The 10 Essential 80s Thrash Metal Albums

AARDSHOCK FESTIVAL, James Hetfield and Kirk Hammett performing live onstage
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It used to be easy. Ever so easy: there was heavy, and there was metal.

But then something began stirring in San Francisco at the beginning of the 1980s, some spotty, basement-dwelling oiks who rarely ventured out into the West Coast sunshine began getting inspired by rapid-fire mid-70s punk and late-70s New Wave Of British Heavy Metal aggression.

Its genesis came when a fledgling Metallica made a demo, No Life ’Til Leather, in 1982. This was thrash at its most formative, But the tape came at the right moment. These were stodgy times for heavy metal in the States. Metallica’s livewire tactics jolted a dormant scene back to life.

San Francisco duly exploded with a livid rash of raw young thrash acts. Before long the creeping death had extended right across the US. Then the disease spread to Europe, onto Germany and then down into the heart of Brazil…

Metallica - Kill ’Em All

Metallica started off young, dumb and full of Absolut vodka. But they quickly outgrew their ‘Alcoholica’ nickname, denounced the thrash movement and distanced themselves from their peers. Nevertheless, debut album Kill ’Em All still sounds raw and rampant. 

The guitars rattle like Gatling guns, but there are also all-important songs, as NWOBHM influences are brought to bear. The track titles remain achingly familiar: Seek & Destroy, Phantom Lord, Whiplash… and, of course, (Anesthesia) Pulling Teeth, the stunning showcase for late bassist Cliff Burton. This is as far away from St Anger as the Earth is from Uranus.

Anthrax - Spreading The Disease

Years before they pioneered rap metal with I’m The Man and Bring The Noise, Anthrax were battling with Testament for a spot in the thrash top three dominated by Metallica, Slayer and Megadeth

Shrill singer Joey Belladonna was too traditional a frontman for some, but what set Anthrax apart was a dark sense of humour (truly evident on side projects S.O.D and M.O.D). Spreading… recalls a lighthearted Metallica and is fuelled by Scott Ian’s chunking guitar playing. 

Anthrax set out their stall on their debut album Fistful Of Metal with the song Metal Thrashing Mad. Spreading… delivers the Aftershock.

Exodus - Bonded By Blood

Kirk Hammett was in an early version of this band’s line-up. Hammett was poached by Metallica to replace Dave Mustaine, and Exodus drafted in replacement guitarist Rick Hunolt. But by the time Bonded… came out, Metallica were poised to deliver their breakthrough Master Of Puppets; Exodus had become just another band in a burgeoning scene. 

That said, this is still full of pummelling power, and A Lesson In Violence is just that: a tutorial in bloody ferocity. Vocalist Paul Baloff (who died in ’02) quit after this, to be replaced by Steve ‘Zetro’ Sousa. Baloff rejoined in the late 90s, but it was too late. Time had again passed Exodus by.

Possessed - Seven Churches

Possessed never really got the attention they deserved and always stayed a cult band, despite the fact that they judiciously covered all the bases: a bit of thrash here, a soupçon of death there, and copious mentions of Satan to round it all off. 

A quick look at the track titles tells you all you need to know about Seven Churches: Exorcist, Burning In Hell, Pentagram… why, there’s even a song called Death Metal

Follow-up album Beyond The Gates sadly wasn’t as good, and then the band inexplicably got Joe Satriani in to produce their third release, The Eyes Of Horror. Guitarist Larry LaLonde went on to find fame in Primus.

Slayer - Reign In Blood 

Incredibly, Slayer were something of a joke before Reign In Blood. Admittedly, the depraved Hell Awaits (’85) had the cognoscenti raising their coffin lids in curiosity. But it took Reign… to perform a full-blown exhumation. 

This isn’t just a superb thrash record, it’s one of the greatest metal releases ever. Producer Rick Rubin finessed Slayer into seriously warped gore-hounds. The album, which kicks off with the molten Angel Of Death, lasts for only about 30 minutes. 

But imagine standing for that length of time beneath a wind-farm generator and having your skull cleaved repeatedly by its whirling propellers. Such is the impact of Reign In Blood.

Megadeth - Peace Sells… But Who’s Buying? 

Megadeth were the first act to take the essential ingredients of thrash – volume, attitude, brutality – and streamline them with shred-like soloing. Dave Mustaine’s fancy guitar brought hitherto uncharted musicality to the genre, and his highbrow lyrics had noise-hungry Neanderthals scratching their heads in bewilderment. 

But the seething indignation that crackled through Wake Up Dead and Black Friday, plus the songs’ convoluted structure, made people realise that thrash wasn’t simply about grunting. Never was Mustaine’s ‘fuck-you-Metallica’ message put so eloquently.

Dark Angel - Darkness Descends

Even though their singer laboured under the namby-pamby moniker of Don Doty, Dark Angel were immense. Some might quibble at our inclusion here of the band’s semi-obscure Darkness Descends, but in the language of the time we can only retort: FOAD. 

Produced by Randy Burns (Nuclear Assault) and stoked by bulldozing drummer Gene Hoglan, Dark Angel never matched the glories of this, their second album. Every song is an evil riff-monger, as you would expect with names such as Hunger Of The Undead and The Burning Of Sodom

Meanwhile, if neck-shivering nihilism is your bag, then Death Is Certain (Life Is Not) is the track on the rack.

Destruction - Eternal Devastation

We once saw Destruction support Motörhead. Lemmy and co had an off-night and the German band took full advantage, reducing them to the level of a geriatric string quartet. 

Spearheaded by charismatic bassist/vocalist Schmier, Destruction showed that even if the local take on traditional heavy metal was clueless, by contrast Deutschlanders were born to distort. 

Destruction struck just the right chord on Life Without Sense, which bristles with breathless hate and power. Curse The Gods is equally mind-numbing. If you can’t bear an entire album, the Mad Butcher EP (’87) should do nicely instead.

Testament - The Legacy 

Testament began life as Legacy with vocalist Steve ‘Zetro’ Sousa (later of Exodus), but Chuck Billy joined for this first album, whose title paid homage to the band’s, er, legacy. 

Testament also gained a new guitarist (Alex Skolnick) and the results were spectacular. The band were more adept than many of their rivals. Twin-guitar harmonies and melodic intros dragged you out of the pit and gave you a hose-down. 

Then tracks like COTLOD (Curse Of The Legions Of Death, natch) threw you back into the flailing bodies again. Billy was the first thrash throat with the skill to switch seamlessly from shouting to singing, and back again.

Sepultura - Beneath The Remains 

Brazil’s Sepultura were more of a death metal outfit on their initial releases. But by the time …Remains came around the band had refined their sound, replacing studied morbidity with superhuman intensity. 

This is a marvellous record, up there with the best of Slayer. It’s a triumph of lacerating technicality, with high-speed grinding riffs and a sludgy industrial undercurrent. 

You know exactly what you’re getting on Lobotomy with its chant of ‘Brain killing brain!’ while Inner Self (‘Walking these dirty streets/With hate in my mind’) is a chilling tale of life in a third-world country. The last great thrash album of the 80s. Stronger Than Hate, indeed.

For more thrash and 80s goodness check out the latest issue of Metal Hammer magazine – it's an 80s extravaganza! For more information and to peak inside click here or just go ahead and order your copy over at My Favourite Magazines.

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Geoff Barton

Geoff Barton is a British journalist who founded the heavy metal magazine Kerrang! and was an editor of Sounds music magazine. He specialised in covering rock music and helped popularise the new wave of British heavy metal (NWOBHM) after using the term for the first time (after editor Alan Lewis coined it) in the May 1979 issue of Sounds.