American Thrash: The 10 Greatest Old-School Albums
The kings of THRASH!
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 35 years ago.
Honourable mention: …and Justice for All (1988) warrants at least a cursory mention, even if it’s not quite 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 arguably 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. Hell Awaits is iconic too!
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 fully 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:
German Thrash: The 10 Greatest Old-School Albums
British Thrash: The 10 Greatest Old-School Albums
Belgian Thrash: The 10 Greatest Old-School Albums
Canadian Thrash: The 10 Greatest Old-School Albums
Japanese Thrash: The 10 Greatest Old-School Albums
I loved Time Does Not Heal by Dark Angel. The addition of Brett Eriksen was great and each song was a journey. I wish they’d have stayed together – I was really excited to see where they went next.
May I direct you to the “More honourable mentions” at the bottom of the second page which clearly states…. “Every album you feel should be included and hasn’t been! We fully 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!”