Throughout heavy metal's dizzying evolution and splicing into countless subgenres (and subgrenres of subgenres), thrash metal's core DNA of high-tempo riffage, ripping solos and full-throttle, double-bass drumming has remained largely intact. Be it Bay Area originators, German trailblazers or modern, hi-topped upstarts, the purity of what makes a truly great thrash metal anthem is what has helped it survive as one of metal's most enduring offspring.
Still, that's not to say that thrash hasn't had a fascinating journey. Born in the shadow of Reaganomics and in stark contrast to the pretty-boy glam metal scene that had swamped the US, thrash ultimately gave us heavy metal's biggest band, Metallica, who controversially left the scene behind in the 90s only to embrace it once again in the 21st century. It's also provided some of metal's most controversial moments, most notable feuds and a host of iron-clad classic albums along the way. With the latter in mind, here are five essential albums that document thrash metal's evolution across the last four decades.
Metallica - Kill 'Em All (1983)
The likes of Venom, Black Sabbath and even Queen had produced songs that'd prove hugely influential to thrash metal, but truthfully, the real ground zero for thrash as we know and love it today came courtesy of a band of four horsemen putting out their debut album on July 25, 1983. Metallica would go on to create better albums, and few could argue against Master Of Puppets being thrash metal's definitive artistic statement, but Kill 'Em All's searing speed metal assault marked a sea change in heavy music, sparking an arms race of bands playing faster, harder and more aggressively than ever.
Four decades on, it still holds up magnificently. Hit The Lights remains Metallica's most delightfully off-the-rails album opener, the likes of Motorbreath and Whiplash seethe with righteous punk fury and The Four Horsemen packs a riff so good that Dave Mustaine made sure he got to keep some credit for it by reinventing it as Mechanix a few years later. Seek & Destroy, meanwhile, remains one of Metallica's most popular set-closers, forty years after its release. Given their back catalogue to this point, that's a hell of a legacy.
Kreator - Pleasure To Kill (1986)
While the Bay Area scene was busily putting thrash metal on the map in the States, a fearsome group of German bands were doing exactly the same in Europe. Indeed, through Kreator, Sodom, Destruction and Tankard, Germany had its very own Big Four of thrash, with some of the genre's finest entries coming in a whirlwind five-year period courtesy of that imperious quartet. Of all those Teutonic thrash records to have emerged around that time, however, few were as influential or as deserving of instant-classic status as Kreator's timeless Pleasure To Kill.
The Essen crew's second studio album was a ferocious, relentless barrage of razor-sharp riffs, fretboard-eviscerating solos and pummelling drums, anchored by the gravely, unmistakable bark of Mille Petrozza. Its songs and production would influence everything from three generations of thrash to death and black metal, elevating Kreator as one of the single most important European metal bands of all time. Well over three decades on, Pleasure To Kill still sounds potent and essential.
Slayer - Reign In Blood (1986)
Has any genre of music ever enjoyed a year like thrash metal did in 1986? The list of great albums to emerge in that twelve month period is dizzying: Master Of Puppets, Pleasure To Kill, Peace Sellls..., Darkness Descends, Possessed By Fire, Eternal Devastation...we really could go on and on. No other album from that year, though, managed to encapsulate thrash's ability to sound like music made by the devil himself like Reign In Blood.
Arguably metal's most perfectly concise statement of intent, Tom Araya, Kerry King, Jeff Hanneman and Dave Lombardo delivered a flawless, 35-minute blitz of heavy-as-sin, intricate riffing, snarling, controversy-courting lyrics and kit-battering drumwork. Bookended by two stone-cold classics in the infamous Angel Of Death and legendary Raining Blood, Slayer's third album sounds every bit as edgy, furious and straight-up terrifying now as it did all those years ago. Reign In Blood is thrash metal incarnate. It's as simple as that.
Sepultura - Beneath The Remains (1989)
A vitally important band not just in terms of heavy metal's evolution, but in people's perception of metal's vitality outside of Europe and North America, Sepultura's progression from extreme metal underdogs to thrash heavyweights to proto-nu metal groovers in the space of ten years was awe-inspiring. Few of their albums, however, have been as essential to their standing in the metal scene as Beneath The Remains.
The Brazilians' Roadrunner debut saw a significant upgrade in their sound, layering the death metal underbelly of their previous work with sharpened thrash metal and a beefy production job courtesy of Scott Burns that made them sound colossal. Packing lyrics that matched thrash's historic flirtations with war and dystopia with the kind of self-empowerment philosophies that underpinned much of US punk and hardcore, Sepultura not only created a thrash metal classic, but an album that'd appeal to countless corners of the heavy music world.
Power Trip - Nightmare Logic (2017)
While the likes of Gama Bomb, Municipal Waste and Toxic Holocaust did a fine job of bringing thrash to a new generation, the truth is that the scene itself was in need of a real shot in the arm come the 2010s. Enter Texans Power Trip, who with 2017's Nightmare Logic gave us not only the first truly essential thrash metal album in years, but a modern metal classic full-stop.
Underpinning thrash's scything riffs with a hardcore backbone and lashings of punk rock attitude, Power Trip both honoured thrash's legacy while giving it a true 21st century upgrade that felt vital, thrilling and cutting edge. The album's Grammy-nominated lead single, Swing Of The Axe, an irresistible, chugging, heavy metal banger, provided thrash's first breakout anthem for a generation, positioning the Dallas five-piece as the band to take the scene into a new era. Sadly, with the death of beloved and charismatic frontman Riley Gale in 2020, that destiny was never fulfilled.