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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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 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 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.
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 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.