Thrash is probably one of the heaviest forms of music to penetrate the mainstream psyche in any significant way. But this has so coloured the history of thrash that it tends to overstate the significance of artists like Metallica, Megadeth, Anthrax, and yes, even Slayer at times. The lesser known Teutonic scene defined by the big three in Sodom, Kreator, and Destruction may have remained more faithful to the original impetus of this frantic music, but some were to take it in an even less commercially viable direction. They were rewarded with being unknown outside the metal community, unlike the big four, but they were granted with immortality by dedicated fans across the globe.
San Francisco’s Sadus formed in 1984 while its members were still in school. They may have been late to the party when they finally got round to putting out their self financed debut ‘Illusions’ in 1988, but they certainly demanded a new level of integrity in the music they played. Released in 1988, the year of mellowing from Metallica and Slayer, ‘Illusions’ married Bay Area thrash with the energetic German style, and took the tempo and intensity up a notch as a result. For anyone that tries to say that Slayer’s ‘Reign in Blood’ was the most extreme that thrash metal could get before it turned into death metal proper, they have probably not heard of Sadus. What we have here is half an hour of unbearably fast riffs underscored by tirelessly chaotic drums, and vocals that go from a high pitched aggressive bark to a terrifying screech at the very top of the range.
Although there is only half an hour of music here, and most of it delivered at breakneck speeds, there is a surprising amount of variation. The shifts are more in mood than intensity. These musicians are capable of an extraordinary amount of control, and they use this to emphasise certain passages over others, with solos, leads, and demonic vocals upping the ante at certain points, making passages of more straightforward shredding riffs seem like a respite from the barrage. One wonders what would have happened to this band if they had formed just a few years later or earlier than they did. Because the release is sandwiched between the giants of thrash of one era and the beginnings of death metal of the next it often gets overlooked. But it easily earns its place in the lexicon of extreme metal of the 1980s, and it makes the early works of Death, Possessed, Morbid Angel, and Sepultura seem almost sluggish by comparison. This album may have simply been a victim of timing however. And people did not realise that thrash metal still had much to say, and was still capable of great creativity and imagination even when at the very limits of its extremity.
Although much closer to the Teutonic scene in terms of geography, Zurich’s Coroner were easily outclassing the masters of this scene by the late 1980s. They blended the franticness of Kreator with some classic NWOBHM influences, but they quickly went in a more avant-garde direction by album number three, 1989’s ‘No More Color’.
The first time I listened to Coroner they were described to me as progressive technical thrash, so I promptly gave their first three albums a spin and felt like something had passed me by. It was competent thrash, even melodic to some extent, but I felt like I was missing something based on their reputation. I then went back to ‘No More Color’ and paid more attention. The fact is that this album is very short as well, clocking in at around thirty four minutes. But what this trio manage to squeeze into this time is really quite remarkable. I realised that I had been expecting some longer drawn out jams and epic sequences found in the prog of the 1970s, but rendered in thrash metal form. Coroner are much more economical than this however. Their technical side is understated. Some progressive and so called technical artists make it very clear that they want you to know when there are odd time signatures occurring, or incredibly complex chord sequences taking place. Coroner do all these things, but it all serves the greater purpose of the music. They do indulge in some very unconventional keys and time signatures for thrash, but by the time you realise it is happening the music quickly moves on. No time to dwell on the fact that they are playing progressive thrash, there’s music to be had. At one point they are playing at breakneck speed, the next an intricate solo over a jazz rhythm, the next almost groovy, but the shifts all seem fluid and progress the music naturally.
The vocals are mid-ranged bark that always reminded me of Thomas G Warrior, with slightly broken English, a common phenomena that remains one of the charms of international heavy metal. Even a highly competent singer would struggle to navigate the ever shifting tentacles of this music and would risk overwhelming it, so a toneless bark is the perfect way to carry the listener’s conscious mind through this music.
Out of these two artists, Sadus was definitely closer to conventional thrash metal of the time, they were however an exaggerated, intensified version of this music. To the point where it almost turns into death metal proper, for junkies of extreme music Sadus gave the listener exactly what they were after. This is fast and intricate music and achieves what many artists where aiming for on both sides of the Atlantic, but it just does it so much better. There is much to love about this music aside from extremity however, many of the riffs are almost catchy, they are well put together, with clever use of breaks, staccato, solos and the occasional tempo change. All the elements that people loved more popular artists from this era for are there and some in ‘Illusions’, and the runtime means that the listener is left wanting more, it does not outstay its welcome.
Having said all of that, we have to come down on the side of Coroner’s ‘No More Color’ when comparing these two releases. This is because Coroner introduced unusual influences into this often quite basic music, but they did so in a very un-self-indulgent way, a trap so many so-called progressive or avant-garde metal artists fall into. Sadus took this music in the same direction it had already been heading, but they did it better and more intelligently than many of their peers. Coroneron the other hand, grabbed it by the horns and pulled it severely to the left, but not in a jarring pretentious manner. This is technical, progressive thrash that you have to really pay attention to to notice these elements. What you do notice is sometimes frantic, sometimes groovy, sometimes catchy thrash metal that is leant a great deal of weight and depth by the subtle of use tempo changes, odd time signatures, subtle keyboards and unexpected chord progressions. If only more progressive metal bands had followed Coroner’s lead in using these musical techniques to serve a purpose rather than treating them as an end in itself, maybe the field of progressive metal would be in less of a mess today.