Thrash metal ruled the world by the end of the '80s. But all good things must come to an end.
It’s incredible how mass tastes in music can change so quickly, seemingly on a dime- and metal is not immune. 1991 was a year of absolute sea change in this regard. Some would argue that the metal genre as a whole came of age in the 1990s, giving rise to a beautiful time of rich experimentation as extreme metal fans could gorge themselves upon a highly-advanced feast of death metal, power metal and black metal. Thrash, British, and other "classic" metal were (temporarily for the most part) out. In mainstream rock, '80s synths and big hair were out; grunge and plaid were in. All things "alternative" had broken through, dominating the rest of the decade. The once-beloved Headbanger's Ball show on MTV was canceled.
So, what exactly happened to thrash?
The short answer from the angry, disillusioned fan's perspective is: "It's Metallica's fault!!!"
In 1991, Metallica released a self-titled record. Nicknamed “The Black Album,” it became an absolute blockbuster in every sense of the word--in fact, it’s one of the top-selling albums of all time (over 16 million sold in the USA at last count). The Black Album took a big step away from Metallica’s established thrash sound towards more traditional hard rock.
It was HUGE. As were the crowds that started to fill Metallica's shows...
"'Enter Sandman' is quite the simplest song we've ever written. If you look at the song closely there's really only one riff in it. The whole song is written around one riff. Which, I think, is an incredible thing to say about a Metallica song!" - Lars Ulrich
For many thrashers, hearing their once-favorite band strike it so huge with a sound different from what they knew and loved was...conflicting, to say the least. I mean, some of them had to deal with the horrid indignity of having their Duran Duran-loving sisters, girlfriends, mothers, etc ask to borrow the latest Metallica CD! What a nightmare! How dare she love "Nothing Else Matters!"
"The word 'harmonies' has never been a bad word in the Metallica camp." - James Hetfield
Therefore, Metallica had “sold out,” inspired other thrash groups to follow their lead to keep up, and thus spelled the end of metal as we know it, the apocalypse, doom, horror, mediocrity, why did Cliff Burton have to die, why did they cut their hair, this is why we can't have nice things, etc.
"Yeah, sure, we sold out...every damn night of the tour!" is a quote generally attributed to drummer Lars Ulrich. That tour was mammoth in scale, touching Metallica down in almost every major city on the planet. Clearly, even if the new sound was non-thrash and disliked by some, there were even more new fans who loved the new stuff--and got the chance to hear plenty of their 80s classics too, on that tour and many other tours to follow.
"...Before Nirvana, before Pearl Jam, it was the right thing at the right time," Lars said about the "Black Album" a few years later in the decade. "If it came out tomorrow, I don't think it'd do twenty million copies."
So as satisfying as it feels to blame Metallica...the truth is, there were plenty of other reasons why thrash fell off the map, starting with the fact that they weren't the only band expanding their horizons.
Anthrax for example, tried a crossover hit with Public Enemy called “Bring the Noise,” something the band (and particularly guitarist Scott Ian) had always wanted to try. As usual, fan reaction to the new sound was mixed, with some who appreciated the seminal mashup and others saying it has aged horribly and was only a flash in the pan. You make the call.
"I'd always wondered what it would sound like to have my guitar tone and riffs alongside Chuck D's voice," Scott Ian said in an interview. "And it finally happened!"
Then the band got a new vocalist, John Bush (formerly of Armored Saint) and a new, hard rock sound of their own.
Megadeth tried its hand at more radio-friendly, riff-centered songs that kept the strong technical soloing intact for the lead guitar fanatics--Marty Friedman stuck around for a couple more years.
Dave Mustaine fumed and worked harder than ever to best his old bandmates, but as successful as Megadeth also became in the 1990s, there was simply no way at all they could match Metallica's record sales. 1992's Countdown to Extinction, featuring such band classics as "Symphony of Destruction," lost out to Achy Breaky Heart for a Billboard Number One album slot that year.
"And you wonder why the rest of the world thinks Americans are stupid," Dangerous Dave writes in that album's liner notes. "...From that point I set out to do anything to get that Number One spot, but as with almost everything in life, the harder I tried, the harder it got."
What he is alluding to there is that around this time, his drug usage was hitting a dangerous level- especially the sauce. For a number of years Mustaine struggled to address his personal life and issues...without impacting his lyrical responsibility for Megadeth's intense studio magic. It was a tough line to walk, even with his soulmate Pamela and industry heroes like Alice Cooper offering guidance and support. Mustaine details the whole journey in his autobiography if you want to check it out. It was a tough decade for him personally, but from a career perspective Megadeth was doing just fine.
Many of the other Canadian, Bay Area, New York and Texas thrash bands took a long hiatus (Razor, Rigor Mortis, Exodus, etc). Testament went off to try its hand at death metal. Over in Deutschland, the Teutonic Big Four's output took a hit due to creative differences, financial trouble, and a number of poorly-received albums involving industrial elements and other experimental methods. Celtic Frost and Coroner both broke up.
Thrash heavyweights Slayer kept some thrash elements for its 90s output. Tom Araya and company did alright for themselves, but they weren’t nearly as prolific during this time as they were during the 80s, and their 1998 effort Diabolus in Musica was widely panned for experimenting with the nu-metal sound that was popular at the time. They also released an entire album of hardcore punk covers in. Other than that 1998 misstep, Slayer fans are mostly okay with this portion of their career...
Obligatory disclaimer from my own perspective as a fan of all these groups: I don't consider this music bad by a long shot (others disagree). But for the most part, it was not thrash- and I find it fascinating that it seemed like the bands all got together in a secret meeting and decided to try something else for a while!
But the '90s were kind to a number of other bands as well. Suffice to say metal's thrash kings had competition from within, not just the usual competition from the rest of the musical universe.
Exhibit A was Sepultura of Brazil, who were working on the transition from being a “pretty good but still standard” thrash band to a world-class metal outfit that incorporated tribal influences from their homeland. By 1993, that process was complete. Rhythmically and instrumentally, Max Cavalera and his band proudly displayed their Brazilian heritage on new anthems like “Refuse/Resist” that year. And to think that record went gold! So did its follow-up, Roots Bloody Roots.
Alas, that 1996 effort was the last time Sepultura recorded in the studio with Max Cavalera. He either "quit" or "was fired" (depending whose version you believe--sound familiar?) and formed Soulfly instead. The rest of the crew joined up with American vocalist Derrick Green, who is still living the dream as being a fan of a band...and being asked to sing for them. Nevertheless, the fanbase division of "They fired Max, now they suck" vs. "No way, Derrick Green is cool" continues.
Nevertheless... few people dispute that songs like the below are among the band's finest work.
Meanwhile, back in the USA (New Orleans, to be specific) Exhorder wanted to find a way to incorporate the aggressive hardcore music they loved with a sense of groove. They were inspired by the then-maturing thrash movement as well as groove-oriented material like Black Sabbath’s “Into the Void,” which they covered. It could be one of the heaviest Sabbath covers ever put to tape. That song is sometimes considered the first song of "groove metal" ("Sabbath did everything already!"). That lethal combo of high-speed thrash interspaced with a primal sense of rhythm was white-hot for awhile.
The emphasis was on being as crushingly heavy, with as much distortion as you could manage, and the simpler the better--characteristics Exhorder shared with their buddies in the sludge metal scene of NOLA (covered in part 3 of my doom metal series).
Exhorder may have been the inventors of this new subgenre, but it was Pantera who helped popularize it in 1990 with its landmark album Cowboys From Hell. Led by frenetic New Orleans vocalist Phil Anselmo and a truly gifted guitarist named Diamond Darrell Abbott, the Texas group gained a legion of passionate fans and helped introduce a whole new generation to extreme music.
Although they are considered “groove metal,” Pantera and Exhorder’s music is close enough to thrash that it is sometimes they get lumped in with Megadeth, Slayer, and all the rest. And despite how big they got, Pantera never really had the "sellout" label attached to them. They were one of the few truly heavy metal bands of the 1990s to achieve a high level of mainstream success, including a number one album with 1994's Far Beyond Driven. It's probably the heaviest music to appear on a #1 record in the United States.
Even when opening for the legendary Judas Priest on their first big international tour, Pantera were un-intimidated:
"Sound check? Forget it. Writing down a set list each night? Fuck that. We just got up there and fucking ripped...we raged so hard and sounded so good, they had to like us." - Rex Brown, Official Truth
"We were like supermen." - Phil Anselmo
Eventually Pantera got big enough to headline its own tours under its own name, and when they did they invited a number of new ("nu") bands they had inspired with them on tour. Bands like Korn, Slipknot, Limp Bizkit, et al were big Pantera fans, even as they competed with their heroes for the ears of a growing metal audience. The future truly was supposed to be all about maximum fury, groove, and intensity--and at its peak, the energy and excitement of its audiences was unmatched.
Another peer of Pantera's in the groove metal subgenre was Machine Head, started by Robb Flynn (remember him, from Vio-Lence?). To his credit, Flynn had an excellent ear for the most current trends in heavy music, and with some high-quality songwriting he and Machine Head won tremendous respect and accolades for 1994's Burn My Eyes. It was another example of a thrash metal practitioner trying his talents at a new sound, and pretty soon you were more likely to hear "jump the fuck up!" at a metal show rather than "thrash till death"...but not for long.
To summarize, thrash metal fans who had come of age in the 80s likely wouldn't have recognized their favorite bands' music in the 90s. Talented musicians almost always go through phases in their careers where they branch out and experiment a bit, and fans may or may not go along for the ride. The story of the 1990s is one of both the bands and the fans, and should not be overlooked as there is plenty to see and hear.
Of course, there's always plenty of incentive for them to return to form too, as we'll discuss in the final part of this history of thrash metal--part 6 of 6, next time.Read the rest of the series:
Matt P for www.headofmetal.com. Follow him on Twitter.