Thrash Metal

Kerry King Slayer. Photo courtesy of Shayne Kaye on flickr, licensed under Creative Commons 2.0.

Kerry King, Slayer’s lead guitarist.

Thrash metal is characterized by its aggressive, fast paced guitars, shredding, double bass pedals, low tuned guitars, and often snarling metal vocals. Vocals range from harmonizing to screaming to shouting, but largely are understandable despite their intensity. The pioneers of the early trash metal movement were  Metallica, Slayer, Anthrax and Megadeth, also known as the “Big Four” thrash metal bands. Other big contributors to thrash were Kreator, Exodus, Overkill, Sepultura, Testament, and Voivod.

Later, the thrash metal genre expanded into several other subgenres, spearheaded by bands like Pantera, Shadows Fall, and Sick of It All.

Dave Mustaine of Megadeth. Photo by Flickr user Focka, licensed under Creative Commons 2.0.

Dave Mustaine of Megadeth.

The roots of thrash metal were born in the New Wave of British Heavy Metal (NWOBHM), which included bands like Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, Diamond Head, Def Leppard, Saxon, Blitzkrieg, and even Motorhead. These bands were a large influence on thrash, but not to be discounted is the stark contrast of what else was going on with popular heavy metal at the time. Glam, which was quickly rising up as the more dominant, commercial form of heavy metal in Los Angeles in the early 80’s, was one of the biggest motivators for thrash bands to speed up their sound, play down their look, and differentiate themselves from the current metal scene. This “back to the roots” style of aggression and originality has led to the genre’s lasting popularity and appeal. While Glam dominated much of the 80’s, it died out in the 90’s, while thrash continued to evolve.

James Hetfield, Metallica. Photo by edwnd on flickr, licensed under Creative Commons 2.0.

James Hetfiled, rhythm guitar and lead vocals for Metallica.

Lyrically, thrash metal bands took metal from the fantasy and medieval style lyrics of NWOBHM to post nuclear, sarcastic, political, corruption, suicide, warfare, and alienation.

Unquestionably, the most successful band of thrash metal is Metallica. Formed in 1981, the band was rooted in the Los Angeles area, but later moved north to the Bay Area for greater exposure to true fans of this metal genre. Also sharing the early thrash scene with Metallica were Slayer, Anthrax, and later, Megadeth.

Thrash metal has had many peaks in popularity. In the early 80’s, when the thrash movement was still underground, Metallica experienced the biggest success with Master of Puppets. This was followed by modest success by Anthrax, and several platinum and gold records by Slayer and Megadeth.

Peace Sells, But Who's Buying? Copyright Megadeth.

Peace Sells… But Who’s Buying? One of heavy metal’s most legendary album covers.

Essential Thrash Metal Albums:

  • Reign in Blood (Slayer)
  • Master of Puppets (Metallica)
  • Rust in Peace (Megadeth)
  • Ride the Lightning (Metallica)
  • Seasons in the Abyss (Slayer)
  • Peace Sells… But Who’s Buying? (Megadeth)
  • Among the Living (Anthrax)
  • Bonded by Blood (Exodus)
  • Vulgar Display of Power (Pantera)
  • The War Within (Shadows Fall)
  • The Legacy (Testament)
  • Arise (Sepultura)
  • Lights Camera Revolution (Suicidal Tendencies)
  • Agent Orange (Sodom)
  • Just Look Around (Sick of It All)
  • The Years of Decay (Overkill)
  • Ashes of the Wake (Lamb of God)

After experiencing years of increasing mainstream success, thrash metal slowly changed and split into many subgenres, like the groove based metal of Pantera. This change in focus was influenced by the many changes occurring on rock radio, such as the emergence of grunge.

Photo by Ingo Hoffmann, licensed under Creative Commons 2.0.

Scott Ian on Anthrax, during one of the 2010 Big Four shows.

While in the 90’s many bands experimented with new styles, thrash was largely abandoned in favor of other forms of metal. Three of the Big Four bands of thrash, Metallica, Megadeth, and Anthrax, would all change their sound into one that was more appealing to the modern mainstream rock listener. You can hear this change on albums like The Black Album (Metallica’s self titled 1991 album), Youthanasia (1994, Megadeth), Sound of White Noise (1993, Anthrax), and to a much lesser extent, Slayer’s Diabolus in Musica (1998).

Photo by Christian Homer of, licensed under Creative Commons 2.0.

Fans at a Metallica show in 2009.

The influence thrash metal has had on subsequent metal movements has been enormous. In the late 90’s, as grunge began to die off, the nu metal movement combined elements from many styles of music including the thrash subgenre, groove metal. Bands like Korn and Kid Rock listed Metallica as primary influences, while future popular subgenres of heavy metal like extreme metal and metalcore had obvious thrash metal elements.

The Big Four of thrash have in part or almost entirely returned to their thrash metal roots. The most notable was Metallica’s 2009 double platinum album, Death Magnetic. Other notable returns of their original sounds were Anthrax’s Worship Music (2011), Megadeth’s The System Has Failed (2005), and Slayer’s Christ Illusion (2006).


Crossover Thrash

Photo courtesy of stusev on Flickr licensed under creative commons 2.0

Mike Muir of Suicidal Tendencies

Crossover thrash is thrash with more hardcore elements, like breakdowns instead of solos, and more emphasis on grooves.  This is the precursor to groove metal.  In the late 1980’s hardcore bands like Suicidal Tendencies and Agnostic Front started to add these thrash elements and created a subgenre that was heavy, brutal,  and fast, but also added catchy grooves that left all their fans bobbing their heads.  The quintessential albums of this subgenre are Lights Camera Revolution (1990) by Suicidal Tendencies and Just Look Around (1992) by Sick of It All.


Groove Metal

Photo courtesy of Mjfelker on wikimedia commons licensed under creative commons 1.0

Pantera and Hellyeah drummer Vinnie Paul

Groove metal took the groove focus of cross over thrash and took it one step further.  It  is characterized by down tuned mid-tempo thrash riffs that are abbreviated.  Instead of expanding on the riff like traditional thrash, groove metal took the short groove or “money” part of the riff and repeated it.   If you ever want to know if a band is groove metal, watch the fans.  The repeated grooves will usually cause the listeners to bob their heads to the riff.  A perfect example of this is Pantera’s song “Walk”.    In addition to the mid tempo groove riffs, groove metal adds bluesy solos, has more emphasis on drums and beat drops, and usually has harsher vocals.  The 1990 Pantera release, Cowboys from Hell, revolutionized thrash and created the groove metal sound.  Groove metal would go on to influence other subgenres, like nu metal and metalcore in the mid 1990’s.  Groove metal is still going strong today with bands like Lamb of God, Soulfly, and Hellyeah becoming extremely popular.



Photo courtesy of Bill Shouldis from Flcikr licensed under creative commons 2.0

Robb Flynn of Machine Head

Neo-thrash was created in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s.  It took elements of thrash and groove metal and mixed them with heavier elements taken from metalcore and death metal.  Bands like Machine Head and Shadows Fall pioneered this sound.  You usually get the really heavy double bass drumming of metalcore, harsh vocals mixed with death metal growls, and catchy thrash riffs.


Teutonic Thrash

Photo courtesy of apeshit on Flickr licensed under creative commons 2.0

Mille Petrozza of Kreator

Teutonic thrash originated in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland in the early 1980’s influenced by NWOBHM and Bay area thrash.  It is thrash with raspy vocals, palm mutes, and faster double bass drumming.  This particular subgenre somewhat died off in the early 1990’s as black metal and death metal took over, and power metal became the top choice of most German fans.  At that time most teutonic thrash bands began to change their sound to conform with the wishes of their fans.  This form of thrash has made a bit of a comeback recently with contemporary thrash bands like Battlecross, Skeletonwitch and Toxic Holocaust adding extreme elements into their music.  Well known teutonic thrash bands include Sodom, Exumer, and Kreator.

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Andy Mayhem September 24, 2013 at 1:23 am

It is good to see you highlighted Teutonic Thrash in your description. Germany has certainly produced a vast amount of great Thrash bands. Quite a few are still banging it out after25 years or more. Maybe none as big as Slayer or The other big names but the quality and influence is ever present to this day! Cheers for recognizing these mostly overlooked bands!


Hate Monger December 26, 2013 at 5:00 pm

Some points to be added:

Venom belonged to NWOBHM which was a moniker that included quite a lot of different sounds varying from proto-doom like Witchfynde to stuff like Venom proper

The European thrash metal scene was heavily influenced by UK Hardcore Punk bands like Discharge with their characteristic D-Beat (a sound clearly distinct from what we usually know as ‘Hardcore’, a sound rooted in the USA), in some cases like early Sodom the sound is much more a blend of D-Beat with Venom than anything related to the US Thrash scene, in fact early Sodom and some others were placed under the moniker Black Metal (inspired by Venom’s album) and indeed many refer to black metal proper as “Second Wave of Black Metal”.

Note that while US bands were only known from records or casettes, bands in Europe had often direct contact with each other: Motorhead members and UK punk band GBH and Exploited were good friends, the members of Discharge always showed a great interest for Metal, while they themselves inspired other bands like Bolt Thrower (not thrash but a good example) and early Bathory.

On the US side you forgot to mention that a good part of the sound of thrash metal were inspired by hardcorem specially early hardcore/punk like Million of Dead Cops, Dead Kennedys, Subhumans and the huge “real” Hardcode scene that was already in place.

Here a sample:
Listen to the first song “Business on parade” and imagine a more ‘operistic’ voice and little more skillfull riffing on the guitars, now add the characteristic thrashing an voila, you have Thrash Metal 😉

Note that I’m in no way saying that you are wrong, it’s just that it was a very complex time. While in Rock or Pop you can follow a certain genre linearly from the beginning, in metal starting at the Thrash metal era it’s extremely difficult as the evolution was not linear as the evolution were taking place at the level of scenes and in different places at the same time with bands influencing each other and being again influenced by them, a good example is Crossover: While Hardcore was part of the initial influences of thrash metal it itself became influenced by the latter. There was no internet back then, right, but there was TV, people exchanging cassettes via mailing list and distros (born from Punk and Hardcore) were already very active. And the whole thing was also taking place in a very short time span: Exploited marked the pinnacle of the OI! era in 1981 and in 1982, Bathory released the first album in 1984, Sodom was releasing demos in 1982 and the first full length in 84 and Slayer issued their “Show no Mercy” in 1983. As you see everything took place in a very short time. not more that 2 years.

Nice blog mates, Hails!!!


Mike December 28, 2013 at 12:14 pm

Excellent and informed comment with great historical accuracy done in a very appropriate and cordial way. This is exactly what our site is about. Not only do we want to teach people about the history of metal, but we want our readers to engage each other as well and teach and debate each other about metal in a respectful way. Well done. All readers take notice. Informed and respectful comments like this are what we are looking for. Let’s educate each other as fellow metal fans, not tear each other down.


mike mexico September 19, 2014 at 4:49 pm

What about the pre text templates? Sweets 1974 Set Me Free. Queens Stone Cold Crazy? Black Sabbaths Symptom of the Universe which inspired Diamond Heads Am I Evil?. All these connect to what would be thrash. If we are talking history lets get it all in.


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