The Big Four. We all know what that means, eh? A celebration of the greatness of thrash. Metallica. Slayer. Megadeth. Anthrax. Paragons of ‘80s metal. The bands who created the blueprint for the genre. Those without whom… Blah! Blah! Blah.
People got so carried away a few years ago when the Big Four announced they were doing shows together. It was hailed as ‘The Greatest Moment In Metal’ or ‘a titanic event never to be repeated’ etc. But what does this Big Four bollocks actually mean? And do we have the right bands in there?
For a start, the whole concept of the Big Four goes against everything thrash was supposed to stand for, and against. Leaving aside the glory of the music, thrash has always been celebrated because it was the first genuinely global phenomenon in metal. Bands came from everywhere, whereas previously, everyone really looked to America and Britain to get its metal might. There were the very occasional bands from elsewhere, but those who made an international impact were rare. Thrash opened up the planet. Suddenly, talent was flooding out from seemingly every country.
Thrash taught us that anyone could get up and play metal, if they had the focus, talent and bottle. You didn’t need huge dollops of dough. Like punk, thrash was for everyone. And that’s the second point, there was no hierarchy in thrash. The fans and the bands were inextricably linked – it was truly a movement of equals, connected by a complete love of the music.
Consequently, the Big Four should never have been drawn up. Firstly, it concentrated solely on America. Secondly, it was exclusive, rather than inclusive. You could say it was racist and elitist – more in keeping with an extreme right wing movement, wouldn’t you say? And the bands in the Big Four would unquestionably be horrified by this suggestion, as we should all be. The Big Four ran counter to everything thrash was supposed to represent.
Of course, there was an attempt to redress the balance, by proclaiming the German Big Four: Kreator, Destruction, Sodom, Tankard. But that rang very hollow. Some people have even put forward the theory that the Big Four should be expanded, to include Testament, Exodus and Overkill. But this still doesn’t make it any more than a sop to supposed American superiority in this field. Besides, it’s irrelevant how much you expand this collective, it will always remain artificial. There will always be the Big Four, and any additions would be seen as the second division of the premier thrash league.
No, the only way now to tackle this historical blunder is to take a dispassionate look at thrash as it stands, and try to come up with a selection of bands who are the Thrash Icons. Those who still shape the way thrash is developing, yet are firmly aligned with original ideology, and without whom the genre would have never have claimed such an enduring hold on metal for three decades.
When you consider it in this fashion, then obviously Metallica and Slayer seemingly stand tall. The former might not have done anything worthwhile for a quarter-of-a-century, but their impact has been incalculable. Only a moron would decry their status. Slayer? Well, how can you possibly argue with Hell Awaits, _Reign In Blood _or South Of Heaven? They have been the benchmark for would-be thrashers for so long. But if we are to keep this grouping to just four, then who else should be considered? I would say it comes down to Megadeth, Anthrax, Sepultura and Kreator. The point now isn’t to come up with the final choice, but to make the case for Kreator.
Of the many worthy bands to come out of the European thrash scene, which was at least as important as the movement in the States, Kreator were the most ambitious, creative and apocalyptic. Their sound and style was the blueprint for so much that came afterwards. Debut album Endless Pain (1985) was perhaps as groundbreaking as Kill ‘Em All had been two years previously. It was pernicious and pummelling, yet had quality in abundance. But what also marks out Kreator was a remarkable grasp of what was going on musically within other genres. Terrible Certainty, their third album, displayed a far more complex study, and by Renewal (released five years later, in 1992), they were flying off into more gothic and industrial influences, getting heavier and more underground at a time when others were trying be more mainstream.
And that is an essential part of what has given Kreator such longevity: a refusal to give up finding ways of pushing themselves to more extreme levels. It’s meant they’ve been forever restless. This spirit is wrapped around more recent albums like 2012’s Phantom Antichrist, which are as vital as anything they’ve done throughout nearly 30 years of releasing music. Sorry, that is not the case with any of the American Big Four, nor with the other members of the Germanic Big Four. Come to think of it, when was the last time Sepultura did a must-have album?
Kreator’s creativity is undoubted, unquestioned and unfettered. They have also not had to resort to rehashing classics in the studio, working with orchestras or doing covers albums. Mille Petrozza and his hacking hordes have remained true to the all-encompassing spirit of thrash.
And that spirit is never more obvious than onstage. This has always been where thrash has stood apart from any other form of music. The mutual energy generated by band and fans can be remarkable, almost life affirming – the electricity shared by moshers and musos is unique. Kreator emphasise this every time they perform. As is in London, at The Forum. The band are stunning, providing the perfect balance between the primal passion of the full-on musical drive and the more elaborate stage show. It’s all so organic and simple. It’s as if we are in a dirty basement club – hot, sweaty and breathless – while also enjoying the visuals and effects of an arena extravaganza.
Kreator clearly care deeply about their heritage, yet are also far from a nostalgia act. Even the older material has a modern edge. This is state-of-the-art thrash, but melded to old school values.
Hang on a minute… The bottom line, and maybe the most important one of all, is that we are supposed to be talking about thrash metal here. And what have Metallica, Megadeth and Anthrax have had to do with this for… well, for decades? Not a lot. That’s not to deride what they have been doing, but can you really hold them up now as inspirations for young thrashers? Their back catalogues stand proud to be loud, but the bands themselves have long moved on to more furtive, fertile territories. And even Slayer have become rather stagnant and backward. Whereas Kreator are still primal, prime thrash. In fact, they could now be regarded as the godfathers of the entire movement as it stands in 2014. They are IT – Iconic Thrashers.
So maybe the question is not whether Kreator should be put into an elite category (if you accept that such a beast should exist), but rather who else should join them? Is it time, therefore, to scrap both Big Fours and start all over again, with Kreator as the fulcrum? To paraphrase the band themselves, it’s time to raise the new flag of greats!