Pop culture can be as forbidding as it is inviting, particularly in areas that invite geeky obsession: The more devotion a genre or series or subculture inspires, the easier it is for the uninitiated to feel like they’re on the outside looking in. But geeks aren’t born; they’re made. And sometimes it only takes the right starting point to bring newbies into various intimidatingly vast obsessions. Gateways To Geekery is our regular attempt to help those who want to be enthralled, but aren’t sure where to start. Want advice? Suggest future Gateways To Geekery topics by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Note: This Gateway originally ran in 2013.
Geek obsession: Thrash
Why it’s daunting: Thrash is not easy listening. Conceived in the early ’80s as the least friendly and inviting kind of music imaginable, the genre grew out of two primary, concurrent influences: hardcore punk and the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal (or NWOBHM). It also served as an antidote—or at least a counterpoint—to the rising tide of glam metal. With blistering tempos, harrowing lyrics, guttersnipe pride, and only the most minimal melody, thrash resisted most attempts at progressiveness—which is partly why the movement all but died in the early ’90s, with a few stalwarts managing to hang on through the decade of alt-rock. The ’00s saw a full-scale thrash renaissance, with many veteran groups staging respectable comebacks as a new school of retro-thrashers rekindled the flame. Thrash has influenced untold numbers of musicians and mutations, from death metal to grindcore to metalcore, but at heart it remains snarling, self-contained, and belligerently rebellious. At its best, though, thrash accomplishes what metal as a whole does best: mixing energy, agility, catharsis, and good, filthy fun.
Possible gateway: Metallica, Kill ’Em All (1983)
Why: As chronicled in the recent book Murder In The Front Row: Shots From The Bay Area Thrash Metal Epicenter, this month marks the 30th anniversary of Cliff Burton’s first show as the bassist of Metallica. It’s also the point where Metallica truly became Metallica. Longtime guitarist Kirk Hammett had yet to join, but Dave Mustaine was still in the band, bringing a vicious edge that he’d soon carry to his next project, Megadeth. Hammett wound up playing on Kill ’Em All, Metallica’s 1983 debut album, but Mustaine co-wrote many of the songs—and that chemistry perfectly captures the band on the ground floor of greatness.
It also captures thrash on the cusp of blowing up. Tracks like “Hit The Lights” and “Whiplash” take the attack of NWOBHM and boil it down to a clattering skeleton. Kill ’Em All is neither the best Metallica album nor the best thrash album—but it is an accessible yet uncompromising example of how heavy-metal aggression could be concentrated in its precision and songwriting. Metallica is thrash’s biggest success story—and its biggest disappointment. But Kill ’Em All remains refreshingly free of the taint that would mar the band in the ’90s. It also became, for better or worse, the benchmark against which early thrash would be measured.
Next steps: Slayer is to Metallica as whole-wheat bread is to white. Leader of the Los Angeles battalion of the thrash underground in the early ’80s, the group shot to the top of the heap in 1986 with Reign In Blood. Thickened by Rick Rubin’s production and about two inches of scar tissue, the album was and is a jolt of squalling, nihilistic rage. Mechanistically brutal and unflinching in the face of its favorite subjects—atrocity, pain, and Satan—Reign In Blood stands as a monument to the bone-crumpling power of thrash.
Metallica anchored the San Francisco thrash scene after moving there from Los Angeles in 1983—a condition of employment demanded by the hippie-leaning Burton before he agreed to join the band. But the Bay Area had a potent crop of bands all its own, including Testament and Exodus. Hammett, the latter band’s stunning guitarist, wound up defecting to Metallica just before Exodus recorded its masterpiece, 1985’s Bonded By Blood. It doesn’t suffer from Hammett’s absence; in fact, it’s hard to imagine Bonded By Blood’s savage, surgical, solo-happy thrash being any better. That didn’t stop Exodus from pointlessly re-recording the entire disc in 2008 under the title Let There Be Blood—but thankfully that doesn’t diminish the galloping wrath of the original.
The band that bridged the Bay Area and L.A. was Megadeth. Formed in the latter town by the ousted (and pissed off) Mustaine following his formative stint in Metallica, Megadeth had an ax to grind—and it ground it on the brains of a generation of metalheads. Peace Sells… But Who’s Buying? is the group’s multiplatinum sophomore album from 1986, and it channels Mustaine’s virtuosity and vitriol into a seething mass of misanthropy—one that fully capitalized on his connection to Metallica while setting up a raging alternative to his more successful ex-bandmates. Among the many pitiful moments of the 2004 Metallica documentary Some Kind Of Monster is when Mustaine attempts to reconcile with his old group, as if they’re all a pride of defanged lions.
Another vibrant thrash scene was centered in New York—and Anthrax was its figurehead. Less feral yet just as innovative as its West Coast counterparts, Anthrax made up for its relative lack of menace by accentuating the fact that thrash could take itself slightly less seriously—and have a lot more fun. Not that the band’s 1987 album, Among The Living, is anything less than brutal; stocked with relentless tracks like “I Am The Law” (a tribute to the comic-book antihero Judge Dredd), the disc is a solid, stomping example of what meat-and-potatoes thrash tastes like.
Provincial thrash scenes proliferated in a grassroots network across the U.S., similar to how hardcore bands and fans connected with each other in those pre-Internet days. Yet a strong parallel scene developed far outside the States—in Germany. The three most notable Teutonic thrash bands were the crude Sodom, the accomplished Destruction, and Kreator, which fell somewhere between the other two. In particular, Kreator’s 1986 classic, Pleasure To Kill is a tour de force of thrash fanaticism, full of intricate riffage and apocalyptic intensity. Its bleak, dehumanized sound also means it’s aged incredibly well, which can’t be said of all thrash.
Where not to start: Metallica hit its peak with Ride The Lightning and Master Of Puppets, both of which pushed the boundaries of thrash with progressive touches, adventurous arrangements, and even ballads—many of which bore the stamp of Burton’s musical influence. After Burton’s tragic death in a tour-bus accident in 1986, the group limped back with …And Justice For All. Although Justice remains the bestselling of Metallica’s thrash albums, it’s the band’s worst of the ’80s. With new bassist Jason Newsted cruelly buried in the mix, the whole thing sounds tinny, flat, and passionless. The songs, for the most part, are still there—but as far as introductions to the genre go, it’s a nonstarter.
In hindsight, the whole idea behind crossover thrash is a little odd. Thrash, after all, was already a hybrid of hardcore and metal. But as a crossover subgenre of the ’80s, it originated on the hardcore side of the tracks; consequently, crossover bands like Corrosion Of Conformity, D.R.I., and Suicidal Tendencies started out with far more of a punk influence. That usually meant crustier recordings, shorter songs, and at times even a sense of humor—a self-deprecating quality that po-faced thrash groups rarely exhibited (Anthrax excluded). In and of itself, crossover thrash is fantastic—but it isn’t an ideal example of what thrash is all about. Similarly, the thrash revival of the past decade (including acts such as Municipal Waste, Lost Society, and Evile) is wholly worthwhile—but better saved for those who have a grounding in the classics, if for no other reason than to fully appreciate the retroactive trappings of scruffy denim and banged heads.