The Testament According to Thrash pt.1

As I begin to write this Metallica are playing on the mainstage at Glastonbury, that’s right, one of thrash metal’s progenitors playing at the largest music festival in the UK and perhaps the world. This is a far cry from the clubs in the Bay Area and LA in the early 80s and shows just how far thrash has come. It’s a feat displaying thrash’s resilience after facing near death through the 90s as bands put out records that deviated from the sounds that made them famous. 2014 is also being hailed by Metal Hammer as a year to celebrate 30 years of thrash. As such I wanted to write about some of my favourite records in the genre and records that should work as a great gateway into the world of neck-breaking riffs.

This is not really a top ten list, instead think of this as a collection of some of the gems of the genre so the order is by no means absolute. I can’t claim to have listened to every thrash album out there but these albums are all very important to me and I think everyone should give them a listen. So let’s kick this off with a leftfield choice.

      10. Helloween – Helloween EP (1985) & Destruction – Mad Butcher (1987)

Odd because this is two instead of one but neither of these are full length releases so I don’t feel they quite warrant their own entries but they sure deserve a spot on the list.

The Helloween EP is the band’s first release and the start of a very illustrious career with the band still touring and making high quality albums. Whilst more of speed metal album, the eponymous release has the blistering speed exhibited by other thrash bands. It’s also the bands later shift towards speed metal and power metal that have led this record to be considered anything other than a thrash record.

The opening radio noise cemented the band’s status as ‘Happy, happy Helloween’ before tearing into the fantastic opener Starlight. Another of this record’s highlights is Victim of Fate a longer track with a somewhat more complex song structure than most thrash songs of the time but a Helloween classic none the less, using an early version of the band’s frequent explorations conflicts between God and Satan and really setting a tone for the subsequent albums. Any of this EP’s tracks are suggested listening but it doesn’t get better than Victim of Fate and Cry For Freedom. The best version of this album to get is the double disc version with Walls of Jericho included.

The main reason for the inclusion of Mad Butcher by Destruction is its title track which is undeniably a thrash anthem and was one of my earliest experiences of thrash. A version of the song is also on the band’s first release Sentence of Death but this later version is tighter than the original and has some great lead work by both Mike Sifringer and Harry Wilkens. A version of this EP can be bought with the full-length Eternal Devastation which also has some killer tracks on it which I would recommend checking out.

Where to go from here: Helloween – Walls of Jericho and Blind Guardian – Follow the Blind

  1.   Metallica – Ride the Lightning (1984)

It would be a herculean task to write an overarching article on thrash without mentioning Metallica. When it comes to Metallica it doesn’t get better than this album. Arguments can be made for Master of Puppets but whilst being an incredible album it lacks the all out speed and ferocity to the extent that can be found in most thrash albums.This album kicks-off with Fight Fire with FIre, opening with its melodic, acoustic section before roaring into the riffing that really holds this album together. The opener is followed by a barrage of Ride the Lightning and For Whom the Bell Tolls and then a slowing down of pace for the moving ballad; Fade to Black. These four tracks wouldn’t seem out of place on a Metallica greatest hits album.

The quality of the album remains high but some of the later tracks aren’t Metallica classics in the same way as the early album. However, there’s a kick in the tail. The penultimate song Creeping Death is a real killer; making use of a dark, Biblical plot and a famous line from the 1956 film, the Ten Commandments to craft a great song. The closer is equally strong but in a different way, a gloomy and progressive instrumental The Call of Ktulu also has some striking resemblances to a song I hope to talk about later in the list.

This is a fairly hard album to narrow down for a track or two but my recommendations are Creeping Death and  For Whom the Bell Tolls

Where to go next: Any other album on this list (There aren’t many bands with the exact Metallica sound), Kill ‘em All and Master of Puppets.

  1. Iced Earth – Night of the Stormrider (1991)

So what Iced Earth don’t have the strongest thrash pedigree? I defy you to listen to this album (particularly the title track) and tell me that it isn’t thrash. Beginning the Iced Earth tradition of concept albums Night of the Stormrider  tells a Faustian tale of a man who gains great power leading him down the road to damnation. The difference being that our Stormriding protagonist rejects the religions of mankind and becomes an avatar of nature rather than making a pact with the Devil.

Musically this album is dark making use of melodic flourishes to help create the settings of each chapter of the story from “The blackened forest” and “Astral Plain” to the desert heat and stygian realms. The songs are well thought out with the relentless riffing of Jon Schaffer being broken up by the cleaner sections, giving the album and story great pacing and adding subtlety to the darkness. Stormrider is probably the most straightforward thrasher on offer here with a multitude galloping riffs. Amongst other tracks to sample are Desert Rain and Pure Evil as both do a great job of flexing the album’s thrash and melodic muscles.

Where to go Next: The other thrashiest Iced Earth album is their eponymous debut album but there are stronger efforts like Something Wicked this Way Comes.

   7. Gama Bomb – Tales from the Grave in Space (2009)

This is only album by a newer band on this list. The omission of newer bands is due to the fact that I haven’t had a chance to listen to too many of them beyond live performances yet, I don’t want to display a bias to well established bands but my aim with this list is to promote the albums I would recommend.   

When Tales… was first released it was available to download from the record company for free but has seen subsequent, physical releases. This was how I found the album and I think it was good model as it brought the band’s music to a whole lot of people who might have passed it by in the modern market. It shouldn’t be looked down upon though as a marketing demo, this is a serious album with some real clout. Maybe ‘serious’ is the wrong word, thematically this album is very tongue-in-cheek with lots of references to old horror movies and B-movies which reaches its pinnacle in We Respect You with the band paying tribute to their heroes like JCVD and Christopher Lee.

This is a fun album and the band feels a bit like a modern Anthrax, their songs are filled with pop culture references and are exactly the kind of tracks I want to put on in a metal club or at a party. Start with Slam Anthem and New Eliminators of Atlantis B.C. and enjoy this album.

Where to go Next: Check out the band Municipal Waste or for some more serious, new thrash Abadden. If you enjoyed this and don’t already own a copy you should probably pick Anthrax’s Among the Living.

   6.  Exodus – Bonded By Blood (1985)

Exodus are one of those bands that started it all and fortunately I also love this album.It’s aggressive, it’s angry, it has great riffs and is full of lyrics about violence, the apocalypse and black magic. To all extents and purposes this is metal home run.

This really is one of those albums that captured the essence of thrash metal and defined what it would become. I like the developing version of thrash that this album presents with the Heavy Metal roots far more visible than say on the works of Dark Angel and Kreator. This means slower songs but also perhaps a more accessible album. This is a fantastic album for both listening to on your own or for putting on at metal parties.

The first track I heard was Metal Command which is as good a starting place as any but my favourite track on the album is And Then There Were None which has an absolutely killer refrain.

Where to go next: For more Exodus Fabulous Disaster is probably a good choice. I also think that Bonded by Blood is complimented well by Metallica’s Kill ‘em All.

See you next week with part two and the final five.

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