Slayer – South Of Heaven (1988)
Purposefully slowing down and experimenting like never before, South Of Heaven may ‘feel’ like the odd man out when sandwiched between both the genre defining Reign In Blood and the monster that was Seasons In The Abyss, but Slayer arguably perfected their sinister groove on the likes of the title track, while chugging harder than ever on “Behind The Crooked Cross” (with Tom Araya’s singing proving equally as effective as his familiar lion-esque roar) and thrillingly combining the old with the new on “Ghosts Of War”.
The pummelling “Silent Scream” may have reminded the world that this was still the same band who penned the unfathomably ferocious Reign In Blood just two years prior, but South Of Heaven was distinctly the sound of a band becoming stronger, more confident and ready to challenge pre-conceptions at a time when Reign In Blood Part II would surely have been the safer option!
With South Of Heaven, Slayer were carving their own path; embracing melody, atmospherics and political/socio lyrics (alongside the horror-show subjects that had built their reputation) to broaden their palette. However, fans weren’t immediately enamoured with this tempered approach and South Of Heaven was initially lambasted for its seemingly unconventional structure. More speed and more aggression was desired but Slayer knew they could not top Reign In Blood (as did the fans if they were true to themselves) and by embracing experimentation they were ensuring their longevity.
As is often the way, once South Of Heaven’s intricacies had ‘grown’ on Slayer’s rabid fanbase, the album took on a new form, eventually being revered for the very changes that had initially caused concern and is now considered one of Slayer’s finest moments.
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.
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.
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.
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.