would prove to be one of their most technically impressive and well-written records before or since.

The end of the original thrash movement certainly seemed to be a time when acts were trying to challenge themselves in terms of musical proficiency, with albums from Metallica, Megadeth, and Forbidden blending involved guitar techniques and complex arrangements with varied time signatures. Though relatively obscure, the work showcased on Annihilator’s first two records, but especially on Never, Neverland, set the benchmark extremely high for thrash metal releases of the progressive persuasion.

That’s not to say that Annihilator’s second album is some kind of contrived math metal piece. Rather, the guitar style of band main man Jeff Waters marries the dexterity of James Hetfield’s right hand with a penchant for melodic licks reminiscent of the Scorpion’s Rudolph Schenker. Certainly a far cry from the contrived wankery of ‘80s guitar gods Steve Vai or Joe Satriani, the album errs closer to the shredding of prodigious axemen Jason Becker and Marty Friedman from speed metal act Cacophony.

While the album leaves something to be desired lyrically with cheeky songs like “Kraf Dinner,” it more than makes up for it in sheer musicality. The riffs are varied, with lead runs providing delicious embellishments that make the listener perk up and take notice. Despite such a strong release, Never, Neverland would not bring to Annihilator the success that was expected to come with the tagline “the Canadian Metallica,” and would prove to be the band’s last truly great record, forever leaving Jeff Waters as one of the most underappreciated players in metal.

Prime cuts: “The Fun Palace”, “Never, Neverland”

Among the Living

Among the Living
Among the Living

Though recorded in 1986, Anthrax’s third album would miss the mark by several months for being released in the same year as the rest of the breakout records from their contemporaries in the Big Four of American Thrash. Despite this, 1987’s Among the Living is considered by many to be the New York thrash band’s finest work.

Anthrax’s first two records followed a decidedly more straightforward approach to heavy metal, inspired apparently by bands like Judas Priest and Iron Maiden. With the influence of former bassist Dan Lilker fully purged, Among the Living saw Anthrax embracing a more tongue-in-cheek approach to their music and appearance, with inside joke song titles and references, lyrical themes about movies and comics, and stage attire to match.

Still, Among the Living is a prime example of the east coast brand of thrash. Compared to groups in the west, the playing is more percussively focused, with drummer Charlie Bennante backing the jagged riffs with snappy, punk-inspired patterns that eschewed more traditional double bass drum antics. The style also audibly utilizes bass as its own independent instrument rather than simply mimicking the rhythms of guitarist Scott Ian. Interestingly, the soaring vocal style of Joey Belladonna belies the punk raucousness of the songs, producing a sonic aesthetic different from even others in the upstate area. The end result is one that blisters rather than bludgeons, always maintaining a high-energy pace.

Prime cuts: “Skeletons in the Closet”, “I Am the Law”

Breathing the Fire

Breathing the Fire

Although not part of the original generation of thrash bands from the 1980s, Athens, Ohio’s Skeletonwitch sure play like they were. One of the premiere bands of the second wave of thrash currently going on predominantly in America, Skeletonwitch play a unique blend of Slayer-esque riffs with a black metal rasp and a penchant for melody that sounds straight out of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal. The end result is a band that is distinctly vintage-sounding without retreading the same familiar formula of their peers and forefathers.

Only the second proper album by the young quintet, Breathing the Fire improves on its already impeccable predecessor with an injection of more powerful Bay Area hallmarks. The songs contained within blend the minor tonalities of bands like Kreator and Venom, with a modern stylistic facelift of motifs from genres that would succeed Bay Area thrash, such as black and melodic death metal. Skeletonwitch aims for a blitzkrieg delivery that ensures anyone listening won’t get bored, taking a page from punk and hardcore with song lengths hovering around two- and three-minute lengths for a total album playing time as short as some extended plays. Even with such an abrasive edge, the band is still able to have extremely hooky leads and solos that even followers of less extreme forms of metal would appreciate.

Prime cuts: “Submit to the Suffering”, “Where the Light Has Failed”

The Art of Partying

The Art of Partying
Municipal Waste

Like Skeletonwitch, Muncipal Waste is one of the top bands of the American thrash revival. If Skeletonwitch represent everything that is unique about a band playing within the Bay Area mold, Municipal Waste is the antithesis to this. The band plays in a style of crossover thrash that elicits comparison to Stormtroopers of Death or Anthrax, with a sense of humor evident in their lyrics, imagery, and song titles. One need not look any farther than titles “Lunch Hall Food Brawl” or “ADD (Attention Deficit Destroyer)” to see what I mean.

Municipal Waste play mostly by-the-numbers punk-inspired thrash metal, but that’s the point. The band doesn’t take themselves too seriously, often making a parody of their metal roots and ‘80s culture, with an eye on always having a good time, which certainly comes through in the music. One shouldn’t mistake their good-humored approach for a poor quality band, however. On the contrary—Municipal Waste are extremely talented at what they do and one of the tightest acts currently on the scene. For someone looking for thrash without any bells and whistles that also appeals to the energetic nature of punk, look no further than The Art of Partying.

Prime cuts: “Sadistic Magician”, “Beer Pressure”

Release From Agony

Release From Agony

The single non-American entry on the list, Destruction were part of the Teutonic thrash movement in Germany happening parallel to the Bay Area scene of California. One of the “Big Three” of that region’s scene along with Sodom and Kreator, the brand of thrash practiced by these bands was more evidently influenced by Mercyful Fate and Venom, with a style more in-line with early Slayer, laying the groundwork for death metal.

Like other thrash releases of the later portion of the ‘80s, Release From Agony may be Destruction’s most technically accomplished record. The record is chock full of stop-start, angular riffing, technical leads, and the occasional clean guitar section to add a sense of “maturity.” This is further reinforced by the album’s sterile production, giving an air of clinical precision not inappropriate for the title of the album. Still, despite the proficiency displayed here, the album is as vicious and evil-sounding as any thrash of the era, with spastic riffing and sneering vocals, making it one of Destruction’s classics.

Prime cuts: “Sign of Fear”, “Unconscious Ruins”

Honorable mentions: Exodus – Bonded By Blood; Flotsam & Jetsam – Doomsday for the Deceiver; Sanctuary – Refuge Denied; Sepultura – Beneath the Remains


~ by Dux on July 21, 2011.

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