In the early Eighties, young denim-and-leather-clad headbangers in bands like Metallica, Slayer, and Anthrax exploded onto the scene with a new form of heavy music: thrash, which combined NWOBHM-inspired virtuosity with punk-rock attitude. This breakneck brand of metal has gone on to influence everyone from Lamb of God to Trivium and Killswitch Engage. To get you up to speed, we've assembled a loud library of 20 American classics. Brace yourself for a nasty case of whiplash.
Metallica got the glory (and Exodus guitarist Kirk Hammett), but this Bay Area institution was actually the first to take thrash from punky primitivism to virtuosic technicality, plying its trade for a good three years before Bonded by Blood cemented the band's status. And 17 years before singer Paul Baloff tragically died after a stroke. (R.I.P.)
(Century Media, 1985)
Disciples of proto–black metallists Venom and Bathory, San Francisco's Possessed shrouded their blasphemous imagery in lo-fi production values. Pure, chaotic speed was key, yet the playing of guitarist Larry Lalonde was experimental and adventurous enough to eventually land him a spot in prog-funksters Primus.
This Anthrax side-project ended up as a left-field underground hit (selling more than a million copies worldwide by 1999), likely due to its novel fusion of metal and hardcore, with Scott Ian providing the hard-nosed riffs and troublemaker Billy Milano spouting the provocative lyrics on 21 ruthlessly short, relentlessly amusing songs.
1984's Ride the Lightning established Metallica as the thrash act with not only the most personality but the most skill and ambition. Its follow-up took James, Lars, Kirk, and Cliff's newly epic palette into cinemascope — and did so with such mastery that Master consistently polls as the greatest metal album of all time, thrash or otherwise.
Pete Steele's recently resurrected pre–Type O Negative band Carnivore crossed bleak doom with hardcore to create a knowingly knuckle-dragging form of thrash. Raw, cynical, almost avant-garde, this album is, however, best remembered for its misanthropic though wryly humorous lyrics on songs like "God Is Dead" and "World War III & IV."
Slayer were the new face of speed metal, and yet they were so confrontationally evil that they could have easily been considered death and black metal, too. Confounding genre tags in 28 minutes of howling fury, Reign in Blood proves them to be simply great.
Before doing time in Death, Testament, and, currently, Strapping Young Lad, drummer Gene Hoglan made this album roar, holding together the lesser performances of bandmates interested only in out-heavying Slayer. While it doesn't quite achieve that goal, Darkness Descends does deliver a vicious, messy attack that lives up to Dark Angel's motto: "Too fast my ass."
Major-label deal in hand, a chip on his shoulder, and an excellent though short-lived lineup (guitarist Chris Poland, bassist David Ellefson, and drummer Gar Samuelson) backing him up, ex-Metallica guitarist Dave Mustaine channeled personal bitterness and pointed politics through his signature snarl and superior shredding skill, creating this masterpiece of thinking man's thrash.
The Dark might have too much classic-metal influence on it to be described as a straight up thrasher, but singer David Wayne (R.I.P.) and crew could tear it up when they wanted to: Check out crusher "Ton of Bricks," one good reason this beloved Seattle outfit more than held their own as part of Metallica's legendary Master of Puppets tour.
Besides helping to put the word mosh into the pop lexicon ("Caught in a Mosh") and featuring the best metal song about Native Americans since Maiden's "Run to the Hills" ("Indians"), Among the Living showcased Charlie Benante's insane speed drumming and Scott Ian and Dan Spitz's hardcore-inflected guitar work, which together made for a total beatdown, NYC-style.
(Metal Blade, 1987)
On their debut album, Phoenix-based speedsters Sacred Reich tackled topics of political and social injustice like many a good thrash band did, turning singer Phil Rind's outraged diatribes into perfect slam-dance fodder. The band would go on to become unwitting pioneers of metalcore, particularly influencing the more 'core acts of that scene, such as Hatebreed.
(Metal Blade, 1987)
Flotsam would soon cough up bassist (and main songwriter) Jason Newsted to Metallica, but not before creating this spectacularly dense and intense collection of speed-metal anthems. A big Priest and Maiden influence is obvious, but whereas those NWOBHM deities left their listeners room to breathe, Flotsam fill every crevasse with relentless shred.
Perhaps best known as singer Warrel Dane and bassist Jim Sheppard's pre-Nevermore band, Seattleites Sanctuary deserve attention in their own right, mostly for their fist-pumping debut album, which was produced by none other than Dave Mustaine and displays jaw-droppingly high-pitched, layered vocals that Dane has yet to match.
Filipino-American thrashers Death Angel often went over people's heads, creating a loose, overdriven, push-pull sound that definitely hadn't been anywhere near a click track. Further confounding, vocalist Mark Osegueda could be downright soulful over structures that at times tread dangerously near to funkiness. Still, there's no question that on Frolic, the band's chemistry was magical.
The thrash anthem "Into the Pit" dominates Testament's mosh-ready sophomore disc, with the San Fran quintet positioning themselves as purists, carrying on the work of Metallica and Exodus. The inventive playing of uber-shredder Alex Skolnick, however, makes the band not just defenders of the faith but true proponents of a new order.
How Will I Laugh found the motor-mouthed Mike Muir and his Suicidals sprucing up their gang-banged skatecore rants with semicomplicated riffs, solos, and longer song structures. The result was crossover thrash with a fresh, gritty sound that clearly came from a hardcore, not a metal, headspace.
Post-Anthrax and S.O.D., bassist Danny Lilker brought his low-end chops to this harsh, political East Coast thrash act. The S.O.D. influence is apparent in the occasional silly bits (such as the tongue-in-cheek Led Zeppelin cover, "Good Times, Bad Times"), but most notable is Randy Burns' wall-of-sound production and the band's balance of technicality and primal power.
(Metal Blade, 1988)
Boasting three songs cowritten by current Machine Head main man Robb Flynn (though he had left the band by the time the album was recorded) and stellar drumming by future Slayer skinsman Paul Bostaph, Forbidden Evil is smart, virtuosic thrash with a power-metal streak, due in large part to frontman Russ Anderson's piercing falsetto.
After leaving Forbidden, Robb Flynn met his present MH bandmate guitarist Phil Demmel in this Bay Area five-piece. Together they cranked out tight, traditionalist thrash on the band's second full-length, which is rife with crazy chops, novel progressive arrangements, and, of course, plenty of violence ("Serial Killer," "Calling in the Coroner").
Album No. 4 for these New Jersey tech-thrash stalwarts was the last to feature guitarist Bobby Gustafson, whose thick, doomy riffs on epics like the 10-minute "Playing With Spiders/Skullkrusher" helped lend Overkill a somber earthiness less evident in the band's West Coast competitors. No doubt having famed producer Terry Date (Pantera, Deftones) manning the board didn't hurt either.