Let’s ruminate on the keepers of the speed: Nuclear Assault and Powermad

These are the metalheads that wear trainers and tracksuit bottoms, not spikes and leather. These are the metalheads that smile. These are the metalheads that run from one side of the stage to the other when launching into a guitar solo. And these are the metalheads whose drummers spin their sticks around in their hands. They also played pretty fast. Not Napalm Death fast, more of a frantic up-tempo thrash that commits itself fully to the urgency of the moment, and the urgency that the subject matter of the lyrics demands.

Nuclear Assault sit well within the punk side of thrash metal, in fact I would go as far as far as to say that Nuclear Assault is what you get when metalheads try and play hardcore punk. They cannot resist a flourish here and there, the odd banshee wail and ripping guitar solo, but on the whole this out and out frantic punk music at its core. 1986’s ‘Game Over’ however, is a surprisingly well balanced affair. Opening salvo ‘Sin’ feels like a NWOBHM track sped up to 11, and from there we are given what is essentially a documentation of how punk and metal riffs and rhythms interact with each other and their shared history up to this point. This can mean the album plays a little disjointedly at times, but something tells me from listening to the ‘Mr Softee Theme’ that this was intended. There is nothing wrong with a slice of tongue in cheek humour here and there, but when one considers that albums are essentially works of art, and they owe a debt to eternity, humour can become tiresome on repeated listens.

Having said that however, the rest of the material on here is high quality thrash metal. Although some of the lyrics deal with some pretty hard hitting subjects, this music still sits on the fun side of thrash, the kind that open six-packs and skate and party. Some fans may take issue with this characterisation however. There is much heaviness in the music of Nuclear Assault, but so frantic and bouncy is the music that there is almost a sense of nihilistic revelry. With the knowledge of humanity’s imminent destruction, there is nothing left to do but thrash and party at intensely fast tempos.

Powermad are a slightly different beast. Their debut of 1989 ‘Absolute Power’, despite ticking all the right boxes, was largely overlooked, and failed to gain the band enough momentum to carry them into the next decade. In a sense it feels like this album was released a good five years too late. Musically, this is very solid thrash, with a very pronounced sense of melody ripped straight from the NWOBHM school. The production is crisp, polished, but not annoyingly so. The snare drum is swamped in reverb reminiscent of the poppier end of 80s metal. But the composition and execution is serious and precise, one part power metal one part melodic thrash metal, but arriving on the scene when these two styles were becoming mortal enemies, or at least very distinct subcultures. So despite being a seamless fusion of disparate metal styles, this album ended up having too broad an appeal for its own good. The cover art remains a mystery. More suited to German avant-garde than heavy metal. We’ll never know why a floating baby head and it’s army was chosen to be the face of this otherwise straightforward music.

Vocals are largely clean, sung in the well-established metal-crooner style, only occasionally dipping into the punky shout distinctive of most thrash metal of the time. Lyrics deal with politics and paranoia in equal measure, again well-trodden territory for metal by this time, but such commitment and conviction is there in Powermad’s delivery that these musicians do justice to the weight of their chosen subject matter. Indeed, lead single ‘Nice Dreams’ is at once infectiously groovy, catchy, and heavy. It also demonstrates that these musicians did not need to rely on speed to emphasise intense passages. Although when they do play fast it lends urgency and drama to the music, unlike Nuclear Assault it sounds almost solemn.

In the age of speed it became very difficult to stand out from the pack. Although these artists were not the fastest out there, their commitment to the music that they played leant renewed creativity to a scene that was beginning to limit itself, caught in an arms race that could only end in noise. Nuclear Assault were infectiously fun, and blended humour and fun into this aggressive and socially conscious music. Powermad come across as more solemn in their approach, however, the precision of the speed playing, the catchy melodies, the clean vocals and infectious grooves all lend a sense of irresistible fun to this music. In terms of the superior release, it should be born in mind that ‘Absolute Power’ was released three years later, had it come out in 1986 or earlier its impact would have been greater. So again, this is possibly not a fair comparison, but Nuclear Assault manage to achieve more with less on ‘Game Over’. With a slightly more primitive approach, utilising punk and thrash they manage to lend weight and variety to music that simply makes me want to drink beer and headbang. ‘Absolute Power’ is a fantastic album and well worth your time, but it runs out of steam halfway through. A few more creative ideas may have saved it from obscurity.

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