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….
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…. because Persistence Of Time is a timeless thrash record that has barely aged a day.
The songs which elevated this album to classic status were the dark and foreboding epics “Time”, “Blood”, “Keep It In the Family” and “In My World”. On these tracks, heavy-ass thrash collided 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 replaced 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.
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 provided 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?”, snarled James Hetfield on the absurdly catchy, stop-start rifferama of “Eye Of The Beholder”. We did 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.
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.
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 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 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!
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.