Thrash metal became the go-to form of underground metal in the 1980s beginning in the United States, but its reach would extend far beyond the New York, Texas and Bay Area scenes that spawned them. A worldwide thrash movement began to develop, often featuring a different spin on the American thrash metal movement epitomized by the Big Four and others. The subgenre bloomed in the second half of the decade, like a massive explosion viewable from space that kept spreading and spreading, planting new seeds of extremity.
In many cases, the speed and aggression of thrash metal outside the U.S. is turned up even further to the point where it may not be death metal, but it sure is close. It has a less "mainstream" sound to it (to the extent that thrash can sound mainstream!), and with only a handful of exceptions you won't find sizable sales numbers from most of the bands here. Extreme metal scenes in continental Europe and elsewhere are more likely to take influence from the bands in this section of metal history than from the Big Four.
Lest we think that the USA is the only country with a Big Four, let's pay our northern neighbors a visit.
Except for Rush, whose heavy early work was an inspiration for many aspiring metal players, and the much-loved Anvil, Canada did not produce many classic metal groups until the '80s were well underway. Then they more than made up for lost time.
One of the first Canadian acts to play thrash metal was Exciter, who hailed from Ottawa and opened for Black Sabbath on the legends' tour stop there.
The Canadian capital also produced another member of Canada's Big Four. Latter-day thrash metal band Annihilator released the masterpiece Alison Hell in 1989. It was praised for its technicality and album concept revolving around a little girl’s descent into insanity. Unfortunately for the band, they were never able to replicate its success of Alison Hell in the eyes of many of its fans and critics, but they continue to record and tour today. At the very least, Annihilator has this magnificent album and its progressive, sweeping title track on its record.
Annihilator formed a bit later than its peers and perhaps it was simply a case of poor timing that Alison Hell came out at the creative pinnacle of thrash metal's day in the sun. Either way- all you need is one thrashterpiece, and they have it! Jeff Waters and his bandmates truly put their best foot forward on this one.
Sacrifice formed around the same time in Toronto, Ontario, and the band's big break was when Paul Baloff and Exodus came to town in 1985 and booked them as their opening act. The city's local crowds embraced its new hometown heroes, and Toronto's underground metal scene began to grow. Word got out to the other top touring thrash bands of the day, and by the following year Sacrifice found themselves warming up for Megadeth, King Diamond, and Slayer (on their Reign In Blood tour). Toronto's old Concert Hall was mayhem.
So Sacrifice gained much respect for their playing and shared in thrash metal's late-80s heyday along with the rest of them. They split up for the first time in 1993 a couple of years after thrash was "over," but have since reformed and been in their Mark II phase even longer than their Mark I lineup phase. 2017 should find Sacifice out of the studio with a new record and a new tour, and along with many of the city's elder metal statesmen are more likely to play in Toronto's historic Opera House.
Perhaps the heaviest, fastest and most intense of the Canadian Big Four came from Guelph, near Toronto: Razor. To my knowledge they are the only group here to play Maryland Death Fest, the biggest festival of its kind in North America (Exciter went too). It's easy to see why--the band's short, fiery bursts of thrash-craft feature "chainsaw" style of thrash riffing and bloodthirsty vocals. Lots of appeal to extreme metal fans there.
Like many of its peers, Razor sat out for much of the 1990s before reuniting. Shortly after their 2011 appearance as headliners of "True Thrash Festival" in Osaka, Japan, guitarist Dave Carlo was diagnosed with stage 2 oral cancer...
But he pulled a Chuck Billy and made a full recovery after successful treatment! Razor ain't goin' nowhere, God bless em.
Now truly, there is another Canadian metal bad of great renown worldwide - but as many angry Frenchmen will tell me: "They are not from Canada, they are from Quebec! It's different!"
Sam Dunn, who is the filmmaker behind two of my favorite metal documentaries ("Metal: A Headbanger's Journey" and "Global Metal"), can often be seen wearing a shirt proclaiming the band...Voivod. Jonquiere, Quebec's favorite band!
Now truth be told, I had heard fans and other musicians talking up this band for years, but when I first heard Voivod I honestly didn't see what the big deal was (I know, I know- "BLASPHEMER!!!"). And that was because I logically started with their first album, sampled below. I remember thinking, "Cool noise and everything, but still it's more or less 'normal' thrash metal."
"Voivod to me is just like that cover of [their album] Roooaaar, that futuristic, apocalyptic tank thing...they were a steamroller!" - Dave Grohl, Foo Fighters
But as I moved onward in Voivod's discography into their highly-regarded late-'80s output, I discovered the band's secret weapon: guitarist Denis "Piggy" D'Amour. My ears picked up that he could certainly shred the six strings all he liked. But he also had plenty of other influences in there and had a penchant for these angular, minor-key chords in his soloing that made his style recognizable in a sea of high-speed shredders.
"I was a bit older than the other guys, so I was much more into the progressive scene (Gentle Giant, King Crimson), so when it came time to meet the band I would bring those records around. Listening to all those different things shaped our music." - Denis "Piggy" D'Amour
So here is a song four years removed from that first song above, and you wouldn't believe it was the same band. My mind was changed!
Especially if you lived the Northeast USA around this time, all that great Canadian metal was within arm's reach. But elsewhere in the British Commonwealth, it was much harder to achieve international recognition.
Australia is still mostly known for AC/DC - and for great reason! Those guys have laid waste to every single bar and theater they've been to, and could still drink most metallers under the table. The Young brothers didn't leave very much behind for any Australian metal bands to pick over - regardless of whether you think AC/DC is metal or not. But that didn't stop Peter Hobbs from trying.
He formed Hobbs Angel of Death in Melbourne and was responsible for one of Oz's few true metal classics of the late 1980s--there may not have been much competition for them in their homeland (except their fellow countrymen Mortal Sin, out of Sydney), but overseas...they are still around though, and now thrashers need not let the world's oceans separate them from one of Australia's finest.
One country outside of North America that has wholeheartedly embraced thrash metal and spawned its own large crop of legendary bands is Germany. In fact, Deutschland has done more for thrash metal than any other nation except the USA, where it was created.
Dubbed “The Teutonic Four” (great things in thrash metal seem to come in fours), Kreator, Destruction, Sodom and Tankard were the most popular German practitioners of what came to be known as Teutonic Thrash. Dialing up the hardcore and aggro-punk influences even more than most American groups, the Teutonic bands pushed thrash’s heaviness in such a direction that it became an important influence on death metal. Quick summary of the four is that Destruction is the most technically adept and complex, Sodom is the most basic and similar to Motorhead, and Kreator and Tankard each occupy the middle ground between those two.
Kreator frontman Mille Petrozza is of both German and Italian background and a knack for evil, heinous, and violent lyrics. His band Kreator became the most influential and successful of the Teutonic thrash bands for for their 1986 masterpiece, Pleasure to Kill. Every bit as heavy and intense as Slayer’s acclaimed Reign in Blood on the other side of the Atlantic that same year, the record became a landmark for heaviness and inspired a new generation of extreme metal musicians in continental Europe. It can be considered Germany’s answer to Slayer, and some would argue it’s even better.
"Pure hardcore!" Petrozza reminisces about those years in the liner notes for the collection Past Life Trauma. "It shows the punk rock influence of our early days when we were listening to Raw Power, Slime, GBH and The Exploited."
1989's "Extreme Aggression" introduced Kreator to American audiences with a hit called “Betrayer.” When the band toured America for the first time, Blondie's Club in Detroit became one of their favorite clubs to play outside of Germany. They must have been heartbroken to hear that it shut down recently. Worldwide, the band's total record sales topped 2 million, a number only to increase as they continue to record and tour as some of the Fatherland's elder metal statesmen. Even pushing 50 years old nowadays, Mille Petrozza is as intense onstage as he was when he was some 30 years younger! He's also quite the chef with a fondness for vegan food, happily accepting the nickname "The Angriest Vegan In Metal."
No matter in which part of the world we play, it's always the universe language of metal music that connects us with people from all kinds of different cultural backgrounds. It might sound like a cliche, but to me it's one of the most precious gifts in life!" - Mille Petrozza
Kreator’s contemporaries in Destruction had similar influences and have become frequent guests at Wacken Open Air festival (which is practically right next door for them). Similar to Kreator, Destruction was a huge influence on death metal and black metal, especially on their very earliest work. Max Cavalera, who we'll meet again later in this chapter, told a humorous story in "Metal: A Headbanger's Journey": he loved Destruction's 1984 album "Sentence of Death" so much that he and his buddies glued batteries together to create bullet belts, all to copy Destruction's look from that album cover!
Fun fact: Destruction hails from Weil am Rhein, which is Germany's most southwesterly town. But even more of a fun fact: the band released a collection of re-recorded songs called Thrash Anthems in 2007, counteracting some of the production sound issues they had on their 1980s records. Their loyal fans, who simply will not let such good material rust away in the vaults, are now helping the band in 2017 by crowdfunding a second volume of re-recordings, Thrash Anthems II.
"It was the wakeup call in Germany in 1985. We had the first big metal magazine, Metal Hammer, established around this year and from here labels really started to promote metal bands and music... I love thinking back on this time as an era in metal was born at this point in Europe... the direction was clear: as fast as possible!" - Schmier, speaking with Blabbermouth.net
Though the band has sold over one million albums in total worldwide, the guys in Destruction are by no means wealthy gentlemen. However, frontman Marcel Schmier sees that glass half full, believing that it keeps the band hungry, working, and being an inspiration to other bands. And not just hunger in the musical sense - literal hunger too: Schmier grew up in the restaurant business, ran his own kitchen, and to this day I hear he can still bake a scary-good beer crust pizza.
For some reason (likely due to the other amazing thrash competition they had), Destruction seems to frequently play second fiddle to Kreator as main ambassadors of Teutonic thrash. But their material was (and still is) excellent, their bullet belts and leather conveying strength and confidence.
And then we have Sodom, a group that started out as a borderline-black metal band with the by-now-expected occult/evil themes. But they eventually morphed into something even better. Frontman Tom Angelripper formed Sodom as a means of escape from having to work in the coal mines near his hometown of Gelsenkirchen, in the Ruhr region of Germany. A couple of his friends, equally disillusioned with their work and their lives, were all too willing to join him.
A passionate admirer of Motorhead frontman Lemmy Kilmeister and his working-man ethos, Tom adopted the power trio lineup for Sodom while placing a focus on war themes. It made sense considering his home region's history as an important producer of war materiel. The group finally hit paydirt with its 1989 record Agent Orange, which sold over 100,000 copies in their home country alone and became the first thrash record to enter the German album charts. Fascinated with the Vietnam War, the album title came from the iconic chemical weapon used in the conflict. What an album to become a commercial highlight (such as it was) of Teutonic thrash.
...he even bears a small physical resemblance to Lemmy, does he not?
Still the only constant member of Sodom, Tom Angelripper deserves his place in Germany's Metal Hall of Fame and in the hearts of the many thrashers he's entertained over the years. Funnily enough, I believe he still lives in his old hometown.
"We've always been jaunty, often unmotivated and most of the time barely sober, but we've made it!...success wouldn't settle in without the fans. It's been like that in former times and it always will be." - Tom Angelripper, liner notes from Agent Orange
There a many, many important and serious themes in Teutonic thrash metal.
War. Society. Anger. Intensity. Horror. Violence.
The golden elixir is part of Germany's national identity. That would be Tankard's favorite topic, the final group of the Teutonic Big Four.
Tankard's biggest fear...is an empty stein. Tankard's definition of happiness is playing onstage...where every fan in the audience has a full beer, and everybody in the band has at least four. Their songs are almost all in honor of alcohol, and their shows are about what you would expect as a result.
...and that's really it for Tankard. What else is there?
The beautiful thing is that all the original Teutonic Big Four bands are still active today, all making welcome appearances at Wacken Open Air Festival, the most famous open-air heavy metal festival in the world. They were vital in establishing Germany as a heavyweight player in the international heavy metal scene. They even toured together and recently collaborated on a four-way split record.
Next door to Deutschland in Switzerland, another thrash act emerged from the ranks of Celtic Frost's road crew. The mighty Frost is perhaps the most well-known metal band to emerge from that country. They are difficult to categorize into any one subgenre, so I won’t try too hard to. The gruff growls suggest death metal; the dark lyrical content suggests black metal; the double bass and riffage suggests thrash. But Tom Warrior and company found their influences into such a wide variety of subgenres that they are credited for helping to split heavy metal into its many rich varieties.
I'll dive deeper into Celtic Frost in another subgenre series. But in the meantime, here is one of their thrashiest anthems for your trouble:
Coroner was formed from the ranks of Celtic Frost's road crew, inspired by that band's unique sound that would prove to be such a huge influence on other subgenres. Adding a strong dose of technicality similar to recently-covered bands like Annihilator, Coroner scored one of several landmark albums with 1988's "Punishment for Decadence." However, the band never garnered much attention outside of Europe, and the lack of publicity ensured they wouldn't truly crack the US market. Although they still tour today, making appearances at Maryland Death Fest, they are still relatively unknown except for aficionados of technical thrash metal who seek it out. Some of us (including yours truly) discovered them on the Brutal Legend soundtrack!
And that is a shame, because songs like “Skeleton On Your Shoulder” haven’t been heard by nearly enough people.
Back across the border in Germany, technical thrash had its own rock-solid practitioners as well.
Imagine you're a big fan of German underground metal in the mid-to-late 1980s. Somehow you gain an inkling of this band calling themselves Mekong Delta, who proclaim that its goal is to "musically outshine" every other underground metal band in the country. Bold talk! So you track down and pick up a few of their full length releases. You are very impressed indeed...
So naturally you wonder, "Who are these guys?" It's difficult to find out, because all the members have assumed artist names in the liner notes and album credits, and hardly do any press, touring or interviewing. They would rather focus 100% of the energy on what they craft in the studio. So the mystique regarding the lineup is alluring for a certain kind of listener, it means the band's career prospects are quite limited until 1991, when they finally come out of hiding to start touring. It turns out the bassist and founder of Mekong Delta is a guy named Ralph Hubert, a lover of progressive and classical music as well as HP Lovecraft.
With 20/20 hindsight, Mekong Delta did not pick a good time to really start promoting itself as thrash was rapidly falling out of favor by that point. The band wound up taking a hiatus for much of the decade, only to re-form and make up for lost time as the now-pacemakers of German technical thrash metal. Hiring members who can tour and play the incredibly complex material is a challenge for Hubert, who is the band's only constant member. But the more appearances they put in, the more other musicians continue to take notice...
A peer band who was able to get much more recognition is Holy Moses.
Vocalist and centerpiece of the entire operation, Sabina Classen is one of the few women worldwide to successfully front a thrash metal band. Being formed in 1980 makes Holy Moses one of the oldest German thrash metal acts going. Even as band members over the years have left to pursue everything from graphic design to university studies, Holy Moses remains Sabina Classen's band, kindred spirits with fellow German Doro Pesch.
She helped host one of Germany's earliest metal TV shows ("Mosh"), and soon after that cut off ties with Holy Moses' record label when they tried pressuring them into abandoning thrash.
You don't mess with Sabina Classen, and you don't mess with Holy Moses!
"It's coming from my heart, making action onstage... so kick your ass!" - Sabina Classen during an interview
For the final German band up for discussion before we leave the European continent, we'll talk about a band that's difficult to find even online, because you can't search for them without sifting through hip-hop related suggestions.
Deathrow (see why?) was a band who could create and shred with the best of the best, and is one of the few bands from the period to remain split up. As magnificent as their crowning achievement is (1988's Deception Ignored), the band members have apparently distanced themselves from it in a bewildering series of interviews. Their albums continue to be collector's items and are the embodiment of "hidden gems" for curious thrashers.
Now we'll leave Europe entirely... we're off to Brazil!
Over thirty years before the most recent headlines that we all know and love, Brazil had hosted its first Rock In Rio festival. Even so, the country was not an easy place to make music in. Losing an oppressive dictatorship certainly helped, but the fact remained that your street smarts and work ethic had to be through the roof to have a successful career there.
"We'd never seen anything like Brazil. On one hand, you've got Copacabana Beach, with bronze billionaires and their molls, then 200 yards away there are people living in cardboard boxes amongst sewers running through the sand... It wasn't that great a tour the first time we went, but it was amazing all the same. We went home with mountains of practically worthless currency - it was like Weimar Germany. Interesting place, but rather frightening, really." - Lemmy, White Line Fever
Max and Igor Cavalera had what it took to become their country's greatest contribution to metal- Sepultura.
From their southeastern home city of Belo Horizonte, they admired what was going on in Europe and the US in thrash. They wanted to emulate their sound while adding their own Brazilian flair. Sepultura is a terrific story of four guys coming from very poor backgrounds (Ozzy Osbourne grew up in the Taj Mahal by comparison) who had to really struggle to do simple things like purchase gear and instruments. When they were fusing old Duracell batteries together to look like bullet belts from afar, that really was legitimate stuff, born out of necessity.
"Being from a different country made us exotic and exciting," Max Cavalera explains. "We're far away from the rest of the world. Not too many bands came to Brazil in the beginning."
But the worst part according to them?
"Money - we were flat broke, so we had to steal our first equipment (like microphones, etc)."
When Sepultura finally started scoring some attention with two acclaimed albums, Beneath the Remains and Arise, their story of success inspired heavy metal groups in the Third World and became many Westerners' first exposure to Brazilian music that wasn't samba. 20 million albums sold worldwide and putting Brazil on the map of metal make Sepultura Hall of Famers for certain.
As early as 1987 when Sepultura started to gain attention, there began a search for "the next Sepultura," which led to a growth in underground metal in Brazil. None even came close to matching Sepultura's profile and reach, but these bands created some truly filthy, evil, raw metal that touches even the seared hearts of black metal fans. Their demos were so underproduced and their distribution so limited. Because bands like Mutilator, Sarcofago, Holocausto, Chakal and Vulcano are much closer to that other subgenre than thrash I'll dive more deeply into them at another point in time.
But here's a taste of what we're talking about here. What also really helped were collections of these early Brazilian black/thrash rarities on cassette called Warfare Noise. This compilation helped introduce extreme metal fans to music they found even more inspiring than Sepultura...
But others in Sepultura's peer group really did play good thrash, and bands like Korzus (Sao Paulo) are still around today to educate fans about Brazilian thrash beyond Sepultura. Here is one of their most recent tracks:
This whole time I've been saying that thrash had seemingly run its course by 1991, which is the year Sepultura's Arise came out.
What happened to the key players as this decade went on? And more importantly, what kind of music resulted as thrash fell out of favor? Tune in for part 5, where we'll discuss those questions and more. But in the meantime - who is your favorite non-American thrash metal act? Let me know in the comments!
Read the rest of the series: