"If there's a new way, I'll be the first in line… But it better work this time."
"Peace Sells," off the landmark Megadeth album Peace Sells… But Who's Buying?, came out in 1986, but it may as well be the mantra for a year that saw Brexit, the ouster of leaders in Brazil and South Korea, and, of course, the rise of the so-called "alt-right" and the election of President Lex Luthor. Massive ecological collapse looms. America's fighting a seemingly endless war. The gap between rich and poor feels wider than ever. People are angry.
That sure sounds like the kind of environment that gave rise to the first wave of thrash metal back in the 80s.
Humanity's inability to learn from their mistakes may be bad for most people, but it's perfect fodder for a genre like thrash that feeds on aggression. And thrash remains just as relevant now. As Metallica's James Hetfield puts it in the chorus to the title track to this year's surprisingly great Hardwired… To Self-Destruct, "We're all fucked / Shit out of luck / Hardwired to self-destruct."
While landmark releases like Master of Puppets, Reign in Blood, and Peace Sells… resulted from the thrash scene in 1986, the bands that put them out never went away. As far as that genre goes, a new way hasn't been needed. 2016 saw kickass new LPs from three of the "Big Four" (Metallica, Megadeth, and Anthrax), two Bay Area titans (Testament and Death Angel), and two-thirds of the German "Big Three" (Destruction and Sodom)—with albums from Kreator and Overkill hitting early in 2017. Even though their voices may be deeper and their hair grayer, the progenitors of the style still exist, still command a legion of followers, and still have plenty to say.
Dave Mustaine, the singer/guitarist and driving force behind Megadeth (and man that wrote the quote at the top of this article) takes a long view of things. His band's 15th studio album, Dystopia, feels like the work of a rejuvenated outfit, Mustaine spitting fire and brimstone about his thoughts on the state of the world over the deft work of new guitarist Kiko Loureiro and session drummer Chris Adler (Lamb of God). Still, to Mustaine, it's ultimately all just part of the continuum.
"It's a renaissance, I would say. It's been good for us for several different reasons. It's brought a lot of attention back to the band, a lot of people have noticed that we're still doing what we like to do and we're still a very aggressive band," he says. "Although, we didn't really change much. You know, you put records out. What you hear on the record doesn't really mean the band is any different. It's just what songs they've written at the time. That's one of the misnomers [ sic] with bands, is when they have a record come out, and if the record's not great, it doesn't make the band—for lack of a better way to say this—not great. It just means that, at that time, they put out a record that wasn't what the fans wanted, or for some people the timing wasn't right."
Drummer Charlie Benante of New York legends Anthrax feels the timing has been right for his band. He credits the fire animating their 11th full length, For All Kings, to the increased attention (and expectations) they received following their 2010 reunion with iconic singer Joey Belladonna.
"I feel as if we got a new—I'm not going to say a second chance at another career, because we've had a career since the early 80s—but, in a sense, I felt that the Worship Music record was almost like a brand-new band again, the way people took notice of us," he explains. "And then I felt that, with this next album, it was like a second album, in a sense. I feel like Worship Music really put us back on the map, and this one confirmed that we're here to make albums again."
Testament vocalist Chuck Billy has been with his group for their entire recorded career, having joined in 1985 when they were still called The Legacy – although they've had an impressive amount of lineup changes in nearly every other position in the band. Conversely, Billy feels that their 11th release, The Brotherhood of the Snake, represents more of an apex than a fresh start.
"This record is a culmination of everything we've done [from day one until this record] and everything we went through as a band, personally and just where we're at today in the music scene. The band being around for 30 years, a lot of bands don't get that far, so I think we are very fortunate to be here and still have a fan base and people buying our records, which is great," he says. "Maybe it's because we're staying consistent, staying true to what we've done. I think we've fine-tuned where we're at at this point in our lives and careers as songwriters, and I think this is the strongest record we've done in a long time. We didn't think about it a lot. We just knew that we wanted to thrash, and that was the main objective going into it. We didn't know how the songs were going to come out or what we were going to write about, but we knew that we were going to thrash on it and pick up the pace compared to the last few records. And I think it got well received because of that choice."
Death Angel put out their own debut 29 years ago (before any of the members could even legally drink) but broke up in 1991. They've cranked out five albums since their own 2001 reactivation, including this year's The Evil Divide, and, for guitarist Rob Cavestany, their passion comes from a very simple place.
"For one thing, it's just the pure love of music. Collectively, and individually, all the guys in the band are true lovers of music, which I imagine you have to be if you're doing this for a living," he explains. "That, in and of itself, keeps you going, because you just wake up turned on for music and living for music, and it's everything you dreamt of doing since you were a kid and discovered you wanted to try to be in a band and be a musician. So that obsession and devotion keeps us going and keeps us together."
Of course, after doing it for so long, that drive becomes a double-edged sword. Cavestany articulates the central contradiction of being a thrash metal lifer well. "The odd thing about it, which is the curse and the blessing of it all, is that this style of music—at least from where we're coming from—is somewhat related to blues, in the way that what we're doing when we're playing and going off and putting all this intensity into our music is like purging our frustration and our angst and all this pent up energy and aggression from, at this point, everything that our life is encompassing trying to play this music," he says with a chuckle.
According to Cavestany, the very title The Evil Divide refers to both the seeming division between people in this country, and the division that being in a full-time band creates between their work and their personal lives (often to the detriment of their relationships), and the lyrics reflect that. Chuck Billy, on the other hand, says that Testament chose to go a different direction.
"On this record, Erik [Peterson, founding guitarist] made mention when we first started the process that, 'Hey, when we go in to write lyrics this year, can we not be so personal?' Because the last couple records, there were a lot of songs that were about personal issues—losing our parents, or being ill, or things like that. He wanted to create a story so we could put some cool lyrics and imagery together. I was really into this Ancient Aliens program – the belief that aliens created mankind," Bill recalls. "And then I came across the Brotherhood of the Snake story on the Internet, which I passed along to Erik, which was basically them believing that, 6,000 years ago, aliens came down and created mankind to work as slaves on the planet. And we thought that there was kind of a cool story there about aliens and the creation of man and religion and power, and we thought that was right up Testament's alley. That sparked the beginning of where we were going to go lyrically with this record. So all the songs came together with that in mind—and then we kind of got off-topic, because we couldn't write the whole record as a concept record."
Despite the post-apocalyptic bent of his own lyrics (and his own notoriously outspoken political views), Megadeth's Mustaine prefers the listener to draw their own conclusion as to what he's saying. "There are a lot of different outlets that a metal songwriter would have. I'm going to go back a little bit back in time to make it easier for you and I to identify with what I'm saying. For example, with Ronnie James Dio, who would write about mythology, Led Zeppelin would write about mythology. And then you have bands like Motorhead that would write about street life. And then you have bands like Judas Priest that would write a lot about this metal underground scene. And then you have bands like Megadeth and Metallica and Slayer that talk a lot about war and politics."
"I think it's up to the listener to interpret the songs the way that they want to, but sometimes a song is what it is," he continues. "You can't really look any deeper into it, because if you're listening to a lyric and the writer is writing very straightforward, and there's not a lot of innuendo or cliché or idioms or epithets, stuff like that, then you don't really have a lot of wiggle room to interpret what they're saying. Me, I've always tried to write with a lot of suggestive stuff that allows the listener to hear the lyrics, read the lyrics, and put their own spin on it."
Accordingly, the artists all seem hesitant to directly address the shitshow currently going on in our country – outside of several of them agreeing that the current climate isn't exactly a positive one. That reaction is probably due to another major part of trying to navigate life as a musician in 2016: the Internet.
Benante, for one, thinks that it's very dangerous to speak your mind in today's world of instant social media reaction and 24 hour outrage cycle. "I think it's become really hard nowadays to express yourself in a way that is a little political. You can't do that anymore, I feel, because people attack the shit out of you for having your views on something. I don't agree that there is freedom of speech in this country anymore, because so many people are ready to just tear you down for what you believe in or what you think or your opinion."
"[The song 'Zero Tolerance' expresses some views], but we aren't naming anybody," he continues. I see online every day, somebody in a band decides to say something, and they get torn apart by people. And I think it's my right to say what I want to say, and I hate when somebody attacks someone and says 'I used to be a fan, but I see the type of person you are.' Wait a minute, you're confusing the two things. Just because my views are something that you don't agree with has nothing to do with the music that I made."
And ultimately, if there's one thing they all agree on, it's that it's (still) all about the music. For Cavestany, it's about the catharsis that it provides: "Every single time we get together and play, we just have this kind of UNGH, like you just release everything into it. It feels good in that moment of time that you let it all out, and the whole room full of people, the crowd and everyone is all together in this release of tension and stress and angst, but in a unified and fun way. It's a really interesting thing, but that is what it is. That's the essence of it."
For Mustaine, it's about giving back. "We have legendary status. You don't get much more legendary than legendary. We've won just about every award known to man, outside of getting in the Hall Of Fame and winning a Grammy. I'm really happy with my life, I'm happy with the friends I've made, I'm happy that I'm an ambassador to our genre. I'm happy that I've been able to host shows and be a best-selling New York Times author. There is not really a lot of stuff left for me to accomplish, other than just passing it on to other people, which I really enjoy. That's probably the most fun I'm having now, being philanthropical with the funds that I earn and the talent and experience that I have, being able to share that with people."
For Billy, it's about keeping the fire burning. "I think it goes back to the root of it all. It's aggressive music that's basically rebellious, and I think any generation that younger starts off rebellious. I've seen a new generation over the last 5-10 years of a younger generation into this style of music. And I'm also seeing people of my generation bringing their kids and their grandkids to shows, turning them on to the style. I do see a fan base out there that still growing for thrash, but I think the bands that created it, I think that all of us, we're all still hungry. It's a tough business, and I think it's important for bands to have strong records and get out on the road."
Benante sums it up even more succinctly: "You have to please yourself, but you also have to deliver."
To paraphrase another Mustaine lyric: killing is their business… and business is still good.
Anthrax cover photo by Travis Shinn
Jeff Treppel is thrashing and burning on Twitter.