America gave us The Big 4 and it also gave us some of the greatest old-school thrash albums ever heard. Let’s face it, the Americans are the kings of thrash; they basically invented it, popularised it and took it global.
With that in mind, Worship Metal has selected the cream of old-school American thrash and popped it into a convenient list.
Overkill – The Years Of Decay (1989)
Overkill‘s last album of the decade – and the last Overkill album to feature guitarist Bobby Gustafson (he would be missed) – has gone down in thrash history as one of their finest and with the likes of “Time to Kill’, “Elimination” and “Birth Of Tension” in its arsenal, it’s not hard to see why!
With technical prowess and raw energy colliding head-long, Overkill were arguably at their peak on The Years Of Decay, with the “the Motörhead of thrash metal” fully realising their punk meets speed metal sound via 9 exceptional tracks that oozed supreme confidence and stunning variety.
Unique and compelling, this was East Coast thrash at its best…..delivered by a band whose unbelievable longevity can be attributed to releasing classics such as this!
Honourable mention: Take your pick from Taking Over (1987), Under The Influence (1988) or Horroscope (1991) as they’re all tippity fuckin’ top!
Anthrax – Among the Living (1987)
With Among the Living, all the ingredients that made Anthrax a fantastic proposition came together to form the perfect whole. Joey Belladonna was firmly ensconced at the helm and his melodic yet powerful vocals were exceptional throughout. Scott Ian and Dan Spitz combined thrillingly and cemented their reputation as one of the most skilled guitar partnerships in metal and Charlie Benante’s stunning, highly influential bass drum work propelled the band forward at breakneck speed throughout.
Lyrically and thematically, Among the Living combined the comic book/horror movie aesthetic, which can be found on Spreading the Disease and State of Euphoria with the social commentary found on Persistence Of Time, resulting in a near-perfect thrash album which holds it’s own against the greatest albums the genre has to offer.
Heavy on comic book, pop culture and horror movie imagery, (the cover artwork depicts the diabolical Rev. Henry Kane character from Poltergeist II & III), the most iconic reference is “I Am the Law”, their tribute to comic book enforcer Judge Dredd. This head-crushing stomp through nearly 6 minutes of coruscating riffs, courtesy of rhythm master Scott Ian, remains a fan favourite an incredible 33 years after it was written.
Honourable mention: The aforementioned Spreading The Disease (1985) and Persistence of Time (1990) are just as mandatory.
Vio-Lence – Eternal Nightmare (1988)
Quite simply one of the most fearless, ferocious and downright feral thrash albums ever recorded, Vio-Lence‘s debut, Eternal Nightmare, is the thrash connoisseur’s album of choice and ranks as high in both the aggression and sheer insanity stakes as Slayer’s Reign In Blood, Exodus’ Bonded By Blood and Dark Angel’s Darkness Descends!
Originally home to Machine Head men Robb Flynn and Phil Demmel (but you knew that already), just 7 tracks of thrash perfection was all it took to announce that a new breed of thrash maniacs were in town – that ‘town’ being, of course, San Francisco’s Bay Area – and with the likes of “Kill On Command”, “Bodies On Bodies” and “Calling In The Coroner” in their arsenal, Vio-Lence were on a collision course with underground notoriety and unending acclaim.
Sean Killian’s vocals remain an acquired taste but those ‘in the know’ understand that without him, Vio-Lence were nowhere near as unique nor as thrilling a prospect. As great thrash debuts go, Eternal Nightmare still takes some beating!
Exodus – Bonded By Blood (1985)
Exodus should have had it all; the fame, the fortune and their fair share of thrash metal’s spoils.
As it turned out, one of thrash’s most legendary albums comes from a band who hovered on the periphery of The Big 4 without ever making that leap into the big league. A bullshit situation! It’s fairly common knowledge that Bonded By Blood was actually recorded in 1984, but was held back for a ridiculous 9 months due to record label wrangling and that lost time proved to be more than just significant.
Instead of spearheading the scene they helped to create, Exodus found themselves endlessly playing catch up and they simply ran out of puff; forever chasing the pack and never actually gaining ground. But, Exodus were at the forefront of thrash, capable of out-riffing their Bay Area peers and, pound for pound, they were the heaviest, most dangerous, most unpredictable and most ferociously adept outfit on the block.
“Bonded By Blood”, “A Lesson In Violence”, “And Then There Were None”, “Piranha”, and “Strike Of The Beast” are all thrash gold, tarnished by bad timing but true treasures in thrash’s trove. While many bands would try to tap into the virulent violence that positively oozes from each track, none could match the intensity conjured by Paul Baloff, Gary Holt, Tom Hunting, Rick Hunolt and Rob McKillop.
Honourable mention: 1989’s Fabulous Disaster found Steve “Zetro” Souza fully bedded-in and Exodus were back to their best!
Testament – The New Order (1988)
We maintain that The New Order is Testament‘s greatest album, a full-bodied statement of intent from a band who knew they had an opportunity to not only compete with The Big 4 but surpass even their accomplishments!
History tells us that Testament would never quite break through to the same level as Metallica, Megadeth, Anthrax and Slayer but their recorded output defies that fact, and The New Order remains one of the most potent and consistently thrilling thrash albums in existence.
When an album reads like a greatest hits set you know you’re on to a winner and with the title track, “Trial by Fire,” “Disciples of the Watch and the iconic “Into the Pit” making up the core of this legendary album, The New Order‘s credentials speak for themselves.
Reeking of quality, Testament’s The New Order is mandatory listening for anyone with even a passing interest in thrash and epitomises why thrash dominated the 80’s like no other genre!
Honourable mention: Both Testament’s debut, The Legacy, and 1989’s Practice What You Preach are also beyond reproach and utterly essential.
Megadeth – Rust In Peace (1990)
With Rust In Peace, Mega-Dave finally realised his vision for Megadeth by recording the pinnacle of precision thrash and attacking with a force to rival a nuclear detonation. Backed by a weapons-grade, crystal clear production job, Megadeth’s intricate riffing and earth-shattering speed created an album that was machine-like, yet never soulless.
Rust In Peace ushered in an era where the likes of Voivod, Annihilator and Coroner could showcase their virtuosity without fear. These were thrash musicians who could really play and Megadeth were at the forefront; primed and ready to unleash their arsenal of tricks.
The band were at their peak in 1990, Mustaine recruited shred legend Marty Friedman (Cacophony) to provide the stunning guitar acrobatics while the rhythm section of Dave Ellefson and Nick Menza locked into a relentless groove; technique and ruthless artistry combining to produce incomparable thrash metal with no let-up and no mercy.
In 1990, the greatest line up in Megadeth’s history produced the greatest album in Megadeth’s long, illustrious career; it still sounds futuristic today.
Honourable mention: Spoiler alert! It pains us to say it but Peace Sells… but Who’s Buying? does not show up later in this list. It’s obviously essential but we just couldn’t find room for it on this particular list.
Metallica – Master Of Puppets (1986)
Still recording music on their own terms and not bowing to record label pressure to adopt a more mainstream approach – that particular compromise was still 5 years away – Metallica’s third album remains an intense, passionate and progressive high-water mark in thrash history.
The track listing speaks for itself. “Battery” does exactly that, it batters you senseless, while “Master Of Puppets is a stone-cold-crazy classic and requires no further evaluation. “The Thing That Should Not Be” still hits like a brick to the gonads and conjures imagery of leviathan-esque, Lovecraftian monsters hell-bent on destruction; a rival to “For Whom The Bell Tolls” in imagery, atmosphere and execution.
The remainder of the album is no slouch either, the band crafting a record that has rightfully gone down in history as a true metal classic, regardless of sub-genre.
So, why not higher, you may ask?
There’s no denying this is one of the greatest records in heavy metal history but it actually plays it safe in many aspects. By following their Ride The Lightning formula to the letter, (hell-for-leather thrasher followed by epic title track, followed by atmospheric, slow-burner etc), Metallica diluted Master Of Puppets impact with over familiarity and quasi-sequel status. That’s not to say this album isn’t anything less than an absolute triumph, but a little bravery with dynamics and song order could have elevated it even further.
With that in mind, the album nestled at Number 3 may not be too surprising….
Metallica – Ride The Lightning (1984)
The argument to end all arguments; which is the greater achievement, Ride The Lightning or Master of Puppets? Both are outstanding, groundbreaking albums and both follow the same 8 track format in dynamics and construct but Ride The Lightning just edges it (for us, anyway).
Released almost a year to the day after their genre defining debut, Kill ‘Em All, hit the shelves, Metallica’s monumental progression was palpable and Ride The Lightning should be revered as Metallica’s greatest achievement.
From the misleading medieval acoustic intro to “Fight Fire With Fire” – which culminates in one of Metallica’s most neck-wrecking songs – to “Creeping Death”, a song that deserves its place in the metal hall of fame, Ride The Lightning remains virtually untouchable.
This album slayed the competition during the genre’s formative years and laid down an insurmountable challenge to their peers; this is thrash, Hatfield, Ulrich, Hammett and Burton roared in your face…..can you beat it? Unsurprisingly, not many could!
As electrifying today as it was nearly 35 years ago.
Honourable mention: …and Justice for All (1988) warrants at least a cursory mention, even if it’s not in the same league as MoP and RtL.
Slayer – Reign In Blood (1986)
29 frantic minutes, 10 blistering tracks.
This pinnacle of thrash perfection was created by a band who epitomised the scene like no other. Dave Lombardo’s aggressive and revolutionary drumming, Kerry King and Jeff Hanneman’s piercing, puncturing riffs and Tom Araya’s growling bass and vocals, somehow merged to create extreme metal which transcended genre and solidified their position among the thrash elite.
Slayer played harder than anyone else , they played faster than anyone else and Reign In Blood was more ruthless and more clinically effective than any thrash album that had come before it. And, while it may be no easy listen, Reign In Blood remains an endlessly rewarding experience and its insistent and incendiary nature never fails to surprise.
Backed up by Rick Rubin’s (Metallica/System Of A Down/Slipknot) pristine, significantly ahead of its time production, Slayer crafted an album that has arguably never been equaled in ferocity – although Dark Angel’s shockingly savage Darkness Descends and Kreator’s Pleasure To Kill came damn close!
Reign In Blood changed the shape of thrash overnight…..and even Slayer themselves would never surpass it!
Honourable mention: Slayer’s South of Heaven has aged remarkably well and is now, rightfully regarded, as an all time thrash classic.
Dark Angel – Darkness Descends (1986)
Unbridled ferocity, technical supremacy and relentless aural battery….is there a more succinct description of the greatest thrash metal album of all time?
Featuring the likes of the rampaging “Merciless Death”, the incendiary “The Burning Of Sodom” and the progressively minded “Black Prophecies“, the first indication of the 100+ riffs per song and epic song length mentality the band would explore on later releases was writ large on Dark Angel‘s terrifyingly tenacious, genre-defining, debut.
The eerie yet elegant bass intro to the aforementioned “Merciless Death” aside, moments of respite were few and far between on Darkness Descends, as Dark Angel focused on thrashing harder, faster and with more gritted teeth malevolence than any other band on the planet…..and that includes the mighty Slayer!
This immortal entry in the history of thrash metal has lost absolutely none of its power.
Honourable mention: 1991’s Time Does Not Heal is a technical masterclass and deserves every accolade thrown its way!
More honourable mentions: Every album you feel should be included and hasn’t been! We acknowledge that no Nuclear Assault, no Death Angel, no Sacred Reich, no Suicidal Tendencies, no Possessed (more death than thrash), no Forbidden, no Flotsam and Jetsam and no Heathen etc will upset many of you. And, you’d be right. But there’s just too many milestones of American thrash to squeeze into one Top 10 list!
Check out our other related thrash features in this series: