The origins of thrash metal are fiendishly hard to pin down to one seminal starting point, but one fact is undeniable: as the 80s began, heavy metal music started to get faster, heavier and more proudly in-your-face.
Inspired by a myriad disparate influences, including Motörhead, Venom, the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal, the first wave of punk rock and the nascent hardcore punk scene, the first thrash bands emerged at a time when mainstream metal was heading back to the stadium circuit after a few years in the commercial wilderness.
Grittier, grimier, spottier and fuelled by cheap speed and even cheaper booze, the likes of Metallica, Overkill, Metal Church, Exodus, Slayer and Anthrax became the new underground metal heroes, sending a wave of snotty exhilaration through the legions of adrenalin-sodden miscreants the planet over.
The key to the genre’s huge success and enduring significance lies in the fact that so many of thrash metal’s most important bands were populated by hugely talented and imaginative musicians. Just look a the genre’s ‘big four’; Metallica, Megadeth, Slayer and Anthrax. These are all bands that underwent rapid creative evolutions and produced some of metal’s most revered and enduring classics as a result.
But it was not just thrash metal’s commercial triumphs that made it such a special phenomenon. Around the world, like-minded bands appeared from nowhere, resulting in a huge global scene that shared punk rock’s DIY ethos and unpretentious attitude while producing timeless albums by the truckload.
In Germany, a huge scene spearheaded by the unholy trinity of Sodom, Destruction and Kreator took thrash to new levels of darkness and brutality. In the UK, bands like Onslaught, Sabbat, Xentrix and Acid Reign tried gamely, albeit with scant commercial impact, to emulate their foreign peers.
In Brazil, a bunch of teenage oiks known as Sepultura defied the odds by tape-trading their way to infamy and acclaim with a uniquely brutal sound that astutely straddled thrash and its evil kid brother, death metal. The list of great bands, great records and great times is endless.
Thirty years on from thrash’s peak, it seems that the spirit of the genre is alive and well, as a new generation of bands emerges to carry the flag forward into the future. Not just tipping their hats to the sound of thrash’s good old days, the likes of Municipal Waste, Short Sharp Shock, Mastery and new kids on the block, Power Trip, have immersed themselves in all aspects of the genre’s subculture too, from its affinity with the worlds of comics, horror films, skateboarding and Olympic-standard beer consumption through to an obligatory disregard for major label acquiescence, a finely-honed sense of humour and a passion for self-sufficiency and getting in the van to spread the word.
Thrash metal was always fun; a deranged and violent reinvention of rock‘n’roll’s sacred principles. Get ready to bang your head until you spew with our list of 30 bands you should know if you are keen to be initiated into the world of thrash.
Veterans of Sweden’s highly-populated melodic death metal scene, Carnal Forge have the dark spirit of thrash pulsing through their veins. After several albums of heads-down, no-nonsense speed worship, they’ve diversified somewhat in recent times, but if you want music that promises to kick your face off, few do it better.
Essential Release: Testify For My Victims (Candlelight, 2007)
Powered ferociously along by former Emperor drummer and notorious ex-jailbird Faust, these Norwegian miscreants are so in love with thrash that they named their debut album after it. A raw, violent and deceptively melodic blast from the past, Blood Tsunami are every bit as unpleasant as their name suggests.
Essential Release: Thrash Metal (Candlelight, 2007)
The Coventry crew released eight studio albums over the course of their thirty year career. Steadfastly influenced by thrash and punk, their energetic breed of death metal made a huge impact on the metal scene right up until they called it quits in 2016, following the death of their drummer Martin Kearns. However, the remaining members formed Memoriam as a tribute to the late rhythm master and are set to unleash their third album, Requiem For Mankind, on June 21 via Nuclear Blast Records.
Essential release: Realms Of Chaos – Slaves To Darkness (Earache, 1989)
Once regarded as the most likely band to succeed The Big Four, Death Angel’s time for greatness might have gone. But, after a decade away, they re-formed in 2001, and have been busy since. New album, Humanicide, dropped in May via Nuclear Blast.
Essential release: The Ultra-Violence (Enigma, 1987)
The Germans celebrate their 35th anniversary this year. They’ve never stopped working, even during the dark days when grunge swept thrash under the proverbial carpet. This year, as ever, they’re in demand on the road, and released a new album this year, Born To Perish.
Essential release: Eternal Devastation (Steamhammer, 1986)
The veterans have gone through many line-up changes in the past three decades. Only guitarist Jeff Waters has been a constant. For a while back in the early 1990s, great things were expected of the Canadians.
However, a failure to find a stable situation – especially after the departure of ludicrously named original vocalist Randy Rampage remained the best find – scuppered any chance of fulfilling their potential. However, just when everyone had given up on them, Annihilator have stormed back.
They discovered a new audience, thanks to album Metal – featuring guest appearances from contemporary guitarists like Michael Amott and Corey Bealieu – and touring with Trivium back in the noughties.
Essential release: Alice In Hell (Roadrunner, 1989)
While most young bands in the UK were desperately chasing the latest fringe-centric bandwagon, whoring themselves for a record deal, Evile were tearing up their grimy corner of West Yorkshire with a rabid, exhilarating new take on the classic thrash sound.
Owing plenty to Annihilator, Slayer and particularly Bay Area legends Exodus, this fearsome foursome began their musical careers under the moniker Metal Militia, and specialised in covers of classic Metallica anthems like ‘Towers Of Strength’, evolving into a tight and destructive unit, with a level of musicianship that belies their comparative inexperience.
Their debut full-length Enter The Grave was a metal must-have of 2007 and since then, they've released a further three studio albums and are currently working on their fifth.
Essential Release: Enter The Grave (Earache, 2007)
One of a rare breed of bands that seem to have tapped into the molten steel core of the original thrash movement and brought it screaming into the 21st century, Toronto’s Mastery write songs that overflow with glorious, punch-the-air riffs.
Listening to them is like listening to Master Of Puppets, The New Order and Seasons In The Abyss simultaneously. The only difference is, Mastery are an entirely instrumental band. Unable to find a suitable vocalist, they shrugged their collective shoulders and settled on being utterly unique instead.
Incredibly, the absence of any vocals does nothing to lessen the impact of the band’s wildly complex thrash epics. This is thrash stripped down to its glorious basics. Not banging your head? You have no head.
Essential Release: Lethal Legacy (Sanctuary, 2007)
Undisputed kings of the current thrash revival, Richmond, Virginia’s Municipal Waste have not just resurrected the clattering, life-affirming sound of 80s crossover metal – the bastard hybrid of punk and metal once peddled by the likes of D.R.I. and Gang Green – but they’ve also brought an irresistible sense of party-till-you-puke exuberance back to heavy music.
A legendary live band that are notorious for causing carnage at every venue they visit, these beer-guzzling scruffbags are no slouches when it comes to writing blistering thrash with inspired titles like Drunk As Shit, Thrash? Don’t Mind If I Do and The Thrashin’ Of The Christ. If there’s a more entertaining band on the planet we’d love to hear them.
Essential Release: The Art Of Partying (Earache, 2007)
The Canadians played a crucial, if unheralded, role in creating the thrash genre during the early 1980s. With yet another new line-up in place, the trio have finished recording a new album ,’Thrash Speed Burn’. Expect this later in 2007.
Essential release: Heavy Metal Maniac (Music For Nations, 1983)
One of the premier Bay Area heroes, Exodus have survived death, splits and trends. They continue to tour, and release albums that nearly match their illustrious past. A new record is currently in the pipeline, with returning drummer Tom Hunting.
Essential release: Bonded By Blood (Music For Nations, 1985)
Servants of the old school par excellence, Northern Ireland’s thrash squad bring a defiantly unfashionable dose of Agent Steel-influenced vocal histrionics to the table. With enough jagged, face-flaying riffs to polish off a swarm of zombies, these die-hard Nuclear Assault fans reek of bullet belts, tight jeans and scabby, bruised knuckles.
Essential Release: Survival Of The Fastest (Witches Brew, 2006)
Denmark hasn’t always been a fertile breeding ground for great metal bands, but Hatesphere kick-started a resurgence in that nation’s fortunes when they unveiled their own unique brand of arse-mincing, deathly thrash a few years back. Now meaner and leaner than ever, they’re one of Europe’s most respected masters of the art.
Essential Release: Serpent Smiles And Killer Eyes (SPV), 2007
With artwork by legendary artist Ed Repka (Megadeth, Nuclear Assault, Municipal Waste and many more) and an impressive arsenal of neck-threatening riffs, these Italians couldn’t be more authentic if they travelled back in time and hijacked Sacred Reich’s tour bus. Their motto? ‘Thrash now, work later!’ You know it makes sense.
Essential Release: And The Worst Is Yet To Come (Mausoleum), 2006
Arguably the finest of all Euro thrashers, Kreator discovered a new lease of life back in the 00s, touring Europe/Britain with Celtic Frost and proving they still had it. It wasn't until their 2012 album Phantom Antichrist that the band saw mainstream popularity, despite their earlier 1980s records having a huge influence on death and black metal.
Essential release: Pleasure To Kill (Noise, 1986)
Straight out of Canyon County, California, this spike-encrusted power trio are devotees of thrash metal’s dark side. Evoking the squealing, bone-crunching savagery of Dark Angel and Kreator, rhythm brothers Cesar and Andy Torres and guitarist Dan Holder look and sound like they’ve just stepped in from 1986.
Essential Release: Evil In The Night (Heavy Artillery), 2007
Formed in 1985 in San Francisco, Vio-lence are often credited as one of the leaders of the second wave of trash, along with Pantera, Sepultura, Sacred Reich and Dark Angel and Bay Area contemporaries Testament, Death Angel and Forbidden.
Notably, the band's founder Phil Demmel went on to play with fellow ex-Vio-lenc member Rob Flynne in Machine Head.
Essential Release: Eternal Nightmare (Megaforce)
Flying the flag for Cockney thrash, London’s premier speed merchants incorporated more hardcore and death metal influences into their sound than many of their peers, but it’s a potent and compelling combination.
Essential Release: Failure = Destruction EP (self-released)
Acclaimed as pioneers of death metal, Possessed never achieved more than cult status during the 1980s, splitting at the end of the decade. Amazingly, they’re still at it having reformed under original bassist and vocalist Jeff Becerra back in 2007.
Essential release: Seven Churches (Under One Flag, 1985)
Self-styled athletic rockers, Raven are among those bands who helped fashion thrash in the first place. Born out of the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal, the heavy hitting threesome continue to tour, and are also working on a new album.
Essential release: Rock Until You Drop (Neat, 1981)
S.S.S. (Short Sharp Shock)
Devoted to the simple pleasures of underground punk and hardcore, skateboarding, cult comics, films and deranged levels of audience participation, Liverpool’s lords of the fast and the furious are a four-man life-threatening dose of deafening fun. A thrilling live band, this lot will reduce the country to rubble.
Essential Release: S.S.S. (Earache, 2007)
The Pagan metalheads combined technical excellence with complex lyrics. They also released the first thrash concept album, Dreamweaver: Reflections Of Our Yesterdays. The Nottingham band split in 1991, but surprisingly returned in 2006, touring the UK and opening for Cradle of Filth. Sadly the band split once again, but at least we've still got the records, eh?
Essential release: ‘Dreamweaver: Reflections Of Our Yesterdays’ (Noise, 1989)
Once regarded as Britain’s brightest thrashers, the band seemed on the verge of taking on the world, when they released second album ‘In Search Of Sanity’ in 1989. Vocalist Steve Grimmett gave them a real cachet, and the momentum on the record looked to be unstoppable. But luck ran against them, and they split up in 1991, disenchanted with their situation.
However, the guys got back together in the mid 00s years ago, with original singer Sy Keeler recalled to the colours. Album Killing Peace proved they’re more than just a nostalgia trip, really keeping up with modern demands and sounding as vital as they did 30 years ago.
Essential release: Killing Peace (Candlelight, 2007)
Power Trip are the latest thrashers to re-ignite interest in the genre. The Texan quintet played this year's main stage at Download and are using their platform for good, introducing punk rock politics back into metal. Their classic old school sound has inspired a younger generation of world conscious thrashers, and we couldn't be happier about it!
Essential release: Nightmare Logic (Southern Lord, 2017)
Arguably the most important thrash band outside of The Big Four, and a potent argument for there having been a Big Five, Testament have been consistently impressive throughout their 35+ years together. Many actually predicted the Bay Area titans would overtake the likes of Metallica. But their 1990 album ‘Souls In Black’ was too far removed from their core thrash following.
Couple this with the arrival of grunge, and they were doomed. In 2005, the classic line-up re-formed for a brief tour, and this seemed to re-ignited interest. Their last two records their last two studio albums – 2012's Dark Roots of Earth and 2016's Brotherhood of the Snake – entered the Top 20 on the Billboard 200. Their next album is set for a January 2020 release.
Essential release: The New Order (Megaforce, 1988)
The Phoenix band were among the few socially conscious thrashers in the 80s. However, a failure to break into the major league led to an eventual split. In 2006, they made a come-back however, celebrating the re-issue of their acclaimed Ignorance album with a string of European shows, followed by an American tour. After signing to Metal Blade, the band are finally due to release their first album in over 20 years, Awakening, this year.
Essential release: Ignorance (Metal Blade, 1987)
Given a handy upward shove by Trivium, these North Carolina bruisers conquered the UK with their precise and gleaming blend of Megadeth-style precision and muscular anthemic bluster. Their 2007 debut album is an explosion of classy hooks and monstrous riffs that should make any thrash fan poo their denim pants.
Essential Release: Road To Bloodshed (Roadrunner, 2007)
Lurking with malicious intent at the nasty end of the metal spectrum, Skeletonwitch have turned small town Ohio life into an unstoppable weapon of thrash destruction. En route to completing their first full-length album, this mob of godless nutjobs are on a mission to reduce your neck muscles to mush.
Essential Release: Worship The Witch (Prosthetic, 2007)
The Germans invented beercore, all their lyrics being about boozing. Although never more than a cult name, they’ve not stopped working. Tankard are often considered one of the "Big Teutonic Four" of Teutonic thrash metal a.k.a. German thrash metal.
Essential release: Chemical Invasion (Noise, 1987)
These Lancashire lads were one of the leading members of the British thrash metal movements. While they never really hit the mainstream, they had regular air time on MTV's Headbangers Ball. The band have broken up and united twice, but as of the time of writing they are very much reunited and have released latest album, 2019's Bury The Pain –, the first album to be released by the band in 25 years.
Essential release: For Whose Advantage? (Roadrunner, 1990)