Metallica. Megadeth. Slayer. Anthrax. The thrash Elite; The Big 4.
Over the years, bands such as Exodus, Testament, Overkill, Death Angel, Kreator, Sodom and Destruction may all have pushed for the term to become The Big 5 (or more) but in influence and album sales, The Big 4 were The Big 4 for a reason. These guys were at the forefront of the movement and they recorded the albums that broke new ground and sold a simply staggering 160 million+ albums between them.
Thrash metal was a breath of very fresh air in the early 1980’s, with the speed and snot-nosed aggression of punk merging seamlessly with the power chords and ingenious guitar solos orchestrated by New Wave Of British Heavy Metal heroes such as Iron Maiden, Saxon, Diamond Head, Tygers of Pan Tang, Raven, Venom and Angel Witch. The innovators would become The Big 4: Metallica, Megadeth, Slayer and Anthrax; fearless figureheads in an ever-growing scene.
History tells us that all 4 bands sold millions of albums and repeatedly toured the globe but which album can truly be considered the greatest Big 4 album of them all?
Let battle commence….
10. Anthrax – Spreading The Disease (1985)
1. A.I.R. 2. Lone Justice 3. Madhouse 4. S.S.C./Stand or Fall 5. The Enemy 6. Aftershock 7. Armed and Dangerous 8. Medusa 9. Gung-Ho
Anthrax settled on their melodic yet crunching sound on Spreading The Disease and it catapulted them to the forefront of the then fledgling thrash metal scene. Containing perennial favourites “A.I.R”, “Madhouse” and “Gung Ho”, this record still ranks as one of the greatest achievements from the genre’s infancy.
The arrival of front-man Joey Belladonna solidified the bands melodic sound, adding clarity and a real singing voice to their thrash attack. Alongside Scott Ian’s crunchy-as-a-deep-fried armadillo-riffs and Charlie Benante’s frantic footwork, thrash metal had found its new favourite sons; super-stardom beckoned.
Bucking a trend that had barely begun, Spreading The Disease embraced the classic heavy metal of old – as opposed to worshiping the likes of Venom, Raven, Diamond Head and other New Wave of British Heavy Metal alumni – and it was this calculated and brave nod to the old school that led to an instant classic.
Recommended Track: “A.I.R”. Early era thrash at its most contagious, Anthrax had fully arrived (we’re not really counting the more trad metal leanings of Fistful of Metal, sorry) and they were heading to the top!
9. Metallica – …And Justice For All (1988)
1. Blackened 2. …And Justice for All 3. Eye of the Beholder 4. One 5. The Shortest Straw 6. Harvester of Sorrow 7. The Frayed Ends of Sanity 8. To Live Is to Die (Instrumental) 9. Dyers Eve
This album is rightfully celebrated as a milestone in thrash history and Metallica would never be this epic, this expansive and this experimental again. They would also never release a true thrash album again which is why this record should be treasured.
…And Justice For All attempted to rival technical thrashers such as Coroner, Realm and Anacrusis, as Metallica recovered from the death of Bassist Cliff Burton by proving they could survive without his guidance. “Blackened” kicked off proceedings and it’s clear that Cliff Burton’s sad passing had really fired the boys up; desperate to prove they were still relevant despite the absence of their talismanic bass player, the band went nuclear from the get-go.
“One”, “Harvester Of Sorrow” and “Dyers Eve”, all provide the requisite punch to the gut and only the over-long and slightly dull “The Frayed Ends Of Sanity” let the side down. In hindsight, …And Justice For All may have its flaws (bone-dry production and Jason Newsted’s mostly inaudible bass) but at least it’s a Metallica ‘thrash’ album, and for that we should be eternally grateful.
“Do you hear what I hear?”, snarls James Hetfield on the absurdly catchy, stop-start rifferama of “Eye Of The Beholder”. We do James, and we still like it!
Recommended Track: “One”. The ‘one’ that propelled Metallica into the metal elite comes complete with disturbing video (their first, incidentally) and remains an undisputed classic; borderline hard rock ballad for the first 4 and a half mins, killer thrash attack for the final 3 mins. Untouchable.
8. Anthrax – Persistence Of Time (1990)
1. Time 2. Blood 3. Keep It in the Family 4. In My World 5. Gridlock 6. Intro to Reality 7. Belly of the Beast 8. Got the Time 9. H8 Red 10. One Man Stands 11. Discharge
Persistence Of Time was the last Anthrax album to feature vocalist Joey Belladonna until 2011’s Worship Music and he bowed out with a bang; Persistence Of Time is a timeless thrash record that has barely aged a day.
The songs which elevate this album to classic status are the dark and foreboding epics “Time”, “Blood”, “Keep It In the Family” and “In My World”. On these tracks, Heavy-ass Thrash collides with Progressive Metal to create a paranoid excursion into the seedy underbelly of modern life. All but abandoning the goofy sense of humour which permeated through their previous releases, on Persistence Of Time Anthrax changed tact entirely and a bleak tone replaces the pop-culture themes of old.
This departure into murkier waters may seem alien and against their original philosophy but in light of the progression made by Metallica, Megadeth et all in the early nineties, this darker sound and mature approach was admirable and frankly necessary.
At least we had “Got The Time” to lighten the mood…..proof that the fun-loving side of Anthrax was never to far away!
Recommended Track: “Blood”. Anthrax and social commentary may seem odd bedfellows but “Blood” is a frighteningly realistic indictment of violent crime and showcases Anthrax’s ability to confound expectation.
7. Slayer – Seasons In The Abyss (1990)
1. War Ensemble 2. Blood Red 3. Spirit in Black 4. Expendable Youth 5. Dead Skin Mask 6. Hallowed Point 7. Skeletons of Society 8. Temptation 9. Born of Fire 10. Seasons in the Abyss
Seasons In The Abyss is the one Slayer album which successfully combines the all-out assault of Reign in Blood with the more considered, ominous grooves of South Of Heaven and the result is the most accessible album of Slayer‘s illustrious career.
Put simply, if you think you don’t like Slayer, this album may change your mind.
All out thrashers such as “War Ensemble” and “Hallowed Point” cosy up to catchier (don’t be surprised, Slayer didn’t always play at warp speed) material such as “Blood Red” and “Skeletons Of Society”. While on “Dead Skin Mask” and the epic title-track, Slayer proved they could stretch thrash metal’s boundaries without sacrificing their macabre sound.
Singer/Bassist Tom Araya also lays down the most accomplished vocals of his career, inflecting each vicious couplet with previously unheard harmony; the chorus of “Seasons In The Abyss” stands testament to his vocal ability, proving he was capable of more than just bark and bite.
Slayer achieved a deft balancing act on Seasons In The Abyss, the fantastical, hellish themes of old jostling with our planet’s real life atrocities (War/Urban Gang Violence/Serial Killers) to create an atmosphere with as many peaks and troughs as their many varied riffs.
Seasons In The Abyss is a mature thrash record from a band who would go on to wave the thrash metal flag throughout the grunge dominated 90’s; their peers deserted them but Slayer held strong, defiant to the end.
Recommended Track: “Seasons In The Abyss”. Morbid and unsettling yet mature and considered and one hell of a way to close a virtually flawless album.
6. Anthrax – Among The Living (1987)
1. Among The Living 2. Caught In A Mosh 3. I Am The Law 4. Efilnikufesin (N.F.L.) 5. A Skeleton In The Closet 6. Indians 7. One World 8. A.D.I. / Horror Of It All 9. Imitation Of Life
On Among the Living, all the ingredients that make Anthrax great came together to form the perfect whole.
Joey Belladonna had bedded in and his melodic yet powerful vocals are exceptional throughout while Scott Ian and Dan Spitz combine thrillingly to cement their reputation as one of the most skilled guitar partnerships in Metal. But the real force on this album is down to Charlie Benante and his stunning, highly influential bass drum work which propels the band forward at breakneck speed throughout.
Lyrically and thematically Among the Living combines 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 the comic book, pop culture and horror movie imagery, (the cover image 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. A head-crushing stomp through nearly 6 minutes of coruscating riffs courtesy of rhythm master Scott Ian, “I Am The Law” remains a fan favourite 27 years after it was written.
Anthrax have come close over the years to bettering this album, 1990’s Persistence Of Time really does run it a very close second, but Among The Living remains their defining moment.
Recommended Track: Caught in a Mosh, an anthem for anyone who has ever loved thrash!
5. Megadeth – Peace Sells…But Who’s Buying (1986)
1. Wake Up Dead 2. The Conjuring 3. Peace Sells 4. Devils Island 5. Good Mourning/Black Friday 6. Bad Omen 7. I Ain’t Superstitious 8. My Last Words
In terms of musicianship and compositional skill, Peace Sells…But Who’s Buying, represented a monumental leap forward from the previous years Killing Is My Business… album.
This time, Lead Guitarist/Singer/Songwriter Dave Mustaine assembled a posse of musicians who could match his knack for melody and dead-shot Metal marksmanship; the results were stunning.
The first four tracks on this album are virtually untouchable. “Wake up Dead” kicks off proceedings with enough riffs and tempo changes to pad out an entire album, while “The Conjuring” is a devilishly diabolical ode to the power of Black Magic. Track 3 is where the band truly stamped down their mark on the thrash scene;”Peace Sells” was the colossal hit that slapped the mainstream round the face with its badass bass line and “Devil’s Island” stands as a thrash showcase of predatory power and scintillating speed.
Peace Sells…But Who’s Buying remains a thrash metal milestone and one that could easily be considered their defining moment, were it not for the band surpassing themselves just 4 years later….
Recommended Track: “Wake Up Dead”, Megadeth’s first ever single and a bonafide thrash classic.
4. Megadeth – Rust In Peace (1990)
1. Holy Wars… The Punishment Due 2. Hangar 18 3. Take No Prisoners 4. Five Magics 5. Poison Was The Cure 6. Lucretia 7. Tornado Of Souls 8. Dawn Patrol 9. Rust In Peace… Polaris
On 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.
Listing highlights would be unnecessary, the album is as clinical as a military operation and no track should be skipped.
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.
Recommended Track: “Holy Wars…The Punishment Due”, one of the finest songs in thrash history and an exercise in precision Metal performed to perfection.
3. Metallica – Master Of Puppets (1986)
1. Battery 2. Master of Puppets 3. The Thing That Should Not Be 4. Welcome Home (Sanitarium) 5. Disposable Heroes 6. Leper Messiah 7. Orion (Instrumental) 8. Damage, Inc.
Still recording music on their own terms and not bowing to record label pressure to adopt a more mainstream approach, that compromise was still 5 years away, Metallica‘s third album is an intense, passionate, progressive moment in Thrash history, proving once and for all that the scene had much to offer.
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” 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 Heavy Metal classic, regardless of sub-genre.
There is no denying that 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 is not to say this album isn’t anything less than a 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 2 may not be too surprising….
Recommended Track: “Master Of Puppets”, of course! 8 mins and 36 secs of absolute perfection, Metallica would never again sound so confident, fearless and at ease with themselves and Cliff Burton’s formidable shadow looms large over his favourite track from the album.
2. Metallica – Ride The Lightning (1984)
1. Fight Fire With Fire 2. Ride The Lightning 3. For Whom The Bell Tolls 4. Fade To Black 5. Trapped Under Ice 6. Escape 7. Creeping Death 8. The Call Of Ktulu
Well here it is, 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 edges it for us.
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 the band’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 is still untouchable. This album slayed the competition during the genre’s formative years and laid down an insurmountable challenge to their peers; this is thrash, they roared in your face. Can you beat it? Not many could!
In the 1980’s Metallica were the biggest band in heavy metal, not just thrash metal, and Ride the Lightning is as electrifying today as it was 36 years ago.
Recommended Track: “For Whom The Bell Tolls”. Cliff Burton’s terrifying bass intro sets the scene and his Armageddon-esque atmospherics never the loosen their grip for the entire song.
1. Slayer – Reign In Blood (1986)
1. Angel Of Death 2. Piece By Piece 3. Necrophobic 4. Altar Of Sacrifice 5. Jesus Saves 6. Criminally Insane 7. Reborn 8. Epidemic 9. Postmortem 10. Raining Blood
Recommended Track: It’s a tie between the 2 tracks that open and close this beast. “Angel of Death” and “Raining Blood” are utter perfection and as heavy and fast as thrash metal gets. In all honesty though, do yourself a ruddy big favour and just listen to the whole damn thing; it’s utterly essential from start to finish.
So here it is, the greatest thrash metal album recorded by The Big 4 and it is Slayer that rightfully takes the number one spot.
29 frantic minutes, 10 blistering tracks, this peak 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 merge to create extreme metal which transcended genre and solidified their position among the thrash elite.
Reign In Blood may be no easy listen but it is a rewarding one 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 never been equaled; and it’s doubtful anyone ever will.
The Big 4 have produced some of the finest records in metal history but Slayer’s Reign In Blood is the King of Kings.
Bow down, Slayer wear the crown.
Incidentally, we know that Hell Awaits should be in here somewhere but we just could not figure out what to drop in its favour. Don’t hate us.
Have we forgotten your favourite (Hell Awaits, obviously)? Put forward your greatest Big 4 album in the comments section below.