As I’ve been blasting the new song from Testament for the last few days, I’ve been thinking about a few of the other thrash acts that never quite grabbed the glory of those guys that you know.
Pretty much everyone, metal fan or not, is familiar with the “Big Four” of 1980s thrash — Metallica, Megadeth, Slayer and Anthrax. They’ve all had a bit of a resurgence of late thanks in part to the few Big Four shows they’ve done at festivals around the world, and in the case of Metallica, they’ve gone from scaring parents to being classic rock staples.
But thrash was a wide genre, and there are great, pioneering bands like Overkill and Exodus (the latter of which, I’ll warn you in advance, didn’t make this list — criminal, I know) that rarely get recognition in the wider music world. So for those wanting an introduction to thrash beyond the Big Four, I thought I’d offer a few suggestions.
You’ll note that I’m leaving Pantera out of this, too, though I consider Cowboys from Hell a thrash classic, because they were huge in their own right with the groove metal thing. And, sorry to my German brethren because their big thrash bands like Kreator and Sodom missed the cut, but my tastes have always run toward the American form. And, finally, for any fellow metalheads reading this and saying these are all familiar albums and I should have gone more obscure, the list isn’t for you. Sorry.
So, without further ado, here are five great thrash albums not by those guys …
FLOTSAM AND JETSAM – DRIFT (1995)
Some may argue that this record isn’t truly a thrash album. It definitely marked a shift, though temporary, in direction for the band, but I believe it’s their best work. The songs on Drift are more melodic and include more progressive metal elements, but they are among the strongest from the band’s catalog. Flotsam and Jetsam stretched their musical horizons a little on this, and vocalist Erik AK, who I’ve always thought was one of the most underrated of the thrash vocalists — as much as vocalists mattered in the genre, anyway — certainly stretches his voice. The dark and brooding “Missing” remains a favorite, as do “Pick a Window,” the semi-ballad “Destructive Signs” and the angry “Smoked Out.”
SUICIDAL TENDENCES – LIGHTS … CAMERA … REVOLUTION! (1990)
Now I’m going to make the ST fans angry. Many fans of the band consider this record the beginning of the end for Suicidal Tendencies. They had started to shift from hardcore punk and skate music to thrash on the previous album and first major-label release, How Will I Laugh Tomorrow When I Can’t Even Smile Today. They completed the transition fully on this record — and did it well. I also think it’s the best band that vocalist/mastermind Mike Muir ever surrounded himself with, featuring long-time rhythm guitarist Mike Clark (who has, apparently, recently left the band), lead guitarist Rocky George (40 Cycle Hum, Fishbone), bassist Rob Trujillo (Metallica, Ozzy) and drummer R.J. Herrera. The album produced a minor hit in the catchy rant against TV preachers, “Send Me Your Money,” but was packed with great songs like slamming opener “You Can’t Bring Me Down,” the emotional “Alone” and angry album closer “Go’n Breakdown.”
OVERKILL – IRONBOUND (2010)
It’s not often that a band releases its best album 30 years into its career, but I believe Overkill did just that with Ironbound. Granted I was a latecomer to the band. I wasn’t a huge fan of Overkill during the 1980s, mainly because I didn’t like the higher-pitched vocals of singer Bobby “Blitz” Ellsworth. In the 1990s, I developed more of an appreciation for them and explored the band’s extensive catalog. I’ve been a fan ever since. But, as good as some of those older albums are, I don’t believe they match this one. There’s a great heaviness and just a little more variety on this one, and, yes, Ellsworth rips all over the place. The title track just crushes all in its path.
TESTAMENT – THE NEW ORDER (1988)
This one may be a little of a cheat because Testament has, over the years, become almost an unofficial fifth member of the Big Four among metal fans. But this record, I believe, is one of the finest thrash albums ever made. You’ve got speed, you’ve got heaviness, you’ve got a fantastic guitar player in Alex Skolnick who occasionally takes his leads in different directions, and you’ve got the songs. There’s not a skip on this record from start to finish. “The Preacher,” nearly 25 years later, remains one of my favorite thrash tunes of all time, and there’s a great heavy cover of Aerosmith’s “Nobody’s Fault.” That being my favorite song by my favorite band, it’s not a compliment I hand out lightly.
ANNIHILATOR – ALICE IN HELL (1989)
This, in my opinion, is the most criminally underrated thrash album in the history of the genre. One listen to the title track, “Alison Hell,” was all it took to make me a fan. It’s probably among my top five thrash tunes ever, and it’s easily as good as anything in the catalogs of the Big Four. The song is aggressive, goes through a number of shifts and movements and showcases bandleader/guitarist Jeff Waters’ sometimes unusual melodic choices. Though it’s the best on the record, there’s nothing slouchy from the acoustic instrumental opening “Crystal Ann” to the speed-demon instrumental “Schizos (Are Never Alone, Part I and II) to bashing closer “Human Insecticide.” Nods of the head to Edgar Allan Poe (“Ligeia”) don’t hurt in my book either. The music is blazing from front to back and vocalist Randy Rampage’s screeching snarls are perfect for it. Over the years, Annihilator has become a revolving door of musicians surrounding Waters with mixed results from album to album, but this one is a classic.
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A few other thrash albums to explore (alphabetical by band): Anacrusis, Screams and Whispers (1993); Dark Angel, Darkness Descends (1986); Death, Symbolic (1995); Death Angel, Act III (1990); D.R.I., 4 of a Kind (1988); Exodus, Pleasures of the Flesh (1987) and Fabulous Disaster (1988); Fight, War of Words (1993); Kreator, Pleasure to Kill (1986); Machine Head, The Blackening (2007); Metal Church, The Dark (1986) and Blessing in Disguise (1989); Nevermore, Dreaming Neon Black (1999); Overkill, The Years of Decay (1989); Sepultura, Arise (1991) and Chaos A.D. (1993); Toxik, World Circus (1987).