You know the Big Four. You know Bay Area bangers Testament, Exodus and Death Angel. You probably even know Germany's Big Three: Kreator, Sodom and Destruction. But thrash didn't start and stop there — far from it. Dig a little deeper, and you'll find a treasure trove of bands that refined the genre and/or took it in more extreme directions. From Toronto death demons Slaughter and L.A. prog-thrashers Holy Terror to Bavarian melody masters Paradox and Canadian guitar wizards Annihilator, many bands dropped essential yet overlooked records in the 80s. Below are ten criminally underrated thrash albums from metal's most crucial decade.
Not to be confused with the American pop-metal band that haunted MTV in the early Nineties, the Canadian Slaughter cranked up the extremity and violence of Slayer to death-metal levels of aggression. After starting out as a pure thrash band in 1984, Slaughter briefly featured Chuck Schuldiner of Death on guitar before sawing off their ripping debut, Strappado, in '87. This visionary power trio prefigured the buzzsaw guitars of Entombed, the grinding insanity of Repulsion (who had been influenced by Slaughter's early demos) and almost every Floridian death metal outfit in one devastating blow.
When Dark Angel dropped their third album in early '89, it marked a new era for the L.A.-area thrashers. Leave Scars was the band's first outing with vocalist Ron Rinehart and bassist Mike Gonzalez, not to mention their last with founding guitarist Jim Durkin. Still, it only bolstered their reputation as "the L.A. Caffeine Machine," with lengthy and lightning-fast songs like "No One Answers" and "The Promise of Agony," plus a double-time cover of Led Zeppelin's "Immigrant Song." It's also notable in that drum lord Gene Hoglan co-wrote every original on the album.
In their Eighties heyday, New Jersey thrash trio Whiplash consisted of three Tonys: guitarist-vocalist Tony Portaro, drummer Tony Scaglione and bassist Tony Bono. Scaglione famously filled in with Slayer when Dave Lombardo split for the first time in 1986-87, Bono died of a heart attack in 2002, and Portaro still leads the band today. Their 1986 debut, Power and Pain, was the band's finest hour, delivering a more unhinged version of the hardcore-injected thrash plied by their tri-state contemporaries Nuclear Assault and Overkill. Fun fact: Power and Pain features backing vocals from future Type O Negative main man Peter Steele (then of Carnivore) and Agnostic Front's Vinnie Stigma.
While many prominent U.K. thrash bands trafficked in humor — see Acid Reign, Lawnmower Deth, etc. — Deathwish were dead serious. Released in '88, Demon Preacher is a rip-roaring thrash epic that never got its due. Opening and closing with short instrumentals and featuring a killer cover of Sabbath's "Symptom of the Universe," Demon Preacher combines the fierce intensity of Teutonic thrash with the dark melodicism and high-speed riffing of Slayer on standout cuts "Wall of Lies" and "Prey to the Lord." After calling it quits in 1990, the band apparently reunited in 2017. Meanwhile, drummer Brad Sims runs Sims Tattoo in London.
Boasting future members of Ministry and GWAR, Rigor Mortis came pounding out of Texas in the early Eighties with the kind of brutal thrash riffery that bordered on death metal. Opening with the vicious, tone-setting instrumental "Welcome to Your Funeral," their self-titled '88 debut revels in supernatural themes on "Vampire," power-single "Demons" and gives a nod to the cult 1985 horror-comedy Re-Animator on, uh, "Re-Animator." Sadly, half of the band has passed on: Guitarist Mike Scaccia (later of Ministry) died from an onstage heart attack in 2012, and vocalist Bruce Corbitt succumbed to cancer in 2019. Luckily, bassist Casey Orr lives on as GWAR mainstay Beefcake the Mighty.
With 17 albums in their discography, Annihilator might be Canada's most prolific thrashers. Founded in 1984 by guitar wizard and sole constant member Jeff Waters, the band released their first full-length, Alice in Hell, in '89. Featuring a highly technical style punctuated by brilliant classical guitar passages and the unique vocal delivery of Randy Rampage — also of Vancouver hardcore legends D.O.A. — Alice in Hell landed Annihilator a support slot on Testament's Practice What You Preach tour. In early 2020, they released a new album entitled Ballistic, Sadistic.
With a lineup consisting of vocalist-bassist Bob Mayo and brothers Rich (guitar) and Barry (drums) Spillberg, Boston's Wargasm (not to be confused with the rising U.K. nu-metal-meets-riot grrl duo of the same name) were probably the East Coast's most underappreciated thrash band. After making their underground debut with a 1986 demo called Satan Stole My Lunch Money, they signed with Profile for their 1988 full-length Why Play Around? Packed with memorable riffs and choruses (especially "Knee deep in blood!" from "Revenge"), the album sees Mayo sounding like a cross between an evil Kermit the Frog and a slightly less-insane version of Tom Araya. After putting Wargasm to rest (mostly) in '95, Mayo went on to manage a popular Boston comic shop.
Though widely listed as a 1990 release, Paradox's second album was apparently first unleashed in Brazil in late '89, so it slides under the wire here. This German thrash squad stood out from the Teutonic pack on Heresy with a more melodic style akin to Metallica's Ride the Lightning (parts of "Search for Perfection" are remarkably similar to "Fight Fire With Fire") and the soaring clean vocals of singer Charly Steinhauer, whose voice could've easily been confused with that of Anthrax's Joey Belladonna. The album also happens to be a concept record about the 13th century Albigensian Crusade, which included the first religious genocide in recorded history.
A thrilling prog-thrash workout from start to finish, Holy Terror's 1987 debut Terror and Submission has always been considered an outlier in the genre's pantheon, but it's also one of the most savage and powerful albums of the era. Formed by guitarist Kurt Kilfelt after his departure from Agent Steel, Holy Terror boasted the impressive vocal talents of Keith Deen, who was reportedly influenced by the Who's Roger Daltrey and Looney Tunes voiceover czar Mel Blanc. Deen passed away in 2012 and didn't participate in the band's brief mid-2000s reboot, which featured High on Fire bassist Jeff Matz.
Though they didn't have the staying power of Germany's Big Three, Hamburg's Iron Angel dropped a crucial slab of Teutonic thrash with their 1985 debut. Hellish Crossfire is a Satanic riff-storm in the spirit of Slayer's Hell Awaits, with appropriately brimstone-choked lyrics on the likes of "Sinner 666," "Black Mass" and the face-melting "Wife of the Devil." They went on tour with King Diamond in '86, but split that same year. They've since reformed — twice — and recorded solid albums, but Hellish Crossfire is their crown jewel.