Despite the unrelenting feeling of acceleration, a strong case could be made for culture moving at a much slower pace today than thirty years ago. The sheer quantity and speed at which content is produced in contemporary life leads to a static zeitgeist. Singular artefacts and symbols take time to reach a level of popularity that could be called “resonance” with a wider public. For all our immediate, ground level encounters with the endless and increasingly incomprehensible churn of the “new”, the bird’s-eye view remains largely unchanged for periods of five or ten years at a time. For that reason, it’s easy to forget just how short-lived apex genres of the past actually were.
Take thrash metal as an example. Although it is still alive and *not* well today, its heyday as the pinnacle of what metal had to offer was surprisingly short lived. Lasting from about 1983 to 1989 when Morbid Angel changed the game by releasing ‘Altars of Madness’. Any brief sample of music taken from that period will demonstrate dramatic shifts in style and technique from year to year. We witness a steap transition in metal, from naïve lust for life in the late 1970s and early 80s, to world-weary maturity that marked late Cold War culture just a few short years later. Take an equivalent look at a six year span more recently, say 2016 to 2022. Despite the enormous variety and volume of output – and the equally dramatic context of social and political upheaval – and the same clear evolution simply cannot be traced.
Thrash is particularly susceptible to this as it’s what I like to call an “accelerationist” genre. It’s primal urgency and rousing “call to arms” credo – in part born of late Cold War desperation – means that its evolution burned too hot to last in its purest state. It’s progressive iterations in a Voivod, DBC, or Coroner, responding to the dangers of stagnation, came too little and too late to save the form before death metal superseded it in relevance. So what did thrash look like in a natural, stable state? Well, 1987 is probably the best year to understand this concept. Slayer had already released the benchmark in extremity ‘Reign in Blood’, the golden goose of Metallica had one more egg to lay following the tragic death of Cliff Burton, across the sea Germany was seeing a rampant explosion of a particularly violent strain of the genre, and progressive avenues were already reaching fruition.
Owing to thrash metal’s deeply hierarchical culture – big fours, big eights, big threes – Exodus have always lived in the shadow of more recognisable names. But voices from the “anyone but Anthrax” camp calling for Exodus’s inclusion in the big four of American thrash metal are really by the by. They had a good run of albums in the mid to late 80s, lets just enjoy it free of the preoccupation with their standing.
Their debut, 1985’s ‘Bonded by Blood’, despite its obvious thrashing qualities, feels closer to earlier “proto thrash” efforts in Slayer’s ‘Show no Mercy’ or even Venom’s ‘Black Metal’. For all the analysis of this genre’s debt to punk, it’s fixation on atonality and power chords over melody, and of course the increasing tempos, what often gets overlooked is the new level of cynicism that thrash brought to the table. It’s debatable whether the impetus to explore political and social issues “matured” metal culture (whatever that means), but it certainly meant that themes of the occult and violence were explored with more sincerity and poise than the early efforts of Venom or Bathory.
‘Bonded by Blood’ represent an interesting transition in this regard, as Cold War anthems such as ‘And Then There Were None’ sit alongside the charming naivety of tracks like ‘Metal Command’ or the ritualism of the title track. The classic metal leanings of Baloff’s vocals, alongside some obvious nods to Judas Priest and over-excited showmanship all point backwards to metal’s genesis as a project characterised by carefree, childlike enthusiasm despite its latent compositional ambition. By the time follow up ‘Pleasures of the Flesh’ rolled around in 1987, there is a marked sense of a band and a form of music coming of age.
Despite the obvious lineage of this album, the naivety of early heavy metal has been stripped back in favour of a sparser, more direct offering. New vocalist Steve Souza is still capable of carrying a melody, but he largely sticks with an aggressive bark more fitting of lyrics fixated on the darker aspect of late Reagan era culture. Equally, although the music is generally kept up tempo, there is a plodding immediacy to many of the rhythms, as if aiming to deliver violent hammer blows of almost industrial regularity, thoroughly dispensing with the galloping triumphalism of ‘Bonded by Blood’.
There is certainyl a marked bombast working its way through ‘Pleasures of the Flesh’ – notably on the title track – but riffs and solos are delivered with a sense of urgency and brevity that brings this music more in line with the stirring protests of punk than it does the flamboyant melodrama of heavy metal. All is chugging power chords and brief slogans designed to burrow into the mind. Solos are also fewer and further between, with lead guitars just as likely to deliver siren wails of noise as they are to indulge in the euphoria of virtuosity.
The Eastern Seaboard also witnessed its own fledging thrash movement with artists such as Nuclear Assault, Anthrax, and of course Overkill. The latter of which are perhaps an even more obvious example of how fast culture was evolving throughout the 1980s than Exodus. Their debut ‘Feel the Fire’ was released in 1985, but many of the songs were written a few years earlier. This brief delay in committing these tracks to record has fuelled debates around thrash metal’s first timers ever since, given that many household names beat them in the debut race. A year can make all the difference. As a result ‘Feel the Fire’ – released the same year as ‘Bonded by Blood’, ‘Hell Awaits’, ‘Infernal Overkill, and ‘Endless Pain’ – feels like a throwback to a different era.
Ellsworth’s Dickinson-esque vocals, the relentless bombast, drums orientated more toward the swing of early heavy metal than the direct gut punches of punk, all make ‘Feel the Fire’ look dated even for 1985. As if to compensate for this, the epic doom riff that kicks off follow up ‘Taking Over’ released in 1987 easily rivals the most epic moments of Metallica of the same era. Ellsworth’s high melodicism is retained, but in this fresh, heavier context it gains a newfound sense of desperation, more warning than affirmation. Drums find themselves linking up with the guitars to deliver those rhythmic punches so essential to thrash metal’s marshalling directness.
Gone are the loose backbeats and playful up-tempo romps in favour of simple punk beats, with double bass drums and crash cymbal hits linking up with the raw atonality of the riffs. Despite retaining the undeniable playfulness of proto thrash, in this hardened context it feels at once bittersweet and deeply sincere. The growing realisation that post-war Western culture had run its course, and the revelation that it had little to offer beyond consumption and the constant threat of our own self-inflicted demise had rubbed the youthful sheen off metal, resulting in the more cynical, world weary offerings of thrash metal in its late 80s heyday. And the jump from Overkill’s debut to ‘Taking Over’ is no finer illustration of these all too sudden growing pains.
Two finer examples of classic era thrash metal would be hard to come by. Aside from their inherent strengths, both work as documents of a personal evolution, and the evolution of the growing cynicism and awakening political conscience of the late 1980s. Calls to live beyond politics and ideology following the end of the Cold War may have dampened this impetus for a time, with thrash being killed off by the apoliticism of groove and nu metal at one end, and the underground nihilism of fledging extreme metal at the other. But with the hangover of the 1990s now well and truly over, the renewed interest in metal’s ability to take the temperature of capitalism’s own impulse to decay the human spirit will hopefully reawaken its inherent and deeply radical core. In terms of the pick of the week its almost superfluous, depending on whether one is in the mood for the sparse directness of ‘Pleasures of the Flesh’ or the energetic bombast of ‘Taking Over’. For my money it’s Overkill this time around, but ask me next week and it could wel be different.