Since its inception, thrash has always posed as the social conscience of metal. Whether you view this as a surreptitious way for punk to sneak its demands for a better world into the complex sonic architecture of metal, or as metal welcoming the energy and grounded realism of punk with open arms will really depend on which artist you interrogate. The more abstract and removed modern metal becomes from our plastic lives, the more we will scour the 80s – the throbbing, cosmic womb of metal’s bid for cultural hegemony – for clues and signs as to our future. The colliding styles and traditions that exploded when metal met punk – leading to the bluntly direct “crossover” genre tag – gave rise to new battle grounds on both a sonic and conceptual front. The more heavy metal delved into occult and fantastical realms, the more thrash (and later grindcore) resisted, grounding the music in themes pertinent to the everyday experiences of those living through the last decade of Cold War.
Suicidal Tendencies are something of an enigma. With the release of their self-titled debut in 1983 they were at the forefront of punk’s burgeoning expansion into sonic abrasion and metallic leanings, along with D.R.I. and S.O.D. in the states and The Exploited and Discharge in the UK. We’ll omit the commercial direction that Suicidal Tendencies took in later years for the sake of brevity. What concerns us here is the overt vulnerability couched within music of nihilism and aggression that just screams Reagan era discontent. I’d hesitate to call this a precursor to metal’s move toward emotional sincerity that gained a foothold in the late 90s, for the simple reason that ‘Suicidal Tendencies’ the album is such a sloppy, honest, urgent articulation of young disaffection that grew out of capitalism’s final form under Reagan. It’s there in the artist’s name after all. There is naivety to the execution here that stands in stark contrast to the slick alt metal of the following decade.
The music displays a greater scope of influences and emotive variety than their contemporaries. There’s plenty of high-speed thrash onslaughts, replete with dirt simple atonal riffing, air-raid siren like high-end fretboard murder, and stream-of-conscience lyrics belted forth quicker than conscious absorption will allow. But Suicidal Tendencies are not afraid to indulge their poppy side, working to fully integrate this into the thrash elements, to the point where they present as the most natural thing in the world. Many of the songs drop into a groove or swing breakdown, supplementing the intensity with bluesy whimsy and humour, tempering the emotional barrage of the lyrics.
This is also demonstrative of the musicianship on display here. There’s obvious talent behind the guitar leads which rival many contemporary metal bands for their virtuosity. There’s the tight rhythmic underpinning, with drums able to switch from proto blast-beats to rock solid grooves without (literally) missing a beat. And of course there’s Mike Muir vocals, which switch from full throated shouting (‘I shot Reagan’) to passionate spoken word (‘Institutionalized’) to moments of desperately out of tune singing (‘Subliminal’). Others have tried to imitate this style, but there’s a rawness to this performance that is difficult to replicate. There’s no denying its abrasion, but the underlying messages of political disillusionment, mental health crises, the sense of betrayal at the fact that 1980s America was the best the previous generation could offer the world, all find themselves siphoned through this unmistakable pressure valve of desperation.
Their willingness to dilute hardcore punk’s deliberately self-limiting quest to launch blunt sonic projectiles at a society choking on its own nihilism with playful pop sensibilities would ultimately be their downfall. But on ‘Suicidal Tendencies’, the drive to work in playful musical flourishes, to supplement the relentless ambiguity of atonal power chord barrages with catchy pop riffs and unexpected rhythmic breakdowns, all make this album a worthy blueprint that resonated down the generations, a schematic still revisited to this day. Although the actual significance of this album found its outlet in the garish and maligned groove/funk/nu unholy trinity of fiscally motivated crassness, the line that Suicidal Tendencies managed to walk between pop, punk, and metal has much to teach us today.
From West coast to East now with S.O.D. (thrash bands sure love their abrevs), whose very existence has gone down in history as a crossover milestone. I’m not sure what it says about Scott Ian that the apparent studio jam offcuts that became 1985’s ‘Speak English or Die’ outclasses anything that he and Charlie Benante put out as Anthrax, but life is full of mysteries. Recruiting Dan Lilker from his then fresh-faced outfit Nuclear Assault, they set out to create this wonder of thrash in a pocket of studio downtime. Much like the stereotype of New York sensibilities over Californian, this music is direct, to the point, highly strung. If Suicidal Tendencies dilute their disillusionment by exposing their underlying humanity, S.O.D. are nihilism through and through. It’s as if the humanity is being wiped clean, chipped away by a barrage of atonal thrash chaos and provocative lyrics that seem to lose their sense of satire thanks to a delivery a little on the far side of convincing.
Most of these songs are a brief punch in the throat of simple but tight thrash riffs, trading as much on their percussive qualities as anything remotely melodic. There is even an explicit homage to their musical allegiances with the track ‘Chromatic Death’, which says it all. The tempo does vary it up, even within a single track, despite the majority being under two minutes in length. But this is done in such a linear and blunt fashion, as if the tempo is only slowed to allow for the lyrics to deliver their sarcastic(?) message to the listener with greater clarity. And this strikes at the heart of this album’s lasting appeal despite its blunt simplicity.
Even within the restrictive world of hardcore punk there was plenty of room to stamp one’s identity. Whether this be through lyrics, melodic breaks, or an architect’s ambition to expand the compositions beyond a one/two punch of dirt simple punk. S.O.D.’s approach by contrast seems to be a resounding ‘I abstain’ to all of that. Every musical nuance, every nod toward identity or expression is swept entirely clear. Even the most basic of guitar leads, a nod to the higher end of the fretboard for even a moment is eschewed for the sake of a relentless barrage of thrash riff exchanges, jumping from fast to slow as a means to maintain the coarse nihilism and cold aggression rendered throughout this album. Whether intentional or no, the fact that S.O.D. worked so hard to strip their identity down to nothing beyond aggression and distasteful lyrics is a clear and compelling message about the desensitized mindset of the 80s.
Other thrash bands, despite their rampant hostility to society, still found space for hope. And it should be noted that the fact that they had a message to convey at all betrays the underlying optimism behind even the most despairing of punk albums. S.O.D. – in a probably unintentionally compelling way – point to a more insipid malaise taking root in the 80s, total disaffection from the possibility of a better world. Hence the painfully limited scope of the music, the blue humour of the lyrics, even the album-as-afterthought backstory behind the creation of ‘Speak English or Die’, all speak of a “if you can’t beat them join them” attitude to Reagan era capitalism and the apocalyptic revelry of hyper-individualism that gripped the West throughout the 80s.
With that in mind, how are these albums to square up? One is a direct, sincere, and often discomforting expression of the breadth of human emotion and dispositions, profoundly resonant in its imperfections. The other is a boisterous, uncaring riot of detachment, nihilism, and dehumanisation. Seen in this light, ‘ Speak English or Die ’ is the sound of giving up. It is the sound of humanity’s surrender to the conditions it finds itself in. We cannot go on and maintain whatever moral compass guided us in a previous life, we must abandon traditional metrics of value, and revel in the despair of American capitalism’s final victory. Thus I am left with no choice. Ever the optimist, my pick of the week is Suicidal Tendencies. But it is not for reasons of optimism alone that I make this choice. A complete warts and all recounting of the human condition as experienced by the American youth in the 80s is bound to have more re-listenability than the tunnel visioned surrender to autocracy that is ‘ Speak English or Die ’.