Thrash Metal Is Going Through Its Second Puberty
Power Trip, Slaegt, and Oozing Wound discuss how thrash has moved on from mid-2000s nostalgia to become a whole new kind of killing machine.
Photo by Johnny Milano
Of metal’s many subgenres, thrash is perhaps the iconic. A cutthroat mixture of heavy metal’s big riffs and hardcore punk’s ferocious speed, thrash is metal at its most vital. It has the loudest choruses, the fastest gallops, the spikiest logos, and the worst smell, and was a product of perfect timing. By the early Eighties, punk had morphed into either floofy new wave or humourless hardcore. Metal, meanwhile, was becoming a little big for its britches, and awesome bands like Iron Maiden were sharing gigantic arenas with metal-lite assholes like Poison. Thrash took the grandiosity of metal, replaced chivalry and bad-boy posturing with punk’s societal dread and in-your-face blasphemy, and kicked everyone’s ass.
Initially, this was great – until thrash musicians got older and felt the need to say something "meaningful." The result was clunky, longwinded, and more often than not, kind of boring. Bands tried too hard to show the world that the five years of touring they’d experienced since they’d written their madcap debut had made them thoughtful, and in doing so abandoned the lightning they’d once caught in a bottle as the folly of adolescence.
Metallica followed 1985's perfect Master of Puppets with 1988's ...And Justice For All, an album without a single song under five minutes. Exodus released 1992's Force of Habit, the fastest song on which is a horn-driven cover of The Rolling Stones' "Bitch." And in 1994 Slayer put out Divine Intervention, an album on which the name 'Satan' doesn't appear once (seriously, not once).
Perhaps this is why the thrash revival of the mid- to late-2000s was so focused on partying. In hindsight, youth seems fun and carefree, so millennial metalheads grew up on stories about how thrash used to be a chance to forget your asshole boss and have a good time – when in fact thrash metal was socially conscious, dark as all hell, and deadly serious. No one wanted the slow, verbose ballads from a band’s fourth album, they wanted something they could skull coldies to in a Wawa parking lot – which Municipal Waste, Warbringer, and Merciless Death were happy to supply in spades.
So revival thrash bands like Gama Bomb, Evile, and Cross Examination embraced the good-timey shenanigans of the genre’s young pioneers – and amped it up with a healthy dose of nostalgia. New thrashers like Fueled By Fire and Lich King played music informed by the pop art of the 1980s, and soon that decade’s cartoonish fashion and sloppy excess became metal culture. Riffs took a backseat to wearing Ninja Turtles shirts and marshmallowy Reeboks, and every lyric needed to reference pizza, posers, and early Nintendo games. This superficial obsession stood in direct opposition to the self-aware outrage and dark occultism that made thrash great in the first place.
So revival thrash embraced the good-timey shenanigans of the genre’s young pioneers – and amped it up with a healthy dose of nostalgia. The titans of thrash were coloured by the pop art of the 1980s, and soon that decade’s cartoonish fashion and sloppy excess became metal culture. Riffs took a backseat to wearing Ninja Turtles shirts and marshmallowy Reeboks, and every lyric needed to reference pizza, posers, and early Nintendo games. This superficial obsession stood in direct opposition to the self-aware outrage and dark occultism that made thrash great in the first place.
But at long last, it appears that thrash has grown up once again – and this time, it’s done things right. The genre has cast off the shallow retro tomfoolery of the early 2010s without falling prey to the dull plodding of the late Eighties and early Nineties. This new breed of thrash reaches metal’s truest ideal – to make fans think and feel while simultaneously kicking them in the face.
Leading the way in thrash’s second puberty is Power Trip from Austin, Texas. The band’s unhinged live performances and no-nonsense 2013 debut Manifest Decimation made them underground legends, but it was last year’s Nightmare Logic LP that cemented their place among the metal gods. From start to finish, Nightmare Logic is unapologetically awesome, a perfect soundtrack to the daily outrage that comes from living in a world where the repulsive corporate villain from every 80s action movie is the fucking President.
“Our song “Suffer No Fool” is about not looking up to reality TV stars, and when I wrote that in 2012, I had Donald Trump in mind,” says Riley Gale, Power Trip’s vocalist. The song in question comes from the band’s new compilation of early tracks, Opening Fire: 2008-2014; like many metal bands, Power Trip are being touted as “new” when they’ve been slaving away at their craft for ten years. “We need to stop teaching people that being morally bankrupt and successful benefits you. I want people to be educated. I want them to think about things before saying them."
Unlike his predecessors, Gale doesn’t think growing up means slowing down – in fact, quite the opposite. “As we got better at our instruments, we just wrote faster, catchier riffs. It felt like a natural progression," he tells me. That said, he also doesn’t see revival thrash’s party antics as necessarily shallow, but rather, as a different kind of extremity. “When I think of a band like Municipal Waste, I really don’t think of them as a rehash," he explains. "They took that party vibe to an extreme, talking about zombies in space and pizza-eating sharks. I consider that an original take on some classic bands. We just drift into a darker side of things.”
Speaking of the darker side: something that has aided Power Trip (and thrash in general) is having other metal genres from which to pull inspiration. During its first maturation in the 80s, thrash was as heavy as metal got. Now, thrash can utilise influences from the subgenres that it spawned, whether that’s the pneumatic crush of industrial, the bloody gurgles of death metal, the sexy swing of groove metal, or the dark esotericism of black metal.
The latter of these is most noticeable in the music of Slaegt from Denmark. Like black metal progenitors Celtic Frost and Bathory before them, Slaegt’s music uses shadowy spiritual overtones to convey a sense of melancholy and darkness. Unlike those bands, however, Slaegt doesn’t distance itself from big rollicking riffs by engaging in clumsy avantgarde artiness.
“Not anyone can write a catchy riff,” says Oskar “Asrok” Frederiksen, guitarist and vocalist. In Asrok’s mind, a powerful, infectious riff should be at the core of all good rock and roll. “Look at any band, of any style – they have good riffs. Darkthrone has good riffs. Electric Wizard has good riffs. When bands can’t write good riffs, they become obsessed with the clothes they wear, that sort of thing.” For Asrok, Slaegt’s music is about examining the darkness found in one’s own soul. “What I’m trying to do with it is make metal music with a darker undercurrent of something sinister, melancholy… exploring hidden and obscure places where you can get to know yourself better, know what you’re capable of and what you’re willing to do,” he says.
But while Slaegt’s whirling guitar harmonies and galloping rhythms may remind a listener more of Thin Lizzy than Immortal, Asrok is quick to interject that darkness comes in many forms, some of them catchy as hell. “There is a darkness in Thin Lizzy as well; I don’t think Phil Lynott was not a very happy person," he explains. "And he dealt with it by either being too fucked up or writing a song like ‘I’ve Got To Give It Up.’ That song is no fun.”
Destroying typical rocker tropes is certainly a central tenet of modern thrash. Bands like Metallica and Anthrax seemed to think that thrash came in two flavours – fast, loud, and fun; or slow, wordy, and meaningful; mid-2000s retro thrash went all in on the former, but the bands who are leading the genre today have decided to celebrate both (or sometimes neither).
One such band is Oozing Wound from Chicago, Illinois. With riffs that sound like a dentist’s drill and vocals reminiscent of noise rock acts like Neurosis and Today Is The Day, the Wound is a grinding metallic juggernaut that never feels the need to ask if we’re all having a good time tonight. “We’d hope you either love or hate [our music],” says vocalist-guitarist Zack Weil via email. “I can't imagine anyone wants tepid feelings about something they've made. I definitely get a big smile on my face if I see a small group up and leave during the first or second song of our set.”
For Oozing Wound, part of the point of making aggressive music is to be different, and the first step towards achieving that is to mess around with song structures. “We jam a lot, some songs have gone through a few different iterations before we nail it,” Weil says. “Some bands like set structures of 'verse, chorus, colo blah blah,' which we've done, but just as a starting point. The only rule I’ve ever had is that the chorus shouldn’t ever happen more than three times, and twice is already pushing it.”
That is the most common trait among the bands making meaningful thrash today: breaking the mould and rewriting the rules. None of these bands wants to be “the next Slayer” – they want to be the first of whatever it is they are. Because revival thrash was so concerned with honouring its idols and colouring inside the lines, it only makes sense that its final form is only interested in changing the game altogether.
Hopefully, thrash will continue to evolve into something rare: a new kind of metal that we haven’t heard before. On the one hand, that’s hard to swallow for some traditional metalheads, who fear change and just want to remember the things they like. On the other hand, maybe a complete transformation what thrash needs to mature entirely. The question, then, is: which of thrash’s remaining traditions need to die for good?
“All of it,” Weil responds. “I want the past to end. I have no nostalgia. Most of the musical heroes I've had that are men have all been revealed to be giant pieces of shit. I want women to take over and kill us all.”
Christopher Krovatin is stage-diving on Twitter.
This article originally appeared on Noisey US.